Magnolia stood in Taylor’s office, ready for her date – all but the dress. Hair, held in place by silver pins, a few strands falling precisely down past her face and onto her shoulders. Make-up: done with the precision of a military surgical strike. Body: showered, perfumed, and limbered-up by a full workout…though not as full as the one she assumed she would receive later.
She tidied a few folders on the desk – leaving the ones that needed his attention strategically open, poised for the maximum chance that he would sign them, rather than driving a knife through them and into the desk.
The new recruit duty rosters for the next month went up into the top corner – this was simply for his reference, as his aide she was able to sign off on them – this would simply give him an easy key as to who would be available to command and when.
The sound of a punching bag hitting the ground drifted in through his open gym door, but she didn’t approach. If he needed her, he knew she was there. If he wanted to stop her, she was there. He remained in his gym, giving his tacit approval for the date. One grunt, one look, one expression, anything would make her stop, and fall back into line. He’d given no such indication, seemingly not bothered by Grigori’s actions…as if he were used to his recruits being romanced out from under him.
Under him. Where she wanted to-
She placed one more file onto the desk, then spun on her heel and left, chiding herself quietly for her thoughts. One agent wanted her, that should have been enough. One strong, extraordinarily sexy, incredibly good-looking and charming agent wanted into her pants. It was flattering.
That, and for once, she had actual interest in her partner of the night. Sex was usually just that: sex. It was fun, it was a practical way to relieve stress and it was something easy to obtain, given the availability of strong, healthy young men and women under her command. Rarely were they interesting as people though – Defense Force academy drop-outs, violence-prone jokers too mentally unstable to make it into proper military service in the first place, reformed criminals, and the like constituted the largest portion of recruits that came through the combat division. Stable people that just happened to be good when it came to the Agency’s most important force were the rarer breed.
She slipped into her room without anyone seeing her – not that it was exactly a secret – Grigori himself had bragged about getting a date with her – not that this had impressed her fellow recruits, but it interested them all the same.
For a lot of them it came down to morbid curiosity – how would a man strong enough to punch holes in brick handle himself in bed – would their partner, be they halfbreed or not – be subjected to the same sort of force, and be rendered into some sort of formerly-aroused paste?
Agents could be extremely gentle in bed, dialing back their strength to seem almost human – though always retaining just enough of an edge to control their partner. They could also be complete assholes – demanding sexual favours in return for avoiding a charge or two when a crime just happened to come under their jurisdiction. The assholes also tended to be the exhibitionists, inviting their friends to watch, or to join in.
She pushed the old, bad memories away and turned toward the Tabitha-silk dress. Shivering in delight, she slipped the dress on, enjoying the magically-infused fabric sliding over her skin. She took one last look in the mirror, deemed herself fuckable, then sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for her date.
Looking across to her clock, she saw that there were still a few minutes left until he was due to arrive, then required her workbook – there was no harm in organising a few last things – particularly if she was going to commit the unthinkable sin of allowing herself to sleep in the following morning. A man who would bother to romance her wasn’t going to the be the type to leave whilst she was asleep – so in addition to the pleasure of having rows and rows of muscles pressed up against her for whatever remained of the night and the early morning, the possibility for a second round was there, the rarest of all experiences: sex in the morning.
She’d be reprimanded for reporting in late, for not foisting the late-comers from their beds for the morning run and practice, for not being there to back up each command, or to execute orders that he never bothered to make.
She’d be punished, but it would be worth it.
She allowed herself a smile, and scheduled a seminar for the newest batch of recruits – those that had missed out on the last round of talks in the last quarter. There was a knock at her door, and she laid her workbook out on her bed – knowing that since it wasn’t going to see any use that night, it was a safe place to store things.
Licking her lips, she stood, smoothed out the dress, then opened the door. Visible was not an agent, but rather a dozen, long-stemmed silver bell roses. She accepted them, careful not to hold them too close to her dress, and backed into her room. Grigori followed, a proud grin on his face.
‘One of my sons grows them as a hobby, they aren’t purebred I’m afraid, but the colour is lovely.’
‘They’re gorgeous. I’ve only seen them behind glass before.’
He took them back, and placed them in a freshly-required vase. ‘I considered having him grow some black and white roses, but thought the implications would be too morbid.’
She gently flicked the closest bell rose, and listened to the quiet ringing. ‘I don’t-’
‘You should stop thanking me,’ he chided, ‘and start lambasting those who haven’t done similar for you.’
She took a good look at him…and he looked good. His usual anonymous military uniform had been replaced with an expensive-looking suit, and heavy overcoat.
‘You look good,’ she said, killing a thought of dragging him into her bed right then and there – no reason to make him cancel on a restaurant two weeks in a row.
He lifted her hand and kissed it. ‘I’d return the compliment,’ he said, ‘but it would seem rather self-serving since I picked the dress. Shall we?’
‘Of course.’
He crooked an arm, and she took it. He pushed on the door, and she tried to pull back, but he stopped her, placing a hand on hers. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I thought we were going to shift.’
‘And miss this opportunity to show you off to your colleagues? You are completely ravishing right now, I don’t mind showing people what they’re missing out on.’
‘That seems-’
‘Cruel, I know, but the fun kind.’
He smiled again, and she relented, allowing him to lead her out onto the combat floor. The previously empty floor was now suspiciously full of recruits staring at her.
‘Just remember,’ she announced in a loud voice, ‘even in this dress, I could kill all of you without breaking a sweat.’
Taylor’s door opened, and he stepped out, two messy folders in his hand. ‘Magnolia, you-’
Grigori let his arm slip away from hers, and he was in front of Taylor in an eye-blink, a finger pressed against his lips, preventing her commander from saying anything further. ‘She’s got the night off, Taylor, anything you need can wait until morning. Or late morning, depending on when we finish up.’
She caught up to the two agents and grabbed at the files. ‘Sorry sir, what did I forget? It was-’
Taylor snapped the folders closed on her hands and pulled them back. ‘It can wait until morning,’ he said, keeping his gaze locked on Grigori, ‘this is your down-time.’ Half as second later, he had shifted from sight, his door slamming shut.
‘It only would have taken a moment,’ she said quietly, ‘if there was something I forgot, then it’s my job to complete it before I take any personal time.’
‘You do realise,’ he said as he took her arm again, ‘that you are possibly the hardest-working aide on the planet?’ The world blurred. ‘Too late now, it can wait until morning.’
She looked around at the new location – not much was visible, other than the snow falling from the black sky. The hotel rose up high, like a beacon, glittering and golden. He brushed a few snowflakes from her shoulder, then escorted her in.
‘I love this place,’ he said as he removed his overcoat, ‘some of the world’s finest food here, and I can qualify that statement, I have eaten all around, and under the globe. Fairy chefs, gnome chefs, a goblin or two, dirty little bastards that they are, doing amazing things with vegetables, and a story thief who goes around to all of the world’s best chefs, learning all of their tricks, particularly the old and dying ones so that culinary secrets aren’t lost to the world.’
‘Wouldn’t that change history though? Story thieves-’
‘No, no, think about it,’ he said as he straightened his jacket in the mirror, ‘a chef may prepare the same meal a hundred times, a thousand times, every time knowing exactly what they’re doing, if just one of those times, they made something different because of the story being taken, it very rarely changes the world in any important way. We do worse every day, recruit, so we may as well enjoy the benefits of a chef with the accumulated knowledge of dozens. I suggest the steak, it has turned vegetarians, it had turned cows.’ He grinned, and gave their name to fussy little man behind the desk.
They were escorted to a table by the window, and she looked out into the snowy night, trying to discern a location. The window rippled, and a transparent, unfamiliar blue sunset cast itself over the glass.
‘A special effect?’
‘It’s memory glass,’ he said, ‘you’ve never seen it before?’
She stared at the blue sun setting over the alien ocean. ‘This is real?’
‘Was real would be more accurate,’ he said. ‘Starchild memory.’
‘It just looks like a window.’
‘It is, just a special one. There’s an amazing market for it, but you’ve got to have the right artisans to work with it. Glass imprinted with memories, they basically become pieces of art in their own right. Some pieces go even further, showing you what you want to see. You have, for example, a tiny, dingy little flat, but you get a piece of this glass and set it up in your kitchen, and you’d be able to look out onto Paris whenever you wanted. Others react to emotion, giving something that you’re in the mood for, others just show whatever memories they have, a slide show.’
‘It must be expensive.’
‘Depends on what you want. I know a few people if you’d like to investigate a piece for your room.’
‘I’m not sure I’d be allowed.’
He grinned. ‘I’m sure you would. If not, I could always talk him into it. I’m…rather good at talking him into things.’
‘Memories of a leech,’ she said, still transfixed by the alien vista, ‘seems like I should be breaking a rule just for enjoying it.’
‘Trust me, you aren’t, at least, I’m pretty sure you’re not, I don’t have all of the rules memorised, and besides, some are silly and should be broken.’
‘I do have them memorised,’ she said, ‘and there’s nothing in there that strictly prohibits it.’
‘This piece probably came from Madchester,’ he said, ‘they’re usually responsible for the starchild pieces, since a lot of those poor souls seek refuge there, and are happy to share a few memories for the safety offered. It’s also a coping mechanism for them – the more memories committed to glass, the longer they will be able to hold onto a part of their world. Doing this…means that part of their world really will never die.’
‘Still feels like breaking the rules.’
He smiled. ‘Sometimes, that’s the best thing to do.’
‘No, it-’
‘The rules are important to you, aren’t they?’ he asked, popping a napkin and refolding it. ‘One wouldn’t think it to look at you. You kill yourself working for him, you let your duties eat into your personal time, you have the recruit guidelines memorised, and here you are worried that you’re breaking a rule that doesn’t exist.’
‘You’re referring to the way I dress.’
‘I’m not saying it doesn’t look good on you, because…oh yes,’ he said, ‘but if you want to be the perfect recruit, I would have imagined that a uniform surely would have been part of that.’
‘The first time I put on a uniform, he had me strip at gunpoint to get me into it. I hated it, I hated him, the Agency…well, fuck the Agency was my line of thinking at the time. I burnt the thing two hours later, the minute he turned his back on me.’
‘That I know, he sent me pictures.’
‘And beat the living hell out of me for it.’ She paused for a moment, realising how that sounded. ‘I deserved it though, I was being a little bitch.’
‘While you were…without a uniform?’
‘Not that he noticed.’
‘And the dresses?’
‘As soon I my had require ability activated, he ordered me to go change into a uniform. I required the frilliest, most complicated, laciest, shortest, cutest goth loli outfit I could think of, made alterations on the fly, it was a completely ridiculously ludicrous outfit – though I think I stopped myself short before actually adding a top hat or parasol.’
‘And he said?’
‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He expected a little rebellion – even though I was a slightly more than a little rebellious when I began my recruit career. I’m halfbreed criminal scum, if I’m perfect, I’m suspicious, so they stay. That, and I enjoy being adorable. It’s also perfect for distracting whoever I’m fighting.’
‘People talk,’ he said, ‘about you, about him, they enjoy the contrast of opposites. That, and it really is unusual for a recruit to be so obviously always out of uniform. Do you ever-?’
She smiled. ‘No, never.’
The wine steward finally arrived. ‘My apologies boss, there was a bit of a queue, I managed a bottle of your favourite though. This year’s getting a little low in the stores though, you might have to pick a different year the next time you come in.’
‘You wouldn’t do that to me, would you Mikhail?’ he asked of the steward. ‘Make me change my favourite?’
The steward gave a reserved smiled. ‘Only if you want to upgrade to a better-tasting drink. Next time, you trust me, and I’ll bring you an alternate’
‘Whatever you alternate is, send a bottle up to my room, we’ll try it there, and we’ll see if you’re as good as you think you are.’
‘I’m as good as you think I am.’
‘Are they treating you well?’
‘Of course.’
Grigori looked across at her. ‘I rescued Mikhail during an op, he had no interest in being a recruit though, but couldn’t go back to his old life, so I got him a job.’
Mikhail smiled. ‘Good memory comes in handy working in a restaurant, who knew?’
‘At your Agency,’ Grigori said, ‘he probably would have become a tech recruit, or stayed in a safe house for an extended period, here, he’s making his own life.’
Golden wine was poured into two glasses. ‘Enjoy,’ Mikhail said with a smile as he moved off to the next table.
‘My resources being what they are,’Grigori said, ‘I can’t really take on that many extraneous recruits who can’t do their jobs. Jonesy, to his credit, manages to keep track of so many recruits who are frankly there to keep the others company and abuse their ability to require snacks. They do have insight sometimes, and I appreciate that they have nowhere else to go, unfortunately, I cannot do that.’
She sipped on the wine, and felt her lips curl into a smile – it may as well have been liquid decadence. Another expense, another gift for her. ‘Still,’ she said, ‘extra techs or not, you’re doing a job that no-one else has ever managed, and that’s to be praised.’
‘No-one else would want my job,’ he lifted his wine, but paused before drinking. ‘You know the situation, I presume?’
‘I read up on you the day you arrived,’ she replied. ‘I already knew the basic story of the Solstice, a lot of people do, but I didn’t know the Agency half. I won’t bother repeating platitudes that you’ve heard a hundred times, instead I’ll just call you amazing.’
There was a hand on her knee. ‘The sentiment is most definitely returned.’ Long fingers stroked her thigh for a moment, then he withdrew and focused on his wine. ‘This is a very good year,’ he said, ‘I do wonder if Mikhail can beat it.’
‘I thought you trusted him.’
‘I do, but wine is very important.’ He smiled. ‘Enough, we haven’t even ordered yet.’ He opened the menu in front of him and passed across, then grabbed the one in front of her. ‘Everything is delicious, pick whatever you want.’
She stared at the menu for a moment, then slammed it shut. ‘I’m not particularly hungry.’
He looked over the top of his menu at her. ‘You’re lying, don’t bother to argue, I can read your vitals, come on, enjoy yourself.’
‘I would have go bald to afford an entrée,’ she hissed, ‘I can’t accept this, not on top of everything else.’
‘You certainly can, you’re my date, and I treat my dates only to the best.’
‘I don’t expect you to-’
‘Please, enjoy yourself while you’re here. Besides, I’m famished. Terrible habit, vice and addiction that eating may be, it is one I am happy to be a slave to.’
‘I can’t,’ she whispered, ‘it’s too much.’
He stood, held a hand down to her and led her out onto the balcony. Several other couple stood at the edge, watching something far below. They stood, tastefully far from the other couples, so that the privacy of their respective conversations could be maintained.
In a pool below them, two mermaids performed a show in a well-lit pool. The red-headed one shot out of the pool, arcing high out of the water, flashing both silver tail and bare breasts to the onlookers. Her companion, brunette with a golden tail, retrieved a bubble from the bottom of the pool, brought it to the surface, then with a flick of her tail, made it to the much, much shallower end of the pool, towards a man in a throne and his party.
The brunette threw her head back, and popped the bubble with a flick of her tail. Inside the bubble was a present, which he took with a smile. She blew a kiss at him, then dove back into the deeper water.
‘Naked mermaids hostesses for your birthday, this is what money can buy you, and it’s an enjoyable experience, trust me on that. A meal, a meal is nothing, Magnolia. The prices may bring you near to cardiac arrest, but this just what quality costs.’
‘But it’s not like you can pay in required cash.’
‘Do you really think the Agencies are so poor that taking out one pretty girl to one decent meal would have us begging in the streets?’
‘How about a hundred pretty girls with a hundred decent meals?’
‘Even then,’ he said, ‘even with your aide status, you don’t know this?’
‘Know what?’
‘About the money. The clerks – your Agent Clarke and his kind, they do more than convert informants into allies, keep peace with the Courts and maintain Agency relations. They also seek out suppliers for faerie currency. Some fae live far more in the human world than they do in their own – so most of their customers, obviously, would be human, so these people would accept human currency – required currency – for their goods, or even for whatever faerie currency they have in their coffers. You find, for example, a very old hob who spends his days lying on a couch watching Wheel of Fortune, ordering take-out every day, he may have a few thousand stuffed in his mattress with no inclination nor need to use it. One of the clerks sweeps in, and makes a deal to cover his meals for a year or two, or forever, depending on the clerk making the deal, and we get the money. This is fun for them, it’s an easy part of their job, but every little bit they get increases our stores. It’s hard, because the faerie community as a whole, advanced as it may be, is still trying to get onto a standardised currency. Attempts have been made over the centuries, but it’s only just beginning to take effect. It’s like trying to introduce the Euro, but a thousand times as complex.’
‘That doesn’t mean there’s money to waste on-’
‘I also play a lot of poker,’ he said, ‘so I have my own spending money. Recovered weapons – keep some, sell some, I have several weapons dealers that fall to their knees when they see me coming because they know I bring such quality merchandise.’ He smiled. ‘That, and for me, it’s much easier, because I get my family in on the action. Like, my son the florist, I get twenty percent of his profits.’
‘Isn’t that unfair?’
‘No, it’s cheaper than what he’d have to pay otherwise, he does all of his growing and warehousing at one of my Agencies. One of his sisters does the accounting, another does some marketing, she’s very good at it, I may try and have her become an aide to our clerk. My family works together, and we all benefit. Hungry?’
She took his arm. ‘I still can’t help remembering all the times I ate at…god, I don’t even remember the name of the place. They were fine if you didn’t have money, you just had to hand over something of value, hair was the easiest.’
‘A little, hole-in-the-wall kind of place, maybe a few tables, like an older-looking Chinese place, you know, the kind that hasn’t had its furniture updated in twenty years?’
‘Pretty much like that,’ she said as they sat back at their table. ‘You know it?’
‘I know the type,’ he said. ‘They take a lock of hair, and give you a hot meal in return. Per year, those sorts of places probably make more money than establishment like this.’
‘You are joking. If that was true, they could have at least repainted.’
‘No, they couldn’t,’ he said, ‘they’d lose their key clientèle. Would you have approached it in the first place if it didn’t look cheap? Like it possibly had something you could afford with the two dollar coins that you were rubbing together in your pocket?’
‘I thought I could wash some dishes or something. I was just so hungry. They just snipped a bit of hair and gave me food, and it wasn’t even old or off, it was really good. Never really understood the hair thing, thought it might have been a fetish thing.’
‘They count on that.’
‘On what?’
‘The thought that it is a fetish, or similar. The whole scheme works best for them if no-one thinks about it.’
‘So what is it then?’
‘Hairdressers can derive natural dyes from, they fetch a decent price because people will pay for colour that won’t ever wash out, and that will regrow just like their normal hair.’
‘Surely, some people have to know.’
‘Of course, but not many have the right contacts to make it worth their while. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry and profit isn’t important.’
He reached across and ran this fingers through the lock of hair hanging beside her face. ‘Your hair really is quite lovely, feathers or no feathers, it must have pained you to cut it away.’
‘It got really short, like militant short at one point, but looking good wasn’t my priority at the time.’
‘As I can well imagine.’
Grigori snapped his fingers and a masked waiter appeared, they ordered, and he disappeared with a quick nod toward the kitchen.
‘Good choice,’ he commented, ‘and not the cheapest thing on the menu, also a good choice. It doesn’t bother you eating chicken though?’
‘Of course not,’ she replied. ‘Though I can imagine how hard it has to be for halfbreed chickens, I mean, it’s not often there’s magpie on the menu, and even if there was, I’d probably eat it just to annoy my mother.’
‘And if it turned out you’d known the proverbial blackbird in the pie?’
‘I have no love for anyone in my family. Someone could wipe out the entire species and I wouldn’t care that much.’
‘You like none of them?’
She sighed. ‘Ok fine, I’m not exactly wishing death on Bennefree, but for a little brother, he is so, so very annoying. And American. And a tech. He’s sweet, always sends me fairy fruit, but I don’t know him, I tried to have a conversation once when his dad had to visit our Agency, but he just ended up looking at his shoes the whole time. Then drawing on the floor.’
‘It was Agent Mike that adopted him, correct?’
‘Yes. Other than him though, I like none of them.’
‘I suppose I’m in the lucky majority, I love all of my family. I love expanding my family, I love…life.’
‘I can’t imagine having a family. Living a long, full life doesn’t enter my thoughts a lot. Recruits aren’t exactly long-lived after all.’
‘Depends on the recruit, depends on the division and depends on the Agency.’
‘I don’t anticipate being surrounded by fat grandchildren.’
‘But the fat ones are the happiest!’ he said with a grin. ‘I know this from experience. And…one hundred and seventy-three is a decent sample population.’
‘How do you manage to keep track of them all. I find myself taxed running fifty or a hundred recruits at once, and that’s just organising them, it isn’t being their mother.’
‘How do I manage it? The internet of course. Obviously, I am not deeply involved every aspect of their day-to-day, but I know enough to be a decent father and grandfather. Six o’clock, every night, I read to the young ones, there’s a fire and it’s story time. Harry Potter, Narnia, whatever is popular, whatever is good, whatever they want. One chapter every night, two if they’re good. And I’m very good at doing the voices.’
‘That’s unexpected.’
He winked at her. ‘I’m not a shameless flirt every hour of the day.’
Dinner arrived – a cut of chicken in sauce rounded by baby potatoes was placed in front of her, a slab of steak and vegetables in front of him.
‘Eat up,’ he said, ‘you’ll need your strength later.’
‘I like that about you,’ she said as she sliced into the chicken.
‘What?’
‘You’re always clear about your intentions.’
He popped a chunk of steak into his mouth and chewed on it for a moment before answering. ‘I see no point in living a life full of pretense. Life is too short, why spend it obfuscating and muddying the waters?’
‘The argument could be made that with a life as long as yours, you could afford a little pretense.’
‘My life is still too short. Any life, even an effectively immortal one is too short. Nearly no-one runs out of life before they run out of breath.’ He cut a potato in half and ran it through the sauce ringing his plate. ‘What do you want from life, Magnolia?’
‘I have it,’ she answered. ‘A purpose.’
‘Is that all?’
‘It’s more than I ever had before coming here. I’m happy.’
‘He’s a lot better for having you around. He never had an aide before you, he did have a better relationship with his recruits before he-’ Grigori stabbed at the streak for a moment, cutting away a large piece. ‘Died. He was a different person back then. Not like he is now.’
‘You’ve been friends for a long time, haven’t you?’
‘We’re both very old,’ he said, ‘we’re by no means first-generations, some of them have had celebrated two centuries of life, but of those created after the turn of last century, when agents really started to come into their own, and we’d gotten rid of all the duskers and other non-standard models, we were some of the first. There were a lot less of us back then, so agents of similar types would get together, train, discuss methodologies and the like. We were assigned to each other at a conference, but we had a lot in common, so stayed in contact, and became friends.’
She sipped at her wine, but dared no interrupt him, lest she break his chain of thought and she lose a valuable insight into her commander.
‘We saw eye-to-eye in a lot of ways, certain…extracurricular activities and the like. The best example, and the story I love telling the most is probably the second world war. You know the law of non-interference, agents exist to keep order, and to allow humans to make all the mistakes they want, unimpeded by fae influence. As such, obviously we aren’t allowed to fight in wars. It is…very hard to sit back and just watch though. We couldn’t, we thought it was worth the risk, just to make a bit of a difference. Luckily, we both had directors that were willing to look the other way. Reynolds especially, gods he was a good man, just gave Taylor extended periods of personal time, and we managed to work around that.’
‘Reynolds.’
‘The former director of your Agency, may he dream in peace. Things at your place were a lot more relaxed when he was in charge, but he’s gone, and no-’ He was quiet for a moment. ‘He’s gone, and we have to accept when we lose people-’
‘Otherwise you turn into Ryan and everyone loses?’
‘Exactly.’ He took a drink from his glass and refilled it. ‘We wanted to do something, but we were still agents underneath it all, so we did our best to make a difference without-’
‘Shifting in and shooting the Fuhrer in the head?’
‘Exactly. We would track down some good guys, and scout out ahead out them, obviously we could cover more ground more quickly, so we would clear the way for them, take out machine gun nests, snipers, land-mines, give them a little bit of clear sailing.’ He smiled. ‘We’d also drop packets of cigarettes, rations, and a little bit of ammunition, not enough to look suspicious, just an amount that could be believed to have fallen from a pocket or a broken bag.’
‘You were being angels.’
‘That’s what they started calling us, so we played it up, we would draw wings in the mud and the like, it felt good to do some good.’ He pierced a piece of pumpkin and swallowed it in one gulp. ‘What was really fun though, was when we would find a farmhouse, or a barn, or somewhere that we knew that they would take shelter for a few hours, or for the night. There, there we would go nuts. Blankets, firewood, pillows, mountains and mountains of food, fresh uniforms, new weapons. We would turn a tiny house into an oasis.’
She smiled, ate some more of her meal, then wiped her mouth with the silk napkin. ‘That’s amazing.’
‘We would reward ourselves, of course, soon as we did enough good, we’d stop for a break. Have a meal, a fuck, a nap if we were tired, then move onto the next group that needed our help.’
She paused, the fork halfway to her open mouth, grateful that her regimented training had taught her not to exaggerate her reactions. She coughed, placed the fork back down. ‘I think I may have misheard you, sorry, would you mind repeating what you just said?’
‘We would take a break,’ Grigori said, ‘then move on.’
‘All right, I thought you said-’
‘Oh, you mean the fucking thing?’ He tapped his fingers on the table for a moment. ‘Please, forget I said anything. I need to remember to cut that out of the story.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He doesn’t remember,’ he said, ‘when he died, he lost most of his memories, he remembers very little about the majority of his life. He is…essentially a different person now, and that’s very hard for me, knowing I have all of these memories about him that he doesn’t, knowing the two different men, and having to call them by the same name. I hate Ryan for bringing him back, or reanimating the parts that we could salvage and forcing that incomplete code to be a person. It’s cruel, it’s inhuman. I understand the reasons behind it, but I cannot forgive them. When he woke up though, I was there for him, his new life wasn’t his fault, so I became his friend again, and became his friend for the first time.’
She stared at her plate. ‘You were lovers?’
‘No, we were just very good friends who liked to have a lot of very good sex. A true bromance if you will. It’s just being friends with benefits.’
‘So he’s-’
Grigori chuckled. ‘Think of the agent population for a moment, aside from a few secretaries, nurses, and assorted staff, we’re all male. If we want to fuck one of our kind, nine-and-a-half times out of ten, it’s going to be another man. Most of the agents I know are bi, and by the gods, that makes life so much easier.’
She smiled. ‘No complaints here.’
‘Don’t tell him I told you this, it isn’t something he needs to be burdened with.’
‘Of course.’
He looked at his meal, then tossed his napkin down. ‘I am tired of talking about the past, I think the present needs to be my focus. Are you full?’
She looked across at him, and smiled, there was no need to give him an answer. He stood, and offered hand, she took it and they moved past the other diners, faerie and human alike, all poised and lovely, all with heads filled with thoughts as dirty as hers.
They moved out of the restaurant, then into the elevators at the end of a short corridor. The ride was long, though she barely noticed, pressed up against a wall with an agent nipping at her neck. He withdrew as the carriage doors slid open.
The clerk behind the desk gave a respectful smile, standing, key card already in his hand. ‘Evening Grigori?’
‘Does everyone here know you by name?’
He winked. ‘Most.’ He shook the clerk’s hand, slipping across a small bag of jangling coins. ‘Neas, how are you? No interruptions, all right?’
‘As you say, sir,’ the clerk responded, handing over the key card and returning to his place behind the desk.
She let him lead her down another short hall to a second set of elevators, this one simply had five buttons, of which he pressed the fourth one. This ride was quicker, only allowing him time to run his hand over her back and allow it to come to rest on her ass.
He had to swipe the key card to allow them access out of the elevator, and this allowed them entrance into a large suite – the lights were already dimmed, the wine Mikhail had spoken of was chilling beside the king-sized bed, and light music floated through the room.
He removed his jacket, hung it on the coat rack, then helped her to step out of her shoes. She followed him toward the bed, but he stopped short, and turned to kiss her. She felt her heart flutter, and was glad of the arm snaking around her back to keep her upright.
The kiss was broken off, and he rested his forehead against her. ‘I want you,’ he whispered.
‘I want you.’
He spun her and pushed her up against the wall, his hands immediately burying themselves in her hair, tilting her head back to allow him better access to her neck. He made a disapproving noise after only a few seconds, pausing to lift her and pin her against the wall with his strong body.
She pulled on her dress, letting it ride up past her thighs so that she could move against him. She let her hands slide up his shirt, feeling the muscles behind it. Fighting against the want just to go limp and let him pleasure her, she reached up and pulled his tie loose, then began to work on his shirt buttons as he let his fingers skate over her back, finally coming to rest on her behind, each large hand helping to support her weight as he withdrew just a little to allow her to rid him of his shirt, one arm at a time.
Shirt gone, she pressed herself up against his chest, sliding her arms around him to grab on his shoulders, and grinding herself against him. There was pressure against her thighs, and she spread her legs to allow his knee access. His hands slipped away, letting his knee take her weight as he worked at removing her dress.
With a flourish, he pulled her dress over her head and tossed it behind them onto the bed. She only had a minute to take in her own near-nudity before he went to work on the newly-exposed skin. He tilted his head, lavishing on one breasts, then the other.
She buried her hands in his hair, holding onto him to stop herself from sliding down to the floor. He steadied one hand against the wall and grinned. He lifted her and carried her to the bed, dropping her to the soft mattress.
She concentrated on a spot just behind him, and faded from the bed and past him. He spun to see her, and she simply pushed him down onto the bed, crawling on top of him and beginning to work his belt.
There were two soft sounds behind her as he kicked his shoes off. ‘Sock gap,’ he muttered as she pulled his belt free. She looked down to see his sock disappearing, then grinned and returned to her task. The pants were slightly tricker, but came away with a tug. She set herself on his lap, grinding herself against him, and shrieked delight as he pulled her down onto the bed and climbed atop her, capturing her mouth again and kissing her deeply.
Being beneath a man was an unusual experience – when using one of her fellow recruits, she demanded that they be beneath her, they were there for her to use, not the other way around. And, if they tried anything, being on top gave her the best position to draw and use a weapon. Being beneath anyone was…unthinkable, and there was only-
Her train of thought was interrupted as he raked his teeth over her ear.
He was gorgeous, he was so much better than the unattractive recruits that she used and dropped. He was intelligent, deep, interested in her, ready to splash out on gifts, food, wine and decadence for the promise of a lay. He was perfect. He was a perfect man, and he was hard for her.
There was pressure against her neck as he worked at giving her another hicky.
He wasn’t the one who had given her purpose. He wasn’t the one who had saved her life countless times. He wasn’t the one who had made her strong.
She allowed herself a moan as his mouth moved lower, leaving a trail down her chest, making a pit stop to again lavish her breasts with pleasant sensations.
He was so close, they were so similar, he was-
He wasn’t the one she was in love with.
A phone rang, and she was pulled from her thoughts. He sucked on her chin for a moment before pulling himself away. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I have to get this.’
He crossed the room and dug a phone out of his pocket. He answered it in Russian, held up a finger to her, then walked from the room out onto the small balcony, sliding the door closed.
‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ she asked herself. ‘Just fuck the man, just-’
The door slid open, and she rolled over to grin at him. She patted the bed in front of her. ‘Nothing too serious I hope?’
He joined her in the bed, lying on his side, staring at her. ‘No, not at all. Never know though, so I always answer it.’
‘Where were we?’ she said as she moved forward to kiss his chest.
He put a hand under her chin, and caught her gaze. ‘You were going to tell me what’s wrong.’
‘What? Nothing.’ She pulled her face away and shimmied down his body to remove his boxers.
‘You have the eyes of a cheating wife, and your vitals are all over the place.’ He pulled her back up to look at him. ‘Part of what makes me such a good lover is being able to read my partners, to know when to stimulate, when it’s too much, how much they can handle, when they need me to slow down. You…you wanted me to stop.’
‘No, I didn’t,’ she argued.
‘You’re lying.’ He stood, and poured two glasses of wine. ‘Why don’t you tell me who you’re in love with.’
‘I don’t do love,’ she argued, angrily drinking half of the wine without bothering to taste it. ‘I fuck, and I enjoy it, I thought that’s what you did too. Maybe I’m-’
‘Magnolia,’ he said, topping up her glass, ‘please, tell me.’
‘My life would be worthless.’
‘Who?’
She stood, rounded the bed knelt in front of him and pulled his boxers down. She raised her hands toward his erect penis, only for a full uniform to cover his body. She crouched to her level. ‘It’s Taylor, isn’t it?’
She hung her head low, wishing she could disappear into the carpet, and nodded. He grabbed her hands and pulled her to her feet, grinned and kissed her again, though a very chaste kiss this time. ‘I am so happy for him.’
She choked. ‘What?’
‘He is my best friend, he is my oldest friend, and he has no-one else in his life. He has you, me, and a cupboard full of weaponry to clean during his off-hours. If you truly care for him, then I could not be happier.’
‘But I-’
‘Are in love with a bull-headed idiot who can’t see beyond his ability to punch someone? Yes, that’s a problem, but no problem is insurmountable.’
‘You can’t tell him!’ she cried. ‘He would…He wouldn’t accept it. It’s weakness, it’s nothing but weakness, and he does not abide weakness in his ranks. I can feel how I feel, but I will not burden him with it.’
‘Even if it would make his life better?’
‘It wouldn’t.’
‘You underestimate him, I think.’
‘I am his aide, I will be his aide until I am no longer of use to him, and then he will do away with me. That is my life, that is why I will not be surrounded by fat grandchildren, I serve a higher purpose: him.’
‘Listen to what you are saying, and ask yourself how he could ever see you as weak.’
‘Please, don’t tell him.’
‘Magnolia-’
She quickly required her gun and pressed it to her temple. ‘I would rather be dead than of no use to him.’
‘Fine,’ he agreed quickly, ‘I’ll do what’s best. You certainly are dedicated, and I cannot fault you for that.’
She sat on the side of the bed. ‘Please, you did all this for me, the least you can do is-’
‘Fine, on your stomach.’
She readily complied, moving the middle of the bed, and letting herself go slack, ready to move at his touch. From the corner of her eye, she saw his clothes disappear again, and felt the bed shift as he moved to join her. She felt him straddle her, carefully not putting too much weight on her, and felt his hands slide up her body.
She took a deep breath, preparing herself for-
A back rub.
His hands moved across her back and shoulders as they had done in Taylor’s gym, breaking little pockets of tension and making her relax.
‘This wasn’t what I-’
‘You are in love with him, you care for him possibly more than I do, that knowledge, that comfort, is worth any price to me. It means I don’t have to worry about him so much more, it means he may finally starting to live his life again. That is something I’ve waited twenty years for, and something I am truly grateful for. For that, I will give your back the attention it deserves.’
‘But you-’
‘I am blessed in so many ways. I would have enjoying having sex with you, and I assume that it would have been fantastic, but I’m ok without it, tomorrow, I can go home and have five beautiful women in my bed with the snap of my fingers. Tonight, tonight was much more special than sex.’
‘I still feel like I owe you.’
‘If you can, what you were going to do with me tonight, do with him sometime in the future. And…if you want some ideas, I know things that are illegal in seven countries, difficult, but amazing once you get a rhythm going.’
She allowed herself a smile. ‘So what happens now?’
‘You lie there, and let me do my job. We might order a movie in, abuse room service a little, we should act as though…everything went according to plan, if you know what I mean, so that he doesn’t question anything, it may lead to questions you don’t want to answer.’