Taylor opened his eyes.
The walls were covered in blood. So much blood. His dead body hung on the wall across, pinned there like a butterfly, blood still dripping from his mouth. She hadn’t let him die quickly. She had not had the capacity to listen to him, the sense to stay down when he’d hit her or the luck to die first.
She had hurt him. She had kept hurting him. He had begged, and only then had she killed him.
He grabbed handfuls of the sheet, and only then did he notice he was shaking.
He hung his head and cried.
Magnolia was awake in a second, hands immediately running over his body, looking for an obvious signs of injury. After a moment, she swept the hair back from her eyes so she could look at him properly. ‘Sir? What’s-?’
‘Nothing,’ he said as he dropped his head again. ‘I’m just weak.’
She straddled him. ‘Sir, you aren’t-’
‘Eight percent of my memory is all they were able to retrieve,’ he said, ‘it was boosted to just under thirty percent with file downloads, mission reports and surveillance footage, but all of that is meaningless, not my memory, not really.’
Her lips brushed against his cheek. ‘At least they brought you back.’
He shook his head fiercely, hating the feeling of tears on his skin. ‘No. They had no reason, other than their own guilt, it would have been kinder to let me stay dead, not to-’
She kissed him. ‘I’m grateful for their guilt.’
‘You wouldn’t even know me,’ he argued, ‘there would be no loss.’
‘I’m jealous of what they have!’ he said. ‘They want gratitude for forcing this on me, they want to ignore that I am incomplete, they want-’ He stared down at his fists. ‘I thought I was going to die,’ he whispered, ‘again, but you- I didn’t want to, because you…I just…’
‘I love you too, sir.’
He felt bruises appear on his arms – proof that his physical state was as weak as his emotional one.
Three words. She had said those three words again. He was supposed to say them back. That was what was expected of him, what he was supposed to do. They stuck in his throat, ringing false, so he kissed her instead. A compromise. A good compromise.
‘She…’ he started, ‘went mad. It wasn’t her fault. She went mad! She attacked everyone, not just me. She tried to kill Ryan, she tried to kill Jones, she did kill recruits…It wasn’t her fault. She was nice. She wasn’t a monster. She…’
Magnolia put her cool hands to his face. ‘I’m here.’
‘Unless you leave,’ he choked.
‘I’m not leaving, sir,’ she said. ‘My place is here, I’m your constant, aren’t I?’
‘You are,’ he whispered.
She wrapped her arms around him, and held him for a moment, and slowly, the feeling of being weak subsided.
Other feelings, however, did not subside. ‘I want to share a secret with you,’ Magnolia said as she began to tease her fingers around his hardening penis. ‘Sex in the morning is my favourite thing. It’s so lazy, it’s so self-indulgent, it’s so-’ she adjusted herself, and let him slide inside with little effort, ‘wonderful.’ She pressed both of her hands to his chest. ‘I think we both need to go slowly, if that’s all right with you.’
Carol appeared behind Magnolia, lifted a knife, and slit her throat.
Blood sheeted down Magnolia’s chest, and her eyes rolled up into her head, but neither had any effect on her rhythm, or on the sounds she was making, or on-
‘You aren’t my nightmare any more,’ he whispered to the illusion.
Carol came around from behind Magnolia and placed a hand on his forehead. ‘You’re still scared of me, and of everything else.’
He felt hot pain crawl up his spine as nightmare images flashed before his eyes – Mordred raping her unconscious form on the floor in front of him; Grigori, bleeding, dying, still trying to make a joke; Reynolds waking up and the world dying; the Agency devoid of all life, a relic from a lost war.
He balled his hands into fists, felt his short nails break skin, and the tiny amount of clarity that came from the pain.
There was a hand against his face. ‘Do you want me to stop, sir? You don’t seem to-’
‘I can’t concentrate,’ he said, and waited for her revulsion.
She gave a slight nod and removed herself from him. ‘I can-’
‘I trust you,’ he said.
A strip of cloth appeared in her hands, and she quickly tied it as a blindfold. ‘Just concentrate on my voice,’ she said as he nibbled on his ear. He felt her lie against his side, her hand moving to tease him again, to touch him again.
‘Listen…’ she whispered.
He concentrated, he thought of her, and he felt the fear, the phantoms and the nightmares slip away.
Two Days Later
‘The first order of business,’ Clarke said, ‘I guess, is an official welcome back.’ He gave a small clap. ‘But don’t do it again, or next time I really will go have sex with women instead of rescuing you.’
He grunted at this, but didn’t make a comment. After Magpie, after his injuries, after withdrawal, there was something comforting about the banal jokes, the routine, and the return to duty.
‘Jones,’ Clarke said, ‘is still working on him, so technically we’re down a combat agent until the end of next week, but I’m sure you’re still capable of stopping anything less than a minor apocalypse by yourself, right Taylor?’
He gave a slight nod to this.
‘Don’t forget, if you want to add anything to your defence statement, I need that by tomorrow – this is still mostly a formality, so don’t go over the top or anything.’
‘We’ll have the appropriate paperwork to you by tomorrow morning,’ Magnolia said as she wrote it into her workbook.
One Week Later
‘See?’ Grigori said as the smell of cigar smoke filled the air, ‘I told you it was a good idea.’
‘You think,’ he argued, ‘that all of your ideas are good ideas, and refuse to-’
‘Taylor,’ Grigori said as he passed him another beer, ‘shut up. You’re going to wake your girl up.’
In response, Magnolia moved closer to him, wrapped her legs around his and sighed against his stomach. ‘I am awake, Grigori,’ she said, ‘just…tired.’
Grigori lifted a hand and lightly slapped her exposed arse. ‘I know, I could hear you thinking about paperwork from here. You can sleep if you like, I don’t think there’ll be a round four, some of us have to get back to work.’
He leaned forward and pulled on the sheet, covering Magnolia’s exposed lower body, and he felt her smile against his middle. She extended a hand over him, adjusted her head, then whispered a goodnight.
‘See, I told you,’ Grigori said, ‘that if you were bored you would just start spending all of your time in bed.’
‘As you said,’ he said as he removed the lid from the bottle of beer, ‘this was your idea, we had-’
‘So much important paperwork to do? You’re on holiday, Taylor, enjoy it!’
‘Hard,’ he said, ‘I’m not used to this much free time.’
‘I do have a few more ideas…’ the Russian said with a wink.
‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ Grigori said with a laugh, ‘all of them involve clothes on.’
‘Coming from you, that doesn’t mean much.’
Grigori stood. ‘I’ll send you an email later.’ He began to lift his clothes from the floor and get dressed. ‘Have you taken her out on an actual date yet? I could set something up.’
‘She knows I’m not you,’ he said, ‘I don’t-’
‘You’d better take her on a date or dozen before you…get married, have kids and lose all desire to do romantic things.’
Magnolia choked, then laughed.
‘Just think about it,’ the Russian said as he kissed each of them. ‘Now I have a country to run, I’ll see you later.’
Magnolia raised a lazy hand and waved as Grigori shifted away. ‘We haven’t been out in a few days,’ she said, ‘no missions, no patrols, nothing.’
‘I can’t, I’m-’
‘The Gideon Street market is open, sir,’ she said as she sat up, ‘we could get some more items for the armoury, and if we eat, Grigori will have to call it a date, so you-’
He pulled her close. ‘I love you.’
A knife erupted from her chest.
He heard himself scream, but tried to calm as he saw Carol.
Just a nightmare. Just another nightmare. Magnolia, still gushing blood from her chest collapsed against him as more nightmares took over – Grigori in a Solstice holding cell, surrounded by men wanting to hurt him; Magpie standing with a massive army, about to declare war; Mimosa, her heart exposed and ticking like a bomb; Mordred dragging Magnolia’s unconscious body away; the Agency overrun and crumbling.
‘I wasn’t trying to force you,’ Magnolia said as she stared at him, hurt. ‘Sir, I-’
‘I love you,’ he said again, ‘I’m still being affected by the withdrawal.’
She smiled and slid off the bed. ‘Weapon shopping should calm you down, should I request some petty cash, or-’
‘No, I’ve got enough funds of my own.’
He stood and pressed a hand to her chest. ‘There was a hole,’ he said, ‘there was-’
‘I’m here, sir.’
He gave a nod, then began to get dressed.
Four Days Later
‘It’s an Enforcer ruling,’ Clarke said, ‘don’t worry, once they get here, it won’t take that long.’ With that, he gave a sigh, and went back to his phone, happily ignoring them, as he had done for the past twenty minutes.
Magnolia ran a hand up his arm, then went back to her workbook, organising schedules, training, all the minutiae they would need once they were officially back on duty and freed from the pleasant tedium of their mandatory holiday.
Ryan and an Enforcer entered the conference room, and the door closed behind them. The Enforcer – this one a short, scholar-looking agent with black hair – took position at the head of the table, while Ryan sat across the table from them.
The Enforcer read the list of charges, including ones that had been dismissed, listed mitigating factors, then read a list of reference numbers for statements entered as Clarke slid a copy of the documents over to Ryan.
The Enforcer stopped talking for a moment, then gave a nod. ‘As is process, we will allot punishment to the recruit, and then the agent. As such, Aide Magnolia Hammond, your punishment is this.’
He felt the splatter against his face before he had time to process the sound of the shot.
Taylor opened his eyes.