Mimosa was shaking, but he held her by the throat, keeping her big head as still as he could.
Taylor took in a breath. The shot had to be steady. ‘This is my duty.’
A crushing weight thumped into his side, and he crashed to the ground, his fingers working to tear out Mimosa’s throat – it would slow her down, even if it didn’t kill her.
A shift pulled him away from her, even against his protestations and attempts to cancel to transport.
He had a moment to process Grigori’s blond hair as they reintegrated, before the agent grabbed him by the jacket and slammed him up against the wall. ‘What the fuck, Taylor?!’ Grigori roared at him. ‘What the fuck were you doing?’
‘It was obvious,’ he said, not bothering to meet the other agent’s eyes. ‘It needed to be done. It was my Dut-’
Grigori punched him in the face before he could finish the word. Grigori grabbed him and pulled him close, somewhere between an embrace and a stranglehold. ‘Not like that,’ he breathed into his ear. ‘Never like this.’
He lifted his head, and rested his forehead against Grigori’s. ‘It needed to be done. She-’
He looked up to see Magnolia, in her sleepwear, but wielding her knife. ‘Sir, what’s the situation?’
Grigori let him go, and shoved him back against the wall. ‘He tried to kill Mimosa.’
‘And you stopped me!’ he shouted, pushing away from the wall and shoving at Grigori. ‘You-!’
Grigori disappeared, and Ryan came into view. ‘Directorial override,’ Ryan said, and raised his gun towards Magnolia. ‘He won’t be coming back until I say so.’
Magnolia whirled on Ryan, her knife at the ready – but his distance kept him out of danger. Ryan levelled the gun at Magnolia’s face. ‘If you had anything to do with this,’ Ryan said, his gun steady.
Taylor pushed himself forward, getting between Ryan and his-
‘I acted alone,’ he stated.
Magnolia needed to take over the department. Magnolia wasn’t to be blamed. Her life wasn’t to be wasted.
Ryan’s lip curled. ‘You never do.’ He lifted a hand, and waved it dismissively. In his HUD, Taylor saw Magnolia shifted back to her room.
In front of him, Ryan squared his shoulders, and opened his mouth.
The word slammed into him with the force of a freight train, and he toppled back against the wall, and slid to the floor, unable to catch himself.
Angel magic. To describe it like a scholar, the words were nothing more than audio-based hacks of the agent OS, but every agent he had ever met referred to it as angel magic. Magic words. Relics from a time when they were far more common.
There weren’t many now. Words to harm. To incapacitate and to kill.
And they were to be used as a last resort.
Ryan towered over him, and spoke a different word. This time, he felt his ribs crack.
He kicked out a leg, but Ryan shifted as he started to fall, taking himself back out of range of attack.
Taylor pushed himself to his feet, his ribs healing at barely a tenth of their usual speed for an attack in system territory.
‘Stay. Back.’ Ryan ordered, his voice ringing with an anger Taylor had never heard. ‘You know what I can do to you with three words. You know what I can do to you with five words. You know what I can do to you with a signature, and…I. Have. A. Pen. Stay. Back!’
Taylor growled, but stayed back, and felt one rib finally heal.
‘The penalty for attempted murder of another agent is execution. Ash and dust, and no memories in the collective unconscious. You will end, and nothing you have done will ever benefit any future agent.’
‘So do it!’ he screamed at Ryan.
Ryan stepped forward. ‘I’m. Not. Finished.’ His fists shook for a moment, before he folded them behind his back. ‘What the hell,’ Ryan asked, more quietly, ‘am I supposed to do now, Taylor? I can’t forgive you for this. You just tried to kill the one person in the world I care about.’ He looked to the side. ‘I want to hurt you, and I want to hurt you badly. I could kill Magnolia,’ he said, almost casually, ‘but I’m not a murderer.’ There were tears in the so-called-director’s eyes. ‘What am I supposed to do with you, you bastard?’
‘She could end the world,’ he responded. The logic was there. It was impossible that everyone wasn’t seeing it. She wasn’t worth the risk. ‘She could-’
‘She wouldn’t,’ Ryan said, ‘and if she tried, I’ll-’ He faltered. ‘I killed-’
Taylor roared at him, and stomped forward, unwilling to hear the lie again. Ryan was stating execution was an option. He was not-
He wouldn’t hear the lie again.
He caught one edge of Ryan’s jacket, then shoved at the man, tearing it away, even as he kicked to put him out of reach.
‘What are you doing?’ Ryan demanded as he regained his footing.
Taylor patted at each pocket, fingers searching in each.
Burning metal alerted him to the fact that he’d found the key.
Ryan couldn’t lie anymore.
He wrapped his hand around it, and brought it out, opening his hand, to reveal the oubliette key, and the hole it was searing into his palm.
Ryan placed a hand around his mouth, rocking on his feet for a moment.
The key burned.
It was hotter than acid, hotter than fire, and he could feel himself shaking, sweating, and needing to fling it away.
It sank through his flesh, burned his bones, and after a moment, dropped to the floor, leaving a gaping, cauterised wound.
Ryan knelt, and picked up the key, then cradled it to his chest. ‘You- Knew?’ he asked haltingly.
Taylor punched him in the face.
The key flew from Ryan’s hand, and went skittering. Taylor slammed his weight into Ryan, and forced him to the ground. He wrapped his hands around Ryan’s shoulders, and began to smash the agent’s head against the floor.
‘I. Always. Knew.’ He said, gritting his teeth. ‘They let you- You lied! You kept lying!’
The damage finally registered as a death, and Ryan disappeared from his hands, and reintegrated, fully healed, a few metres away.
‘No one else knows,’ Ryan said simply. ‘It was my secret. I- I thought it was.’
‘Whitman’s alive!’ he screamed. ‘You-’
‘I’d already lost my brother,’ Ryan said, his voice quiet, ‘I couldn’t lose my lover, not in the same day, and not at my hand, I’m- You might be that strong. I’m not.’ Ryan braced his head against a fisted hand. ‘What are you going to do now?’
Taylor walked over to the key, picked it up, then flung it back at Ryan. ‘Open it.’
‘Open it!’ He balled his hands into fists. ‘Open it!’
‘Why?’ Ryan asked. ‘So you can kill her? She’s no danger to anyone in there. She’s- She doesn’t even recognise me. She’s not-’
He grabbed Ryan by the collar. ‘Open. It.’
Ryan pulled away, moved his hand around, then twisted.
He’d never seen an oubliette in person – and there were so few photos of them on record, but it was recognisable immediately. It was, that was all there was to it.
Ryan opened the door, but turned, and pressed a hand to Taylor’s chest. ‘I don’t know what you-’
He shoved Ryan aside, and went into the oubliette. There was no way to know what to expect. He still had weapons enough to kill an agent. Whitman wouldn’t catch him off-guard again. Whitman wouldn’t kill him again.
Whitman stood in front of him.
He balled his hands into fists, ready to take her down, if necessary. Ready to rip her head off, to remove her lungs, to tear her-
Whitman didn’t even look at him as he took another step into the oubliette.
It was Whitman. The way she moved. The way she breathed. The way her hair sat.
Carol Whitman. Recruit. Agent. Murderer.
He could feel his knuckles going white.
She was wearing simple clothes. A soft, long skirt. A soft shirt. She looked pale. Sick.
The door closed behind him, and Ryan stepped up to stand beside him.
‘Something- Something I think you conveniently forget,’ Ryan said, ‘is that she tried to kill me as well. I was the first person she attacked. You- You’re the only reason I’m alive. I would have bled out if you hadn’t found me.’
There were tears on his cheeks. His fists were aching from the tension in them.
Whitman took a step towards him. He flinched, screamed, and raised a hand to attack her.
Ryan pressed an arm across his chest. ‘Don’t. Please. Don’t.’
Whitman blinked slowly, seemingly unaware of his aborted attack, and returned to the large bed, sitting on the edge, her fingers playing with her skirt.
‘She’s-’ he started. Words. He couldn’t- There weren’t-
‘Do you think she wanted this? Any of this? I don’t- We don’t know what happened. And I might not have killed her, but this is barely any kinder. I lied. I lied, and I’m a bastard for doing so, but I still lost her, and I can never have her back.’
‘We brought you back-’
He turned, and grabbed Ryan’s head – hard enough to hold the man in place, but not enough to cave in his skull. ‘I’m not- She murdered me- But I’m not- Not him. I- I was him and he is my former. I am templated from myself-’
Ryan gave him a hopeless look. ‘We didn’t know what else to do.’
He shoved Ryan away.
Ryan straightened his jacket.
‘You won’t accept any apology. You and yours whisper so that my recruits don’t trust me, fine, I stay away from them, I don’t even try and get close to them, so I can’t number them among my friends. Gods, I stayed away from Jones, in case it made you paranoid that we were scheming behind your back. I have not let myself be happy for twenty years, this is the only way I could begin to repay my debt to you. I could not make you happy, so I let you see me become as miserable as you.’
Mimosa. The conversation was turning to Mimosa.
He raised his head. ‘She’s a threat.’
‘If she had killed, it would have been self-defense, nothing more. You were trying to murder her, and she restrained herself from doing you any harm.’ He paused for a moment. ‘If, under threat of murder, she did nothing, how can you see her as a risk?’
‘Because she’s another one of your mistakes.’
‘No, she’s one of my agents. You don’t have to be. Request a transfer, go somewhere else, or step into the chamber and go to a death two decades past-due. You can stay if you want, but realise that she does too. I have given you twenty years of penance, and my debt is paid.’
He looked away, unwilling to look at Ryan.
‘Well?’ Ryan demanded. ‘What’s it to be?’
‘You touch her again,’ Ryan said, his face clouded, ‘and I will kill you myself.’