Magnolia turned in a slow circle, taking count of all of the combat recruits that had been shifted out. All but two were accounted for. She pressed a hand to her earpiece. ‘Merlin?’
‘Yupyup!’ came the too-loud response in her ear.
‘Yu and Johnson are still missing, send drones.’
‘Sure thing ma’amy-ma’am.’
She pressed her earpiece again, and dismissed the recruits with a wave. As they dispersed, she saw Taylor cross in front of the gym’s door, blood dripping from his hands, a moment later, even over the din of the recruits, she heard his office door slam.
Hewitt’s voice. ‘What, Recruit?’ she asked without turning. She heard Hewitt hit the floor. She turned and saw a pool of blood slowly spreading out from his shoulder. ‘You didn’t report an injury,’ she said, then bent to grab his reaching hand. ‘Magnolia to Parkers, shift-‘ She looked to the blood trail Taylor had left, then down at the blood on her own clothes. ‘Two to shift.’
The gym disappeared, and infirmary appeared. Parker-1 moved to deal with Hewitt, and she took the spare bed behind Parker-2, who was – with some glee – stitching a foot-long gash down O’Connor’s arm. The ex-Solstice was shirtless, something she’d only seen once or twice – and would have been attractive, if not for the tattoo that crowed about how many fae he’d killed.
She cleared her throat, and Parker-2 stopped in his rendition of some poem that involved the words “bile” and “pus”.
‘Fuck,’ O’Connor swore as he caught her eye for a moment, and a sleeveless shirt appeared, covering his chest, but allowed Parker-2 enough room to work.
‘Be with you in a minute, Mags.’
Magnolia pressed a hand to her hip. The pain was bad, nothing she couldn’t handle, of course, but it was a sign she wasn’t good enough yet. A sign she was a disappointment to Taylor. She slipped from the bed, smirked at the blood stains she’d left behind, crossed the infirmary and opened the door to the morgue. The lights came up automatically as they did in any Agency room, and she looked at the occupied drawers.
Two had been in use before the operation, but there were three new names – Patterson, Kumar and- She stopped in front of the third, open drawer. The name read “Mimosa”, that made sense – that the recruit had been a bad match for Field was an understatement. That the drawer was empty was far more unusual. That the shelf had-
Parker-1. She turned as quickly as her injury would allow. The look on his face said enough. Said there was a reason for a tag without a body. Something had happened, and whatever it was, Taylor needed to know.
She focused on the image of Taylor’s office, hoped he hadn’t set his security precautions in place, and forced herself to fade. Immediately, the infirmary went black around her, and her vision tunneled, stretching and skewing, the image of his office suddenly a real thing, but it seemed so far away. She forced herself to rush down the tunnel, unable to see, or even feel, her limbs, focused only on the light from his office.
Every time she faded, she expected the tunnel to collapse in around her, and to be trapped in some in-between space forever. It wasn’t a proper fade, at least, it didn’t matched the descriptions that other fae had given her – though the process was the same, focus on a destination and fade away, others always described being able to walk, being able to take their time, and most importantly – being able to see and feel while in the fade-world.
What she did, apparently, was far closer to what very young children described when they faded by accident.
It was, however, still nearly good enough for Taylor – it was an advantage none of the other combat recruits had.
She reached the image of his office and appeared there – only to have it not match the image she had raced towards. She always pictured his office in its default state – neat, clean, a weapon on the desk.
The desk wasn’t even in one piece.
There were holes in the walls, blood smeared on the paint. The door that led to the corridor was intact, the door that led to his private gym was off its hinges. Sounds of items being thrown around in the gym told her that he was still present, and needed a moment before being greeted with more news – especially news that came without proper intelligence, or a full scope of understanding.
None of this was unusual – and her Duty was to deal with it. She paused for a moment, unzipped the tiny pocket on the back of her fingerless glove and extracted a tiny yellow packet of powder – a fae painkiller, it would deal with her hip until she had time to take care of her own needs. She put the packet to her lips, and swallowed the powder – which tasted oddly of strawberry jelly crystals, returned the packet to the glove and felt the pain subside.
Magnolia looked to the office, and began to require things back into place – though the Agency’s automated cleaning subroutines would eventually take care of the damage – it was far more efficient to do it manually. She moved to the centre of the room and began her requirements. The broken desk disappeared, and was replaced with an identical copy, the walls repaired themselves and a fresh coat of paint settled over the whole room. Paperwork cleared itself of blood and formed neat stacks on the table – all except for one large document, which stayed stubbornly on the floor, its pages covered in blood.
For a simple document, the only explanation of its refusal to be altered was that it was above her security clearance.
It had been one of the only things to surprise her about Agency operations after recruitment – that what appeared to be simple pieces of paper, or folders that could be bought by the dozen could be so thoroughly secured.
Secure papers, when touched by someone not authorised to see them – and without that authorised person in direct proximity – would wipe themselves blank. Folders would refuse to open, no matter the amount of force applied.
She stared down at the mass of blank papers for a moment, then raised her head and looked into the gym.
There was only the rhythmic slaps of fists against the punching bag now.
Magnolia required a clean dress – a copy of the one she had had worn into the field – short, no actual lace, though the hem of the black fabric was patterned with white, and only a minimum of ruffle on the short skirt.
He had seen her in the dress, it was his baseline expectation for the next time he saw her, so it was important for ease of dealing with whatever the situation was.
She didn’t announce herself as she walked into the gym – he knew she was there, and she took in the damage as she crossed to him. The gym was larger than most private gyms – pale polished wood floors below and a ceiling high, high above their heads.
The wall panels on the far wall had slid back, revealing the armoury behind them. A neutral sign – it was just as possible he was returning weapons he had used in the field as it was that he was gearing up for an assault.
Taylor stood, broad back to her, facing the punching bag, His uniform was ripped and bloody – he hadn’t required a new one since returning to the Agency. He stopped punching the much-abused bag, shrugged off his jacket, and came at her.
This was entirely expected.
She neatly dodged his first three punches, noted that he hadn’t bothered to bind his hands, then jumped as he aimed a kick at her chest, her feet lightly touched on his leg for a moment, then she vaulted over his head, landed, then punched his back before he could turn.
He shifted before she could attack again, appearing behind her, his thick arm wrapping around her neck.
He could kill her so easily – lift and twist her head, or simply hold her until she stopped breathing. It was a test for her – he was still testing her, ensuring that she was battle-ready. Whatever the situation was, whatever the empty morgue drawer and the secure paperwork meant, she was still needed.
‘Fade,’ he demanded.
She stopped struggling in his grip, despite her dwindling air supply, and focused on the other side of the gym. Her vision tunneled, the pressure disappeared, and she landed on unsteady feet. She sucked in a quick breath, then turned back to look at him.
He was furious in a way she had never seen before. She had seen him rip limbs from their sockets and heads from their bodies. She had watched him beat people to death, but somehow, this was different.
‘Sir?’ she said again. ‘What’s the situation?’
He simply growled.
He ran the back of his hand across his face, a rough attempt to wipe away blood and sweat and dirt, then he peeled off his sweat-soaked T-shirt, and walked towards the armoury.
She ran to catch up, and felt a twinge in her hip – the painkiller wasn’t wearing off, it was just a warning it wouldn’t last forever.
‘What’s the situation?’ she asked as he began to inspect different items in the armoury. Many of the pieces were trophies, and the majority could kill agents as easily as humans.
He growled again. ‘Ryan,’ he said at last. ‘Has forgotten his duty.’ This was surprising. Questions sprang to her mind, but she waited for him. ‘Has done it again.’
He pulled a knife from a sheath, and stabbed it into the wall. The wall began to smoke, this seemed to satisfy him, and he returned it to the sheath.
He pulled a black bag from one of the shelves, shoved it at her, then moved towards the bleachers. This bag she was more than familiar with – it was their medical kit, and it meant he wasn’t willing to go to Jones for medical attention.
They moved to the bleachers – he had purposely made the lowest tier wider so that it could function as a de facto work area when they needed it. His shirt disappeared, and after a moment, all of the excess blood, sweat and dirt, leaving only fresh blood from wounds that needed attention.
After a moment, his pants disappeared as well, leaving him only in the standard-requirement blue boxers. She looked away from the boxers, there was nothing inside them – Taylor, to her infinite frustration, was as smooth as a Ken doll. The rest of him, however, was more than enough to fuel her fantasies.
Her hands moved automatically, pulling out the usual items from the med kit – antibacterial creams from the Parkers, sensibly-sized bottles of blue, bandages and adhesive strips.
She set to work dealing with the burn on his thigh first – this wound was one she hadn’t seen him receive, and it was ugly, the edges of it looked infected, and there were trails of dried pus down his leg where he’d ignored it.
‘Just do it, Magnolia.’
Taylor leaned back against the second tier of the bleachers, and his legs parted with ease, allowing her room to work. She required a low stool, sat, then jerked her knife from her boot. An automatic protocol she had set up sterilised it on return to the Agency, but she required it clean again, then laid it on the wooden slats beside her, and pulled an anaesthetic spray, uncapped the bottle and liberally coated his thigh.
He would talk – it would just take time. If there was information she needed to know, he would share it. In the meantime, wounds needed repair.
She lifted the knife and cut into his skin. It was crude in comparison to how Jones performed the task, but the end result was the same – the affected area was removed so that there wasn’t the chance for a loss of integrity. Most times, Taylor would follow up with a begrudging visit to the techs sometime in the days following a fight, but it was on his terms, and only on his terms.
Her knife cut through his skin with ease – it was a fae weapon, so even with the numbing power of the spray, it would hurt – previous offers to use a scalpel had been met with beatings – he insisted that she use the weapon she was most comfortable with.
With the bulk of the burnt and oozing skin cut away, she placed the bloody knife back onto the wooden slats, and picked up a larger bottle, and unscrewed the lid to reveal the brush inside. This was something the Parkers had adapted – essentially an acid, it burnt away blue on contact, so it compensated for the crude nature of their medical care.
She brushed at the wound, burning further into his leg. She made sure to cover every area touched by her knife, lest that be the basis for integrity loss, then began to apply blue to the area. She slopped the jelly-consistency blue onto the wound from a small, round container with a tongue depressor, shoveling more as it rebuilt the area.
New skin stayed raw for a moment, then the wound was healed. She wiped away the excess blue, applied a layer of cream, then placed a large, square, blue-backed patch to the area, and taped it down.
She looked up at her commanding officer as she wiped her hands, then looked to the next wound to deal with. ‘Sir?’
‘Ryan had a recruit.’
She moved to sit beside him, and dealt with a series of long, shallow cuts across his chest.
‘Mortally wounded. Made an augment.’
Magnolia tried hard not to breathe. Words were hard enough for her commander at the best of times, and this seemed worse.
‘Pathed to full-agent status. Went. Wrong. Killed recruits. Killed an agent. Was terminated.’ His grabbed her upper arm and squeezed. ‘He’s done it again.’
Comprehension failed her for a moment. Augments were common enough, pathing to full-agent status was rare…but- Suddenly all of the rumours about Ryan killing a lover made far more sense. All of that paled in comparison to three words, and she was sure those three was the reason she was losing feeling in her hand: Killed an agent.
She clenched her teeth to stop a further inquiry.
Killed an agent. His look, his attitude, everything said that it had been him. He’d died. It was possible she was wrong, that it had been another agent, but-
‘He’s done it again,’ Taylor repeated, then released her arm. ‘We have to stop him. Need to. Can’t. Happen. Again.’ He looked down at himself. ‘Fix me. We. Deal with. Kill her.’
She wiped her hands on her skirt, his injuries forgotten for now. She braced herself, then looked at him. ‘Sir.’
His hand wrapped around her throat, and he pushed her down onto the slatted bleachers and straddled her, his massive hand still holding her throat – not enough to choke her again, just enough to keep her still, to ensure he had her attention. It was her commander’s one failing that he thought he needed to force her attention to him.
His gaze slid away from her face, and he looked to her hip, and the blood that had soaked through the dress. ‘You’re injured.’
‘It’s nothing, sir.’
His hand released her throat, then he seized her skirt and tore it in two, giving him a view of the wound, and her spectacularly battle-inappropriate silk panties. Wishful thinking imagined him looking, lingering if only for a second, but reality crashed back in as he touched the wound.
Direct pressure was something completely different to simply ignoring it.
‘You were slow,’ he said. He seized the edge of one of the pieces of metal that had taken up residence and pulled it away. He dropped two more to the ground as her knuckles went white with the force of gripping on to the edge of her seat.
‘What?’ he asked, the word coming out as a growl.
‘I was near one of the blackout bombs when it went off – it had some traditional ordinance behind it. It was in a car. I think this was part of the licence plate, sir.’
He grabbed the same cream she’d used on him, coated his thick fingers with it, then rubbed them over the wound. He was always surprisingly gentle when he did this. He pulled his hand away, and she placed the bandage herself – it would do for now.
She stood, retrieved the cream from his hand, and went back to work on the scratches over his chest. Butchering his leg was her Duty, rubbing cream into his chest was definitely Pleasure.
Magnolia let her fingers linger for a moment too long. Killed an agent. If it had been him, she wondered how it had happened.
He grabbed her hand. ‘We need to do this.’
‘Sir,’ she swallowed. ‘Sir, if Ryan did this, we need to be careful about how we proceed. Going against a director, even an interim one,’ she said to mitigate the use of Ryan’s rank, ‘is less than tactically sound.’
A sheaf of paperwork appeared in his hands. ‘Read it.’
‘It’s above my clearance, sir.’
Confusion cut into his anger for a moment. ‘Why?’
‘I assume, sir, because it’s a special project, the usual Aide clearance does not apply.’
He stared at the paperwork, then shoved it at her – the pages that had been blank now showed text. She sat, discarded most of the paperwork, and began to speed-read through the short-form explanation of the experiment.
The very first line made her mouth drop.
‘Mirror-‘ she said, the word slipping out. ‘Sir, what-‘ She closed her mouth. He knew. The state of his office showed his opinion.
She continued to read. Recruit into agent experiment testing the effects of blue. A contravention of Duty on someone who hadn’t lasted a week.
She turned the page. ‘Sir?’
He grunted.
‘You’re part of this-‘ She bit her tongue – that had been poor wording. ‘Your name is listed here as the lead on the limit testing.’
He went completely still. ‘Repeat that, Recruit.’
‘Assumed schedule. Limit testing, Agent Taylor, lead. Inclusive of standard and custom physical limits; mental tests with levels to be nominated later, glitches to be induced at three levels. Continuation of experiment dependent on results.’
She looked up at him as she finished the sentence. His entire demeanour changed.
‘That will do.’
‘Limit tests are performed on freaks like this. They never did them on Whitman. Ryan argued too much.’ His lip curled and he looked almost happy for a moment. ‘They are sanctioned torture. Stress tests to prove an experiment unworthy.’
His uniform reappeared and her dress repaired itself. The gym disappeared and a dark room appeared.
‘Do you know where this is?’
‘The basement sir.’
‘I’ve never brought you here.’
‘Merlin brought me here, sir, he thought it was interesting.’
Taylor grunted, then walked through the maze of tanks, past sleeping freaks and a happily-swimming, dead-eyed aquatic agent.
She saw the back of Ryan’s coat through the wall of the tank at the end of the row – he was lying on a low bed, facing away from the door.
For a moment, she assumed he was fucking the recruit – if history was cycling, it would make sense that it would be another lover. Anything made more sense than saving some random recruit with no proven ability.
There, however, was no motion of his body to indicate anything intimate.
She tried to fix what the recruit had looked like in her mind – but one training session and a brief perusal of the girl’s file left her with little to no impression. Short. Messy. Gawky. The subtle impression of some snot-nosed kid left to play in dirt. A kid. The overall impression of the recruit had been of a kid out of their element.
If that was what got Ryan hard, then it likely warranted an Enforcer investigation and heavy drinking. She dismissed the thought, if there was even the hint of something massively inappropriate, it was too well-hidden for him to make a fuck-toy experiment out of the poster child for what a recruit was not supposed to be.
She spared a look at the tank as they approached the door and on the information screen there was the name – Mimosa: stupid drink, stupid recruit; and the photo: if pushed, she’d call the girl cute, but only if pushed, and even then it came with caveats – cute like a ferret was cute, or one of the techs that literally never went outside.
A gawky kid cosplaying in a uniform.
Ryan sat up quickly as he seemed to finally become aware of their approach, then shifted to the exterior of the tank, away from the sleeping girl.
Taylor punched Ryan, and Ryan’s head bounced off the glass behind him. She carefully took two steps back and to the side – out of Taylor’s usual range of movement for close-quarters combat.
‘Whitman,’ Taylor growled as Ryan steadied himself.
‘Taylor, don’t-‘
Taylor punched Ryan again. She looked away from her commander – if he required her help, he would alert her – and at the girl in the tank, who was somehow still asleep. Awareness, obviously, was not something Mimosa excelled at.
The facts were still jumbled, still required further context.
‘Whitman,’ Taylor growled again, and knocked Ryan to the ground this time.
‘I’m sorry!’ Ryan yelled, the emotion far rawer than she was used to hearing from the man.
Ryan had made his lover an augment, the augment had become and agent and Ryan had killed it. The rumour that he’d killed his lover had been part of the Agency so far as anyone could remember – one of the techs had been there fifteen years and it had been a rumour when he’d been recruited.
Whitman had died at least fifteen years ago. The girl in the tank couldn’t be much older than that. It was very possible Ryan’s dick was involved, but not in the way that cast creepy aspersions on a man she’d been alone with as a child.
Asking was a direct way of finding out, but two sources of information were better.
She stepped back, and slipped around the side of the tank, closest to the head of the bed, and tapped on the glass – the sound wouldn’t be heard by the fighting agents, but it might be enough to wake her.
It wasn’t.
‘For fuck’s sake.’
She continued to tap, and the girl woke up with a start. Magnolia pressed her finger to her lips, then pointed to her commander and Ryan.
Mimosa looked like she wanted to piss herself. She choked and pushed herself out of the bed, ran across the tank and started to beat her hands against the glass, shouting for Taylor to stop.
Magnolia rounded the tank, and saw Ryan actually fighting back now.
‘Is she your kid?’
Ryan froze, and this let Taylor hit him again.
‘Is she your kid?’ Magnolia demanded again, this time looking at Mimosa. ‘Is she Whitman’s kid? The timing is right.’ Mimosa, her face through the glass looked, looked scared, then confused.
Ryan wiped at his bloody mouth. ‘She’s not Carol’s child,’ he said after a moment.
‘You made Whitman again!’ Taylor raged, punching the glass wall of the tank either side of Ryan’s hide, trapping the agent there. ‘I’m doing the limit tests, Ryan.’ Taylor dropped his arms, and sidestepped so that he towered over the girl in the tank, only the glass protecting her. ‘And I’ll kill her.’
Magnolia smiled.
Threatening Ryan – or threatening the girl at least, seemed to be tactically unsound, however, Ryan’s lack of reaction to Taylor beating the shit out of him suggested they were able to push their usual limits a little further.
A dark stain appeared on the girl’s grey pants.
‘Taylor-’ Ryan said, the bruises on his face disappearing.
Taylor roared in Ryan’s face, then punched the tank, and Magnolia heard the crunch of bone.
The basement disappeared, and the gym reappeared. Taylor went back to sitting on the bleachers, and Magnolia moved towards the med kit so she could start to work on his hands.
Taylor grabbed one of the braids that hung by her face, and she looked up at him. ‘Sir?’
‘Read the whole protocol. I need to know.’
‘Yes, sir.’
He stared into her eyes for a moment, then slapped another folder against her chest. ‘The Whitman incident. Necessary information.’
‘Yes sir,’ she said, and grabbed at the folder, her hand sliding over his as he pulled away.
‘Magnolia.’ He released her hair and said nothing more.
The silence made the question clear enough. ‘My Duty is to you, sir, I do not, and will not, question your orders.’