Magnolia forced herself to think. This was a simple exercise. A daily exercise.
It was being done out of sequence. It was a warm up activity. Something to be done before Taylor inevitably got shirtless.
He’d surprised her…so much as he could by starting with a five minute blackout exercise. He was bleeding from a small criss-cross cut on his chest – a mark that represented a fatal wound, had they been fighting for their lives, and that had ended the exercise.
Blackout exercises were simple. A score of one nothing ended it. Just like in real life.
And now he held her. Shirtless. Her back pressed up against his chest as they ran through each way to break away from a larger opponent.
System conditions were back, so fatal options were allowed and heartily encouraged.
She focused, narrowed her eyes and faded. The tunnel spun as she slipped free of his grip and turned to face him. It would have been almost romantic, if not for the knife she’d buried in his chest.
Magnolia flicked her gaze up to her commander, then twisted the knife and roughly pulled the knife out.
The knife had been a reward for surviving her first fortnight of recruitment. They’d sparred, and he had wiped the floor with her – literally for a moment, as he’d dragged her through a puddle of her own blood before throwing her across the room. He’d pulled the knife from a pocket in his pants, unsheathed it and flung it at the floor near her head, and it had buried itself into the smooth, pale wood of the gym floor.
The handle was required – though slightly ornamented to match the blade.
The blade itself was the special thing – it was fae to start with, a foolish thing to have given a recruit that had spent that same fortnight trying to escape. It was pretty, parts of a larger design were visible in the metal, but it hadn’t been until she’d been allowed into the armoury that she’d seen why.
It was part of King Ursur’s axe.
She hadn’t deserved a weapon like this at the time – Ursur’s axe was his most prized position, and even if the small piece that her knife was formed from couldn’t be replaced into the main weapon, there were private collectors and museums that would have dropped and sucked to get their hands on it.
Four more escapes, four more flawless executions of the simple exercise.
On the fifth, however, she miscalculated, and he kicked her to the ground. She shook her head and gathered herself.
Magnolia knelt in front of her commander. Other than tactically, it was an excellent position to be in – and would have been more perfect, had there been anything in his boxers. There was nothing sexual about Taylor – which was unusual, given the usual disposition of agents.
Agents usually started out relatively vanilla, and spiral further and further into first kinky territory, then…uncomfortable territory. Like chilling and freezing – a lot of chill parlours likely owed most of their yearly income to the boys in suits.
Taylor, however, didn’t seem to recognise anything sexual about her being a foot from his crotch.
It was always possible that they’d generated him without the necessary modules, but that didn’t seem to be it. It also didn’t explain his copying of the Ken doll – every other agent she’d ever known had possessed working junk.
‘Complete,’ he said. An unnecessary word, but one she was grateful for – he was non-verbal to the point where most recruits outside of their division seemed to think he never spoke at all – or repeated the derogatory rumour that he was too dumb to speak.
There just wasn’t anyone worthy of listening to him speak.
Most recruits were fools, and not deserving of his time.
A blur crossed the gym, and Magnolia processed the pattern – it was an agent’s shift, though one that was done quickly, repeatedly, and over very short distances. A gathering of inertia, a prelude to a shift fight. They were under attack.
‘Sir!’ she screamed as she adjusted her position and kicked her legs from under her commander. As he toppled, he shifted to a position ten feet away, behind and to her right – as was their usual strategy .
The blur stopped, and a beautiful agent gave her a disappointed look. ‘He was just going to stand there and take it, you know, he always does. Taylor, get your pretty bird out of the way and we’ll start this again?’
Magnolia sheathed her knife, though held herself ready to require her system-produced alternate knife – a fair more standard combat knife. She backed away from the woman – careful to keep an eye on her, then turned when she felt herself close to Taylor – he was facing forward, so at least one pair of eyes would be on the unknown agent.
There was a strange look on Taylor’s face. He was almost smiling. Magnolia let shock slip onto her face before schooling it away – visitors rarely elicited any reaction from him, let alone positive reactions.
‘Agent Jane, Magnolia,’ he said as he rolled his shoulders and began to work out his muscles. ‘Old acquaintance. No threat.’
‘You could let me introduce myself, you big lunk,’ Jane called across.
The accent was…British. English. Somewhere in that area. It was easy enough for her to discern between a Joxy accent and the strange lilt of those from and around Eden’s Fall, Fairyland accents were easy. Earth ones, not so much. Knowing someone’s accent was rarely a tactical advantage, so it wasn’t worth her time to learn to pick them out. Merlin was in her ear enough if it was ever important.
Not that Merlin needed to read a file to know where someone was from.
‘When we’re done!’ Taylor roared, but it wasn’t angry – it was a challenge. Taylor crouched, plucked their med kit from the bench and pushed it into Magnolia’s hands. ‘Just the cut. Quickly.’
Magnolia nodded once – his tone indicated a quick fix, so that she didn’t have an advantage, or a target, rather than a full heal. She pulled a container of blue-laced cream from the bag, zipped the kit back up, and gave it back to Taylor’s waiting hand.
She unscrewed the cap, pulled three fingers through the blue-infused cream, and worked it into the criss-cross cut.
As she worked, he wrapped his hands, and she took a moment of solace in the ritual of it.
She pulled away, and screwed the cap back onto the bottle.
Taylor half-crouched, grabbed her skirt, and tore a large piece of fabric from it. He wiped away the excess cream, then tossed the dirtied fabric onto the bench.
‘Single combat,’ he said, ‘no interference.’
‘Yes sir,’ she said, and stepped onto the bleachers, taking her usual seat of one row back from the widened lowest level.
Taylor stepped forward, pounded his fists together, and the fight began without further ceremony or posturing.
She knew Taylor’s fighting style well – she’d be dead if she didn’t. All of the moves were ones she recognised, but far more powerful than she’d ever seen. The majority their opponents were human, after all, and there was rarely a need to bring an agent’s full strength against a regular human.
Fae came in all shapes and sizes, and thus, power levels – and whilst a lot of their fights against fae were simple, brutal affairs, where Taylor took the lead, as usual, and she used her relatively quicker speed to stab them where it hurt – something Merlin seemed to take great pleasure in referring to as tank-and-spank; some fights however required more finesse and in those cases, he allowed her to take the lead.
Humans were one thing. Fae were another. They’d fought against one demon – as part of another Agency’s operation, and only been backup for that, so it hadn’t been a true test.
Reapers would warrant the same level of power that he was using against Jane…but one ran from Reapers, and didn’t look back.
If you looked back, you’d see how close they were, you’d see them using their bastardised shifts to get closer. You’d see them, already covered in your blood, and the hungry look in their eyes. You’d see just how much like a rare steak you appeared to be, and feel real, true fear from the deepest place in your soul.
You’d hear them laugh, and know you were looking at the thing that would kill you.
She forced the memory away, and focussed on the clash of titans in front of her.
Fights between agents could theoretically go on forever – immortal beings fighting in system territory using standard weapons couldn’t kill each other.
Going until they were an acceptable amount of “tired” worked, but only when there was an agreement that all involved parties had at least several hours to spare.
Most went for either first kill, or best of three.
Jane lifted Taylor high above her head – a feat that took Magnolia’s breath away, and then threw him into the wall.
He extricated himself from the broken plaster, refreshed his skin – which also cleared away some of the blood, roared at Jane, and ran at her.
It was stupid- It was a bold move, though one without a lot of strategy. A move made from anger, or a diversion.
He charged like a bull, making the wordless noises of challenge, of anger, of war.
Jane stood calmly, and gave a little “come on gesture”.
Taylor rose off the ground, a surprisingly graceful move, considering his usual style, and shifted three times over the space of ten feet, gathering inertia each time. A standard shift fight move – use the momentum a shift was capable of generating, then use it to pound your opponent into the ground.
Against another agent, however, the move was basic. It was something Jane would be expecting. It would be something she could easily defend against.
Magnolia sucked in a breath, and waited to see if it was what it appeared, or if he had another trick up his sleeve. Metaphorical sleeve.
The usual move was the slam into your opponent like the fist of a god.
The second most common thing to do was to shift past, and attack from behind, hopefully throwing your opponent off-balance.
He slammed into her – a simple, brutal, frontal attack. Jane was prepared for this, and made a move to grab and throw him, a motion that would have slingshotted him, using the inertia against him.
He disappeared as she brought her hands up, and Jane grabbed thin air. He appeared above and behind her, his feet coming down on her shoulders, forcing her into the ground.
Jane made an almost-comically perfect hole in the gym’s floor, but it didn’t slow her for a second.
Jane shifted upright, all of the damage from the impact gone, her uniform refreshed. She kicked Taylor’s legs – his feet already off-balance from standing in the broken floor – and slammed her heel through his cheek.
‘It’s good to see you,’ Jane said as she pulled her foot free of the shoe. ‘We done with this?’
Taylor’s gun materialised in his hand, and he shot the agent in the head.
Jane disappeared, then appeared a moment later. ‘I guess that’s fair,’ she said, and offered a hand to Taylor.
He took it, stood, then pulled the shoe from his face and tossed it aside. His cheek bled for a moment, then healed.
Taylor looked to her, and grunted, and she was off the bleachers a moment later. He grunted again as she reached the agents, and she pulled herself to attention.
‘Aide Magnolia Hammond, ma’am,’ she said crisply.
Jane extended her hand, and Magnolia shook it strongly. ‘Agent Jane. London’s Field agent.’
‘Director,’ Taylor rumbled.
Jane punched Taylor in the shoulder – an affectionate gesture. A friendly gesture. ‘Samson is doing just fine. Fine, he’s about two minutes old, but he’s doing fine.’
Magnolia felt her eyebrows raise. ‘Your Director is a newborn?’
Jane smiled. ‘Only from my perspective. I’m from the first generation of agents. I had my bicentennial a couple of years ago. My new Director, on the other hand, is barely seventy.’
Curiosity killed the cat, but the early bird got the intel. ‘And your previous Director?’
‘Fifteenth agent ever generated. He went against his Duty and decided to fall.’ The words were the usual agent harshness, though the tone of the woman’s voice conveyed none of it.
‘Traitor,’ Taylor commented, but his face formed into an expectant look.
‘There’s nothing else to tell, Taylor. We have no contact with the fallen. Haven’t even seen him. He’s probably dead. And he’s definitely not seen on a regular basis at a number of upscale pubs his fourth husband owns.’
This got a smile from Taylor, and Magnolia made an effort to hold onto the image.
‘Traitor,’ he commented again.
Jane nodded. ‘Serendipitous subject though, I’m here about your Director.’
The small smile disappeared from Taylor’s face, and his usual expression returned. ‘What about?’ he growled.
Jane walked between them, and took a seat on the bleachers. ‘Your Aide put forth an accusation of gross negligence, are you aware of that?’
Taylor gave a sharp nod.
‘I would usually expect something like this to come from an agent, not – no offense, Aide Hammond – a recruit.’
‘I prefer Magnolia, ma’am,’ she said, ‘Aide Hammond is my father. Literally. I’m not making a tired joke regarding a dislike of titles.’
‘Magnolia. No offense.’
‘Magnolia does the paperwork,’ Taylor said in a tone that said the tangent was over.
‘The report makes it quite clear that it isn’t your personal grievance. You know you’ll have to disclose-’
‘Recruit Curt O’Connor. The ex-Solstice. That should be enough to explain why he didn’t put it forward himself. Field has no Aide, and this, unfortunately, wasn’t something he could take to his agent to put forward.’
‘I’ll need to speak with him.’
‘Ma’am, a suggestion if I may?’
‘Allow him an advocate during the session. He’s-’ she looked at Taylor to consider her words. ‘Skittish around agents. He’s probably one of the best recruits in that department, but someone with his history is never going to be comfortable around agents.’
‘A tech. I can’t give you anything further than that.’
‘I’ll speak with Samuels-’
‘Jones,’ Taylor said quietly.
‘Chaos. Of course.’ Jane shook her head. ‘All these newborns that have been around five minutes. Jones. I’ll speak with Jones.’ Jane tapped Taylor on the cheek. ‘I’m going to be here for a while, I expect a rematch.’
Taylor glared, but nodded.
‘We’ll go over this in detail later, of course,’ she said, ‘but the impetus for all this, the recruit. Anything I should know going in?’
Taylor looked to Magnolia, then back to Jane. ‘Combat rating, negative-seven.’
‘She attended half of one of my training sessions,’ Magnolia said. ‘I was far from impressed. She got her ass handed to her by her own team. The tech score was high, so I don’t know why Ryan assigned her to Field, and she wasn’t breathing long enough for me to care.’
[table id=15 /]