Magnolia finished her circuits of the gym and quickly paced herself through a workout of twenty-five sit-ups, two dozen push-ups and a dozen crunches. It was nowhere near a full workout, but it had flexed her muscles at least a little – and any advantage she had was a little less pain she’d feel when Taylor was through with her. He’d ordered her to come to his gym, and that meant he needed a spar. Given his mood however, she wished she’d had a chance to prepare for at least a day in the infirmary. If he kept his promise, however, no amount of preparation would be enough.
She required a bottle of water and carefully drank half of it – not wanting to get water-logged, then required herself into a new outfit. Firstly, tight bindings to hold her feathers down – she’d pluck them later, the morning had been far too busy for her to tend to her own needs, the bindings were covered with a tight black corset, but one without frippery – there was no lace or extra ribbons, nothing for him to grab onto, nothing for him to get an extra advantage. A short black puffy shirt tickled her thighs as it appeared, and spiky boots – with knives hidden in the soles – appeared on the feet. Two leather cuffs completed the outfit.
She allowed herself one deep breath, then stalked from the gym, toward her commander’s office.
The office was a mess – this she could tell this without walking inside – his office chair had been half pushed through the door, wooden splinters covering the floor outside. She pushed on the chair and it fell back into the office, she pushed on the door to open it and it came free of the hinges. She jumped over it, then required a new one, the old one disappearing to wherever the unwanted things went, she wheeled the chair back across the office, required the desk back up the right way and pushed the chair behind it.
More paperwork had appeared since she had apparently cleaned out the “IN” tray. This she neatly stacked into piles, promising herself to get back to it and deal with it, if she survived the spar. A weight flew past her head as she piled more sheets of paper back onto the desk, she ducked it without thinking and squared off the folders within the “IN” tray. The object hadn’t been thrown at her, just in her general direction. If it had been thrown at her, it would have hit her.
‘Sir,’ she said loud enough for him to hear over his grunts and shouts.
He appeared in the doorway to his personal gym. ‘You’re late,’ he growled, ‘that, or your lap times are that of a scholar!’
‘Respectfully, sir, thirty laps would kill most of them.’
‘And if Edwards takes over they are all that will be left. This city will be ruined within a week.’ He glared down at her. ‘Where were you?’
‘I prepared myself for a spar, sir.’
‘I didn’t ask you here for a spar.’ He looked around the office, and its now much-cleaner state. ‘You’ve done what I needed you to do. You’re being sent on a mission later, the file is in your quarters, that is all.’ He turned and walked back into the gym.
Summoning her courage, she followed him. ‘Sir, I need to know more about her. She’s a threat and the file you gave me was of no use.’ He growled. ‘Sorry sir, but it didn’t tell me what I needed to know.’
He threw a punch that she easily dodged. ‘What did you learn?’
‘Edward, AKA “Emma”, London Field Agent under Director Redfern. Her missions are mostly concerned with Solstice – a larger threat than they are here.’
He swept her feet from under her, pinned her to the ground, his knee on her chest. ‘What else?’
Well, sir, from this position, it would be very easy for you to start fucking me…
‘Responsible for eradication of the leprechauns. Reasons for such were classified. Unless you-’
‘No, it’s classified.’ His knee pushed further into her chest, pushing some of the air from her lungs. ‘What else?’
‘Nothing else sir, nothing of note.’ She punched him in the stomach, but he didn’t even blink. ‘No explanation as to why wants to take over. No reasoning as to why she’s goading you. There are things not in the files, sir, and if she is a genuine threat, I need to know.’
He grabbed a handful of her hair and shook her head, the hair falling free from the loose ponytail. ‘ ‘Edward. Edward made himself weak. We are made this way for a reason.’ His knee slid over her chest and it thumped on the floor beside her, he crouched and straddled her, his weight and his warmth making her swoon. ‘For authority. For power. For fear.’ He pulled her head up by her hair and slammed it into the gym floor. ‘He degraded the form he was given, made it something less.’
‘I already presumed that all agents were male,’ she said, taking advantage of a small shift in his weight to fill her lungs.
‘False assumption.’ He slammed her head into the floor again. This time, she saw stars, but she pushed them away – he was giving her valuable information, this was not the time to pass out.
She swallowed, and tasted blood. ‘What was false about it, sir?’
He released her hair, her head again falling to the floor. ‘We aren’t male. Mortals are male. We aren’t slaves to our form like humans are.’
She nodded, not wanting to push the issue.
‘Gender,’ he said, ‘didn’t matter until he decided to change his. We are made this way for a reason. We have a duty. Our form helps us complete that duty. We are not mortals. We are made for a single purpose, we are not to take liberties with the lives we have. Friendships mean nothing – only loyalty matters. Physical relationships as anything more than a way for mortals to relieve stress are nothing more than compromising positions that can be taken advantage of. Those connected through intimacy are nothing but liabilities. I take my duty very seriously, Edward doesn’t.’
‘Yes sir.’
‘If anyone is taking over this Agency, it’s going to be me. I carry the weaklings here, our victories are mine. I am not going to let him take that from me because he has a vendetta against Ryan.’
‘You deserve to be in charge, sir.’ And not just of the Agency…
‘I do not need your validation, recruit,’ he spat before punching a hole in the floor.
She twitched her legs, trying to avoid pins and needles – she’d need full use of them when they started to spar. Alternatively, she wouldn’t need them at all if he removed her clothes and began to ravish her…
He drew back his fist, and she braced for the impact – it would be a broken nose at the least, major bruising to the cheek if he was off-centre, if she was lucky, the bone fragments wouldn’t be pushed up into-
He threw his fist forward, but it stopped, bare millimetres from her nose. He let it hang there for a moment, his sweaty and bloody hand filling her vision. Without a word, it withdrew and he stood.
‘Challenge him to a rematch, sir,’ she said as she stood. She smoothed her skirt and waited for him to react.
‘That would achieve nothing.’
‘With respect sir, you don’t know that. He has to have weaknesses, sir. Weaknesses, other than the physical, which have to significant to begin with. In a hand-to-hand situation, I could not take a man of your size, not unless he was overconfident. You have the size advantage. He manipulated you in that fight, you would not let that happen again.’
‘I have already stated my opinion on the matter. To pursue it further would be unwise.’
‘Yes sir, consider the matter closed, sir.’ She took a step closer. ‘Sir-’
He snapped his hand out toward her, stopping her from coming any closer, then looked away. ‘It isn’t your body I want to see in pieces on the floor, leave now, or it might be.’
She stood stunned for a moment. ‘Yes sir,’ she said as soon as coherent thought returned to her mind. She took a step back, closed her eyes and concentrated, she focused on her quarters and faded away.
Taylor took a moment to steady himself, trying the breathing exercises in vain. They didn’t work. Nothing calmed him down. There was a problem, and there was beating a problem until it stopped bleating, that’s all there was to the world. If the problem couldn’t be reduced to a red smear, proxies had to be used.
He shifted across his gym and lifted the felled punching bag, watching the sand leak out of for just a moment, imagining that it was Edward leaking his life all over his gym floor. He tossed it, an easy gesture that sent it slamming into the far wall, disappointed for just a moment that he hadn’t kept Magnolia around – there was such a nice sound when she slammed into a wall.
His training program flashed in his vision, dulling everything around him, and suggested lower-body exercises, he closed it and began to beat a fresh punching bag with his already bloody fists. He didn’t want to kick anything – there was nothing quite so satisfying as hitting something with your own two fists. Kicking was efficient, yes, but there was something so much more personal about slamming a fist against an opponent.
A life sign flickered on his sensor, and he spun, gun aimed at the intruder before he’d even had a chance to identify them. Edward. The gun stayed in his hand.
The English agent stared at him, his head cocked to the side. ‘Your recruit is gone, can I finish now?’
He required strips of cloth around his bleeding knuckles, and landed a solid punch on his inanimate victim. ‘You’ve got nothing I’m going to listen to.’
Edward grinned. ‘What I want to discuss is your slag of a magpie girl. She’s a halfbreed, that’s bad enough. I suppose the criminal background is nothing new for your department, but she’s the daughter of a grey-listed fae, shouldn’t that have set off little alarm bells somewhere in your thick skull?’ He laughed. ‘And that’s to say nothing of her psychological profile or the masochistic tendencies.’
‘You telling me something I don’t know?’ He viciously attacked the bag, anything to avoid him striking a fellow Agent. Without cause in any case. In a rematch-
‘It would be so easy for me to put her on the grey list. Her mother isn’t a saint, how much better do you really think she can be? Apple, tree and all that.’
‘Do it if you’re going to, threats mean nothing to me.’
‘You’d willingly lose your prize recruit? Your Aide?’
He snapped his gaze away from the punching bag. ‘I can replace her. Recruits. They’re all the same. Tools to be used and disposed of.’ He wiped the sweat from his brow, blood smearing there in its place.
‘You went into a blackout zone for her.’
He went back to the task of rending the punching bag from the thick chain that fixed it to the roof. He’d gone into a blackout zone for her. It was truth. It was in the reports. It wasn’t something to be discussed. Or thought about. It had happened, and it was over, that was extent of it.
‘Twice I know for sure,’ Edward said, ‘I don’t know how many other times.’
Again, truth. Again, not something to be thought about.
‘This isn’t relevant,’ he growled.
‘Risking your life for a recruit isn’t relevant? They may have brought you back incomplete, but that’s no reason to throw your life away. I’ll take it from you, if that’s what you want, but don’t throw it away on some little-’
‘Put her on the grey list if you want, Edward, I don’t care.’
‘I won’t, not yet. Show me some damned respect, or I will. And understand, I can do anything I want to her using two words: “probably cause”. Imprison her without evidence. Interrogate her. Demote her. Erase her memories.’
He said nothing.
‘If her memories of the Agency are erased, she’ll go back to being a criminal. Then, she’ll be killed as she should have been. This Agency needs to stop breaking rules to make recruits. There are rules for recruiting, I don’t think anyone in this Agency has ever read them. That’s one thing I’ll change when I’m in charge. ’
‘They aren’t going to give you the Agency, E-’ His jaw froze, unable to say the rest of the word.
A cruel smirk settled on the other agent’s lips. ‘What was that?’
‘This will never be your Agency,’ the word was lodged in this throat, unable to escape. It felt like the explosive he’d once been forced to swallow. He grimaced and spat it out. ‘Emma.’
She smiled. ‘We’ll see about that.’