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Darren’s Agency had an inarguably homey feel to it – and despite speculation from some of her friends, it had nothing to do with growing up in and around the building.
Magnolia walked past the empty reception desk – it was only staffed until five in the evening, and even then, it was mostly for show – the out-of-the-way Outpost Agency maybe got one or two unexpected walk-ins per week.
The public area – the reception desk and a few interview rooms – were the only parts of the Agency that bore any resemblance to the other satellite agencies that she’d seen, and even then, it seemed more lived-in than its counterparts.
She lingered at the bottom of the wide, wooden stairs for a moment – she’d entered using her keycard ID, and that would have set off a visitor alert. Visitors warranted a greeting – even those that were technically counted as “family” – and her usual greeting party was one of Darren’s kids launching themselves at her from the landing of the stairs, with the expectation that she’d catch them.
The stairs remained empty of official and unofficial greeters, so she started to walk up, feeling almost like an intruder – like a killer stalking through a house of unsuspecting victims.
She traced her fingers along the polished bannister as she ascended, finding the places where she’d cut or damaged the wood as a child – long since lacquered over, but preserved like bugs in amber. Good memories of first weapons; of a training knife incapable of hurting her, but that stuck into target dummies; and wooden swords that made her feel like a hero off to rescue a princess.
The landing held a small table and its daily fresh flowers – today it held small, delicate roses in a rainbow of sunset hues: oranges, pinks and reds.
The first real sign of the gaggle of children that lived in the building started just above the landing – pictures in a range of materials from fingerpaints to sticks and mud were pinned, tied and taped to the stairs, giving a surprising-but-accurate introduction to the attitude of the Agency to new visitors.
The children were everywhere – not just in the pictures, but in the photos, the toys, and the emotions that their parents wore on their sleeves – it would have been sickening if it hadn’t been damn genuine.
If he’d been human, Darren would have been the kind of dad that would have taken three cameras on every vacation; with a hand ready to whip out his phone and a camera app every time one of his kids made a cute-confused face because they’d just learned to fart.
The photos started on the huge pinboard on the wall next to the top of the staircase – most of them were the “screenshot taken from a HUD” variety, perfect clarity, even if there was no thought given to framing or filters.
And even after all this time, and every drama that had happened, there were still a few photos of her – and she was happy in every single one of them, half of them in her school uniform, the rest in long striped socks – her first foray into a fashion choice; though one she couldn’t stand now.
She brushed the lace hem of her skirt and wondered if, in another ten years, she’d be unable to stand the collection of cute, gothic lolita dresses that comprised the majority of her current wardrobe.
The nickname drew fingernails down her soul.
She turned and stared at her father. ‘Aide Hammond.’
There were many strange, highly political things that mattered when considering the fact that they were, in fact, both “Aide Hammond”. He had seniority, but she had more influence. He worked for the head of an Agency, but satellite agencies were always seen to be ranked below hubs like Queen Street.
And her father always deferred to Ryan; she, on the other hand, spoke her mind. Loudly.
‘I’ve set up the stuff in the boardroom, I’ve taken what I want, dismiss the rest when you’re done.’ He turned in the direction of the boardroom but turned back. ‘You know your way, you don’t need me to-’
‘No,’ she said sharply, ‘I don’t need your help.’
A child, probably about three, toddled from somewhere deeper in the office area and latched onto her father’s leg like a baby koala. Her father knelt and picked up the kid, hoisting them onto his hip like an expert, before he required a wet rag and started to clean off the various stickiness from their hands.
The child looked over at her and clasped now-clean hands in her direction. She stepped forward and cupped the toddler’s face in her hand. ‘Go on with your Uncle,’ she said, kindness in her voice – she liked Darren and Katie’s kids, and they had no part in her feud with her father; so there was no need to be harsh with them.
She turned and walked away, leaving her father to parent his nibling far better than he’d ever done with her.
The boardroom had its lights dimmed, but she turned them up to full brightness before closing the door, giving her some peace – and the kids that were old enough to walk around unsupervised had been raised to be polite enough not to open closed doors without knocking.
The long table had a collection of four boxes and a couple of bags laid out along its length – all of them carrying that sad, awful smell that came with putting anything in storage for years. Must, dust and old memories somehow given a foul gritty odour.
She slid her phone out of her pocket and hit the app whose icon was Screen’s pixelated icon, and that bore the title of “New Music”, and a personally curated new music playlist started – she loved music, but with all of her duties, it wasn’t something she had the energy to keep up with.
Screen, upon realising this, had made it an ongoing gift to send her new music each week.
The lists were curated from what her best friend knew of her current music tastes; feedback given while lying in bed when conversation became more interesting than sex, and a good dose of computer intuition based on what she played, how many times she played it, and how loud she played it.
The result: excellent music every week, and extra reasons to think about her favourite Tech.
The first two boxes were easy enough to deal with – they were mostly filled with stuffed toys, of which she barely remembered any of the “soft friends”, so with a companionable hand on a Christmas-themed teddy, she dismissed them.
The bags were just as easy to deal with – old school clothes and a couple of dresses that she’d had from even before they’d moved into the Agency – one small pink dress still had tiny blood stains on the back from where she’d scratched so feverishly at her trimmed feathers that she’d drawn blood.
All the clothes disappeared with a thought, and she moved onto the remaining two boxes.
These were going to be a lot harder to deal with.
There were a good number of people who thought she was a heartless bitch, and honestly she didn’t care – the people who only knew her well enough to think of her as a bitch weren’t worth her time or effort.
The people who fit this category wouldn’t believe a sworn testimony that the walls of her dorm room were soft pinks and whites, that there was careful and delicate recessed lighting, or that there was a perfect, social-media worth string of lights with photos pegged between each tiny spark.
Most of them were of her Agency friends – a New Year’s kiss with Screen, the best best-friend/friend-with-benefits that anyone could ask for. A string of silly photobooth poses with Sacha from a wedding they’d both been invited to. Random group shots from the rare nights she allowed herself off. A dozen carefully curated memories, images to wake up to, knowing that her Duty kept the people who mattered to her safe.
She pulled the first album from the box and sat on the nearest chair, one leg folded beneath her, once more proving the axiom that bisexuals were incapable of sitting normally, and opened the album.
Every photo inside was of the instant variety – and she’d loved shaking the photos, waiting for the instant gratification of seeing the photos immediately. She’d never had to wait for her dad to come back from the department store with a bundle of developed photos, only to find that half of them had a thumb blocking the image, or that the roll of film had been exposed to light while winding it.
She had thought that they were being fancy, that it was the one area where they splurged, even while every other element of their budget had been reflective of the fact that her father was a single parent whose job didn’t exactly shower them in riches.
She’d been a teenager before all the pieces had dropped into place: he’d relied on Polaroids so that there was no chance no photo desk clerk might see a feather poking out above a camisole or any other sign of the fae.
Her entire childhood was represented by two sparse photo albums because her father had been afraid of her fae side, and unwilling or unable to seek out any resources that could have helped him.
Before they’d been pointed at the Agency, before Darren and Katie had come into their lives, and given them resources and knowledge; he’d been a man alone, trying to keep her as human as he possibly could, afraid that at any moment…
Even now, she wasn’t sure if he’d been more afraid that she would have been seized by the government and dissected like an alien; or that he’d be ridiculed for having a freak child.
He’d never let her be fae, and she was still paying that price.
Abilities she should have mastered alongside learning the alphabet were still in their infancy – and more dangerously, she didn’t know exactly what she was capable of. Training with Taylor was helping – her commander wanted her to know her limits so that those limits could be included in strategies. Taylor needed to be able to rely on her, and for the moment, without her abilities fully explored, she wasn’t living up to her potential.
It would have been far more straightforward if half-fae children existed within specific parameters, that every division lead to a standard deviation of power, that every mix of fae and fae or fae and human lead to predictable power sets, but genetics and magic refused to work like that.
At least she was a simple mix – human and fae lead to fewer X factors than a blend of two different types of fae – her half-brother Bennefree was a good, and slightly ugly, example of this. Another one of her mother’s multitude of children, Bennefree was half-fairy, and the trait mixing between his fairy side and magpie side had lead to his wings being useless, skin-covered branches that stuck out of his back like someone had glued a couple of peach-coloured tree branches to his back.
He took the situation with good humour, sometimes completing his wings with cardboard or post-it notes; often in seasonal or festive colours – and as a Tech in a Floridian Agency, he’d often assured her that he wasn’t the strangest person working there.
She peeled up the plastic covering the photos, and carefully yanked out the first of the adorable baby pictures – this one showed her at somewhere around six months, lying on a blue blanket decorated with farm animals.
There had to be hours of story involved in why the earliest photo of her was so – comparatively speaking – late in her life. Maybe one day she’d ask, maybe one day she’d push away everything that she hated about her father to dig into more answers about herself.
When she’d been growing up, he’d always answered her questions about herself and why she was different with…pretty little answers that were almost fairy tales about herself. He’d met a queen who wore a cloak of feathers, and as a way to remember her, she’d given him a child.
Having met Magpie, knowing how cruel she was, and how far from human her thinking could be, it must have been one hell of an act if there was anything to her father’s impression that she was some gracious, gorgeous queen.
The next photo ripped but was easily fixed with a requirement.
As she continued through the album, taking every third or fourth photo, she found herself utterly unsurprised – there was nothing special about her first few years, it was a collection of every standard photo that you took of a young baby – playing at a park, sitting in a sink, at the beach with a bucket on her head.
It was easy to imagine that these were probably the most carefree years for her father – when she was just a baby with weird white hair and black eyes that you could claim were a dark, dark brown. There were no signs of her feathers – feathers she now clipped and tied into her hair so that she could display them, even when her clothes covered them up.
Much to her chagrin, she kept them clipped most of the time – but unless she wore backless tops, they tended to get crushed and catch on whatever she wore.
She knew of a lot of avian half-fae who had the same shitty feather situation that she did – rather than an even coating, or retractable features, they were stuck with feathers that randomly grew out of their body – hers were confined to her back – and would randomly grow between the nape of her neck and her tailbone.
By and large, they were useless, except to add to her aesthetic. Sometimes, she when she held one, they seemed to act as a focus aide, helping her use one of her fae powers, though she suspected that the effect was largely psychosomatic – she believed that they held power, so they did.
The photos started to show her in kindy and pre-school – and singlets under shirts became a standard feature – the little hint of white whenever one of her T-shirts or dresses were slightly askew. It hadn’t been a bad idea and had helped to hide the tiny starts of feather pins, or the healing scabs from where one had been clipped.
It had been a good idea but had sucked when it had been hot or muggy, and where they lived, that was a considerable portion of the year.
And it had been another sign that she wasn’t normal. Just one more thing that set her apart.
What had hurt the most had been unable to go swimming at school – when all the other kids got to jump in for lessons and free play on Fridays, she’d been either sent to the library, or to help play with the pre-schoolers, depending on what staff member felt like dealing with the freak that day.
She kept less of her primary school photos – there were happy memories to be sure, but in a lot of ways, it had been the beginning of the end. She’d been old enough to know she was different, old enough to know it affected her, but not old enough to do anything about it.
There was a knock on the door.
Immediately, she stiffened, and chided herself for not noticing that someone had approached – it was a safe location, but she shouldn’t have let her awareness suffer.
‘Come,’ she said, barking the word at the door.
Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t her father who walked in. Agent Darren – tall, eternally boyish with his looks, entered, a pile of boxes in one hand, a sleeping baby held against his shoulder with the other.
‘I was going to walk in here with one of those huge pile of brown boxes that always seem to show up in chase scenes,’ he said as he placed the collection of small, decorated boxes on the table, ‘you know, those ones that are mysteriously empty, but scatter in a very satisfying way?’
She looked to the sleeping child. ‘But reality cut in on your grand entrance?’
‘You also have a fairly low tolerance for bullshit, Magnolia,’ he said. ‘But since you were sorting through things already, I didn’t think it would hurt to add a few more to your pile.’ He looked from the boxes to the baby, then handed her the child, and sat in the chair next to her.
She looked down at baby Erin, the latest addition to his gaggle of children, and smiled at the disarmingly cute milky smell of the bundle in her arms.
‘You’ve got access to my family drive,’ Darren said as he started to take lids off the boxes. ‘So I don’t need to give you copies of all the photos you appear in.’ He lifted a small bracelet from the first box. ‘But you did leave a few things behind when you left. Clothes and blankets and all that that all got dismissed, though I made an archive, in case you ever wanted to retrieve anything.’
‘I thought everything would have been dismissed the moment I stabbed you, Darren.’
‘I never held that against you, Maggie. I never did, I still don’t.’
The baby moved, punching her right boob with a tiny fist as it adjusted its sleeping position, then nuzzled into her chest.
‘Ow,’ she said mildly.
‘Sorry,’ Darren said, ‘I think she gets that from her mother.’ He smiled. ‘Kickass might be genetic?’
She adjusted how Erin was resting on her, then smiled. ‘If she hits this hard now, I’ll take her on as a recruit at five.’
Darren put the bracelet back in the box. ‘I thought you might want your jewellery and ornaments and things back one day. You never asked for it when you came back to the Agency, but…’ He trailed off and shrugged. ‘You’re here now.’
It was forever a point of both contention and amusement that her life had been somewhat repetitive – started outside the Agency, became part of the Agency, left the Agency, became part of the Agency again.
And if you looked at the events purely in terms of connection, it was an easy and pretty connection, with none of the mess of the real events.
Following the progression, the next step would have her leaving the Agency again sometime in the future, but until Taylor no longer had a use for her, she was happy to stay where she was.
In so many real ways, these new years with the Agency were finally letting her find out who she really was – to let her fae and human sides exist in harmony; to not be defined by either, but to find out the limits of both. And more, this wasn’t like being young and expected to be just a child, or being grunt and muscle in one of the shit gangs she had joined; Taylor appreciated – in his own, unspoken way – her flair with paperwork and organisation.
She was still figuring out who she was, without expectations being placed on only one part of herself, and in a way that made looking through all the old memories harder.
‘I’ll take the boxes home and sort them there. I’ve got to head back.’ She cuddled the baby close for a moment, then stood and handed Erin down to Darren.
Real life was too messy for simple solutions.
‘If I’m excused, Agent,’ she said to Darren as she began to gather the boxes and the collection of photos that she’d saved.
‘Have a good night, Maggie-Mags,’ Darren said, traces of sadness in his voice as left the room.
She watched him leave the room and pressed a hand to her headset. ‘Mer, you there?’
‘Yep yep!’ came Merlin’s tiny, excitable voice. ‘Wanna come back?’
She nodded to herself. ‘Bring me home, kiddo.’
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