There was softness, and there was safety.
Waking up was rarely a slow process. Being able to ascertain her immediate situation upon waking was a skill she’d crafted over a life of uncertainty. A life where safety that had existed upon going to sleep might have disappeared overnight.
Magnolia stared at Screen’s soft back, adjusted the blanket, and snuggled in further, slipping one leg between Screen’s, trying to meld with her best friend’s marshmallowy form.
Sleeping rough, sleeping around people she didn’t trust, sleeping next to people who didn’t respect her…all had given her a comprehensive roster of skills. An ability to recognise what a change in breathing might mean, what harsh whispers in the night might mean for the morning, and what someone entering or leaving a bed might mean.
This moment, right here and now, was probably as close to heaven as she could ever find.
Soft light filtered in from three windows. The central one was a real window, showing the city outside the Agency, the other two were false projections, sims that showed a view down to the ocean from a high vantage point – like that from an expensive hotel.
‘Morning,’ Screen mumbled. ‘Just warning, I am not awake yet.’
‘No problem,’ she said, ‘neither am I.’ She closed her eyes and let herself drift. Not going back to sleep, but allowing herself to wake up far more slowly than normal. To slowly run through all of her thoughts and duties, rather than jumping in and acting on instinct, as she did most mornings.
There were few things officially required of her today – though that largely meant nothing. Most of her job, most of the things she did day in and day out weren’t officially required of her, or were suggested duties, rather than part of an aide’s formal job description.
She was simply everything her commander needed from her. An ever-changing list of that could be as broad and straightforward as training recruits to far more subtle needs, like just being a presence when Taylor had something on his mind.
‘Don’t get up,’ Screen said as she stood, a casual dress and leggings appearing on her body. ‘I’ll be pissed if you leave before I get back.’
‘Mmmpf,’ she mumbled, and pulled one of the pillows over her head.
The door to Screen’s room opened, then closed as the tech left.
The world could wait for a while. Today was one of those mornings when everything could wait. Unless her commander called for her, she was more than content to listen to the sound of waves coming in through the windows and bask in the warm morning light.
She was sure it was an image of her that wouldn’t gel with most of the recruits. The ones that only knew her as That Bitch to be Feared. An ambulatory pair of boots precision-crafted for ass-kicking. And the only recruit in their Agency that spoke with the authority of an agent.
The rumours and assumptions were never far from her ears – and she did little to discourage them. The people who believed that she slept in some sort of spikes-and-whips, all-black, all-leather BDSM dungeon were most often the people who would only ever see one side of her.
She had the respect of her recruits – most of her recruits – but few friends amongst them. More fuckbuddies than friends. The kind of relationship that was used for a quickie in a supply closet, rather than anything more intimate.
Some theme parks rides had signs that said “you have to be this tall to ride this ride”. Her tiers of friendship and fucking had a similar bar before she’d allow someone to see soft whites and dusky pinks of her room. Before someone could be lit by the strings of fairy lights and photos that belonged on a damn Instagram post. Before they could see the dozens of other little items that indicated that she was a full damn person, not some one-dimensional authority figure in a cute dress.
To little surprise to anyone with the capacity to reason, it was far more often the techs that achieved the friendships tiers where she felt comfortable to be some version of her real self.
On those rare nights that she went out with friends, it was generally a group comprised mostly of techs. People who had spent long stretches of their lives being misunderstood or misplaced.
Hewitt was the most significant exception when it came to friends amongst her own recruits. Their friendship had been easy, shared looks when the other Combats were being absolutely too fucking straight to handle.
Gay/bi solidarity and being the only queers in a room when heteros were being upsetero was a good foundation to a lot of friendships. And now, friendship and good work lead to her thinking of him almost as her own aide.
The morning he’d shown up to training, glitter still in his hair from Pride the day before, she’d had to defenestrate one of her recruits to make them understand that certain pieces of language were, under no circumstances, okay – whether or not she was around.
The defenestrated recruit – who had only dropped a few metres before being auto-shifted by the building’s security macros – still seemed to be uncomfortable with the “icky gays”. However, after multiple rounds of sensitivity training, he was finally moving into a more passive “so long as they do it away from me” mindset. It was slow progress, but it was still a better attitude than one that unthinkingly slung words that hurt more than some of her smaller knives.
It was always sad that some people seemed to have less trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of mermaids being real than that sometimes boys kissed boys.
And when girls kissed girls, it wasn’t just for straight boy spank bank material.
She slowly sat up in bed, fingers brushing over the remaining warmth on Screen’s side of the bed.
Feathers scratched against the pillows – they’d need to be cut soon. There’d been too much going on lately that even such a quick task had fallen by the wayside.
Some people would make a mental note of it and move on.
Some people were idiots.
With a sigh that acknowledged that her time of really, truly relaxing was over, she required her workbook – a large binder that was everything from current and future schedules to leave requests and her to-do lists.
The to-do lists were split into three sections – “today”, “near future” and “long term”. After a moment, she slipped the pen from its elastic loop and quickly wrote “prune feathers” into the “today” section.
Objectively, it wasn’t a high priority. Still, there was the potential for it to interfere with her sleep if they grew longer, and that couldn’t be allowed. Most of her days were structured around the idea of attaining the exact optimal amount of sleep. Quality over quantity, and waking up to feathers catching on fabric would disrupt that precious algorithm.
The door opened, and Screen walked in, carrying a drinks tray containing two tall plastic cups filled with a foamy pink liquid, and a paper bag.
‘Pie cart was here,’ she said as she climbed back into bed. ‘Had to.’ She handed over one of the pink drinks – the label indicating that it was a tala fruit milkshake. Screen tore open the bag, revealing four doughnuts – each half-dipped in green chocolate.
If the bakery had been from Earth, the colour likely would have indicated some kind of matcha flavouring, but since the “pie cart” was a rotating series of Faerie bakeries, it was more likely to be grass chocolate.
A slight sniff of the proffered doughnut caught the fresh sweetness of grass, and she gladly bit into it.
‘Plans for today?’ Screen asked as she popped her milkshake open and mixed in some boba pearls.
‘Damage control mostly,’ she replied, then wiped some chocolate from the corner of her mouth. ‘See if there’s any fallout from the final lists I need to deal with, that kind of thing.’
The shatter – something that hadn’t been entirely unexpected, given what they knew of previous mirrorfalls, had continued to fuck with the tracking on some recruits long after the explosion. They’d been able to shift the majority of recruits back – though some had needed signal boosts. Still, others had been reliant on just…driving home, something that felt oddly old-fashioned and vulnerable.
She laid her workbook across her knees, set her breakfast aside, and required the final lists – her aide access bypassing the need to ask an agent for them.
The lists showed all Agency members that had been involved in the operation – both from Queen Street and their outposts. Unbidden, her eyes scanned for the Caboolture outpost first. It was unlikely – unthinkable – that her father would have gone into the field, Katie and Darren, on the other hand…
Agent Dazza and his wife were fine – and as such, she could continue to not think about them, to ignore that part of her life. Family – blood and adopted – were challenging at the best of times, and that part of her life was far from the best of times.
She reached for Screen’s hand and squeezed it tight, not letting go as she continued to go through the lists. The friends she had now, they were the family she’d live and die for. Nothing else mattered.
The lists weren’t at all surprising. There were the KIAs she already knew about – and the expected number of injuries – all those recruits and agents highlighted in soft yellow.
There was only one outstanding MIA, highlighted in orange – Recruit Mimosa, S.
‘Huh,’ she said quietly, then leaned over the side of the bed – grinning as Screen took the opportunity to kiss her exposed bum. She grazed her fingers over discarded clothes and toys, found a dictionary that had been thrown as part of a play argument, then found her phone under one of her boots.
She righted herself on the bed, unlocked her phone and hit the WTFA shortcut on her home screen – an app that immediately showed Where The Fuck the Agents were. Everyone was within the building – and at this precise moment, they were all listed as “Pos 0”, meaning everyone was in their office, or the area that functioned as their office in the case of people like Applebaum and Natalie.
‘What’s your nose crinkle?’ Screen asked after a moment.
‘Ryan’s new recruit is missing, and he’s in his office, something doesn’t scan right about that.’
‘Stef?’ Screen asked.
‘Yeah, her.’ She flipped across the rest of the list, then scanned through some detail on her phone. ‘I know Ryan was caught pretty close to the epicentre, so he was fuzzy on tracking, and if she was with him…’ She looked at the lists again. ‘No, everyone else has come back online, so to speak, it’s been hours, whatever was fucking with System tracking has faded.’
‘Search party?’ Screen asked, her tablet appearing as she set aside her shake.
She opened up the activities app – something that with her aide access allowed her to see the status of every active, on-shift recruit.
Everyone that was working was listed as either standard or follow-up. There were no unusual or high-priority missions flagged, as would have been expected with a search party for a missing recruit.
So far as the Agency was concerned…it wasn’t concerned with a missing young woman.
‘Well, that’s fucked,’ she said, then reached for her shake. ‘Can you check with Jones?’
‘Sec,’ Screen said and tapped something out on her tablet.
Magnolia sipped on her drink and signed off on a couple of leave request forms, unwilling to waste any moment of empty, unused time.
‘Jonesy says the situation is resolved to the Agency’s satisfaction but is unable to comment further.’ Screen narrowed her eyes. ‘Which sounds a lot like a copypasta, not a real response. Like, how, “police action” on the train line means someone went smoosh, but they’re being polite.’
‘You’re pretty spot on,’ she said. ‘It generally means there’s good reason to believe a recruit is dead, but they’re waiting on final confirmation. Something like, there was a Solstice live feed of an execution.’
‘This is the kind of shit that happens when you take untrained recruits into the field. I’m sorry for her, but decisions like this are why I question Ryan. Good man, not good agent.’
Screen set her drink aside. ‘Guess my schedule’s opened up for the week. And I hate that that’s my first thought.’
Magnolia leaned over and kissed Screen’s cheek. ‘Agency life, right? I’m going to check in. Want to do lunch?’
Magnolia leaned against her friend for a moment, taking in the warmth and softness of the moment, then steeled herself for the day ahead. Even on what was technically a light day, nothing was going to be as pleasant as this precious morning had been.
She signed off on the last couple of leave forms – one job ticked off for the morning, then stood and required herself into a fun, but subdued outfit. A plain black corset bodice, a skirt with only a few ruffles, and her usual crush-the-world boots.
Her hair itched as it rearranged itself, a short, tight braid falling either side of her face, black ribbon brushing against her cheeks.
She knelt and pulled her knife and sheath from beneath the discarded clothes on the floor and set it into place, blew a kiss to Screen, then walked towards the dorm door.
Her face set into pure “don’t bother this bitch” mode, she left the soft world and entered the real world.
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