Magnolia knocked on the door to Taylor’s office and waited the requisite four seconds. The door had two locked modes – locked to the entire world, and locked to everyone except her.
By default, she was allowed in, but experience had taught her to give her commander a moment to consider whether or not he wanted company, or needed silence. After a silent count to four, she tried the handle, and it opened easily.
People thought Taylor was simple. People were idiots.
The recruit population at large saw nothing but an imposing hulk of a man with a penchant for snapping the necks of his enemies. They imagined him to be nothing more than a raging, shaved bear, a monster for the Agency to unleash when it needed a specific job done.
They didn’t see what she saw. They didn’t know his tells and context clues. They didn’t see a man who, by turns, craved and detested silence.
In a way, it was understandable, you took an effort to get to know someone when you loved them.
It wasn’t a love that was ever going to be reciprocated, but it was a baseline fact of her life that she couldn’t ignore.
The door being unlocked was normal, the state of his office wasn’t.
Taylor’s office was small – a comfortable size for a desk and two chairs, but not much more than that. It wasn’t the expansive, visitor-friendly space that Ryan had. This was a space Taylor had deliberately made smaller – he had no need of art on the walls, shelves of unread books, or a couch for visitors.
It was functional, and that was all that mattered.
For three-quarters or more of every day, it was a desk and two chairs; for the remaining hours, it was a simple, barracks-style military bed.
The bed was empty, but still in place, which meant that something was on her commander’s mind.
For every rumour or misconception that surrounded her, there were a dozen that followed Taylor around.
“Taylor sleeps to lull others into a false sense of security”. “Taylor doesn’t really sleep”. “Taylor doesn’t sleep, he waits.”
None of the rumours, however, had ever hit on the strange truth that he slept naked – something she unfortunately only knew secondhand, though from a reliable source.
All agents slept. It was something that weirded out new recruits, who either expected agents to be never-resting robots, or that – as some Solstice suspected – they just plugged into the wall for a couple of hours like a charging phone.
How that fact played out practically, for the agents she knew, was a matter of individual taste, and was very much reflective of the individual in question.
Darren had a bed, one large enough to hold him, his wife, and any of their gaggle of children who came crawling to their parents after a nightmare. Ryan seemed to crash on his couch, which was both practical, but impersonal – basic, like the way he was with most comforts.
Jones had a suite of rooms – though neither he nor his son spent much time sleeping in beds. Jones seemed to mostly go into an extended, low-intensity state while he played video games with his recruits. Merlin, sadly, was still most comfortable curled up in a cardboard box under a desk.
And Taylor slept alone, on a barely comfortable bed, under a scratchy blanket.
She continued through the door at the back of his office into his private gym – light, honey-coloured wood and the sim of frosted skylight windows gave the large room a welcoming feel.
A small set of bleachers – each tier a wide wooden bench – sat to the left, and the rear wall was a series of sliding panels that hid Taylor’s personal armoury.
The leftmost panel of the armoury was open, and the weapon that usually sat pride of place – the axe of King Ursur, lay across Taylor’s knees as he methodically sharpened it.
Whatever was on his mind, he hadn’t been so distracted as to stay naked – though he was shirtless. Shirtless, but not naked was the best compromise in terms of taking a gentle perv over the man she was in love with – strong, broad shoulders, and enough scars to show he was a survivor.
Naked Taylor was more distracting than alluring. Another fact that had failed to make the rumour mill was that he was as smooth as a Ken doll, lacking the anatomical correctness that most agents had.
The rumours, in fact, tended to stray in the other direction. Drunken recruits tended to speculate that he was hiding a foot-long cock in his pants, because anything less wouldn’t fit the image they held of him.
He lifted his head a little as she approached – enough to know that she was welcome in his personal space – but he continued on seeing to the axe without looking at her.
She fetched the first aid kit – knowing that in part the reason for his lack of a shirt was so that she could go over his injuries from the previous night. That told her something else – that he hadn’t been to see Jones in the intervening time.
That wasn’t unusual, but it was something to note. As a rule, unless gravely injured, he seemed to prefer her ministrations over going to get treatment from “the Scholar”, as he called Jones. And in general, her knowledge of how to administer first aid to an agent kept him up and running. However, it was far from as pretty or as neat as Jones would accomplish.
It was for his own good, however, that he check in with Jones at least every few days, so she tried to gently point him in that direction when she could – when he seemed amenable to what he saw as outside assistance.
Without needing to ask, he effortlessly moved and repositioned himself as she cut away bandages and tore off dressings – almost all revealing new and perfect skin. One wound that had been a deep cut had left a scar near his elbow – something that was merely met with a grunt when pointed out, meaning that he was fine to keep the reminder.
After everything had been tended to, she turned herself sideways on the wooden bench, exposing her back to him. ‘Feathers, sir, if you don’t mind.’
Taylor stood, laid Ursur’s axe and a polishing cloth across her lap, then took a seat directly behind her, his knee pushed up against the small of her back.
His fingers curled around the collar of the corset at the nape of her neck. There was a tingle as he shifted it away from her body, then a soft noise as he lay it beside her, one tier up on the bleachers. On top of it, a long, skinny plastic box appeared – the usual container for her feathers once they’d been cut from her body.
In fiction, hybrids were beautiful things – especially when it came to birds or other winged creatures. You ended up with something ethereal, something…angelic. Functional wings, and sharp nails, perfect fursonas for a reader to slap their identity onto.
In real life, any mixture of fae and human – or fae and fae, or fae and agent, could lead to the most bizarre of babies. She had a half-brother, half a world away, whose mixture of magpie and fairy genes had given him useless boney scaffolding instead of wings. More than a few magpie/human hybrids ended up with cloacas, or pointed mouths that were made of flesh instead of the hard material of a beak.
She was lucky, relatively speaking, that the worst of it was that she had to trim feathers.
And even that had its upsides.
His hand curled into a loose fist against her skin, and he pushed her forward with his knuckles, giving him the perfect angle to work on her back. His other hand, finger pads rough but warm, touched each spot that held a feather that he was going to deal with.
All people saw was the beautiful violence of which he was capable. Few – if any – even guessed that he had a gentle side. Would imagine him doing something so caring and intimate as what he was doing right now. Could not conceive that for every action he took, there was consent sought.
Both of his hands settled around the area of the first feather, one lifting it away from her body. Sometimes with enough pressure at the right angle, they would slide out – the ones that didn’t were the ones that needed to be trimmed.
He worked on it for a moment, then she felt something break free. One of his hands went to curl around her left shoulder, bracing and keeping her steady as he pulled the feather free with precise and consistent motion.
There was wetness as the feather was freed and blood ran down her back. Like a scratched pimple, the holes left behind by extracted feathers bled at a disproportionate rate – aesthetic, but annoying.
The feather was placed in the plastic box beside her, and a patch of gauze taped over the bloody spot – enough to keep the area clean for now, when they were all dealt with, he’d use the rest of the first aid kit to keep her fighting fit.
The next refused to slide free, so she bent over with his touch, lifted the polishing cloth, and tried to concentrate on the task he’d given her.
Ursur’s axe was a historical artifact that probably should have been in a museum. However, so far as she knew, no one had dared ask the man who had decapitated the tyrant with his own axe to make the donation. As a spoil of war, it went to the victor.
The king had been one of those rare occasions when there’d been a problem bad enough for Faerie authorities to ask for Agency assistance. Taylor had volunteered and had led the team to victory, taking no pleasure, no reward, no accolade, just the axe.
He didn’t talk about it. He didn’t talk about…anything. His lack of verbosity, unfortunately, led to the pervasive idea that he was stupid, nothing more than a gun to be pointed at a problem.
He clipped the feather free, dropped it with the first, then moved to the next.
She wished she didn’t covet the feeling of his hands on her bare skin, wished she could hate the roughness of his fingers, instead of imagining riding each to climax.
Hated how safe he was.
The statement “Taylor has never hurt me” would lead to nothing but looks of confusion if said to all but the few right people. Everyone knew how violent their training could get – how often she was in the infirmary after a spar or had seen her with cuts and bruises walking down the hall.
All of that was strictly confined to training, to situations where parameters had been established, and expectations had been set. None of it had been to hurt or punish her simply for the joy of it.
He’d never hit her because he was angry. Never broken a bone to prove a point.
She was his favourite weapon, and you treated your prized weapons with respect.
Another feather was clipped free, and she polished the one imperfect area of Ursur’s axe.
During the fight, or after it, the axe had been slammed into the marble floor of the king’s throne room, chipping away a section from the bottom of the blade.
The chipped piece of the axe had been turned into a knife. A knife he’d thrown at an angry new recruit with no fanfare or explanation, leaving her to find out its meaning on her own. At the time, she’d seen it as nothing more than a fancy bit of kit. A fae weapon that was actually capable of killing an agent – though as angry as she’d been in her early days, she’d never done more than cut him with it.
As much as she’d never wanted to be his recruit, as combative as their beginning had been, even then, some part of her had appreciated the respect, the challenge, and the small hope that she could reach long-abandoned potential.
Another feather was pulled free.
He’d been alone and needed a recruit. She’d been in the right place/wrong place at the wrong time/right time. A criminal he could coerce into being a recruit in lieu of prison time. The only one in her gang who’d had the guts to fight instead of run.
Their beginning had been far from perfect.
And they weren’t defined by their beginning.
He finished with the last feather.
One by one, he removed the gauze pads, treated each spot with antibacterial cream and a small dressing.
‘Stretch,’ he commanded, when he was done, and she extended her arms to the side, slowly moving through a full range of movement at his instruction. As she moved her arms, several of the dressings moved or pulled at skin, so he repositioned them, making her as comfortable as possible.
When he was done, he lifted her corset from the bench and it appeared back on her body.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, as she folded the polishing cloth, then laid it on top of the axe.
He made a small noise of acknowledgement, then stood and lifted the axe and cloth from her lap. His own shirt was back in place, uniform blue, just like his pants.
‘Spar?’ he asked as he hefted the axe onto his shoulder.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said, unable to keep a slight smile from her face.
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