When nothing else called her attention, she liked to spend the hour before any relatively important meeting near Taylor, so that she could ensure that he was on time. Not that it was something that Ryan commented on – he knew better than to start shit over something so petty. Still, she was sure that Clarke kept a record of every tiny transgression, for the day he needed blackmail.
Magnolia casually ducked the thrown knife, then ran forward on the balance beam, dipped and tagged the finish line, listening for the second knife as she turned to run back towards the starting position.
As she headed towards the start position – a simple stripe of blue tape wrapped around the wood, the beam warped and changed under her feet, coinciding with a knife flying harmlessly to her left.
The thrown projectiles – dulled knives and rubber beer bottles – were little more than flavour in this exercise. The point of this, as so many of her personal training sessions with Taylor were, was to try and find the limits of what her magpie powers were.
She couldn’t fly, she’d never be able to fly, even if gravity seemed to be a little kinder to her than regular humans. Preternatural balance though, that was something she’d had, even as a kid who’d had to ignore the fae half of her.
Being able to perch and brood though, was entirely different to that balance being something functional, something that could save her life in the field. As such, it had been years and years of balance beams, jumping challenges and changing terrain. Exercises to make her trust and train her sense of balance. To understand her centre and how to rely on it.
One foot on the blue tape, she turned, shook the sweat from her face, and…paused.
Sometimes new recruits, or idiot Solstice, expected agent shifting to be something like Star Trek – a big and obvious swirl of magic in the air preceding and following a teleport. Others went to the other extreme, imagining that it was so instantaneous that couldn’t be perceived.
The “instantaneous” guessers were closer to the truth than the Trek guessers, but still wrong. It was subtle, something easier to see the more you were around the Agency, and the more you trained yourself to look. Still, there was a definite distortion in the air.
Some people said it looked like a cheap camouflage or invisibility effect from a show, nothing more than a slight texturing of the air. Still, it was enough of a warning, if you needed one.
And right now, someone was shifting in right behind Taylor – or rather, failing to reintegrate right behind Taylor. There was the usual distortion, the size saying it was probably just one person, rather than a squad or a piece of equipment, but-
‘Sir,’ she said, her eyes focussed behind him, so he knew to turn.
Two steps forward, then she leapt from the beam, landing a few feet behind him, her knife already in her hand.
Shifting was near-instantaneous. There were a few specific circumstances where it could take longer to cycle – coming in and out of places like the Marches – sections of Fairyland that had a limited System connection. Or cases where they were trying to shift fae, and the conflict between magic types lead to a lengthy load time.
But neither of those – nor the few other long shift reintegrations that she knew of should have been happening here and now. The fact that Taylor hadn’t called for a stop to their session meant the guest was uninvited, and few people dared intrude of Taylor’s space without asking.
Grigori did, all the time, but he tended to enjoy bursting in through the front door, rather than directly coming into Taylor’s space. Grigori might not have been as gentle with Taylor’s space – he never seemed to knock. However, if there was one other person on the planet who cared as much for her commander as she did, it was the blond with a chronic case of oops-my-shirt-came-off.
If Grigori was coming in like this, it could mean trouble.
‘Who?’ she asked, coming up to Taylor’s side.
He extended a hand down, palm towards her, a signal to back off – but one that indicated that there wasn’t immediate danger – whoever was coming, he knew who it was.
As she looked at his palm, he curled his hand into a fist, then extended his index finger, telling her that she could leave this to him.
She backed away a couple of steps, taking a second to look at his face as she did so.
Taylor could say a thousand things with his hands – from subtle praise and approval to signs that he was so angry that he wasn’t sure how to process it. His face, even to her, was a far more challenging book to read.
He didn’t smile, he never smiled. Not to be nice to recruits, not to feign good working relationships with other agents, not when they had a successful mission. Whatever had rendered Taylor as he was had taken away any wish to smile.
Even in her deepest desires, even in moments where spank bank imagery was so real it was possible to imagine that it was his fingers, and not her own, driving her towards an orgasm that would leave her blind and dehydrated. Even in those moments, she’d rarely been able to imagine him with a smile that fit his face.
Part of it was because it felt so artificial, that if she loved him, she should accept him without a smile.
Another part hoped that if it ever happened, that if she were ever to straddle him, and take him inside, that he’d have a small smile for her as their scarred bodies touched.
Taylor didn’t smile. The closest he came was a small narrowing of his eyes and the slightest crease of his brow. Even this rare gesture was reserved for something more akin to joy for a worthy challenge, rather than simple happiness.
His eyes were narrowed, his brow was creased – whoever was coming in was going to gift him with a good fight.
She ran to the bleachers, giving him space, and dismissed her workbook. There was no way she would look away from whatever was happening next, and there was no need to dirty it with blood and viscera.
The shift distortion began to move across the room, then an agent appeared, inertia from the multiple shifts rocketing her fist into Taylor like he’d been punched by a god.
He fell back, toned ass hitting the floor, his hands splayed to the side as he looked up at his opponent.
Magnolia let her gaze follow her commander’s – the agent was tall, muscular and flat-out gorgeous. The athletic wear was black, with a purple stripe that ran the length of the sleeveless shirt – Europe.
The newcomer leaned forward and offered a hand to Taylor, which he took, before transitioning the help action into a throw that tossed the agent halfway across the room.
Magnolia required her phone as Taylor pursued the agent, and pulled up the Vox function to identify nearby personnel. Agent Jane, Combat Division leader from London.
Torn between knowing more about someone comfortable enough to intrude like this, and watching the clash of titans, she set her phone aside. Whatever replay was going to be caught on the security system wasn’t going to compare with seeing it live.
Taylor knocked Jane’s legs from under her and brought his knee up to meet her falling face, breaking her nose and bloodying her lip. Jane, in return, shifted onto his back and tore a piece from his shirt to wipe her face.
Almost waltzing, the next few moments were a series of pitch-perfect moves and counter moves. Standard combat agent programming, each apparently waiting to see who was going to make a custom move next.
Taylor’s effortless flow was something of beauty. There were moments like this, moments when he could act on instinct where he seemed utterly untroubled. Where he had no time for second-guessing himself or to assume he was going to be judged by someone outside his circle.
As they shifted around each other, Taylor made a grab and Jane’s hair came loose from her ponytail, loosely curled hair spilling across her shoulders.
‘Not fair, love,’ Jane murmured, then jumped on Taylor, bearing him to the ground, thighs wrapped around his neck to keep him in place while she fixed her hair.
Christ, I am too bi for this. Each position was just as enviable as the other – to be either the one straddling Taylor, or the one being smothered muscular thighs.
‘Fuuuuck,’ she murmured as Jane twisted, snapping Taylor’s neck, and stood, hands still fixing her hair.
Taylor, for his part, disappeared and respawned immediately – looking fresh, uniform clean.
‘Jane,’ he said, by way of greeting.
‘At least someone in this Agency knows how to greet someone,’ Jane said with a grin. ‘Your tech and your director didn’t even offer to show a girl a good time.’
Taylor’s hand fell to his side, clenched once, then relaxed – encouraging her to approach.
‘Field and Tech speak a different language,’ she said as she reached the two agents. ‘Magnolia, ma’am. Business or pleasure?’
‘…does anyone come to Brisbane for pleasure?’ Jane asked, genuine bafflement on her face.
‘You’re not just here for a fight,’ Taylor said.
‘I wish I was, but no.’ Jane slung a towel over her shoulders and looked at the smartwatch on her wrist. ‘Meeting’s in fifteen. I’ll be seeing you there. And…probably a lot of the both of you over the next few weeks.’
‘Ma’am?’ Magnolia asked.
‘Spoiler alert, Recruit, but I’m here to audit this place. Any skeletons in the closet, start thinking if you’re going to hide or reveal.’ She punched Taylor in the shoulder. ‘I like this one, but the newborn you have running this place is already taking up a lot of the institutional goodwill that I’m able to offer.’
No one else would have noticed the straightening of Taylor’s posture. It was so subtle that it was barely more than the sound of cloth moving, but it meant he was apprehensive.
She stepped forward, allowing her torn skirt to brush against his hand as she did so – it was a small enough motion to seem like an accident. Still, at the same time, sometimes a small physical gesture could centre her commander more than a hundred words in its place.
‘Has Ryan offered you an office?’
‘I’m fine on that score, Aide.’
‘Magnolia is fine, ma’am. I’d make a joke that “Aide Hammond” is my father, but it’s literally true and not that funny.’
‘Yes,’ Jane said, ‘I noted that in your file. But all of that will come later. I’m going to catch a shower. I’ll see you both upstairs.’
Jane shifted away, and Magnolia made sure to stand as still as possible, letting Taylor dictate how she should act next. As many thoughts as she had running through her head, he’d have just as many, though their trains of thought would be on different tracks.
They’d known nothing of an audit – or anything that would have sparked one – it wasn’t the kind of thing that Taylor would keep from her. And to the best of her knowledge, they’d simply been chugging along, far from perfect, but in no way that was out of the ordinary.
It could have been a random thing – spot checks were performed as a matter of course, but then it would have been some auditor from Central, not a Combat agent from the other side of the world.
The fact that it was Jane and not some random said that there were possible – probable – personal stakes involved. That-
‘Advocate,’ Taylor said, his voice a rumble. ‘All the Scholar will say.’
That lined up that it was personal, but- ‘Who the fuck needs an advocate?’ she asked. Jones left the Agency pretty much only to get a morning coffee. Applebaum didn’t leave Lost & Found unless someone fucked with his TV. And the only thing that was criminal about Natalie was how few followers her poly positivity Instagram had.
Which only left Ryan.
Jane was known to Ryan, that much was possible to infer – she’d casually referred to him as a “newborn”, something that said she’d known him when he was young. That followed that she was his advocate, for whatever he’d need one for.
It was so easy to think of Ryan as so dull that he was incapable of making mistakes, but-
She stepped away from Taylor, sat on the lowest tier of benches and required the casualty lists from the night before. Recruit Mimosa, S was no longer listed as MIA – she was no longer on the lists at all – something that didn’t happen all that often.
Another requirement brought up the recruit’s schedule – which was nothing more than red, cancelled sessions with an invitation to ask Ryan for more information.
‘I’ve got a theory, sir,’ she said, looking up at her commander as he approached. ‘I could be wrong, but everything lines up so far. We’ll know in ten minutes anyway, but- I think Ryan got his new recruit killed, and I think it was very messy.’
‘Us?’ Taylor asked after a moment.
It was a reasonable line of enquiry – if Ryan was fucked, they needed to know what the flow-on effects would be.
She stared at the shine of fluorescent light in her boots. ‘Realistically sir, the Agency doesn’t give that much of a shit about recruits. We enable the running of the Agency, but we’re secondary to it. Ten recruits die, it’s nothing more than a rescheduling nightmare. One agent dies, that’s the point where it gets serious.’
It was backwards, as a lot of elements of the Agency were. Recruits almost seemed to exist to protect agents, not the other way around. However much the Agency there was to protect humankind in general, recruits so often seemed like nothing more than cannon fodder.
It didn’t stop individual agents from caring for their recruits or being willing to sacrifice themselves. Still, wrongful recruit deaths – if investigated at all, were rarely punished with more than a slap on the wrist.
And she wasn’t telling Taylor anything he didn’t know. The reason he’d been so willing – desperate – to recruit her was that, in one day, in one operation, he’d lost nearly every recruit he’d had at the time. The others had quit or asked to be reassigned.
Dozens of people dead, and it had been classed as an acceptable loss. Not his fault, and it hadn’t been his call to throw more bodies at the problem. His loss as a commander, and likely the reason he considered each of their potential recruits carefully before accepting them. The best of the best, those that were the most likely to escape worst-case scenarios.
Dozens dead, and he was expected to continue.
One dead agent, he hadn’t been allowed to rest.
She didn’t know the whole story – Grigori had only shared enough to “help her understand” while stating that the rest was Taylor’s tale to tell, if and when he was able.
All she knew was that, around twenty years ago, Taylor had died. Not a detection of injury and respawn, as had just happened between Jane’s thighs. Not a last-minute rush to a tech, bleeding from some fae injury, but a full, final death.
He’d done his Duty, he’d died, and what Jones and Ryan had resurrected was – according to Grigori – barely a shade of the man he’d been.
It did explain how two men for whom “polar opposites” didn’t seem to be adequate, were best friends.
She tried to bring her head back to the issue at hand – it was only a theory, but until the meeting started and the waffling was out of the way, it was the best one they had. Whatever Ryan had done, it was a fuck-up of momentous proportions.
They would be safe under a general audit – objectively, Combat looked even better than Tech. Jones got better recruit satisfaction feedback, but he didn’t have an aide, which always worked against him in terms of exterior analysis.
If they got a new Director, then there might be problems – Taylor needed someone who…Ryan wasn’t understanding, but was at least willing to look slightly to the side and let things slip when they weren’t perfect. A new Director might not get his eccentricities.
If they had a new Director, it would probably mean taking up Grigori’s open-ended offer to let them transfer into one of his Agencies. An imperfect solution, but Taylor would never fall, never choose to be away from Duty and the only thing that gave his life stability and continuity. If it came to it, a transfer would be better than constant scrutiny that could lead to an execution.
‘We’ll be fine, sir,’ she said as she gathered her things. ‘We survive, it’s what we do.’