‘I like you,’ Mags said.
Curt ran the sentence through his head a few times, then propped himself on an arm to look over at the still-naked Mags. ‘Obviously,’ he said. ‘You don’t kick me out as soon as we’re done. I know that’s a rare privilege.’
She required a pillow, slipped it behind herself, tossed a towel aside, retrieved her phone and stared at it for a moment before looking back to him.
‘You don’t think the afterglow is sacred. I hate when people insist on silence after fucking. If you’re in love, it’s different, but when it’s just sex, I don’t need some stupid countdown hanging over my head before I can check on things.’
‘I can’t imagine you sleep with a lot of people who don’t get that about you. It’s basically in the ground rules, right?’
‘Unspoken, but you’re correct. But sometimes you don’t get a full read on someone until you fuck them or fight them.’ She set her phone aside. ‘No fires that need putting out.’
‘Can I shower here, or should I leave?’
‘Go ahead,’ she said. She stood, and as she did, her hair tied itself up into a bun. He allowed himself to catch the last few seconds of her bare form before a spaghetti-strap top and soft shorts covered her body.
Her back rippled with fine muscle and lines of light scars. Nothing kept her down for long, and there was something so intimidating and so alluring about that.
And he was glad he could call her a friend. Even aside from the benefits, she’d been one of the first, strong connections he’d made as a recruit.
She’d been wary of him from the outset but had always trusted him when it mattered. And as time had gone on – and he’d become a better person, had opened his eyes and started to overwrite every lie the Solstice had told him, the wariness had gone away.
And he hoped he was more than a half-decent lay for her. He was pretty sure he was – there were few enough people who she let her shields down around that he was sure he was part of a select, special group.
He stumbled over his own discarded pants, walked into the bathroom, and closed the door to the floral-scented room.
One quick shower later, he stepped back out, clean, tidy, uniform in place.
On the other side of the living space, Mags sat cross-legged on a large, square Ottoman, in front of a dressmaker’s dummy covered in a half-finished dress.
Pages of notes sat on her lap. For a moment, he watched her touch various pieces of the dress, lines of stitches appearing and disappearing with a touch.
‘You’re staring, O’Connor.’
‘I didn’t know you designed them yourself,’ he said.
‘Redesign, more like,’ she said and shuffled her notes. ‘Usually, the original design is something I see. Screen set up a dropbox where people can anonymously send me screenshots of inspo. That gives me a base. It takes a while from there.’
‘The fine line between fashion and fight-worthy?’
She gave him a withering look.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘then explain.’
She narrowed her eyes and seemed to be considering if he’d unlocked friendship points for this bit of her life. After a moment, the Ottoman extended into a rectangle. ‘Sit. Shut up. Listen.’
‘That’s talking, O’Connor.’
‘Half the reason you keep me around is for my mouth, Mags.’
She punched his arm, then turned back to the half-finished dress. ‘Combat exists for the unexpected. For the dangerous. For when you lot need saving. What can go wrong for us is broader than what can go wrong for you. So I have to look cute and be ready for as many contingencies as I can.’
‘Yeah, totally understandable.’
‘So it starts with hidden weapons-’
‘But then things get interesting,’ she said, her eyes glittering. ‘Ribbons and straps that are alternatively reinforced with wire that can be used to garrote or tie someone up, or cord that can hold my weight. Accents that are real jewels or real rare metals that can be used in trade. First aid materials in hidden pockets. So much. And then it’s all got to be kept to a reasonable weight. Between my loadout and what Taylor has, there are few situations we couldn’t deal with.’
‘You know that’s fucking impressive, right?’
‘Of course. Doesn’t stop every second newbie from underestimating me.’
Newbie. He felt a kick to his good mood. He’d tried to start conversations with Ryan every so often over the last few weeks, but every time, his courage had fled.
No news was good news. He had to believe that.
And there had been a switch in Ryan’s attitude that told him that there was maybe more reasons to hope for a good outcome that he wasn’t allowed to know about.
He had a meeting with Ryan later – maybe this time, he could build up the courage.
But until then, he had things to do – and he didn’t want to intrude too much on Mags’ limited personal time.
‘If you’ve got shit to do, go,’ she said. ‘I don’t take it personally when you cum and go.’
‘You’re so fucking eloquent,’ he said. With a grin, he gathered his things from the floor, dismissed his old clothes, and left Mags to her project.
He loved how uncomplicated their relationship was – and that a lack of complication didn’t mean a lack of depth. There was no dancing around feelings, no hint of love on either side.
And even if she had time to date, he doubted he’d be at the top of the list.
Hours slid by, containing paperwork, aide training modules, and a long lunch with Raz, who happily gushed about the new guy he was seeing.
Finally, three PM rolled around, and he made his way to Ryan’s office, a neat stack of paperwork tucked under his arm.
He knocked, and the door swung open.
‘Come in, Recruit,’ Ryan said, without rising from his chair.
The first few times Ryan had used “Recruit” after being appointed temporary aide, it had almost seemed like a passive-aggressive reminder that he wasn’t a real aide. However, the more he’d used it, the more that little paranoid thought had slipped away and had come across more as Ryan simply being in a rut. That he was used to using “Recruit”, and that there was no malice behind it.
‘I think this is everything,’ Curt said, laying the paperwork in the centre of Ryan’s desk.
Ryan looked at the pile for a moment but made no move to inspect any of it.
‘In all your time as a recruit, with all the debriefing sessions that you’ve had, with the position that you’re being offered, have you told us everything that we need to know?’
‘Have you told us everything that we need to know?’
With one question, his world was spinning.
Today had been good. As much as “good” existed on the sliding scale of shit, that was his life as a recruit.
A simple, routine patrol that had yielded nothing dangerous. Some enjoyable time with Mags. Lunch. Easy paperwork. What could be a typical day in the life of Aide O’Connor.
And now, he wasn’t sure if his heart was beating; or if it was about to burst out of his chest.
There was no menace in Ryan’s voice, nothing that was making his fight-or-flight instincts go too far into overdrive. However, it was still a question that had the potential to fuck his life forever.
Kobayashi Maru. A no-win situation.
Playing dumb wouldn’t serve him. Asking for the question to be repeated would do nothing but stall a few seconds – he knew he hadn’t hidden his reaction to the question well enough.
All he could do was answer. And whatever he said was going to be wrong, whatever-
He reached forward and squared the pile of paperwork, letting his gaze linger on Ryan’s face for just a moment. Just long enough to parse whatever emotion the agent was choosing to show.
He’d always been good at body language, at subconsciously reading those little tells that people let off. Still, that ability was a mixed-bag when it came to agents.
When you were dealing with people who could choose what emotions they showed, you could never be one-hundred-per cent sure of what they were actually feeling and what was careful social engineering.
You actually had to get to know an agent to know what level of masking they did. Whether they had their “normal” expressions and the standard, one-button-press emotionlessness when they wanted to show nothing, or if they went for more fine-tuned levels of public emotion.
Ryan was often hard to read, but…in a human way. He didn’t often go for robot-face, instead relying on being naturally low-key in what emotions he showed to the world.
It had been why he’d read so much like a “default agent” before he’d really gotten to know Ryan – so often, he just seemed so utterly blank.
It was taking time to tease out Ryan’s different levels of impassive, but he was getting better at it, and what he saw now was a challenge.
This question – this answer – was really important to Ryan, more so than whatever aide security check it represented.
The truth was a step off a cliff, and it wasn’t up to him if he flew.
‘Of course I haven’t.’
Already, he knew he’d made the right choice.
He folded his hands in his lap and straightened his back. ‘Even with as many-’ he swallowed to maintain control, ‘discussions as I had with the Adelaide team. With question after question, I couldn’t possibly have disclosed everything that I knew. What an insignificant fact is to me might be relevant as a key piece of information one day. I’ve answered all the questions I was asked volunteered what I think is significant, but, no…of course, I haven’t told you everything. Unless I went through every single moment of every single day in as much detail as I can remember, then…no, there’s things that have been missed. I handed over phone numbers, but did I remember to check every dead burner phone I’d thrown into a drawer? Probably not, because who thinks about dead phones? Did I go through door numbering conventions? No, because I assume you’d know that already, but what if it’s changed since the last time you had intel from that area. And- The manner in which the questions were asked weren’t conducive to allowing me the time to think about anything other than answering the question exactly as it had been asked.’
‘That is a commendable answer, Recruit.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said, without meeting the agent’s gaze.
‘It was the truth, and I’d like to repay the favour.’