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Magnolia pressed her security card against the sim room’s operations screen.
It was rarely a good sign when a meeting with an agent was to take place in a sim.
In what amounted to a holographic chamber capable of recreating anything from your weirdest sexy fantasy to the tiniest detail of all your underlings dying on a failed mission, there was always the chance that the tech would be used to chew your ass out – and not in the fun way.
Jane was there to audit them – something that was far overdue from an outside perspective and something that could destroy her Agency and her life.
So much of it was going to fall onto her shoulders – probably as much as Ryan. With no other aides, she was the only official rep amongst that population. However, she didn’t doubt that there’d be spot interviews with at least a dozen others. Still, without the “aide” title, their opinions would weigh less in the final accounting.
In the case of some recruits, this was a good thing. Ryan’s relationship with most of his recruits was a metronome that swung between contentious and non-existent. A truth, a sad truth that wasn’t going to play well.
In the case of Jones’ recruits, who – of all the agents in the building – had the best recruit relationships, those glowing reviews weren’t going to count as much.
Workbook under her arm – the fancy, tidy one that she took to conferences, not the one stuffed with Merlin drawings – she straightened her toned-down skirt, then buzzed the door to the sim room to alert the occupants she was entering.
Two steps into the sim, she knew she was overdressed.
Behind her, the door to the real world slid close and disappeared, leaving nothing but the broad expanse of a perfect white sand beach in front of an ocean so blue it almost seemed unreal.
A dozen feet to her right were two sun loungers, under broad umbrellas, small tables already holding icy drinks, beaded condensation on the glass.
And stepping out of the water, beauty and grace in a white two-piece, was Agent Jane.
Magnolia grinned and looked down at her completely inappropriate all-black lolita outfit. ‘Ma’am, you could have advised me of the dress code.’
Jane wrapped a light-as-air chiffon jacket around herself. ‘And what knowledge would I gain if I did, Aide? Crawford likes the silence to speak for itself. I do the same with limited information. This could have been a party or a – forgive me – kangaroo court.’
Magnolia nodded, a thought replacing her dress with a boy-legged bikini bottom and a tankini top. ‘And what did my appearance tell you?’
‘That you’re sure of yourself, and to a degree, you trust me. Both are good things.’ Jane lifted a pina colada from her table and played with the straw. ‘As much as I’m getting the idea that you’re known for your signature style, I assume there are situations where you’d want the social engineering advantage of wearing a uniform?’
‘I can think of a few situations,’ she said mildly. ‘But right now, it doesn’t feel necessary.’
Jane sipped her drink and raised her eyebrows, seeming to expect her to fill the silence.
‘I take the lead from my commander,’ she said. ‘What’s good enough for Taylor is good enough for me. People he treats well, people who treat him well, that’s a good start for me.’
‘I’ve known him a long time. Then…more than now, of course, and I assume you know what I mean by that?’
Not the full story, nowhere near the full story. Bare scraps from her commander and nothing but caged words from Grigori. Taylor then, and Taylor now were two functionally different men, and the heart of the blame lay with Ryan.
‘Enough to know, without knowing all the details. What isn’t public isn’t mine to know until he deems it germane to share.’
‘That’s a lot more restraint than most recruits would show.’
Magnolia sipped her drink. ‘Most people – recruits or not – rarely know how to show the proper level of restraint or comportment for the situation they find themselves in.’
‘And you do?’
Enough to know that walking up to her commander, grabbing him by the lapels and demanding to know how he’d died and been resurrected would do irreparable damage to their bond.
Caged words would satisfy for now, until he felt she needed to know more.
‘Knowing and doing are two different things. I try to strike a balance, but sometimes you just need to tell a motherfucker exactly how they’ve fucked up. Because if it’s someone I’m watching and they’ve fucked up, the next time they fuck up, people could die. I don’t spare feelings when it could save lives.’
Jane reached over and gently squeezed her hand. ‘Thank you for being what he needs.’ She pulled her hand back and sat up slightly to accept a tray of delicate snacks from a fairy sim, wings casting spears of holographic light over the sand as he landed. Jane took a small cucumber from the tray, then laid it on the table between them. ‘I don’t intend on wasting too much of your time, but in order to fully do my audit, I need to-’
Magnolia picked up some kind of cheese-and-tomato puff. ‘I understand. Ask away. My skeletons are…mostly public record.’ She popped the puff into her mouth and braced herself for one of the six questions strangers always seemed to ask.
There were easy to understand facts about her life – and were of public record to anyone with either the right security clearance or a gossipy ear.
Fact one – she’d practically grown up in an Agency. From about nine to her mid-teens, she’d been under the same roof as Dazza, his wife and the beginnings of their ever-expanding family. Her father – who, despite his seniority, was always referred to as the “other Aide Hammond” by people in discussion – had begun wearing the suit not long after they’d moved in.
And like every childhood, it was…complicated. Good moments and bad moments. Family you loved and hated with equal measure.
Fact two. One day, so far removed from a tiny feathered girl stepping foot into an Agency for the first time, Agent Taylor had hauled in a spitting, scratching criminal, ready to fight, flee or fuck for her freedom.
It hadn’t been fair. The gang had always targeted the Agency warehouse in the Marches. Tonnes of contraband and seized goods that could be sold for a tidy profit with little security.
Not all warehouses were like that, but the one in the Marches had caretakers who gave less than zero fucks, and would often happily turn a blind eye for a bribe.
It had been almost a game. Not that there weren’t consequences – depending on the mood of the agent who caught you with your hand in the cookie jar, sometimes the price was more than the contraband was worth.
And then, for whatever reason, the game had been over all at once. Just their shithole of a headquarters getting raided by the one-man-army that was Taylor, looking for stolen items on behalf of the warehouse staff.
They’d fought – he still had a scar she’d inflicted that day – but ultimately, he’d won.
And without any real choice in the matter, she’d become a recruit. Even if it came with a job she didn’t want, some freedom was better than serving endless days in an Agency prison.
Two facts. Two facets of her life that, for a lot of people, didn’t seem to add up. Puzzle pieces that refused to connect, even if you beat them with a closed first.
It seemed impossible for anyone with a comfortable life to make a path between A and B. For the people she liked to call friends, for people used to strained family relationships, there wasn’t even a question that A could lead to B.
She picked up another small puff from the tray and waited for the inevitably judgey question to come from Jane. Words that would both somehow pity and blame her for going from a perfect, innocent child to someone unworthy of holding the aide rank.
‘If the catering isn’t to your liking-’ Jane started.
‘I’m waiting for the first shoe to drop. I’m not the typical aide. I’m well aware of what people think of me. I know that’s going to have some impact on this audit.’
‘Some auditors,’ Jane said as she grabbed another sandwich. ‘Wish to bring everyone into order, to align everything to cookie-cutter perfection, exactly as the handbook would lay out a perfect Agency. I’m way too fucking old to think there is any benefit in that.’
‘I appreciate that,’ Magnolia said, allowing genuine gratitude into her voice.
Too many people wanted to change how she was. How she operated. Would prefer that she ditched cute outfits for something approaching the uniform. Would be the more subdued, measured voice expected from an aide.
She couldn’t be something she wasn’t. So much of her life would have been so much easier if she could have…been a little closer to the centre, to… “normal”, to the ideals and expectations of the people around her.
If she could have been more human. If she knew how to manage her anger better. If she’d been less queer.
In the soup of multiverses that existed, if every possible iteration of a person could exist, then somewhere out there, there was a Magnolia out there working for Darren and Katie. An unremarkable girl who had no idea how to touch any of the fae parts of her nature, tongue firmly bit when she saw a pretty girl.
There was nothing she could do for that sad doppelganger, but for her own life, the one she’d so messily fought for, the one she was still building, there were few external influences strong enough to make her reconsider her actions.
In a way – not that he would know the reasoning – she knew her commander was glad of her resolve, of her consistency.
Taylor was the strongest man in the world, but change wasn’t something he bore with grace. For whatever had split his life into “then” and “now”, the “now” version needed things to follow patterns. For objects, events and people to exist within specific parameters. For any given situation to be easily understood, broken down and threat-assessed within seconds.
When people or scenarios existed outside parameters, they threw a kink into his world – and it was her job to keep as many of these hiccups and blips out of his path as she could.
‘I’ve been looking at your schedule,’ Jane said. ‘Your anticipated schedule, your actual schedule, and the location data showing where you actually were. One day or one week never shows the truth, so to the best of what you’ve logged, I’ve compared three months worth of data.’
‘And if you did the same for any agent-’ she started.
Jane waved a hand, then sipped her drink. ‘At the beginning of this conversation, you were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.’ She smiled. ‘I assume that lasts more than five minutes?’
‘And I did, actually. I took a similar look at half a dozen individuals – three agents, three aides. No one ever operates to a schedule, as life tends to get in the way of planning. When I take out things you can’t plan for, like spur-of-the-moment assignments and any follow-up activities.’ Jane put down an empty glass and selected a martini from the available drinks. ‘I even allowed a few minutes for tearing strips off your doctors, as Two has assured me that he has to factor in a certain amount of…belligerence when it comes to your medical care.’
‘It takes a certain amount of belligerence to get them to-’
‘So taking out all the X-factors, the flexibility in your assumed schedule is one of the better ones I’ve seen. You assume things will go to shit, have a good sense of what regular meetings tend to run short or long, and schedule activities around that. Where you can, you have a backup in place where it’s something that can be started without you. You are an example that should be taught, Magnolia, and I need to know you feel proud of your accomplishments.’
‘Pride and shit are worth the shit, ma’am,’ she said, not meeting the agent’s gaze. ‘I know what I can do, I know what I’ve done and-’
‘And you feel like a complete emotionless badass saying that,’ Jane said, ‘once more without the pretence?’
‘I’m sure you know a little pretence can be useful, Agent. I have a reputation.’ She looked into her drink for a moment. ‘But it’s not solely posturing. I’m aware of the positive influences my actions have, but the moment I try and rest on my laurels, I see the holes. I see what else I can do to improve a situation, what I should have done or said. Pride is an end-state. All I see is a perpetual work in progress.’
‘You should slap that on a T-shirt,’ Jane commented quietly. ‘One question, then one command, then you’re free to go.’
‘The question?’ Magnolia prompted.
‘What do you want from your career? A plain answer, if you please.’
This answer, at least, was easy.
It was an answer she’d known for a long time, a truth that she’d accepted. One she made a show of vehemently denying whenever one of her close friends would express worry over a new injury or scar.
‘I don’t want anything from my career. I’m going to die. Younger than I’d like. As bloody as can be, doing as much damage as I can to whoever finally gets the better of me. I’m going to do my Duty, and it won’t even be a beautiful corpse.’
Part of her expected pushback, for platitudes, to throw out the suggestion of therapy, to be accused of having a deathwish.
But the look of acceptance on Jane’s face told her that she understood. That, Combat agent to Combat recruit, she could respect where she was coming from.
‘Then I guess this order is all that more important.’ Jane folded her hands. ‘Two hours a week – and Taylor will know this too – I order you to do something for yourself. A massage. A spa treatment. Sitting on a fucking beach,’ she said, indicating the white sands around them. ‘On top of whatever time you scrape for yourself now, this is my command. You keep everything running, so we need to keep you running.’
‘On top of that, you’ll be moving from an ad hoc per diem in Fairyland currency to a standard weekly stipend. I’ll have to check the table of rates against a few factors, but I’ll get you a good deal. Are you happy with the outcome of my assessment?’
‘You’ve seen my schedule. I don’t know if-’
‘I just ask you to try. Don’t die without having a hot rock massage, or strawberries and champagne, or whatever it is that you want and put at the bottom of the To-Do list. Cram in some more good experiences before you leave that beautiful corpse behind.’
In terms of how an assessment could have gone, it was beyond a best-case scenario in light of what an auditor could have demanded.
Adding in some selfish time to her schedule probably wasn’t going to happen every week, but…
She lifted her glass in Jane’s direction. ‘Do you have a good hot rock sim?’
Jane smiled. ‘I have some recommendations.’
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