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Picard launched into a speech, and around mouthfuls of pizza, Curt heard himself mumbling along.
Dinner and Trek had become a nightly ritual. Most episodes were familiar enough to fade into white noise when he needed to pick up a file and work, but comforting enough when his attention strayed from the Agency.
The unofficial aide position was still as fraught with difficulty as it had been in the first few days – stepping on Ryan’s toes with some bits of processing, becoming even more of an outsider amongst his peers.
But just like his early days as a recruit, he was finding a routine, despite the discomfort. It was something he could – and would – get used to.
It wasn’t as though he had – or wanted – a choice.
A lump of avocado fell onto his shirt, and he grabbed it with a napkin.
Contentious relationship with Ryan aside, there were a surprising number of people in his corner. Jones had taken to sending some things directly to him and simply CC’ing the Field inbox.
Jane, after his interview, had been sending him pieces of the aide introduction program that new London aides went through. And – in a possible breach of protocol, had sent him some screenshots of a conversation with Brian. Falling at the first hurdle in broaching the possibility of being considered for aide, he had failed to identify nine of the Outpost agents in their network.
It wasn’t a requirement, necessarily, but at the same time, unless you were specifically headhunted for the position, you were expected to do your basic research.
When it came to the Outpost agents, the only area where he felt he really fell down was failing to correctly identify all of Agent Darren’s children.
There was a knock at the door.
He waved a hand at the door and unlocked it with a thought. ‘It’s open, Mags.’
Magnolia, angry and tired, with a large bandage around her thigh, stepped into the room, slammed the door behind her, and immediately began to disrobe.
‘Keep your dick away,’ she muttered. Corset and skirt fell into a pile, and she flopped onto the couch beside him, wearing black boyshorts and a sweat-stained white camisole.
‘I have like eighteen minutes before I need to do the next thing on my list.’
He reached forward, slid two pieces of pizza onto a new plate, and offered them to her.
‘Good boy,’ she said, crammed half a slice into her mouth, deflated against the couch, and chewed in silence for a moment.
This was a side of Mags that few people got to see – an intimacy that she allowed to a vanishingly small inner circle.
And he was forever unsure why he’d earned this honour – he was a decent fuck, but that wasn’t enough to get to this level of shields-down friendship.
As much as he had Recruit Curt and the persona he had to keep up in public, she had a tougher mask to maintain.
Mags was Strong. Powerful. Deadly. Capital-letter descriptors because anything less was somehow unsuitable. There were still far too many who would use any expression of weakness to tear her down, to question her as a leader, to question her position as Combat’s 2IC.
So being seen to switch off for five minutes was reserved for people she could trust not to berate her for it.
She bit into the crust of her first slice, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and let the plate rest on her chest for a moment.
He flipped through his mental notes, then required a strawberry soft drink, stuck a straw in it, and pressed it against the outside of her hand.
She took a moment to react to the coldness of the glass – a testament to both how drained she was and how safe she felt in his presence – then grabbed the drink.
‘Mm-hmm.’ She grabbed the other slice and bit off the tip. ‘Talk. I need to know what’s going on.’
She twisted, leaned her head on the arm of the couch, and pressed her feet against his thigh. ‘The more I have to talk, the less I like you, O’Connor.’
She was here to talk to him specifically, so there was one logical answer. ‘My aide position?’ She nodded. ‘You tell me,’ he said. ‘I know there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than what I know. I’m filling a spot right now and-’
She lightly kicked his chest – and this being Mags, the fact that he wasn’t bruised meant she was being gentle on purpose. ‘Ryan has needed an aide for so fucking long. I’m glad it’s you. It’s the Agency, so there’s always secrets and politics. You don’t know everything. I don’t know everything.’
‘What can you tell me?’ He looked over at her and watched her slowly eat the pizza for a moment. It was oddly…domestic in a way that had never crossed his mind before. He wasn’t in love with her. That was something he was sure about – he’d never even been tempted to let it slip in the heat of the moment. Occasional fuck buddies or not, there was no confusion about where the lines were drawn.
But it was still a nice moment, something he hadn’t had in a long time.
‘You’re not a pawn.’ Her words were simple but a great relief. ‘I can honestly tell you that as far as I know, no one is really thinking twice about your appointment.’ She paused, drank half the strawberry drink, then slowly sat up and massaged her crossed legs. ‘Well. Clarke. But he takes every opportunity to bitch about absolutely everything. He hates you because you’re bad for our optics. That’s been a staple since day one.’
He nodded. ‘That I’m not surprised about.’
‘A Director without an aide is a bigger problem than an aide with bad optics. You’re a solution to a problem. End of the line for the train of thought for most people. But I want to know you’re serious. I need to know I can rely on you. I’m not switching up anything until I can-’
‘You can rely on me, Mags. For as much as I have a choice in what I’m doing, you can rely on me.’
‘Mm,’ she said. She reached a hand down to scratch at the bandage around her leg wound, winced, then scratched again.
The drink and pizza disappeared from her hands, and with her face pinched in frustration, she started to snore.
He extricated himself with the care of defusing a bomb and then gently laid a freshly-required blanket over her.
The pinchy-face-of-frustration relaxed somewhat, and she flopped over, pressing her face into the back of the couch.
Further requirements dimmed the lights – enough so that she’d still be able to immediately know she was somewhere familiar and safe on waking, but dim enough so that she hopefully got some actual sleep.
A few taps on his phone redirected the stream from his TV, and he crawled into bed with a large pair of headphones to continue his Trek binge.
A pop-up on his phone reminded him to take his meds. Usually, this was a no-brainer – they were the only thing that allowed him to sleep through the night. The nightmares – memories and twisted versions of memories – still came, but at least he woke up refreshed.
But when he had to wake up part-way through the night, he was groggy for a long few minutes – meaning that if Mags needed to continue their conversation, she’d have to deal with him staring dumbly and yawning for long enough to piss her off.
But it was what he needed to do for Recruit Curt – almost-Aide Curt – so he dutifully swallowed the pills with some water and prayed that three-AM conversations would be easy.
Familiar nightmares came and were scared away by dawn and the trill of his phone’s alarm.
Curt dismissed the headphones that had worked their way from his head to under his pillow, rubbed his eyes, then headed to the bathroom to shower.
Morning routine done, he stepped back into the main room, hair still dripping onto the towel around his neck.
It was no surprise that the couch was empty – the fact that Mags had folded the blanket when she’d left was a nice touch and not one he’d expected.
‘Deja vu,’ he muttered. ‘Come in!’
Magnolia – somehow looking like she’d both gotten a full night’s sleep and already been up for hours – opened the door, kicked it closed behind her, then sat on his bed, careful not to spill the contents of the cardboard tray in her hands.
The logo on the bag and cups surprised him – Famous Fry’s – meaning that at the least she’d hit up the Local Court for pick-up or paid the fuck-you-Agency-surcharge for delivery.
‘Eat,’ she commanded, already unwrapping a bagel. ‘Today is the start of me treating you like a proper aide. So be prepared for how much I’m going to fuck you. There are so many bits of backed-up bullshit that needs to happen between Field and Combat it’s-’
‘Thanks for breakfast,’ he said, reaching for one of the coffees.
‘I can be nice,’ she said, wiping at her mouth with her thumb. ‘And you are going to get a lot of shit for Ryan’s failings, so this is to ease that a little.’
He popped open the coffee and tipped in a single sugar packet. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘for believing in me.’
She pulled open a box of green-flecked potato bites. ‘Trust was easy. Relying on someone, that’s harder.’
‘Isn’t that backward?’
‘You know how some people use their cats to take the measure of a person? Or if a dog growls at your friend’s new partner, you should take it seriously? Merlin is my canary. Your first day here? There was a reason I had him hanging out in the lobby. He’s got a really good sense for people, and I’ve never known him to be wrong.’ She looked away. ‘All that abuse…gave him a good radar. If Merlin trusts someone, I trust them. That’s why I’ve never had a problem turning my back on you. Trusting you with my life? Easy. Knowing whether or not you’re going to get RFIs returned on time or high priority queries done with urgency? That took more time.’ She finished her coffee and crushed the cup in her hand. ‘You earned it, O’Connor. Now I get to see you take it up a level.’
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