A lot of people thought Taylor was irrational, that you couldn’t work with him, that it was impossible for anything involving him to get done with any kind of efficiency.
Those people were wrong.
Or, at least there was more nuance than what they imagined. That it was easy if you knew him, if you bothered to understand how he worked.
Or if they did the sensible step of bringing everything to her, and she’d do the hard work.
Not even Grigori could organise Taylor like she could. Grigori could convince him to do things that she’d never dare ask, or cross lines she’d never approached, but Grigori didn’t have to get paperwork done.
Magnolia pulled the cap off a sports bottle and downed half of the orange drink, let her eyes linger on Taylor’s half-naked form as he did pushups a few feet from the bleachers, then returned to her workbook.
She had done a lot since he’d recruited her.
Well. “Recruited her”.
She wasn’t the first or last recruit who’d been coerced into the position, but with most of those cases, there seemed to be more acknowledgement of the situation. There’d be some recognition that someone hauled in as a criminal had worked their way up to being a model recruit or aide.
With her, everyone seemed to prefer to mentally rewrite history so that she’d always been the way she was now.
Ryan never looked at her and worried she’d fuck off and resume her hooligan ways, he just looked at her and hoped she’d continue to manage Taylor.
In a lot of ways, it was nice. Even with a rocky start, this was the only place where she’d ever been allowed to be herself. To be all facets of herself, hiding nothing, and not being ashamed for any of it.
No where else, no when else, had this ever been true.
When it had been just her and her dad, she couldn’t be fae. And, mostly, she’d made peace with how he’d treated her for the first half of her childhood. He’d been without resources, without any connections to the fae world, stuck raising a daughter who had been dumped on his doorstep as an egg.
It had been self-preservation for the both of them, keeping her feathers clipped and hidden under at least two layers, blaming her white hair on a medical condition, and making sure that she didn’t get too close to any of her classmates.
That, at least, had been easy.
But then, thanks to a chance meeting, they’d been introduced to the Agency and for the first time, they’d had resources, and he’d loosened the reins a little on how fae he let her be.
But then…girls had come along. And he couldn’t handle a daughter that was fae and gay.
So she’d stomped down on everything about herself, kept everything under a lid, sucked herself into a tense package of bird, girl and queer; and stayed in self-imposed chains until she could run away.
And those years had been bad, but the cycles of shit had been worth it to finally start to figure out who she was. Starving cause whatever gang she was hanging with couldn’t organise their way out of a wet paper bag, trading sex for favours, or just being told to shut up and look menacing…all things she could rationalise, because at the end of the day, no one freaked when they saw her hair or eyes, and no one was disappointed when she got caught in a moment of bi paralysis cause she’d seen someone so pretty her brain had done a hard reset.
But there were still elements that didn’t get to surface. Still pieces of herself not locked into place.
She hadn’t been herself yet, and she’d known that.
Crews would bring her in cause she was good at hitting people, or because fucking a guard to distract them wasn’t something she’d baulk at.
No-one wanted her to think. No one cared that she could organise like a motherfucker.
And then one job had gone wrong. Agency warehouse in the Marches. One they’d hit too many times, been too cheeky with.
Someone had called the alarm and it had been every fae for themselves.
And it had been her neck that Taylor’s hands had found. And she’d fought back, giving him scars that he still had, visible as he worked out in front of her, even though it would have been so simple to get rid of them.
And he’d hauled her back to their Agency, throwing her to the same floor she was staring at, and announced that she was his new recruit. Both of them had been sweaty, bloody and barely seconds from actively trying to murder each other, and he’d said “recruit” like it had been no big deal.
She’d laughed, spat in his face, and tried to tear his throat out.
He’d knocked back every attempt until she was panting, out of breath on the bloody floor.
He’d said “recruit” again, like it was nothing, and she’d switched tactics, offering to blow him, figuring that he was acting out some stupid fantasy.
As she’d gone to grab for his crotch, he’d backhanded her, leaving a bruise that had stayed until Parker-1 had seen her.
He’d dragged her to a room, thrown her in, locked the door and left her alone.
It hadn’t been the worst cell she’d been in, and in the morning, the door had been open.
The elevators had been obvious, and there were ways to raise alarms in Agencies that didn’t take any blue at all, but instead of doing either, curiosity lured her back to the gym, its floor now free of blood and all traces of their fight.
And only on seeing him alone had the silence of the corridors on her walk sparked anything in her brain.
On an entire Agency floor, an active floor, one where – for a hub Agency like Queen Street, there should have been, at minimum three dozen recruits, it seemed that they were alone.
And as fascinating as that had been, it was a sad story she had no interest in.
But, for her crimes, even just the ones they had evidence of, Ryan had put it simply that the choices were recruitment or imprisonment.
So, reluctant as an ex-Solstice recruit, she’d agreed.
And at some point, that reluctance had died. Not all at once, and not really that she’d noticed, but piece by piece, she’d become more of herself, hid less of herself, and started to build a real identity.
It was all she’d ever wanted, and in return, she’d give all she had.
She looked down at her workbook again, flipped over a couple of pages, then required a tablet to view some associated data.
If this had been an ordinary Agency with ordinary agents, her voice would probably be secondary to what she was doing, rather than taking the lead in all but name.
There were established protocols for recruits undergoing a full augmentation, so there were guidelines about what roles Combat was scheduled to play in the experimentation and implementation phases.
But with each project, the Combat unit of the relevant Agency had to agree or deny to take part in each step, offer suggestions or substitutions for Tech to ultimately decide on, and most importantly – actually schedule when each activity was to take place.
And, as this was the first full augment process she’d had the chance to observe up close, there was a lot of information she needed to take in, lots of lines to read between, and lots of chances to gain favours and resources if certain conditions were met.
The bulk of it was largely grouped under what had come to be called “Desire Path Training” – named for the phenomenon of people wearing paths into grass, rather than follow the footpath – more efficient paths, destinations that weren’t accounted for when the concrete had been poured, and a hundred other reasons people would step off a given path and make their own.
And that’s what they were going to do with Recruit Mimosa’s body.
You could, in theory, do a full augmentation and then throw the newly-minted agent into the world without an adjustment period, but for months – or more – they would be under-optimized, and mistakes in the Field could kill.
Especially for someone like Mimosa, who still had the fresh newbie smell all over her, any amount of under-optimisation was going to be a further detriment to her performance.
Augments didn’t tend to be called “Newborns” like full, freshly-generated agents did, but the term was just as applicable – in essence, their body was learning to do everything from scratch.
A full augment could walk and talk from the moment they got released from the tank, but it took time for the blue pathways to understand how far each action deviated from baseline programming, and adjusted.
And, on the less pretty side of things, an agent’s body needed to be subjected to pain stimulus to ensure that the reaction pathways were correct, and work out any bugs in the system.
The material had supplied along with the project plan showed various wonderfully bizarre reaction that had been achieved during pathway tuning.
There was one spectacular picture of an agent in the middle of a gym, every point on his body thin and extended so that he more resembled a sea urchin than a person.
And that error, apparently, had been because there’d been some conflict in how his skin processed a specific combination of “cold, wet and sharp”.
The agent himself – his consciousness manifest in what looked like a blue ghost, the same thing they’d do for Mimosa, so she didn’t have to experience all the weird shit they were going to do to her body – looked on at the urchin glitch in the back of the photo, his expression of shock and amusement clear, even while slightly out of focus.
She immediately wanted to show the picture to Screen, who loved anecdotes about weird manifestations of code, but the security code on the photo indicated it wasn’t for general recruit distribution.
She snapped her gaze towards him. ‘Sir?’
She expected some immediate indication he needed her for a spar, or that he felt she needed training in a specific area, or-
He was hesitating.
Communication with Taylor may as well have been its own language, but it was one she was fluent in. Silence was normal, expecting her to fill in gaps was normal, but there was no prompt for her to work from, no previously dropped conversation that needed to be restarted.
Nothing but the sucking gravity of Taylor wanting to say something, but unable to do so.
People rarely appreciated how long the smallest units of time could be. A second was just a second unless you were a second too late, something happened a second earlier than you expected, or words took a second longer than usual.
Five seconds passed as she looked at him, and in that silence was everything she still didn’t know about him, everything he couldn’t say, and everything the world had taken from him.
Grigori was worried about him. She was worried about him.
She could brush off this moment, could deflect and divert onto a safer topic. She could step forward, punch him in the face, and his day would surely improve. Any of those were things he might have wanted, but weren’t the things he needed.
Tech could hope, Field could work for the best outcomes, Medical sewed up what came back, but Combat had to look ugliness in the face with every action.
This is where they were safest. This was his sanctuary, his fortress, his place where difficult conversations were had.
‘You know what I know,’ she said. ‘I haven’t let Grigori say anything more. He’s worried.’
Emotions and emotionality were difficult around Taylor. He wasn’t some robot who wanted to purge feelings in a fifty-mile radius, nor did he decry emotions aimed in his direction. Everything just depended on context. And a good deal of restraint.
Grigori, especially, was allowed to have as many feelings around Taylor as he wanted, so relaying how his best friend felt was safe to do. The right thing to do, if she was reading this non-conversation-conversation correctly.
A few more seconds of silence from her commander, then a single step forward. ‘He tried?’
‘It’s not his intel to share, sir. When you need me to know, I’ll know.’
A fresh uniform covered Taylor’s body. ‘You need to know.’