Truly new or novel problems to deal with were a rarity.
There were always enemies with new tactics, new Solstice or fae weapons, or factions warping, combining or fracturing.
All – most – of those problems could ultimately be solved by her commander’s go-to move, a quick, elegant snap of the neck.
Rare did conversations need to happen, and that suited Taylor just fine – and she knew she wouldn’t have lasted as aide for so long if she didn’t know how to operate on his wavelength.
Or…perhaps he still would have used her as his aide, but they wouldn’t have the relationship they did now, they wouldn’t be as close as they were.
She wouldn’t be his favourite weapon to aim at a problem.
Magnolia kept her breath steady as Taylor touched her arm, adjusted its position slightly, and better aimed her knife at the target.
Sometimes – most – of the time, she wished he had some idea of the effect he had on her, that he could comprehend even one per cent of how achingly fucking horny he could make her.
It would make blindfolded practice a hell of a lot more interesting. Unfortunately, as things were, and as things would remain, they were memories and sensations to lock away in her spank bank.
His presence disappeared – stepping back, rather than shifting away – how he’d disappeared wasn’t the point of today’s exercise. Still, it was a skill he wanted to drill into her.
And, whilst not perfect, she was a lot better at picking up when someone had shifted in or out of a situation than most recruits.
Most recruits – or at least more than she would have liked – tended not to actively work on their situational awareness.
Her recruits, her teams, had exercises that specifically worked on it. To know how to still themselves, to listen for small, secret sounds, to understand the change in breathing.
For her recruits, it could be a matter of life and death. For Field recruits, whilst some were good at immediately assessing a situation, most seemed to assume they’d have back-up when things went to shit.
Training supervisors in Central were always working on newer and better exercises. Still, very few had been successfully gamified to the point where recruits would seek them out, outside of mandatory training.
Years before, someone had worked out that a way to train people to pick up on basic situation awareness was to gamify dashcam crash footage.
Short, punchy videos, videos that the internet had proved well and truly that people would seek out and watch on their own, turned into quizzes.
The concept was easy enough. Play a video, then have the recruit try to determine as much about the situation as possible – not the accident itself, necessarily, but whatever other information could be gleaned from the few seconds of footage.
Could they determine a location? If it wasn’t a place they immediately knew, what factors had been present to narrow it down. Had there been any highway or street signs; if not, what licence plates had been available; what foliage, plants or biomes could be seen.
The more information they could provide, the more points they got, and the higher they went on the scoreboards.
And it was easy, fun and quick to do. And while the benefit was subtle, there was definitely a correlation between Field recruits who played the dashcam game and those that had started to write better reports, or those that realised situations were about to go south quicker than their colleagues.
Standing alone in a room, listening to the sounds of sim NPCs breathing or shifting in and out was far less attractive; so had far fewer fans.
There was the sound of fabric moving, a specific sound she’d learned to associate with Taylor nodding, and she focussed on the targets in front of her.
There were six sims in front of her, at a distance of about twenty feet. Only one target would breathe at a time, and it would be for a random number of seconds, then that target would shift – closing the window on that target.
As each target was hit, the breathing would get quieter and quieter, to the last barely perceptible target.
So far, she had averaged three targets each time. A number that she chastised herself about each time but seemed to be precisely where Taylor expected her to be on the training curve.
She could hear Taylor breathing. Steady. Calm. A rock. Her rock. As often as she tried to match her breathing to his, she could rarely hold the sync for more than a few minutes.
He was breathing. She was breathing. The rest of their private gym was quiet, bar the usual subtle sounds of life that any building had.
And then, ahead of her, someone began to breathe.
Taylor’s breath fell from its pattern, and she knew it wasn’t the sim target.
A second later, the sim NPC started to breathe – solidifying in her mind that they were no longer alone.
Someone had appeared without walking into the room. And whilst nearly anyone could be shifted into a room, few people were comfortable enough to dare breaching Taylor’s privacy with no prior warning.
And if there’d been warning, he would have stopped the activity, getting her ready to deal with whatever was encroaching on their time.
He also hadn’t moved or otherwise reacted. That dramatically cut down on the number of people it could be.
One obvious name came to mind, and it would prove a good last part of the blindfold training if she could confirm it.
She flared her nostrils and took in a deep sniff, and the faintest trace of a familiar cologne registered.
A smile spread across her face, and she adjusted her stance a little, moving from a ready-to-throw position, and faded towards the cologne.
With each day, week and month that went by, she was getting better at fading from spot to spot. While slower than an agent’s shift, it had its own advantages.
And one day, she’d be able to do it properly.
For those fae races who could fade, it was an ability that you learned to harness while in childhood. It was something you mastered alongside walking, flying, and any other mode of transportation inherent to your people.
But when you grew up with a human father who tried to make you suppress everything fae about yourself…it was like starting the process of learning to walk in your teens.
And now, a decade or more after she’d really started trying to learn the art, she was still barely above the equivalent of toddling around, gripping furniture for balance.
She held the image of the far side of the gym in her mind and rocked her body back a little, like the small movement you’d make to steady yourself from falling.
And with that, she dropped from the normal plane of the world.
She reached up and pulled the blindfold – a strip of fabric from her own skirt – from her eyes and looked forward.
Fae who knew what they were doing could exist almost forever in this step of their fade, but the less experienced you were, the faster the world collapsed around you.
The fade world around her was ephemeral. A space you couldn’t touch and wasn’t solid to the touch, bar where your feet were, and even then, sometimes, it felt like the strange gravity of this not-world wanted to pull them through the cloud-like barriers beneath you.
It was a strange space of clouds, of photo-negative reality, or askew colours and the ghosts of things around the space where you’d disappeared from the world.
People who knew what they were doing could just walk through this space, crossing miles and miles of space with each step, so long as they kept a destination or direction in their mind.
Lower-skilled fae could only keep a very direct, most times very close, destination.
Her lack of long-distance ability didn’t matter most of the time – often, as now, it was simply used to get the drop on someone. Still, hopefully, by the time she had wrinkles that came from age, rather than stress, she could step into the fade, and step out a hundred miles away.
The image of the other side of the gym appeared ahead of her, and around it, the world began to collapse into a tunnel.
She ran forward, chasing the destination before it collapsed and dumped her out partway along the journey.
As she got closer to the telescoping end of the tunnel, partial, ghostly images of the sims appeared, and amongst them, one tall, welcome visitor.
She stepped around the back of Grigori, spun the knife in her hand, broke out of the fade, and stabbed him in the kidney.
Grigori’s familiar, larger-than-life laughter filled the gym, then strong hands grabbed her and threw her to the ground in front of him.
She kicked out, swept his legs from under him, and then launched herself onto his supine form, legs spread as she sat on his broad chest.
‘On your back is always a good look for you,’ she said, matching his grin.
‘Always a pleasure, Mags,’ he said, shifted from under her, then offered a hand down to her.
She stood and watched the weird, sweet moment of Grigori greeting Taylor. This time it was a simple hug, but each and every interaction between the two were memories to treasure.
Some people were puzzles inside of enigmas inside of puns wrapped around mazes.
Taylor was layers of walls and moats and defences.
She knew she had scaled most of those walls – so much closer to him than anyone else in their Agency.
Grigori faced none of the defences.
They couldn’t be more different when viewed from the outside. Taylor, solitary, words measured and rare. On the other hand, Grigori was the immediate life of any room he walked into, a gregarious party onto himself, with a family that carried the backbone of the gutted Russian agencies.
They had a history, long and storied, but so much of it was things she’d had to infer from things Grigori had said.
A few quiet words passed between the agents, and they started to spar.
Content they’d be bruising each other for at least half an hour, she moved to sit on the bleachers and work on their new and novel problem.
And it didn’t escape her notice that Grigori’s visit was suspiciously well-timed.
More questions to be asked. Questions that this time, hopefully, would get something closer to a real answer.
Taylor had died and come back. That much she knew and had known for a long time. However, the circumstances around it were above even her paygrade as an aide; and they weren’t a story that Taylor had ever offered.
And it wasn’t her place to dig into it – his secrets were his to hold, even if knowing what had happened would likely help her serve him better.
Now, under their Agency roof, they had another person who’d survived kicking the bucket – and today was to be their first scheduled meeting to put forward Combat’s contributions to Mimosa’s full augmentation.
It was going to be interesting for a few reasons. While there had been plenty of partial augmentations during her time as aide, there’d never been the circumstances for someone to get a full upgrade.
And while partial augmentation was most often a seamless process, something that was little more than Jones clicking a few permissions sliders, agentification was far more complex and needed a lot more tweaking.
On top of that, there were endless questions about how the mirror was going to interact with Mimosa’s blue and the delicate balancing act that it was going to take to bring her into line with general agent parameters.
And, far more mundanely, was the problem of how to cater Combat testing and QA to a nerd that belonged in a lab coat running code with Screen, rather than cosplaying the MIB’s “bring your kid to work day”.
New problems, new solutions, a hundred things she’d accounted for, a hundred that she hadn’t.
She stared at the latest drawing that Merlin had stuck into the back pocket of her work folder – an attempt at a chibified version of herself, resplendent in crayon and pencil.
And whenever she didn’t look directly at it, the tip of the knife that the chibi held glinted just a little.
She’d worried the first time she’d noticed the little touch of magic – usually, any of the little gifts that he gave her that hinted that he was anything other than a traumatised child were things to be cherished but hidden away.
Merlin needed to be protected. He’d already been hurt too much in his life.
But Merlin had been the one to stick the drawing in the folder, and that meant that he was aware of what he was doing, aware of the risk, or…perhaps had just made the little bit of magic work just for her. Maybe anyone else who saw it would simply think it was some glitter.
Maybe and maybe and maybe. For now, he was safe.
She spared a look at the two sparring agents. Somehow, mysteriously, Grigori’s shirt had come off, and sweaty muscles were catching the gym’s fluorescent lights as he tried to grab Taylor in a headlock.
Whatever was stirring under Taylor’s calm visage, whatever was going to happen, she was glad of the back-up.