03 - Mirrorshades

05 – Stories, Secrets

Screen had described the sim as a haven for discerning frogs, and it wasn’t hard to see why.

Magnolia adjusted herself so that her head was propped on folded arms, giving her a view out into the strategically-lit caverns.

Water dripped in a manner specifically programmed to relax whoever was listening. The large pool in the centre had a waterfall that ran gently, and despite appearances, none of the surfaces were ever slippery under your feet.

And in direct opposition to half of her DNA coming from a bird, there was something calming about being in an enclosed space.

The masseuse sim worked on her shoulders, making the occasional scripted comment about how knotted her muscles were and that she really should make relaxation a bigger part of her routine.

Two mandated hours of doing something for herself were already enough to push at the comfortable margins of error she’d built into her schedule.

But Jane had been right, she needed it. Even if that was a thought she kept so quiet that even Merlin wouldn’t be able to hear it.

It felt selfish. It was selfish. Every moment that a sim was massaging her, or every time she dipped into a clear ocean, alone but for the sounds of gulls was a moment she wasn’t preparing for the next battle. The next asshole to wave a gun in her direction. Seconds she wasn’t spending anticipating the next stupid issue that would ruin her commander’s day.

And the first time it became an issue, the first time she was caught with her pants literally or metaphorically around her ankles, it would be the end of Magnolia’s Relaxation Time T-M.

She never brought her workbook into any of her sims. That was the one hard and fast rule she’d made for herself.

Her phone, on the other hand, was something she allowed.

As a compromise, it was set to her custom Urgent-Only profile, which would keep the bullshit at bay whilst alerting her to anything that she really needed to be aware of in real time.

So far, with twenty-seven whole minutes of relaxation done, there’d been no emergencies.

A couple of taps changed the playlist that was being piped through the ambient speakers, and she closed her eyes, allowing the masseuse to grumble gently at her arms.

Thirty minutes.

Half-sketched ideas of recruit reviews and scheduled changes passed through her mind.

Forty minutes.

‘Fuck this.’

This was the worst part, and it happened every single time.

It was stressful to relax. Stressful when there were a hundred other things she should be doing. Stressful knowing that this was one of them, but that she wasn’t properly engaging with the task.

And thinking of relaxation as a task was probably the start of what was wrong.

She forced herself to relax, letting out a breath so long it tested her lung capacity, made sure to let out the tension in her jaw and give herself over to the experience.

And for a few blessed moments, she did relax.

Her phone chimed.

{Mind if I join you?}

Grigori. At least this was somewhat expected. She sent back a simple thumbs-up, then shooed the masseuse away and sat up.

A requirement adjusted her hair so it was piled atop her head, and another gave her a simple black bikini.

She stood, walked away from the massage beds, and started down the rock steps into the large, cool pool as Grigori, more naked than the day he was born, quickly followed her.

His nudity meant very little. When it came to Grigori, it was practically a neutral descriptor. He was comfortable with his body, clothed or unclothed, and he welcomed all looks of appreciation.

And she enjoyed looking, but it had long since passed being a mystery, so it wasn’t something that commanded her full attention.

He fully submerged himself for a moment and then, with a few smooth movements, swam to the large, rounded rocks that served as a comfortable place to sit and converse.

No words came immediately – something that rang loudly that this wasn’t going to be a simple, light conversation or a quickie between good friends.

She waded to the waterfall, tipped her head back, and let the constant, gentle pressure engulf her for a moment.

‘He still hasn’t told you anything, has he?’

The words broke through, even despite the noise of the waterfall.

‘No,’ she said as she stepped out of the spray.

This wasn’t exactly an old conversation, as every time it happened, it was different. Ever-changing permutations, even if their lines in the sand stayed pretty much where they’d initially been drawn.

Taylor had died. Taylor had come back, and Ryan had been the one to instigate his resurrection. And Taylor had come back…wrong, was so far from the man who had died as to be a completely different person.

A summary. The most surface of details. Vague to the point of uselessness.

And something she’d long ago made peace with not knowing. Even knowing this much were things told to her by others, not facts offered up by Taylor.

A lot of people talked about him, more than spoke to him. And it was easy to intuit which version of the man they preferred, and it wasn’t the redhead whose silent form occupied a sizable percentage of her spank bank.

Grigori had always wanted to tell her more. Well, once he’d realised how much she’d cared for his best friend.

It had been Grigori dropping the term “best friend” that had been a record-scratch moment in her early recruit career. Words said with obvious and genuine affection, aimed at a man who most of her own Agency treated like some kind of ambulatory weapon of war.

As good as she was about keeping her cards close to her chest, it had taken some time for her own affection towards Taylor to filter through to Grigori and longer still for him to bring her into his confidence.

And that initial conversation, when he’d first asked what she’d known about Taylor, had been far more intimate than the dozen or so times they’d fucked during his previous visits.

He’d given her the summary slowly. Each word pulled slowly, their care telling her that there was so much story behind every syllable.

Grigori had left her to sit with the information for a while, then, not in so many words, had asked if it had changed anything, had changed her feelings, or her intentions.

It hadn’t changed them, but it had complicated them – or at least made her realise that the situation was more complicated.

If it hadn’t been love at that time, it had become that in the intervening years. Had become a love she’d kill or die for. Had become central to every moment of her life, even if it was an affection unlikely to be returned.

Her feelings were her problem.

Whether or not her commander felt the same or could even feel the same way had no material impact on how she approached interactions with him.

In a closer-to-perfect world, there’d be a chance for change.

‘You still want to wait to hear it from him, don’t you?’

She nodded.

‘Even if it’s for his own good?’

This wasn’t an angle he’d pushed before. Usually, it was just from the point of view that she should know, that it would help her understand the reaction some people had to him and would give her the key to unscrambling some of the unspoken stress in their Agency.

Never because it could be of benefit to him.

Ever since he’d appeared in the gym, she’d been running scenarios in her head. With everything going on, his timing couldn’t be a coincidence.

It wasn’t an anniversary or anything like that. None of his previous visits seemed to line up like this, so that spoke to the circumstances rather than the date.

Two possibilities loomed large. One, that it was related to mirror, but she’d discounted this, as it would have necessitated a visit closer to the mirrorfall itself, not coming in the wake of…well, Mimosa waking up.

And on the mirrorfall night, Taylor had been Taylor, acting pretty much where her expectations had been, working without any visible trauma response.

That dovetailed into a more specific idea – that a mirror-powered individual had been involved.

The second was that it had been a relatively new agent – or augment – that had been responsible.

Five words stuck in her throat. Five words that would be ridiculous if heard by anyone other than the two people in this room. ‘I want to protect him.’

‘I know.’

‘It’s his story to tell, Grigori. But- What do I need to know to keep him safe?’

More words that would be stupid if heard by any other recruit. Taylor was a brick shithouse that you threw at problems, not someone who needed help.

Everyone needed help. Even her commander.

Disappointment was writ large across Grigori’s face, but he relented after a moment. ‘It isn’t the same, it’s not history repeating, but it’s two tracks running close together. I don’t know how he’s going to react to this situation. This child is a spectre, representing far more than herself.’

‘How much history is repeating itself?’


‘Are you going to be here?’

‘As much as I can. My family can handle almost anything on their own.’

‘Give me a head’s up when you can?’

‘As much as I can,’ he said again. ‘Most of the time, I don’t feel the absence of Reynolds. I liked the man, but I’m carrying the memories of so many others, I have to let some go.’

‘I know,’ she said quietly.

This was another part of Grigori that few outside of his admittedly large family saw. Regular recruits just saw a jovial man who would flirt with anyone. Even younger agents, privy to the information, rarely saw its impact.

Any agent who’d lived through it knew enough to leave the topic untouched unless it was initiated by Grigori himself.

Of all the agents specifically generated for Russia, Grigori was the only one remaining.

He was the only agent who’d had to witness and grieve for an entire country’s worth of colleagues and friends.

In the end, it had been worth it – at least, that was the line everyone repeated. One agent, no Solstice – a bitter pyrrhic victory that had kept his land free of Solstice for decades.

And as far as the country went, even Central was hesitant to tell Grigori how to run things – bowing to him on almost every matter.

In the time since no agents had been generated to replace the dead – any agent that was there now was either a fully-augmented former recruit or someone whom Grigori had asked to transfer in.

And when you were the one carrying that unimaginable grief on your back, it was understandable that there were some losses that you had to accept, and it was easy to see how former Director Reynolds fell into that category.

The man wasn’t even technically dead from what she understood, just…unlikely to ever walk the halls of any Agency ever again.

That was another story where a hurried summary was as much as most knew.

But whatever was going on, it would have been a boon to have Reynolds in Taylor’s corner. As useless as most fathers could be, Grigori had given her the impression that Reynolds had been one of the good ones over the years.

Grigori cupped her face and gave her a long, warm kiss on the cheek, then rested his forehead against hers. ‘We will keep him safe. It’s what you do for those you love.’

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This . . . .

It’s good to get in Magnolia’s head sometimes. We hadn’t seen as much of that at this point in previous versions. And Grigori actually vulnerable? Oh my. He was so glib when he spoke of past in previous versions.

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