There were moments in life when things changed. Checkpoints that you couldn’t go back on. Words, that once said, couldn’t be taken back.
Magnolia walked down the left-most hall of the primary Tech floor, boots sounding on the white linoleum tiles. Jones was in her office, at least according to the WTFA app, which could be counted on at least ninety percent of the time.
The other ten percent was when agents essentially used a personal VPN to hide their location from recruits, good for those “don’t fucking bother me” moments.
Normally, she’d approach Jones with an intent to bother, no matter how the Tech was feeling.
For the first couple of years at this Agency, she’d had a relatively cordial relationship with Jones – despite what stupid, outdated “jocks vs nerds” dynamic some people wanted to foist onto the departments, most soldiers appreciated what their scholars did.
Combat couldn’t operate alone, and Tech weaved information into actionable intel. They needed each other.
Field could suck her entire ass though. Every Agency everywhere always seemed to give unearned reverence to Field, somehow, despite what actual data existed, it was always seen as the golden child department.
After Merlin had come along though, her dynamic with Jones had changed pretty much overnight.
She’d been on the assignment that had raided the house of Merlin’s parents, had been the one to hear crying coming from under a cardboard box, and been the one to carry a filth-caked child from that house of horrors.
Jones wasn’t the only one who’d do nearly anything to protect Merlin. And she was proving that every day.
Merlin could…do things. The full extent of it was something she didn’t want to know, all she did know was that he was a lot more powerful than the Agency knew, and one of his many, many powers was somehow keeping his secrets, despite the Agency being so capable with surveillance that Orwell would have shat himself to death from fear and anger.
He could read minds. He could walk through walls. He could manipulate emotions. None of that was sanctioned. None of that was on the record. And if it came out that she’d known from the first week the boy had been within Agency walls, the very least that would happen would that she’d lose her rank and title and be kicked out without a compensation package.
And still, despite that risk, she sometimes felt like Jones would willingly arrange an accident so that there was one less person who could blab to Central.
So many people treated Jones like she was a perfect, uwu bean who’d never done a thing wrong in her life.
So many people had never heard the phrase “beware the quiet ones”.
A couple of Tech recruits approached, deep in conversation about something. One stopped, smiled, yanked a yellow flier from a folder and handed it to her, then both recruits continued on. Magnolia looked down at the flier – it was just a simple, clip-art heavy announcement of the next movie night.
She carefully folded it and put it into the lower left pocket of her BDU pants. Her outfit right now was simple – blue combat pants and a black tank top. If what she hoped for was going to come to pass – if what she feared was going to come to pass – then going in, feeling cute AF wasn’t the right headspace to be in.
A lot of people didn’t understand her fashion choices. It rarely mattered, so long as they listened her to her orders and respected her position. Compliance was more useful than understanding.
Being able to be cute, being able to dress as she pleased, this was just another way that she was finally being allowed to be every facet of herself.
Her dad had always been so paranoid about someone finding out about her fae heritage that he’d always made her dress in multiple layers, no matter the event or temperature. An extra singlet or t-shirt under her school uniform, a jacket when they went shopping, even multiple layers when she was playing with the hose and inflatable pool in whatever tiny yard they’d had.
It had been protective, and really the only way they could keep her safe – whereas now her feathers tended to grow at relatively predictable rates, when she’d been a child, sometimes they’d just shoot straight out, something that had led to her having to excuse herself from class multiple times, running to the bathroom to stick a bandaid over the little bloody slit from which the feather had emerged.
Of course, this had led to rumours at every school she’d attended that she needed to piss a lot, so nicknames and fights had always followed.
So being able to wear black and white, or to show off her feathers – sometimes tied into her hair one by one, sometimes grouped like a small fasinator, was ongoing proof that she was allowed to be herself.
The door to Jones’ office was open, she knocked anyway.
‘I can already tell you want someone,’ Jones said, a half-empty Starbucks cup in her hand. ‘Is it going to take long? I have a raid in twenty minutes.’ On the main monitor behind Jones, some game was running, and a dozen characters were running in circles, emoting and dancing.
‘Depends how quickly you can do your job,’ she said, and closed the door behind her.
Professional. Neutral. That’s how it had to start, even if it wasn’t going to end that way.
Magnolia walked across the office, and leaned on the long bench that sat in the middle of the room, rested her weight on her elbows, and stared at Jones. ‘I need a search done, of all the files to which my access has been changed, altered, upgraded, or granted in the past week.’
‘Including or excluding files which themselves have changed, because that could be thousands.’
‘Exclude for now. Just new, upgraded or altered access.’
‘If you tell me what you’re looking for…’ Jones said as she turned, and started to enter the search parameters on her lower-left monitor.
‘If it’s there, you’ll know what I’m looking for.’
‘All right, but-’ Jones stopped talking as the search results started to appear. The Tech’s entire posture changed, withering from happy gamer mode to something haunted and broken in the course of a couple of seconds.
Hope and fear had a head-on collision. ‘I take it that it’s there then.’
Jones lifted a headset and aimed the mic towards her face. ‘Someone call in Alfie to heal, I’ve got to drop.’ Jones let the headset clatter to the desk as she dropped it and the game immediately disappeared from the middle monitor, replaced with the search results.
‘What do you know already?’ Jones asked without turning, head half-bowed, still staring at the monitor.
‘An outline. Not detail. You resurrected him. Or you tried to. You-’
The half-drunk frappe sailed past her head. ‘Do you think there’s anything you could possibly say to me that I haven’t thought a hundred thousand times? Do you think your hate would outweigh my regret?’
‘You still did it. You must have known-’
‘People think with their hearts, Magnolia. As good a front as you put up, as many people who think you’re some heartless bitch, you’re not free from the emotionality that leads to… It took longer for the barista to make my drink than for- I wasn’t around when Director Reynolds was taken, I don’t know how things changed after that. I do know that this day, when Taylor died, when Ryan killed Carol, when- That was the day this Agency fell apart. It’s hard to put into words how much was lost. I know what I was ordered to do. I know, in hindsight, that I should have refused. But I would have done anything to reverse those couple of minutes. Even- I was coding with blood on my hands because I couldn’t think straight enough to clean them. I think we just all- We hoped, even though the numbers were against us. Thought maybe enough of him would survive that it would be okay. Thought if we boosted with external copies of memories that, even if they were from the wrong perspective, it could fill the gaps a little.’
‘You could have stopped. It’s like cheating, it’s not one mistake. It’s doubling down and down and down when you know it’s wrong.’
‘Hope isn’t sensible. Sometimes, things do beat the odds.’ Jones pulled her glasses from her face and wiped them with a corner of her lab coat. After a moment of silence, Jones stood and laid a tablet on the bench, a copy of the search results displayed. ‘Archive sim’s at the top. I hope- We’re not perfect, none of us are perfect. It was a mistake, and we all have to live with it.’
No. He had to live with it, the rest of them got to make some peace with it and move on. None of them were being forever judged against a dead man.
And she hated how much she understood. Hated how, much as she liked to act sensibly, act with a clear purpose that came from listening to what was the most sensible course of action, that on a bad enough day, she could make the same choice that she was chewing Jones out for.
For every strength it gave, love punched a hole in common sense.
As much as she understood, the blame was still placed at the feet of the blameless.
‘It’s not his fault he’s not who he used to be.’
‘Hate isn’t sensible either,’ Jones said, shame heavy in her voice. ‘I wish there was something I could say. To you, to him, to myself, that would fix this, that would ratchet up the contrast so that good and bad are much more obvious. I can’t do that. I can’t stop seeing a stranger wearing the face of my friend, of someone I loved. I wish I could say that if I had my time over again I wouldn’t do it. We did what we did from a place of love.’
‘Love and shit are worth the shit. Love’s nothing without action.’
‘We’re not friends, Magnolia. Even so, I hope that one day, when you make a mistake as monumentous as this, that you can find the peace that has so far escaped me.’
‘He is a good agent, and none of you see that.’
‘A good agent is one thing, a good man is another. Your Taylor, he’s sent you to the Parkers with broken bones and stab wounds, like you’re nothing more than a training dummy.’
‘We train, so we can keep you all alive. He’s not abusing me; he’s not getting off on it.’
‘He didn’t used to train his recruits that way. He had-’
‘Some dead combat agent had different training methods. Your new combat agent trains his recruits this way. Your combat agent’s aide appreciates being made into a better and better recruit.’
‘I miss him. I don’t want to apologise for that.’
‘People miss Samuels, I would imagine. They don’t begrudge you for existing.’
Jones, predictably had no response to this.
She stared down at the tablet, at the search results, at the sims that would let her see what had happened, how some stranger had died, and pushed it back towards Jones. ‘I don’t need this,’ she said, the words becoming true as she said them. ‘I don’t need to mourn for a stranger.’