Magnolia stared into the bathroom mirror and wrinkled her nose. She’d gotten about an hour more of sleep than average but felt worse for it. More rest was good, but it had been some less-than-optimal arrangement of REM cycles.
Nothing she couldn’t handle.
She tapped her phone, swiped into the apps and opened the little custom app Screen had built, where her bestie-with-benefits built her a new playlist each week.
Some kind of alt-rock with a female vocalist started, moody and uplifting in that perfect early-2000s kind of way.
She discarded her shorts and cami and then began a body check. There’d been a few wounds not worth going to the Parkers over – each had healed nicely and could be moved down to one more day of single-layer patches as a precaution. Feathers – nothing that needed clipping.
Face. Fine. She’d remembered to take off her makeup before sleeping. Hair. Messy, but fixed with a requirement.
Situation normal. An adequate start to the morning.
She required herself into just a simple sleeveless top and combat pants and sheathed her knife. After another moment of reflection, she nodded to the mirror, picked up her phone and returned to the main room of the studio apartment she called home.
Her workbook lay open on her bed, and a half-drunk pre-workout smoothie was on her bedside table.
She’d worked to rebalance the schedule for the rest of the week. Now that their work with Mimosa was taking a break for Jones to fix some code so that the- Every time she thought of Mimosa, she still thought of her as a “recruit”. Agent or not, holding enough mirror to end the world or not, the girl just…projected “tech recruit that needs protection” energy.
Various things in the project timeline could be brought forward, especially if she could wrangle O’Conor’s help. With O’Connor’s new role as Aide and Ryan’s obvious want for everything Mimosa-related to go well, getting a few hours of O’Connor’s time wasn’t likely to be an issue.
She sent a quick message over Vox but knew he wouldn’t see it for at least a couple of hours. The Agency at four AM was home to only a few night owls, which suited her just fine. It always made her feel like she was somehow seeing the behind-the-scenes version of the Agency. People were just more authentic versions of themselves with fewer eyes on them.
Out of habit, she opened the WTFA app just to check on everyone.
Taylor was in his gym. Already awake and active, either doing his own warmups or preparing whatever drills he wanted to run with her that morning.
Ryan was in his office, probably asleep on his couch. It was something Jones had told her once, something she found strange to this day, that a man alive for over a century had no outside residence, not even a bedroom attached to his office.
It made his life seem so…empty. That the most he could hope for at the end of the day was to catch a few hours of sleep in the office where he spent most of his day anyway. A self-imposed minimalisation of his world.
Even Taylor had a bed. Even if it was a rough, no-frills, function over form army cot, he had a bed. He made some routine of his night.
She allowed herself a moment to think of him, naked but for a blanket, then tucked the thought away.
Jones was in her office, probably still awake. Jones didn’t often sleep; instead, running all the processes that ran during a sleep cycle slowed background operations throughout the day. It wasn’t as efficient, and sometimes, she did need to actually take time and fully defragment her brain or whatever. Still, it kept Jones going for twenty-four hours most days of any given month.
Taylor’s location changed.
Magnolia blinked as she reread the new location – the project lab, Mimosa’s current location.
This was unusual. Taylor tried to avoid all locations he saw as belonging to “the Scholar”, and to her knowledge, he’d never had the inclination to talk to Mimosa outside of a few gruff instructions aimed at the remote-piloted body to position it for their tests.
This was a long way outside of expected behaviour.
She tapped her thumbs together for a moment, weighing options in her mind. She had aide access to all of the building’s security systems. More than aide access in some cases, as she’d helped design and redesign several of their “end of the world” or “massive Solstice invasion” contingencies which involved turning their Agency into a self-contained fortress that could outlive almost anything other than Sol himself.
So pulling up the live feed from the project lab would just be one requirement and a few clicks.
She made the requirement. She held back on the few clicks.
It would be an invasion of privacy. He wasn’t there to talk to Mimosa, agent or not; she slept later than most of the day shift recruits. It had pretty much become one of O’Connor’s official jobs as aide to pull Mimosa into consciousness each morning. Not an ideal situation, one that could likely be improved with time and maybe a bit of code tweaking from Jones.
It was an invasion of privacy to look.
It was her job to look after her commander. To know what he was thinking so she could act appropriately. And, even for how good she was at predicting him, at knowing what he’d do in any given circumstance, the fact that she had no idea why he was visiting a tech lab in the wee, dark hours of the morning didn’t sit comfortably with her.
For as much as Grigori had been worried at the outset of the project, there hadn’t been a lot of changes she’d noticed. Taylor had been…a little more distracted than usual, but that happened sometimes.
She knew how he’d act, how to back him up in a fight, and what he needed from her. Still, she’d long since accepted that she didn’t know his innermost thoughts, that as much as they’d die for each other, there was still a wall that he hid so much of himself behind.
If she was something more to him, then maybe she’d know more, but as his recruit, as his adjunct, she had to work with what she had.
It was her job to look after him.
She tapped on the freshly-required tablet and brought up the project lab’s security feed. Six angles gave pretty much full coverage of the space – all in HD, all with indicators that showed they were falsely projecting full brightness and colour, as most of the lab’s lights were out.
Under a halo of what had to be one of the only turned-on lights, Taylor stood near a bench, looking down at a selection of Jones’ reports and equipment.
Given what had happened the day before, they had to be reports about the after-effects of Mimosa’s heart getting damaged, and the weird, wonderfully-gay-looking-rainbow-freakout that her body had gone through.
On a separate tablet, she brought up copies of the reports.
She skimmed down each one to find Jones’ handy translation notes, which skipped all the techy details and numbers to say that Mimosa was, according to every metric they could measure, just as fine as she’d been before her heart had gotten splintered all over the floor of Taylor’s gym.
Crucially, it listed a note that there didn’t seem to be any cognitive – or memory – impairments, and everything about Taylor’s actions clicked.
Immediately, she dismissed both tablets and felt like she’d intruded on something private. Something that, although she was privy to the information, still didn’t feel like something she entirely had the right to engage with.
Memories. Of course, he’d be looking to see if her memory had been impacted.
The thing that made him not the old Taylor was the near-total memory loss. He literally couldn’t be the man he used to be, not with so much of his life stolen from him.
Mimosa’s memories were connected to her heart. Therefore, there had been a chance that what had ended up on the floor would have taken bits and pieces of her childhood or teen years from her.
Grigori had been worried that Mimosa would bring up memories, that she’d trigger comparisons for Taylor and his own situation.
Everything had run smoothly, right up until one test had gone awry.
Now, in the dead of morning, he was checking to see if someone else was facing a life, missing chunks of themselves.
It was quiet, considerate and…kind. The kind of gesture that a lot of recruits would have thought beyond him.
They just didn’t speak his language. Didn’t see that the way he cared was ninety per cent physical. Throwing his body in front of dangers to take a knife or a bullet. Putting his life on the line far more readily than most Combat agents.
And…protecting people before he protected himself.
That was the other thing that had happened the day before. Something she’d filed away to think about but had been distracted by Grigori’s late lunch.
In fairness, water nymphs pulling Cirque du Soleil acts were quite distracting. The food had been good, but the entertainment had been mesmerising.
And, on top of that, the cute off-duty waitress she’d run into a Rose Room with had been sweet and just the right amount of dirty.
Enough distractions to make her forget that Taylor had thrown up shields to protect her and Grigori first, leaving himself exposed to whatever magical onslaught might have come from the mirror.
They’d been lucky that the most it had done was make Mimosa uncomfortable for a few moments. Well, and possibly pulled her brain through several parallel realities.
It had been luck, or maybe some force of will on the not-a-tech-recruit’s part for the mirror not to throw out blobs of offensive mirror magic. Magic that could have permanently altered the world, created blackout spots, or kill whoever had been unlucky enough to be in the way.
And Taylor had been willing to bear the brunt of that. He’d risked death, and things stranger than death, to protect the people around him.
It was noble. It was heartwarming. It was, if you looked at it from just a slight angle, a death wish.
It was easy to rationalise away. Requirements could only be processed so quickly. Near instantaneous was still an amount of time that could be measured. If the mirror had thrown out a blackout zone, then it was possible that not all the requirements in a macro would be fulfilled – even if they were programmed to appear in parallel rather than series.
If there had been a blackout, it was possible only one shield might have had the time to generate in that split second, and he’d increased the chances of either her or Grigori being saved rather than all three of them going down.
But there hadn’t been a blackout, so there would have been time for a third shield.
Two made sense under normal circumstances – almost everything they did was just the two of them – but the fact that the second shield had gone to Grigori had meant that, if it was a macro, and it surely was, then he’d purposely deprioritised himself. Handing out parachutes, even when there wasn’t enough to save himself.
Combat recruits tended to be more cavalier with their lives than other departments. They knew the stats and that there was a good chance they’d die within the first ten years of their service. Combat agents were the same, even if their expected lifespan was much longer than the recruits under them. However, they were still replaced at a much higher rate than any other speciality.
But sometimes, Taylor seemed like he was courting death.
Her knife, her most treasured possession, was proof of that.
It was a weapon capable of killing an agent, and he’d given it to her when she’d still had murder, and not love, in her eyes.
If he was a normal man, or anything approaching a normal man, there might be fewer barriers protecting his inner thoughts. Fewer walls that she couldn’t scale, but on this side of the masquerade, nothing was simple.
Maybe, in another decade, she’d feel brave enough to venture over one of the moats that surrounded his heart. If she lived that long.
On her phone, the WTFA app updated again, showing that he’d shifted back to his gym.
She opened the clock and set a timer for fifteen minutes. Enough so that it didn’t look like she’d been waiting for him to get back to his gym. Enough so that, hopefully, he wouldn’t know she’d been spying on him.
She sighed, picked up her smoothie, and started deleting emails, filling the time until she could leave and be with the man she loved.