Taylor shifted slightly, the dried blood on his knee making his pants stick as he adjusted his position against the wall.
It was quiet. Always quiet. He hated the quiet. Hated how still the dead man was. Hated that no matter how many times he came here, history never changed.
He settled, back straight, knees up, the head of the dead man near his left foot. He couldn’t stop looking at the dead man, at the strip of white cloth he’d used to cover the man’s eyes, and the blood was wicking up from the cold floor, staining the shroud.
It was silent. The same stillness that hung in the locked, disconnected section of the Agency that held the Director’s office. A dead man, and a sleeping man, both surrounded by silence.
Reynolds wouldn’t have approved of what Ryan had done. Would approve of what he was going to do. It would add efficiency to the Agency. More than that, it would bring the Agency closer to what it had been when it had been…good.
Whatever it was now, it wasn’t “good”. Reynolds’ sacrifice had started it. Ryan’s mistake had finished it.
When Mimosa’s mirror had shattered on his gym floor, the area had been quarantined whilst the Scholar did their work. Grigori had insisted on downtime. A meal. A performance. Things Grigori hoped he would enjoy. For the sake of his friend, he had compiled.
On return, he had expected- H- Expected that some sort of scan would have found the mirror only hidden by boot rubber.
The Scholar had kept the work contained to the obvious area and had not searched beyond.
Efficient work. Not thorough work.
Still wearing the outfit Grigori had chosen for him, he had taken the boots from his desk and extracted the mirror.
Moving like mercury, the small shards and ground-glass-fine specks had flowed into a puddle in his palm. It was a little larger than a five-cent piece – and it was as five cents that a tangible wish was now disguised, sitting in an internal pocket of his coat, the pull of magic begging to be used.
If he concentrated, it faintly smelt like sugar.
He had waited. More than fifty hours. Scholar reports indicated Mimosa was fine. No evident memory loss. No change in behaviours or attitudes. Nothing that wasn’t consistent with her…inconsistent behaviour.
Anecdotal reports backed up the Scholar’s empirical work. Magnolia had noticed no changes. Mimosa had experienced no downsides from the accidental shatter. Jones had much larger recovered pieces in storage.
No adverse effects from the loss. He was safe to proceed. Could correct a mistake without replacing it with another. Wouldn’t be condemning someone else to the life he had unwillingly inhabited for two decades.
He hadn’t had a choice in dying or in living again. In what had happened to him at all.
A good man had died, and the people around him had wanted him back. And what had come instead was- Was something he could now correct. Could give everyone what they wanted. Correct a mistake that should never have been made.
More of the dead man’s blood soaked into his pants as he sat in the memory.
He had gone to see Reynolds, had sat in the empty, dusty office, and been unable to say anything. Sometimes. Often. He could say something to Reynolds. Give a report, even though the man couldn’t hear him. Maintain a relationship that he’d never truly had. Keep it for the sake of the dead man.
In the recovered data, in what he had of the dead man, there were some memories of Reynolds.
There was the memory of the night he’d gone away. That there’d been no goodbye, no last words. Ryan, weeping in the street, illuminated by dim, fuzzy street lamps under a starless sky, telling him the world was saved, but their father was gone.
Telling the dead man that their father was gone.
He respected Reynolds – and gave him the title he refused to give Ryan – but like so many of the people the dead man had known, it was a relationship that had to be rebuilt from almost nothing. Impossible when one party was unable to contribute.
Blood crawled up the shroud. The mirror pulled on him to make a wish. Time passed.
In Reynold’s office, he had thought of using the wish to wake the Director, but there was too much risk.
Of all the agents and fae taken as hostages by Sol, none had been woken, despite desperate attempts by some of the families.
It wasn’t known what would happen if one of the victims were reclaimed, but as their lives had been part of a deal that had saved the world, any risk to that was beyond any reward.
Correcting Ryan’s mistake wouldn’t be as good as returning Reynolds, but it was the best use for the stolen wish.
His HUD alerted him that someone was requesting access to the sim – Grigori.
This had happened before. He never let Grigori in. No point in Grigori seeing his weakness.
In making his friend relive this.
Not letting him in avoided conversations. Questions.
Questions that would no longer exist if he followed through on the plan.
He allowed the intrusion.
‘I keep an eye on this sim,’ Grigori said as he came into view after a minute, ‘I know when you run it, how often you make yourself relive it.’ Grigori said beside him, mirroring his position precisely. ‘Are you- How do I make you stop living here?’
A question he’d had in mind for over a decade now seemed impossible.
Grigori didn’t push or ask for clarification on his half-formed inquiry.
It wasn’t an answer he wanted.
It wasn’t something he needed to know.
The answer would no longer matter when the dead man returned.
The question was always there. What to call himself. What to call the dead man. Where “he” and “I” and the nuances in-between began and ended. He had died, but the question remained if “he” was self or if “he” was other.
It was easier for templates. That was just…heritage. Traits handed down like a human inheriting a behaviour from a parent. They had guidelines. Others with the same experience. He was alone.
He felt the loss like “he” was “I”, easy when the clearest memories from the dead man were the moments of that death. Of helplessness. Failure. Fear.
Templates could inherit an instinctual knowledge of a city, feet tracing paths their former had tread for a hundred years. His first and core memories were of the end of a life. What it felt like to die.
Soon, it wouldn’t matter, but clarity on who he was, where the lines were drawn, might have made things easier.
The dead man – the man who would soon be walking again – didn’t need this answer. This conversation. Whoever he was, whatever he was, wanted to ask the question. Whatever of him wasn’t the dead man needed to know.
The answer was obvious. The answer was why he’d taken the mirror. The answer was every look on every face he’d received for two decades.
‘If you had to choose. Who.’
Beside him, Grigori’s breath hitched, then he sighed.
Something in the way he reacted- As inevitable as asking this question had been, answering it had been equally inescapable. ‘I wish I could pretend I didn’t know what you meant. What can I- What do you want me to say?’
The exact words didn’t matter. It was the answer he’d expected. Every look. Every comment. The dead man was wanted, he wasn’t.
Grigori’s hand laid on his. ‘We don’t talk about this. You never want to talk about this. You will allow me to answer before you condemn my words. I know my answer, I think you know my answer, but it is not…without context. And don’t walk away before you allow me to-’
Friends could speak at funerals. This conversation, and one more, was all that would mark the correction of a mistake.
‘I-’ Grigori’s hand squeezed his. ‘Not here. Not here.’
A shift request appeared. He accepted it. The dead hall of the dead man disappeared, and his gym, lights dim, appeared. A few lights clicked on as Grigori paced, then the rest, bringing the room up to full brightness.
He sat on the lowest level of the bleachers and waited for words he had expected for a long time.
‘You don’t remember me. You don’t remember us. You have files of the missions we took together and photos I’ve shared with you, but you don’t remember decades and decades of friendship. Love. You were my oldest and best friend. I lost- You know what I lost. What the Solstice took from me. And I still had you. I lost children. Spouses. Hope, sometimes. And I still had you.’ He stopped pacing, turned, and walked over to take Taylor’s face in his hands. ‘And then you died. A glitch. A fucking glitch, and my Earth fell from its orbit.’
Grigori knelt before him, hands still on his face. ‘Jones opened your eyes again, and I knew from that first second it wasn’t you. You didn’t love me when you looked at me. You didn’t remember the thousands of times we’d fucked, or the totality of years we’d spent in conversation, silence, and the deepest friendship I have to this day not surpassed.’
Grigori’s hands slipped from his face, and his friend sat heavily beside him, slumping gracelessly, tears on his cheeks.
He had expected- Something. Not this. Not as much as this.
Grigori and the dead man had been close, best friends. That had been made clear from the day he’d first awoken – reawoken – awoken – in the Scholar’s lab. This description, however. More than expected. More than accounted for.
As little as he meant, the dead man had meant so much.
Grigori crying beside him, the disc of mirror pulsing with each heartbeat, the question had finally been resolved. The delineation point discovered.
‘I am not him.’ Words. Out loud for the first time. Part of a decision. ‘I can never be him. Even if it is expected. Wanted. I am not him.’
A thousand small details made them two separate men. Differences he had always viewed as flaws. As failing to live up to “himself”. But so many of the differences were inconsequential. The way they wore their uniforms. The way they tied their shoes. The drinks the dead man liked and the ones he tolerated.
They shared a face, but he was no more the dead man than Ryan was Rhys or any other templated agent was their former.
One question answered. He was not the dead man.
Peace. Some kind of peace. A resolution for the mistake before correction.
‘I tried not to expect him of you,’ Grigori said and took a swig from a flask. ‘You were innocent. You had the face of someone I loved, and I was a stranger to you. I wanted- Him.’ The words were choked out, shame evident and heavy. ‘I still miss him. I still love him. I want to hear his laugh again. But I can’t. And nothing I was feeling was fair to you. So I had to mourn while I was smiling. Had to meet this new man, had to hope he’d want me in his life.’
Effort. Too much effort for someone who wasn’t the dead man.
He could question it. Could ask why someone would bother, but the answer would be as expected or within the range of expected. The same as Ryan. A familiar face was enough to keep a memory alive. Enough to feel some part of the dead man was still around.
Grigori’s hand touched his again. It wasn’t comfort for him, so he allowed it. What he wanted didn’t matter. A small service to someone who had been kind, even he could do that.
His free hand slid into his pocket, and the mirror squirmed under his fingers as he fished it out, losing all pretence at hiding as a coin. Taylor lifted his hand, palm flat, fingers slightly curled up, and let the mirror pool in his palm.
What had been lost could be returned.
‘I am able. You could be more specific. You know him. I don’t.’
Grigori lifted his head to look at the mirror but made no move towards it.
The pull to wish was there, but he’d grown used to it. It was possible to make a wish by accident. At least, according to popular myth and the plot of many pieces of fae entertainment, it was. Being so close to mirror for so long – longer than most people ever would – he was sure some measure of intent needed to be expressed.
Nothing would happen until he or Grigori willed it to be so.
‘If you’re going to do this, you need to do me a favour first.’
Reflexively, he closed his hand around the pool of mirror, and it retreated into its coin form. Magnolia. He hadn’t noticed her. She’d been there long enough to have the context of the conversation. To know his plan. Understand the implications.
Heavy standard-issue boots slammed into the floor as she strode towards them, angry as she’d been when he’d first recruited her. Instinctively, he felt his body adjust, waiting for an attack, ready to counter if she came at him.
A folder appeared in her hand as she reached them, and she slammed it against his chest, letting the papers fall before he could grab them.
They didn’t need words.
‘My dismissal paperwork,’ she clarified. ‘If you’re doing that,’ she said, spitting the sentence, her eyes flashing towards his closed hand. ‘Do this first.’
Another question without words.
‘You’re intending to- Become him, correct, sir? He’s not my commander. You are. I’ve got no reason to stay if- I work for you, sir. If you died in the line of Duty and Jones made a new Combat agent to replace you, do you think I would serve them? Then why would I serve him?’
‘You’re an exemplary recruit-’
‘Who he wouldn’t want or need.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘I don’t know much about him. Pieces. Indicators. I wouldn’t fit with him.’
Slowly, she looked down at the floor. ‘Why, sir, why?’
He opened his hand to look at the piece of mirror, and its surface rippled as he stared. From there, he looked to Grigori, at the dead man’s friend, who was still fighting for words. ‘So that things can be returned to how they were.’
Correct a mistake. All he was doing was correcting a mistake.
Magnolia stepped forward, closing what distance remained between them and snatched the mirror from his hand. With the same intensity that she threw a knife, she flung it towards the far end of the gym, where it, with an odd bell-like sound, embedded itself into the wall as a small blade.
‘That isn’t how you’d word the wish. How would you word the wish? Sir.’
‘For him to be restored.’
‘And what happens to you?’
‘What. Happens. To. You?’ she asked through gritted teeth.
‘Say that word one more fucking time,’ she said, leaning down, her fists curling at her sides. ‘And before you reprimand me, Agent, I’m not your fucking recruit anymore.’
A pile of paperwork appeared beside him – voluntary resignation, effective immediately. ‘If you’re going to kill yourself, I’m not sticking around to watch.’
She knelt, pulled her knife and its sheath from her boot, and then tossed it onto the resignation papers. A careless action when she’d only ever treated the knife with respect.
‘Better say my name a few more times because as soon as you make that wish, it’s not going to mean anything to you.’ She folded her arms across her chest. ‘Who are you doing this for? Because it’s not for you.’
‘He thinks it’s what everyone wants,’ Grigori said at last.
He couldn’t look at the dead man’s friend. ‘You said you wanted him.’
‘I didn’t say that,’ Grigori said, ‘I very carefully did not say that. I miss him. I still love him. It took time to-’
Magnolia knelt in front of him and looked up to meet his gaze. ‘I want to understand. Please, sir, I want to understand.’
He wanted to touch her face.
It hadn’t been his intent to cause distress.
He had known there would be an adjustment period. Like when a recruit returned to duties after a serious injury or a long break. Adjustment. Not anger. Not distress.
Not the storm of emotions on Magnolia’s face.
‘He died. I am made from him. He is not forgotten. He is missed. I am incomplete. Inferior. A good agent would be restored and no longer grieved.’
‘But you would die. I don’t-’ Magnolia pressed her fingers into her eyes for a few seconds, then blinked rapidly. ‘If you’re bringing him back, then you go away. If you amalgamate, you’re not truly bringing him back, and you don’t do half-measures. So it’s the first, and you die. Everything you are, every opinion, every memory, every fee- Feeling.’
‘We make sacrifices.’
‘No one is asking this of you.’
Not out loud. Not with words. But every time he wasn’t the dead man, it was obvious the trade would be immediate and without regret. Ryan. The Scholar. Grigori. All would make the wish if given a chance.
‘I’m not,’ Grigori said. ‘She’s not. Who else matters to you?’
Magnolia pressed on her eyes again. ‘How can I stop you?’ He looked towards the mirror, but she grabbed his face and turned him back towards her. ‘I’m not an idiot. I know that’s there. I could beat you to it. I could beat you for it. What difference would that make?’
‘Getting rid of that would be a delay. All you’d have to do is shoot Mimosa again. Or wait for the next to fall out of the sky. Or sell Clarke on the black market. You can get your hands on a wish.’ She let go of his chin, and her hand fell onto his knee. ‘How do I stop you from wanting that?’
It didn’t matter what he wanted. Had never mattered.
He hadn’t wanted to be this. Hadn’t wanted to be forever compared to a dead man. To feel lesser. Worthless. Valuable only as a blunt instrument. He existed as a function, not a person. The person he’d been, or never been, or however he was to process his relationship with the real Taylor, was dead, and he was all that remained.
Whatever he was, would be easy to push aside, to make room for the real Taylor.
Magnolia’s reaction made no sense.
Magnolia’s hand was warm on his knee.
It wasn’t a way she’d touched him before.
There were few physical boundaries between them. Between spars, training, first aid and clipping her feathers, they had seen and touched the majority of each other. It was practical.
Touch outside of those categories was rarer. An acknowledgement that they had lived through an event that should have killed them. Or a few of their codewords and signals that necessitated touching each other to communicate a message. A tap on the hand. A brushed forearm. Simple. Quick. Messages that couldn’t be intercepted.
The last time she’d grabbed his face to ensure eye contact had been, as a new recruit, one of her attempts to murder him.
She’d been enraged that he’d been able to treat himself for a punctured lung.
The hand that wasn’t on his knee pressed into her eyes again, her eyes watering from the force she’d applied.
‘I love you,’ she said, her voice cracking on the last word.
Impossible words. Words said with a ferocity that indicated-
People loved the dead man. Not him.
She stood, and he understood that not all the moisture in her eyes was from sheer mechanical pressure.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said and laughed joylessly. ‘This wasn’t something I was ever planning on burdening you with. But if you’re going to be a fucking idiot, then I can indulge too.’ She scratched her head and tugged at one of her braids. ‘For a long time too. This isn’t something I’m pulling out of my arse. Scar just above your left knee. That day? I was bleeding out in a blackout. You came in. Bleeding. For me. And that was the moment.’
‘You…tried to kiss me,’ he said, remembering the moment with ease.
‘That I’m blaming on blood loss because I was not thinking straight, but- You. Dirty. Blood. So fucking beautiful to me. Bridal carry cause it was the best way to monitor me. Keep me talking and conscious? You’d given me purpose. Showed me what I could be. Sir, I have been in love with you for most of the days I have been here.’
People didn’t talk to him like this.
Magnolia didn’t talk to him like this.
‘You were in danger.’
The simple, true explanation. The standard recollection of the day. A recruit had been in danger, so he had rectified the situation. All he had ever allowed himself to understand about his actions. Recruit. Danger. His job to protect.
‘Agents don’t throw their lives away for recruits,’ she said. ‘We’re replaceable, we’re-’
He rarely spoke without thinking.
And now, two words would demand even more words. Would demand he claw through the armour he had placed around certain thoughts. Actions. Decisions.
Magnolia was quiet for a moment, then she closed the distance to where he sat and looked down at him. ‘I’m just a recruit. It would take a while to train a good replacement, but you got me up to speed in a few months, get someone from the Academy and-’
She tilted her head a little, the movement bird-like. ‘Why the fuck not?’
Everything about the mission she had cited had gone wrong. Wrong intel. Bad timing. Bad weather. A double-cross by an informant. A lucky shot that had killed one recruit and scattered the team out of position.
And then the blackout bomb had gone off. A conventional drone, one not impacted by the blackout, had managed to track Magnolia, only to see her get shot twice before she took down her attacker.
Due to her other injuries, she’d been in no shape to get to the edge of the blackout zone.
Greatly outnumbered, it would have been murder to send in a recruit rescue team.
He had restocked his weapons, required body armour and gone after her.
A recruit had been in danger, so he had rectified the situation.
He met her gaze.
Recruit. Danger. His job to protect.
Magnolia had been in danger.
Something he was only thinking about now because she was demanding it of him. Something buried. Something unacknowledged.
Not for any other recruit. Not for any other aide. Not on his own. If it was another recruit, and she was there with him, ready to take the risk with him, that was different. Dying side by side in battle was fine.
Her question remained and deserved an answer.
He reached out to hold her fist.
‘You are my constant. And I need you.’
Her fist loosened, and she moved to thread her fingers through his. No words and her gaze had shifted to look down at their joined hands.
He looked from their hands to her bowed face and saw the tears on her cheeks.
Her hand was warm, and he never wanted to let it go.
‘Before either of us says anything else,’ she said, her fingers tightening on his. ‘I want to kiss you. If you’ll let me. If you want me to. I want this one moment before anything else happens. Because you still haven’t said you’re staying. Because I could still lose you. I need to show you. I need you to know. I need- You. Sir.’
It would be his first.
He had none of the dead man’s memories of intimacy, and his life had been one without romance.
Their hands were still connected.
One without acknowledged romance.
She closed the remaining distance between them, her breath tickling his face, and smiled. ‘It’s better when you close your eyes.’
He followed the suggestion and braced himself.
Soft lips touched his in what he knew was a deliberately chaste way. Gentle. No expectation of him.
All that he could handle.
Perfect. Because she knew him. Because she was- Constant. And that word seemed so little but meant so much. She- Kept his world in order. Was the ever-present beat of the universe. A partner. Easily worth dying for.
There was a question.
The kiss ended, and she rested her forehead against his.
Grigori’s hand was on his, fingers entwining. ‘None of this is easy. Especially when we have spent so long not talking about this.’ Magnolia moved to sit beside him, and now, Grigori took his face in his hands. ‘It took me a long time to know how to love you in a different way. To take you as yourself. You never told me you weren’t him, that you didn’t want the connection to that old life, some lifeline even without memory. But I am your friend, and you’re mine. I miss him. Every day. But I would not trade your life for his.’
Grigori kissed him, and he felt tears as he touched his friend’s – his, not just the dead man’s – face.
Just like with Magnolia, it was…right. Affection from someone who knew him. Who loved him.
Someone who still mourned the dead man but- Didn’t begrudge that he was there instead.
Grigori pulled back, kissed his cheek gently, and then laid back against the bleachers. ‘You’re mine, and you’re not allowed to go anywhere. You’re going to give that piece of mirror back, destroy it, or sell it. You’re not going to use it.’
‘I don’t care what you’re not,’ Magnolia said. ‘And this is messy, but- He’s right. We’re here, and no one else matters. Will you stay?’
Whether or not he was the dead man. Answered.
If his friends were worth dying for. Answered.
Living was the last question.
He had never planned. Not when it came to personal life. Before this moment, that term had meant nothing. He was his tasks. His Duty. He was a blunt instrument. A function. And nothing more than that.
To his left, Grigori was slowly pulling his head down onto his chest. To his right, Magnolia was curled to match the curve of his body. Tactically irresponsible. Not a mission. Not Duty.
And he had no desire to move.
He wanted this.
He didn’t want things. Had never allowed himself to want things. If he had been the dead man, he would have wanted things. Wanted more than to exist as a function, as his role incarnate, but-
Now that he had said it out loud, now that he had acknowledged that he and the dead man were two separate beings. That, shared face or not, he truly was something closer to a template than a resurrection. With it settled in his mind, it was easy to see how it had always been true.
Neither of his friends were saying anything. He hated silence. Dead corners of the Agency. Empty halls. Moments without stimuli where there was nothing but thoughts he had to reject.
The silence now was- Optimal. Comforting. Right.
Grigori was breathing softly against his hair, and Magnolia’s hand held a fistful of his jacket, anchoring her hand over his heart.
And whatever this was, he wanted it.
He wasn’t the dead man. Had never been the dead man. But with an identity contingent on his former, if he were to step away from it-
Compared to the dead man, he was incomplete. If he wasn’t the dead man, then he would have to start again. To build. To recognise the self that he had been treated like a mistake.
He could hear Grigori’s heartbeat, and Magnolia’s knuckles rested over his.
He was incomplete, but he wasn’t nothing.
Everything he had done with Magnolia, their training, their codes, their victories, and their losses, all of that belonged to him, not to the dead man.
Every smile from Grigori, every event he’d been dragged to, was something Grigori had given him – wanting to know him, even while mourning his former.
He had his former’s memories, but he also had his own. He had built something. Had created his own space, his own impact, even whilst living in the shadow of a dead man.
And that meant, if he moved forward, he wouldn’t be doing it alone.
And if he moved forward, everything would be different.
Nothing would be different.
Everything he was experiencing now was new. He could still feel each kiss, couldn’t stop seeing the intensity of Magnolia’s eyes as she’d said she loved him, and the certainty of the word “mine” that had slipped from Grigori’s mouth.
Every single sensation was new. He’d never felt intimacy like this, affection like this. And it wasn’t something he wanted to pull away from. It was new. It would change how he interacted with them, but-
He’d still spar with Magnolia every morning and Grigori every time he visited. He’d still lay down his life for either of them. They wanted him. Wanted additions. Not changes. Not reversions.
This was acceptable.
They weren’t asking him to die for them. What they wanted was more complex.
He slipped his hand onto Magnolia’s face. ‘I’ll stay.’ He lifted his head and tilted his face towards Grigori’s. ‘I will stay.’
Warmth and more affection followed. Small words. Things that should have been said long ago. Love.
And past midnight, in a bed much softer than the one he usually slept in, he finally allowed his sleep cycle to run.