51 – Last Defense

Taylor opened his eyes.

There was an arse floating above him.

It was a nice arse. Still, it had no reason to be floating five feet off the ground.

‘Magnolia.’

She turned over to look at him, her head resting on folded arms that rested on nothing but air.

‘You’re floating,’ he said.

‘Not on purpose, sir.’

He sat up, wrapped an arm around her, and pulled her from the air. She slipped a leg between his, anchoring herself to the bed, to him.

‘Is this the mirror?’ she asked. ‘Did you-’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I think it’s…After we went through the sky, what do you remember?’

She shook her head slightly, her hair bouncing like it would underwater. ‘Nothing, sir.’

‘You were dying. You were almost- Death was there. She wanted to take you. I didn’t let her.’

‘How?’

‘Life told me how to give you a chance. Your mother’s heart. I think it’s logical to assume you may have inherited some of her power.’

‘…she’s dead then?’

‘Yes, Magnolia, she is.’

‘Thank you sir.’

He gave her a nod. ‘Floating isn’t useful,’ he said after a moment.

‘It could be fun,’ she said. A look of concentration crossed over her face, and suddenly he wasn’t touching the bed any more. He looked down – he was only a foot off the bed, still, an impressive feat for a new skill.

‘You can do this on purpose, but not come down?’

She gave a shrug of slim shoulders. ‘New magic still doesn’t come naturally or logically to me.’

‘You need practice.’

She shook her head. ‘There’s something I need to first. Something that’s overdue.’

‘We’re not combat any more,’ he said, ‘paperwork belongs to our replacements now.’

This seemed to surprise her. ‘So what are we now?’

He gave a shrug. ‘On mandatory leave until we decide. Considering armoury master if nothing else.’

She gave a nod.

‘What do you need to do, Magnolia?’

She pushed lightly against him, and he landed back on the bed. She sat astride him for a moment, then slipped off the bed, her feet almost touching the floor as clothes appeared over her body. ‘I need to go speak with the other Aide Hammond, sir. I’d appreciate a shift since I can’t cut through the Library.’

He gave her a nod. ‘When you get back, however, we’ll work on extracting usefulness from floating, and see if you inherited any other powers.’

She leaned against him, and laid a soft kiss on his lips.

He targeted her in his HUD, and shifted her to Caboolture’s front desk.

Magnolia blinked as the shift completed…something wasn’t right. The front desk was being manned by a small child. She required a notebook, made a small note of it, then stepped forward and stared down at the child.

‘I need-’

‘Are you from the circus?’

She growled, and reached across the desk and hit the service bell.

‘You can’t do that.’

‘Then go get one of your parents.’

‘Say please.’

‘Go.’

‘No need.’

She turned and saw Darren, resplendent in a suit covered in milky baby vomit. ‘I’m here to see Don.’

‘He’s your father, you can call him-’

‘Is he here or not?’

‘Of course he is, Maggie. This way.’

‘Don’t call me that.’

‘Coming or not?’

She followed him up the stairs, surprised at the lived-in sounds of the Outpost Agency. It sounded more like a daycare than a place of first line defence. It was noisy. It was inefficient. An agency could be a home, sure, but that wasn’t a blank cheque to leave children and nappies and plates everywhere. It made her skin crawl.

With half an hour, she could turn it into a real Agency. It had never been this bad before. Never.

‘Don,’ Darren called as they crossed the open-plan office space of the main floor.

He’d gone grey – that was the first thing that she noticed. Other than that, not much had changed since she’d seen him.

He started to walk toward her, arms raising as if to hug her, but Darren put a hand against his chest, and her father’s arms immediately dropped back down to his sides.

‘Can we use the conference room?’ she asked, ‘or is it a playground now?’

‘Only on Saturdays,’ Darren said with a grin.

‘Of course we can,’ Don said as he walked towards it, the lights coming on as they approached.

She stepped in behind him, closed the door and the blinds, and took the seat at the foot of the table, while Don stood awkwardly, leaning against the wall. ‘What did you want to talk about, Magnolia?’

‘A few things,’ she said. ‘No, just one, really, your failure.’

‘I won’t be-’

‘Oh, you’re going to listen to everything I want to say, and before you argue with me, remember that I outrank you, and Ryan needs me a lot more than Darren needs you so I can easily make your life very difficult.’

‘You don’t outrank me, Maggie.’

‘Maybe not on paper, Don, but everywhere where it counts. I work for a central agency, you work for an outpost, so my influence outweighs yours, and comparing Taylor with Darren, no contest of value there.’

‘Taylor is-’

‘Careful what you say, Don, he’s my commanding officer, and the man I’m sleeping with, so I won’t take kindly to any insults you may have.’

Don sat down very quickly at the table. ‘You’re-’

‘Yes. But no more questions, you’re here to listen to me, only fair, don’t you think?’

Don pinched the bridge of his nose, and she smiled.

‘She’s dead.’

‘Who?’

‘My mother. Finally. The bitch got what was coming to her.’

‘Darren relayed some of what Clarke told him, but I know he left things out.’

‘The details aren’t important. What is important is for you to realise that you have to shoulder some of the blame for this.’

‘What did-’

‘You never wanted me to learn how to use my magic, so I’m still playing catch-up. Judging by the amount of power that every other half-sibling of mine seems to possess, we would have had a much better chance of fighting back, I might have even been strong enough to not let her get to me in the first place. It’s all academic now, but I just wanted you to know that I’m safe, and it’s no thanks to anything you ever did.’

‘I tried, Maggie, gods know I tried.’

‘If I’d been a normal child, then trying would have been enough.’

‘Do you want an apology?’

She shook her head. ‘No. What good would an apology do at this point?’

‘Then what do you want from me?’

‘One last favour, and then to never see you again. Agents Parker told me that Darren was stomping around Queen Street while I was gone, huffing and puffing and blowing the walls down. Do you have any idea how professionally embarrassing that is? What that does to my reputation, to how people look at me?’

‘Your dress sense-’

‘Don’t you dare impugn the way I look. I don’t wear the suit, my loyalty isn’t wrapped up with a tie. I’ve nearly died countless times during my time there, this time was no different, it’s just that this time you knew about it. You, neither of you, had no business interfering.’

‘You’re my daughter, I still worry about you.’

‘Just for a little while longer.’

‘Pardon?’

‘I’ll be having papers drawn up, and I want you to sign them. I’m here to let you know that they’re coming, and to…politely request that you sign them without bitching.’

‘What kind of papers?’

‘For you to legally disown me, in the eyes of human law and under King’s law.’

‘You couldn’t think that I would-’

‘Coercion is a powerful tool,’ she said, ‘and I don’t want control of my life to be in the hands of anyone else.’

‘Not even your,’ he stared at the table for a moment, ‘lover?’

‘He trusts me with his,’ she said, ‘it’s different, Don.’

‘It’s not what I want. I always thought we could-’

‘I don’t see reconciliation as very likely, do you, Don? The thing that drove us apart will keep us apart, we’re just too different. I’m not Maggie any more, dad, and that’s how you always see me. You don’t want to know me now, it’ll ruin whatever memories you do have of me.’

‘Magnolia-’

‘Read every one of my mission reports. Look at the photos. Look at the bodies I’ve left behind. Look at the hospitalisation lists. Get the department reports and statistics. Learn who I am, then really, really reconsider if you still have a single shred of interest in ever speaking with me again. Until then, sign the papers when they show up.’

He gave her a nod.

She pressed the transmit button on her headset. ‘Magnolia to Taylor.’

‘Done?’

‘Yes sir.’

The world blurred and the gym came into view. For once, all of the wood panels were gone, revealing the true extent of the weapons they possessed – and this was even without taking the ones in the vault and in storage.

‘The Gideon Street market is open,’ Taylor said as he polished a knife and returned it to its wall bracket. ‘Gnomes start discounting around this time of year.’

‘Do you want me to request some petty cash?’

‘No need,’ he said as he pointed to a small roll of bills on the rolling cart. ‘It’s a “get well” gesture from Grigori. He suggested a date, but…’

‘I’d prefer a new eightset than overpriced wine, sir.’

He moved along the wall to inspect the small leather strap that held eight tiny, sharp throwing knives. ‘You didn’t tell me the tips were blunt.’

‘I was hardly using it,’ she said, ‘but I’d like to practice with a new one, just so I’ve got the skill.’

He gave an affirmative grunt.

He slipped the money into his pocket, then the world blurred.

They walked through the framing store, past the sleepy-looking half-fairy owner, to the back room, then sideways over the threshold of the fairy stair.

She made a quick note to alert the fairy relations team about the stairs – the lighting was poor, good for an attack, good for an assailant to hide in, waiting to take a cheap shot at any Agency staff who took the stairs at the wrong time. They reached the bottom without incident.

The market bustled ahead of them – the area around the staircase was clear of course, other than a small child selling purple apples on purple sticks from a small table, and a few milling fae, either waiting to leave, or waiting for others to arrive. A six-inch fairy in a suit screamed into a phone, complaining about stock prices and the lateness of his taxi.

Something bumped against her side. She looked, and saw Taylor’s arm, crooked at an awkward angle, his eyes focused on a couple a dozen metres ahead of them. She smiled, threaded her arm around his and looked up. ‘Relax it a little, sir,’ she brushed her body against his arm, and she felt it relax and fall into a more natural position.

He leaned in and kissed her, then an odd look cross his face, and he stared past her. She turned to follow his gaze, and saw what he was looking at: a display of war axes and armour.

‘We’ll start there, shall we, sir?’

He gave a nod. He looked away from the weapons, kissed her again, and smiled. ‘We do need more axes.’

50 – Status Quo

Photobucket

The Grey Edge: Chapter Fifty


Taylor opened his eyes when he heard the footsteps. He pushed himself up from the bottom of the rejuvenation tank, through the thick, soupy blue and to the surface to look at the intruder.

Ryan threw him a towel.

He wiped the blue from his face, then dropped it on the floor, letting it soak up the blue pooling at his feet.

‘I felt it was best,’ Ryan said as he sat on a freshly-required chair, ‘that this be done sooner rather than later.’

Execution. They had decided on execution after all. All of that just for-

Ryan gave him a disparaging look, and he uncurled his fists, and let his hands dangle and his sides. He could still kick the other agent from this distance, still get a second’s head start, still get-

‘What?’ he forced himself to ask.

‘Talk about your future.’

Future. He had a future. He let some of the tension slip from his body, but still ran the background calculations on the fastest way out of the tech department. It would involve going through a few walls. Only a few. Walls were no match.

‘And Magnolia’s future,’ Ryan continued.

‘You didn’t declare us traitors,’ he said as he required a fresh uniform.

‘It did come down to a vote.’ Ryan stood. ‘And it doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed.’

‘You’ve been replaced, with how long you were gone, we had no choice but to generate a new combat agent.’

He stared. His duty was gone. His reason was-

It didn’t hurt as much as he had envisioned. He had always kept the most direct routes to the recycling chamber on hand for this moment. He was hollow, he was empty, he wasn’t ended, it wasn’t something that he couldn’t move past. Probably.

‘So what am I?’

‘On mandatory leave for the moment, the both of you. As to after that…to a certain degree, it’s up to you.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘This is your second chance. This is your fresh start. Don’t be here if you don’t want to be here. I…I don’t want you here unless you’re going to be part of this team…part of my team.’

‘I want to stay.’

Ryan stared at him. ‘Do you really?’

‘I forgive you.’

Ryan’s face turned stony. ‘For what?’

‘Carol. Wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t hers.’

Ryan stared at him for a moment, then held out his hand.

He stared at the hand for five seconds, the shook it, just once, then released it.

‘Pick a specialisation,’ Ryan said, ‘and we’ll redefine your role here. We generated a new office for Gregory, all of your things are where you left them.’

‘What happened to my recruits?’

‘Hewitt went up to the techs, two chose to leave of their own accord, the rest are still here.’

He gave a stiff nod, then shifted away. The familiar walls of his office surrounded him as the world became clear again, and he felt more of the tension leave his body.

Clothes still littered the floor, the untidy bed lay testament to half a night together, stains still visible on the sheets. The knife had fallen from the door frame lay abandoned on the floor.

He crouched, and took pleasure in the stiffness of his legs, the unfamiliar movement, the fact that he was able to move again, lifted the knife from the carpet and placed it in a freshly-required sheath. He slid the sheath into his pocket, and required his office back into order, then left the room.

The halls were the same. Nothing had changed. Familiar doors and numbers stared back at him. Familiarity. His frames of reference. His…home.

Magnolia’s door. Room forty-three. He scanned it – she was inside, awake. Her blue-edged fuzzy outline looked up at the door.

‘Come in, sir.’

Tactical retreat was an option. An available option. An easy option.

He opened the door.

She sat cross-legged on her bed, her workbook spread across her knees, dozens of reports scattered around her, and piled up on the floor beside her.

Her look of trepidation, he was sure, mirrored his own.

Words he didn’t want to say. Words he didn’t want to hear. Consequences he didn’t want.

He had to strike first, to take the advantage of the window her lack of words had provided.

‘No, Magnolia.’

She tilted her head a little. ‘Sir?’

He put a hand on the edge of her bed, called up a memory, made a couple of requirements, and watched the various piles of paper disappear.

‘Sir, I’m not-’

‘No.’

‘I made you-’

‘No.’

Her shoulders slumped. Defeated.

‘I could have let you die, Magnolia. Could have let your mother take you. Could have left at any point before we tried to escape. I didn’t.’

‘Abandoning your post. Dereliction of duty. Willing entering an unfriendly court. Placing the expendable life of a recruit above that of an agent.’ Her face twisted. ‘I made you weak!’

‘An army of one is weak, Magnolia.’ He took in a breath and sat at the end of her bed. ‘So it’s your choice. If you’re going to examine your guilt, then consider mine. Everything that happened to you is because Mordred and your mother were able to use me as leverage.’

‘It’s not the first time I’ve been used like a cheap whore, and I doubt it will be the last.’

He let the question hang on his face.

‘I’m all right sir, I’ve got my coping mechanisms for situations like this, and I will most assuredly cut his dick off at the earliest opportunity.’

‘What else. What about u-us?’

‘Is there an us, sir?’

‘Dammit, yes, Magnolia.’

She gave him a smile. She drew level with him, and kissed him, strong arms wrapping around his neck as she straddled his legs and pushed her chest against his.

He returned the contact, wrapping his arms around her waist as the kisses continued. She was alive. She hadn’t gone to Death. They were safe – within the safest walls in the world, far from the remains of her mother’s court, from those who would hurt her, and…until paperwork was pushed, far from duty.

It was real. No phantoms pushed at the edge of his vision, no horrific images interrupted them.

He let his finger trace the sides of her face, her temples, her brow, and tried to push away the nagging memory of her still, lifeless face.

She pulled her mouth away from his, her expression, her vitals, the fact that she was grasping at his belt all accurate signs that she was aroused.

‘You’re injured,’ he said as she threw his belt to the floor.

‘The doctors said that as long as we weren’t…over-enthusiastic, that I should be fine’ She gave a small, derisive snort. ‘Once tired and once injured, sorry sir, I will give you the fucking you deserve at some point in the immediate future.’

‘And my lack of-’

‘Teaching,’ she said as she pulled off his shirt, ‘is half the fun.’ She bit his earlobe. ‘And I haven’t had any complaints so far.’

Images from his nightmares came into his mind. Memories of sex only experienced within a glitch. It had felt real, he had thought it real, and his dream-version of Magnolia had enjoyed it…It more than met the command from medical to be gentle.

‘Do you trust me, Magnolia?’

She stopped her efforts to disrobe him. ‘You know the answer to that, sir.’

‘I need to hear it.’

She pressed her forehead against his. ‘I trust you, sir.’

He lifted her and swung her down onto the bed, her head landing on the pillows – accuracy was important, even in non-combat situations. She gave him a curious look as he turned and knelt between her slightly parted legs, but moved to spread them more, to give him more room.

Her clothes disappeared – her requirement, not his – and an authorisation box appeared in his HUD, showing an attempt on her part to manipulate him, to finish disrobing him. He authorised the command, and routed the knife back to the armoury, lest it end up in Lost and Found.

She lifted a foot and hooked the back of her ankle over his shoulder, pulling him down, pulling him closer. He turned his head and kissed the ankle, then made his way slowly up her leg, pausing briefly when he found the back of her knee to be a vulnerable, squirm-inducing spot.

A requirement lengthened the bed, and it pushed up against the door and wall behind him, but it allowed him to lie between her legs until he was only supported by his elbows.

He looked up at her once more, her eyes lustful, half-closed and content. She gave him a small noise of approval, then let her head drop back onto the pillows.

He exhaled a warm breath, and felt her shiver. He ran a hand over her, fingers sinking into the white curls of her pubic hair, feeling the heat already radiating from her.

He slipped the hand beneath her arse and lifted her, bringing her closer, letting her legs open just a little wider.

She moaned his name as he exhaled another long, warm breath against her, and he felt himself smile.

He opened his mouth, extended his tongue, and made contact.

The effect was instantaneous, electric. Her body snapped taut for a moment before the tension left, relaxing, yielding to him, to his inexpert technique. As with all of the new experiences, he knew his technique was rudimentary, unskilled, basic. It was, if nothing else, a place to start. Basic skilled demanded practice, intensive hours, advancement of techniques, and the opportunity for master classes.

All of that would come in time. They had time.

She panted as he took long, slow explorations of the outer areas and made short, fast attacks on the centre region, all of it seemed to please her, inexpert technique or not.

He heard the sheet tear, and her hands slap back down on the bed, looking for new places to grab, to hold her steady.

She gave a short scream and then convulsed against his tongue.

She put a hand to his head, and he slowed the movements of his mouth as she rode out her orgasm. The hand fell away, and her body went limp.

He rose, and wiped the residue from his face with the back of his hand. He moved up the bed to join her on the pillows, the bed widening with a thought to accommodate him more easily.

‘I think,’ Magnolia said in a quiet, far-away voice, ‘that my soul just came.’ She gave a short exhale, and moaned, something that sounded far too much like a mix of pleasure and pain.

‘Magnolia-’

She turned to him, and gave an attempt at shaking her head. ‘I’m fine, sir,’ she said, ‘that was just…good. I haven’t let many guys go down on me and that was…good.’ She wrapped her arms around him. ‘I’ll be fine in a minute. I just need to…oh that was good.’

She put her head against his chest, and was asleep in under two minutes.

He closed his eyes, and felt himself tending towards unconsciousness without initiating a sleep cycle. He stated his love for her once more, then let his tired body sleep.

49 – The New Regime

The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Nine


‘I’m your lawyer, it’s not my job.’

Mordred heaved the empty bottle of Jack in the vague direction of the used-up sleeping whores. It hurt too much to aim. Hurt too much to think. Hurt too much to do anything other than pickle his brain with cheap alcohol.

Another stream of magic shot from his hand like a bright red premature ejaculation. It arced and crackled, digging deeper into the floor crater that was steadily growing with each blast.

He fixed his gaze somewhat in the human’s direction. ‘No, Francis, you were my mother’s lawyer. For what I’m planning on paying you, you’d offer your arse to me as easily as these cumdumpsters do.’

The lawyer remained nonplussed. ‘I do have standards, Mordred.’

‘I want you, exclusively – and I know how faggy that sounds – until this is all over. I don’t want the shit and pain and work of ascending as warden, only for some bitch to use some King’s loophole to take it all away from me.’

‘No one,’ Francis said, finally sitting in the chair across from him, ‘gets me exclusively.’

‘I do.’

‘Not even your mother-’

‘Welcome to the new regime, James, I get what I want, when I want.’

‘You don’t get to call me that, Mordred.’

‘One could take offence.’

‘James for dealing with humans, Francis for dealing with fae, it’s how I keep the two worlds separate, very important considering what I do. It’s the one concession you have to make.’

He stared up at the lawyer. ‘Get me another drink, and I’ll agree.’

Francis stood, walked to the sideboard and pulled another bottle of Jack from the selection, and returned and placed it in his waiting hand. He tore the lid from the bottle and chugged on it before feeling the pleasant numbing sensation reach his hand.

‘My focus hasn’t been on you until now,’ Francis said as he went back to his chair. I know your father isn’t an issue-’

‘It wouldn’t have surprised me if you were my father, considering you’re one of the only non-Court men that mother didn’t eviscerate.’

‘To have been your father would have meant cheating on my wife, whom I loved dearly, if you can understand the emotion, Mordred.’

‘I see it, I see how it affects people, see how it makes them weak.’

‘Weakness isn’t a trait I’m plagued by,’ Francis said. ‘I was offered the position, if it’s of any interest to you, but I declined, and I urged your mother to continue her black widow streak with the fathers of her children, it was one of the things I did admire about her, it was efficient, and it left her in control. On to you, are there any problems that I need to know about?’

‘Every kill I’ve made, I’ve had the right.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Every one was either Court-approved or I had a rights-holder delegate it to me. And if no one needed killings, mother was always willing to create a playmate for me. Francis, you’ve got no idea the utter fucking power rush you get when you fuck, hunt and kill a thing that’s only been sentient for an hour.’

‘Your proclivities don’t interest me, Mordred.’

‘You just watched me fuck these two!’

‘This room has the best light,’ Francis said, poker-faced, ‘and I don’t mind a free show.’

‘I could make you one if you like. When was the last time you had blood on your hands? You look like a man in need of a good kill.’

‘I am more discrete than that,’ the lawyer said, ‘the few times I’ve had to use that solution, I’ve had someone take care of it for me.’

‘So you’ve never had the joy of a kill?’

‘Mordred, unlike you, I’m not a sociopath.’

‘I thought you had to be in your line of work.’

‘Really? Stereotype jokes? I thought all of those would have been out of your system.’ Francis sighed. ‘If you do plan on being warden, I need to research your…rather unique position.’

‘Don’t you have someone to do your grunt work for you?’

‘I didn’t get this far by relying on other people.’

‘And reliance on you?’

‘Necessary, Mordred, at least until you get all of your powers.’

48 – Mending

The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Eight


Shift. Shift to safety. Shift to safety. Shift to safety.

You’re already safe, genius.

Not far enough away. Totally not far enough away. He could probably still smell her. Shift to safety. Shift far away. Shift to the strange and mysterious land of Canada.

Why is Canada always your go-to spot?

I dunno.

The chair was pulled away from the desk, and her small hidey-hole exposed to the light. Light which would make her easier to find. She smushed herself further against the inside wall of the desk, trying to prevent any of the light from actually touching her.

The size of the hidey-hole expanded, the desk slipping and changing, growing enough for a grown man to hide in the safety of the desk as well. The desk stopped changing, and Ryan joined her in the not-quite-dark.

‘He’s going to kill me.’

‘No he’s not.’

She looked up at him through messy hair. ‘He’s going to kill me,’ she said. ‘He’s going to get his legs back, he’s going to get a band-aid, and he’s going to come after me.’

‘He’s not going to go after anyone for a while.’

She shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter. He still will. This is why you don’t fight people in the wrong, cause it only ever turns out badly.’

‘Fighting those in the wrong is…pretty much our job description,’ he said. He pushed the hair away from her face. ‘Or did you forget that?’

‘You said I didn’t have to sign up for the save-the-world stuff.’

‘So what is your job then, Miss Mimosa?’

‘I swear if one more person call me Mimosa today, nah, it’s you, that one doesn’t count, with you it’s more like a meme than anything else.’

‘You didn’t answer my question.’

She shrugged again. ‘I don’t really know. I sort of bumble my way through every day and you pat me on the head and tell me I’m doing a good job. So…I guess I’m a professional bumbler. And we’re the good guys, I know that.’

‘You’re a lot better at this than you give yourself credit for.’

‘You showed me the dungeon-’

‘Basement.’

‘-and I showed you my lunch. I’m not great at this.’

‘And what about what you just did.’

‘Yeah, I’ve got so much conviction about that, that I’m still shaking.’

He wrapped his strong, warm hands around her small, shaking ones. ‘You’re ok.’

‘How much did you see anyway?’

‘All of it.’

She buried her face in her knees again. ‘It wasn’t me doing most of the talking.’

‘Were you quoting?’

She rested her chin on her knees and stared up at him. She slipped her hands free of his. ‘No, I mean…’ She felt her face scrunch up, and she slapped a hand against the side of her head. He knew. Still too hard to say out loud. Still too hard to normalise it. Accept that he didn’t want to lock her up.

He grabbed her hand to stop the slapping, then gave her a nod.

‘I still can’t believe I did that,’ she said. ‘Taylor. I mean. I did that. How’s Canada this time of year?’

‘You’re not moving to Canada.’

‘You’re not the boss of me!’

This made him laugh. ‘Yes, actually I am.’ He smiled. ‘And I can ground you.’

She felt herself smile. ‘You’d ground me?’

‘If you deserved it.’

‘Better than not deserving it.’ She looked up at him. ‘So, what happens now?’

He sighed. ‘In all honesty, I have no idea. Given the circumstances, I don’t think any decisions need to be made right now.’ She nodded, and the desk disappeared from over their heads. ‘Their return, however, has generated a lot of paperwork.’

She snapped a lopsided salute. ‘Okies, I’ll let you work.’

‘How’s that pile on your desk?’

‘Last of it disappeared this morning,’ she said with a smile. ‘I’m up to date for the first time ever.’

He stood, and offered a hand down to her. She grabbed it and jumped to her feet, and stepped out of the way as the desk, covered with all of his papers, reappeared.

* * * * *

Ten Hours Later

Predator.

Someone was watching her.

Magnolia felt herself wake in a second, her eyes open, ready to fight whatever attacker was coming for-

Mimosa sat on the end of the hospital bed, a clipboard in one hand, a can of drink in the other. She kicked her leg, but the movement was slow, sloppy, sedated, not enough to knock the experiment from her perch.

‘Good morning to you too, Recruit,’ Mimosa said dryly. She waved the clipboard. ‘According to this, you aren’t supposed to be moving, and that includes trying to attack your superiors, so don’t do it again, k?’

She scowled. ‘You aren’t my superior.’

Mimosa reached into her pocket, retrieved her Agency ID and waved it about. ‘This says I am.’

‘And that means-’

‘Wow, zero to bitch in less than ten seconds, you are kind of impressive.’

‘And when did you grow a pair?’

‘You really should be nice to me,’ Mimosa said as she hung the clipboard back on the side of the bed. ‘I’m the reason you can walk and talk. I’m the reason you woke up at all.’

‘You mean you used an Agency resource for Agency reasons, congratulations on doing your job,’ she spat.

‘Oh yeah, cause there’s totally a paper trail about this. If this were all formal, your boyfriend would still be filling out the request paperwork, and the Parkers would have stuck you in the morgue.’

Her head pounded. ‘Just leave me the fuck alone, Mimosa.’

‘I only gave him a little bit of mirror to wish with, just in case he decided to do something…stupid. It was only enough to give you any chance at all.’

‘Generous.’

‘The Parkers did what they could, you should get them a gift basket or something-’

‘For doing their jobs?’

‘Tell me something, are you at all capable of gratitude?’

‘I’d be grateful if you-’

‘You can’t have kids.’

She shut her mouth, and glared at the girl. ‘What?’

‘It was one of the things the Parkers couldn’t fix. Sorry for being so blunt, but at least you’re fscking listening to me now. You had an egg inside, it shattered and ripped everything apart in there. Sorry.’

‘So long as I can walk and fight then-’

‘It’s not a choice that should be taken away.’

‘I’ve got more important things to-’

Mimosa shook her head and dug into her pocket again. After piling the bed with sugar packets, coffee beans and big lumps of lint, she held up a small silver sliver. A piece of mirror. ‘Practically everything else is going to heal with time, so much as your chart says,’ she rolled the small piece of mirror around in her palm for a moment. ‘Here’s your choice back.’

‘Why are you even here?’ she asked after the faux agent went silent.

‘Because this is the only time we’re going to have something in common,’ Mimosa said quietly.

‘Not sure if you’ve met Grigori,’ she said, layering the sarcasm heavily into her voice, ‘but agents can have-’

Mimosa lifted her shift, exposing the mass of scar tissue that ran across her abdomen and continued below her belt. ‘What part of this,’ Mimosa said, her voice cracking a little, ‘looks like I have a functioning reproductive system?’

‘Is this also why you look like a little kid?’

She put her shirt back down. ‘Says the girl who dresses like a doll? Yeah. I was twelve. I basically never went through puberty. I never had the choice. You should. You decide not to have kids, I don’t care, but you should get to choose.’

‘But I hate you.’

‘Yeah, well, duh. It’s mutual by the way.’ Mimosa took a step closer and dropped the small piece of mirror onto her chest. ‘But you’re on my crew.’

‘What?’

‘Ask Merlin.’

She lifted the small piece of mirror. ‘I could kill you with this.’

‘No,’ Mimosa said, ‘you really couldn’t.’

She held the piece of mirror for a moment, thought of trying to kill her anyway, then made the suggested wish.

‘I have one question, Recruit,’ Mimosa said.

‘Aide,’ she snapped, ‘and what is it?’

‘Do you actually realise you’re floating right now?’

She looked down at the bed, and found that was indeed, floating a foot off the mattress.

‘What did-’

‘You were floating before I came in,’ Mimosa said, ‘so don’t even think of blaming me.’ With a sour look, the faux agent shifted away.

* * * * *

‘I want a baby.’

Ryan signed off one more form, and watched it disappear. ‘A baby what?’

‘Baby baby. Regular kind. If there’s a regular kind. I just want one.’

He looked up at her, there were already tears streaming down her face. ‘Stef-’

‘I want one and I can’t have one.’

He shifted to her in a second, and wrapped his arms around her. ‘I highly recommend adoption,’ he said as she hung limply in his arms.

‘It’s not the same.’

He lifted her shaking body and carried her to the couch. ‘How can you say that?’

‘It’s what I was told,’ she said, ‘that it made me useless, that I wasn’t a real girl, that I didn’t get to be people if-’

‘Whoever said that was wrong-’

‘I don’t get to fix myself if I can’t-’ She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand. ‘I always wanted to have a kid, so I, so I could do it right…so I could make up for all the crap that my parents put me through. I thought that if I was good, if I made it up, if I…loved a child, if I gave it all the…that it would make up for it, and that it would fix me, and then I’d be people, and I wouldn’t be…me, I’d be better, I’d better, but I can’t, and I’ll never be and-’

‘You’re fine the way you are.’

‘I hate it when you say that,’ she said, ‘because I know it’s not true.’

He required a handkerchief and wiped at her tear-stained face. ‘Having children doesn’t define you, it doesn’t take away from the other things you have achieved, and it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, change the other things you want to achieve. Having a child is one aspect of life, of the lives of some. Do you think Patty is less…people because she has horses instead?’

‘Nope, but she’s not-’

‘Nothing you can do will make up for how your parents mistreated you, that’s something you can’t change. Having a child for that purpose is unfair, it’s using them, it’s an ulterior motive, and there’s more than a chance that they will feel slighted for it.’

‘But-’

He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. ‘With all of the magic in the world, when you grow up, and you decide then that you still want children, we’ll look into it. There’s also at any one time, dozens of children that the Agency has to find homes for, so you could take one of them in. There’s options, there’s always options.’

She wiped her face again. ‘How the hell do you do that?’

‘Do what?’

‘Take one of my massive problems and just make it GTFO like it was nothing?’

‘I’m your father,’ he said as he handed her a cookie, ‘it’s my job.’

She crawled into his lap. ‘Need moar hug.’

He wrapped his arms around her again. ‘Of course.’ He stroked her hair. ‘Besides, I’m not ready for grandchildren yet.’

47 – No Place Like Home

The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Seven


Taylor flared his good wing once more, just before they hit the ground. They still hit the ground. The ground still hurt. He took a moment to breathe. One moment. One moment to worry about his own basic functions. He upped his count of broken ribs to four, then opened his eyes.

The soldiers would be coming. They had to-

Death was staring down at Magnolia.

He gave a wordless, defiant shout and the Lady disappeared, as quickly as a trick of the light.

He rolled over, his right wing nothing but pain, broken bones and bloody feathers.

She was dead.

Lay down and die. He could do that. It had been so easy to do in his nightmare. So simple to hold her, and let himself slip away. There was nothing else to do, it was unimaginable to continue without his-

He lifted a bloody hand and held it over her open mouth. Breath. Barely there at all, but breath all the same. So close to death, so close that Death herself was watching. Waiting. Waiting to take her. No. Never. No. Hurt. Hurt badly. In need of medical attention. In need of the Agency.

He looked around – without blue, without a system connection, there was no way to tell where they were, no way to call for help. Leave her. Get help. Come back. It was the logical plan. No. Die with her. Yes. If it came to that.

He looked around. They’d crashed into the loading bay at the back of the glass-and-steel tower that had crushed his wing. Rubbish, a skip bin, a parked truck.

A phone.

Just visible in the gloom, up on the loading dock was a slim phone hanging on the wall. Not much, not much at all usually, but enough to call for help, enough to get them…home.

He steadied himself, and fluttered his left wing, gaining a little purchase on the air. One large flap brought him a few feet closer to the phone.

Magpie landed in front of him.

‘I sent the soldier boys home,’ she said without care. ‘At least a couple of them will be enjoying those whores you so easily dismissed.’

He kept his eyes off the phone – no need to give her even more of an advantage.

‘I’d say that you’ve been a lot of trouble,’ she said, staring down at him, her black eyes glittering, reflecting the glimpses of fluorescent lights. ‘But, really,’ she continued, ‘it isn’t true, you made things easier. You made her cooperate, more than she ever would have on her own. Mordred is grateful for your services.’

He lunged at her, and she swatted him away like a pathetic bug.

He flapped his wing again, and this time, she threw him into the wall. He stayed down this time. Attempting the same thing more than twice was stupid.

Magpie moved toward Magnolia’s limp form and he held himself back from going at her again, screaming at her, raging at her to leave his lover alone. Plan. He needed a plan. Weapon. He needed a weapon.

Magpie ran a hand across Magnolia’s belly. ‘There was no child in here,’ she said, ‘but it wasn’t for a lack of trying, let me assure you. I guess I will have to begin this all again. Freedom, I think, was the mistake.’

He saw Death in the corner of his eye. He was running out of time. She was running out of time.

He sat up as best as he could, as quietly as he could, to not draw the warden’s attention back. He lifted both hands to his broken wing, and cleared his wing as much as he could. With a practiced ease, he snapped the bone, and pulled it free from his shoulder.

He fell forward onto his hands, his broken, bloody wing grasped in his right hand. Blood poured from his shoulder blade, down his arm, and dripped onto the ground. More blood loss. Not that it really mattered at this point. If he was going to die, it wasn’t going to be from blood loss, so painting a few more inches of the world red didn’t matter.

One deep breath. One prayer to deaf gods. One hope that Wrath was watching. He lunged himself forward, all his energy focused on speed. He needed to be fast, more than anything, he needed to be fast.

He slammed into Magpie, the sharpened, broken bone easily sliding into her back.

They hit the ground, the warden screaming, still moving, still breathing. He grabbed the bone and slammed all of his weight down on it, and felt it sink inches deeper into her, into a lung, into her chest cavity, fatal, it had to be fatal.

She was still squirming. He pushed himself up with his left hand, and punched the back of her neck, and with a grunt, broke her neck, twisting it nearly far enough to stare into her dead eyes.

Death was staring down at Magnolia again.

‘No,’ he said.

The Lady turned her skeletal face to look at him. ‘No?’ she echoed.

‘No!’

Death hung her head and…changed. Someone stepped into the space she was occupying. There was a slight crackle of electricity as the new figure turned to look at him.

A pale, blonde woman in a white suit.

Life.

‘The warden’s heart’s blood, feed it to her. It will keep her breathing long enough to get her back to the Parkers.’

‘Save her,’ he said weakly.

‘I can’t interfere. Whether or not she lives is not up to me, it’s not even up to you, Agent Taylor.’

He rolled Magpie over, punched her chest, and began to peel away the ribs.

‘I didn’t see this,’ he said as he dug into the warden’s chest.

She crouched in front of him, and popped open a silver pocket watch. Infinite golden spirals curled, appeared, shrivelled, multiplied, grew dark and died. ‘I only gave a small selection to my lover to share with you.’

He pressed his fingers into Magpie’s heart and tore a section free. He turned back to Magnolia, held it over her open mouth and squeezed the rent organ until no more of Magpie’s blood dripped from his hand.

After the longest moment of his life, she took a small, painful breath.

He looked toward the phone, but Life held a mobile out to him.

‘This isn’t interfering, agent,’ she said with a smile, ‘it’s just a phone call.’

He dialled triple-zero and heard it connect. ‘What service?’

‘Agency.’

‘Fire, police or ambulance?’

‘Agency.’

‘Sir, you-’

He dredged his tired mind. ‘Tab-A.’

‘What?’

‘Press tab-A.’

He heard the woman grumble, then a click as the call was transferred.

‘Agency.’

‘Taylor. 710-8762. Brisbane. Now.’

He held his breath. Their answer now would tell him if they had been labelled traitors. If they were going to be left to die…or rescued and executed. The phone clicked again.

‘Brisbane.’

Broken ribs pressed into his lungs as he breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Two to shift.’

‘Agent Taylor?’

He recognised the voice. Raz. Nervous. Redhead. Paranoid, even for a tech. ‘Two to shift.’

He heard the headset being dropped. ‘Jonesy! Jonesy! Joooooooooonesy!’

Bright light and familiar air rushed over him as the Agency blurred into view.

He heard a long string of profanity, broken into two voices as the Parkers immediately went to aid Magnolia.

Jones appeared and looked down at him. He pushed himself up, and gave a half-flap of his remaining wing, launching himself at the scholar. He grabbed the tech’s labcoat, the lift from his wing barely keeping him in the air. ‘Get me Mimosa.’

‘You need-’

He brought his face level with Jones’. ‘I need the fucking mirror, now GET. ME. MIMOSA!’

Jones looked away for a moment, then behind as the once-useless experiment appeared. He screamed and lunged at her. She shrieked and stumbled backward, leaving him to fall to the floor. He shot an arm out and grabbed her by the ankle. She toppled backward, but wriggled out of the shoe, and out of his grip, then hopped to her feet, then backed away a couple of metres for good measure.

‘Give me your heart!’

She flinched, but didn’t respond.

‘Give me your heart!’

‘It already belongs to someone else, and you sure as hell aren’t him.’

He pushed himself up onto his hands and prepared himself to go at her again. ‘I’m going to rip open your chest and-’

‘In front of everyone?’ she asked, her voice lower than usual, steadier than usual, ‘yeah, like that’s going to happen.’

‘She’s going to die!’ he screamed.

She gave a shrug. ‘I don’t even like her,’ she said in the same cool, steady tone. ‘Or you. This isn’t happening.’

He dared a look back at the Parkers. They…they weren’t doing anything. The taller of the doctors looked down at him, and answered his unasked question. ‘I’m not sure what you want me to say,’ Parker said, ‘we can’t do anything. She’s got more blood inside her…than inside her, if you know what I mean, complete organ failure in all systems…and, mate, there’s no brain activity. She’s breathing, but I don’t even know how. Mimsy pulls a miracle out of her non-existent arse, or I’m calling it, there’s no point in life support.’

He turned back to the experiment. The risk. The danger. The worthless coward in an agent’s suit. The schizophrenic little goddess who held his fate in trembling hands.

‘Mimosa-’

‘You’re wearing my name out.’

‘She’s-’

Mimosa looked away from him. ‘Out. Everyone. Out.’

‘Stef…’ Jones started.

‘Everyone.’

The Parkers shifted away, taking Magnolia with them, and Jones left the room. The doors to the infirmary slid closed, and all of the clear windows turned opaque. Privacy for whatever hell she was going to-

She kicked him. Hard. She watched him for a reaction, then kicked him again. Small feet slammed into him again and again, into broken ribs, into bruises on top of bruises, into bleeding wounds.

‘How dare you?!’ she screamed after a moment, breathing heavily. She backed away, out of range of retaliation. ‘How fucking dare you?’ she asked again, a slight waver in her voice. ‘You wanted Ryan dead for using the mirror, you tried to kill me, just for existing!’ She hopped up onto the closest hospital bed and swung her legs back and forth. ‘You don’t get to ask this of me.’

‘She’s going to die.’

‘According to the doctor, she’s pretty much there.’

‘Mimosa-’

She smiled down at him. A cold smile. ‘Sorry, do you think you’re going to growl and that I’m going to give in? You see you right now? This is how everyone feels around you all the time, this is how you treat people, and this is how weak-’

‘You are?’ he spat.

‘Again, good job getting me on side. I always thought I’d take a baseball bat to you, if I ever got you like this, I figured if they’re strong enough to beat up fridges, they’d be ok for you, you’re pretty much built like a fridge. Now that you’re like this though…I’m kind just digging watching you squirm in your own blood.’

‘What do you want?’ he screamed.

Another shrug of tiny shoulders. ‘What if it’s enough to make sure you don’t get what you want?’

‘Please.’

She shook her head. ‘You don’t say that word. You don’t mean it. You’re throwing it at me because you hope it’ll change the mood of the conversation. Fail. Try again.’

‘I’ll give you whatever you want.’

‘You couldn’t give me what I want.’

‘I love her.’

‘And that means exactly nothing to me. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about her. Love is loss. It’s the big kick in the balls you get for caring about people. The boy I loved went to Neverland and left me behind, and you think you deserve better than me?’

‘I’m not going to let her die,’ he said, unsure if he was talking to her, himself, or to reality at large.

‘Forgive Ryan.’

He focused on her again. ‘What?’

‘If somewhere under that T-800 chaises you actually have a heart capable of…capable of love, and you’re begging me to break your precious rules, then guess what, arsehole, you don’t have the agenty-ruley-duty moral high ground over Ryan any more. Asking this of me, getting her back is no different than what Ryan did for Carol. That’s what I want. I want you to forgive him.’

‘No.’

She buried her face in her hands and shook her head. ‘Seriously?’ she asked as she looked at him through spread fingers. ‘You can’t give me that one little concession? You, you’re fucking unbelievable. I hope you enjoy necromancy. Necrophilia. One of them.’

‘I forgive him.’

‘Was that so hard?’

‘I…already forgave him.’

She stared at him for a long moment. ‘Then I’ll name my price later.’ A scalpel appeared in her hand, and she swung her legs back up onto the bed and crossed them. She flipped her tie over her shoulder and worked the buttons on her shirt.

‘I fscking suck as a magical girl,’ she said, and he knew she wasn’t talking to him.

Blood ran down her fingers as she made an incision in her chest. Tips of two fingers disappeared into her chest, and a piece of mirror appeared in her palm. ‘It’s enough to…to fix her. She’s still going to need every little bit of the twin’s attention, but it’ll fix what they can’t.’ She tossed it down to him, and the small, wafer thin piece of mirror skidded toward his hand.

He held it aloft and made his wish.

There was an immediate flurry of movement in the next room – the sound of the Parkers with a patient to save.

Tears of sheer relief streamed down his face.‘Thank you,’ he whispered, but she was gone.

46 – Back with a Bang

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The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Six


‘I’m sorry sir,’ Magnolia whispered to Taylor. He was still alive. Barely. Just barely. He wasn’t going to survive another few hours – as such, there was no longer any danger in releasing him. Tossing him back into system territory and letting him hope for the best, but it was one chance more than none. Any future, any chance, that getting back into system territory – even one where he was branded a traitor for his “crimes” and executed – was better than wasting away alone in some isolated room in the bowels of the Magpie Court.

It was…hopefully going to be one of those times were Ryan’s pathetic softness, his lack of conviction, his massive flaws as a leader, would be to their advantage.

She put a hand to Taylor’s face, and her heart jumped, then pounded, unbelievably loudly in her ears. He was faking. Muscles were tightened in such a way that- No. Not possible.

‘S-sir?’

He opened his eyes. Clear, present, brown eyes stared up at her. ‘Are we alone?’

She nodded and let tears fall – the rebirth of hope was, somehow, even more painful than its loss.

He reached a sweaty arm up, wrapped it around her neck and pulled her down for a kiss. She kissed him back, hard, then rested her forehead against his. He was no trick of her mother, no illusion, no further cruelty. He was real, and he was-

‘I love you.’

She had meant to ask him “how”, how he was sitting up, how he was alive, how he had survived when all signs had pointed to succumbing to withdrawal.

‘I love you.’

The words hadn’t come from her mouth. She looked down at him, and he gave her a slight, mater-of-fact nod, as if he’d done little more than comment on some combat technique.

‘Sir?’

‘Later. Everything. Later. We’re leaving.’

‘How?’

‘There’s a weak spot at the highest point in the sky, we’re going through that.’

‘How do you know?’ she asked as she helped him sit up more.

‘Information from…from a friend. Later. I need something to bite.’

She retrieved a wash cloth for him, and rolled it before passing it over. He looked up. ‘If you have weapons, retrieve them.’

‘There’s none, sir.’

‘Then just stay back, Magnolia.’

He bit down on the cloth, and in a few seconds, his body was slick with sweat again, but not fever sweat, not the sweat of a man wasting away. Pain contorted his face – whatever he was doing was hurting him, so much so that he wasn’t bothering to hide it.

His legs withered, like a rapid atrophy. Muscle wasted away in seconds, along with bone, leaving him with little more than hollow skin bags bags hanging from his hips. He screamed into the cloth, and fell forward, balancing his weight on his hands.

Wings tore from his back. Huge, white, fluffy angel’s wings sprouted from each shoulder, each wing as tall as he was, thick with long feathers.

He slumped for a moment as the wings moved, extending, contracting, spreading wide, testing their movement, before finally folding on his back.

‘I didn’t know you could do that, sir.’

‘They’re for emergencies,’ he said after a moment. ‘Lash my feet together.’

‘Yes sir.’

It didn’t take very long at all to find something to bind his feet. She tied the heavy silk with a nigh-unbreakable knot, leaving enough room between his feet for a small step, a small harness to stand on.

She stood, enjoying being close to him again, enjoying the knowledge that he was alive, and that for the first time since they’d been trapped, they had a chance to escape. There was no room for any thoughts about how attractive he was with feathers.

One last look around the room confirmed that there was nothing that could be easily refashioned into a weapon. There was nothing – even the flail was gone. There were some heavy objects, but if they were going to fly, then weight had to be the first consideration. There was, however, something in the room that hadn’t been there before.

She crossed quickly to the small table and picked up the bottle of wine.

‘Is it French?’

She gave the label another look, then nodded.

‘Smash it open.’

She placed it on the bed, lifted the quilt over, then brought the lamp down on it. She tore away the quilt and stared at the prize at the bottom of the bottle. ‘Browning, 9mm, semi-automatic. Sir?’ she asked, his lack of surprise intriguing.

‘It’s sufficient to say that Wrath is on our side.’ His wings extended and he flapped them once, leaving him floating in mid-air. ‘We’re leaving, now.’

She stepped onto the makeshift silk harness, wrapped one arm around him, checked her range of movement, then nodded against his chest.

With one massive flap of his wings, they shot out the large open window that looked out over the cliff face the Magpie Court sat upon.

She held her body against his as tightly as she could – there weren’t even minutes until someone saw them escaping, or found her room empty, and every iota of wind resistance could make their escape attempt fatally slow.

A few dozen magpies were disturbed as they flew higher. Her eyes scanned each in turn, looking for any sign that they were more than low cousins. Nothing. They were all just normal birds.

Normal birds, and one guard having lunch on the same outcropping. He stared at them, an overstuffed sandwich halfway to his mouth.

‘Sir!’

She pushed herself away from Taylor, and launched herself toward the guard, who still hadn’t grabbed a weapon, or even put down his sandwich.

With a grunt, she hit the guard, the cliff wall and the sandwich. She broke his neck with one swift movement, patted down the corpse for weapons – finding two small throwing knives, then let herself fall back into her commander’s arms.

‘I can hear an alarm,’ Taylor said as she righted her footing in the harness.

She listened, and heard it, an alarm floating on the wind. They’d been- No. They had a huge lead. Enough of a lead. Gods, it had to be enough.

Taylor seemed to have no trouble with his wings, pushing them higher and higher into the sky as easily as he would climb a flight of stairs.

If there was a soft spot in the sky, it meant the Court had a finite sky, it meant that they would reach the roof of the world. Touching the sky wouldn’t be a metaphor.

She cast a look below, and saw soldiers spilling out of the Court.

‘Are we going through this again, Magnolia?’

The voice was close. Her mother wasn’t.

‘You will come back, and this will begin again.’

It was true. Even if – big if at this point, judging by the horde of gaining soldiers – they escaped, everything would just start over.

‘Faster, sir.’

Agency. They needed to be back in the Agency. Back with supplies, options, allies. Another hit of the experiment’s blue would at least stalemate the situation for a few hours.

A few hours. A few hours to think of the same options that they had thought of the first time around. A few hours to hire an assassin. A few hours to hire a Court traitor and launch a genocidal attack on the magpies. A few hours to start a war.

Bullets shot past, and she swung the Browning down towards the soldiers, keeping her finger away from the trigger – none of them were within range, and the few that could be close enough weren’t close enough to allow an accurate shot, and accuracy was king when bullets were limited.

‘How far?’

‘There,’ he said, as she turned from their pursuers for a moment. There was a slight depression in the sky – a barely-noticeable upward pull of the clouds into the solid blue sky.

‘Last chance, Magnolia.’

‘Do I really have to say that I’d rather die?’

‘Wishes can be granted, Magnolia.’

She felt the skin across her chest and middle sparking and cracking, readying to explode.

‘Sir.’All for nothing. All of it, all for nothing. No reason for him to die. ‘I love you.’

She let go of him, tucked her limbs against her body and dove toward the oncoming soldiers.

Take a few of them out at least. Disorient the high-flyers. Give Taylor a chance to-

His strong arms grabbed her from behind. ‘Fade!’ he screamed into her ear.

She fixed the roof of the world into her mind, her vision tunneling as they dropped closer to the soldiers and their now much more accurate shots, and began to race down the tunnel.

The fade tunnel had always just been that – a tunnel. The thinnest of tubes she had pushed herself through towards a pin point-sized image of her destination. It had always been more like a trick of the mind than a proper fade.

No more. She could stand. She could see. Her destination – the vortex in the sky was still visible at the “end”, but so was everything else, the ground far below her feet. It was so much more the “walk” that other fae had described to her.

One last thing learned before death.

Taylor kept his grip on her as the first wave of the explosion hit.

Fire, hot as napalm burnt as her skin cracked and sealed over and over, but the flames dissipated almost as soon as they hit the still, dead air of the fade. The second, third, and fourth waves of the explosion were even less kind. She heard herself screaming, and even that wasn’t enough. Every inch hurt, ribs snapped under pressure, the feathers on her back shrivelled, and worse, deeper pain, hit, an indicator that she was seriously, seriously hurt.

His arms held her up, despite the need to sleep, the need to curl up into a ball and sink into a pool of morphine. It would have been fatal. It should have been fatal. For once, her mother had honestly been trying to kill her, rather than just fuck with her.

The grey tunnel of the fade shook, a shoddy shack in a gale, then finally shattered as the last bit of the explosion wracked her broken body. Blood slid down her legs, poured from deep gashes in her arms, leaked from under her fingernails, painted her in red all over. Her body lost tension as they were cast back into the world, and she began to pitch toward the earth again.

The soldiers had caught up. Two grabbed her and began to pull her back toward the earth. She lifted the gun, still miraculously in her blood-slick hand, and shot one in the chest. He clutched at the wound, dramatic as a pantomime actor, then dropped like a stone.

She turned to the other and kicked him. He swore, then released her, letting her fall as she stayed above, drawing a weapon. She swung the Browning up and fired two shots – one whizzed uselessly past his head, but the other managed to clip a wing, and he screamed obscenities as he plummeted past her. Wings. They all had wings. Not a few dozen feathers protruding from their backs, and not just a slight edge against gravity, but real wings, and the ability to give gravity the finger.

Taylor swooped beneath her, she landed on his back. It hurt him, something she would have known even without hearing his shout of pain.

He was tiring, fast, his wings weren’t beating with the same ferocity, they weren’t climbing with the same speed, and they were still far from safe.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and let her legs slide down his back and into the harness.

There was blood on his wings. Hers. His. Both. Didn’t matter. Parkers. Jones. They would fix everything. Gods, everything hurt. Everything except her hands, she couldn’t even feel those.

They hit the soft spot, they touched the sky, they pushed through the sky.

The building that rose up in front of them as they left the Court, however, was not something that could be pushed through.

At the last second, Taylor swung his right wing around, and it took the brunt of the impact. He grabbed her as they fell, and she could barely feel his hands. Barely-

One last fade. One last kiss. One last miracle. Anything. Nothing. So much of everything was nothing now.

She tried to focus on his face.

She tried to focus.

She couldn’t even speak.

She couldn’t even-

45 – Interruption of the Status Quo

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The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Five


Ryan looked up as Clarke entered the conference room. The liaison barely looked at him, instead starting to pace around the room, nearly walking into Darren, and only stopping when he came to Grigori.

He watched as Clarke flipped open the Russian’s jacket, and extract a hip flask from an inner pocket. ‘Pay you later,’ Clarke muttered.

‘I have more if you need it,’ Grigori said.

Clarke turned to look at him. ‘Taylor’s…not coming back.’

‘He’s dead?’

Clarke continued to pace around the conference room. ‘May as well be. He’s suffering withdrawal really badly, and he’s been unconscious too long to wake up.’

‘Do you want to start at the beginning?’

‘Not particularly, Ryan,’ Clarke said, but sat at the head of the table anyway. He lifted the hip flask, drained it all, then looked at each agent in turn. ‘None of this is overly pleasant, if you can’t handle squick, then leave now.’

‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to hear the truth,’ Grigori said.

‘Just talk,’ Darren said.

Clarke ran his hands through his hair, sighed, then nodded. A lit cigarette appeared in his hand, and after a long drag, he looked up. ‘So, first, sitting in a waiting room for three hours. This, on it’s own, wouldn’t have been so bad…had it not been for four screens showing agent snuff porn. Not like I could say anything, or whatnot…and some of it was real, not just that fakey stuff they make with regenners in costume.’

‘The Remington video?’ Grigori asked.

‘It was somewhere in the playlist,’ he said, ‘it’s a classic ain’t it?’ Clarke sucked bitterly on his cigarette for a moment. ‘So after that joy, got escorted through…and I’m starting to think Magpie is blind, her Court is seriously that ugly.’

‘What about Magnolia?’ Darren asked.

‘Before or after I had to watch her suck off one of her brothers?’

Darren went silent and stared down at the glass of the conference table.

‘After, Clarke,’ he said, ‘we-’

‘If I had to go through this shit, Ryan, you lot can at least hear about it. My job isn’t always pleasant, but this…I don’t have words to describe how disgusted I am right now.’

He sighed. ‘Magnolia’s alive at least.’

‘Could be in much worse condition, considering…and if they get their way, there will be…this is all some fucked-up plan to create a super baby. Magpie wants a replacement, and Mags is going to be the mummy. She isn’t pregnant, but it’s not for a lack of trying.’

‘And Taylor?’

‘Welcome whoever Jonesy and the techs build with open arms because we’re not getting them back.’

The words were expected. The information had been easily interpolated. It was the truth, it was what had been predicted.

It still hurt.

‘How bad was he?’ he heard himself ask.

‘Bad, boss,’ Clarke said. ‘Way worse than when you were pulled back over. You might have been shaking yourself apart and couldn’t tell glitch from reality, but you were mobile, a bit, at least.’

He looked away for a moment, not wanting to concentrate on bad memories.

‘He’s not…’ Clarke continued. ‘He’s barely breathing, he’s sweating like a pig and I don’t think the IV she’s got hooked up to him is doing shit. He might have a day or two at most left, but he’s not going to wake back up before then.’

‘I’d propose war,’ Grigori said, ‘but it would be a request falling on deaf ears.’

‘We can’t stop you from taking your own actions,’ he said, ‘but the Agency can’t go to war.’

‘You shouldn’t have let him go in the first place!’

‘He made his choice, Agent,’ he said, his voice terse. ‘There was nothing we could do. She was dying, he deserted.’

‘Don’t try and pretend it’s desertion, Ryan, you-’

‘We can’t go to war for a dying agent and a recruit, we just can’t.’

‘I don’t have an in with the magpies,’ Grigori said, ‘they have no stable entrances, I’ve got no way of breaching their defences. I can’t wage another war by myself, and you wasted our one shot at diplomacy.’

Clarke stood, and hurled the hip flask back at Grigori.

‘Apologise, Grigori,’ he demanded.

Grigori shook his head. ‘No. You could have done more. You could have done anything. He’s going to die, and you’re to blame.’ With that, he shifted away.

‘Clarke?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Take the next two days off, consider yourself on-call, but…clear your mind.’

‘How’s Jonesy progressing?’ Clarke asked as he leaned against the conference table.

‘A little faster than normal,’ he said, ‘he’s getting help from some of his recruits, if I push him…less than twenty-four hours.’

‘It’s going to be weird without them,’ Clarke said as he lit another cigarette. ‘I’ll miss them, in a weird sort of way. But…without Taylor here, I think we’ve got a far greater shot at getting stabilised. If the new guy isn’t a jerk anyway.’

‘Considering the circumstances, do you think we can delay the external training?’

‘Yeah,’ Clarke said, ‘I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Now if we can just-’

‘She’s going to die, or worse,’ Darren said. ‘There has to be-’

He swung on his chair to face the outpost agent. ‘There is nothing we can do. Even if we could retrieve her, she’s still under her mother’s power, so unless you know a way of removing her magpie half, she’s in danger either way.’

‘Because of you, because of him. He trained her to use her fae side, her mother would have no interest in her now if he hadn’t.’

‘That’s the weakest logic I’ve heard in this room in a long time,’ Clarke said. ‘And fuck you for judging, Dazza,’ he said, his voice growing thick with contempt, ‘she’s been a recruit for two years, you could have said something at any point, you don’t get to hindsight-is-twenty-twenty on this.’

Darren stood, then shifted away.

A few seconds later, Stef shifted into the conference room. ‘Ok, question, are small children supposed to randomly disappear?’

‘Darren left.’

She made agitated motions with hands. ‘He could of said something, cause, suddenly disappearing child is a bit weird!’

He felt his world centre a little. ‘For future reference, no, they don’t tend to spontaneously disappear.’

‘Good.’

‘I’ll order another Aide from the Academy,’ Clarke said, ‘New guy-’ he turned to look at Stef, ‘does he have a name yet?’

She shook her head. ‘Jones wants to wait till we’re done.’

‘New guy can replace them if he’s unhappy, but at least we’ll get some of the paperwork done in the interim.’ He looked back at Stef. ‘You been to the basement yet?’

‘This afternoon, Clarke,’ he said.

‘Better be,’ Clarke said, ‘we’ve got a chance for a fresh start here, and that means everyone pitching in, for better or worse, and I’ve dealt with my “worst” quota for the next month. If you need me, call me.’ He stubbed out his cigarette on the table, then shifted away.

Stef spun the chair beside him, then slid into it. ‘Something bad happened, didn’t it?’

‘Taylor’s dying, and we don’t rescue recruits. Magpie won.’

‘Ho-how upset are you about this?’

‘Conflicted,’ he said, ‘more than upset. I’ll notice them gone, but…I don’t know if I’ll miss them, if you know what I mean. It sounds callous, but it’s also honest. The situation would be different if he hadn’t succumbed to withdrawal. When withdrawal hits an agent that badly…they don’t wake up. You survive, or you don’t. He’s been a miserable bastard, and for that I blame myself, but he-’

‘All you have to do is ask.’

He looked across at her. ‘No.’

She patted her chest. ‘I’ll do whatever you want, whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do this, all you have to do is ask.’

He pulled her hand away from her chest. ‘No.’

‘If it will make you feel better-’

‘It sets a dangerous precedent,’ he said, ‘what happens when another agent goes missing, what happens when one is dying, what happens when they decide that you are worth more as a commodity than as an agent?’

She looked away for a moment. ‘Then we deal with that then,’ she said, ‘what do you want to do right now?’

‘You are worth far more to me than he is,’ he said. ‘And what I need to do right now is ask Jones to work faster, to approve the new Aide when Clarke sends me the paperwork and to placate the combat recruits.’

She gave him a small smile. ‘Are you sure?’

‘I am.’

‘You need to do something fun – and not today, don’t give me the “I has paperwork” speech, I know you do, but sometime soon.’

‘We could visit Patty and Magic Mike on the weekend.’

‘Okies.’ She swung on her chair. ‘As to the basement…could you wait until I’ve got the automated codes running, I don’t want to take a break, do that, then come back and have to code again, I’ll be too distracted.’

‘How much do you know?’

‘Enough to know it’s not going to be pleasant.’

‘That would be correct.’

‘You go see Jonesy, I’ll go back to coding, I’ll let you know when I’m done?’

He gave her a nod.

She gave a smile, then shifted away.

He stood, shifted to his office, required one set of killed-in-action paperwork, and a missing-in-action set for Magnolia. He stared at the paperwork, then cast them aside.

He walked across his office, stared at one of the wall panels, and waited for the code entry lock to appear in his HUD. He entered the code and the panel disappeared, replaced with a door. He stepped though the door and heard the wall panel replace itself.

Warm sun radiated down from a fake, holoform sky. Fresh, real grass crunched beneath his feet as he walked through his garden. Rows of fresh sprouts were growing strong, and a sprinkler activated as he walked past – the timer perfect as always.

He left the younger plants and made his way up the small hill, to the tall tree reaching high towards the unreal sky. He pressed a hand against the fifty-year-old tree, shrugged off his jacket and sat beneath it, the sun playing through the leaves, leaving patterns of light and shadow on his hands and sleeves.

He bundled his jacket into a makeshift pillow, laid on it, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to sleep.

44 – The Problem of Consciousness and Children

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The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Four


‘I’m still seeing code.’

‘How long were you at it?’

Stef took her hands off her face and tilted her head back to look at him. ‘This session? Only eighteen hours, which isn’t that long when I get in the zone, but…I’m not used to it being so…visual I guess? Bright and shiny and stuff. Also, coding in three-d is more than a little weird.’

Ryan gave a shrug. ‘You do have the option to do it on a regular computer.’

‘Are you kidding? I said it was weird, I didn’t say it wasn’t cool! I mean, the level of complexity I’m getting to deal with..Neo can kiss my ass.’

‘You’re going to have to sleep at some point.’

‘I’m sixty-four percent done, can probably get another seventeen percent done before dinner.’ She required a tablet computer and ran her fingers across it. ‘If I do another two hours work after that, I can get another five percent to do itself.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘I’m patching, coding and debugging, so I’m pretty much in my element. It’s not like I’m getting to do any of the complicated stuff.’

‘Even if it isn’t complicated, you are helping.’

‘I’m also being really selfish,’ she said as she sat up and retrieved her bottle of soft drink from the floor. ‘I don’t give a fsck about the new combat agent, but doing this…sort of helps me understand what exactly went into me to make me work.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’

She stood and dragged a freshly-required chair around to his side of the desk. ‘Is there something you could answer for me?’ she asked as she settled cross-legged into the chair.

‘Unless it’s about Atlantis again.’

‘One day, you will tell me the truth about-’

‘Stef.’

She swung the chair side to side for a few seconds. ‘I’m not sure..I’m not sure I understand the recycling thing.’

‘What in particular?’

‘Ok, so there’s got to be the original set of modules, right? Kick Ass A, Computer Science B, that kind of stuff, right? If, and I’m assuming if, those modules haven’t been lost, then why bother ripping agents apart to reuse?’

‘If it makes you uncomfortable to think about…’

‘No, that wasp that eats a caterpillar from the inside out makes me uncomfortable to think about. This…I just want to understand. This is what I am as well, now, so unless there’s some sort of purity test, bits of me are going to be used in future agents, or future whatever-angels-are-instead-of-agents, you know what I mean.’

‘There are, for one reason or another, several humans in the collective unconscious, which is where we retrieve the parts of previous agents that we need.’

‘It’s also that big funky file repository, right?’

‘Correct, but that’s a separate section.’

‘Still, why?’ she asked. ‘And don’t say you’ll tell me when I’m older.’

‘It’s the problem of consciousness.’

‘Buh?’

‘Our kind were initially all made from scratch, a clean copy of the code each time, nothing saved from the previous generation.’

‘There’s a “but” isn’t there?’

‘A large degree of newly-generated agents were failures. Think of what it’s like for someone born an agent – there’s nothing, then you open your eyes for the first time and you’re a fully functional, reasoning, conscious being.’

‘With a job and everything.’

‘Exactly. You are nothing, then you are are everything. You are seeing everything for the first time, but you know what everything is, you’re forming full sentences with words you’ve never used before, you’re interacting people, but you’ve never been taught how to shake hands.’

‘I never…I never thought of that.’

‘Even you must have experienced some of that,’ he said. ‘We all do.’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, a bit.’

‘That’s why so many of us would fail, it was just too much to comprehend all at once, and they’d just go mad, or shut down.’

‘Sheesh.’

He gave a nod. ‘Eventually, they found that using pieces from agents who had attained, and sustained consciousness helped with the process – that even if latently, unconsciously, there were parts of that new being that were used to being conscious, it made the whole process easier. It’s still difficult, but it’s no longer an insurmountable task.’

There was a knock at the door.

‘Come in,’ Ryan called.

Stuart walked in, a little girl balanced on his hip, a blue nappy bag slung over his broad shoulders and a worried expression on his generally-jovial face. ‘Am I late?’

‘For once,’ Ryan said, ‘no…I wasn’t aware that we had an appointment.’

‘Clarke said I was welcome to the meeting, is he back yet?’

Ryan looked to his left, the same way he always did when he was checking the time. ‘No, but he’s due back any minute now, if things didn’t go…badly.’

‘It’s Magpie,’ Stuart said with a look of disgust on his face. ‘All she does is make things go badly.’

‘You’re welcome to the meeting, Darren, but your child-’

‘Already taken care of,’ Stuart said as he took a few steps forward. ‘The short lesbian can look after her. Girls make good babysitters. It’s genetic. Plus agent. Blue-enetic?’ He pushed the child into her arms and dropped the nappy bag on the floor beside her chair.

Ryan sighed. [It’ll only be for a while.]

She stared at the little girl. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ Stuart said with a grin, ‘let your maternal instincts take over.’

She focussed on cookies. ‘Yeah, ok, I need a longer break from coding.’

[Are you sure?]

[This is why I have a camp buddy, right?]

Stuart looked to the door. ‘Let’s go wait for him, you can fill me in on whatever I’ve missed.’

Ryan stood, put a comforting hand to her head, then followed the harried agent out of his office.

She stared at the child for a moment, reached down, grabbed the nappy bag and shifted.

She knocked frantically at Curt’s door. ‘Four seconds or I’m shifting in.’

‘Sheesh, newbie,’ he said as he pulled open the door, ‘what is-’

She pushed past him before he had a chance to argue. ‘This!’ she said, holding the child awkwardly. She let the nappy bag slide off her shoulder and pointed to the child for emphasis. ‘This!’

He started towelling his hair. ‘Stef, is there something you need to tell me?’ he asked with a grin.

She put the little girl down on the bed and began to construct pillow-fort walls around it. ‘She’s Stuart’s, he’s barging in on the meeting for some reason, and Ryan’s indulging him, so I got…’

‘Yeah, yeah, you were the only girl around. I’ve seen it happen. Why aren’t you in on the meeting, it’s got to be more important than this, couldn’t he have palmed it off on the techs?’

‘I think he wanted it back in one piece. And I’m sequestered off coding anyway. Or supposed to be anyway, this is my first break in eighteen hours.’

He jerked a thumb at the couch on the wall next to the kitchenette. ‘You can crash for a bit, I won’t tell.’

She shook her head. ‘Nah, s’ok, I just didn’t expect to have a kid shoved at me.’ She fell heavily onto the couch. ‘He was just like “the short lesbian can look after the kid”, then dragged Ryan off.’

‘Things must be getting serious if the outposts are getting worried.’

‘I try and not think about the big stuff, my head’s next to exploding most of the time anyway trying to hold all this information in.’

‘And Ryan didn’t say anything?’

‘It’s not the first time that he’s said something like that, and I’m always just…confused, so I turn mute trying to come up with a good response. I mean, compared to some fae I’m not short.’

‘He’s probably measuring on the Agent scale.’

‘And lesbians freak me out.’

He tilted his head. ‘Why?’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she said as she sculled a freshly-required coffee, ‘I’ve got nothing against anyone in the whole spectrum, but lesbians…’ She put her coffee down. ‘I just don’t know how they don’t achieve a critical mammary mass and have to deal with explosions.’

He opened his mouth.

He closed his mouth.

He looked away.

‘I’m just going to pretend that conversation never happened.’ He lifted the nappy bag and began to pull the girl’s toys out. ‘To other things that freak you out, I didn’t think kids would be one.’

She crossed her legs and scratched her stomach. ‘They’re fine from a distance, but I don’t know the first thing about actually doing anything with them.’

‘Come on, it’s easy.’

‘Maybe for you,’ she said. ‘I’m happy with my skill set.’

‘You don’t want a mini-me?’

‘Children aren’t topiary,’ she said, ‘or perfect little bonsai that you can prune to perfection. They aren’t supposed to be their parents.’

He gave her an apologetic look. ‘Didn’t mean anything by it.’

‘I know, but…I don’t know what your parents were like but mine wanted me to be a perfect little doll.’

‘My dad’s gay and my mum’s a drunk. Their marriage was a sham, at least after she found out, but they did the whole “think of the children” thing and stayed together, until they split which was far, far from pretty.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘I’d like it to stay that way, I can keep all of your secrets, you think you can keep one of mine?’ he rummaged around in the bag and found several containers of sliced fruit. ‘Has she been fed?’

‘He didn’t exactly give me instructions.’

He opened up one of the smaller containers and began to hand over slices of apple. ‘Kids are easy,’ he said, ‘if it helps you process it, just think of them as a verbal pet. Come here,’ he said, waving her over.

She groaned and got off the couch, then knelt beside him. ‘What?’

He handed her a slice of apple. ‘Here, it’s not hard.’

She popped the slice of apple into her mouth and returned to the couch. ‘I came for help, not for lessons. A child raised by me would need psychiatric care by the age of four, I’m not so cruel as to inflict that on someone who doesn’t deserve it. I don’t need to know how to do this stuff.’

He sighed, then fed the girl a few more slices before throwing the containers back into the bag. He handed the girl a large picture book, before turning and joining her on the couch. His leg brushed against hers as he sat, and she moved away, squishing herself against the plush arm of the couch.

‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘It’s ok,’ she said, but didn’t relax her legs.

‘When you…I mean…’

‘Huh?’

‘The reason you freak out when people touch you, I-’

‘There’s nothing to say.’

‘I didn’t mean to- I can imagine all of these really horrible reasons for it, but I know it’s-’

‘No, I mean, it’s nothing. Or because of nothing, or something.’ She pressed a hand to his arm. ‘The couple of people who have noticed, girls at school and stuff, they always assume…yanno, that I got molested or something.’

‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘the thought had more than occurred to me.’

She pulled her hand away. ‘Think of it this way, if someone can be like this because they’ve been…touched. Couldn’t it be because they haven’t been?’ She waved a hand. ‘Really bad wording. Wait. My parents didn’t hug me or cuddle me or physically comfort me when I was sick, sad or bad. I didn’t get to hide in their bed because there was a monster in my closet. I didn’t get my hand held, or my head patted, or anything like that. Up until I came here, almost all of the physical contact in my life has been purely formal or purely accidental. I’ve never had to deal with these sort of sensations before, I’m learning them like a child would. Not to mention I’m used to my personal bubble being the size of a flat.’

‘Well, I think you finally make sense.’

She gave him a too-wide smile. ‘There’s still tons about me you don’t know.’

‘Like what?’

‘I once ate a whole can of coffee.’

He stared at her.

She held her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. ‘Ok, it was a really, really tiny can.’

The little girl began to move toward the pillows, to breach the strong, proud walls of the pillow-fort. ‘I think I’m going to read her a story,’ he said, ‘any suggestions?’

‘Now that,’ she said with a grin, ‘that definitely comes under my skill set.’

43 – Food and Thoughts

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The Grey Edge: Chapter Forty-Three


Five Days Ago

‘Sir?’

For the sixth time in as many minutes, she pressed two fingers to his neck and felt his pulse. No change. Still weak. Still too weak. The worst part of withdrawal was over – he wasn’t shouting and thrashing around any more, wasn’t shaking on the floor, threatening to break open the scars and put him beyond help. The worst of it was over…but he still hadn’t woken, was unresponsive, was…was probably dying.

She pressed another cold compress to his forehead – it was useless, but it felt like she was at least doing something. If the fever didn’t break, if he didn’t wake, he was going to slip away, unconscious and without a fight.

Everyone was already treating him like he was dead – which was somehow better than treating him as though he were dying. Dying, they could still see him as a threat, as a draw out of the Court, as ties to an organisation despised. Dead, it was nothing more than her being weak, being a simpering lovesick fool hedging bets on a miracle.

Mordred, convinced of Taylor’s relative passivity, had stopped blocking medical supplies – such as they were, and was having less and less issue allowing her to visit and play nurse. Whether or not she as actually helping her commander, it was a good reprieve, and gave her more time to think, more time to weigh escape options, more time to think of ways to murder her mother. Planning, planning was always easier when there wasn’t a cock in your ass.

She squeezed the water out of the compress, soaked it again, then took his pulse again.

He was going to die, and it was her fault.

There was a cough behind her as her escort moved into the room. Without argument, she stood and left the room. There was no point in running, no point in snapping her escort’s neck – battles here had to be chosen carefully, else all was lost.

Taylor was going to die, all was lost.

All was-

Her escort turned down a corridor they rarely took. ‘Where does he want me now?’

‘Her majesty requested you.’

‘Of course she did.’

He led her into a large dining hall. The table there was longer than the Agency’s conference table – even when configured for all the outposts. From end to end the table was covered with food, two whole roast salmon taking pride of place on the table. She felt ill looking at them – the butchers and cooks had not even had the respect or decency to remove the heads – strands of blonde hair still hung from the head of the one closest to the foot of the table.

The bodies weren’t large – adult, obviously, but still young, judging by the proportions. College-aged kids. Young Salmon, brave enough to choose a life outside the safety of their Court and its borders, kidnapped and killed just for their blood.

It was going to spark another war.

Despite the length of the table, only four places had been set.

Her escort indicated to one of the chairs and she sat. She surveyed the table, ignoring the murder victims as best as she could, looking for any potential weapons – there were none. No carving knives, no large fork, not even a spoon to be sharpened into a shiv.

There were a few wine glasses, but their relative fragility made them temporary weapons at best, and any escape plan that had a chance of working needed something a lot more permanent.

She relaxed against the chair, and took stock of the rest of the room while servers busied themselves with final touches and adjustments of the platters.

Mordred entered, followed closely by the lawyer – they sat opposite her, then ignored her, going back to their own conversation. Wine was brought, and she drank it down, swallowing her urge to ram the glass down her brother’s throat and watch him bleed. The wine was cheap, definitely not the same vintage that the men across from her were enjoying.

‘Arty tells me,’ Mordred said, suddenly turning his attention on her, ‘that he’s close to a formula that should work. Quicker than expected, not bad for a bloodless faggot.’

‘I don’t mind,’ she said, ‘sooner I’m out of this place, the better.’

‘But we’re having so much fun,’ Mordred said with a grin. He turned to the lawyer. ‘Sure you don’t want a go, Francis? Free gratis and all.’

The lawyer put down his glass. ‘Gratis means free, you uneducated fuck.’

She stared in shock at the lawyer for a moment, expecting Mordred to snap back at him, to rant about being treated with the proper respect, or to impugn him for being just human. Mordred, however, laughed, and slapped the lawyer on the back. ‘And that’s why you’re paid the big bucks.’

With the sound of feathers, her mother appeared behind the throne-like chair at the head of the table.

‘I trust you two are comfortable?’ Magpie asked. ‘And Magnolia, do get those thoughts out of your head, I want this to be a pleasant evening.’

She expelled a long breath through her nose, then emptied her wine glass, tapping it against the table a few times to prompt the circling steward to refill it.

‘That’s better,’ Magpie said with what looked like a genuine smile. ‘We haven’t really had a chance to talk since you’ve been here, and I-’

‘I don’t want to hear anything you have to say. I accept what my freedom’s going to cost me, there was nothing in that agreement about remaining civil.’

‘It has been a while I suppose,’ Magpie said as she raised a glass to the men.

‘Since what, mother?’ she demanded.

‘Since we’ve had agent on the table. He’s dead, yes, Magnolia?’

‘If you want me cooperative-’

‘I think your cooperation,’ the lawyer said as he rose to fill his plate, ‘is only required so long as Mordred wants you conscious.’

‘Then why keep him here at all? Toss him back into a system area. Won’t matter one way or the other, right?’

‘It hurts you,’ Mordred said as he accepted a carving knife from one of the circling staff, ‘to have him here, and if you don’t want me, then I want to hurt you.’ He sliced neat sections of the roasted body, slapped a few pieces of meat onto his plate, then sat again. ‘It was never supposed to be you, Mags,’ he said. He lifted a chunk of meat with his hands and bit into it, the juices dribbling down his chin. ‘We didn’t expect the others to become unusable as quickly as they did.’

She looked to her mother. ‘Did you make him go through the same? Or did you choose him outright?’

‘Of course not, daughter, I had to make sure he was worthy. One of you has to be at least. Six male children, as soon as they were old enough, I made them fight for it. Mordred was, obviously, the victor.’

‘And your favoured prince ever since.’

‘You sound jealous, daughter.’

‘I’m trying to fathom your depravity.’

‘You’re one to talk of depravity, Recruit.’

She scowled. ‘I’m not the only one of your children who aligns themselves with the Agency. I really wish you would remember that, mother.’

‘I am aware,’ Magpie said, ‘but you are the only one to raise to such prominence, to show such loyalty, to-’

‘I’m sure that Bennefree would come close.’

This seemed to confuse her mother. ‘Who?’

‘He’s one of your children, mother, half-fairy. He’s a recruit. He’s an Aide. He’s the adopted son of an agent. You in your-’

‘He’s unimportant,’ she said with a dismissive wave.

‘Why not torture him like you do me?’

‘Because he’s no part of the golden age. Magnolia, I’ve spent three decades putting pieces into place so that we can rightfully be known as a court to be reckoned with. I wish to-’

‘The families,’ she argued, ‘are always the lowest order of courts. You yourself are…realistically nothing more than an agent, you are a function to keep order.’

The change wasn’t subtle, nor was it painless.

A beak shot from her face, growing faster than her mouth could adjust, and she felt teeth knocked out of place. The flesh on her arms dissolved in chunks as her bones withered, decayed, falling apart in front of her eyes.

Ribs shot out of her back as wings pushed out of her body, forcing her from the chair to the floor. Her vision changed as she felt clawed feet on her shrinking legs grasping for purchase on the smooth, tiled floor.

Her heart stopped for an instant, then began to flutter as it shrank, getting smaller and smaller within her changing chest. Feathers rippled out of her as more and more of her mass and height disappeared. She struggled and finally pulled herself free of the entangling fabric of her dress – it would do no good to be trapped beneath it.

Thoughts simplified, purified, complicated thoughts became harder to grasp. Escape. Flee. Fly. Food. Taylor.

She stumbled as she tried to take a step. A strong hand wrapped around her and lifted her up onto the table. She flopped, trying to steady herself with hands that no longer existed, kick with feet that were no longer human, scream with vocal cords incapable of speech. Her mother pulled on her wings, freshly-formed muscles screaming in pain as they were bent back, nearly to breaking point.

With a hiss, her mother dropped her to the table.

‘I can kill you any time I wish, Magnolia,’ Magpie said. ‘And if I so choose, I can simply allow Mordred to inherit my throne. I would prefer an heir with no outside contamination, but he will do if he must.’ Magpie stared down at her and wrapped a hand around her feathered neck. ‘Do you finally understand your place?’

She nodded her head as best as she could, her beak tapping against her mother’s hand.

‘Good.’

Her mother lifted her, then threw her against the wall.

The change back was even more painful. The urge to lie on the cold floor was overwhelming, to lie, to lick her wounds, to let unconsciousness take her to escape the pain. Waking up would be bad – blackouts generally resulted in chains, a measure of insurance in case she was somehow faking it.

She concentrated for a moment, making sure that all of her limbs where in the right place, and of the right size, began to internally recite the recruit handbook, then stood. She took a couple of uneasy steps, retrieved her dress from the floor, then looked over at Mordred. ‘Dressed or undressed?’

‘Dressed,’ he said, ‘you can pretend that-’

She tuned him out, and gave a nod as she slipped the dress over her head.

‘As I was trying to say, Magnolia,’ he mother said, ‘we are coming into our most powerful hour. It, however, is not my want to lead. I wish to take a step back, to be able to appreciate the fruits of my hard work.’

‘And if your heir was to turn around and kill you?’

‘I would be proud.’ A saccharine smile spread across her mother’s face. ‘That’s enough conversation for now, we should eat.’