Stef blinked, forcing herself back into the real world as the elevator stopped. The doors slid open, and one of the pet peeves took form. There were a cluster of recruits standing in the hall near the elevator. Too many to easily slip past.
For a moment, she considered shifting past them, but that would draw just as much attention to herself.
Brian – someone who was rising towards the ranks of Taylor and Mags in terms of people she hated in the agency – stood, holding a newspaper, surrounded by people best described as his cronies. Minions. Tools.
He lifted his head and looked directly at her, a triumphant look on his face. ‘Agent,’ he said, rolling the word around his mouth. ‘We had a question for you.’
Oh shit. Oh fuck. No. No. No.
Brian shook the newspaper so that it made a little pop noise, and she stared at the grainy image of herself, wearing nothing but underwear, her face obscured by pixels.
The article that had run in response to the entire tabloid world thinking she had slept with a prince. A story, that for various reasons – and favours – she and the prince hadn’t bothered denying. It was still embarrassing. It was still something she had left on the other side of the world.
The night with the prince had been amazing – six hours taking turns at Metal Gear; geeking out like they’d known each other forever, then falling asleep, only to be woken by paparazzi assholes who had finally worked out where he had hidden for the night.
The photo had made her famous and infamous. Had prompted phone calls from relatives she’d never met; had led to congratulations from closer relatives for her finally being useful. Finally contributing something to the family – who, as one of their income streams, owned shares in a lot of the tabloid papers plastering her underage body everywhere.
Amongst her classmates; there had been a mix of jealousy and slurs. Her apparent one-night stand made her a slut; a whore, and anything else they could think to throw at her – even though most of them would have willingly slept with the prince – if he’d any interest in women whatsoever.
It was part of her old life. It was never supposed to touch the agency.
Brian shook the paper in her face. ‘I thought you were a dyke,’ he said, ‘turns out, not so much. Don’t they do background checks before making someone an agent?’
‘Askell!’ a woman’s voice snapped from behind her. ‘What the fuck makes you think that this line of questioning is a good idea?’
Stef numbly turned towards the elevator; wondering briefly if the inanimate objects in the agency could speak…and stranger than the lift coming to her rescue; was Magnolia, standing just behind her.
Brian thrust the paper at Magnolia. ‘The new agent is a-‘
‘The new agent,’ Magnolia said, her voice clipped, ‘is an agent.’ She snapped her fingers and pointed. ‘Disperse. Get your arse out of my way.’
Magnolia put a hand on her shoulder, and she was too stunned to be afraid of the touch. ‘Move, Mimosa,’ the bird girl said, and pushed her through the crowd, leading her away from the man attempting to shame her. Magnolia’s hand stayed on her shoulder around two corners, and into one of the smaller common rooms – this one just containing two couches and a television.
The magpie pushed, and Stef easily fell onto the softer of the couches. Magnolia sat opposite her, and extended a hand, a cold glass of water there.
‘You need to work on your reactions, Mimosa,’ Magnolia said.
Stef stared at the water, but didn’t take it.
Magnolia sighed, and placed the water down on a newly required coffee table. A moment later, there was the rustle of paper, and she looked up to see Magnolia reading the article.
‘What’d he do?’ she asked, her voice dry. ‘Email it to everyone?’
Magnolia snorted. ‘I required a copy of whatever was in his hand. If the system knows what something is, you don’t need to. You’ve got a lot to learn.’ She laid the paper beside the water, and smoothed it out. ‘People – especially cishet guys – can be real dicks about this. You were always going to get hazed, but now that they have this to latch onto…’ Magnolia rolled her shoulders. ‘Toughen up. The less you react to it, the quicker it’ll go away.’
She looked up, latching onto the one part of the conversation she could handle. ‘I wasn’t expecting it,’ she said. ‘I haven’t even thought about Snake for ages.’ Magnolia quirked an eyebrow, and Stef felt herself blush. ‘He was Snake. I was Otacon. Geek thing. Kind of a Field/Tech split and-‘ the question bubbled in her chest. ‘And why are you- Why did you help me?’ she stared down at her hands. ‘You- You fucking hate me. And your pet Terminator tried to- And you probably laughed at-‘ she lifted her head, but couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. ‘Why did you rescue me?’
Magnolia leaned back against her couch. ‘I don’t hate you, Mimosa. I think you’re a threat. I think what’s in your chest is a lot more dangerous than what’s in your bra, but the Agency has let you out of the basement, so that means that I’m going to enforce a certain level of respect from the dickholes in your department, even if I am never going to call you ma’am.’ Magnolia lifted the glass of water, took a sip, then pushed it at her again. ‘And because the sluts have to stick together, because no one else will protect us.’
Stef stared at the water for a long moment, then lifted it and gave it an experimental sip. Almost surprisingly, it was nothing but cool, fresh water.
She considered Magnolia’s words for an even longer moment. ‘I’m not,’ she said, ‘but that doesn’t matter, does it? Cause the judgement has already been made, and if- And if people are dicks for something so small, then logic never really mattered in the first place, right?’
She was surprised when Magnolia smiled at her. ‘Yeah, Mimosa, exactly.’ The bird girl took the glass of water back. ‘I’d like to say that I appreciate the sentiment. That you didn’t immediately try and separate yourself, or make out that you were somehow better than anyone with the label of slut hanging around her neck.’ Magnolia pulled on imaginary necklace. ‘I know what people say behind my back. I know what they say to my face. I’m immune to their words. I don’t think you’re quite there yet. You’re going to have to be, if you want to survive. If they lose steam on calling you a slut, they’ll find something else. Be above their opinions.’ Magnolia stood, and nodded. ‘We’re not friends,’ she said, ‘but in this matter, Mimosa, I’ve always got your back.’