Magnolia stepped off the lift and onto the primary tech floor. Screen stood twenty feet down the hall, lazily swiping her finger across one of the touchscreens that lined the wall. ‘You’re late,’ the tech chided gently.
Magnolia walked down the hall, and gave her best friend a kiss on the cheek. ‘I had to rescue a nerd, I think you’ll accept that as an excuse.’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Were we going out for coffee, or staying in?’
‘Out,’ she said, dragging Screen towards the lift. ‘I need to get out. Breathe some different air for five minutes.’
‘As you wish, ma’amy ma’am,’ Screen said as they entered the lift.
Magnolia entwined her fingers with Screen’s. They fit easily. They fit naturally. There was a reason the geeky woman was her best friend, and one of her favourite lovers – they just worked together. There was, however, always that boundary that had stopped her from ever considering a life with Screen, being partners, girlfriends, wives.
Screen, despite her resilience, strength, and general acceptance of all things Combat-related; was far more gentle than she could ever be. It was something she’d always known – Screen would cheer with Taylor punched a sim through the wall, but it was different when the violence was real.
Or when it was directed at a tech – as it had been the night before.
‘I spoke with Raz,’ Magnolia said as they crossed the lobby, and walked out of the agency. ‘Today. Not just the few minutes I had with him last night.’
‘I saw Taylor with Jones,’ Screen said. ‘Looks like he got some help. Jones had a tank up for at least three hours.’
‘Seems about right,’ she said.
Taylor had been with the Scholar for hours – but had returned from the Tech Department…not happy, but satisfied. He had kissed her again, his hands already finding their places while they kissed – and it was one of the few times in her life she didn’t hate being a tall girl – it kept her from having to stand on tiptoes to kiss her lover-to-be.
They’d kissed, but he’d needed his space, so she had done her work elsewhere.
Three little words had changed everything, and nothing.
That night would be the test.
But for now – she needed to tell someone before she exploded from keeping the secret.
‘He’s more stable,’ she said, ‘but I wanted to talk about Raz first, if that’s okay.’
‘He’s so tiny,’ Screen said. ‘I’m surprised Taylor didn’t break him.’ Screen looked at the ground as they crossed the street, their mutual lack of direction leading them inevitably towards the Agency-subsided fae pub. ‘I made sure his lead is going to take it easy on him over the next few days.’
‘You’re a good person,’ Magnolia said. Another fundamental reason that it wouldn’t be fair to ask Screen to spend her life with her. Magnolia knew, somewhere deep down, that she wasn’t a good person. She was a strong person, a smart person, she could love, cry and weep; but with all of that scraped away, she wasn’t a good person.
Part of her was just broken. Part of her was just…abhorrent, compared to shining lights like Screen.
‘I pulled a few of my aide strings and got him a couple of nights in one of those holiday units we have in Joxy,’ she said, ‘view of the river. It’s quite nice. It’s quite a score too, Princess Biteypants is supposed to be in town on the weekend that I got for him. So if he doesn’t want it, I’m sure he can barter it away.’
Screen gave a happy sigh. ‘I’ve been bitten,’ she said, reciting the highest honour that one of the Princess’ fans could. ‘When she was still a climbing star, and biting fans was quirky, rather than her signature move. She bit me, right on the arm.’ The tech smiled. ‘Happy memories.’
‘Her music isn’t half-bad either,’ Magnolia said, before she had a chance to second-guess her words – then realised she could let her guard down, she didn’t have to keep up appearances like she had to with some other recruits. With Screen – like with Taylor – she could be herself; even in the ways that seemed to be contradictory to the people who couldn’t see past her blade and her resting bitch face.
They got in the elevator up to the pub – that was primarily serving coffee and light meals this time of day – and found a booth in the corner – away from the 80-inch television.
There were a few other recruits – talking, eating, drinking, but none seemed to notice them.
They settled into their booth, and each used the tablet set into the wall to order drinks.
‘So what did you want to talk about?’ Screen asked, settling back against the booth.
She wanted to talk about – as Screen herself would likely put it: life, the universe and everything. Her life, her universe, her…everything. Her commander. Her- Her…whatever they were now.
She wanted to talk, to exclaim, to sing and celebrate, but only one word slipped across her tongue. ‘Taylor,’ she said, all of her joy pressed into a single syllable. ‘Taylor.’
Screen stared at her. ‘What are yo- No fucking way?!’ the tech asked, her voice rising with each word.
Magnolia reached across the table and grabbed Screen’s hands. ‘Shuuush,’ she said, her mouth cracking into a wide smile. ‘Shush, no-one else knows yet. I don’t even- All I know is- Something happened. We kissed. And it’s real. And-‘
Screen launched herself over the table and hugged her tightly. ‘I’m so happy for you!’ the tech said, the awkward angle leaving Screen’s sizeable chest smushed against her face. ‘I’m so happy for you!’
Magnolia tickled her side. ‘Death by boob,’ she commented blithely – but took a moment to breathe in the tech’s scent.
Screen slid away, then adjusted her top. ‘You are going to go into the kind of exacting, precise detail that you have in your reports, Miss ma’amy ma’am…cause I want all the dirt. Now!’
Magnolia grinned, and in precise, exacting detail, told the purple-haired woman everything that had happened the night before – minus the attempt on Mimosa’s life.
Screen moved around to her side of the booth as the fairy waitress brought their drinks, and gave her another warm, squishy hug. ‘I’m happy for you,’ she said, then kissed her cheek, ‘you deserve some happy.’
They drank in silence for a moment. ‘I don’t-,’ Magnolia started, unsure of how honest to be, then decided she was well past the point of jumping in with both feet. ‘I don’t know what this means moving forward. I said the words. He said the words. But I don’t know- How do I even ask him if he wants a label, if he wants exclusivity, if- If- If he even wants to fuck me?’
‘Gods, Mags, no one doubts you but you.’ Screen punched her shoulder. ‘You got this far by trusting yourself, and by knowing him. Relationships take work, but if they have the right participants, things just also fall into place. Bring up the questions when they seem natural, and come eat ice-cream with me when things don’t fall into place so naturally.’
Magnolia smiled. ‘He’s a man of few words, though,’ she said, ‘and a lot of these things require words.’
‘He said he loved you,’ Screen said, ‘and you’ve been- You know him. He knows you. Give it a chance before you start announcing the apocalypse. Be happy, FFS!’ Screen slid out of the booth and stood. ‘We need jewellery. Come on.’
Magnolia stared at the proffered hand for a moment, then smiled – there was nothing wrong with indulging in a little retail therapy once in a while. She took Screen’s hand, then stood and hugged her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘you don’t know what you mean to me.’
‘Sure I do,’ Screen said, pulling her towards the elevator. ‘You let me know all the time. You aren’t the cold-hearted bitch everything thinks you are.’
Magnolia gave her a lock of mock horror – even as genuine gratitude curled like a kitten in her chest. ‘Don’t let anyone know,’ she said, ‘I do have a reputation to maintain.’