Magnolia looked down at the agent in her lap. An agent that had been asleep for an hour now, barely moving, barely twitching, sleeping calm, despite the storm of emotions that had been in the conversation beforehand.
A week ago, she would have taken the opportunity to slit the woman’s throat.
Now, her brain was somehow categorising Mimosa in the same way that she did Merlin – someone small, unprepared for the world, and in need of protection.
Mimosa snored, and she couldn’t hold back a smile.
Footsteps – the footsteps that her heart beat to – approached the door of the common room. Taylor appeared in the doorway, standing slightly to the side – something they both did, it was something that brought you precious inches close to cover, something that had surely saved their lives on multiple occasions.
Her commander looked down at Mimosa, and she gave him a helpless look in return – there was nothing specific she needed to do at the moment, no missions were scheduled, there was no training that she needed to head up. If he was looking for her, it was for a spar, a fuck, some paperwork, or some combination of all three.
Paperwork, fighting, and fucking were important, but so was this. He’d never questioned her need to give up half a day every month to volunteer at the crisis centre, and in some subtle way, she’d pushed herself into the position of their agency’s rape counsellor.
Victims and survivors needed people who understood, who knew every shitty inch of the feelings that assault forced on you – the continual aftershocks that hurt, even after the physical trauma of the original event had passed.
The agent whose head she was cradling was useless, and a drain on agency resources, but for this, no one was going to get in the way of providing whatever comfort the should-be-a-tech needed.
Mimosa stirred and stiffened in her lap, the hand that had been grasping at the air like a toddler in a crib clasped onto Magnolia’s thigh, as if to protect her from the monster that Mimosa seemed to view Taylor as.
He wasn’t a monster, he was a soldier.
Mimosa got unsteadily to her feet, and took up a stance that Magnolia was sure was supposed to be something approximating squaring off against Taylor.
Magnolia leaned back against the couch, and wondered idly if she could require Merlin’s popcorn bot – whatever confrontation was about to take place was going to be interesting – unless it was over in five seconds, with a small Mimosa-shaped hole in the wall.
Taylor grunted and turned away.
A small, red ball bounced off the back of his head.
For a moment, whilst the red ball bounced to the floor, and slowly rolled away, he stayed motionless. When the ball had stopped moving, he turned, his face strangely neutral. ‘Was that,’ he asked, ‘an attack?’
‘I wanted your fucking attention!’ Mimosa screeched, her voice breaking. ‘You can’t just-! I saw you with him! Did you know he was going to-?! You just-! You just-!’ Mimosa was shaking, her arms swinging by her side. ‘It’s not fair!’
‘His plan. Kept it to himself. We had no intel.’
‘And that’s all you’ve got to say? You tried to murder me. Your asshole friend tried to murder me!’
To Magnolia’s surprise, Taylor averted his gaze. ‘Not you.’
Mimosa collapsed onto the couch, and pulled a cushion into her lap. ‘The fuck did you say?’
Magnolia watched as Taylor affected an at-ease stance – this was something strange. It was the default position he took when he knew a long conversation was going to take place, and that he would be required – not just expected – to take part in it. There was something about the military posing that calmed him, even through the unmappable sea of words.
Magnolia looked to Mimosa, who – despite giving every outward sign of being some kind of genius – seemed stupefied by this statement. ‘You came to my room,’ she said, ‘you tried to kill me, you- You- You-’ She pressed four fingers to the side of her head and dragged them back. ‘You shot me! You shot me and I can’t stop feeling that bullet. Jones had to take out part of my skull and replace it! If I’d been a second slower, then- Then I wouldn’t-’
‘Not you,’ Taylor repeated again. ‘Whitman. I was- Impaired.’
‘But it was me you shot!’
Taylor took a step forward, and Mimosa flinched. ‘Grigori just proved it. You are- Wishes. Could be used against the Agency. Against Magnolia. Against me.’
Magnolia lifted her gaze to her commander, to her lover, to her everything, and smiled.
‘And you think that excuses it?’ Mimosa asked, her voice level and steady, a little lower than usual. ‘You could be ordered to explode the nuke that’s sitting in storage. What someone else does- What we are, what we are capable of, sir, is not who we are.’ She stood, a bold step for the timid little hacker. ‘I am not a danger, because I choose not to be. If you’re not a murderer, then I deserve a fucking apology.’
Magnolia closed the lid on the innuendo before it could fully form – a joke about being fucked as an apology wasn’t what Mimosa needed, given the givens.
‘And I demand one,’ Mimosa said. ‘If this is- If this is going to be my home. Which it is, cause the Agency has a lifelong contract on me, then I don’t want- I don’t want to be afraid that every time I step foot onto this floor, that you’re going to be gunning for me.’
‘I don’t use guns,’ Taylor said, almost a reflex.
‘It’s true,’ Magnolia said, feeling she needed to contribute something to the odd stalemate. ‘It’s not personal enough.’
Taylor continued to stare down at the other…agent – if that was what they were supposed to accept her as – and after a few more seconds, Mimosa’s will seemed to crumble.
‘Fine,’ Mimosa said, staring down at the floor. ‘Fine, I’ll stay away from-’
‘He stabbed you,’ Taylor said without preamble. ‘You should have defended yourself.’
‘My autopilot didn’t kick in,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t think it’s calibrated right for when people who are supposed to be my allies attack me.’
‘Have the Scholar recalibrate it.’
‘I haven’t had a chance,’ she said.
Taylor looked down, and a tablet appeared in his hands – standard Agency-issue tablets always looked so small and fragile in his hands – and stared at it for a moment. After some seconds had passed, he walked forward, and slapped it so hard against Mimosa’s chest that she fell back down to the couch.
‘Apology,’ he grumbled, then turned and walked out of the room.
Mimosa looked down at the tablet. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bomb,’ she said, in a shell-shocked voice. ‘It can’t be anything good.’
Magnolia, as curious, if not more so, as Mimosa, plucked the tablet from the girl’s unresisting hands.
Magnolia quickly assessed the contents of the tablet’s screen. It was a list of combat simulations – she recognised most of the titles, or their reference numbers. It was a combative playlist of the best sim room programs to teach a Tech self-defence. Most of the programs were geared towards a single user, and at that – a user that was starting with the lowest possible combat rating.
It wasn’t a system-generated list, as it was missing some of the more popular – but less effective – programs. It was a bespoke list, it was something he’d spent at least a few seconds constructing, it was – as Mimosa had wished for – an apology. It might not be an apology that made up for an attempted murder, but it was something that would surely ease the tension.
The tension was easing between Taylor and Ryan; and now Mimosa was becoming an element they could understand – if not controlled. They were stuck with Mimosa, whatever else happened, so if there was a way forward that would mean a truce between all parties, it would be good for everyone – with an agency that was consistently ranked amongst the worst in the country, they needed as little drama as possible.
Magnolia handed the tablet to Mimosa, forcing herself to be gentle, rather than slapping it against the experiment’s chest. ‘It’s not a bomb,’ she said, her words clipped. ‘It’s a training regime, and you’d do well to follow it.’
Mimosa looked down at the tablet. ‘Um. Okies.’ She brushed some hair behind her left ear. ‘And- Um- Thanks. For listening. For not-‘ She looked uncomfortable again. ‘For not ridiculing me.’
Magnolia kept her expression neutral, aware from the long hours she’d spent talking to survivors that she knew where the experiment’s mind was – but it wouldn’t do any good to jump to a conclusion. ‘Why would I ridicule you, Mimosa?’
Mimosa’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Cause you’re like the most badass person I’ve ever met? And I didn’t fight back, and-‘
Magnolia thrust a finger forward, and it hung in the air, an inch from Mimosa’s nose. ‘It’s not fight or flight. It’s fight, flight or freeze. And it’s not even that. That’s just the basic animal instincts. When you bring brains into it. Minds capable of understanding the consequences. When you know it’ll hurt more if you fight. When trying to run means you know you’ll have two guys gunning for you instead of one. An act undertaken under duress, any action you’ve been coerced into…those aren’t acts of free will.’ Magnolia reached down and squeezed Mimosa’s hand. ‘You aren’t weak for not fighting. Don’t ever, ever think that. That point, more than anything else is probably going to take months to sink in, but at least trust me, even if you don’t feel it.’
‘Yeah,’ Mimosa said, looking down at her legs, ‘okay.’
Magnolia stood. ‘I have work to do, and I’m sure you do too. If not, start with that list,’ she said, indicating to the tablet. She inclined her head. ‘Agent,’ she said, knowing the experiment would appreciate the use of her rank, and left the room.