Magnolia looked down at the small robot bumping into her foot – the small, comical-looking machine had a bag of popcorn attached to it, and a small sign instructing her to take some.
She took a small handful, then lifted her feet so it could pass. She lifted her head and smiled at Merlin, who sat next to Jones, on the row above her.
The first time Jones had come to one of these, it had surprised her to the point where she had suspected ulterior motives – such as the scholar wanting to shut it down or report them for a waste of time, but Jones, apparently, enjoyed the show as much as anyone else.
This far back in the bleachers, there was a lot of empty seats – most of the combat and field recruits were clustered in the first couple of rows, the rows that “may get covered in blood and body parts”.
Or, in her terms, any day ending in “y”.
Below them, on the floor of the combat gym, her commanding officer and Jane continued to duke it out.
Both were bloody and bruised, but neither showed signs of slowing – nor was there any reason for them to be slowing, they’d only been at it for twenty minutes, and there were stories of agent-vs-agent battles raging for days on end.
All around her, recruits from all three divisions cheered and booed as various blows landed – her own comrades whooped like drunken monkeys, clinking their bottles of cheap beer together.
The tech recruits calculated odds on large calculators, and captured the fight on camcorders. She made a quick mental note to check with Jones later – just to ensure that the footage didn’t make its way onto YouTube. Generally the techs were smarter than that, but there had been…occurrences.
The field recruits were split – unable to enjoy the pure beauty that was a fight between titans, nor were they able to view it as the tech recruits did. Some of them cheered, others just lazed back on the bleachers, content simply to watch.
O’Connor was one of these, he was nursing the same bottle of beer – obviously thrown at him by one of her fellows – that he had been on since the fight had started.
He’d been in her bed twice more in the week since the mirrorfall, and no part of her regretted inviting him in – he was a decent fuck, but he got the small things right, which counted for far more: his attitude towards her in public hadn’t changed, he didn’t expect preferential treatment in training, or even for her to acknowledge him more than she had before.
It was a shame Ryan treated him like shit – as a recruit, he was more than capable. The might have even been cause to transfer him to Combat, had his probation not stopped any interdepartmental transfers.
She popped a piece of popcorn into her mouth and chewed it slowly, her cheek still stinging from where Taylor had struck her in the warm up before the exhibition match.
She smiled as Taylor knocked Jane to her knees – then envied Jane’s position before the agent blurred, the shift bringing her to her feet. Jane jumped, grabbed the punching bag chain and using it to generate momentum for another kick.
The bleachers creaked as Merlin walked over to her, he dropped into the seat beside her and leaned his head on her shoulder, his soft breath blowing a few errant strand of her white hair away.
‘Why are they fighting?’ he asked, the edge of his goggles scratching her skin ever so lightly.
‘Jones didn’t tell you?’ she asked, leaning her head against his for a moment.
She felt Merlin shrug. ‘I like to ask sometimes.
‘It’s just for…fun,’ Magnolia said, still having trouble applying the word to her commander. ‘Every time she’s in town, they have an exhibition fight – at least one, actually – a lot of recruits don’t get to see agents fighting, and it’s nice to show what they’re actually capable of.’
‘And we can cheer,’ he said, a bright red wig appearing on his head. ‘Just not too loud, otherwise Agent Growly might-’
‘Don’t call him that, Mer.’
Merlin made a creaking noise and let his head fall into her lap. ‘I only say it when he can’t hear me.’
She reached down, gently pulled the wig from his head and tossed it at the field recruits. ‘Red isn’t your colour,’ she said quietly, ‘makes you look pale, Mer.’
‘That’s because I’m not getting enough sun,’ he said in a sing-song voice. ‘I don’t like the sun. Or, it doesn’t like me, or something.’
‘It’s just a ball of gas, Mer, this one at least, it doesn’t hate you.’
The slight boy gasped as the agents on the floor below caught each other in a headlock. ‘Hit cross!’ he shouted as he stood. ‘Keep hitting cross!’
She pulled him back down and he landed heavily on the seat. ‘Stop being a dork.’
‘I am not a boy-whale’s-thingy!’ He leaned against her chest. ‘Can I go to sleep?’
‘Mer, what’s wrong?’ she asked as he tried to make himself comfortable.
‘People’s heads have been really full. It hurts, and I can’t sleep good.’
‘So stay out.’
I can’t when people won’t stop shouting.
She pulled away and quickly looked around. ‘Merlin, don’t. You know better. Not when there’s people around.’
‘I’m too tired to be careful.’
She lifted her head and glared at Jones. The tech agent stared blankly, then came to sit on the other side of him.
‘Do you think having him out in public is the best idea?’ she hissed. ‘Especially on this floor? I usually credit you with not acting like an idiot, scholar-’
‘I can only keep him cooped up for so long. Everyone else was coming to this.’ Jones reached across and lifted Merlin, showing off his strength for once, and settled the boy in his lap.
‘I’ll be good,’ Merlin said. ‘I want to see ma’amy ma’am win, then I’ll go to bed.’
Magnolia opened her mouth to argue, to tell him that Taylor was going to win – because he always won – then decided against it. Merlin’s predictions – especially those about the short term – were too accurate to argue against.
She flicked her eyes back to the fighting agents, but only saw the same punches being exchanged.
Jane tripped Taylor, and he crashed the floor, his head impacting with a solid crack.
Taylor’s hand shot out and grabbed Jane by her ankle, yanking on it, he pulled her off-balance and she landed roughly on the floor beside him. He pushed himself to his feet and spat blood, then resumed the fight.
Magnolia made a mental note of that – along with all the other moves of Jane’s that had managed to get through his defences – anything that worked on him was something he’d want to focus his training on for at least a week.
Balance exercises could be particularly fun – as was his way of being prepared for multiple circumstances, he did them in various stages of dress, and helping him adjust his centre of gravity often gave her reason to touch him.
‘He always lets her bait him,’ Jones commented. ‘He gets angry, and she takes advantage of that.’
‘Why is she still here?’ she asked, feeling reasonably safe about voicing the question to Jones.
Jones stared at her, his bright green eyes bored. ‘What did you think would happen, Magnolia? You report the Director for one misstep and they hand the keys over? That the life of one recruit means so much that they’d recycle him?’
‘It’s indicative of a larger pattern of behaviour-’ she started.
‘Which is being looked into, but really, with no previous reports-’
‘This Agency can’t continue to operate like this,’ she hissed. ‘We’re a joke and it’s his fault.’
‘Ryan is one of the best men you’ll ever meet, Magnolia, even if he’s not the best agent. One day, I promise you, you’ll appreciate that fact.’
A large portion of the recruits cheered as Jane lifted Taylor bodily into the air and slammed him into the floor. The polished wood cracked under the force of the impact and Taylor remained motionless for a moment.
‘Ah, shit!’ one of the field recruits screamed.
The feathers on her back ruffled as a shot rang out.
The recruits went quiet as Jane fell, a neat hole in one side of her head, a mess on the other. Her body unceremoniously dropped to the floor and Taylor stood, the smoking gun in his hand.
After a moment, the body disappeared, another moment passed, then Jane faded back into the gym. ‘No need to be a sore loser,’ she said, loud enough for all of them to hear. ‘Losing to a superior is never something to be ashamed of.’
Taylor growled. ‘Rematch. Tomorrow.’
Jane blew him a kiss. ‘I wouldn’t miss it, darling.’ She reached up and pulled her hair from her bun as she walked towards the recruits, and crooked her finger to the field recruit sitting next to the esky.
The recruit tossed her a beer, and the recruits slowly started to filter out after paying off their bets.
There was a blur of air beside her as Jones and Merlin shifted away.
O’Connor, still holding his single beer, slowly stood, gave her a brief look as he turned, then walked from the gym.
Jane exited a moment later, a towel wrapped around her neck.
Magnolia stood, and made her way down to where Taylor was still standing in the middle of the gym, apparently captivated by the self-mending floor.
His flicked his gaze at her for half a second, long enough for her to recognise the challenge in his eyes – he was doing her the unnecessary courtesy of warning her that he was going to attack her.
She planted her feet as his fist flew at her, starting her fade far later than she usually would. She felt the ghostly, creepy feeling of his fist passing through her disappearing skull as she aborted the fade, the momentary loss of form allowing her to slip past his arm, and past his defences.
The floor was still mending, and she stepped into it, the slightly unstable movement making her shorter than she usually was, throwing off his routine.
His fist came again, aimed just a little high.
This time, she wrapped her arms around the flying arm, and flipped upwards, releasing her body at the top of her arc, before forcing her body down behind his just as quickly, a required knife sliding between two of his ribs.
His elbow came back and smashed her in the face, his other hand following to grab her by the hair. His fingers sank deeply, and he whirled her around, a chunk of hair coming loose as he did.
The floor came to her face too quickly to react, and his foot came down on her neck before she could take in a breath, followed off by the familiar feel of his gun against the back of her head.
She spread her hands, dropped the knife, and stayed still for a moment, letting him know that he’d won this round.
The gun disappeared, and she felt his hand grabbing at the back of her dress to pull her to her feet. He released her as she righted herself, a brief look from him telling her that he was done for now.
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