Magnolia finished tidying Taylor’s office – a job that was generally easy, except when he had seen the need to upset and decimate the furniture, or bleed over his paperwork. Office in an acceptable state, she moved through the door in the back to the private gym.
For one hour a day, Taylor’s gym was all hers.
It was a tradition that hadn’t started until she’d been at the Agency for a year – up until that point, he’d insisted that she only use it with his permission, and mostly when he was actually present.
It hadn’t been a matter of security or schedule – her Aide access gave her permission to enter the room at anytime – she’d offered the paperwork to change that, and he’d hit her for the presumption; and she hadn’t asked again.
It wasn’t particularly a trust issue either, it seemed to be something more – he was letting her into his space. He was making an allowance for her. He was integrating her into his life.
Initially, she’d wasted the time doing her usual routines, taking the opportunity to play music and relax – something she couldn’t do in their sessions together.
Soon after though, she’d seen it as a space to work on difficult manoeuvres – on tricks and moves that he practiced with her, but the time alone was a chance to understand them, to put her own spin on them, and most importantly: to become comfortable with them.
She summoned the balance track with a requirement, and lightly jumped up onto it.
He’d recruited a fae girl, and she’d been a disappointment to him at every turn – except those turns where she had attempted to take his life – so he’d set about improving her from her second day in the Agency.
She’d made fourteen attempts on his life that day. Two had left him with severe injuries that he’d patched up himself, whilst forcing her to watch so that she could begin to understand the effectiveness of each emergency pack.
It had been, in its own way, fascinating to watch an agent repairing a gushing cut into flesh and muscle with a sachet of blue you could lose in a small pile of paperwork.
It was so different from all the times she’d seen Adelaide heal Darren with liberal amounts of blue – probably way too much if truth be known, but nine times out of ten, it wasn’t a finite resource, so there was no need to be cheap.
Taylor had applied the bulk of the packet to the wound, then had torn it open and wiped the dregs of blue onto the top, urging the raw skin to heal.
It had been a show of patience and restraint the likes of which she hadn’t seen him exercise anywhere else.
And then he had brought himself level again by savagely beating whatever was in his way, showing how well the wounds had healed.
The pattern had continued for weeks, morphing into their new dynamic with geologic slowness.
It had started with paperwork. Near death had taken it up a level. Time had worn away the edges.
Magnolia adjusted her footing on the elongated balance beam – one they had long ago configured to run around the circumference of Taylor’s private gym – eyes closed.
The first hundred times she’d tried, she’d fallen flat on her face – and it was up to her to be mindful enough to require a mat as she was falling, so there’d been more than a hundred bruises.
After the first dozen times, she’d stopped accusing Taylor of metaphor.
It had seemed like something that someone prone to frivolity would do – she needed to work on her balance because her life was out of balance.
Taylor had no such levels to him – she had to work on her balance because that made her more useful to him.
She opened her eyes, and saw Agent Jane looking up at her. ‘Mind if I join you, Recruit?’
Magnolia spread her hand wide. ‘Sure, feel free. I’m taking it counter-clockwise.’
Jane stepped up, her suit seamlessly switching to a training uniform as she did – the usual paramilitary pants, and the sleeveless top – no jacket.
Magnolia didn’t mind – there were far worse distractions than gorgeous agents.
Magnolia ran along the first section, turned a sharp corner to the next, and jumped where the beam was marked in red.
‘So red are for jumps,’ Jane said, barely a few feet behind her. ‘Green?’
‘It tilts from side to side.’ She stopped at the next turn. ‘And when you hit the chequered section, it resets.’
Magnolia closed her eyes as she walked along a green section, pressing her boots into the wood to feel her path. ‘It’s gone through a few iterations. There’s six different activities, they’re switched in and out so I don’t get sloppy.’
‘I’m not sure that’s possible, Recruit,’ Jane said. ‘Your test scores are-’
‘Not especially relevant,’ she said, not needing to hear praise whilst concentrating. ‘They’re sufficient to keep my position, and that’s really all that’s important to me.’
They finished the circuit, and Jane lightly jumped down onto a freshly-required mat.
Magnolia bent her knees and perched on the beam. ‘I don’t need to tell you Taylor isn’t here, we don’t have a scheduled meeting, and it’s too early for drinks, so how can I help you, Agent?’
‘Don’t let my wife hear you asking me out. She’s a bit jealous.’
‘A drink is just a drink, Agent. But to business?’
Jane nodded, her suit coming back. ‘Well, an investigation like this, we have to talk to all of the Aides, but…’ Jane made a gesture of helplessness. ‘I don’t have anyone in Tech or Field to talk to.’
‘Actual rank,’ Magnolia said, ‘means very little within these four walls. For Tech, talk with Screen and either Sacha or Raz. For Field, you’re not going to want to hear it, but talk to O’Connor. He’s got enough of a pulse on the situation, and at least he doesn’t have a membership to Duty Bound like Brian does.’
Jane’s eyes narrowed. ‘Even Aides don’t usually have access to that kind of information.’
‘I don’t, I just happened to catch Jones after one of the session videos came in. He was…disturbed. Apparently it’s hard to watch a recruit fucking a sex doll version of the acting director until he bleeds.’
‘I’ve worked with fetishists before, a lot. Some of the best recruits I’ve had have been fetishists. If it’s a kink they have before coming to work for the Agency, all the better. If it’s something…if it’s something they apparently develop in reaction to becoming a recruit. Well…the people who frequent the less extreme clubs don’t bother me. But the people who go hire an agent doll for the specific purpose of brutalising it, they give me cause to worry, even if we can’t technically use the information against them.’
‘No arguments there, but like you said, we can’t use the information. And at least the Agency makes money out of it.’
‘He’s an impartial perspective.’
‘I’ll organise those talks. For the moment, I’m left with you.’
‘Do you want to move to a meeting room?’
Jane took a swig of water. ‘No, I think we’re fine here. We can do the more formal stuff later on. Do you want some hypotheticals?’
Magnolia quirked a smile. ‘Hypothetically?’
‘Aha,’ Jane said dryly. ‘Ok, let’s say you have a recruit behaving strangely…’
After the fifth scenario, they required couches, and continued to talk through each of the questions – most were similar to training scenarios, if more focussed on protocol and command decisions, rather than combat or technical skills.
The kind of scenarios she should have been doing, if time had allowed. Taylor had never pushed, so she’d never taken the time to make the time.
‘Question ten,’ Jane said. ‘You become aware that an agent is abusing a recruit under their control. What steps would you take to verify this information, and who would you report it to?’
Magnolia froze for a moment. “Abuse” wasn’t a word to be thrown around lightly. And more than a few people had thrown it in her direction when they thought they saw how she operated with Taylor.
It was a label people could ascribe without understanding, and usually without consequence.
Another agent, however, could refuse to understand, and lead to the worse of consequences.
‘I’d ask, ma’am, if this is a thinly-veiled inquiry into my own safety?’
‘Come now, Magnolia, I didn’t think it was veiled at all. And the fact that you so easily ascribe the term to-’
Magnolia shook her head sharply. ‘No. I know how it appears to other people, but no.’
Jane stared at her for a moment. ‘All right, make your case.’
‘What I assume, ma’am, is that one of the others showed you my medical transcripts, or mentioned that both Parkers have threatened to install a revolving door from the back of this gym.’
‘Ryan said your commanding officer acts counter to your health and well-being.’ She paused. ‘He may have used other words, but that was the gist of it.’
Magnolia gave a quick nod, appreciative of the fact that the agent wasn’t hiding the identity of the accuser. It was rare that a nicety like that was observed – the Agency as a whole seemed far more interested in entertaining fallout than protecting sources.
‘Ryan’s disconnected from this Agency as a whole, and from Taylor even more so. Ryan couldn’t tell you who is fucking who, who’s pregnant or on holiday unless it directly affects him. What he sees is someone he knew as a child from one of his outposts with an ever-increasing familiarity with the infirmary.’
‘And is that inaccurate?’
‘No,’ Magnolia said in a measured tone. ‘But it’s fact without context, and the context is the most important thing here.’ She tapped her fingers for a moment. ‘We’re Combat and he’s Field, and that calibration isn’t something that happens in his mind – he treats everyone the same, and this is one of the times where you can’t do that.’
Jane nodded to this. ‘I had already assumed that was a factor. That isn’t everything though. Explain the rest of it to me.’
Magnolia stared at the floor for a moment. ‘You would have seen my record. You know what I was when I started here. Whatever the black and white says, I had a worse opinion of myself. I was nothing…I’m now a lot more than that. And I’m not just his fucking punching bag. I’m capable of far more than I ever would have been without him.’
‘Still, that doesn’t-’
‘I could take you in a fair fight, ma’am. I’d probably die of my own injuries five minutes later, but I wouldn’t feel it would be futile to make the attempt. I’ve brought the department under control. I have done things.’ She smiled, proud and for once unafraid to show it. ‘But I’m off-topic. Every time I break my arm, I’m able to better process the pain. Every time I’m stabbed, I’m more resilient. And every little advantage I get means I’m better able to save lives. I don’t even cry when I get shot anymore. And all of it was to train me. He doesn’t hit me because he gets off on it, he hits me because I’m not my best.’
‘Now that’s a line from an abused spouse.’
Spouse. A fantasy not even worth entertaining.
‘Do you think, Agent, that I’m unaware of how my situation appears to others? That I don’t have the bravery or resources to leave if I wanted to?’
‘Aides are tagged for life, unless-’
‘So are agents, ma’am, it doesn’t stop them from falling. I wouldn’t even have to go through withdrawal, and then someone would have to track me down to tag me again. It’s a good bit of posturing, but ultimately, it’s impotent.’
‘Do you feel unsafe to try?’
‘I don’t want to leave! I don’t want a transfer and I don’t want him recycled. We just want to be left alone to do our jobs.’
‘You’re in love with him, aren’t you?’
‘I respect him, ma’am. I’m loyal to him, ma’am.’ She looked past the agent, to the balance track, to the armoury, to the familiar places. Something to ground her against unfamiliar conversation. ‘I do have compromised feelings, yes, but I would thank you to refrain from mentioning it to him.’
A small, malicious part of her wanted to throw the conversation’s content back at the agent. To pout and play innocent, to raise the possibility that she was misreading the whole situation with Taylor. If he was abusing her, after all, a truth like this might drive her over the edge.
But that would be petty.
‘Love isn’t compromise, Magnolia.’
‘Then you really don’t know him.’
Jane made a noise as if to argue, then closed her eyes and gave a small shrug. ‘I suppose I don’t. Not anymore. We were never close, but after-’
Magnolia leaned forward, trying to hear the words before the agent even said them, eager for more information, but disappointed at the involuntary action. She was better than it. He had made her better than it.
She needed to know all the same.
‘You know those cousins you have that you only see at Christmas? For a few hours you play and you’re the best of friends, then you don’t see each other for another year?’
‘Not personally, but I’m familiar with the concept.’
‘We were like that. We’ve always been a good match for each other, so it makes the spars interesting. He changed. How much do you know?’
‘Enough to know that the change was significant. That…there’s the Taylor that was, and the man who is, and people seem to have trouble reconciling the two.’
‘The man I knew wouldn’t have beaten a teenage girl.’
‘I’m twenty-five,’ she snapped.
‘When you get to my age, anyone under fifty seems like a child.’
‘What does Ryan want done?’
‘He didn’t make any suggestions, just raised the issue.’
‘And what are you going to do?’
‘I haven’t decided yet.’
Magnolia ran her thumb across the pads of her fingers. ‘I think in the end, all that matters is that you know I consent, in every way, to the situation. I’m a big enough girl to remove myself from the situation if I want or need to.’ She closed her eyes for a moment. ‘The only standard rec time I allow myself is one half-day a month to volunteer at a call centre for women who need help. Or have been hurt. I’m very aware of the situation, and I think that is the one thing people underestimate about me.’
‘I don’t agree with his methods. Or even necessarily your reactions to them.’
‘I hear a but in there.’
‘I’ll have to make a final determination, but I’m not sure that I’ll even put anything to paper.’ Jane nodded. ‘Best for all involved, what do you say?’
‘I’d appreciate it.’
Jane stood and put a hand to Magnolia’s shoulder. ‘You’re amazing, despite your record. Continue on this path, and who knows where you could end up.’
Magnolia nodded, and watched as Jane left the room.
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