November 2nd

Everything blurred as a shift processed. Magnolia steadied her mind. Shifting was a painless, everyday process, but there were occasions when something about her fae side rebelled against the process – something deep in her DNA seeing it as a bastardisation of a fade.

Full-bloodied fae sometimes vomited after a shift, if they weren’t used to the process. She didn’t have that weakness, but even after thousands of times, it didn’t hurt to take a single moment of caution to steady herself.

Taylor’s private gym came into focus – something normal, after the unexpected drama of finding the supposedly-dead recruit.

Taylor grunted to get her attention, and she looked up at him. ‘You attacked Ryan,’ he said.

Magnolia stared up at her commander, unsure if the words were an admonishment or a compliment. Usually there were clues in his inflection, in word choice and speed – and those were given further meaning by his body language.

Taylor spoke volumes with the few words that he managed. It was just a matter of translating them.

And at the moment, she had no idea what the true meaning of his words were.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said, dropping into an at-ease position – a neutral start, a position in which he could punish her or initiate a spar. It was a good lack of impetus from her, and it would allow him to speak, or not, as he chose.

The move against Ryan had been…impulsive. Stupid. It was something she would have reprimanded anyone else for – and the reprimand would have involved kicking their arse across the floor, then firing them with no post-recruitment benefits.

There was no direct anger in Taylor’s silent language that indicated that was what he wanted.

He took a step closer to her for a moment. ‘Knife.’

She hadn’t bothered to sheathe it after attacking Ryan – if he had fought back, it would have been needed for a second strike. She lifted her arm and turned her hand so that the blade lay across her palm, wet blood touching her skin.

He lifted it away, and it left her feeling strangely empty. It had been a gift from him, so he was free to take it back whenever he chose, and it was part of an artefact worth far more than her, but it had become…hers.

Taylor wiped the blood on the sleeve of his blue BDU jacket, then laid the knife back in her hand, his fingers brushing her palm. ‘He didn’t see you. Good first attack. Your planned second?’

She tried not to react, tried not to smile or burst from pride, but she allowed herself a small nod to acknowledge the compliment. ‘Kidney – something to disable, but not directly incapacitate.’

‘He’s weak on his left,’ Taylor said.

It was a fact she already knew, but she acknowledged it with another nod.

It had been impossible to question him whilst the ex-recruit was around. ‘Sir, do you have any intel on the provenance of her healing ability? I reread the file when O’Connor brought the matter of her death to–’

‘Mirror,’ he said. ‘In her chest. A lot.’

Magnolia froze. Mirror changed everything. It potentially changed the entirety of the KIA report, the lack of action from Jane’s audit, and– ‘What will they do?’

He turned and walked towards the centre of the gym, his punching bag appearing on its long chain. ‘Protocol is destruction.’ He swung a fist at the bag that Merlin had nicknamed “Horatio”.

She thought for a moment, weighing the wisdom of asking further, then decided that it was a point that had to be brought up, even if it angered him. ‘Will Ryan interfere?’

Taylor responded with a growl. He swung his fist half-heartedly at Horatio again, then looked towards the wall, behind which lay the armoury. He approached it, the wooden panel sliding open even while he was still ten feet away.

His armoury – their armoury – wasn’t the official agency one, but it was the far more efficient one, and the one that contained the best toys.

The “proper” armoury was serviceable enough – and far more so since she had taken over the management of supply. Their building could handle a small war – or a weeks-long siege, if there was time to make four requirements.

Their armoury was far smaller, but size was far from the most important factor. It resembled an expansive, walk-in closet of death and destruction more than it did a bunker.

Fluorescent tubes overhead and behind the shelves lit it well. Weapons, poisons, and gadgets each had a specific storage location, and – if necessary – care instructions.

And on the back wall was her commander’s very favourite possession: the axe of King Ursur.

The fairy king had been a monster, a man whose policies and actions had, among other things, incited rebellion. He’d ordered public executions and worse. He had simply needed to die, and Taylor had been the one to do that – beheading the man with his own axe.

The force of the beheading had chipped a small piece of the axe blade away – the piece that he had used to form her knife.

He had given her the knife when she’d been his recruit for barely three weeks. It had been an offhand gesture, something without ceremony or import. Taylor had given her the weapon, stating simply that she needed something that could kill an agent.

Her first act with it had been an attempt on his life, something that had seemed to please him.

She hadn’t deserved the weapon when he’d given it to her, but she had spent every moment since trying to earn it.

Taylor lifted Ursur’s axe from the bracket, and weighed it in his hands for a moment – a small, brief moment of ceremony – before he turned and walked out of the armoury.

He crossed to the centre of the room and stood with the axe in his hands. Taylor swung it, and she moved into step with him, working through the weapon-based kata.

‘He will.’

It was the answer to the question she’d asked minutes before – something that would have bothered most people, something that led to recruits saying he was stupid, or worse. But the fact that it could take him literal minutes to answer a question meant there was far more going on in his head than most recruits gave him credit for.

He was careful. He considered his answers. He didn’t speak without cause.

He will. Ryan would interfere.

Taylor swung the axe at her. There was power behind the swing, but no intent – it was a dodging exercise, a dance, rather than a spar. ‘Mortally wounded. Made an augment.’

‘But the mirror, sir,’ she said. ‘If the protocol states to destroy it, then–’

He locked eyes with her. ‘If they follow protocol.’

‘Sir–’

Taylor stared, his eyes heavy with emotion – there was a lot he was leaving unsaid. A lot running through the mind most recruits didn’t think he had. There was something big going on, and it would take time for him to be ready to say anything, which she could respect.

He swung his axe again, then moved back into another kata.

Halfway through, he placed the axe aside, and she did the same with her knife.

They flowed into the next set of movements, and Taylor stepped out of sync while she continued. He watched her, reaching out to make minor corrections – angles of her arms or hands that were off by fractions of a centimetre.

It was beyond even their standards of perfection. Even for their SOP, they seemed to be corrections being made for the sake of corrections.

And he only did that when something was bothering him.

He indicated with his head, and she turned toward him. He lifted his left hand. In context, that meant he wanted to run through a series of kicks.

She adjusted her weight and kicked high, but he caught her foot and held it, the point of her boot brushing against his chin.

Taylor let out a deep, rumbly sound – half an exhale, half another growl. ‘There was–’

Klaxons sounded, and he dropped her leg.

Magnolia held her hand steady as a tablet appeared – a protocol she’d set up, so that during an emergency, if the system was still functioning, they would have all the information possible.

The readings told her there had been an explosion, and that the building was going into lockdown as a precaution.

‘Magnolia.’

She dismissed the tablet, adjusted the grip on her knife, and nodded. ‘Ready, sir.’

The world blurred as they shifted.