November 2nd

Taylor’s body language changed entirely – they were being watched.

Magnolia stepped past him, the top of her head brushing against her commander’s bare arm, knife ready to take the first shot at the uninvited guest.

It was Jones – Jones in his male persona, so there wasn’t even the distraction of Andrea’s good-looking face to distract her. The tech was leaning against the door that lead back into Taylor’s office, long blond hair askew.

‘What?’ Taylor demanded of the scholar.

Jones tilted his head – an indication that he was speaking through his HUD.

Taylor stiffened behind her – whatever was going on, it wasn’t good.

Jones took three steps towards her as Taylor walked away. ‘Stef,’ Jones said. ‘The decision has been made. She’s to be augmented.’ He paused for a long moment, giving her time to process what he’d said.

After another moment, there seemed to be reason for the silence, something for her to infer.

Magnolia set a stern expression on her face. ‘Not as a recruit, I take it.’

‘As an agent,’ Jones said, bright green eyes gleaming.

No.’ The word came sudden, strong and all-consuming. No. Negative. This was not a plan, and it was not happening.

‘No?’ Jones echoed.

She folded her arms, feeling strangely childish, as if her words could make reality untrue. ‘Whose bright idea was this?’

‘It was approved by Enforcer Crawford. It’s beyond question.’

‘That’s not what I asked!’ she snapped. ‘This is not a good idea. She lasted a day as a recruit,’ she implored. ‘Who do I have to blow for this to go away?’

‘This is happening, Magnolia.’

She dared a look over her shoulder at her commander, who stood near the wall, looking at nothing. He was–

Magnolia turned back to the tech. ‘Jones. Leave.’

Jones arched one of his eyebrows. ‘You really should learn how to talk to agents. You’ve been around long enough.’

‘I speak with respect to those who deserve respect.’

Jones gave a thin smile. ‘Ah, good to know where we stand. Great talking to you, Recruit.’ He turned away, his hair flipping like an ’80s heroine, and shifted away as he walked back into Taylor’s office.

Magnolia turned back to Taylor, who still hadn’t moved.

There was something going on, something beyond the fact that it was a bad idea.

She took slow steps closer to him, giving him time to react if he wished. His right arm shot out, pushing into her chest. ‘Dismissed,’ he said, his voice thick.

Arguments rose. Questions tickled the back of her throat. A need to comfort, a need to serve.

His hand tightened a little, fingers digging into the black fabric of her dress. ‘Dismissed,’ he said again, and this time, it almost seemed as though he was begging.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said. She stepped backward from his grip, then turned and left the gym, closing the door behind her. She hesitated in his office for a brief moment, then left that, too – if he wanted her gone, one room away was likely still too close.

She would give him fifteen minutes, then return. As much as her Duty was following his every word, sometimes he needed her to extrapolate when specifics weren’t given.

It was arrogant, but she believed part of him did need her. Her service was vital, if even in some small way.

Magnolia walked down the hall to one of the converted meeting rooms – whilst she did most of her work either in her room, or in Taylor’s office, there were certain things that required more space and organisation that neither of those rooms could provide.

The room was as close to a personal office as she could get. Whilst aides were entitled to an office if they so wished, it had never seemed right to ask Taylor for one. So the meeting room functioned as something halfway between a stationery supplies closet and a mail room.

One wall was dedicated to a wall of pigeonholes, each large box labelled with a recruit name and ID number – their place for dropping off reports and completed paperwork. The mailbox system was something she’d instituted early on in her career as aide, when it had become obvious that paperwork that went into Taylor’s office had a disturbing habit of disappearing, being submitted whilst covered in blood, or being left in a pile, to be submitted weeks late.

A glance revealed fewer reports than she was expecting, but within tolerances – none of which she wanted to deal with right then and there. Her focus had to be entirely on Taylor and whatever strangeness was going on with Mimosa.

A former recruit, full of mirror, was going to become an agent.

She sighed and looked at her own inbox. Whilst reports and such went into the individual pigeonholes, lesser documentation, such as requests for days off, came directly to her – pieces of paperwork she could deal with when she had five minutes to spare, rather than the twenty-to-sixty minutes it took to go over a report before submitting it.

There were reasons to be jealous of the aides who had their own admin staff – another thing she was well within her by-the-book rights to ask for, but another thing that would disturb the status quo, another thing that would bother Taylor to a degree that outweighed the benefits.

She pulled out the sheaf of single sheets of paper and sat at the small round desk. All of the leave forms had the same format. The one difference was a single coloured line that separated the recruit information from the leave information. One stripe indicated Agency-related leave, such as Academy classes; one colour indicated civilian-related leave, such as family or social commitments for those whose families weren’t aware of the truth of the world; another colour indicated plain old personal leave.

A leave request from Hewitt – personal – sat on top, the date already familiar – his anniversary with Caipe. She required her tablet and brought up the roster, marking the day out in the calendar. He was only scheduled for backup, so that was an easy role to fill, and it was a position hopefully not needed.

She touched her hand to the paper, and with a thought, a “Processed – Accepted” stamp appeared on it.

A deep sigh made its way out, and she required a coffee, with just a hint of cinnamon. It was a treat, a frivolity, but she could do with the caffeine. For a day that had started so perfectly, it was turning into one going ever further into shit.

Magnolia opened an app on her tablet, an internal Agency ordering system for frivolities and niceties. It was the place where you set up recurring gifts to civilians, or hampers for recruits when you didn’t have the time to organise them yourself.

An entire Agency division, dedicated to gift delivery – something the Solstice would refuse to believe existed.

She ordered an anniversary hamper, even allotting three days of per diem fae cash to allow them the freedom of including goods from Faerie – always a nice touch when one of the people in a relationship wasn’t human.

She would get them a gift herself, if she had the time, but this ensured that they would get something if her schedule became hopelessly overwhelmed.

The next request in the pile was from Recruit Stevens – a request for three combinations of Thursday/Friday off. Magnolia sighed, tension building in the back of her neck. Requests like this, unless specifically linked – like Academy course dates – were to be submitted on separate forms, in case not all dates could be approved.

She laid the form on the table, and with a requirement, split it into the three date ranges. As no reason was given, other than “personal”, she couldn’t assign a high priority to the request. The first was out of the question – he was on a primary team for the Wednesday and Thursday. She digitised the request, and shot back a partial denial – stating he could take the Friday if he so wished.

The second set, however, was no problem, a “Process – Accepted” stamp appeared, and she dutifully entered the dates into the duty roster.

The third was also, in theory, no issue – he was on a secondary team. She considered the request and the recruit for a moment, then processed it, placed it into the calendar, then sent a quick note, inflating the amount of effort required to process the request – with a clear, if unspoken, indication that Stevens now owed her a favour.

It was never a bad thing to have your underlings be indebted to you.

She flicked her gaze to the clock on her tablet – Taylor had been alone for twelve minutes. Time to check on him.