‘You’re wearing that?’

Grigori’s voice was disappointed, and full of playful scorn.

Taylor looked from his friend down to his clothes. He was wearing his uniform. There was no error. There was no glitch. His clothes were acceptable. Grigori’s disappointed was outside parameters.

‘You,’ Grigori said, laying his hands on Taylor’s shoulders, ‘are not wearing that.’

‘It’s my uniform,’ he said.

His clothes disappeared – Grigori was going to use him like a mannequin. It was a common feature of their trips outside of the agency. Whatever he wore – which was always his uniform – was inappropriate.

Grigori laid his hands on his chest – one either side of his heart. ‘I’m taking you and your pretty bird to a fancy fucking restaurant, my friend,’ Grigori said. ‘You’re going to act the part.’

Cloth slid over his naked body – a suit that was close to matching Grigori’s, though his friend had allowed him to keep the blue of his agency as the feature colour. It was like a formal uniform. Jacket. Shirt. Tie. Pants. But it was apparently “better” than requiring a uniform. The cut and lines of the suit were an advantage; and the material would help them infiltrate the civilian population with more-

Grigori snapped his fingers. ‘Get your mind out of battle mode,’ he said. The Russian kissed his cheek. ‘Come on, my friend, I hope that you haven’t stripped all of Magnolia’s fashion sense from her. I’m not letting her wear combat boots tonight.’

Magnolia. Stripped. The words were a combination that-

Grigori shifted them to Magnolia’s common room – one that no other recruits were apparently allowed to use – and things seemed to align when he saw his recruit.

Magnolia’s dress was not battle appropriate, but it wouldn’t take much work to make it so.

Magnolia stepped forward, gripped one edge of her skirt and pulled It free, showing him tight, cropped leggings that went down to her knees – her knife was strapped to a thigh sheath – not its usual position, but it would serve.

‘Battle ready in under five seconds,’ she said, standing at attention after she fixed her skirt back into civilian mode. She looked to Grigori. ‘He insisted on something other than my usual dress.’

‘Gods, you two,’ Grigori said. ‘You don’t have to live and die in your BDUs.’ He lifted his hand and snapped his fingers, shifting them away from the Agency.

Wherever they were, it was snowing.

‘Human or fae?’ Magnolia asked, naturally falling into her position to his left.

‘Human front door,’ Grigori said, ‘fairy stairs inside.’

They followed Grigori into the hotel. Opulent. Unnecessary. There were staff in gold uniforms, and Magnolia’s shoes – battle-appropriate, even if they weren’t her requisite combat boots – made small noises beside him.

They rode up in a golden elevator, then walked down a short set of stairs and stepped into another elevator – this one was a glittering, filigreed cage. Unnecessary. It was the kind of place Grigori would talk about for weeks. The kind of place Grigori shared pictures of.

Taylor adjusted his path so that he was half a step closer to Magnolia.

Everything was outside parameters. He needed his constant.

Plans for limit tests sat in his HUD. Lists of which limbs to start with. What temperatures to expose the mistake to.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of blonde hair. Whitman. He whipped around, angry that Grigori had left him without weapons, and saw it was just another customer.

‘Oh.’

The small noise from came from Magnolia – who had turned from the elevator doors, and was looking out into the expanse of the restaurant floor.

It was several times the size of any floor of the agency – a large golden fountain lay in the centre, with water nymphs dancing in the coloured water.

Small round tables lay in concentric circles around the fountain, and buffet tables lined each wall.

Grigori moved forward to lay a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder. ‘Pick any one of them and you can have her for an hour. I’ve been fucked by them all, I would suggest Amirabella.’

Taylor watched the emotions flick over Magnolia’s face before it stabilised. ‘I’m fine, Agent Grigori.’

The elevator finished its slow descent, and Grigori moved towards the queue.

Magnolia’s hand touched his shoulder. It wasn’t standard protocol, but it was within parameters. She needed his attention, but didn’t want to use any of the standard signals. Among civilians, different kinds of touches would be less obtrusive.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘if you wouldn’t mind following me?’

He followed her to a small room beside the coat check. Once inside, she stripped her shirt away. He allowed himself to look at her legs for a moment, before she turned her back to him, and slipped out of her pointlessly decorative coat.

‘When he changed your clothes,’ she said, ‘he didn’t leave you with standard weapons allotments, did he?’

‘No,’ he said with a grunt.

Magnolia lifted her hand and touched the back of her corset. Taylor took a step closer and looked – between each piece of boning in the corset was a short, astoundingly thin knife. He extracted two, and she then handed him a sheath that had evidently been hidden under the front of her corset.

He gave her a sharp, grateful nod, and laid the sheath on an inside pocket of his jacket. The weapons would be close. Magnolia would be close.

Events were outside of parameters. He had familiar elements.

Magnolia straightened her skirt again, and they joined Grigori in the queue.

Grigori chatted with them as they advanced in the queue. The mindless static that his friend was so good at. Grigori was words. All words. Too many words.

The restaurant was far too bright.

If the mistake-

There was no one to protect the agency while they were away.

Taylor half-closed his eyes, and concentrated on his heartbeat.

A waiter led them to their table, filled their glasses with fizzing, alcoholic juice, then left them with empty, white, gold-trimmed plates.

‘I need to kill her,’ he said. Words. Grigori was nothing but words. Magnolia appreciated words. They had been brought there to make words. Those were the words that he needed. ‘The mistake cannot-‘

Grigori laid a hand on his. ‘We’ll deal with the mistake,’ he promised. ‘But relax for tonight, please?’

He began to shake his head, but Grigori gave him a pleading look. ‘I am here to help you destroy it,’ he said. ‘Be assured, my friend, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish together.’