Taylor had-

Magnolia whirled around, the walls of her bedroom seeming to swim, to become nothing but an indiscernible pink swirl. Nothing made sense. Everything made sense.

Taylor had tried to kill Mimosa.

Taylor had tried to execute a mistake, and now Ryan-

She stopped spinning, slammed her hands against the wall, and crashed onto her bed, unable to breathe. She required a tablet, and hit the button that lay in the centre of her default layout, and watched Taylor’s vital signs. He was alive. He was hurting, panicked, enraged, but he was alive.

He’d- He’d tried to kill Mimosa himself. He’d tried to-

He’d done it without her. She was his tool to be used, and he hadn’t even bothered to ask.

Somehow slowly, and all at once, her mind stopped swimming, and she sat up, calmer than she’d been in weeks; her mind sparkling with more clarity than in months.

She loved him; and he’d done the next closest thing to asking Ryan to recycle him.

She loved him; and he was never going to feel the same way.

If she stayed, everything was only going to end badly.

She was crying, but she didn’t hate herself for the action – tears could be cathartic, they could heal, they weren’t only a sign of weakness. She could cry now, because they were the last tears she would shed for him.

The Agency – their agency – and Taylor – had been the centre of her life for years. He’d enabled her to become a better person; a stronger person; someone who could fight back, who never needed to be a victim again. She’d proved to herself, over and over, that she was far better than the dumbfuck teenager who had run away from home, who’d been trapped in shit situation after shit situation.

She was a recruit. She was an aide. She had training, resources, and self-respect.

And a giant blind spot where it came to her commander.

He was an amazing man, but one who was on a self-destructive path she couldn’t be a part of anymore.

If he had said one word, she would have killed the woman without hesitation.

Instead, he had done it himself. He had decided to sacrifice himself. Sacrifice a far more valuable member of the agency to deal with a threat.

It was her job to die for him.

He had robbed her of the chance to do her Duty.

It spoke of…a lack of respect for her abilities. There were many thing that their personal and professional relationship lacked, but it had always seemed that respect was there. He appreciated her abilities, and counted on her to do her job.

Now, he had-

She wiped away tears.

They were always supposed to in sync. This was a disconnect that she couldn’t reconcile.

Magnolia let out a long breath, then required paperwork she had never wished to see – the forms that would terminate her employment with the Agency. The papers necessary to quit, to be away from someone who had-

There were a hundred reasons to stay, but for the first time in years, there were just as many reasons to leave.

Slowly, methodically, and with all of the care she gave to every other piece of paperwork she completed on a daily basis, she filled in each box, and checked each option.

As soon as she walked out of the front doors, she’d no longer be Aide Magnolia Hammond. She’d be…whoever she was without Taylor, without the agency, and without the structure she’d spent years building around herself.

She stood, refreshed her dress, tucked the papers under her arm, and walked towards the gym.

Ryan hadn’t killed Taylor. Whatever else he’d done, her commander was still alive.

She didn’t knock on the door to his office, instead, she simply let herself in, and walked through the door to his private him.

Ryan was gone.

Taylor – her commander, the man she loved – sat on the bottom row of the bleachers, his arms resting on his legs; his head hung low. A fallen titan. A man, utterly defeated by what had happened.

He should have been fine. He should have been finalising paperwork for a new aide. With one word, the entire situation would have been better. Taylor: happy; Mimosa: dead; Duty: fulfilled.

‘Sir,’ she said as she approached. ‘I intend to finalise my employment; effective immediately.’

He didn’t react.

She took a step closer. ‘I quit, sir.’

No reaction.

She took another step closer, and laid the paperwork beside him. ‘I’ve included recommendations for temporary and permanent aides; whichever solution you feel will best suit you. My belongings will be forwarded as per my instructions. Everything else.’ She allowed herself a shrug. ‘Nothing else. That’s all.’

She straightened her back and saluted. ‘I dismiss myself, sir. Goodbye.’

Taylor grabbed her wrist, his grip strong, but not painful. It was, so far, the only deliberate action he’d taken since she’d walked into the gym.

He said nothing, and still refused to look at her, instead, he seemed to stare at the floor, or to the drink in his hand.

Magnolia tugged on her hand, and for a moment, his fingers loosened their grip a little, seeming to be ready to let her go, but then his grip went firm, and he finally turned his head to look at her. ‘No.’

‘Sir,’ she said, knowing it was likely the last time the word would leave her lips. ‘Despite the impression that you seem to operate under, I’m free to leave. I have filed the appropriate paperwork, it will trigger when I leave the building, thus making all of my timestamps-’

‘No,’ he said again, a slight shake to his voice.

‘You’ve left me no choice, sir. I- Can’t stay. You almost- Director Ryan had the authority to execute you on sight tonight, sir. And I wasn’t there. You could have used me, sir,’ she said, tears hot in the backs of her eyes. ‘I could have taken the fall for you, it’s my Duty to serve you. At least, it was,’ she added, the pain in her chest growing.

Sometimes, they said that people died of broken hearts – and for a brief moment, she wondered if she’d be one of them.

His grip stayed on her wrist.

‘I would have done it. I would have died in your stead. All you- I thought we were supposed to fucking die together.’ She tried to glare down at him, but wasn’t certain what her face was doing. ‘I am not your equal, but I thought I had your respect…and you didn’t come to me when it counted. You were- You- You were going to get yourself killed, and I didn’t matter enough for you to say anything to me!’ Tears touched her cheeks – and she didn’t care enough to chastise herself for the weakness.

He mumbled something, and years of training made her take a step closer. ‘What, sir?’

Taylor lifted his head and blinked. ‘For you. For everyone. Protect everyone.’ His eyes met hers. ‘Protect you.’

Indignation rose. ‘I don’t need anyone to-’ words died in her throat as his words processed. ‘Sir?’

‘I-’ he seemed unsure of his words. ‘You could-’ the words came slowly. ‘Take my place. Run the division. Two deaths weren’t required. Only one. Hers. If another. Mine.’

She shook her head furiously. ‘Not-!’

‘Knife.’

On instinct, she jerked her knife up from her boot, and handed it to him, handle first. He held it, with the hand that wasn’t holding onto her like she was a child’s balloon about to float away. ‘I wanted you to kill me.’

The words surprised her so much that she sat – creating the awkward situation where his arms were crossed in order to keep his grip on her. He looked to her, a question on his face, and slowly, she nodded.

She pressed the hand he was holding onto his thigh, her fingers clutching the fabric slightly, and he finally – if reluctantly – let her go, and quickly switched hands, so that he held her left hand with his right, and her knife sat in his left.

Instead of gripping her wrist, though, he twined his fingers with hers, holding her hand like a lover would.

The gesture – unintentional or not, finally broke whatever resolve she had left. ‘I’m leaving,’ she said, needing to get away from him, needing distance from the dedication that seemed to mean nothing.

She would have done anything, but he hadn’t asked, and it hurt more than anything reasonably should.

‘I wanted you to kill me,’ he said again, as if she hadn’t heard him the first time. ‘When I recruited you.’ He lifted the knife, and it caught the light. ‘I wanted to make you good enough to kill me. I wanted a good death.’ His hand tightened on hers, and for a second, she was sure that their fingers were starting to merge. ‘Whitman didn’t give me a good death.’

It was the moment where a miasma of dots became a sailboat – so many things immediately came into focus. Tiny bits of her training made sense, the very reason she owned the knife – which had been created from a piece of his most favoured object, and so many of their early interactions finally made sense, if you cast them with the light of his intended death wish.

For her first few months as a recruit, she would have willingly killed him – and had made multiple attempts to do just that – half of which had been under his direct orders.

And attempted murder had turned into challenges, which had turned into routine, to purpose, and to love.

And leaving was going to hurt more than anything.

But she couldn’t stay, with the chance that he’d bravely go off to die by himself. Solo didn’t make sense. They were…they, and nothing seemed right when they weren’t together.

She raised her spare hand to her mouth, and felt it trembling. ‘Sir-’

‘And you were too good, and duty made more sense than death. And then I didn’t want-’ He put her knife down. ‘Stay. I need you.’

The world stopped spinning.

Taylor had used the word “need” a thousand times before. He needed this, or that. He needed her to do something, or kill someone. He needed paperwork, or reports, or a spar to calm down after a shitty day.

And never had the word seemed so desperate, tiny, or pure.

She shook her hand free of his, and this time he didn’t fight her, and she wiped at her tears, embarrassed of her weakness. She was better than this, she was better than some stupid-

‘Please.’

The word came out even more desperate than “need”. “Please” was a word he never used, a word he didn’t need to use – he deserved to be listened to, and obeyed, so niceties weren’t needed. She was pleased to serve, and didn’t need him to use words he didn’t like.

The words were all she’d ever fantasised hearing from him. That, and an offer to fuck her like the world was ending.

And as fantasy slipped into reality, it was doing nothing but breaking her heart.

Serving him came as naturally as breathing, but something felt changed, there was something stopping her from snapping a salute, making everything normal again, and going back to the routine they’d spent five years hammering into shape.

She wiped her eyes again, and laid her left hand beside her – more of a test to see what he would do than anything else. ‘You don’t want me sir, I’m weak.’

‘Magnolia, you’re-’

She lifted her head, jutted out her chin, and turned to face him. ‘I’m in love with you, sir.’

There was a twenty-five percent chance he’d snap her neck for the insubordination. Another chance he’d slap her off the bleachers, and yet another that he wouldn’t react at all, treating the words as nothing but worthless breeze.

On a hundred midnights, and a hundred sessions on the operating table when the Parkers were stuffing her guts back in, she’d played out the scenario. A thousand idle thoughts of confession, truth, and the unlikely positive outcomes.

And no imagined scenario had the words as dead, flat and tired as they’d come out of her mouth. She’d always been exuberant, exhilarated, triumphant and crowing, or at least so puppy dog in love that cartoon hearts could have held her aloft.

No scenario had her leaving the agency, crying, and only seconds after learning she’d been recruited to be the instrument of his death wish.

‘Why?’

She steeled herself, and met his gaze again, seeing only genuine confusion.

He wasn’t punishing her for her weakness, or calling her out on her stupidity.

The tiniest flicker of hope touched her, and she dug for the words she’d always wanted to say. She was going to have a chance, even if it was the last thing she ever did.

Hesitantly, she lifted her hand, and rested it on his thigh, for once, touching him without pretence or cause. ‘You’re a man without equal, sir,’ she said. ‘You…gave me purpose. I didn’t have that before you. I had tasks, I had the short-term. I had the need to know where my next meal and my next bed were coming from. Here, I have Duty, I have a place and I have somewhere where I am lauded for being myself.’ She laughed. ‘You appreciate my fucking pie charts, sir. I don’t have to censor any part of myself around you.’ She looked at her feet for a moment, at the combat boots that were the one part of the uniform that she did wear. She stood, and placed her hands on his shoulders. ‘I love you, because I cannot imagine my life without you, sir.’

Taylor lifted a hand to her face, his thumb resting on her cheekbone, his warm fingers cradling her cheek.

She closed her eyes, drinking in the moment.

‘Stay.’

‘Yes, sir.’ The words slipped out before she could stop herself.

She lifted her right hand, and stretched it out towards him, curious beyond measure as to his response. After only a second, he caught her fingers, and curled them with his.

‘Sir,’ she said, afraid to open her eyes. ‘I’ll stay, but I cannot- I’ll still be in love with you. If it’s an untenable weakness-’

‘Magnolia.’

She finally opened her eyes, and she immediately tried to take in his expression, but tiny expressions kept switching and changing making it impossible to read. Desperation. Fear. Hope. Interest.

‘Sir?’

‘It’s not weakness.’ He paused, and slowly pulled on her hand, drawing her closer. ‘And it’s not unwelcome.’

He took his hand away from her face, and she moved closer, knees brushing against his.

‘Sir?’

He bowed his head for a moment, then looked up, resolve on his face. ‘You are my constant,’ he said, the words thick, and packed with emotion. ‘I need you. You are…accounted for in every possibility.

He lifted his hand and slowly curled it around the edge of her hip and pulled her towards him – she allowed him to pull her in, and she settled onto his lap. Slowly, he uncurled his fingers from hers, and his hands rested on her waist.

His mouth opened, but no sound came out. Hesitation.

‘Sir,’ she said. ‘I don’t need you to- I won’t force-’

‘I love you,’ he said, the words small.

Her heart pounded in her chest, they were words she’d never even tried to imagine him saying.

‘I know-’ His fingers gripped her waist a little tighter, as if he were worried that she was going to fly away. ‘I respect you, Magnolia. I need you. I- Value you. The word is- Hard. I am not used- I do not have the connection to- If you give me time. It will be easier. If you want. That. Me.’

Words were always hard for him, the fact that he was using so many for her was a gift beyond measure.

Touch and physicality were so much easier.

She touched a hand to his face, and he drew in a breath like she’d slapped him. She tried to hold her hand in the same way that he’d touched her face.

He reached a hand up, and gently touched two fingers to her lips, the gentlest of touches, and held them there for a moment, before catching her eye. She mimicked the action, touching his lips – and felt her heart fluttering like it had done the first time she’d been kissed.

She pursed her lips, and kissed the fingers that were touching her lips.

Slowly, he took his fingers away, and she mirrored him again.

He looked at her, and slowly nodded, giving consent and trust.

Magnolia held his face with both hands, her fingers already knew the contours of his face, but feeling them like this, in this context, was so different to providing first aide.

Her fingers were trembling as she slid forward, locking her chest against his, and brought her face closer to his. She could feel his breath, the slow, steady rhythm that all agents had, and gently touched her lips to his.

Goosebumps ran up her arms, and a giddy feeling spun in her chest – years of wanting this precise moment overwhelming any semblance of reality.

She slid her arms around his neck, and grinned into his lips as he kissed her back – his movements were slow, as if this was his first kiss, but he was in the moment with her – he wanted it as much as she did.

One kiss lead to another, and another, seconds turning to minutes with each tiny exploration.

After an eternity and a half, she sat in his lap, nuzzling his neck – words hadn’t returned, touch had done everything.

Part of her, the tiniest part of her, reflected that this was the tamest makeout session she’d taken part in, in over a decade – as yet, none of his fingers had even attempted to reach beneath her dress. There was, however, no need to rush – even doing this much seemed to be brushing up against some borders.

She touched her wrist, required a watch, and turned look down at it. ‘Sir?’ she said, hating to be the one that broke the silence, but Duty demanded it. ‘There’s training in two hours. I- If you want me functional tomorrow…’

‘Stay.’

The bleachers rocked for a moment, and the row beneath them widened, and gained a thin mattress.

‘It’s not an order,’ he said, as if needing to clarify it.

‘I want to,’ she said. She inclined her head, and kissed him again, and turned to slide from his lap and lie beside him. He swung his legs around, and laid down, facing her, one arm automatically lifting to lie over her.

‘Good night, sir,’ she said, moving to snuggle closer as he presented his chest to her.

He twined one of his fingers around one of the braids that lay beside her face, then stroked her cheek with the back of his finger. ‘Thank you for staying.’

Magnolia closed her eyes, listened to his heart beat for a moment, enjoying the feeling of his breath against her hair, and watched as he finally allowed himself to rest.

He closed his eyes, and his breathing became shallow – that of an agent sleep cycle.

Magnolia tilted her head, and kissed the small scar beneath his chin, then allowed herself to drift off, content in the perfection of the moment.