November 2nd

In the space of fifteen minutes, Taylor had managed to mangle at least twenty training sims and cover himself in blood, much more than usual. Blood and gore were obvious side effects to training – their own, each other’s, and that of the sims. No outfit survived without a red stain or two.

This was something else entirely. This was…monstrous.

There was a saying about Combat agents and their recruits, that they were defined by their cruelty to others. It was true. It was far from a comprehensive analysis of their function, but it was true.

They, however, excelled in efficient violence. There was no need to bother ripping an arm off when snapping a neck would suffice.

There was nothing efficient about what he’d done to the sims.

She started to walk towards him, letting her boots come into heavy contact with each step – providing him with plenty of warning that she was there.

He always knew where she was. It was part of how they worked, how they functioned, how they survived.

For once, she wasn’t sure that he knew she was there.

She got in front of him but left an eight-foot cushion. If he had any objection to her presence, he would let her know. She was invading his privacy, his personal time, but it was – for once – likely worth going against his direct command in order to serve him better. ‘Sir?’

He gave no reaction.

Blood dripped from his mangled hands, a short blade in each – the bottom of each blade digging into his palms. His shirt was ripped, and there was a nasty, deep cut down the side of his face that had barely missed his eye.

Serious injuries, considering the blackout conditions.

It was something that warranted going to the techs, but she knew the suggestion would drive him further into his desperate state, so it wasn’t an option worth voicing.

She moved a step forward, but still he didn’t react.

Magnolia took two more steps forward, and one of his eyes twitched – as much of a sign as he could give.

He needed care, he needed to centre, and he wasn’t capable of doing it alone. It was a silent scream for help, and no one else even knew he was in distress.

She brought her hands in front of her and began to work through the first few movements of a kata – one that they used as a warm-up or cool-down exercise, mirroring movements in order to keep up their perfect timing with each other.

His eyes seemed to focus a little, moving a little to follow her hands.

She reset and slowly moved her body again – and this time, as slow as a flow of sap, he started to mimic her.

By the fifth movement, they were in sync.

On the third kick, he dropped the knives.

They worked silently through the entire kata, his movements a lot stiffer and slower than normal – speaking to his less-than-battle-ready state.

After they finished, he lifted his arms, and started another. She easily fell into step with him, and worked through all the movements.

On the final movement, he seemed to sag, to lose whatever fight had been keeping him upright and rigid.

‘Injury assessment, sir,’ she said, trying to sound normal.

She started to walk towards the med kit, her pace much slower than normal, in case it wasn’t what he wanted. He grunted, the first noise he’d made since ordering her to leave, and started towards the bleachers and their de facto work area for handling first aid.

He was capitulating to routine, probably the best sign he could give her.

She pulled the large med kit from its bracket, slung the strap over her shoulder, and walked quickly to him, still forcing herself to walk heavily. There was no point in taking the risk of startling him.

Magnolia laid the kit on the widened, lowest tier of the bleachers, and unzipped it – careful to be overt and methodical with her movements.

Taylor had laid his hands across his legs, keeping the open wounds up and visible – a clear sign that he wanted them dealt with first.

‘Sir, may I change back to system conditions?’

He grunted, then looked briefly in her direction. ‘Done.’

She pulled gauze and blue from the med kit, then knelt in front of him, between his spread legs. Usually this was sexy; usually it was a cause for idle thoughts and idle wishes. There was nothing to dream about now – her commander was injured, in need of care and aftercare.

Whatever he was going through, it was worse than anything before – even the Reaper attack that they’d barely lived through.

Magnolia required a bowl of warm water, laced with Parker-approved antiseptic, and a few sponges.

She dipped the largest sponge in the hot water, squeezed it, and began to clean his right hand. He was ambidextrous, as all agents were, but like all agents, he preferred to work with his right hand.

He gave no reaction as she cleaned the wound.

She required a towel and patted the hand dry, lifted it, and assessed the wound. It was clean. It had been done with a required weapon – even required weapons could maim under blackout conditions – so there’d be no fae infection to worry about, no nasty after-effects that would stop the wound from healing cleanly.

Magnolia stood and retrieved the acid from the med kit, then knelt again.

She shook it carefully, unscrewed the cap, and burnt away the first few layers around the wound – lessening the chance that he’d suffer even a minor integrity loss.

The blue came next – spooned on carefully, then a light layer of blue-infused gauze, to give what was probably an unnecessary layer of protection whilst the wound did it final stages of healing.

The other hand was the same procedure, and he still sat passively whilst she worked.

When finished, she stood and assessed his other wounds – the one on his face was the worst – and, whilst in the field she’d be comfortable treating it because there was no other choice, here…there were people with better skills than her own – but voicing such an opinion would be tantamount to betrayal. He knew the state of his injuries even better than she did, and if he wanted someone else to care for him, he would have gone to Jones or kidnapped a tech.

He was with her, and that meant that he only wanted her.

‘Sir?’

He gave no indication that he’d heard her voice.

There was a minor scrape on his other cheek – a perfect opportunity. She dipped and loaded a single finger with a glob of the cream-consistency blue, then stood, held his chin, and began to rub the blue into the minor wound.

She took longer than she normally would on such a minor wound – it would give him a chance to tell her to back off, to leave the oozing wound for someone with more experience, or for him to take his frustration out on her, if that was what he needed.

‘Sir?’

This time, he finally made eye contact with her. ‘They’re making a mistake.’ He lifted one of his bandaged hands and put it over the hand on his face, stopping her, and held it there.

It was contact, and with the brief moment of relaxation his face had, she knew it was comfort.

He kept his hand on hers and, with the other, reached down, grabbed the cream, and held it up. ‘Do it. Heal. Cut. Heal. Trust you.’ His fingers moved on hers for a brief moment – probably just a twitch, but felt like a gentle squeeze – and he let his hand drop away.

She took the container of blue from his hand, scooped out enough to fill her palm, and slowly started to press it into the wound.

This time, he showed pain.

She hesitated, then pushed on his chest with her free hand, mounted his lap, and locked her legs behind the slats of the bleachers, securing her enough to help keep him in place as he twisted around, trying to get away from the blue in her hand.

The wound healed slowly, sucking all the blue away. The skin was discoloured, sickly shiny and…almost rotten. It was better than the open thing it had been, but it was still dangerous.

Blackout conditions sucked.

She required a small knife and cut into his face without further ceremony, working in from the healthy edges to cut out the rotten flesh.

Whatever it was simulating was nasty – she made a mental note to get the techs to put the option behind a higher-level firewall, even for blackout simulations. Cuts and bruises and missing organs were one level of danger. Simulating fae damage with this degree of accuracy wasn’t something that should be taken lightly, even for them.

She removed all of the diseased flesh, slopped in another palmful of blue; then repeated the procedure twice more before she was satisfied with her work.

There was still going to be a significant integrity loss, but it was all she could do without specialised equipment, or a tech in her ear.

She rubbed the remains of the blue on her hand over the reddened skin, finally able to take a moment’s enjoyment in being able to touch him like this; then she required a patch, stuck it to the affected area, and removed herself from his lap.

Taylor looked up at her for a moment, his expression unreadable, even to her; then he required away his clothes.

They didn’t have barriers, not like normal people. Their relationship wouldn’t work with barriers. Naked was a state of being and meant no more or less than what context demanded of it. Here, it was the most efficient way of allowing her to treat the multitude of small wounds.

It was still a nice change from his old routine.

Before she’d been his aide, during the times when he’d been unwilling to go to Jones or the techs, he would simply immerse himself in a dump tank full of blue.

The tanks were strategically placed around the Agency, for an eventuality where the system might not be available, but a large quantity of blue was required. Taylor had moved one from its original position to a spot behind a false wall panel near their armoury.

The technique was not entirely dissimilar to what the techs did – bathing in blue was often a first step to fixing any major damage, or even sometimes used as a rest period afterwards, bringing the agent back to circumstances close to their birth.

In Taylor’s case, it had been less effective, because he’d often been unable or unwilling to cut out the wounds that would cause potential integrity loss, so whilst the damage was healed, each wound repaired that way would make him weaker.

She began to sponge away the blood – there was almost something ritualistic about it. Cleaning a warrior’s wounds, preparing him for what was next.

And if he wasn’t disturbed and distant, it would have been sexy as hell.

The chest first, then his legs, then his arms.

As she laid a small adhesive strip over the last tiny gash, he grabbed her – his hand wrapping around her upper arm. He pulled her off-balance, and she caught herself, one hand resting heavily on his thigh, the other touching his chest. There was the brief touch of static as his uniform came back into place.

He looked at her, his expression taking on a desperate edge. ‘He’s done this before.’

The only immediate reactions that pleased him were tactical ones, battle ones – instincts borne of time and effort and meticulous practice. There was no time to consider when there was a man trying to stab you in the heart; if you deliberated whilst being shot at, you’d end up a corpse.

Immediate questions, however, were less welcome.

Taylor spoke volumes, even with the few words that he chose to use. Body language was even more important than it was with everyone else – and that was even discounting the specific cues they had developed so that they could communicate without words.

He’s done this before.

The “he” in question was obviously Ryan. Taylor seemed to do his utmost to avoid using rank or name when it came to Ryan. Jones was always “the scholar” – a nickname that seemed to condemn and commend in a single word.

“Done this” – he’d done this before. Made a human into an agent. Gone against his Duty for someone who wasn’t worth it.

‘Whitman,’ Taylor said, the word coming out as slowly as if it was wounding him to say. ‘He’s making another Whitman.’

‘Sir, I don’t-’

He turned to face her – his nose bare inches from her own. ‘You wouldn’t. Classified.’ He stood, lifting her onto her feet as he did. ‘You need to understand. We need to prepare.’ He jerked his head toward their sim room. ‘Now.’