Taylor shifted to Jones’ lab.
The Scholar sat at one of his desks, an oversized pair of headphones over his head, a game on his screen.
He stepped forward and growled. Recreational activities were allowed, so long as they didn’t interfere with duty. They were a waste of-
Jones hadn’t reacted.
He took a step forward. ‘Jones.’
The Scholar lifted a drink, and made an obscene slurping noise as he finished it off.
He walked forward, gripped the tech’s monitor, and flung it away. It broke against the wall, the mouse and keyboard falling from the desk and onto Jones’ lap.
‘I was playing that,’ Jones commented casually, took off his headphones, and moved to one of the other benches, and began to check on some equipment.
Taylor grabbed his shoulder, but Jones shifted to the other side of the bench. ‘Don’t,’ Jones said, ‘don’t you dare,’ finally properly acknowledging him. ‘What do you want?’
Whitman’s spectre danced in the corner of his eye.
Taylor thumped his fists on the bench. ‘Do you damn job!’
Jones adjusted his glasses. ‘And what job would that be?’ He flicked a beaker with a single, long finger, then moved away. ‘I see nothing wrong here.’
Taylor growled. ‘Integrity. Integrity issue.’
Mimosa, dead eyes unseeing, still bleeding silver from her throat, floated beside him, kissed his cheek, then exploded into stars.
Jones gave him a poisonous look. ‘Oh, you mean the same issue I made six attempts to rectify before you went below seventy percent? You put me through a wall. I don’t appreciate being brutalised. It ceased being my issue when you ceased accepting my assistance.’
He thumped his fists again. ‘Fix it!’
Jones sat, propped his elbows on the bench, then rested his chin on his folded hands. ‘Beg,’ he said slowly.’
This time, his fists left indents in the bench. ‘Do your Duty, Scholar!’
Jones stood, moved to stand across the bench from him; and slammed his hands down on the bench, a monitor appearing as he did so.
Taylor watched a security feed of his-
He watched himself assault a Tech. A tech he had thought was Whitman. He’d- He could have killed-
He stood straight. ‘That was-’
Jones touched the monitor and it flung itself against a wall. ‘You could have killed one of my kids!’ Jones raged. ‘Because you were a bullheaded bastard!’
‘Accident,’ he managed.
Jones looked down at his hands. ‘I wish Ryan had-‘
‘Don’t,’ Taylor said. Jones couldn’t finish the sentence. Jones acted within a set of parameters. Jones didn’t-
The Scholar was shaking.
Slowly, with shaking hands, Jones took off his glasses, then peeled off his shirt, and turned his back. A large, ragged scar crossed from his right shoulder to his left kidney.
Taylor stared. He remembered the injury. He had caused the injury.
It was outside parameters of normal activity for the Scholar to keep a reminder. It hadn’t been battle. It hadn’t been worth commemorating.
‘You know what that is,’ Jones said.
The memory of saving Jones was strong. It was one of the first notable points after his- After his second generation. A moment they still insisted on treating as a rebirth. It wasn’t. He was a different man. They kept-
They wanted the dead man.
The dead man wouldn’t have harmed a tech recruit.
The dead man-
Magnolia didn’t care about the dead man. Magnolia cared for him. Loved him.
Jones had tried to kill himself. Had walked into a blackout zone and put a gun to his head. Quick action had been necessary. He had grabbed the tech. Cut him with the knife that Magnolia now kept. Had taken action to shake Jones from whatever glitch was causing out-of-parameters actions.
Jones had kept the scar.
He reached out to touch the scar, his hand lying flat against Jones’ back. The Scholar was shaking. Crying. Weakness. Weakness with an unknown source.
Magnolia had cried for him. For him, when she’d seen the dead man. She hadn’t cried for the dead man. The others- Only cried for the dead man.
Jones turned, and as he did so, Taylor’s fingers brushed against the Scholar’s throat. ‘When I did something suicidal, you put me through a wall. You- How was what you did last night any less stupid? You had to know- I know you don’t sit around having deep thoughts, but I rarely think of you as a stupid man. You’re competent in your position; in your strategies, in your… Why the fuck did you try and kill Stef? Where was the strategy in that thinking, Agent?’
Words. Always words. Everyone demanded words.
Magnolia understood him. She could have- Done the words for him.
‘You,’ Jones asked, as his shirt reappeared, ‘or her?’
‘I’m an agent,’ he said.
‘And now,’ Jones said, his hand running through his blonde hair. Hair that reminded him of Whitman. Hair that he hated. ‘So is she.’
Jones shook his head. ‘No. Not anymore. The last paperwork was expressed. You should thank whoever you worship as a god that Ryan left your name out of everything. You could be ash, right now, thank your stars that you aren’t.’
Jones twirled a strand of hair around his finger. ‘Again. You, or her? Fix you – fix your integrity issue; fix your mind, or fix your feels? Fix Stef? What the hell can I do to make her acceptable to you?’
The solution was easy. A child could work out the strategy. Make the mistake a tech. Scholars could – would – keep a closer eye on one of their own; less stimulus to-
‘Get in the frakking tank,’ Jones said.
Taylor looked up, and saw a large blue-filled tank, where there had only been empty floor before.
Jones lifted a clipboard and a pen. ‘We’ll start with a purge,’ Jones said, his voice in the Parkers-like tone he used when filling the role of “medical” for an agent.
Taylor lunged at Jones, and grabbed his shoulder. Not with enough force to hurt. There was no need to hurt the Scholar. Jones did not act at optimal levels are sustaining an injury. He needed the Scholar to act within parameters. Needed him to-
‘A purge,’ Jones said tightly, ‘is the best way to get you up and running.’ Jones turned at him, green eyes flashing angrily; ‘to get you battle-ready, as you’re so fond of phrasing it.’
A purge. It would- It wasn’t a memory wipe. A memory reduction. It would- Dampen all memories since the point his integrity dropped below seventy-five percent.
Memories that included Magnolia.
Memories that were new, but already so important.
‘No,’ he said again. ‘Whatever other way. Not a purge.’
Jones made a grunting sound. ‘Are you really so- Are you really so depraved as to want to hold onto memories of attempted murder? I can guarantee you, Agent, that everyone else is going to do their damndest to forget you went off your fucking rocker, and tried to murder one of your colleagues.’
Words. Everyone always needed words.
Magnolia didn’t need words.
‘Not Mimosa,’ he said.
Jones folded his arms. ‘You realise this is going to make my job suck, right? That you’re going to be stuck in here for hours longer than you need to be. A purge would-‘
Jones gave an exasperated sigh. ‘What about her?’
He had run out of words. He raised three fingers to his lips and laid them there. Jones would understand. Had to understand. Scholars were Scholars for a reason.
Jones looked at him, green eyes assessing; absorbing the given tactical information about the immediate area.
Taylor allowed his hand to drop to his side. ‘Magnolia,’ he said again. ‘Don’t purge Magnolia.’
‘Did you two finally fuck?’
The words were harsh. The tone wasn’t in Jones’ usual parameters.
‘She loves- Me.’
‘I’m not sure that you deserve that.’ Jones moved to a cupboard, found a gel cap and threw it to him. ‘Take off your clothes. Put this on your head. And don’t speak unless spoken to for the next four hours.’
Taylor placed the webbed, plastic cap on his head, and felt his blue syncing with it as he fit into place. He required away his uniform, but hesitated before shifting into the tank.
He reached for Jones’ shoulder, who flinched, but allowed the touch. ‘Thank you,’ he said.
Jones put his slender hand on top of his. ‘I wish that I didn’t want you dead. I wish you were the man I used to know. The man who had a crush on me wouldn’t have cut me, scarred me, at the lowest point in my life.’
Taylor stared, processing the words. ‘I don’t-‘
‘You don’t,’ Jones said, straightening. ‘But he did. Why the- Why do you think you died trying to protect my department? Why I was the only one of us who lived without scars. It wasn’t just your – his – duty. I lived, because he had a crush on me. Because he wanted to protect- Scholar was a term of endearment you had for me, bastard, now you treat it like an insult; like it’s something to be ashamed of. He died because of love. For his colleagues; for his agency, to protect people who were weaker than he was. He died. You- I didn’t know you were even capable of love. If you don’t want to lose memories-‘
Jones went silent.
There was an impetus. A need to fill the space with words.
‘Magnolia. I am just- I am not him. She does not look for him. I am not dead to her. I am.’
‘I won’t purge your memories, Taylor,’ Jones said after a long moment. ‘I’m sorry you’ve already lost so much. Just- Just stop taking it out on people who don’t deserve it. Stef isn’t Carol; even less so than you are your former. Take her on her own terms. And- And I’ll take you on yours. It’s long overdue, but I think we all need to stop looking for ghosts.’
Jones leaned in, and kissed Taylor’s cheek, then tilted his head to rest against his ear. ‘But if you ever hurt one of my recruits again, no force on earth will stop me from taking you apart, bit by byte.’ The Scholar retreated. ‘I need you, or Magnolia, to do some kind of grand gesture for Raz, he’s not built for what you did to him.’
Taylor nodded, confident that Magnolia would arrange something. She always saw the detail that he couldn’t.
‘Into the tank,’ Jones said; and he complied without argument.