Taylor wiped his hand against the leg of his pants. Behind him, a circle of Grigori’s combat-capable children loaded a Solstice prisoner into a van. The man had struggled, necessitating violence.
The blood was freezing on his fingers. He held onto the sensation. It was something different. Something new. Something to distract from-
Grigori was a fixture. A constant. He would not die.
Whatever the situation, Grigori would not die. He had been the one weak enough to die.

If Magnolia’s team pulled a corpse from the Solstice facility, it would remain a corpse. He wouldn’t allow a half-life to be forced on someone who-
One of Grigori’s sons signalled him, and Taylor strode forward, and took the tablet from the man’s hands – the screen showed five seconds footage from one of the forward team’s headsets, before shifting to the next.
He saw O’Connor. He saw Mimosa. Both seemed unharmed.
He saw Magnolia. He saw her hand go to her headset, and watched her lips as the words flowed into his HUD.
[Sir. My location.]
The signal strength wasn’t what it normally was. Blackout zones necessitated routing communications through traditional – human – means.
Taylor strode forward. To his left, the lead local recruit – one of Grigori’s daughters – cautioned him for the seventh time. The area ahead was in a blackout.
The area ahead could have been Hell and he still would have walked in.
Three recruits – all Grigori’s children – ran ahead of him, scouting, ensuring it was safe. It was unnecessary – the forward team would have triggered any traps, and he was following in their footsteps.
There was a clatter of boots – two recruits carrying a stretcher passed him. Mimosa lay on the stretcher – her face contorted in something that wasn’t the pain it had been during her limit tests, but was still a clear sign of distress. Possibly blunt force damage, the evidence hidden under her layers of clothing.
O’Connor passed close behind, his eyes to the floor. The recruit flinched as Taylor passed. An act out of character. O’Connor had always shown the correct deference to him, but had never shown fear indicators.
The scouting recruits brought him to Magnolia, and he followed her through a large doorway, and found Grigori.
Unlike the recruits – the recruit and the experiment – Grigori was clearly injured. Clearly-
Grigori lifted his head as Magnolia began to break the chains that were holding him upright and cracked a smile. ‘You missed a party, my friend.’ His head dropped forward, and blood leaked from his mouth.
‘Last one, sir,’ Magnolia reported.
Taylor moved forward to brace Grigori’s weight as Magnolia released the bundle of chains that had held his friend captive. Grigori fell forward, unable to support any of his weight, and Taylor easily helped him to the ground, lying him on the concrete floor.
The damage was severe, but from what he knew of Solstice tactics, most of it was…showy. Lots of shallow cuts that would have garnered cheers from people watching the interrogation, but only a few wounds that were bringing his friend closer to death.
Taylor knelt, and accepted the thick IV bag of blue from Magnolia as she wordlessly passed it to him. He tore off the protections around the nozzle and squirted the thick, gel-consistency blue onto the worst of the visible wounds as Magnolia knelt on Grigori’s other side and began to cut open his clothes, looking for more areas that needed attention.
Grigori coughed, and weakly gestured for the blue bag, which he handed over without argument. Grigori slipped the nozzle into his mouth, and sucked down a cup’s worth of the gel, before letting it fall from his hand.
‘That,’ he said, his accent thin, ‘is much better.’
Magnolia pulled the bag of blue from Grigori’s chest, and began to treat a wound on his leg.
Grigori’s hands clamped themselves onto Taylor’s face, and he was drawn in for a deep, blood-tainted kiss. After a moment, Grigori released him. ‘Pass half of that along to your pretty bird, her mouth is unfortunately out of reach. Help me stand, my friend, I need to do something of my own accord.’
Without an argument, Taylor helped his friend stand.
Grigori’s legs were unstable, and could barely bear him, even with nearly a full bag of blue working to patch the worst of the injuries.
‘Did you see Mimosa?’ Grigori asked. ‘She didn’t have a scratch on her. Looks like O’Connor saved all of his talents for me.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Taylor saw Magnolia stiffen. ‘O’Connor did this?’ she asked, her voice neutral, calm, professional. ‘What was the situation here, Grigori? How did you even get here?’
‘I wished for it,’ Grigori said, his voice low. ‘I wished for- Dmitri! Make sure someone finds him!’
‘Dmitri is dead-’ Taylor started.
‘He. Is. Not!’ Grigori said, his voice rough, before leaning forward to throw up blood. ‘I wished to find him, and I found him. They have him. Alive. Do not leave him behind!’
There was the squeak of wheels as a stretcher came in – this one equipped with a blue IV and thermal blankets to combat the cold. Two recruits – two more of Grigori’s children – helped their father onto the stretcher before wheeling him away.
Grigori and the recruits gone, they were alone in the room. Slowly, he turned to Magnolia, who allowed some of her professional expression slip away.
‘I know O’Connor’s record,’ she said calmly, ‘someone with his experience could have done a lot more damage in the time Grigori and the recruits were missing from System territory.’
He looked to Magnolia. To the woman he loved. Who he trusted. Who was so much better with the…minutiae of- Everything, than he was. ‘Should O’Connor be detained?’
‘I think that’s the first reaction any reasonable member of the Agency would have, sir,’ she said, with barely a second’s hesitance. She took a step closer. ‘But a lot of things in our Agency only work because people don’t act on those first instincts. I don’t know what happened here, but I’m not putting a good recruit in irons until I know what happened.’
He grunted his agreement. ‘Dmitri,’ he said. ‘Get the recruits looking.’