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"It'll be fun," Riley had said. "You need to spend time with people who aren't this." She had waved her hand around, like Gabriel didn't know what she meant from the way she paused, trying to find a word to describe their colleagues and work environment. Given that they're all used to operating as if he's both another piece of technology, a tool to be aimed and deployed, and a trained operative supposed to be on covert ops, he supposes she has a point.

The chip points him to studies on socialisation as a way to combat PTSD, and the relationship between isolation and sanity. He pushes them out of his thoughts, instead building a map of the venue from blueprints and social media pictures. "Dress casual," Riley had said. He's not sure what that is, anymore; without a uniform, he's settled into the habit of wearing whatever he can move in, unless the mission demands a cover. Jeans, perhaps, and a long-sleeved shirt, so the burned in powder stains and knife scars aren't the first things people see. He grabs his jacket, too, because it's another layer between him and them, and he can hide a weapon in the inside pocket - nothing big, nothing flashy, because the plans show a metal detector, but a ceramic knife he picked up in his days before, still in the duct tape sheath he made so he could wear it on his ankle.

He feels a bit safer that way, calmer. He doesn't jump when Riley bangs on his door, because if it was anyone else he knows he can take them out, and the chip had let him know when she passed the lobby camera.

"You can't go looking like that," she says, when he lets her in. It's a formality - they both know she could get in easily enough even without the key he pretends to not know she was given when they moved her in. She slips under his arm and heads to his bathroom.

"Hello to you, too," he calls after her. He stares at his shoes, for a moment - he doesn't have much of a choice, because he only has his dress shoes, his boots, steel caps, and a pair of lace ups he can't even remember wearing. He supposes he did this before, but it feels unfamiliar to him now, like someone returning to their small town after years away at college only to find that it's all too small, too unchanged.

"Here," Riley says, and runs her hands through his hair. He can feel her fingers glide on his scalp, and then the wet, cool gel she leaves behind as she ruffles and twists. "There."

She slaps his hand away as he reaches up to touch. "At least try not to look regulation, okay?" she says, softly. "Wear those," she says, pointing to the lace ups. "Steel caps aren't allowed."

He wonders when that happened as he does what he's told and then gets shepherded out the door like Riley knows he'll bar the door from the inside given any more opportunity.

 

Riley's friends are, as she said, either serving or ex-Service. He can tell that some are just as uncomfortable to be surrounded by civilians as he is; they are constantly shifting and mirroring, unaware that they're drawing more attention to themselves than if they simply settled into their skins and let people's eyes pass over them. They take a table to the side, near the fire door and with a clear view of the stage, the bar and the entrance, and out of the way of most windows. Gabriel is surprised that there weren't any arguments about it, if he's honest - he would have picked it himself, but he was sure someone would have wanted to be at the front to see the stage better, or near the bar to have easy access to alcohol. But Riley's friends seem to be like her, and the type not to ask questions when he puts his back to the wall and Riley sits on his left, where she could best cover him if she had her gun, when he orders soda and his own potato skins rather than share from a platter. Riley steals one, though, and then a handful, and shrugs when she is caught, her mouth full. "What?" she says, after swallowing. "They're good."

Her friends don't have time to press her, though, because the lights come on over the stage, and someone is handing out paper and pens.

"We need to make up a table," Riley had said. "And it's for charity, you can't say no." This, she forgot to mention.

"A quiz night?" he hisses. Riley shrugs; someone pushes the paper at her and she leans across Gabriel to get a pen. He leans back, pulling his plate with him. Somehow, she still manages to steal another skin.

"So does anyone know any of these, or are we guessing again?"

Gabriel tunes out the conversation in favour of eating his food before there isn't any left. The first round is multiple choice, anyway; there's a one in four chance they'll get the right one.

He doesn't look at the questions in case the chip starts whispering to him, in case someone notices him looking past them at nothing in particular and that flat way his voice goes but he can't quite control.

"What do you think, Gabriel?" someone says, and he answers on autopilot.

"C. Always say C if you don't know."

"Right, right," they say, and go on without him. He's just making up the numbers, after all. It's not like he's had time to know things about movies or sports, and especially not local ghost stories, which he's not sure was an especially good category. People laugh, so he assumes it was a joke he didn't get. That happens a lot, now that he doesn't do this so often. He's grateful for the break, when the noise falls back to an even murmur, with no voice distinguishable unless he's looking for it. The thing that pulls him out of his self-imposed daze is not the food, which he lets Riley steal because he knows she's looking at the mezze platter and regretting not ordering something herself, or the not so casual way her friends keep trying to draw him into the conversation. Riley deflects them easily enough, anyway, and he begins to suspect, from the way that the voices seem to come more from one side of the table than the other, that he's not the only one who isn't wholly into the group night out. He stops the chip from telling him why by giving a small smile, a nod, and asking it to find out where the restaurant gets their steak from because what Riley's left him is near to perfection.

 

"Okay everyone, back to the quizzing!" The announcer has managed to sound louder and more grating, probably because of beer, and Gabriel is sure that he isn't the only one thinking of banging his head on the table. "All number ones, come to the front!"

"That's you," the other quiet guy whispers. "Sorry, man, but they do this every year."

Gabriel glances at Riley, but she shrugs and pushes him off the chair even as he stands.

 

From the front of the room, everything looks different. Riley gives him two thumbs up, and among the cheers from across the room he can make out some of her friends cheering him on. "Okay, okay, quiet down!" he hears, and he doesn't really listen to the rules. The category is Top Tens of the 2000s, and he already knows he's lost them the round, for even if he had both time and access to popular music back then, it wouldn't have been the kind they mean. Indeed, the songs that play for the people before him don't mean anything to him, though they feel familiar, probably from half-hearing them in airport lounges or store radios.

It doesn't occur to him that it's the chip until the sound of a heartbeat and a rhythm guitar remind him of a song he knows he's never heard before, one that he might have remembered, and he's one of two left standing; the round ends with the harried woman very clearly hiding that she's NSA missing her next song.

 

"You're like a machine, Gabriel," someone says, when he sits back down, and it hits him like a punch in the stomach, one that wasn't pulled but didn't quite hit the solar plexus but landed in the hollow above his hipbone, where the pain reverberates and disorients for long enough to land a second, killing blow. It doesn't come; Riley rubs his arm, drawing the attention back to her, but it doesn't take the shadow from his thoughts or the heaviness from his shoulders that weighs him down and makes him feel both lax and tense.

He can't turn it off then, either, and by the time the night is done their table has gone from last to fourth, and Gabriel has the beginnings of a headache, the kind that comes before a dullness that echoes like a hangover but that he's assured is just his brain resting after dealing with non-biological data for too long. Or something - he's fuzzy now, enough that he lets Riley lead him out and drive them without even trying to talk. He sinks into the car seat like it's made of foam and lets the moulding press into his shoulders, working out the kinks on every bump in the road on the quarter hour drive back.

 

"Do you want me to stay?" she says, once she's walked him to the door. She's done it before, when he's burned out on a mission, but this is different, somehow; he's had so much noise that even she's too loud in her silence, and her understanding is bigger than he can cope with. "I swear, I didn't know it would be like that."

"I think I can get myself to bed on my own," he says, harsher than he means, but he needs quiet. He can build himself quiet.

"I'm just over there if you change your mind," she says. "And I promise, next time I'll bring a movie and we can just, you know, sit."

"Yeah," he says; he's already imagining it in his mind, the chip surrounded by foil, folded over itself until nothing gets past it.

"Okay," she says, and leaves him to stumble through his apartment and collapse on his bed without even turning a light on to find his way.