Being in King’s Row returns Jack to his days of urban combat training in the military. Except everything his mentors had prepared him for amounts to nothing against what they are actually here to fight. The streets are quiet and dark: during their briefing in Oxford, Gabriel had explained that the entire city had been evacuated weeks prior, with power cut to most of its neighborhoods. They had been allocated a “repurposed” cathedral to use as their base of operations, which meant minimal protection in the event that their presence is discovered.
The only light comes from the moon as they glide silently over the cobblestones. Rotten fruit sits abandoned in their stalls, and Jack has seen more than one empty baby carriage left out on the sidewalks. Abandoned vehicles of all sizes make driving perilous, and they weave slowly through the jagged lines of open passenger doors and forgotten car accidents. It’s like someone hit the pause button and they’re just waiting for the people to come back so they can press resume and let life continue. It unnerves Jack, so he turns away from the window, though the eerieness and desolation hover hungrily behind him.
The back of the truck is cramped, and Ana is sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest because the generator they’ve brought takes up most of the leg room. Reinhardt isn’t even in there, couldn’t have possibly fit with all the equipment that is packed in with them. He rode out to the base a few days earlier with the bedding and food preserves, leaving only Jack, Ana, and Torbjörn to sit solemnly in the bed with the munitions tech. Gabriel is sitting up front with the driver: a commanding officer privilege that Ana had tried—and failed—to wheedle out of him.
When they pull up front, all Jack can see are boarded-up windows and chipped stone as he hops out of the truck, his pulse rifle slung across his back. The door is black wood—maybe two inches thick, which would be considerable if their enemies were not capable of ripping through reinforced carbon metal. He sighs, and together the four of them begin the process of unpacking. They move in silence, and once the last carton is removed, the driver—who has had the engine running the entire time—pulls away and turns down the corner, out of sight. Quick and quiet.
Inside, the cathedral is almost completely gutted. Naked wires snake haphazardly across the floor—evidence of a rushed set-up. A handful of pews are pushed against the walls, and at the far end where Jack presumes the altar must have been are mounted monitors with black screens. Off to the right, Reinhardt is snoring away, one massive arm thrown over his face as he balances precariously on a pew.
“Wake up, ya great oaf,” Torbjörn barks, wiping sweat off his brow as he and Jack carefully set the generator down. Torbjörn mutters to himself in Swedish as he tries to get it up and running. The look of confusion that crosses his face when he picks up two identical plugs does not escape Jack’s notice.
Reinhardt doesn’t actually stir until Ana goes over and, with a sly quirk of the lips sent Jack’s way, squeezes his nose shut. He wakes up with a sputter and nearly knocks her to the floor—his flailing arm narrowly missing her—but Ana is too busy laughing to notice. Jack smiles weakly back at her. Behind them, Gabriel is unfolding the cheap card table they brought along. When Jack catches his eye, his face is tired and unamused. “Get the chairs,” he orders before raising his voice over the commotion. “I’d like to get situated sometime tonight, people.”
They set up the cots against the back wall, with Ana putting hers in a small alcove that offers some degree of privacy away from the rest of them. With the generator plugged in—the overhead monitors flicking to life and casting a strange orange glow over the open room—and the provisions stored, Gabriel lays out schematics on the card table. The others gather around, and by now even Ana’s face is rigid and unsmiling.
She makes it look effortless: the transition from carefree woman to deadly sniper. When she grins, her laugh lines can make you forget that she’s killed people—hundreds of them—over the course of her storied military career. He supposes that’s something the two of them have in common: for all that weighs him down, on the outside he is still bright-eyed and golden-haired with nothing to mark him for the things he has seen and done. Inevitably, Jack’s eyes wander to Gabriel and the way his mouth is perpetually set into a somber frown.
Unlike Ana (and Jack), everything about Gabriel is military: from the scars on his face to the harsh, short cut of his hair to the way he walks—back straight, shoulders tense as if anticipating gunfire. The only thing about him that can be soft are his eyes, and idly Jack finds himself watching Gabriel as he pours over the schematics. Oftentimes, they are all that can give away what he’s thinking: whether he’s angry or sad or happy. Whether or not he finds one of Jack’s jokes funny or if he’s laughing to humor him. They can be warm, too. The times when Gabriel glances up at him, the fondness in his eyes undeniable, are the times when Jack has to look away, ignoring the twist of his stomach and the way his ears heat up.
It takes him a moment to realize that Gabriel is staring back, his brows knit together in a question. Jack can only give him a helpless little smile before dropping his gaze to the table. His ears are burning, and he curses himself inwardly.
“The omnium is five blocks to the south,” Gabriel finally begins, shuffling the map to the top of the pile. His voice is quiet yet commanding, the slightest hint of a growl edging over his words. Jack keeps his eyes trained on the map, too focused on how his stomach is lurching to make sense of the lines on it. “Here. There’s about 50 feet of space between it and the other buildings on all sides. Effectively, that’s 50 feet of no man’s land we get to cross where all one of the tin cans inside has to do is look out the window to see us coming.
“Liao is on support back in Oxford, but it’s imperative that we maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary. No calls unless shit’s completely unsalvageable, understand? We’ve only got one shot at this. We get in, we set the bomb, we get out, we blow the fuckers to kingdom come. Just like we’ve always done.”
Someone needs to ask the big question, to keep everything in one neat, clearcut perspective. Jack takes it upon himself. “What if the operation goes south?” Liao hadn’t let them step foot out of the embassy in Oxford without drilling it into their heads. Best not to forget it. Gabriel fixes him with a grim smile.
“They drop a bomb on us and level the entire neighborhood. The UN wanted these omnics out of London yesterday.”
The room is silent as Gabriel’s words hang over them. It isn’t their first attack on an omnium, but it is the first where the consequences of any mistakes would be higher than ever. It is also their first raid on an omnium located in the heart of a highly populated area, and the knowledge of that is what’s been hanging over them since they left Oxford. They are lucky that the government had time to evacuate. They would likely not be this lucky again.
Gabriel clears his throat. “Tomorrow is recon. The enemy might have set up extra defense measures since these sheets were drawn up. Ana, I want you to scope out the no man’s land around the omnium. Take Reinhardt with you. If you find anything, mark it down. Do not engage. Jack and I will investigate the surrounding buildings just in case. Last thing we need is our escape route being blocked off. Torbjörn—” Here Gabriel shoots him a withering look, to which he only chuckles in response, “—will stay back and fix the detonator he broke on the way here.”
“I was wonderin’ what was poking my bum.” Nobody laughs, though Jack can see Reinhardt hiding a grin behind his fist. The two of them—Reinhardt and Torbjörn—have enough war experience between them to outpace all the years Jack has been alive. Jack’s own record is nothing to scoff at, but he has yet to get acclimated to facing off against something that cannot feel fear or pain.
Gabriel dismisses them. When Ana, Torbjörn, and Reinhardt start pulling out the bottles of liquor, Jack is already heading to his cot, his fingers itching for something to occupy them. He pretends the sound of popping corks and hissing cans isn’t deafening in his ears. By the time Gabriel comes over, the pulse rifle is in pieces on his blanket, and for several moments Gabriel stands there, watching quietly with his arms crossed. Jack hunches his shoulders.
“Nervous?” Gabriel asks eventually, and Jack can feel eyes boring into the top of his head as he fastidiously wipes his gun. He’s finding it hard to focus, and it takes him longer than usual to fit all of the pieces where they belong.
“What makes you say that?”
“You only do this when you’re nervous.” Gabriel pauses. “And your hands are shaking.”
“Was wondering why it was so hard to put back together,” Jack remarks dryly as he tries—and fails—to steady his fingers. Gabriel watches him struggle for a few minutes more before taking over, and like magic Jack’s pulse rifle is whole again. When he gives it back, Jack simply holds it for a moment, feeling comforted by its weight in his hands. “You nervous too?” Jack asks as he puts the gun to the side. He starts peeling his gloves off—an excuse not to look at Gabriel.
“That’s good. Makes you careful.” The last syllable is cut off by Reinhardt’s uproarious laughter, and Jack hears the card table groan as a huge fist slams down on it. Not for the first time, Jack is struck by how low Reinhardt’s tolerance for alcohol is.
“Jack.” He has to look up now, and when he does the first thing he thinks about is how good Gabriel looks with stubble. How it highlights his jaw and the hollows of his cheeks. He swallows thickly, dropping his eyes to Gabriel’s collar. “You good?” Jack doesn’t have to see his face to know how many questions he is holding back. If they had been back at base, Gabriel would not have hesitated to interrogate him. But he is mindful of their mission. Today, they are Commander Reyes and Agent Morrison and nothing more.
“I’m great,” Jack answers a bit too quickly, earning himself a peculiar look. He wonders if he should ask to be paired with someone else for reconnaissance, but he squashes that thought almost the moment it arises. He’d been dealing with his—and he feels immensely foolish for even thinking the word—feelings for Gabriel since the enhancement program ended; he could deal with being in close proximity to him—alone—for a couple hours. He’s a soldier, not some lovesick kid. He tells himself that a few more times to drive it home.
Gabriel doesn’t respond right away, and for a moment Jack is worried that he’ll press the matter after all. But then he asks: “Tomorrow’s your birthday, ain’t it?” and Jack breathes a sigh of relief.
“How old you gonna be now? 17?”
“You’re as funny as you are ugly, you know that, Reyes?” Gabriel laughs, and the sound—throaty, gruff—chases away the tension between them. Jack has to stifle his own smile, committed to being offended.
“Rather be ugly than have your baby face,” Gabriel shoots back, and the cot squeaks quietly as he sits down beside him, scooting back to lean against the wall. From here, Jack can see Ana and Torbjörn engaged in a fierce drinking competition while Reinhardt struggles to keep his eyes open. The table is littered with their empties; Jack is painfully aware of the flask tucked away at the bottom of his duffle and his burgeoning desire to have joined them rather than isolate himself.
“I should stop them,” he hears Gabriel murmur, and he turns to see Gabriel watching them with an inscrutable expression. Something like annoyance tempered with fatigue; Jack doesn’t have to ask to see that the mission weighs on Gabriel the most. He’s known for getting the job done, and always at the back of Jack’s mind is the question of whether or not Gabriel would sacrifice him, too, for the sake of the operation.
“They know not to overdo it.”
“Hm.” There is something ugly about the sound, but when Jack looks at him, his lips aren’t curled in that cruel way of his. Jack makes a noise that’s half-scoff and half-laugh and marvels at his own propensity for seeing things that aren’t there.
The silence that falls between them is companionable. Ana fills it with the sound of her hiccupping laughter. She and Torbjörn are still going at it, but he is lifting his bottle halfheartedly. Reinhardt has his head on the table, his snores a low buzz beneath their slurred, barely coherent conversation.
Eventually, Jack moves back so he can lean against the wall. He brushes his shoulder against Gabriel’s and tries not to think about it. Naturally, between that small point of contact and the possibility of his imminent death, Jack is consumed by the feather-light touch of Gabriel’s shirt. Soldier. Not a lovesick kid. It reminds him of their days in the enhancement program: sitting together on Jack’s bunk, wordless, too exhausted from the injections and the biopsies to talk or scratch at the track marks mottling their underarms. Simply sitting and taking solace in not being alone.
Jack doesn’t notice how intently he’s been staring at the card table, how tense he is, until Gabriel speaks. “Cheer up, birthday boy. You’ll finally be old enough to drink tomorrow.” He gives Jack’s shoulder a light shove.
“You buy me a gift, Reyes?” Jack allows himself to be redirected, happy enough to be distracted from his thoughts.
“That would be unprofessional. We’re on a mission, Morrison.” There’s that growl again—the one Jack can’t rightly say he dislikes. A tease. Jack glances at his mouth and immediately regrets it, and he is endlessly thankful when Gabriel’s tone lightens again. “I mighta picked you up something though.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you get? A booster seat?”
“Shit. That would’ve been good.” They both laugh; Jack is hyperaware of how Gabriel shifts closer to him. Warm and solid through the cotton. “You’ll have to wait and see. Might be a nice pick-me-up after recon.”
“You’re getting sentimental in your old age. People might start talking. Saying you’re going soft.”
Where Jack expects another peal of laughter, he receives only a stony look in response. He never could get down how to predict when Gabriel would have enough of being teased, would turn cold and hostile. His moods aren’t anything new to Jack, had been with him from the day they met in the military all those years ago. This time, Jack can’t help but get annoyed, but he tamps down on it. Another time he might have picked at Gabriel until he lashed out, but not now. Not with the mission hanging over them. So instead, it’s Jack’s turn to redirect. “You ever regret agreeing to this shit?”
“No.” Gabriel’s answer is immediate. Whatever Jack’s going to say is cut off when Gabriel stands up abruptly. “Get some sleep.” A gruff dismissal. Without looking at him, Gabriel goes over to Ana and Torbjörn and barks at them to clean up. Torbjörn starts to protest, but Ana is uncharacteristically agreeable, smiling sweetly at Gabriel. Then she glances past him, catches Jack’s eye, and smiles a little wider. She looks sad, he thinks.
Moonlight is streaming through the slats of wood over the stained glass windows, casting images of eerie blue faces on the floor. Jack lays there watching them, waiting for sleep to return to him. They look like Liao: a grim slash of mouth beneath a small nose, dark watery eyes like she’s about to burst into tears at any moment. Jack remembers the first time he met her. It was on the docks of Brisbane, before the omnics had reduced them to a pile of radioactive ash.
He was on assignment, shipped across the ocean with a handful of other recruits to undergo desert warfare training in a state-of-the-art facility that Liao had helped found. She was a short, unpleasant woman with a clipboard and a clipped voice. She introduced herself as “Dr. Liao” and that was that. Jack had never learned her first name or anything more about her. Unsurprisingly, Gabriel was the closest to her when they finally formed the strike team: two severe people who would spend hours talking logistics and stratagem. Jack learned a little more about her through Gabriel. Namely, that she was as forthright and unforgiving as he was, if not more so. Assigned to the team because—like Gabriel—she was a person who got shit done. Whenever Jack spoke to her, she scrunched her face like one would at a mangy dog. Gabriel said he found that endearing. Probably joking, but there were times when Jack never could tell.
The silence in the cathedral is deafening, so when a pair of quiet footsteps break it, Jack snaps to attention. His hand immediately slips under his pillow to his sidearm, though he relaxes once he sees Ana move through the moonlight. She walks almost noiselessly (had he been asleep, Jack doubts he would have heard her at all) towards the door. She casts a single look towards Jack—perhaps to reassure herself that the men are still sleeping—before climbing the ladder that leads up to the loft that once housed an organ. Jack loses her in the shadows. He can imagine her scaling the scaffolding to look out the window, eyes easily piercing through the darkness blanketing the streets.
Jack hesitates, thinks on it. She wants to be alone and he knows it, but he feels if he lays there any longer he’s going to lose his mind. A few feet away, Gabriel snores lightly, on his stomach with his face turned to the wall. His back rises and falls—breathing deeply, soundly, like they’re back on base already with their debriefing in the morning. It’s the surge of jealousy that has Jack sitting up. Stiffness runs down his spine, and the cold of the stone floor bites into his bare feet when he stands. He is nowhere near as quiet or graceful as Ana as he approaches the ladder, and by the time he reaches her—sitting cross-legged atop the scaffolding, black hair ringed in a halo of moonlight—she is waiting for him.
She is expectant, still drunk from the way she gives him a clumsy pat once he settles beside her. Outside, a stray cat darts across the street and disappears beneath the shadow of a smashed car. “It’s too musty here,” she says knowingly, tapping her nose with an index finger. Her nails are painted blue—chipped. “Smells like a tomb. Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks.” His voice is ragged with fatigue.
“As good an age to die as any,” she agrees pleasantly. “I won’t be going in with you this time, and I’m not so sure you boys can watch your own backs.”
He looks at her. “Gabriel say something to you?” The question comes out slow, wary. Something in his tone chases the smile off her face, and for a moment he sees panic flash through her eyes. Then she laughs.
“Oh, don’t talk like that, Jack. You made me think I said something I shouldn’t have. No. He hasn’t said anything, but I know him. He’ll want me to cover your approach from the perimeter. ‘Contain the situation, Ana’,” her voice dips low as she imitates Gabriel. “Too much can go wrong before you reach the front door.”
Jack grunts. She’s probably right, and that thought causes a wave of dread to wash over him. He rubs his eye with the heel of his palm, idly aware of the way Ana is watching him, eyes alight with liquor. She looks sad again. “Do you trust me, Jack?”
“I said ‘do you trust me?’ Do you trust me to protect you? To safeguard your way to the omnium?” She gathers one of his hands between her own: her skin matches his own in callouses and old scars.
Jack doesn’t know how to respond. She seems like she’s asking something else entirely, and Jack cannot begin to know what. “Of course,” he answers finally, watching as she rubs her thumbs across the back of his hand. Gently, as if soothing a child.
“Of course,” she echoes.
“We’ve done this before,” he says, and he doesn’t know if he’s trying to reassure her or himself. Maybe they’re both losing their minds here, in this hollowed out church in its hollowed out neighborhood. “It’s routine.”
“There is no such thing as ‘routine’ where we are involved. We are here because no one else knows what to do. We are here because they are willing to have us die for the sake of a dozen city blocks.” When she laughs, the sound is harsh and mocking and nothing like the delicate, drunken laughter from before.
“I’m going back to bed.” He’s beginning to wish he’d never left it. Ana is merely repeating back to him the things he’s thought a thousand times over on the drive here. Hearing it out loud is only making him sick.
“I have pills, if you need them,” she calls after him.
“Thanks, but there’s no point.” He pats his chest as he mounts the scaffolding in preparation of his descent. “Enhancements’ll metabolize them before they can work.”
“Right. Sleep well, Jack.”
When he climbs back into his cot, Gabriel is still asleep, but now he’s curled onto his side, towards Jack. His face is calm, lips downturned in a natural frown, jaw working lazily as he grinds his teeth. “Forgot your mouth guard, idiot,” Jack tells him bitterly before turning to face the wall.