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God Killer

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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.

“Yeah.”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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.

“How old?”

“27.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.

Chapter Text

In the winter—when the heat comes up—the pipes rattle in the walls like old bones. The building is old. A emptied out carcass from the last century filled with stainless steel appliances and holographic monitors and liquor. After a few drinks, Jack can’t smell the age—the lingering odor of an abandoned space recently given new life. With so many bodies stuffed in one place, the air is stifling and muggy. To his left, Candelaria laughs, smoke spewing from his mouth and the cigarette dangling from his lips. There’s so much ash collected on the end that Jack is watching, waiting for it to fall into his glass.

The mess hall and its table—musty wood, faded blue paint—are small, and Jack wonders if everyone in the program is crammed into this little room. Gabriel is on his right, and when he catches Jack looking at him, he puts on that cruel smile of his before hooking a thumb towards the head of the table. La Bruno, from Jack’s old regiment, is sitting there. He died years ago in a border skirmish, but he looks good. The missing part of his skull isn’t bothering him much. When he tucks in and knocks back a shot, it dribbles out of the gash in his neck. Jack raises his glass to him. The drink burns the whole way down, settling like fire in his stomach.

“I hate this shit, man,” Gabriel says. Jack has trouble hearing him through the smoke. There are drops of blood in Gabriel’s glass, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Tastes like fucking bleach. Fucking Drano. Like I’m going blind.”

“Gets the job done.” La Bruno’s voice is a bubbling rasp and his lips don’t move when he speaks. A few people at the table—Dimitri, Nasir, Lipyanka—lift their drinks in agreement. Their eyes are all on Jack—unblinking.

“Enriched muscles. Reinforced skeleton. Augmented heart,” Candelaria slurs, listing off the meaningless descriptors from their medical waiver. “Synthetic blood. Hear it’s white when they make it but they dye it red so we match all the other kiddies on the playground.”

“Bullshit.” The word is loud in his ear, like Gabriel has his lips pressed to him. But he sits there, a safe distance away with a white-knuckled grip on his glass. At the end of the table, La Bruno picks a maggot out from between his teeth.

“We’re carbon machines. Posthuman gods.”

 “Divinity in a can. Coming soon to a supermarket near you.” Jack can’t tell who says it. It comes from all around him, rattling in the walls with the pipes and ringing in the air with the heat and the smoke and the flies circling La Bruno, ravenous and unending.

“Our own organic omnium, right here in the US-of-A.”

“You look good, La Bruno,” Jack mutters into his hands, clutching feebly at his glass. There’s something stuck to the bottom of it—grime or dirt, like it hasn’t been washed. A flickering black spot.

La Bruno smiles—pearly white against the rotten flesh of his face. “Takes the edge off.” He taps the lip of his drink: a clear plink cutting through the haze. Gabriel pushes back from the table. The legs of his chair screech—mechanical—across the floor, consuming everything else, still screaming even once Gabriel is standing. A held high note.

“You waiting for an invitation, Morrison?” he asks impatiently. When Jack tries to stand, hands braced against the edge of the table, he finds he can’t lift himself. Around him, oblivious, his comrades drink on, faces contorted into laughter that he can’t hear above the screeching. La Bruno is watching him from across the table; his eyes are filmy, clouded, sunken deep into dark eye sockets. Jack grips the armrests of the chair and pushes. It feels like he’s underwater, the weight of the ocean grinding him down flush against the floor. His arms are the only parts of him that will respond, and he struggles with mounting panic, nails digging into the old wood.

“Jack. Let’s go.” Gabriel looks down at him, annoyance written in the downward turn of his lips. His eyes are flat, two-dimensional. Depth of a corpse.

“I’m stuck,” Jack says, but Gabriel seems not to hear him. His words are swallowed by the screaming—metal grating on metal. Sound of sustained pulse fire tearing through a titanium chassis.

“Takes the edge off,” Jack hears La Bruno say. Fingertip tapping the rim of a glass.

“Fuck, man. Stay then,” Gabriel spits, turning away. He is silhouetted in the orange glow from the mounted monitors, in the pale moonlight filtering through the slats of wood over the windows. Faces—foggy—stare up at him from the floor. Behind La Bruno, Ana and Torbjörn and Reinhardt are drinking at the card table. Ana is staring at Jack, through him, a smile frozen on her face.

Candelaria slips an arm around Jack’s shoulders, and Jack is overwhelmed by the smell of rotting flesh—sickly sweet, mixing with the chemical burn of the liquor. Jack tries to pull away, his heart in his throat, but Candelaria’s arm is heavy and unrelenting. “For fuck’s sake, Gabriel,” Jack chokes out, reaching out for him, fingers just grazing the hem of his jacket. “For fuck’s—Gabriel. Gabriel, help me.” Candelaria’s arm slides up around his neck, and Jack can’t breathe.

Gabriel is across the room, miles away, a black spot in the distance. Anger pulses out from him—Jack can feel it like Gabriel is standing right beside him. He claws desperately at the arm, tries to pry it off and fails. “Ana—” She is still smiling, eyes filmy, alcohol dripping from the hole in her neck.

Fingers force their way into Jack’s mouth, and he lurches forward, gagging, arms wrapping tight around his legs. Cold stone rises up to catch him, and for several long minutes he simply lays there, air flooding his lungs. The sun glitters behind the stained glass, and he idly registers the sound of distant birdsong. Muffled snores. Footsteps—a pair of boots come into view. His skin is slick and clammy. His tank top clings wetly to his chest.

“Rough night?” Gabriel’s voice is husky from sleep. Gingerly, Jack sits up and tugs at the blanket tangled around his legs. His shoulder twinges dully from where he hit the floor.

“Bad dream,” he mutters, and he swears he can hear a low screeching in the back of his head. “What time is it?” He feels better once he’s standing, once he’s sure he can use his legs. He flexes his toes, tests his knees. The nightmare has left him restless, like he wants to move just to reassure himself that he can. Reinhardt and Torbjörn are still asleep, for which Jack is grateful.

“About 0630. Coffee?”

“Yeah.”

The card table is clear of the maps and bottles from the night before, though it is now sporting one very sticky brown smudge that Jack takes care not to brush against as he sits. There’s a small kettle sitting on a hot plate, and the two of them are silent as Gabriel hunts around their supplies for mugs. He finds a plain white one for himself, and for Jack he produces one that is a garish yellow with “Thirty, flirty, and thriving” printed on the side in flowery pink script.

“You think this is Ana’s or Reinhardt’s?” Gabriel asks as he sets it down. The only coffee they have is instant, and Jack can still smell the packaging even after Gabriel mixes in the water.

“Hard to tell.” It scorches his tongue when he takes a sip, but the burn helps rouse him from the dream, grounds him. He looks at Gabriel over the lip of the mug: whatever mood had taken him the day before is gone, leaving him to mutter under his breath about the unforgivingly artificial taste.

Before Jack can think of something to say, Reinhardt sits heavily in the seat beside him. His jaw cracks audibly as he yawns. “Good morning, my friends,” he says cheerfully—a natural morning person if Jack ever met one. “Let us hope the day passes quickly, eh? I cannot wait to get into the omnium. It has been far too long since we have been out in the field.”

“The two months of prep was a little excessive,” Jack admits. Gabriel grunts noncommittally as he pours himself a second cup.

“This omnium’s been quiet lately and it’s making the suits nervous,” Gabriel says finally as he scratches his chin, drawing Jack’s eye to the sharp line of his jaw. It’s too early for this shit. Jack busies himself with sloshing around the undissolved grit at the bottom of his mug. “We have to expect something nasty waiting for us inside.”

“I agree. It is most unusual. It would be better to address this before it turns into a greater problem.” Reinhardt’s gaze sweeps to Jack, and his face brightens immediately. “Ah! Excellent choice of mug, Jack. My wife sent that with me for good luck.”

Jack turns it over in his hand. Across the table, Gabriel is concealing his smirk behind the rim of his cup. “Good luck?”

“Yes,” Reinhardt says, his face growing serious as he leans closer. “I drank from that very mug the morning before a battle in which I received seven gunshot wounds that pierced my armor. Not a single one hit an organ. The ultimate proof of luck, is it not?”

“That seems more like a coincidence to me, Reinhardt.”

“No, no! I assure you, this mug is exceptionally lucky. Another example: I drank from it the day I asked my wife to marry me. Trust me, my friend. Good things are coming your way today.” Then Reinhardt laughs that loud belly laugh of his as he claps a hand on Jack’s shoulder, nearly sending him sprawling face-first over the tabletop.

“Well, if I don’t get shot today I’ll be sure to thank your wife the next time I see her,” Jack says, and with Reinhardt’s broad grin he feels the last vestiges of the nightmare lose their hold on him.

Ana and Torbjörn join them not long after, nursing twin hangovers which earns them an imperious look from Gabriel. “Now, now, Gabe. Don’t get yer undies in a twist. I can build just about anything with my eyes closed n’ my good arm tied behind my back. Fixing a detonator with a headache is child’s play,” Torbjörn says, waving him off as he sets up the hot plate with a pan, kettle set carelessly to the side. “It’s cracked to shit. Might as well do it from scratch since it’d take a day and a half just to pick the little pieces of plastic out of the wiring.” Gabriel’s expression darkens considerably, and Torbjörn hastily adds: “It’ll be ready by tomorrow. Cross my heart, Commander.”

“What about you?” Gabriel turns his frown onto Ana next, and she laughs.

“I’m a big girl, Commander. You don’t need to worry about me,” she answers sweetly, and Gabriel pinches the bridge of his nose and says nothing more.

The eggs are powdery and bland, but the toasted sweet bread makes up for it. They pick at the food, and Torbjörn appears to be the only one with an intact appetite. Jack eats mechanically; the moment the conversation dies down, he starts to feel that familiar nervousness coiling in the pit of his stomach.

Years ago, he and Gabriel spoke of it once. Gabriel had been military longer, had seen more and fought more and killed more than Jack when they were reunited in the soldier program. “It never goes away,” Gabriel had said, his dark eyes boring into Jack’s. “It doesn’t matter how many missions you complete or how many people you kill. It never goes away. It never ends.” But for all that talk, Jack has never seen Gabriel waver or hesitate.

Not now, where he sits across the table, rubbing his chin and peering into the bottom of his mug. Looking at Gabriel, Jack can almost think it’s just another day on base. His shoulders are relaxed, his lips downturned slightly in their natural frown. “How did you sleep, Jack?” Ana breaks him away from his thoughts. Whatever weird spell from the night before is gone, and she is looking at him with her usual warmth and amusement.

“Like shit.”

“Only drunk men and Reyes have restful nights on missions like this.” She shoots Gabriel a teasing look. “What I would not give to sleep like the dead as you do.”

“Years of practice, Amari,” Gabriel says lightly. “The trick is to just go the fuck to sleep.”

“Ah. Of course. Foolish, really, that I didn’t consider that before.” That earns a collective laugh from the table.

Breakfast ends far too quickly, and once the table is cleared Jack wanders away to dress and prepare himself for the day ahead. He doesn’t bother shaving. In his small travel mirror, the man staring back at him has bags under his eyes and exhaustion etched into the lines of his face. He splashes water on his cheeks, runs it through his hair. When he picks up his pulse rifle, he double checks the magazine and his bag of clips. The others are already gathering in the middle of the church. On one of the monitors, a 3D model of the omnium and its surrounding buildings flickers to life.

“When we reach the edge of no man’s land,” Gabriel begins as soon as Jack joins them, “we’re going to secure a building for Ana. Then Jack and I will continue on to secure the rest of the perimeter and transmit the coordinates via commlink to Ana and Reinhardt. For when you need a new angle, Ana. We’ll rendezvous back here at—” Gabriel checks the time, “—1300. That gives us about five hours. I don’t want us to be out there longer than we need to be, so try to get done quick. Our local radio channels should be secure, but keep it for emergencies only just in case. You run into an omnic, you take it down fast and quiet and deactivate its crisis protocol with your PDMM before it can signal for help.”

Gabriel takes a device out of his pack. It’s about the size of a cell phone with a smooth touchscreen on one side and a large sensor on the other. The portable data mining machine—standard issue for their team. This is nothing they haven’t heard before, but Gabriel is anything if not meticulous. “And for Christ’s sake, don’t forget to scan it when it’s dead, Reinhardt.”

Reinhardt stands tall and intimidating in his shining armor, his massive hammer slung over his shoulder. Though he has his helmet on, Jack can hear the sheepish grin on his face when he says, “Yes, Kommandant.”

Gabriel nods once, satisfied. “Questions?” Reinhardt raises his hand, but Gabriel cuts him off before he can speak. “If you forgot how to use the PDMM, then just have Ana do it.”

“Excellent!”

Ana gives Reinhardt a thumbs-up, and Jack laughs into his fist. The briefing ends there, and they gather their equipment. For a moment, the only sounds in the church are the mechanical clicks of magazines as guns are checked for the final time. Gabriel’s face is stony as he straps on his holsters, the shotguns hanging heavily from his hips on either side. In the vestibule, Jack catches a glimpse of the notches on Ana’s rifle—angry red slashes on the vinyl siding.

When they step out onto the empty street, the amiable conversation shrivels and dies in the pale morning light. Directly ahead of them is a red double-decker bus; when they pass it, Jack glances through the open door and sees the driver—long dead, face caved in, mouth gaping as flies dance between its rotted teeth. Jack looks away.

Birdsong follows them down the cobblestones and through the maze of cars. They pass more corpses—in the cars, under the cars, pounded into the sidewalk where they had been trampled. The old death-smell lingers all around, vague yet persistent, clinging at the fringes of the breeze that blows past them. They’ve walked about three blocks when Jack thinks he sees La Bruno peering at him from a storefront with gaps in his grin and something thick and black crawling through his eye. He blinks and La Bruno is gone.

Jack fingers the cap of the flask clipped to his belt, thinking, deciding when it pulls it off and flips it open and takes a long drag. When he puts it back, he notices Gabriel watching him. Neither of them speak a word. From then on, Jack keeps his eyes trained on the ground before him, feeling eyes on him from all sides as they pass bookstores and groceries and antique shops and clothing boutiques.

When the close-knit clusters of buildings finally open up into dead air—a long stretch of smooth, uninterrupted asphalt leading up to the tall steel walls of the omnium—Jack breathes a sigh of relief. The structure is as big as a warehouse; there is only one red door nestled between rows of large metal hatches. Circular, tinted windows are scattered intermittently. Ana already has her rifle off her shoulder, scope pressed to her cybernetic eye as she scans the front of the omnium.

“I’m not picking up any movement inside,” she concludes after several minutes as she lowers her gun, barrel pointing at her feet.

“Is it dormant?” Jack wonders aloud. Could they really be that lucky?

“Doesn’t make sense,” Gabriel mutters. “They were mowing down civilians left and right during the evac. Why would they retreat and deactivate?”

“Perhaps they have already spread throughout the district,” Reinhardt suggests, but Ana is already consulting her handheld.

“I’m not picking up any electrical feedback in a ten mile radius. They wouldn’t stray that far from the omnium,” Ana says. “Their external sensors aren’t even online. Something isn’t right here, Gabriel.”

They all look to him, and for several moments Gabriel merely glares at the omnium, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “We carry on with the original plan,” he concludes, finally, through gritted teeth. “Nobody leaves the perimeter. What vantage point you want, Ana?”

She takes a moment to regard the surrounding buildings. “That one will do for now.” Ana points at a nearby apartment—six stories. “I’ll be able to monitor nearly 180 degrees around the omnium from there.”

The front door’s lock has already been blown out when they approach, and all around the lobby lies evidence of looting. It takes them half an hour to clear the building. Sunlight floods through the large hall windows, and they leave their flashlights clipped to their belts. They don’t bother with the locked apartments: “Bastion units aren’t exactly known for closing up after themselves,” Ana had joked.

Most of the rooms are empty. One has a dead body in a bathtub, the porcelain and tile stained brown with old blood. They find nothing to suggest that the omnics had even entered the building, and Ana selects one of the apartments on the top floor. The four of them rearrange the furniture in the living room overlooking the omnium. Children’s toys litter the carpet. Gabriel kicks them out of the way while Ana pretends not to see them, busies herself with setting up her bipod on the end table she’s pushed against the windowsill. Her rifle slides into it with a low click, and she pulls a picture pad out of her pocket and sets it beside one of the legs.

Ana has showed it to him before. It’s full of holos of her daughter, her siblings, her parents, and the one they’d all taken together the day the strike team had been assembled. Jack keeps a physical copy of it himself. It’s one of the few he has where Gabriel is actually smiling—a cute quirk of the lips because of something stupid Jack had been talking about just before the picture was taken.

“Jack, you ready?” Gabriel is waiting under the arch that leads into the kitchen. The look in his eyes is one that Jack can’t read, but it sends a thrill of dread spiking through his stomach all the same. This is fucked to hell.

“Yeah.” When he turns back to Ana, she has a chair from the dining room pulled up to her rifle and has already started monitoring the long approach to the omnium. “Be careful, Ana.”

“I always am, Jack. You two stay safe, all right?” she answers without facing them. Her tone is clipped and dismissive. All business. It’s how he can tell that she’s afraid too.

Gabriel grunts in response. Reinhardt follows them to the door. “Circuits around the building every fifteen minutes until Ana’s ready to move to the next vantage point,” Gabriel says. When they reach the outside hall, he pulls one shotgun out of its holster and flips the safety off, muzzle pointing down at the ugly patterned carpet.

“Understood,” Reinhardt responds, his voice echoing slightly off the inside of his helmet. “We will see you two back at the church shortly.” Gabriel nods, claps one hand on the side of Reinhardt’s arm, and starts moving down the hallway. Jack can only offer Reinhardt a bland smile—having neither the words nor the energy to feign optimism when he is plagued by every doubt and every way this could go wrong.

“Have heart, Jack. Remember the mug!” Reinhardt’s cheerful voice drifts after him down the hall.

Outside, Jack unholsters his pulse rifle. Its weight doesn’t feel nearly as comforting as it had the night before. Without a word, Gabriel takes point, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts as he covers their rear. The city is completely silent—even the birds have stopped singing—and Jack feels as though he’s navigating another nightmare. Every time he looks up at the dark, empty windows peering down at him, he thinks he sees faces: some he recognizes, some he does not.

He spots La Bruno again, underneath a car, body burnt by the concentrated heat of the hover mechanisms. His head and torso are flush against the cobblestones—the rest of his body disappears beneath the car where it had run out of fuel and come to rest against the ground. Flat as a pancake, his father used to say whenever they passed roadkill on their country roads (not many people in his town could afford hovercraft). Jack struggles to decide which is more gruesome: being crushed or being burned.

“Jack.” Gabriel’s voice pulls him back, and La Bruno melts away—just another nameless, faceless corpse in the streets, left behind in the panic-stricken wake of the evac. He’s standing still, half-turned towards Jack. There is no tension in the cords of his neck or the set of his shoulders: calm in every way that Jack is not. “You gonna puke? You look pale.”

“That’s just my face.”

“Don’t get cute with me, Morrison.” Gabriel turns away, preoccupies himself with nudging open the door of a nearby apartment building. One hand braced on the door, Gabriel leads with the barrel of his shotgun. “You’ve been on edge since we left the church. Thought you were gonna shit your pants when you saw that body under the car.”

Jack doesn’t know what’s more embarrassing: that Gabriel’s right or that he’d noticed it to begin with. His ears start to heat up. “Are you just gonna ride my ass this whole time? I’m nervous. Sue me.”

Gabriel laughs. “Call up one of the guys from my old regiment, and they’ll tell you about ass riding. This ain’t ass riding. This is friendly concern.” Jack vaguely regrets his choice of words, but it takes his mind off the nightmare and La Bruno and the way his stomach is churning uneasily around the eggs he forced down at breakfast.

The building is comparatively shabbier than the one they cleared for Ana, but it’s still high-rise as far as Jack is concerned. Reminds him of the hotel waiting for them back in Oxford. “Since when are you friendly?”

“I can be very friendly.” The way Gabriel says it—teasing, low—has Jack struggling to find something—anything—else for him to focus on. The lobby is littered with the shattered remains of a chandelier. At the far end, the elevator doors open into a dark, vacant shaft. He covers their six and forces himself to keep his eyes off of Gabriel. Is there any practical reason for why his pants are so tight? Jesus Christ, Morrison. What are you, 15?

“Oh yeah?” Jack keeps his voice light, joking. He’s finding it difficult to juggle between his stupid crush and the fear from the mission; it forms a strange and unpleasant cocktail of emotion, a tight knot in the pit of his stomach. He feels incompetent, like a green recruit who can’t separate his personal problems from his work.

“Just not to your sorry mug. Everyone’s too cozy with you. Someone’s gotta kick your ass around and keep you humble.”

“So, technically speaking, what’s the difference between ass riding and ass kicking?” Jack knows he’s pushing his luck. They’re on the stairwell, on their way to the second floor, and Gabriel gives him a wry look over his shoulder. His lips are quirking again—like in the picture.

“You bein’ cute with me again, Morrison?”

“It’s not like I can be ugly with a face like this.” Gabriel snorts, still smiling that little smile, and continues up the stairs. The conversation dies for the next few floors, and the only way Jack can keep his thoughts at bay is to imagine an omnic behind every corner. It becomes increasingly difficult the farther up they go: like the building before, this one is empty and untouched by synthetic hands.

There is no dead body waiting for them in the bathtub of the final apartment. From the window, Jack can make out the faintest glint of metal coming from the window where he knows Ana is posted. The communicator on his belt buzzes once, on cue and in unison with Gabriel’s, as if Ana can tell he’s thinking about her.

AMARI: scanning for the past hour. there’s nothing. permission to move on?

Gabriel types his response without looking at him.

REYES: Check the buildings from there.

AMARI: already did. no movement. no electrical signatures. pointless for us to stay here & we can cut eta in half if we help you scout interior of buildings. have jack use prototype if worried about being covered.

“Something’s not right here, Gabe. I’ve got a bad feeling,” Jack says. The look Gabriel gives him is cool and closed. Impersonal: a CO and his subordinate. “The quicker we wrap this up the better. If you ask me.”

“I didn’t,” he responds thickly, fingers moving quickly over the holokeys. “Another CO might’ve messed up that pretty face of yours for speaking freely like that.” There’s no real bite to his words.

REYES: Permission granted. Take the northwestern perimeter and stay close to Wilhelm.

AMARI: understood.

Jack laughs sheepishly, taking a chance. “I don’t know what to bring up first. That you think I’m pretty or that you’ve been thinking about my face since the first floor.” When Gabriel doesn’t fire back, Jack wonders if he thought wrong. Gabriel narrows his eyes, clips his comm back to his belt in one aggressive motion, and Jack thinks he’s about to get a bloody nose for his trouble.

“Shut up, Morrison,” he says instead before turning around and sweeping out of the apartment door, leaving Jack scrambling to catch up. The trip back to the street is silent; it’s obvious Gabriel is ignoring him. Is he actually embarrassed? And why is this suddenly more pressing to him than the mission? He’s starting to regret drinking out of Reinhardt’s stupid mug. A nice, painful gunshot wound might get him focusing on what really matters here. But King’s Row is as eerily quiet as it was before, as it had been when they arrived the night before.

The next hour is spent silently. Jack tries a few times to start another easygoing conversation, but Gabriel’s responses are clipped and disinterested. Clearing out the buildings soon turns mindless, but that only exasperates the tension Jack feels. The less anything happens, the more he worries. They don’t receive any further messages from Ana or Reinhardt, and while that isn’t anything out of the ordinary (the handbook states that text communications be used sparingly and only when needed), Jack takes it as another bad omen. At one point, while he’s checking out the back room of a bookstore by himself, a cloud moves in front of the sun and casts a shadow that nearly has Jack shooting an office desk full of high velocity pulse rounds.

Jack curses, and before he can think better of it he fishes his flask out of his pack and takes a quick drink. It burns his throat and his stomach and he can feel it behind his eyes. Takes the edge off, he thinks morbidly. The guilt from breaking protocol is a welcome distraction from both his gnawing doubt and whatever’s going on with Gabriel. They finish scouting their half of the perimeter with an hour and a half until rendezvous. Jack thinks they’re heading back to the church when, two blocks away from the omnium, Gabriel wants to stop for a break. They don’t need it: the mission has been frighteningly easy and even then, their enhanced bodies could go for hours even when—especially when—put under duress.

Gabriel picks one of the few buildings that doesn’t have a window front. It’s a bookstore; old, with many of the books covered in a layer of dust that Jack assumes had been there long before the evac took all the people away. Not far from the door are a handful of armchairs, and Gabriel plops himself in one, immediately putting his feet up on the decorative coffee table standing between them. Jack sits across, turning his canteen over in his hands. Fidgeting. Flipping the cap on and off.

“Might do you some good to drink tonight, now that I think about it,” Gabriel says suddenly—the first complete sentence he’s spoken in a little over an hour. “S’long as you don’t overdo it.” That’s accompanied by a hard look that Jack meets head on. “Stop squirming and get a grip, Jack. This isn’t like you.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling, is all,” he mutters, chastened. The excuse sounds flimsy even to his ears, but it’s all he has. He’s seeing ghosts around every corner, in every shadow, and if he tells Gabriel that’ll only burden him. There’s nothing to be done until the mission is over. Then Jack can sign himself up for a nice, long session with a UN psych.

Gabriel rubs his lips, fingers dragging in a way—for fuck’s sake—that Jack finds incredibly distracting. “I think I’m losing my mind here,” he admits, forcing his eyes down to Gabriel’s chest plate. A safe place to look.

“No shit. Maybe we should’ve left you home and brought Lacroix instead.”

“Fuck off,” Jack says reflexively—a flash of anger, indignation at the thought of being pulled off a mission.

“Then get your shit together.” There’s nothing kind in the way he says it. He’s looking mean and cruel, like the Gabriel from his dream. Jack feels cold, but then Gabriel’s expression softens. It almost looks pitying, and Jack can only imagine the miserable expression that must be on his face because that’s the only time Gabriel ever pulls his punches. “Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen. Maybe we’ll bust into the omnium tomorrow and find all the fuckers in little pieces on the floor. Maybe we’ll get gunned down two seconds after opening the door. That’s life. That’s our life.” There’s something backhanded about the way he smiles. “And hey, if staring at my ass all day makes you feel better about that, then be my guest, Morrison.”

Jack inhales sharply and then chokes on his own spit. That elicits a raucous laugh from Gabriel, which only seems to get louder when Jack doubles over, hand clapped over his mouth. At some point during all of his fidgeting, he’d left the cap of his canteen open, spilling water all over his pants. Gabriel is visibly delighted with himself, and Jack struggles to think of a recovery. After the drink from the flask and the choking, his throat feels sore and raw.

“Don’t flatter yourself, Reyes. If I’m looking at anyone’s ass, it’s Reinhardt’s.”

“Yeah? You get some x-ray vision augmentations that I don’t know about? Or is it that visor prototype of yours?” And then, more seriously: “Why don’t you ever wear it?”

“Gives me headaches,” Jack says, grateful to have the conversation move into safer territory. “Information overload. I thought it would be better to get a handle on it before taking it into combat.”

Gabriel grunts and gets to his feet, and it’s clear that his mind has returned to the mission. “Let’s head back.”

 

 

Torbjörn is alone in the cathedral when they enter. He is set up at the back table with a tangle of black wires laid out before him, a pair of pliers in his good hand. “You’re early,” he comments without looking up, his face twisted in concentration.

“There was a change of plans.” Gabriel is grim, unsettled, as he speaks to Torbjörn. The silence of the city, the seemingly dormant omnium, the absence of any electrical feedback. They can only assume that, for whatever reason, the omnics have retreated back into the omnium following the evacuation and deactivated. Torbjörn mutters something—a curse?—in Swedish when Gabriel is finished. It is 45 minutes until the rendezvous according to the blinking digital clock on one of the overhead monitors.

“They should have been back by now,” Jack finds himself saying before he can stop himself, can remember Gabriel’s scolding and tamp down on his dread. “If the other buildings were empty, it wouldn’t take them this long.”

“We’ll give them ‘til 1300.” For the first time that day, Gabriel looks equally disturbed. Jack supposes it’s one thing to worry about immaterial suspicions and another entirely when their squad mates might be in very real, concrete danger. Gabriel takes a corner of the tabletop from Torbjörn and makes more coffee on the hot plate.

Jack struggles to find something to do with himself and winds up going over to his bunk. Laying down makes him feel twitchy and restless, but he forces his body to stay still. When he turns his head, he can see Gabriel’s back—the packed muscles of his shoulders, the smooth dip of his spine. His motions are jerky and impatient. High-strung. He drops the kettle top and for a moment Jack thinks he’s going to fling it across the room when he stoops to pick it up. Nobody talks. Jack closes his eyes and lets his mind wander.

Naturally, it returns to the nightmare and the jeering faces of people he used to know. The cruel edge of Gabriel’s teeth when he smiled. The smell of alcohol mixing with death giving way to the feeling of Gabriel’s arms around him as he half-dragged, half-carried him through a blood-soaked warehouse. Assignment gone wrong. No casualties on their side but they’d been detected. Jack had five bullets in his back and was dangling on the edge of unconsciousness. Gabriel was saying something—mindless, repetitive, a nervous mantra. Slipping haphazardly between Spanish and English; Jack couldn’t understand either, ears ringing from pointblank gunfire. But Gabriel’s voice—the tone, the cadence—had been soft and soothing, calming. It was the only time Jack had ever heard him speak that way. A fond memory, despite the circumstances.

Jack doesn’t realize he’s fallen asleep until he feels a hand on his shoulder, rousing him gently. Clashing with his dream-memory, Gabriel’s voice is low and irritable: “Get up.”

“Are they back?” Jack asks immediately, sitting up. The wires have been cleared from the card table. Torbjörn is standing by the vestibule, rivet gun in hand and forge strapped to his back. He shakes his head bleakly.

“No. We’re going out to search. Neither of them are responding to their commlinks.” The lines on Gabriel’s face are pronounced by the bad lighting: he looks exhausted, bone-deep. Jack can relate.

They stick to the back alleys this time as they make their way to the omnium. At Gabriel’s behest, Jack has his visor, and every so often he flips it on and scans for any traces of movement or heat. It takes them longer to get there this time; we have to assume we’ve been compromised and that the enemy is aware of us, Gabriel had said. Yet as before, the streets are silent and empty. Morbidly, Jack waits for the moment they turn a corner and stumble upon Ana’s and Reinhardt’s corpses. He steels himself for it, the rational part of him unable to overcome the animal fear that’s been lurking in the back of his mind all day. They don’t speak. Gabriel takes point and Jack takes the rear with Torbjörn trudging between them, his forge chugging quietly—the only sound Jack can hear.

On the stoop of a hotel, La Bruno sits with his knees pulled to his chest and a puddle of blood—congealed, gelatinous—gathered at his feet. His intestines are splayed around him like a cloak, and as they pass by, he smiles a black-toothed smile. Jack’s stomach twists sickeningly, but from the corner of his eye he notices Gabriel turn his head, glance back. He struggles to keep his expression schooled, though he can’t help the way his shoulders hunch when La Bruno stands up, his abdomen split down the middle to show all the rotting organs inside. He raises his hand in a wave, friendly and familiar, the way he used to nearly a hundred times before back during boot camp.

As they near the omnium, they pass a row of dark green dumpsters, ground-bound, resting on their inactive hover pads. It’s Torbjörn who notices the arm sticking out of one of them. It glints a callous chrome in the sunlight. “What in the fresh hell…” Torbjörn mutters. He and Jack ready their weapons, and Gabriel—giving a short nod—flips open the top.

Inside are bit and pieces of omnics—disembodied limbs and heads and chasses. The long barrel of a Bastion unit lies long-ways on top of the scattered scraps of different models. The head of a Companion unit—eerily human-like with glassy eyes staring skyward—is tucked away in the far corner, a spider web of cracks spanning its cheek revealing the mechanisms underneath.

“No signatures,” Jack says after a quick scan. “They’re dead.” Torbjörn drags over a wooden crate and hops up to get a better look, nudging aside the pieces with his prosthetic.

“They’ve been dismantled almost perfectly,” Torbjörn concludes after several moments of inspection. “I reckon other omnics did this.”

“They turned on each other?” Gabriel asks incredulously. He moves to the other dumpsters, tearing off the covers one by one. They’re all packed to the brim with dismantled omnics. Bastions, Companions, Workers, Builders—every model Jack knows and some he doesn’t. He feels cold by the time Gabriel opens the last one. Half a dozen dumpsters filled with dead omnics.

“Maybe they were faulty? Or they were still following their original programming, so they got scrapped?” Jack suggests—babbles, really, as he tries to rationalize this. Torbjörn drags a chest piece to the top of the pile, and with one fluid swing of his hammer, the chassis is cracked open. He digs around inside and produces a black box, which he connects to his PDMM. The machine whirs lowly as it breaks through the security encryption, and a frown spreads slowly over Torbjörn’s face as the omnic’s specs come up on the screen.

“This one here’s infected by a god program,” Torbjörn says, balancing the PDMM in his claw while he navigates the touch screen with one finger. “Builder unit group, escorted by Bastions. They were workin’ on branching out from the omnium. Spread to the whole neighborhood, looks like. Killed more than a few people that were left behind.”

“Does it say how it died?” Gabriel demands impatiently.

“Servomotor was damaged by unexpected gunfire three days ago. There’s a lot of junk data here—it was taken by surprise. The Bastions must’ve turned on them. It tried to establish communication but received no response.

“That’s about all she’s got, Commander. Bastard didn’t even know what hit ‘em.” Torbjörn strokes his beard thoughtfully. “At a guess? I’d say they’re bein’ stored here until they can be broken down for parts. Can’t say for sure. Hell if I know what these things think about.”

“Mark these coordinates. When we’re done with the mission, we’ll come back for the rest of the black boxes,” Gabriel orders after several minutes of deliberation. “Our priority right now is finding Ana and Reinhardt.”

They move on. Rogue omnics. Jack can’t quite wrap his head around it. Part of him wants to believe that somehow a group of omnics was able to resist the god program and had cleared out the infected units. It’s the part of him that, before this whole mess started, had actually liked omnics. When he had moved out of Indiana and to the west coast to join the military, he’d had a pair of omnic neighbors in his apartment building. Caretaker units. One of them had tried to bake him a cake when he moved in: its approximation of a gesture it learned humans liked. The cake reeked of motor oil, but Jack accepted it with a smile. It occurs to him that they are most likely dead now. He doesn’t know how to feel about that.

A block away from the omnium, Jack picks up two heat signatures on his visor. “Over there!” he yells, louder than he meant. He doesn’t wait for Gabriel to respond, breaks rank and runs ahead. Vaguely, he is aware of both of them shouting after him, but Jack keeps going.

The signatures are coming from a small bistro, and Jack crashes through the door, remembering enough to keep his rifle at the ready. On the floor is a trail of blood leading behind the counter, and Jack—heart in his throat—follows it to Reinhardt’s crumpled body. For a moment, Jack thinks he’s dead, and a million thoughts whirl through his mind before he registers Ana there, crouched at Reinhardt’s side. Her coat and armor are caked with blood, and she has a wad of gauze pressed to Reinhardt’s face. The relief on her face mirrors Jack’s own, and he falls to his kneels beside them.

“Oh, thank God, Jack. Thank God,” Ana murmurs, voice unsteady. Reinhardt’s greeting comes in the form of a pained groan. His helmet is gone, and what little Jack can see of his face is a mess of blood. Long, sweeping gashes stripe his chest plate where something broke through the enamel to reveal the metal underneath. Jack barely registers when Gabriel and Torbjörn come in.

Ana is breathless, her face shiny and hair slick with sweat. “We were ambushed. It was a lone Bastion unit. Something happened—I don’t know. Its gun was cut off or something. Just jagged metal. It came out so fast from around the corner. Reinhardt blocked me, but it—we—fuck.”

“Calm down, Ana,” Gabriel barks, eyes narrowed in frustration. “What happened?”

Ana takes a breath, a moment to steady herself. “Everything had been so quiet. We must’ve let our guard down. I was able to flank it and put a bullet in its weak point, but Reinhardt…” she trails off. “There’s so much blood. I don’t know the extent of the damage, but his eye…”

“Why didn’t you answer us? Why didn’t you call for help?” Gabriel is relentless, anger mounting with the volume of his voice. The conversation is eating away at Jack, and with every pointless exchange he feels himself growing more and more annoyed.

“I don’t—” Ana checks her pockets with her free hand. “I don’t know where—”

“We can worry about this later,” Jack growls, fed up. He glares at Gabriel. “We need to get him back to the church. Right now.” Gabriel stares back, a stutter in his anger as he processes Jack’s outburst. Whatever conclusion he comes to, he nods curtly.

“Torbjörn—the door. Jack, get his other side.” Gabriel’s tone warrants no hesitation, and Jack slings one of Reinhardt’s arms over his shoulders. He braces himself, readies his knees, and together he and Gabriel manage to lift him. Reinhardt’s head bobs weakly, and with Ana’s hand taken away, Jack can see the full extent of his wound. The socket is weeping blood, his eyeball little more than a dark red clump, twitching intermittently as Reinhardt tries to move it. The weight of him in his armor is immense, but Jack can handle it.

“Cover our rear, Ana.” With that final order, Gabriel leads them outside.

They take the most direct route back to the cathedral, and by the time Torbjörn opens the heavy wooden doors for them, Jack’s muscles are aching. Stripping Reinhardt of his armor proves to be a tremendous task, especially once they discover that the clasp to his chest plate is dented shut. Torbjörn is eventually able to pry it open—the metal snaps in half under the force of his pliers—and they are able to lay Reinhardt out on his cot. He grunts feebly—his good eye flutters open and shut, and Ana gently brushes the blood away from it.

None of them talk much. Jack feels helpless standing there, clenching and unclenching his hands while Ana works. She’s the only one of them with any in-depth medical training, and she cleans Reinhardt’s face with a meticulous care. He’s stopped bleeding—finally—and when Ana applies antibacterial gel to his eye, he jerks, hissing in pain. “Forgive me, Reinhardt,” she whispers to him tenderly, covering the eye with a patch of gauze.

“I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to perform the surgery he needs,” she says, louder now, her words meant for more than Reinhardt. There’s something nervous about her formal tone. “The eye is unsalvageable, of that much I am certain.” She leans down and withdraws a needle and vial from her medical bag, and Jack looks away. His time in the soldier program has turned him off injections, and the faded scars on his underarm itch as if in agreement. “I’ve given him morphine for the pain and to help him sleep.”

“Will he be good for the mission tomorrow?” Gabriel asks, and Jack feels another spike of annoyance lance through him.

“I think it’s safe to say the mission’s been compromised,” Jack interjects. “They were ambushed by an omnic; surely they know we’re here now and—”

“Do they?” Gabriel’s voice is cold, but his eyes are colder. Jack holds his ground, and after several minutes Gabriel’s gaze flicks to Ana.

“No. I don’t think so. The Bastion unit was heavily damaged to begin with. I did manage to data mine it before we fled. It did not transmit anything,” Ana says evenly. If she agrees with Jack, she gives no indication. She does not turn away from Reinhardt—a conversation with the back of her head.

“It’s still too risky,” Jack persists, anger rising. “We should back off and regroup. Nothing is adding up here, Gabe. Reinhardt’s lost a fucking eye and we have no idea what’s waiting for us in in that omnium.”

“If there’s in-fighting between the omnics, the time to attack is now.” Unlike Jack, Gabriel’s voice is toneless, matter-of-fact in a way that only pisses Jack off more. Like Jack’s a kid and Gabriel needs to speak slowly and clearly so he can understand. “We turn back now, and we lose this entire neighborhood. If there are any survivors left, they’re gonna get nuked to hell.”

Jack doesn’t know what to say to that, so he stands there fuming, hating the way that Gabriel is looking at him. “In-fighting?” Ana turns around at that, confused.

“We found dumpsters piled high with omnic parts,” Torbjörn explains quietly. His usual vibrancy is absent, and Jack notices that he is specifically not looking in Reinhardt’s direction. “The black box we looked at seemed to suggest they turned on each other.”

Ana is silent for a moment. “If that’s the case, then I agree with Gabriel. The damage done to that Bastion could very well have come from another omnic. Unless a survivor got their hands on a laser blade, I don’t see how else its gun could have been cut in such a manner.”

Jack looks at her, aghast. “Ana—”

“There is more at stake here than our own lives, Jack,” Ana says, not unkindly, and all at once Jack’s anger leaves him. “That being said, Reinhardt is not gravely wounded, but I expect the fever will keep him asleep for the rest of the day. Ask him in the morning; I’m positive he would not accept being left behind, at any rate.”

Gabriel is staring at him again, but Jack pretends not to notice. Any other time, he might have been thrilled to have Gabriel’s eyes on him, but now he wants nothing more than to retreat into a corner and drink until his mind quiets down. So that’s what he does.

He excuses himself from the conversation, leaves them to continue talking about the mission, and goes to his cot where he peels off his body armor. Maybe they’re right. Maybe he’s a goddamn coward who somehow blundered his way through boot camp, through the soldier program, through all of his assignments leading up to his appointment to the omnic strike team. He kicks his armor under the cot, feels a little better once he’s in a tank top and a pair of sweats. Gabriel, Ana, and Torbjörn are gathered in front of the monitors, running simulations on the next day’s operation.

Coward or not, Jack knows in his gut that it’ll all go to shit. He wishes they’d found scouts today: sentries, flash mines—anything that would impart a sense of normalcy and routine. Jack hasn’t been this apprehensive about a mission since his days as a recruit, but he’s not ignorant enough to assume that the others don’t feel the same. If Gabriel is good at anything, it’s at hiding his fear. And he has to be afraid. He has to be.

Jack fishes his personal bottle out of his duffle and refills his flask. On his way to the loft, he pauses briefly to look over at Reinhardt. He’s curled onto his side, sweat beading on his brow as he sleeps. Every so often, his face twists in pain, fear—a bad dream. Jack can sympathize.

The scaffolding is warm—he can feel it through his socks—and the sunlight dapples the wood in a way that is almost peaceful. The day is not even half over, yet Jack feels impossibly fatigued—from the stress and the fear and the shadows of old faces following him around the city streets. It’s dirty and dusty but he lays down anyway, pillowing his head on his arm. He takes the flask out of his pocket and sets it beside him, regarding it curiously from the corner of his eye. Feeling spiteful, he leans up and takes one drink, two, then screws the cap back on and puts it down. He knows Gabriel will never cite him for it—thinks this the moment he does it—and that takes the edge off the spite and makes the act feel hollow.

The burn doesn’t seem to last that long, chased away by a comfortable haze. He’s feeling warm inside and out, and despite the hardness of the wood on his back, he drifts off to sleep.

 

 

When Jack wakes up, the sun is setting—a dull orange glow gleaming through the glass windows in front of him. Out in the streets, the shadows are starting to grow, and Jack sits up and puts his back to them. If he’s seeing things in broad daylight, he isn’t keen to find out what he’ll see at night, lingering under and behind the abandoned vehicles below. The glass is cool through his shirt and against the bare skin of his shoulders.

Someone is coming up the ladder—Ana, Jack’s mind supplies immediately, and he feels somewhat comforted. He doesn’t know whether he’s happy or disappointed to see Gabriel’s head pop above the side. He has the electric lantern hanging from his wrist, and once he’s up he sets it down by Jack’s feet, seating himself across from him. “Though you might’ve laid down and died up here,” Gabriel says dryly. His eyes land briefly on the flask before moving up to Jack’s face.

Jack shrugs. “You here to chew me out?”

“No. If we survive tomorrow, I’ll rip you a new asshole when we get back to Oxford. You can count on that, Morrison.” Gabriel’s tone is light. Jack can tell he’s trying to be conciliatory, but the liquor and the lack of sleep has Jack feeling unforgiving.

“All right.” He picks up the flask and takes a drink, daring Gabriel to say something. But all he does is sigh, and Jack can’t help but feel disappointed. His stomach squirms uncomfortably—it occurs to him that he hasn’t eaten in a while, but he’s so emotionally drained that he can’t summon the energy to care.

“You gonna offer me some?”

“Why would I do that?” Jack snaps back before he can stop himself. He wants to be pissed at Gabriel, he really does. But Gabriel’s eyes are on him and Jack feels himself melting.

“Because I’m your CO, shithead.” Then Gabriel grabs the flask from him. Because I’m your friend. Disgust—at himself, mostly—rises in the back of Jack’s throat. Or maybe that’s the liquor coming back up. “Fuck. You still drink this shit?” Gabriel coughs, tossing it back to him.

“Only thing that can break through the enhancements. You know that.” Jack tries to catch it, misses, and it hits the wood paneling.

“Goddamn lighter fluid.” Drano. Bleach. Like going blind. Jack thinks of Reinhardt in his cot, feverish, a gaping hole where his eye used to be. Gabriel’s leg bumps into Jack’s. “Hey.”

“What?”

“Happy birthday, man.”

Chapter Text

When Reinhardt wakes up the next morning, he is exuberant and loud, his injury little more than a means by which he cajoles Torbjörn into fixing him coffee. He bustles with energy from having slept for so long; and with Reinhardt’s laughter bouncing off the high ceilings, Jack wonders if his fear from the day before had been all in his head. Maybe it’s as simple as in-fighting with the omnics. Jack can’t really say if that’s peculiar or not. The omnic crisis itself is still new, and their strike team is all but in its infancy. Less valuable to the UN than ten square miles of abandoned city streets.

“A moment of carelessness, Kommandant,” Reinhardt says to Gabriel as Ana checks him over. “It will not happen again—on my honor! You can count on me to lead the way into the omnium.” The look Ana shoots Jack is knowing: I told you so.

Jack pretends not to see it, keeps his eyes trained on the monitors. A digital model of the omnium interior—white lines on a sea of blue—has replaced the usual orange screen. It matches the hard copy Gabriel has laid out on the card table: Gabriel’s small, loving gesture to his days in training, before all the new technology had muscled its way in. Before artificial intelligence had been perfected, and the robots walking the streets were drones running solely on their man-made programs. Mindless. Safe.

“Glad to hear it.” Gabriel claps Reinhardt on the shoulder. Reinhardt’s face is split into a huge grin, and he seems not to feel any pain at all as Ana cleans his wound, gently applying antibiotic gel to the angry red exterior of his eye socket. Behind them, Torbjörn struggles with the kettle and hot plate.

During breakfast, Jack slips into the background. He avoids the flirty mug, choosing a blue one with cartoon dolphins instead. When the coffee is poured, the flirty mug goes to Reinhardt, and it somehow seems at home in his large hand.

Around Jack, the conversation ebbs and flows, tugging politely at him but otherwise leaving him be. The bacon tastes rubbery and unpleasant. Jack chews it longer than a man should have to chew anything. He hides his lingering doubts and fears beneath the disgusting texture. Just when he starts to think he can make it through the day and the mission without putting on a happy face and engaging in small talk, Ana zeroes in on him as he’s about to discreetly spit the bacon into his napkin.

“Jack, your birthday!” Ana exclaims, making no effort to hide that she had completely forgotten it. “We’ll have to do something when we return to Oxford. A bar or something.”

“We go to a bar after every mission,” Jack reminds her patiently.

“Maybe we can have ‘em stick some candles in a plate of chicken wings, then. Make it special!” Torbjörn chimes in from where he is standing, scraping the rest of his breakfast off his plate and into the garbage bin.

Gabriel is conspicuously absent from the conversation, cloistered at the back of the church where he is typing loudly on an old-fashioned keyboard hooked up to the main monitor. The 3D model updates itself: two red blips appear denoting where Reinhardt had been attacked and where they found the dumpsters filled with omnic parts. The angle changes to side view, showing underground tunnels running beneath the neighborhood, including the omnium (the tube, Jack thinks absentmindedly). Gabriel’s probably pissed about how Jack spurned his attempts at reconciliation the night before. Jack regrets it immensely. He’s about to get up—go make nice with him—when he feels a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you want for your birthday, Jack?” Ana asks, oblivious to how little he is paying attention to their conversation.

“Oh…uh,” Jack fumbles. “I could use some new socks, I guess.”

Ana looks unimpressed. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’re due for quite the paycheck once we complete this assignment. The least we can do is chip in to buy you something nice.”

“Now, Amari, don’t go volunteerin’ me to pay for shit,” Torbjörn interjects. “My money’s spoken for. All of it. For the foreseeable future, y’hear?”

“And what are you going to buy? More scrap metal?” Ana is using the same tone Jack’s sure he’s heard her use towards her daughter. “That’s what your grant is for.”

“Buildin’ mechs and turrets is an art, woman. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Guys, it’s really not a big deal.” Jack is chafing beneath their playful bickering. He can’t remember the last time he wanted to escape a conversation so badly. The talk of what they’re going to do after the mission is making him sick with apprehension. It’s too normal, too relaxed. “Sorry. I’ll be right back.” He can feel their eyes on him as he makes a beeline for the cramped bathroom tucked away in the far corner of the church.

The door sits funny in its frame; Jack has to prop it shut with his foot to keep it from swinging open. The cheap mirror hanging over the sink is covered in a thick layer of grime. Absentmindedly, Jack swipes at it with his sleeve. His reflection is gritty and cloudy: a pale face with dark, sunken eyes and bloodless lips. It reminds him of how he looked back in the SEP. Sickly and sallow as his body struggled to acclimate to the augmentations. The supplements they had been given to prevent tissue rejection were the worst of them all, and they often left him feeling nauseous and weak.

He remembers the day Gabriel had spent hugging a toilet in the communal bathroom, sweat-soaked brow pressed to the white porcelain. Jack had brought him water and crackers, his skin fever-hot under Jack’s hand as he rubbed the spot between Gabriel’s shoulder blades. Everything reeked of vomit and sickness. Gabriel was breathing slow and heavy, like he couldn’t get enough air but knew better than to desperately gasp for it.

By the next morning, the custodial staff had scrubbed the tile clean, as if it had never happened at all.

He remembers the morning he woke up in his bunk, muscles tensed, pulled so taut that any attempt to move was met with burning pain. The doctor had come to him bored and disinterested, assuring him that it was normal and that his musculature was simply adapting to the bioorganic weave growing over it. Jack had never hated anyone more in his life, jaw grinding as he glared up impotently at him. The doctor met that with boredom and disinterest too before drifting out of the barracks. Gabriel lingered, giving him a sympathetic look. In a startling display of compassion, he had gotten Jack a wet cloth and wiped his face and arms with it. The cool water felt good on his aching skin. He remembers wishing desperately that Gabriel would wipe his chest and abdomen too, and he relives the embarrassment he had felt after thinking it.

When Jack turns on the faucet, the water comes out a light and lukewarm brown. For a moment, he considers splashing it on his face anyway. He feels calmer, despite everything. The SEP had been a thorough lesson in misery, but he and Gabriel had been the closest then. Jack had had more excuses to be near him.

By the time he drags himself out of the bathroom, everyone is geared up and ready to move out. Half of Reinhardt’s face is hidden beneath white gauze, but he props his hammer up cheerfully. The scars in his armor glitter a cruel silver. “You ready or what?” Gabriel asks, his impatient gaze following Jack as he moves to his cot and starts strapping on his body armor. He can still feel it burning into his back even when Gabriel moves to address the rest of them.

“Ana and Torbjörn will provide cover fire from one of the cleared buildings while I lead Jack and Reinhardt into the omnium to set the bomb. Detonation will take place at 1200 on the dot. No matter what.” When Jack turns around, Gabriel is staring at him, eyes cold and hard. From his peripherals, he can see Ana cast a curious glance between the two of them.

“The resident god program is codename Hel, though who knows if it’s still active.” Gabriel pauses, finally lowering his gaze to the table. Jack releases a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. “In all likelihood, we’re walking into a trap. I radioed Oxford earlier this morning, and we’re to proceed with the operation.” That explains Gabriel’s sour mood. Jack can only imagine what type of tongue-lashing he received from his superiors for using the emergency channel.

“They really want us to just…ignore all these weird things we’ve found?” Ana asks—gently, so as not to rouse Gabriel’s anger.

“Yeah.” Gabriel rubs his temples. “I argued against it, but they don’t see cause for concern. They said I should be grateful we haven’t run into any trouble. Fucking bureaucrats.”

Guilt washes over Jack. If he’s being honest with himself, he woke up this morning expecting to be led blindly to his death. A sacrifice on the altar of Gabriel’s military career. When did I get so cynical? He tries to catch Gabriel’s eye, but he looks forward obstinately. Clears his throat with a note of finality. “That’s that, then,” he says, voice gruff and even. “Let’s get this over with.”

 

 

Ana and Torbjörn set up in the same apartment from the reconnaissance. Ana is back in the living room, stepping gingerly over the children’s toys while Torbjörn constructs his turret in the adjacent bedroom. The handheld detonator lays innocently on the mattress—dull yellow on matte black. The screen reads out diagnostics on the bomb tucked into Gabriel’s pack, with the entire bottom left corner dedicated to a blinking red holokey. Torbjörn doesn’t spare it a second glance after carelessly tossing it there, but Jack’s eyes keep drifting to it, picking at it like a scab.

“Pulse bomb,” Liao explained, running her hands over the sleek plastic casing. The bomb was shiny and grey, resembling a child’s lunchbox. A single blue light blinked at regular intervals, just beneath the handle: dormant, unarmed. The only one really listening was Torbjörn; he was leaned forward, face rapt, hand clutching his pants leg. “It’s experimental, of course, but the electromagnetic waves fry all circuits within a 100 foot radius, leaving the omnics vulnerable to the ensuing blast. Specifically made to chew through metal. You could level a five story hospital with one of these. The United Nations is hoping for favorable reports of its efficacy against the god programs.”

They don’t stay for long. Gabriel enunciates clearly (1200—no matter what) before leading them out. At the edge of the long stretch of asphalt leading up to the omnium, Reinhardt pulls ahead and turns on his shield. The octagonal cells of the force field shimmer to life—through them, the small red door is an iridescent, far-off mirage. Weighed down by the active shield and his hammer and his armor, Reinhardt shuffles forward slowly.

Gabriel is at Jack’s side, but his eyes are set ahead. Jack sends him sidelong glances every now and then. He knows he’s being ignored—can see it in the frown that steadily deepens on Gabriel’s face. In seconds, they are clear of the buildings. Open air. Jack feels a million eyes on him, from all directions. The hair on the back of his neck prickles uncomfortably. The only thing he can hear is Reinhardt’s steady breathing, filtering through his helmet.

The sun is overhead, peering inquisitively between towering apartments and scattered clouds. Jack feels warm beneath his gear, sweat beading under his clothes. He imagines Ana in the building at their back, watching them through her scope. Torbjörn’s turret scanning, side to side, from the next window over. It’s like he’s up there with them, at Ana’s side, watching someone who looks like him walk with someone who looks like Gabriel. Crawling slowly behind the man with his face, Jack can see La Bruno, his bloodied fingers leaving thin, dark stains on the asphalt as he tries to work his ruined legs. Jack’s stomach twists painfully, back aches from sleeping on the hard scaffolding. Itchy under all of the eyes—living and dead—trained on him, unblinking. Sniper sights, lining up the shot, crosshairs resting gently on the base of his skull.

They reach the door. It slides open soundlessly when Gabriel touches the panel. A gaping maw—black—yawns before them. The machinery within is illuminated a brief, cruel blue from the flash that accompanies the power-down of Reinhardt’s shield. Jack’s hands move of their own volition, taking the flashlight from his belt. Somehow steady. He feels calm, in control, his mood evening out as the adrenaline kicks in and triggers the enhanced receptors in his brain. It had been explained to him once—the mood-altering enhancements activated by intense stress. Idly, detached from himself, he wonders how he even remembers it.

Twin beams of light flicker to life as he and Gabriel scan the interior. The metal walls pulse with glowing, bulb-studded wires that snake through them, across the floor. Some are as thick as Jack’s leg. All around them, there is a great hum, and the machinery seems to breathe. Alive.

“Backup generators,” Gabriel supplies, holding his flashlight level with his head as he moves inside.

Jack goes next, close enough to feel Gabriel’s body heat through his chest piece. The door closes behind them, and they are cast in darkness that is broken only by their flashlights. At their backs, Reinhardt follows, his footfalls heavy metal echoing through the omnium. The feeling of being watched clings to Jack like dead skin, and he watches his feet, stepping carefully over wires and pieces of forgotten apparatus.

The ceiling arcs high above them—the ring of Jack’s light reduced to the size of a golf ball by the time it hits the steel rafters overhead. They curve and cross, and looking at them is like looking at a ribcage—cold chrome—from the inside. Jack feels closed in, trapped, grating under the pressure of the darkness. It hangs off him, tails him like a stray dog, swallows Reinhardt whole until all Jack can see when he looks back is the glow of his visor. Disembodied.

The further in they go, the more obvious it becomes that the omnium was built to be self-sufficient, traversed by maintenance omnics alone. At one point, the passage narrows—bare computers, motherboards that run from the floor seven feet into the air. What fabric peeks out from Jack’s flex armor catches on the naked circuitry, tiny fingers grabbing at him, their grip feeble and brief. Gabriel shifts sideways, sliding between machinery, his light bouncing restlessly against the panels ahead of him.

Jack does not hesitate in following him. His body is moving on autopilot, moving in sync with Gabriel independent of his thoughts. Primal instinct, his memory offers, conjuring up a half-formed image of one of their doctors from the SEP. It’s like muscle memory. Think of pack animals. Wolves or lions. They know what to do, how to work in unison, with only the simplest, most concise communication exchanged between them.

The circuits are unbelievably hot, nearly burning his bare forearms as he navigates the passage. The machinery pulses against him; he can feel it surge, nearly imperceptible, against his cheek. It claws at his face, scorching. He’s looking at Gabriel—eyes focused blindly on the vague silhouette of his neck, the rough curve of his shoulder. To his right, he can hear Reinhardt using his hammer to forge his own path, demolishing the tech with ease. The thin fiber bends away from him, recoiling as if in pain. Ahead, Gabriel curses—mierda—under his breath at the noise. But there’s no helping it. Reinhardt’s armor scrapes through. Jack can feel the sparks dancing past his arm, narrowly missing his skin.

By the time the passage opens back up, Jack’s face is drenched in sweat. The palms of his hands feel rubbed raw, and he grips his flashlight loosely. The ground is a patchwork of wires, and they slow down considerably. Every so often, the orange glow of Gabriel’s handheld illuminates his face as he double-checks the schematics.

“The core should be a few feet ahead,” Gabriel says upon noticing Jack’s spying. He does not face him as he speaks. “Unless we hit another fucking detour like that.”

The passage, Jack realizes. “Was that not in the blueprints?” Reinhardt is the one who asks, his voice booming eerily around the cavernous, cramped space.

“No. Stay on your toes, Morrison.” Gabriel pockets his handheld and picks up his pace. Jack startles at the sound of his name.

Surprisingly, the fear does not return. Jack feels like he’s moving through a dream—a nightmare-scape of raw, living machinery, stripped bare, pressing close to him and tugging at his clothes. His heartbeat pounds a steady rhythm in his ears, and before long it falls in sync with the gentle pulsing of the omnium.

Resignation. Jack realizes this much later. But for now, he is content not to think, letting thoughts flow over him, sluice off his back, and fall forgotten on the floor in his wake. Primal instinct. Animal intuition. The receptors in your brain fire off quicker than ever in the presence of extreme stimuli, helping you react faster. When you look down the sights of your rifle, you might as well not be breathing. Your hands won’t shake, and you won’t hesitate. By the time you—the conscious you—can register what’s happening, the bullet will have already left the barrel.

The core is a circular hub; they enter it through one of the innumerable archways that line the curving wall. All paths lead here. Strips of light embedded in the floor—bare, devoid of wires and pipelines—pulse, winding their way in sharp right angles up to the god program that rests in the middle. Its base is a server cluster, roughly the size of a car, a geometric throne for the polished chrome figure perched atop it. Circuitry runs into and under the metal casing that starts at its abdomen, and fragmented pinpoints of light glitter dully beneath it.

It’s a figure of a naked woman, shoulders pulled back, hands clenched into tight fists where they rest on the black servers. Poised as if ready to attack. Their lights cast horrifying shadows over her face: down the middle is a line of bisection, where the left side—the face of a woman, perhaps even a beautiful one—melts into bare skull. Gaping eye socket and nose cavity, too-large teeth unhidden by lips. Whatever sculptor they had hired to make it had constructed a full head of hair with a loosely knotted scarf atop it. Its face—the human one—is set into a hard scowl, fierce and unforgiving.

 The god program is still and silent, and the servers make no sound as they approach them. “Is it…” Jack’s voice cracks. He clears his throat and tries again. “…Is it dead?” He whispers, and the whole omnium seems to press in closer, straining to hear.

Gabriel walks up to it, fearless. He loops his flashlight back onto his belt—beam trained on the floor—so he can pull out the PDMM and his handheld. The archways are black holes surrounding them on all sides. When Jack scans the line of them, he thinks he can see synthetic eyes—twin points of white light—bobbing in the darkness. They disappear when he blinks.

“Did you see that?” he asks Reinhardt, his right hand itching for his gun.

“See what?” Reinhardt is far louder, and Jack winces. With all the noise he made widening the passage earlier, any active omnics in here would have been alerted a long time ago. Yet even still.

“Nothing.” Jack supposes this is only the natural progression of things: first La Bruno, and now omnics. Fear paces restlessly nearby. He can feel it, albeit heavily diluted, though it waits hungrily for the withdrawal of his mood augments and the protection they offer him.

“It’s inactive,” Gabriel concludes finally. He is audibly frustrated as he puts the PDMM and the handheld away, flipping off his flashlight. “I can’t even access its data logs. It’s not connected to whatever power source that’s keeping this building running. Bring your light over, Jack.”

Jack moves next to him, angling his flashlight down as Gabriel kneels with his bag resting in front of him. There is no noise as Gabriel places the bomb on the ground before the god program. In the light, Jack sees fingerprint smudges on its polished surface. It unfolds at the press of a button, revealing a small black sphere that projects a holoscreen that blinks UNARMED in blocky red letters. A preset timer. There are jacks, wires curled into neat coils, beside it, and Gabriel unravels them deftly. There are too many ports on the servers to count—all identical to Jack’s eye—but Gabriel plugs them in with confidence. Jack has seen him do this a handful of times before. It all seems so pointless now.

He remembers the omnium in Naples and the way the god program—Vulcan—had thundered at them in its too-human voice, having been stripped of its Bastion units and left defenseless. As Gabriel set up the bomb, the massive computer had raged, its anger reduced to the whirring of its servers and the rapid, loud opening and slamming of the doors to its core. That omnium had been repurposed instead of built new and therefore had far less machinery than this one. Less for the god program to tamper with in its frail attempts to stop them. Jack remembers that, at the time, he had almost been convinced that the god program’s fury was real.

Jack cannot imagine how many moveable parts this omnium has, how formidable the god program might have been if they had found it alive. Hel does not stir when Gabriel stands up, wiping his hands on the seat of his pants. The holoscreen flickers. The red bleeds out into purple, fades to blue: ARMED.

He checks his watch. “Forty-five minutes until detonation. Let’s get out of here.” In this dark place, even Gabriel cannot keep all of the unease out of his voice.

Flashlight and handheld out, Gabriel leads them from the core. Around them, the omnium breathes on, pulsing and humming so quietly that it skirts the edge of Jack’s enhanced hearing. Jack starts to relax. Nothing has changed. In-fighting. They really turned on each other. It would be something to tell their superiors; Jack is too wired to try to parse how it’s possible. How the omnics, infected by and subjected to the will of the same program, could rebel. But he’s grateful for it, all the same. An interesting story for their bosses, and a fat paycheck for him that cost nothing more than a few days of unbelievable stress and some minor hair loss.

Then they hit a wall. Seamless circuitry stretches out before them, and Gabriel taps furiously at his handheld with both thumbs, flashlight cradled in the crook of his arm. Nobody speaks. Jack has no idea where they are with respect to the entrance. There’s an abrupt smash that has Jack jumping out of his skin. Sharp shards of plastic gleam on the floor where Gabriel threw the handheld. His hands are in his hair (he hasn’t had it cut in awhile and it’s starting to curl, and Jack’s eyes linger, admiring even in the poor light), and he combs through it with his fingers. Trying to keep cool.

Neither Jack nor Reinhardt speak, and they wait in anxious silence for Gabriel to say something. He runs his hands over the circuitry, ignoring the sharp edges, searching for something. The hallway is only so wide. Once he hits the corner, he moves in the opposite direction. Finally, he stops.

“It’s gone. The fucking—Jesus Christ. The fucking passage is gone. That cramped fucking thing. It’s supposed to be here.” Gabriel’s voice is tight, panicked.

“What?” The word comes out while Jack’s mind is still struggling to catch up. “What are you talking about? How can it be gone?”

“It’s not here. Open your fucking eyes.”

“Maybe we went the wrong way,” Jack suggests. Gabriel’s fear washes over him like a wave of cold water, and he’s struggling to keep himself calm. The dreamlike quality hovering about the omnium evaporates instantly, panic surging in his throat. “We made a wrong turn or…or we went through the wrong doorway. Back in the core.”

Gabriel doesn’t look convinced—keeps glaring at the wall like he can will it to open. With fumbling fingers, Jack pulls up the schematics on his own handheld. On the screen, there is nothing standing before them but a long hallway—wider than the passage had been—stretching forward for several meters before splitting into branching corridors. The other paths out of the core are winding. Some end abruptly while others snake deeper into the omnium. Only one other seems to connect up with the route to the entrance, and it is convoluted and meandering.

“There’s another way. Let’s turn back.” Jack’s voice is calmer than he feels.

When Gabriel turns to him, it is with a mixture of anger and fear. Anger because of fear. Anger feeding off of fear. He looks like he wants to say something: curse more, yell louder, throw something else. But he doesn’t. One look at the map has told Jack what Gabriel already knew. The other path, even if it hasn’t been sealed off, would most likely not bring them to the entrance in time. But there’s no reason to say it out loud. They both know it, and Reinhardt’s been around the block enough to suspect it. So Gabriel remains silent and nods—once—before brushing past Jack.

Before they return, Gabriel allows Reinhardt to take a few swings at the wall. As with the passage earlier, the machinery bends back but does not break. Despite the sparks and the screaming metal (Gabriel pushing back from his chair, the table of dead men staring, unblinking), it holds fast. Jack is relieved when Reinhardt finally stops.

When they reach the core (again), the bomb is undisturbed and Hel remains as quiet as before. Watching eyes sparkle from the archways; neither Gabriel nor Reinhardt seem to notice them. The alternate path is identical to the one they had taken before it.

“Whatever is changing the interior is not the god program,” Reinhardt says as they walk, and the walls seem to press in around them, grappling for the space that the flashlights’ beams don’t occupy. Nobody answers.

Despite the twists and turns on the map, the hallway runs straight. Jack doesn’t realize that it has been gradually narrowing until he tries to turn and there’s only an inch of leeway on either side of his shoulders. Reinhardt is lagging behind, Gabriel with him, and Jack notices the distance that has spread out between them.

“Don’t bother,” he calls to them, surprised by how tired he sounds. “Reinhardt won’t be able to fit. It’s too tight up here.”

“How much time?” If Jack sounds tired, Reinhardt sounds exhausted. When Jack makes it back to them, Reinhardt has his hammer propped up against the wall and appears seconds away from joining it.

A pause, the rustling of clothes. Gabriel reads his watch and takes a moment to comprehend what it says. “Fifteen minutes.” His anger is gone—short-lived.

“We could go back. Disarm the bomb,” Jack tries. To his left, Reinhardt slowly lowers himself to the ground, sitting beside his hammer. The soles of his boots touch the opposite wall as he spreads out.

“Did you forget?” Gabriel asks coldly, tiredly. “If that bomb doesn’t go off, they level all of King’s Row. Ana and Torbjörn too.”

Jack had forgotten. He feels strangely numb, hollowed out by the hopelessness of it all. The panic from before—eagerly hanging around him, waiting and waiting—is long gone. He should have more of a reaction to the knowledge that he’s going to die. He doesn’t.

Then he remembers. “The tube.”

“What?” Gabriel looks at him like he’s lost his mind.

“The tube. The London subway. It runs under the omnium, right? The models—back at the church.” Jack’s mind is racing ahead of him, leaving him to grope clumsily for words.

“If we could find an entrance, we could take cover there,” Reinhardt finishes for him, regaining some of his boisterous enthusiasm. “Yes! That could work!” He struggles to get to his feet. Jack takes him under the arm and helps him up. He can read the doubt on Gabriel’s face, even in the dim light. But he doesn’t say anything and lets Jack lead them back the way they came.

Jack keeps his flashlight trained on the ground, looking for something—anything—to suggest a sealed-off subway entrance. Fifteen minutes plays, over in over, in the back of his mind. Gabriel’s voice—grim, resigned. Exhausted. Not ready, per se, but committed to being killed by one of his friends and subordinates. It would take hours of combing the wreckage of the omnium, maybe up to a day before Ana and Torbjörn would learn what became of them.

Jack doesn’t envy them that. I was following orders is an excuse Jack has long since worn out, found lacking, discarded. He imagines Ana and Torbjörn would feel the same. And then there’s Reinhardt’s wife. Jack pictures her getting that stupid fucking mug along with the letter detailing Reinhardt’s death, hand delivered to her by a suited, dead-faced UN representative. Maybe an intern. Someone to stand there and watch, awkwardly, as she breaks down.

Reinhardt is the one who sees the hatch, half-hidden underneath the right wall: a welded section of paneling buried beneath wires and circuitry. On his knees, Gabriel pulls at the circuits, and they peel off in his hand with the sound of crunching plastic. The seam can’t be thicker than two centimeters. Gabriel runs his fingers across the stitched metal.

“Stand back,” Reinhardt commands, and Gabriel spares him a curious upward look before complying.

Reinhardt hoists his hammer and, with the smallest grunt of effort, he slams it down. The crash echoes loudly in the narrow hallway, metal groaning beneath the force of the blow as it folds in on itself. He lifts it, lets it fall, again and again. Jack is peripherally aware of a steady beeping, chiming lowly beneath the hammer, coming from further up the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, Gabriel keeps checking his watch but stays quiet. Not much time left, then.

Finally, the welding gives and the lip of the hatch peels up, bent and battered. The metal is thick and jagged—Jack can feel it biting through his gloves when he grabs it, cutting into his skin as he pulls. Gabriel is at his side, hands an inch from his as he pulls with him. Suddenly, the omnium rumbles around them and goes silent. The lights of the wires and circuits die, and Jack’s handheld blinks out from where he’s put it on the ground.

“Hurry,” Gabriel hisses in his ear, and together they pry the hatch open.

Electromagnetic pulse, says Liao, humming in his head. Then the blast.

The sound is deafening. The hallway lights up—white—blinding—and something slams into Jack. Instinctively, he throws out his hands to break his fall, but the ground doesn’t come. Something large and heavy clings to his back, forcing him down, down. He squeezes his eyes shut, sees red, something wet in his ear. Filled with water. Sluggish.

He met Gabriel during his second day in the program, in the facility med bay where the two of them and a pair of other men were confined to the room, shivering and waiting for the nausea from the preliminary injections to pass. Gabriel’s bed was next to his, within arm’s reach, close enough to see the beads of sweat collecting on his forehead the few times Jack could summon the energy to open his eyes.

“What you lookin’ at, gringo?” Gabriel had asked—rough, demanding.

“Nothing,” Jack answered immediately, thought a moment, added: “You look like you’re dying.”

That was the first time he heard Gabriel laugh: gruff, throaty. Pleasant. “You don’t look so hot yourself.”

Jack cracked a smile, closed his eyes. One of their roommates was hunched over the edge of his bed, emptying his stomach into the sterile waste bin the doctors had provided. Through his retching, he barked at them to shut up. Gabriel told him to go fuck himself.

“Hope he dies first,” Jack muttered. His hand felt like it weighed a thousand pounds as he lifted it to his mouth, the sound of vomiting causing his own stomach to roil threateningly.

“You hear that, cockhead? He hopes you fuck off too,” Gabriel called, but by then the other man was too sick to answer. The room smelled of sweat, vomit, and bleach; Jack couldn’t blame him, hadn’t meant for Gabriel to hear it, thought it was funny anyway.

They spent a week in that room. Jack didn’t learn his name until after, looking up his comrades’ files in the database. Reyes. Decorated senior officer. Knew when to keep his head down and when to speak up. Born and raised in California—a place Jack knew about exclusively through movies and television shows. The land of the sun-kissed, beaches as far as the eye could see. Jack had never seen the ocean in his life.

They ran into each other in the mess hall. Gabriel noticed him first, broke away from a group of men and women he knew from before to greet him. They exchanged names, formally, but Jack got the idea Gabriel had looked him up too. Jack asked if he was a surfer. Gabriel laughed so hard he nearly dropped his sandwich, choked a little, pounded roughly on his chest. Jack was a shade of pink that was quickly approaching red, feeling like a dumb hick. Gabriel clapped him on the shoulder.

“Yeah. I surf and smoke. You ride tractors and fuck barn animals. Right?” Good-natured. Jack barely knew him, but he got the feeling he was being ribbed. Playful.

“Drove a tractor to prom, actually,” Jack managed to get out, and that elicited another peal of laughter from Gabriel.

“That impress your date, country boy?”

“Oh, yeah. My dad had a blue Lamborghini Nitro. Real highbrow. She loved it.” That part was true, and it only compounded Jack’s embarrassment.

“Jack ‘Lady-killer’ Morrison, cruisin’ around Indiana in his Lambo tractor.” He led Jack over to his group, made him repeat it to them. They got almost as much of a kick out of it as Gabriel had, forgot his name the minute it came out of his mouth. Country boy.

It was a little like being back in college, if you subtract the heavy drinking but multiply the hangovers. The most time he and Gabriel spent together was in that med bay room, in their cots, suffering through the enhancements and the doctors. “What’s the ocean like?” Jack asked him once. Their roommates were asleep, knocked into next week by the morphine drips in their arms. Jack was groggy, but the pain was tolerable. He didn’t need the painkillers yet.

Gabriel was on his side, back to him, but he turned over when Jack spoke. The only light came in from the hall outside. Jack could make out the outline of his face, the dark of his eyes, the tired quirk of his lips. “Water. A lot of it. It’s nothing special, country boy.”

“Not to you. You take it for granted, ripping up waves all day.”

“Shredding.”

“Huh?”

“You shred waves, dumbass.” The fond way he said it had Jack wanting to bury his face into his pillow, like Gabriel found nothing more charming than Jack’s little mistakes. Take four words, whisper them—quietly and fondly—in a dark room, and you got one crushing Jack Morrison. “Don’t give me that look. I’m sure one day I’ll say some stupid shit about corn harvesting and you’ll be able to one-up me.”

“We grew rice.”

“There you go. That one’s on the house.”

Jack smiled, grateful that Gabriel couldn’t see the blush on his cheeks—and his ears and his neck. “I’d like to see you surf. And eat shit. That would make me feel better.”

Gabriel snorted. “I probably would. I can’t surf. Fuck you, by the way.”

One of their roommates made a sound in his sleep, and they stopped talking. Jack’s head was starting to hurt, and he thumbed the button for the morphine, considering. He could no longer remember how long he’d been in the SEP. In the beginning, he had kept careful track of the days, but as time wore on and the injections made it harder and harder to do something as simple as write a date, he had lost count. It felt like years since he joined, since he met Gabriel.

Two weeks later, it was Gabriel’s birthday, and they were drinking in the showers, sitting behind the partitions so anyone walking in wouldn’t be able to see them. One of Jack’s friends in the program had smuggled in bottles—rum, tequila, vodka. He couldn’t stomach rum, but he bought it off him. For Gabriel, who he would have shared with even if it wasn’t his birthday, though Jack was fine with him not knowing that.

It was one of their off days—between injections—and nearly two in the morning. They sat in the dark, drinking to the moonlight filtering through the high windows overhead. Jack had wanted to invite more people along, someone to buffer them. Gabriel had taken one look at the single bottle and refused.

They were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, and the drunker he got, the more focused Jack became on the feeling of Gabriel’s skin against his own. Tank tops. Why hadn’t he worn a sleeved shirt? “This is some cheap shit,” Gabriel was saying, passing the bottle.

Jack accepted it with a grimace, took a swig, made a face. “Buy your own liquor next time, asshole.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I am mighty touched that ya’ll went through all this trouble for lil ol’ me. Bless your heart.” Jack’s next sip ended up all down his front. He spluttered and gagged, eyes and throat burning while Gabriel laughed and thumped him on the back. Casually, Gabriel slung his arm around Jack’s shoulders. Jack could smell his aftershave: something brisk and clean and coconut. He held his breath.

“That was Texan, Gabe,” Jack said lamely, unable to think of anything smarter.

“Well shit. All you hicks sound alike.”

“Indiana is in the Midwest. You weren’t even close.”

“Now you’re just busting my balls. Who the hell is ‘Gabe’, anyway? You making up nicknames for me now, country boy?” Jack felt his heart stutter to a stop, like it died and fell out of his chest and took his stomach down with it. Gabriel was watching him—he could feel it. Intense, like he wasn’t drunk at all. Nervously, Jack looked at the shower heads across the room like they were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.

“I…well…” he floundered. “Sorry it’s not as cute as ‘country boy’.”

Gabriel laughed, and the moment passed. “No, it’s not. My sisters call me that.”

“You have sisters?”

“Three. Two younger. Older one likes to use ‘Gabi’ when she feels like being annoying, and no you are not allowed to call me that.”

“Sounds nice. I don’t have any siblings.”

“Tell you what, Morrison. We survive this shithole, I’ll take you out to Cali. You can get bullied by my sisters and drown in the ocean. The full west coast experience.”

The surge of emotion Jack felt then threatened to overwhelm him, so he took another drink of rum and said nothing. Gabriel was drunk and would forget about it in the morning; he told himself that, stomped out the childish fluttering in the pit of his stomach before it had a chance to grow. “And if we don’t survive?” he asked cheekily, humoring Gabriel while he broke his own heart.

“Then I’ll personally drown you in heaven. My treat.”

“I ever tell you you’re my best friend?”

Gabriel’s lips quirked. “You getting sappy on me?”

“No. Legitimate question. My best friend’s Lipyanka, and I wouldn’t want you to make plans under false pretenses.”

“Fuck off, Morrison.”

“I mean it.”

“All right. So when you broke his nose last week, was that out of friendship?”

“Purest form of it, Reyes. If you had a best friend, you’d know.”

“Who knew you’d turn into an insufferable smart-ass the second you got alcohol in you?”

Jack laughed. Gabriel took the bottle of him and finished it off, set it to the side. Impulsively and under the pretense of being shitfaced, Jack rested his head on Gabriel’s shoulder, breathed in his aftershave. Gabriel didn’t acknowledge it, kept his eyes trained ahead on the doorway.

“You got a best friend?” Jack asked before he felt too awkward. Gabriel would forget in the morning, and maybe Jack would too. If he was lucky.

“Yeah. My dick. Now shut the hell up. I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Did I hurt your feelings?”

Yeah.”

They didn’t talk anymore after that. Sometime later, Gabriel hauled them both to their feet; Jack vaguely remembered protesting, wanting to stay, let morning come later. Not now. He doubted what he said made much sense. Gabriel half-carried, half-dragged him back to the barracks, and Jack let him. He liked the feeling of Gabriel’s arms around him, and he was too drunk to feel bad about it. A few times, Gabriel stumbled, and they clutched each other tighter, and Jack closed his eyes and thought drowning in California didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

Chapter Text

Ocean waves framed by palm trees. The smell of sunscreen mixed with that distinct, slightly latex smell of bathing suits. It’s from some movie or book. Jack tries to think of the name and spends entirely too long on it. A sharp ringing cuts through his thoughts, through the picture he’s got in his head. He tries to open his eyes and realizes he’s had them open the whole time. Someplace pitch black. Sound of dripping water. Sound of small, scuffling feet. Smell of damp and rust and rot and forgotten things.

There’s something heavy pinning him down but he doesn’t have the energy to move. Another nightmare, he thinks wearily, but time moves in a neat line and nothing happens. Dripping water. Pain settles into his bones, eases through his muscles, and he regretfully surmises that he is in fact awake. His mouth tastes like dust and soot, and when he coughs his chest aches and his throat tightens and he finds he can’t stop. It takes him too long to control himself, and by the time he does he is left more exhausted than before.

Something groans in his ear. He jerks, startled, held in place by whatever’s on his back. The ground—slick, slimy concrete—is ice cold against his cheek.

“Fuck…” The voice is thick with mucus and debris. Gabriel. He shifts atop him; Jack can feel his breath on his ear. “Jack? You alive?”

“At the moment,” he answers dryly, his mind still struggling to catch up. His voice sounds as bad as Gabriel’s. “My ribcage might give at any minute, though…”

“Shit.” Gabriel rolls off.

Head swimming, Jack tries to sit up—slowly, gingerly. Sharp pain lances through his right ear, and he instinctively raises a hand to it. He can feel something warm—blood, probably—trickling out a thin, slow-moving rivulet. Gabriel says something else, but he sounds far away. Muffled. Can’t hear out of that side. The thought feels almost inane, like commenting on the color of the sky. He pulls off his glove and snaps his fingers next to his right ear. Nothing.

“What was that?” Jack asks weakly, turning his head so he can hear. He can’t remember the last time he’s been so tired. Gabriel can’t be more than a few feet away from him, but the darkness proves impermeable even to Jack’s enhanced senses. There’s no light at all, wherever they are. He feels like he should be panicking, but all he really wants is to lay back down.

“I said I think I cracked my fucking head open.” Gabriel fumbles with something. There’s a sharp click, and then light bursts between them. “Jesus fucking Christ.” He points the beam of the flashlight to the far wall, wincing, shielding his eyes. His beanie is gone. Of all the things for Jack to focus on.

“You’re bleeding,” Jack notes, and finally a small taste of fear manages to break through the exhaustion. Gabriel’s neck is black with blood, and it drips languidly down under the collar of his shirt. Instinctively, Jack reaches out with his ungloved hand, running his fingers through Gabriel’s hair until they brush across something warm and wet. Gabriel flinches, and Jack pulls back. “Sorry.”

“Probably looks worse than it is,” Gabriel says dismissively, touching the wound himself and flinching again. “What about you? You all right? Your ear’s bleeding pretty bad.”

“Can’t hear out of it.”

“Fuck.”

“Did you hit your head?”

“I think so. Must’ve been a chunk of concrete or something. Whole fucking omnium came down on us, man.” So that’s what happened. Slowly, Jack lays back down, pillowing the back of his head with one arm.

“We’re underground.” Jack tries to work through the disorientation. Something as simple as recognizing where they are seems beyond him. He needs Gabriel’s reassurance.

“Yeah.” Gabriel picks up the flashlight and pans it around. Cracked white tile—brown with filth—glints dully around them. On the wall, only just visible through a small mountain of debris, is a sign emblazoned with the street number of the stop. Under the dislodged pipes, wires, and bits of machinery from the omnium, Jack can make out stairs from the old subway stop that would have led up and outside, before the omnium was built on top of it.

There are columns spread intermittently on the platform. One of them is marked with a graffiti smiley face.  Gabriel highlights the tracks—thankfully far enough away that they would have had no risk of accidentally falling down—and the tunnel that leads further downtown.

“Motherfuck,” Gabriel curses, swinging the light around again, dizzyingly fast. “Where’s Reinhardt? D’you see him anywhere?”

Jack’s blood runs cold, but he only has energy enough to force himself onto his elbows. Gabriel crawls to the edge of the platform, peering down near the tracks, but Jack’s eyes are glued to the detritus left behind from the explosion. Try as he might, he cannot make out any sign of Reinhardt’s armor under the rubble. His heart pounds a frantic beat in his mouth, and he is suddenly very aware of the smell of rust and rot and blood that hangs around them. Something tight and wretched blossoms in his chest, the pit of his stomach, and he is suddenly—accutely—aware of how rotten and stale the air is.

“Oh, Christ, Gabe. Oh Christ. Oh Christ oh Christ oh Christ.” Part of him—the part that is not clutching at his hair, on the verge of hyperventilation—points out that, in their line of work, causalities are inevitable. They were lucky to make it this far without one. But it’s one thing to lose Lipyanka or Dimitri or Candelaria (or La Bruno)—comrades in the loosest sense of the word. People he saw in the mess hall, had a handful of conversations with, ran one or two light ops with. Drank with in dark, impersonal bars.

When they died, Jack thought what a shame, felt relieved it wasn’t Gabriel, felt guilty for feeling relieved, and then felt nothing. But Reinhardt was his friend. Reinhardt was someone he’d known for almost five years, had worked alongside for three. Reinhardt had a wife and a shitty thirty, flirty, and thriving mug. Reinhardt liked to birdwatch and talked about having kids, would dote endlessly on Fareeha the times Ana brought her around. Reinhardt, who had gotten Jack a painfully thoughtful, sentimental gift when he had drawn Jack for their Secret Santa last year. Jack still had it sitting on his dresser in his room back on base: a stupid novelty PEZ dispenser from nearly seventy years ago, shaped like some cartoon character, because once Jack mentioned that his late father had collected them and Reinhardt had never forgotten it.

Hands—warm, strong—grip his shoulders and pull him out of himself. Gabriel is looking at him, his mouth set into a grim line. He seems to be having trouble focusing his eyes on Jack. How or why he notices this, Jack doesn’t know. The touch grounds him, but everywhere Gabriel’s hands are not, he is cold and trembling. “You need to stay calm,” Gabriel speaks slowly, quietly.

“He’s dead, Gabe. He’s—”

“We don’t know that.” Gabriel sounds so reasonable saying it. “Besides, we’re gonna be dead if you lose it right now. You have to hold it together.”

Jack makes several, feeble attempts to steady his breathing and finds he can’t get enough air. Squeezing his eyes shut, he thinks only of his heartbeat and the feeling of Gabe’s hands on his shoulders. Things that are real and tangible. Things that are not Reinhardt. Gabriel is talking again, but the words blend together into a nonsensical hum. His voice is calm, unwavering. Confident in that same way he has when issuing orders. Eventually Jack’s chest stops constricting, and he can finally breathe deep, the air musty and old but refreshing all the same.

“You good?” Gabriel asks, interrupting whatever he had been saying.

“A little lightheaded,” Jack admits, feeling pathetic but mostly tired. His eyelids are heavy, and he’s finding it hard to keep himself propped up. “Sorry. Guess I’m not that reliable.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Your head…”

“I’ll take care of it. Go to sleep before you keel over.” It’s not a request, but Jack still feels a pang of guilt at how readily—happily—he complies. He’s already laying back on the grimy, disgusting tile, and the last thing he hears before drifting off is Gabriel rummaging through something.

 

 

When he wakes up, Jack has no idea how much time has passed. Everything is dark, and nearby he can hear Gabriel’s quiet, steady breathing. After that, it’s the pain in his right ear: a sharp sting that bites deep whenever he moves his head too quickly. His flashlight is gone, so he fumbles around for Gabriel’s, hands bumping clumsily against Gabriel’s shin and knocking against the handle, causing it to topple over with a loud crack. A sharp inhale, and Gabriel is awake. He shies awake from the light when Jack finally manages to click it on, his eyes a haggard, sunken testament to how poorly he slept where he sits with his back propped against one of the columns.

“Concussion,” he concludes when Gabriel doubles over, one hand clapped firmly over his mouth. Jack can see the muscles in his neck working, and Jack politely looks away until he regains control over his nausea.

“Thanks, doc,” Gabriel finally manages to get out, words muffled by his gloves.

“Looks bad.”

“Well, I can’t say it feels great, Jack,” he remarks tiredly, moving his hand to rub at his jaw.

“How long were we out?”

“No clue. You got your handheld?”

“I…” Jack checks and produces the PDMM. The holo-emitter is damaged, and though it turns on, the projection flickers unsteadily. “Just this.” Another quick look. “My rifle’s gone too.”

“I don’t suppose that thing has a clock.”

“No. You have your guns?”

“Only my left. Don’t know where the fuck the other one went. Let’s hope the worst thing we find down here is just a big ass rat.”

“Yeah.”

At the edge of the halo cast by the flashlight, the darkness stretches on. When they stop talking, the only sound is the incessant, irregular dripping of some broken pipe. It grates on Jack’s nerves, especially because he can only hear it from one side. He doesn’t let the silence go on for much longer. “Do we have any clean water?”

“I have my canteen. You?”

“Uh…” He pulls up his flask, frowning. Gabriel gives him a distinctly unimpressed—maybe even disappointed—look. “How long you figure we can go on that?”

Gabriel shakes it. From the sound of the sloshing water, it’s about three-quarters full. “A week, maybe, if we ration it out.”

“We uh…might be able to handle drinking some of the water down here. We’re resistant to most poisons, right?”

Gabriel snorts. “If you wanna get your ass down on your knees and drink out of a puddle, be my guest. I’ll die before I go near that shit water.”

Jack laughs. It surprises the both of them—judging by Gabriel’s expression. It comes out nervous, shaky. He’s trying to compartmentalize, to focus on what’s most immediately pressing and nothing else. His mind strains like an untrained dog on a leash, going astray the moment Jack has a second of idleness.

“How’re you feeling?” Gabriel asks cautiously, as if Jack is on the verge of another breakdown.

“All right.” It’s not entirely untrue. He could be better, but it’s time he toughens up and stops laying all his doubts on Gabriel. It’s not fair to him. Jack knows this. “What about you?”

“Fine.”

“Yeah?” Jack remembers how Gabriel, with a flick of the wrist, smashed his handheld against the wall in the omnium. How for just a moment he let his fear take over: a taste of what Jack suspects is bubbling just beneath the surface.

“Morrison, out in California it’s a state-wide fucking pastime to hang out in disgusting underground tunnels. I’m in my element.” Gabriel is deflecting, and Jack reads it in the added bite he adds to his voice. Stop prying is what he means.

Jack doesn’t really know what he’s trying to do here. He talks without thinking. “I thought we could get your meltdown out of the way, since we already had mine.”

Gabriel rewards him with a look that is absolutely withering. “That’s because you’re my subordinate. You’re allowed to fuck up. But whether we die or not is on my head.”

“Burdens of command,” Jack offers sheepishly, accepting the rebuke. In return, Gabriel’s glare softens before he looks away, arms folding across his chest.

“You got that right.”

“You really are a cool guy, Gabe,” Jack teases, and for a second he feels normal. Light. Like they’re back in the SEP.

“You’re gonna make me blush,” Gabriel deadpans, though his eyes remain trained on some indeterminate point in the surrounding darkness. “If you feel good enough to be a jackass, then we can get moving.”

When Gabriel stands, he is shaky on his feet, and Jack is up in a second. His ear pounds painfully from the sudden movement, but on instinct he holds out his arm in case Gabriel stumbles. He waves Jack off, calling him some unpleasant name in Spanish before stooping to pick up the flashlight. The only way forward is down, onto the train tracks, and much to Gabriel’s annoyance Jack has to help him down the short drop. He sits on the ledge, one hand gripping Gabriel under the arm as he lowers him. That Gabriel is still dizzy and nauseous after so much time isn’t a good sign. Jack tries his best not to think about it. He probably hit his head hard enough to kill a normal man. Jack tries not to think about that either.

Gabriel can’t hold the flashlight steady. The beam dances erratically around the tunnel, but Jack doesn’t offer to hold it for him. He doubts Gabriel would appreciate him verbally acknowledging the way his body is failing him. Jack doesn’t know much about concussions; his main concern is Gabriel just dropping unconscious, without warning, so he’s grateful to have his hands free. Gabriel, to his credit, pretends not to notice how Jack hovers.

They walk in silence. Jack stays on Gabriel’s left so his bad ear is covered. His eyes always, inevitably, find their way back to Gabriel’s face. He studiously ignores Jack, looks ahead like the empty tunnel is fascinating. Jack notices the slapdash job Gabriel did dressing his head wound. The gauze clings precariously to the back of his head, already stained through with blood. It’s probably nowhere near as bad as it looks—like Gabriel said—but fussing keeps Jack’s mind off their situation, off Reinhardt, off the way the walls and ceiling of the tunnel seem to curl in around them. If he has to worry about something, he rather it be something he has some degree of control over. Like redressing his wound. It nags at him—another steady beat accompanying the throbbing of his ear.

Every so often, the beam of light would flicker over old graffiti on the tunnel walls: tags, mostly, though beneath them Jack can see anti-droid rhetoric faded into the concrete. Remnants, he supposes, from the days when artificial intelligence was still new. Before the word “omnic” entered the public mind.

Jack feels rather than sees the rats and bugs that scatter in their wake. At one point, he’s sure he’s stepped on a roach or beetle or something. There’s a sickening crunch under his boot, and the sound plays in his head—over and over—until they reach an abandoned subway car obstructing their path.

Jack is the one to hop up and curl his fingers in the shallow dip of the handle. Though rusted, the door slides open easily enough. The metallic grind sends a chill down Jack’s spine. He doesn’t give himself enough time to remember.

Sickeningly sweet. The smell of old corpses slams him full-force, and he grips the bar welded to the outside of the car to keep himself from stumbling back. “Give me the flashlight for a sec,” Jack says, and Gabriel passes it up. He quickly scans the interior. The fabric seats are dirty—poles rusted over with only a few specks of silver shining through where the paint chipped off—and a pile of what seems to be old clothes lay in the far back corner. Other than that, it’s empty. Whatever had caused the smell is long gone: eaten or rotted away.

Jack takes Gabriel by the hand and hauls him up. Gabriel doesn’t give the sorry state of the seats a second look, sitting down heavily and breathing a sigh of relief. Above his head, a smiling woman—eyes and teeth blacked out by some kid—advertises annual STD checkups at a local clinic.

“How long’ve we been walking, do you figure?” Jack asks, standing awkwardly in front of Gabriel.

“An hour? Two?” He’s frustrated. Jack can relate.

“We should be coming up on a maintenance hatch soon. Or something.”

“I need a break,” Gabriel says reluctantly. Proud, but not too proud to let it affect the mission. Are they still even on the mission? What are the protocols for being missing in action? Jack runs a hand through his hair, realizes he never put his glove back on, realizes that he doesn’t know where the fuck it is.

“Sit down,” Gabriel orders. “You’re driving me crazy, standing there like that.”

Jack sits down, Gabriel on his left. Neither of them speak, and the subway car falls silent, isolated from the small, repetitive sounds of the tunnel outside. At the far end, the door they came in from is open, and Jack argues with himself about closing it. Ultimately, he leaves it open, for what little air ventilation it might provide.

He can feel the smell settling into his skin, his hair, and he is all at once uncomfortably aware of how dirty he is. It makes him itch and sweat under his gear, and without thinking his hands find the clasps and undo them. He peels the flex armor off and puts it on the seat beside him, sighing. Gabriel’s eyes are on him—he doesn’t have to look to know.

“We should sleep in shifts,” is Gabriel’s only comment. “Just in case.”

“All right. I’ll stay up if you want to go to sleep.” Jack’s tired but not physically. It’s the type of emotional exhaustion that comes from the constant stress he’s been under since they landed in England, that had steadily grown more aggressive as they traveled to London, to King’s Row, to the omnium. To this awful subway car with its awfully-patterned seats.

Gabriel grunts in response, gripping one of the plastic armrests and breaking it off in one fluid motion. He pulls his legs up onto the seats, kicking off the other armrests and letting them clatter onto the floor. When he goes to lay down, Jack stops him: “Wait. Let me check your head first.”

The look Gabriel gives him makes him think he’s about to be refused, but Gabriel sits back up and turns away from him. Flashlight in one hand, Jack peels away the soiled gauze with the other, inspecting it briefly before tossing it aside. “You really did a shit job with this,” he comments.

 “It hasn’t healed up at all?” Gabriel takes his bag off and roots around through it, handing back the emergency medical kit.

Jack gently brushes Gabriel’s hair out of the way with his fingers. The gash is red and bloody, still leaking down Gabriel’s back. “If it has, I can’t tell. Still bleeding, too, though I don’t think it’s infected. Did you just slap that gauze pad over it and call it a day?”

“Listen. You weren’t the only one about to drop from exhaustion earlier. Yesterday. Whenever the hell it was.”

Jack feels a little guilty. He should have asked about it earlier—before they started walking, even. He’s starting to realize how easy it is for him to rely on Gabriel like he isn’t injured too. When he opens the med kit, the sealing gel is on top, cap hastily and incorrectly screwed on. Some of it had leaked out onto the contents beneath. Gabriel goes rigid when he begins applying it. Despite Gabriel’s discomfort, Jack is generous with it. Blood mixes in with the clear gel, leaving a watery sheen over the wound. Satisfied, he wipes his bare hand off on his pants and props the flashlight up between his legs.

The gauze pads are intact, protected from the leak by their sterile packaging. After some negotiating (Jack wishes, several times, that he had paid more attention during his first aid seminars in the SEP), Jack gets the wound dressed. It’s crude and he can imagine the ten thousand different criticisms Ana would have for it. Jack takes off his remaining glove—soaking through with blood and gel—and lets it fall to the floor, joining the blood swatch of gauze and the broken armrests.

When Gabriel turns back to face him, he looks ridiculous. The bandages wrapped around his forehead cause his hair to stick up, and Jack laughs. It bubbles out of him, uncontrollably, and in a manner of seconds he’s hysterical. A hand on Gabriel’s shoulder as he doubles over, shaking, giggling into the seat cushions. Tears prick at the corners of his eyes by the time he’s regained control of himself, and when he sits up Gabriel is looking at him like he’s lost his mind.

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel asks, eyes flicking between Jack’s hand on his shoulder and the hot, pink blush Jack can feel across his cheeks.

“I think so. You just…look so fucking stupid right now.”

“I’m in a lot of pain, asshole.”

“Poor thing.” Jack chokes back another laugh, taking his hand off Gabriel and biting down on his fist to keep himself quiet. It’s really not that funny. Jack knows it. He looks at Gabriel’s hair and the serious expression on his face and he loses himself again. He feels himself shaking as he doubles over once more, clutching his stomach, his bad ear stinging from all the jerky, sudden movement.

“You’re scaring the shit out of me right now, Jack.”

Jack can’t even speak through the laughter. He wheezes heavily, feeling the tears stream down his face, cool against his warm skin. Coughs claw their way out of his throat, giving way to wracking sobs that have him folding in on himself. He can sense Gabriel moving back on the seats, giving him room. His stomach lurches uneasily, aches from the laughter, and for a moment he thinks he’s going to throw up. The upholstery on the cushion scratches uncomfortably at his face, smells like shit, doesn’t help the nausea.

“Sit up.” Gabriel sounds far away. Absentmindedly, Jack realizes he has his left ear pressed into the back of the seat. When Jack doesn’t respond, he feels hands grip his shoulders, forcing him upright. The look on Gabriel’s face has Jack scrubbing self-consciously at his bleary, swollen eyes. His cheeks are wet and cold in the stagnant air. Gabriel takes one of Jack’s hands—wrenches it away from his face—and forces something into it. The canteen.

“Drink,” Gabriel orders. It takes Jack a few tries: his hand is shaky and unwieldy, threatening to spill the water all down his chin as he lines it up with his mouth. Gabriel grabs Jack’s wrist, keeps him steady. Can’t afford to waste any, Jack rationalizes. The water is cool on his ragged, raw throat. He doesn’t let himself take more than one drink before pulling it away, trying to hand it back.

“No. Have more.”

“I’m fine. I’m okay,” Jack says hoarsely.

“You’re not.”

“Neither are you, so let’s just drop it,” Jack lashes out without meaning to, voice harsh and angry. Gabriel drops it. Jack clears his throat—painful—and softens his tone, apologetic. “Just…go to sleep, all right?”

Gabriel shrugs and turns his back to him, popping the cap back onto the canteen before settling down onto the seats, a respectable—lonely—distance between them.

 

 

Their progress through the tunnels is slow. Gabriel can’t walk for long without getting tired; most of the time, he won’t say anything, so Jack watches him, hawkish, and usually decides when they take breaks. It’s a luxury whenever they find a subway car to rest in. They’ve only found one other, and it had contained some old, blackened bones that Gabriel kicked out onto the tracks.

The pain in his ear is his second companion, and Jack doesn’t know whether it’s good or bad that he’s gotten accustomed to it to the point where he can ignore it. They’ve encountered one maintenance door so far, but the sliding mechanism was locked up so tight that not even their combined strength could force it open.

They stop at every platform, climbing up, and every time the stairs leading outside are sealed off. Subways in general haven’t been used in decades, and without Reinhardt—Jack forces him to the back of his mind the moment he surfaces—they have no way of prying the welded metal plates off. All the while, hunger gnaws at them, and while their enhancements prevent that from significantly hindering them, the pain is no less unpleasant.

On the second platform they’ve reached since their entrapment, they find a dismantled Bastion unit. Gabriel is the one who notices it, wordlessly unclips the PDMM from Jack’s belt and kneels next to it.

“What the hell is it doing all the way out here?” Jack asks as Gabriel plugs in. The holoscreen flickers, erratic and unreliable, like it could die completely at any moment. He peers over Gabriel’s shoulder, struggling to read the logs in between flickers.

“It ran, I think. Get this, though. No god program on this one.”

“What?”

“It’s clean. I can make out that much. It’s a bitch trying to reach this though with the emitter cracked to shit.”

“Yeah. Sorry. I might have landed on it when we fell.”

“Thanks for that, Torbjörn,” Gabriel says dryly. For the next fifteen or so minutes, he’s quiet, and Jack follows suit.  Finally, he clicks off the PDMM and leans back. Jack moves around the side so he can get a look at his face. It’s grim, dirty, black creeping up the edges of his bandages (they only have one roll, so Jack has no choice but to reuse them every time he changes Gabriel’s gauze).

“Well?” Jack prompts. The longer Gabriel is silent, the more anxious Jack gets.

“Someone altered its core programming. When the god programs went rogue, first order of business was wiping out the older model of omnics that it couldn’t control, yeah?”

“Yeah…” Jack answers cautiously. Old information they had been given back when the strike team was first assembled.

“These guys managed to escape, holed up down here in the tunnels. That’s when the memory logs end. They were active beyond that, but they have no records.”

“What? Like someone wiped them clean or something?”

“Disabled their AI, if I had to guess. The activity logs are encrypted, and this busted up piece of shit might quit on us if I run decryption on it. I downloaded it. Something to look forward to reading if we get outta here alive.” Gabriel loops the PDMM back onto Jack’s belt, patting him once on the shoulder. “If anything, that means there’s a way to get to the surface. These fuckers had to get inside somehow.”

They move on.

When they stop for the night, it’s in the tunnel. Jack feels exposed, in the open where the tracks run on endlessly on either side of him. But Gabriel has already started lagging behind, and after the prerequisite argument about stopping (one that Gabriel has slowly become less and less keen on participating in, which worries Jack), they decide on shifts. Try as Jack might, Gabriel refuses to forfeit first watch.

“You need the rest more than I do,” Jack insists. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder, backs to the wall, flashlight turned off to save power. In the darkness, Jack unconsciously shifts closer.

“And you need a kick in the ass more than I do, but I don’t see you volunteering to bend over,” Gabriel shoots back, his voice lacking his usual fire.

“Okay,” Jack concedes, not in the mood for one of their petty fights any more than Gabriel seems to be.

He feels Gabriel shuffle around. The sound of water being shaken inside a canteen. Small noise of frustration before he tips it back and takes a drink. “Dying of thirst seems like a shitty way to go,” Jack says.

“We always got my gun.” Neither of them laugh. Gabriel puts the canteen away and nudges him lightly. “Last resort though, right?”

“Yeah? You shoot me then yourself?”

“I guess.”

“That’s fine. I don’t think I could shoot you anyway.”

Gabriel doesn’t answer. Before the mission, Jack would have flushed and agonized over saying something like that. Now, though, it all seems so pointless. Beating himself up over a stupid, childish crush because he had the luxury to do so. Soldier. Not a schoolboy or a lovesick farmer’s son. Sitting in this cold, dark tunnel—hungry, thirsty—drives that home better than his inner disparagement ever could.

“I don’t know if I could do it,” Gabriel admits after a few minutes.

“Shoot me?”

“Yeah.”

Jack laughs: tired and hollow. “Thanks.”

“I’d only do it if you wanted me to.”

“That might be the nicest thing you ever said to me.”

“Why are you such a prick sometimes, Morrison?” Much to Jack’s surprise, Gabriel actually sounds a little angry. “This shit is serious, and you’re actin’ like I could just kill you without a second thought. What kind of guy do you really think I am?”

“I don’t want to fight,” Jack says, not knowing what to make of Gabriel’s reaction. Any other day, he would have took it in stride, jabbed back at him. Is the situation—the hunger, the desolation, the hopelessness—making him irritable or is just giving him reason to voice something he’s always felt? A little of both, Jack suspects. “It was a dumb joke. That’s all.”

“Answer my fucking question. You—” Gabriel cuts himself off, breathing heavily through his nose. Jack closes his eyes and rests his head against the wall, waiting for him to continue. Somewhere near his feet, he feels a rat snuffling around. “Forget it,” Gabriel says finally, sounding burned out and exhausted.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a good guy. One of the best I’ve ever met.”

“Uh-huh.”

“No, I mean it. It probably sounds real shitty, but I guess I’m glad it’s you down here with me. I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”

“Jack.”

“Yeah?”

“Stop talking.” Is Gabriel actually embarrassed? There’s a thought.

But Jack lets it lie, folds his arms across his chest and shuts his eyes. Waiting for sleep. It’s uncomfortable, but he’s slept in worse conditions. He thinks of jungle warfare training, back during his boot camp days. Weather so hot and humid he could feel every bead of sweat on his body, every bug trying to get a piece of him. When he drifts off, he dreams of giant mosquitos and monsoon rains.

 

 

Jack doesn’t know how much time has passed when Gabriel wakes him up for his watch. His mouth is dry, and for once the pain in his stomach drowns out the pain in his ear. Superhuman metabolism. A stupid thought: he could only imagine how much muscle mass he was losing, trapped down here with no food, his body slowly forced to cannibalize itself.

They don’t talk. By the time Jack feels awake enough to function, Gabriel is already settled beside him, breath even and steady.  Jack wonders if he kept watch until he couldn’t keep his eyes open. Idiot. Reminds him of the SEP, when Gabriel would stay up until dawn, refusing to sleep until his body gave out on him. Did he have nightmares too? It seems so obvious now, looking back. Another mark on the “Jack Morrison is a prick” tally. He would be better. If they lived through this, he would try.

Gabriel snores lightly. It’s a sound so delicate it seems out of place coming from such a large man. He was 5’9 when Jack first met him. He doesn’t know why he thinks of it now. He can’t even remember how tall he himself was before the injections. Once, Gabriel told him he was the shortest guy in his NROTC group back in the day.

“Really? You? Navy?” Jack had asked, incredulous.

Gabriel snorted. “No. Marines.”

“That makes more sense.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re a real hardass. Got Marine written all over you.”

“And don’t you forget it, Morrison. What about you?”

“Army. Enlisted right out of high school.”

“Boring. Guess that suits you.”

“Fuck off.”

Gabriel shifts, and suddenly Jack feels his cheek come to rest on his shoulder. Jack stiffens, afraid to move, to breathe, in case that would wake Gabriel. But the exhaustion and stress and pain has taken its toll: Gabriel sleeps soundly. Hesitantly, tentatively, Jack raises a hand, fingers brushing across Gabriel’s hair, carefully skirting the bandages. He grazes Gabriel’s cheek—an accident, mostly—and marvels at how thick his stubble has gotten, when Gabriel is normally so meticulous about shaving. Jack doesn’t imagine he looks much better. He rubs his own chin, frowning at the beginnings of a beard he feels there. He’ll have one to rival Gabriel’s by the time their bodies are found.

He surprises himself with his own morbidity. Somewhere along the way, he had stopped thinking in terms of when they get out, without realizing. Now, it’s when they die. Alone, together, in the darkness beneath London where even La Bruno dares not follow. But even so, Jack decidedly does not want to die.  27 years and one day old, and he’s not ready yet. He didn’t even get a birthday cake. Stupid thing to fixate on. Vanilla ice cream with those shitty crunchy, chocolate bits in the middle that he hates but eats anyway. His first birthday with the strike team, the cake they’d gotten him misspelled his name. Jan. It was so funny they’d done it every year since. His second birthday was Jock. Last year was Jericho. He supposes he won’t ever know what Reinhardt—his heart seizes in his chest, and he forces back the panic swelling in the back of his throat—wrote for his 27th.

Gabriel grunts, and Jack nearly jumps out of his skin when he feels Gabriel’s leg bump—hard—into his own. For a moment, he thinks Gabriel is waking up when he violently jerks away. His arm lashes out, making contact with Jack’s stomach—he sees stars, breath knocked out of him, stunned for a splitsecond before his reflexes kick in. Jack hunts for the flashlight. Roaches, like shiny black stones, run for the shadows when he turns it on. Gabriel is grinding his teeth so loud that he can hear it. Jack’s eyes adjust to the light in time for him to catch Gabriel’s hand before it can hit him again.

Gabriel’s face is screwed up tight, twisted into something pained and awful. Jack loosens his grip on his wrist before Gabriel can break it with his flailing. “Gabe,” he says, trying to stay calm despite the way Gabriel is convulsing. Jack prays to any god who’ll listen that it’s a nightmare and not a product of his head wound. For all Jack knows, Gabriel could be dying right now.

He grabs Gabriel’s other hand, trying to hold him steady before he can hurt himself (or Jack). “Gabriel,” Jack says, louder this time, feeling desperate and scared and what the fuck is he gonna do without him? “Gabriel, wake the fuck up. For the love of God, Reyes.” He’s practically shouting in his face now, grappling with his mounting panic while trying to remember not to hold Gabriel too tight. He doesn’t know how much pressure it would take for him to snap Gabriel’s wrists. He doesn’t want to find out.

When Gabriel finally opens his eyes, they are bloodshot and wild. Darting back and forth as if he doesn’t really see what’s in front of him. After several long minutes, he relaxes, arms going slack in Jack’s grasp. With some effort, he manages to focus on Jack’s face, his brows knitting in consternation. The sound of their heavy breathing mingles together. “Bad dream?” Jack asks with forced lightness.

Gabriel says nothing. His face is slick with sweat, and the hollows of his eyes seem even more pronounced. He looks washed out, sickly. Not entirely awake, perhaps, judging from the way he struggles to make sense of Jack, blinking rapidly, unseeing. Jack has no idea what to do. “It’s all right.” He opts for a soft tone, hands moving of their own accord to sweep Gabriel’s hair out of his eyes. They look black in the light, and at Jack’s touch they flutter shut.

Jack’s heart is hammering away in his chest, still gripped by fear. Swallowing thickly, he makes up his mind, and before he can second guess himself he pulls Gabriel closer, holding him tight. He doesn’t know if Gabriel is still awake, isn’t sure of much of anything. But Gabriel sighs, leans into him, and Jack takes that to mean he’s doing the right thing. One of Gabriel’s hands is caught between them, and the other rests—still, palm down—on Jack’s leg. Jack touches the back of his head, checking to see if Gabriel irritated his wound: the bandages are dry, and for that Jack is endlessly relieved.

Gabriel’s face is against his neck. He can feel the warmth of his breath, the hard line of his nose. Impulsively, Jack pulls back and presses a light kiss to his temple before holding him close once more, arms—tense, nearly shaking—wrapped around him. Indulgent. Stupid. This time, he can’t quite choke back the surge of emotions (fear, doubt, affection) tugging at him.

Jack turns off the light, and they sit like that for a long time. An hour. Maybe more. Jack dozes intermittently, despite himself, waking up every so often to check their surroundings and make sure Gabriel is still breathing.

He only rouses fully once he feels Gabriel sit up. Neither of them go for the flashlight, and Jack waits nervously for Gabriel to speak. He feels Gabriel grope around in the dark for the canteen, shaking it before taking a brief sip. There isn’t much left.

“You fell asleep on watch,” Gabriel rasps. He clears his throat, and it’s a painful sound.

“I—what?”

“You. Fell. Asleep.”

Realization dawns on Jack: Gabriel had been awake. He flushes, and inwardly he curses himself seven different ways for worrying about such stupid shit when, in all likelihood, they would be dead before the week was out. “Sorry,” is the only thing Jack can get out. He’s waiting for something: Gabriel to yell at him, maybe, or confront him about the kiss.

 But nothing happens. Gabriel pulls away and climbs to his feet, turning on the flashlight in the process. There is no trace of anger or disgust on his face. He merely looks down at Jack, expectantly, while Jack stares up at him like a lovestruck fool.

“You waiting for an invitation, Morrison?” Gabriel prompts, breaking Jack out of his stupor.

“Oh…right.”

They gather their things and start walking.

 

 

The next platform they reach is cluttered with omnics. Mostly Bastions, some Caretakers: all inactive. Unlike the first one they found, these are completely intact. Jack hoists himself up first—Gabriel’s shotgun a heavy, unfamiliar weight in his hand—and refuses to help Gabriel until he’s certain they’re dead. Once Gabriel’s up, he punches Jack in the arm hard enough that he loses feeling for a few minutes.

Gabriel scans a couple with the PDMM. Enough to get the picture that, like the other Bastion, they are all without the god program. He’s reluctant to push the broken device too far, lest it die and they lose all the data they’ve collected. While they poke about, the omnics lay there, metal corpses succumbing to rust. One of the many chasses is hollowed out, circuitry chewed away so that it is now home to a nest of rats that hiss and gnash their teeth angrily when Gabriel shines the light inside.

They don’t stay for long, under the watch of those eerie, silent metal faces. Sometimes the beam would flash across a Bastion’s LED, illuminating it so that for a splitsecond it seemed alive. Reacting in an instance, Jack shot it, the screen shattering under the force of the spray. In the enclosed space, the gunshot echoed—too loud—and both he and Gabriel recoiled. After that, he was silently relieved of the weapon.

They run out of water not long after, and Gabriel starts slowing again. For once, Jack does not insist on a break. It goes unspoken between them, but if they stop now they likely will not have the energy to move again, having lived on precious few mouths of water for what Jack suspects to have been about five days. Time has no more meaning down there. He supposes it doesn’t matter any longer.

They reach their second maintenance door after an hour of walking through a tunnel particularly thick with roaches. Every crunch cuts through Jack like a knife, and Gabriel looks similarly unsettled. The door is rusted over, and though Jack does not expect it to open he drags himself up onto the concrete ledge anyway.  The diveted handle is wet with damp, and Jack struggles to get a good grip on it. Gabriel watches from down on the tracks, aiming the light.

Jack pulls, digging his fingers in until the door dents beneath them. The metal groans but holds fast. He tries again and again. The mechanism strains audibly—a noise too reminiscent of one from the omnium. Jack tries to block it out, tucking his good ear against his shoulder to buffet it.

“Put your back into it, Morrison,” Gabriel calls, and when Jack glances back, he’s grinning.

“What’s got you in such a good mood?” Jack asks warily. He flexes his fingers, his joints aching.

“I can’t go on,” he answers cheerfully. “This is as far as I go. I take one more step, and that’s it. I can barely see, you know, with my head all scrambled up like this.”

“That’s funny?”

“Sure. It’s the end of the road, Jack.”

“Shut the fuck up, Gabe. Jesus.” He turns away and attacks the door with renewed vigor, feeling irrationally angry. Gabriel isn’t saying anything he hasn’t already told himself. But to have it voiced so plainly, so irreverently, pisses him the hell off. The very least Gabriel can do is feel as pathetic and miserable as Jack does.

“God, you’re such an infant. Square up and face your death like a man, soldier.”

“You keep talkin’ and I’m gonna come down there and beat the shit out of you. I swear to God, Reyes.”

“I’d like to see you try, cockhead. I can whoop your ass even with half my brain leaking out the back of my skull.”

Jack grits his teeth, using all his weight to thrust back. With an awful, high-pitched screech, the lock breaks and the door slides back an inch on its rusted track. He looks back at Gabriel in amazement, and much to Jack’s annoyance he still has that shit-eating grin on his face. “You say all that on purpose?” Jack asks suspiciously.

“Dunno. Maybe that’s how I really felt.” Even covered in dirt, sweat, and grime, Gabriel’s smile is radiant. Jack is torn between anger and something softer. “I thought you were gonna come and punch me.”

“I really want to.”

“Later,” Gabriel promises, and when he approaches and lifts his hand, Jack takes it without hesitation and pulls him up.

Together, they force the door open the rest of the way. The room inside is as dismal and unpleasant as the tunnel, but on the far wall is a ladder leading up: curved metal rungs welded to the concrete, spanning roughly 60 feet and disappearing into the ceiling.

When he sees it, Gabriel says, “There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to find help in time, even if we make it up.” His expression is serious, grim, no trace of his former flippancy. Resigned in much the same way Jack was, back in the omnium. The way he still is, when he stops and lets himself think about it.

“I know. Hold the light for me.” Jack drops the bag at the base of the ladder and starts climbing. Gabriel says something that he doesn’t catch, but the disapproval in his tone is apparent. However, he makes no attempt to stop Jack.

After all it took to get in, his hands are weak and refuse to grip the bars as tightly as he’d like. He’s only made it this far due to his enhancements, and he’s learning that even people like him—bodies like his—have their limits.

 Just a little more, he thinks, over and over each time his fingers curl around the next rung. Just a little more, please. A little more. Please just a little more. At any moment he feels like his arms will give out on him and send him plummeting backwards. On a good day, a drop like that would have barely phased him. After prolonging his death over the course of nearly a week, Jack doubts he’ll come back from it. As it is, he’s struggling to keep his eyes open, fatigue dragging him down every step of the way.

Jack doesn’t realize he’s swaying on the ladder until Gabriel shouts a sharp, “Be careful!” His voice cracks on the last syllable, and Jack looks down, searching for his face but seeing only the beam of the flashlight shining up at him through the darkness. Somehow, he reaches for the next rung and his hand bumps against cold metal.

“Fuck,” Jack hisses

“What is it?” Anxiety is clear in Gabriel’s voice. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a panel here. I don’t know if I can get it open with one hand.”

Gabriel is silent for a moment. Jack waits for him to give the order, though the one that comes is not the one he expected. “Then come back down.”

“What?”

“Christ, Jack, you’re barely holding on up there and I’m not in any rush to see you brain yourself on the fucking ground when you fall. Come back down. We’ll find another way.”

“End of the road, remember?”

“Yeah, out there in the tunnel with the fucking rats. Not here, fallin’ 50 fucking feet onto solid concrete.”

“I got it.” Jack loops one arm around the top bar, hugging it tight in the crook of his elbow. With his free hand, he feels around for the handle. Rust flakes off under his fingers, and he tests his grip. Feeble. He can’t remember the last time he’s been so tired. Right after the explosion, maybe. He gives the panel a tug. It resists, creaking ominously. Gabriel shouts something, but Jack ignores him.

Why didn’t Gabriel say anything about the kiss? Was he too worn out to notice? Did he mind? He wishes, more than anything, that he hadn’t been such a coward before. He had all the time in the world to say something to Gabriel, to take a chance, and it took until now for him to realize it. Everything else in his life, Jack can say confidently he did his absolute best. His military career is what he’s most proud of, what he wishes he could have done more with but he can die with no regrets. He tugs again, and more specks of rust rain down on him. For a moment, he thinks he can see a sliver of light peeking through.

His foot slips, and Gabriel shouts again. He tries to regain his balance, but his boot can’t find purchase on the rung beneath him. Idiot. Stupid. Just a little more. A little more. Idiot. Just a little more. He hugs the bar tighter, the metal ice cold against his skin, and gives one final tug. Smoother than the door, the panel slides, letting in blinding moonlight and a crisp—fresh—autumn breeze. Jack breathes deep, letting the wind sweep across his dirt-streaked face. He’s tempted to let go, to finally rest, but Gabriel’s voice—hoarse from the yelling—urges him up and out, onto the cool cobblestones.

The moonlight overwhelms him, and as he lays face up on the ground, he finds it nearly impossible to open his eyes. All around him is the sound of mechanical whirring and distorted voices. Heavy footsteps. Hands grabbing at him—his arms, his chest, his neck. He tries to shove them away, but his limbs are heavy and unresponsive. He’s reached his limit. The end of the road. Gabriel is still down there. He tries to reach for the maintenance hatch, only managing to move his hand an inch.

“Jack.” A woman’s voice, sharp with concern, rising over the incomprehensible din.

He cracks his eyes open. Leaning over him, haloed by the powerful beam of a helicopter searchlight, Ana runs a gentle hand across his forehead.

Chapter Text

The lights in the hotel hallway are blinding. They are set into the paneling of the ceiling to form a smooth path of fluorescence that runs overhead, splitting in two where the corridor branches off. The carpet is hungry and white, devouring the grime and blood from the bottom of Jack’s boots. He doesn’t know how long it’s been since Ana and the search party found them.

(The windows in the hotel’s ballroom—repurposed into a medbay, UN money soothing the anxieties of the owners—let in the first trickling rays of sunrise. Pink bleeding into black, the medic—SEP-trained, shipped in special, direct from the land of the free and home of the brave—droning at him all the while. Ear’s a mess. Infection. Probably won’t be able to hear out of it again. Need to consult a specialist. Jack found it hard to care. Three partitions away, he knew Gabriel was being examined and told the same inane bullshit. It had taken them an hour to negotiate the narrow maintenance hatch and lower a rig to hoist Gabriel out. Jack had been barely conscious through it all, managed to stay awake long enough to see Gabriel aboveground before letting himself drift off. He didn’t wake up until he was laying on a cot in the medbay, the Oxford skyline casting long shadows across him and the medic.

They discharged Gabriel forty-five minutes after Jack had been cleared. Jack waited listlessly outside the ballroom, acutely aware of the dried blood and dirt clinging to his skin, matting his hair. When Gabriel came out, Jack stared and he stared back. It felt like a year had passed with them standing there, studying each other, eyes tracing the lines of exhaustion on each other’s faces. Then Gabriel ended it, said something about their rooms, and that was that.)

Gabriel walks silently beside him, leaving a second pair of smudged footprints in the plush carpet. The back of his head is a mess of crusted, filthy hair. He isn’t bandaged, and he’s steady on his feet. The once-ugly, weeping wound in his skull is probably a faded pink scar at this point. They would be ready for another mission by the end of the week. The thought sickens him.

Gabriel guides them through the hotel. Jack doesn’t think he could figure out how to get to his room anyway. His mind feels like a sieve, hole-riddled and impotent and incapable of clearly grasping the simplest thought for more than a few seconds. He’s tired. It takes him too long to realize they’ve come to stop in front of a door. Room 576.

“This is you,” Gabriel says with a voice belonging to someone healthy and not the sunken-faced, sallow man standing next to him. Rehydrated and fresh off the IV. Without the hunger and thirst, Jack feels strangely empty. The SEP had only enhanced his body, leaving the mind of a normal man to figure out how to use it. “I’m around the corner. 590.”

Jack tries the handle. It gives less than an inch before locking down in place. A hand slips into his pocket, and Gabriel holds a card up to the sensor. It clicks, and Jack laughs—tiredly, wretchedly. He doesn’t remember being given a room key. “Go shower,” Gabriel continues, nudging the door open with his foot and leaving a dark gash of grime on the white wood. “Meet me out here in thirty minutes, all right?”

“Thirty minutes,” Jack echoes, hearing without listening.

“Take a shower,” Gabriel impresses once more, leaning inside to turn on the lights. The room is primly decorated: a modernized snapshot of a hotel room from a hundred years ago, complete with goose feather pillows and a spring box beneath the mattress. Jack spots his suitcase and wanders over to it, lightly touching the fake leather handle. Cracked from use, nearly indistinguishable from the dusty plum colored fabric. It was his mother’s vacation bag that she gave to him when he joined the military almost ten years ago.

“Jack.” Gabriel is standing in the doorway, washed out by the harsh hallway lights, the hollows of his face sharply shadowed.

“Take a shower. Got it,” Jack repeats dutifully back to him, and—in a show of good will—he moves to the bathroom door. Gabriel watches him for a moment, then shakes his head and leaves.

Unlike the front door, the one to the bathroom is modern and slides neatly out of sight. His hand on the sensor appears out of place, nails black with dirt, some cracked and lined with red. The bathroom wall is smooth tile, and he runs his fingers haphazardly across it in search of a light switch. When he steps further in, it turns on by itself—motion activated. The bathroom is a sleek, pale yellow that is a welcome reprieve from all the white. A wide mirror stretches out above the double sinks, framed by woven steel.

He braces his hands on the counter—speckled marble, cold on his palms—and peers into it. His father stares back, haggard and ugly with a short unkempt beard. Yellow-blonde. Jack rubs his chin, and his father mimics him, bristling and unpleasant. His skin is so pale it’s almost gray, and twin bruises—dark, violent purple—lurk beneath his eyes, making them appear large and desolate. Sharp cheekbones jutting out over sunken cheeks. Dried blood on his lips, his neck, his ear. Red blood and black dirt. This broken, filthy man is someone Jack can recognize only peripherally as the soot stained corpse of his father, found in a gutter in South Bend where he’d gotten in the crossfire of an omnic skirmish while trying to take his wife (Jack’s mother) to the hospital.

The man in the mirror lowers his hand and fumbles with the faucet, smudging the chrome. He dips his hands beneath the water—lukewarm—and brings them to his face. He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until all the water has slipped out between his fingers. He grips the edge of the counter again, staring hard at his—father’s—reflection.

“Take a shower,” he says slowly, watching the way his lips form the words, showing glimpses of bloodstained teeth. There’s a loud crack as the marble splits between his fists. He looks down, startled, slivers of stone clattering to the floor when he pulls away. In the mirror, his father’s eyes are wide and glassy.

Jack turns to the shower. It’s electronic. Top of the line, preset with several temperatures and water pressures and jet types. He picks one at random, finds himself too tired to take his clothes off and climbs in, boots and all. The water is hot, burns his scalp as it rushes over the top of his head and soaks into his clothes. Wearily, he turns and sits beneath the stream, his back to the wall as he shucks off his shoes and his socks, flinging them out of the shower where they leave marks on the white tile outside.

Hands in his hair. He can’t comb through it, fingers getting caught on hard mats and knots. Smell of rot and decay. Like a dead animal. It rises up, cloaked in steam, and drifts lazily through the open door. The four days, twenty hours he spent alone with Gabriel in the subway sluices off him, viscous and toxic. Water splashes out where he’s forgotten to slide the frosted glass partition shut, pooling at La Bruno’s feet. He stands there, rheumy eyes watching Jack with unchecked curiosity. Jack buries his face in his knees, blocking him out.

La Bruno died two years into Jack’s military career. It was on a routine patrol on the outskirts of Houston, before, when they still thought the crisis was a local problem. A handful of malfunctioning omniums. A freak accident. It was sundown, the day’s heat dying quietly on the concrete. The omnics moved like specters, fell on them like demons. Before pulse weapons, they were helpless. A Bastion in its recon configuration grabbed La Bruno by the face and lifted him like a toy, slamming him through the window of an abandoned gas station while the rest of their platoon was driven to cover by turret fire. La Bruno was still alive, fired back, cursed the air blue until the Bastion picked him up again—this time by his bleeding throat, slashed open by the glass—and dragged him back where the rest of them could see his brains leaking out the back of his head. But the bastard was still alive, spluttering, rage fueled by fear.

The Bastion’s faceplate was impassive, red light blinking before deciding it wouldn’t waste the effort putting La Bruno out of his misery. Dropped him like a piece of trash, his bones folding disgustingly beneath his weight as he fell wrong on his leg. He had a death grip on the trigger, firing long after its magazine ran empty, bulging eyes turned to the line of advancing omnics. The rest of them—Jack huddled behind a rusted dumpster, fumbling to reload—tried to drive the Bastions back, their bullets pinging ineffectively off their chasses. Someone—his name dripped off the back of Jack’s head and disappeared down the drain—managed to flank them, cracked open the turrets’ glowing blue cortex chips with his toy of a sidearm. With three down and a pair of helicopters in the distance, the omnics retreated into the desert. Jack had been the one to carry La Bruno’s mangled body back to base.

“You look tired, Morrison,” La Bruno rasps, still there. Jack wraps his arms around his knees more tightly, curling in on himself. “Your mama never teach you not to fall asleep in the water?”

“She’s dead.”

“Happens to the best of us. Not you though, country boy.”

Wrong, Jack thinks tiredly, tensing at the nickname. La Bruno was before the SEP. Before Gabriel.

“Wrong?” La Bruno asks. There is a sickening crunch. Jack digs his nails into his arms, feeling the bite of them through his shirt. “Maybe so. Maybe you’re not alive at all.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Where would I go? They’re all dead. Deader than you. Our proud regiment whittled down to one John Morrison. Lucky Jack. They threw my body in a shallow grave. But look at you! They put yours in a high-rise, vintage hotel room in England. Times sure have changed.”

“Go away.” There is a sound of distant banging. Jack lifts his head a little, enough to see the toes of La Bruno’s boots pressing up against the lip of the shower. The stench of death rolls over him, settles on his skin, clings to it too firmly to be washed away by the water.

“Maybe if I’d hidden and pissed my pants, they would’ve put me in a fancy hotel too.”

“I didn’t hide. They were firing—”

“You’re hiding right now.”

Prickling with indignation, Jack casts his eyes to La Bruno’s face, stomach lurching at the grotesque smile he finds there, stretching the dead, papery flesh of his cheeks. A ghost or a figment of his imagination, who had stalked him through the streets of King’s Row only to be mysteriously absent in the tunnels beneath them. Another dream. Jack can’t find it in himself to feel fear this time. Too tired or brow-beaten or both.

“You’re not saying anything I haven’t said to myself,” Jack mutters.

La Bruno makes a wet, satisfied noise in the back of his ruined throat, only just audible over the banging. Jack tries to look through the doorway, out to where the rest of the room should be, but there is an impenetrable wall of darkness there in its place. Endless nothingness. In a way, that chills him more than La Bruno’s lurking presence. The dead man follows his gaze, and as if on cue, the banging stops. He frowns, rotten lip slipping down to show more of his blackened teeth.

“Isn’t it time to grow up, Jackie?” La Bruno asks, not unkindly, as he turns back. Jack notices a gun in La Bruno’s right hand, finger flush to the trigger as it points down at the watery tile, soundless and still. “I wonder how far you’d make it, carrying on like this. Another year? Two?”

“I’d make it a lot farther if you’d fuck off,” he responds sourly. His clothes cling to him, wet, and he’s suddenly—uncomfortably—aware of it. He wants to get out of the shower, but La Bruno is standing there, more maggots than teeth in his grinning mouth.

“Trust me,” La Bruno says, lifting his free hand to cover his heart, “I’m not here because I wanna be.”

Jack isn’t given the time to figure out what the hell that could mean. Like mist, La Bruno dissolves when Jack’s not watching, fading away until all Jack can see is the foggy reflection of the shower door in the mirror. Outside of the bathroom, the rest of his hotel room slowly comes back into existence, and from where he’s sitting he can just make out a portrait of a smiling child on the wall. Black and white. All teeth, clutching a fake daisy in one hand. He closes his eyes.

When he opens them again, Gabriel is standing where La Bruno had been, a deep frown just visible under his moustache.  Jack doesn’t even have energy enough to feel embarrassed about how pathetic he must appear, fully clothed and soaked to the bone on the shower floor. For a while, neither of them speak a word. Gabriel seems to be weighing him, and Jack finds himself overwhelmed by his stare and drops his eyes to Gabriel’s collarbone. He’s in civvies now: a familiar gray hoodie Jack’s probably seen a thousand times. The edges of its sleeves are frayed and discolored from wear. Part of the left pocket is mottled with bleach stains.

Gabriel offers his hand, and Jack takes it without thinking. Once he’s on his feet, Gabriel says, faintly annoyed: “Didn’t realize I should’ve specified you take your clothes off first.”

“Sorry,” is Jack’s automatic answer, and he begins to undress. Somewhere along the way, he’d lost his body armor. Had he ever put it back on, down in the subway? It trips him up for a moment, (he clutches confusedly at the hem of his shirt) then he moves past it. Once he’s satisfied that Jack’s attending to the task, Gabriel leaves him to it and returns to the main room.

None of Jack’s things are in here, so he settles for using the cheap hotel products. The shampoo and soap don’t have much of a smell. Something coarse and sterile. When he steps out of the shower, the water turns off on its own. In the mirror, he is red-faced from the heat, and his eyes are bloodshot and swollen. He’d been crying. When had that happened?

His old clothes are in a sodden, filthy pile on the already-wet floor. He leaves them there, wraps a towel—soft, white—around his waist, and exits the bathroom. Gabriel is sitting in one of the room’s two plush armchairs, flicking disinterestedly through the channels on the television. He gives Jack only the briefest of glances. Numbly, Jack rifles through his suitcase, pulling out a pair of boxers and a t-shirt and wondering at how little he is bothered by the prospect of getting dressed in front of Gabriel. They’ve seen each other naked plenty of times before, back in the SEP with its communal showers. But this is different, more intimate. It’s just the two of them in a secluded room and not a public locker full of their comrades. Jack finds it hard to care.

He gets dressed, and Gabriel’s eyes don’t stray from the holoscreen until he’s finished and zipping his suitcase up. The bed creaks beneath Jack’s weight, but the sheets warm quickly, soothing against his skin. He lays on his back and wonders if he’ll be able to sleep. “Are you all right?” Gabriel asks, turning off the television. Jack looks at him. Gabriel’s eyes wander to the door, considering.

Jack doesn’t know how to answer that, so he doesn’t. “Are you?”

On another day, Gabriel would have scoffed or given one of his short, dry laughs. But now, he only stares at Jack, unsmiling. He’s waiting for Jack to say something; for once, Jack has an idea of what it might be. Despite the brightness of the lights, Jack can feel his eyes slipping shut. He turns onto his side, facing Gabriel.

“Stay,” is all Jack manages. The room still smells, and he presses his face into the pillow. Whatever Gabriel’s response is, Jack falls asleep long before he hears it.

 

 

His dreams are blurry and meandering, one drifting into another incomprehensibly. When he wakes up, he doesn’t remember them, but he is calm and unafraid despite the unfamiliarity of the room. A small mercy. He automatically thinks he’s still underground. It’s dark, a single slash of moonlight pouring through the gap in the curtains and crossing over the bed. His eyes adjust quickly, still accustomed to the subway, and he can make out the chair, the lamp, the desk. A hotel room. He relaxes, not having noticed the tension gathered in his shoulders. All is quiet, and the air smells fresh and new. Clean. The door to the bathroom is still open—a gaping, hungry mouth—and for a moment he thinks he sees eyes glinting in the darkness. He turns his face to the window, eyes closed, willing himself back to sleep.

We’re proud of you, son. The memory comes unbidden. He’s eighteen years old, the keys to his father’s pickup cold and hard in his hand. His father is younger than Jack remembers, his fingers warm and calloused when Jack gives back the keys. His parents are dropping him off in the city, where he can enlist in the army. Mother is stone-faced and silent, her red lips a garish gash across her bloodless face. She’s unhappy. She doesn’t want Jack to do this. Neither does his father, he remembers, but he hadn’t wasted as much time arguing with Jack about it as she had. He’s willing to send his son off with a smile. This is the last time he would see them. The nostalgia stings bitterly, and the words ring hollow in his mind’s eye. Something nice—false—to send him off with. We’re proud of you.

Something shifts to his left, and when Jack looks he can make out Gabriel in the dark. He’s curled onto his side, above the covers, one arm cast over his eyes. There is a respectful distance between them, but they’re close enough that Jack can see that Gabriel is clean-shaven. When Jack moves a little closer, rolls over to face him, Gabriel sighs and puts his arm down. Jack freezes when his eyes open, waiting for Gabriel to ascertain his surroundings. Momentary panic—wide eyes—before understanding dawns and he, like Jack, relaxes. Then he notices that Jack is awake.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you,” Jack whispers, then immediately feels stupid for it. There’s something about the darkness of the room, the intimacy of them sleeping in the same bed, that makes Jack feel like he ought to be quiet. Like if he speaks too loudly, everything will slip away and chase off the tenderness Gabriel is showing him by staying. Tenderness. Jack closes his eyes.

“More bad dreams?” Gabriel asks, his voice just as low.

“No. Just…thinking about when I joined up. With the military, I mean.”

“Yeah. You did it for your folks, right?” That’s what Jack had said back in the SEP, a throwaway explanation when they’d been talking around the mess hall table and trading their reasons for going to war. At the time, it had seemed right. What someone like him would be expected to say. He can’t believe Gabriel remembered it.

“No,” Jack hears himself admit, without thinking. “I did it for myself.” Selfish. “They wanted me to stay and help on the farm, but I insisted. I guess—” The words are tumbling out now, of their own volition, “—I guess I couldn’t stand the idea of ending up like them, trapped in the middle of nowhere, nobody giving a shit whether you lived or died. Nobody even noticing you’re there.”

Gabriel is quiet for a moment. “Should’ve said that instead, then. The guys wouldn’t have thought you were such an uptight kiss-ass.”

“That’s not the type of person I want to be.”

“Saint Jack.” The counterweight to country boy, best said derisively and with a curled lip. Something to be sneered at him in passing in the sterile SEP corridors. It lacks its punch the way Gabriel says it, mild-mannered and subdued.

Jack is defensive anyway. “What? You don’t want to be a good man?”

“Good men don’t do what we do.” Matter-of-fact. Gabriel is always so sure of himself.

Jack opens his eyes and gives Gabriel a hard stare. “Good men don’t save people’s lives? Their homes?”

“What do you think is going to happen when this is all over, Jack?” For once, Gabriel doesn’t rise to the bait. The question is docile, almost melancholy. “We fight the good fight. We win. We save humanity. Then we become an indispensable asset. They won’t let us go. When the omnics are gone, people will be the only ones left to kill. And we’ll kill them, because you can’t buy peace without blood. You know that.”

Jack deflates because, yes, he does know that. If he’s being honest with himself (and that’s something he usually tries to avoid), the killing doesn’t bother him so much. He hasn’t gotten this far without picking up a body count along the way. Could a killer be a good man? Gabriel has him doubting himself, as always.

“You’re real good at making me feel like an idiot, you know that?”

Jack is expecting something sarcastic. A light jab. It never comes. “You okay?” Jack finds himself asking when Gabriel stays quiet.

“Are you?” Same song and dance. Same exchange, repeated a million times before. Jack should have never bothered asking at all.

“Point taken.” That gets him a short-lived smile. Jack returns it. “Thanks…for sticking around.”

“Yeah.” Gabriel doesn’t want to talk about it, and Jack’s grateful for that. That conversation—about the kiss, about this—is one Jack isn’t ready to tackle yet. But it’s coming, and he figures Gabriel can see it as clearly as he does, lingering on the horizon. Thinking back on it, Jack regrets it more than anything. A stolen kiss in a disgusting, abandoned tunnel isn’t worth the potential damage it could do, now that they’ve both lived through it.

If Gabriel wants to pretend it never happened—chalk it up to the madness of the situation they were in—Jack can’t deny him that.

“Just don’t go losing your nerve on me,” Gabriel goes on, and he rolls onto his back, eyes cast to the ceiling. He folds his hands carefully on his chest, looking like a corpse in a casket with how still he lays there.

“Easy for you to say,” Jack means to tease, but his voice comes out unsure and weak.

“Is it? Not like I’ve fought in a war before either.”

“You take to it. Better than I do, anyway.”

“When everyone looks to you—for orders, for confidence, for assurance that the mission is going to succeed—you don’t have a choice.” Gabriel is thoughtful, quiet. Jack can’t remember ever seeing him like this before. Unguarded, like for once he doesn’t have anything to prove. “In the field, they’re not interested in a friend. They want—they need a leader.” On some level, Jack has always known this—that the Gabriel on their missions is not the one here, lying beside him.

“I’m going back to sleep,” Gabriel announces a few minutes later, turning his face away from Jack. His tone is mild and offhand, but—childishly—Jack feels rebuffed.

He wants something he hasn’t even asked for. He knows this. But Gabriel has always been three steps ahead of him in all things—their training, their enhancements, their careers. Is it too much to ask that he outpace Jack in this as well? Coward, he thinks of himself as he watches the back of Gabriel’s head, listening carefully for his breaths to even out.

 

 

A loud crash wakes him up, and Jack reaches for a gun that isn’t there, first under the pillow and then, fumblingly, for the end table. His sidearm is gone, and he casts wildly about the room with his eyes, searching. “Sorry. Shit.” Gabriel’s voice. The curtains are pulled back, letting in the gray light of dawn as it filters weakly through the clouds. There’s a storm brewing.

Gabriel is by the door, an antique silver cart laden with food and a pooling coffee spill that Gabriel is sopping up with quick, frustrated motions. When he’s finished, he brings the cart to the bed, and the wheels squeak loudly on the carpet. “This thing’s gotta be a hundred fuckin’ years old,” Gabriel mutters.

Jack is more bothered by how he slept through someone opening the door and dropping this off. Hesitantly, he touches his right ear. The skin there is tender and new, freshly healed burns from the explosion. Confusion. Faraway crack of rubble falling down around him. The weight of Gabriel’s body on his back. Dizzied and off-balance. The frantic beam of a flashlight, roving over the concrete pillars and cracked subway tile, searching.

(The scene unfolds before him like a snapshot of someone else’s life. He imagines Gabriel in a pressed suit. Black, with his tie tucked flat into the front of his jacket. Jack is standing next to him, staring at the cracks in the porch. The light—warm, orange—spilling out of the windows softens Gabriel’s features, hiding away the years of war and hardship and death. Jack lifts his head in time to catch his eye. They exchange a look. Gabriel’s mouth opens in a heavy sigh, and Jack touches his shoulder briefly, nodding. Their lips move as though they are speaking to one another, but there are no words. Gabriel turns his head to regard the door, and he allows himself two minutes more before ringing the bell. He and Jack press together and whisper softly. A calming, unintelligible hum. When the door opens, they separate. The woman who appears in front of them is short and heavyset with a pleasant, round face. When she recognizes Gabriel, she smiles brightly up at him.

Jack’s eyes are on the cracked porch again, where a line of small black ants trickle in and out. Two of them are clinging together with the ruined, twitching, still-living body of one of their brothers on their backs. They disappear between the painted wooden slats. Gabriel’s voice is deep, gentle, and he folds her hands in his, holding them like they might shatter between his fingers. Her cheeks are red and streaked with tears, and she gazes up at him as though she is hoping for some sign that what he’s told her isn’t true. From the open door, the sound of easygoing laughter drifts outside, accompanied by the clinking of silverware.  Her legs give out beneath her, but Gabriel keeps her from falling, supporting her easily. She cries out, and the laughter abruptly stops.

Several times, she lashes out at Gabriel, but when Jack instinctively moves towards them, Gabriel waves him off. It’s okay. Instead, Jack pulls out a yellow mug and offers it to her. She blinks at it, realizes what it is, and snatches it out of his hands. She clutches it tight to her chest and weeps openly. Shadows gather at the door to her back, murmuring confusion and concern. They grasp at her, remove her from Gabriel’s care. Consoling. Gabriel’s face is an impassive mask. All stone. But his eyes give him away.)

“Reinhardt,” Jack croaks. Tears prick at the corners of his eyes, and he swipes at them uselessly. His head is swimming, and he lays back down, trying to will his muscles to relax. In his chest, his heart pounds a desperate rhythm, and before he can speak further he has to take steadying breaths. Slow and deep. Nothing is happening (he knows this) but he is overwhelmed. He can feel Gabriel tensely watching him from across the room.

When he feels more in control of himself, Jack tries again. “Did they find Reinhardt? His—his body?”

“I don’t have all the details.” Gabriel is choosing his words carefully, opting to train his eyes on the ceramic mug in his hand as he speaks. There are cracks spider webbing up its side, leaking coffee. “He’s alive. That’s all they told me. Liao’s called us for a meeting in the morning. The debriefing’s been pushed back. She wants us all on the same page before then.”

He’s alive. Jack squeezes his eyes shut, exhaling heavily through his nose. Not long passes before the mattress creaks as Gabriel sits beside him. They don’t talk. Jack can hear him picking halfheartedly at a plate of food. Eggs or fruit or something. At the moment, Jack can’t remember what Gabriel likes. He knew, once. Not now.

Someone knocks on the door, and Gabriel admits the same medic Jack had the day prior. He glances between the two of them disinterestedly before approaching Jack. The examination is methodical and unpleasant as his all-too-recently healed wounds are prodded and inspected. The medic threatens to put him on an IV if he doesn’t eat, and in response Jack chokes down a few mouthfuls of the toast offered to him. He gets full far too quickly, but it’s enough to satisfy the doctor.

At some point, Jack falls asleep without realizing. The next time he opens his eyes, it’s well into the evening and the medic is long gone. Beyond the curtained windows, the moon is beginning its ascent, though the city below is alive with light. None of its sound reaches them in the room, and all Jack can hear is the ticking of the old clock hanging on the wall, its pendulum swinging, glinting bronze. Gabriel is there, too, Jack knows without looking. He can hear him flipping boredly through the pages of some book or brochure.

It’s almost domestic. A moment from a different life. Yesterday, they were trapped underground and coming to terms with their own mortalities. Today, they are laying in a bed together, like something out of a dream Jack feels like he’s had before. “Why are you still here?” Jack hears himself asking, a little unkindly.

“You want me to go?” Gabriel responds without skipping a beat. When Jack glances at him, he is reading a pamphlet detailing the hotel’s many amenities, all promising—in a bold typeface popping off the cover—a genuine, vintage experience.

“…No.” And the conversation ends there.

Jack knows what he’s trying to get at (and he has a feeling Gabriel knows it, too), but he’s having trouble figuring out how to say it. Why did you let me kiss you? Why did you sleep in my room? Why aren’t you talking about it? Why are you acting like it’s the most natural thing in the world? They are all indelicate and direct, and Jack doesn’t think he has the stomach for any of it. If he asks like that, Gabriel will answer in kind even if it’s not something Jack particularly wants to hear.

He can imagine, in Gabriel’s own voice, what he might say. Because it wasn’t a big deal. Because you asked me to. Because there’s nothing to talk about. Because you’re my friend. He has seen Gabriel shut down men and women alike with equal coldness. And maybe, at the end of the day, it’s their friendship that’s sparing Jack from that same blunt rejection. Many parts of Gabriel are subtle and unspoken—many lines to be read between—and Jack can’t say he’s as good at reading Gabriel as Gabriel is at reading him.

But despite it all, he wants to know. Not harshly or thoughtlessly, but he wants to know all the same. If Gabriel says what he thinks he will, Jack can go on. Whatever feelings cross that line, he can let them die and go on with their friendship. It’ll hurt. He has no idea how much because he can’t remember the last time he’s been this hopelessly tied up in another person. The thought of Gabriel being with someone else kills him, but that’s Jack’s problem and no one else’s. He’ll deal with it.

“You probably have better things to do than hang around here babysitting me,” Jack tries again as he faces Gabriel, opting for lighthearted though it sounds forced and hollow even to his own ears. “Liao can’t be happy about how much I’m hogging your attention.”

“I almost died. She and her representatives can wait,” Gabriel says curtly. He regards the pamphlet for a few minutes more before closing it and setting it aside. For a moment, he closes his eyes, then he’s looking at Jack. “What are you really trying to get at?” Gabriel already knows. Jack can see it in his face and the deliberate way he’s watching him.

Jack feels cornered. Granted, he guided himself there and openly invited Gabriel to trap him in, but he feels cornered nonetheless. He’s not a child, and it’s time he starts acting like it. He grips one fist in the other, anchoring himself, steeling himself. “Why are you doing all of this for me?” Jack asks, the rest spilling out before Gabriel can accuse him of hedging again. “What I did yesterday, in that tunnel… It wasn’t appropriate. You should have written me up, served me a citation. Reprimanded me at least. And now you’re here, like nothing’s wrong.”

Thankfully, Gabriel’s reply comes quickly, defensively. “Nothing is wrong. Unless you know something I don’t?”

Jack doesn’t allow himself to look away. “You know what I did,” he reiterates. “You can’t ignore it.”

“What do you want me to say?” A good question. Jack has been wondering what he wants since this whole thing began.

“I want to know why you let me do it.”

“Is this really a conversation you want to have? Right now?”

No. “Yeah. As a matter of fact, I do.” Gabriel is starting to piss him off, and Jack takes solace in it, uses it to reinforce his resolve. If he doesn’t find out now, their relationship will revert back to the way it was before. Gabriel’s reluctance mirrors his own. It would be so easy to just let it go and pretend it never happened. Jack would be lying if he said that doesn’t appeal to some part of him. But another, more desperate part needs to know. The tired resignation he had felt before—to let Gabriel decide where they would go from there—melts away. That had been an echo of someone he wanted to be; a sentiment of a more mature, selfless man.

“I let you do it because I didn’t see any reason not to,” Gabriel says simply. His expression is unreadable, which feeds Jack’s frustration.

“Because you thought we were gonna die,” Jack supplies, trying to keep the unwarranted bitterness from his voice.

“Isn’t that why you did it?” When Jack says nothing, Gabriel adds: “Tell you what. When you figure out what you want, get back to me.”

“But what about you?” Jack counters. “What do you want?”

Gabriel answers with a short, dry laugh. “Are you actually getting outside your own head and thinking about someone else for once? I want to go to sleep, Jack, and save this whole thing for another day. All right? We got time. If these sleeping arrangements are bothering you so bad, you can go sleep on the chair. I won’t mind.”

Despite his wry comments, Gabriel looks more tired than amused. The one time Jack pushes, he’s met with a solid wall. Jack has had his fill. He turns over to face the window, feeling frustrated—with Gabriel, with himself, with everything about himself and his life that he could possibly be frustrated with. For once, he is struck impotent with the—detached, impersonal—knowledge that he is ill-equipped to deal with his own emotions. Childish.

 In the building across from the hotel, he can see a woman in her apartment as she takes clothes out of a basket and folds them on the kitchen table. The wallpaper behind her is dirty and peeling, and the appliances seem as though they have not been cleaned in a very long time. Even from here, Jack can see the thick, dark bruise mottling the side of her neck. He closes his eyes.

Just before he falls asleep, he feels a hand knot itself in the back of his shirt, solid and steady.

Chapter Text

Gabriel dreams he is underground. The tunnel is flooded up to the lip of the subway car door where he is sitting. Before him stretches a dark river, rippling languidly with unknown things that lurk just beneath the surface. Every so often (Gabriel still hasn’t been able to determine the exact intervals, though he feels like he’s been trying for a very long time now), lights—yellow, mottled by the filthy water—appear and drift lazily before blinking out of existence. They have been getting closer to the car, steadily but surely. Sometimes Gabriel can see shadows flicking across them, obscuring them for a second before moving on.

In the distance, he can make out black figures bobbing on the water, floating motionless save for the natural rise and fall of the river. Jack is sitting next to him. Their shoulders touch whenever Jack swings his legs. They dangle over the edge, submerged midway up to his shins (everything below disappears into blackness).

“Pull your legs up,” Gabriel tells him the next time the lights die out. Jack only turns to him and smiles, as he’s done every time before. “You never fucking listen,” Gabriel decides to add this time. Jack smiles a little wider.

“Maybe it’s time you let me find out for myself,” Jack responds conversationally.

“What?”

“I want to know what you’re so afraid of.”

“No, you don’t,” Gabriel says flatly. He knows Jack. He knows what truths he can handle and which ones he cannot. He knows why he is team commander and Jack is not.

Jack hums in answer, singsong and almost childlike. It’s a tune that is familiar, but Gabriel can’t quite put a name to it. The lights fade in, swimming sleepy circles around where Jack’s feet must be. At the end of the tunnel, the figures float and watch in eyeless silence. The lights sway in time to Jack’s humming. It unnerves Gabriel, and he wishes Jack would pull his damn legs up. Far ahead of them, one of the black figures slips beneath the water’s surface.

Gabriel raises his hand and turns, pressing the pads of his fingers firmly beneath the smooth line of Jack’s jaw. His heart beats, slow and proud, beneath his skin. Unhurried and unworried. It is when Gabriel realizes that none of this is really happening. A dream.

Underground—in the real underground, surrounded by the metal carcasses of abandoned subway cars in place of this wretched, dark river—Jack’s pulse was always quick and stuttering, grinding out the fast-paced beat of absolute terror. Gabriel had found it reassuring nonetheless: a scared Jack was better than a dead one.

Jack stays perfectly still while Gabriel checks him. He is no longer humming, and the lights are gone. “Ah,” he remarks, taking Gabriel off guard because he has never spoken first in all the time they’ve been sitting here. Their interactions have been formulaic and predictable: Gabriel speaks, Jack responds, and they fall silent until the cycle begins anew. “I think I have an idea, now.”

“What are you talking about?” Gabriel asks cautiously, taking his hand away. Jack is smiling at him again, and it sets Gabriel on edge. When Jack—finally—pulls his legs up, they are covered in something thick and black that drips slowly down onto the metal step. Out of the corner of Gabriel’s eye, another figure drops out of sight.

“Oh. You know.” Jack stands, paying no mind to the viscous substance clinging tight to his legs and shining wetly in the dim light. He takes a step back from the water, hands disappearing into his pockets. Behind him, the doorway into the subway car is dark, revealing nothing of what may lurk within. Something cloyingly sweet drifts out, and Gabriel has to fight the urge to gag. All the while, Jack smiles blithely, hands in his pockets.

When Gabriel reaches for him, his hand clutches uselessly at the air, and he wakes up.

His fingers dig into the bedsheet beside him, and he has to physically lift his head from the pillow and look in order to comprehend that Jack isn’t there. Unbidden, a surge of panic collects in his throat, and he sits up, the back of his head throbbing in complaint. Weak sunlight filters through the sheer curtains, and it helps remind him that he is no longer in any immediate danger. It does little to dispel the fear, however. Jack’s clothes are still where he left them, strewn haphazardly on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Then he sees the line of light peeking from under the bathroom door, and he relaxes.

Exhaustion bids him lay back down, and he struggles to keep his eyes open. Gabriel can’t even remember half the times he had woken up in the middle of the night to anxiously check Jack, fingers unsteady against the tender skin of his throat. He folds his hands over his chest and exhales heavily. What he wouldn’t give to be back in his shitty room in SEP headquarters an entire ocean away. Somewhere familiar to set his head right and empty out the fear and shit from the subway.

Funny, though, that his mind would return there of all places rather than his real home in Los Angeles.

The bathroom door slides open with a quiet, clipped beep. Jack hesitates there for a moment, rubbing his jaw and looking at nothing in particular. His face is gaunt, cheeks hollow, and Gabriel can take a guess that he’ll be put back on intravenous once the medics get ahold of him. He’s wallowing, and it’s making him irresponsible with himself.

It takes Jack a few minutes to realize Gabriel is awake. “Oh. Morning,” he says with a weak smile that dies shortly after. “How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” Gabriel lies. “You?”

“Pretty good.” The bruises under Jack’s eyes beg to differ. Gabriel probably doesn’t look much better.

“What time is it?”

“Early. Almost 0600.”

The meeting won’t be for another four hours. That’s a lot of waiting, and Gabriel’s skin is already starting to itch. The day before, he barely got a few words to Ana before the doctors hustled him off to be examined and she was chased out of the medbay. He needs to know how Reinhardt is doing. He needs to tell Liao what they found underground. Gabriel closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, taking a moment to ground himself and calm his racing thoughts. The mission feels largely incomplete, and all that is left to be done weighs him down. He won’t be able to truly relax until it’s all finished.

The springs creak as Jack lays down, either too tired or too morose to bother with the coy, embarrassed shit he had tried the night before. For a while, neither of them speak a word. From outside the room comes the sound of a vacuum being repeatedly passed over the same spot of carpet. When Gabriel turns his head, Jack’s faced is buried in his pillow, arms folded tight underneath it.

“Did you talk to Ana at all yesterday?” Gabriel asks after a moment of deliberation, testing the waters. Frankly, he doesn’t know if Ana had even tried to speak with Jack after they had been found.

Jack’s answer is a deep, full-body sigh. Dejected. “Gotta stop moping at some point, country boy,” Gabriel says lightly. For some reason, it makes Jack tense, and it takes him too long to respond.

“What, is it your turn now?” The joke falls flat, sounds unnatural and forced coming out of Jack’s mouth. Gabriel laughs anyway. It causes Jack to turn his head, his face half-obscured by the pillow. He looks like he wants to say something, but whatever it is remains stuck in is throat. His eyes search Gabriel for something, but Gabriel—for once—has no idea what it might be.

 This time, Gabriel doesn’t have the energy to ease it out of him.

 

 

For a while, Gabriel was simply left there to stew and pretend to admire the certificates and letters of commendation cluttering the walls. Colonel Cavanaugh—his superior, a decorated officer whose medals and accolades glittered coldly every time he shifted in his seat—ignored him studiously. He took his time, checking his tablet, his personal computer, his phone. He was very good at it. Had Gabriel been green and freshly-commissioned, he might have wondered if the colonel even knew he was there. But even Cavanaugh had his tells, and from the corner of his eye he watched Gabriel and waited patiently for signs of discomfort.

Gabriel kept his expression schooled and blank, like he wasn’t seething—red hot—inside. He was better than this treatment and he knew it, and somehow Cavanaugh could tell just how much it was burning him up, being made to sit there like an errant recruit standing by for his scolding. As it was, twenty minutes came and went before Cavanaugh deigned to acknowledge him.

Cold blue eyes. Could have been cybernetic implants for all the human emotion they showed. “Why are you here, Reyes?” Cavanaugh asked like a pre-school teacher about to impart a basic lesson.

“I completed my op successfully and with no casualties, sir,” Gabriel answered, knowing exactly what Cavanaugh wanted to hear and purposely denying him it.

“By the skin of your fucking teeth,” he corrected. “You’re a lucky bastard, and I’ve been sitting here wracking my brain trying to figure out what you did to deserve it.”

Gabriel stayed quiet. Gritted his teeth and tamped down on his anger. It was a farce, performed entirely for the benefit of Cavanaugh’s ego. Gabriel would dance along to his music, play the role of baffled subordinate, and let Cavanaugh be the one to come out and say what he had done wrong. Gabriel refused to be browbeaten into regret.

“I don’t understand, sir,” Gabriel said, only just managing to keep the bitterness from his voice.

“Rodriguez. Dumb bitch broke both her legs and you risked the entire op bringing her back. You jeopardized the lives of everyone under your command, every civilian in a fifty mile radius, because of your goddamned sentimentality.”

“Rodriguez is one of my—”

“They’re your subordinates,” Cavanaugh cut him off, “not your fucking friends. She knew what she signed up for. The mission comes first. Always. These are the fucking basics, Reyes. You don’t threaten the lives of over a thousand noncombatants for one fucking soldier.”

“We still carried out the mission,” Gabriel said before he could stop himself. “We neutralized the target and captured their weapon cache. Nobody was killed. None of mine. None of the civilians living nearby.”

“Pure, dumb bastard luck. And what if you weren’t able to do that?” The question was laced with an undeniable smugness. “What if you fucked it all to hell and back, and you were responsible for the deaths of five hundred civilians? What then, Reyes?”

“Then I would be here accepting my OTH discharge, sir,” Gabriel deadpanned.

“You’ve got that right,” Cavanaugh said, satisfied. “You’re a good soldier, Reyes. But good soldiers are a dime a dozen. Do you know how many of them are itching for a position like yours?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then watch your ass. You’ve been recommended for that new program the government’s been working on with the UN. That can be taken away. Don’t forget it.”

“Sir.” Gabriel was all ice, meeting Cavanaugh’s stare head-on and refusing to be the first to look away. Old song. Old dance. Despite his words, Gabriel would not leave the colonel under any illusion that he was contrite for the call he had made. It was just a matter of waiting Cavanaugh out (and Gabriel knew without a shadow of a doubt that he considered this whole business beneath him, would have foisted it off to his lieutenant if it had been anyone other than Captain Reyes who fucked up).

As it turned out, Cavanaugh had his fill after about five minutes. He looked down to his tablet, and Gabriel was dismissed without a word or glance. Gabriel left with his chin up, shoulders set.

 

 

When Gabriel wakes up, his watch reads a plaintive 0915, and he can feel Jack pressed against his back, silent and still. Asleep, Gabriel figures, because he can’t see Jack allowing himself to get this cozy while conscious. The contact is comforting, all the same, and for some time Gabriel just lays there and indulges, eyes closed as he focuses on the warmth seeping through his shirt and into his skin. The hotel melts away, and he can pretend that they’re back in America, sleeping off a hangover or one of Torbjörn’s attempts at cooking while they wait for the next mission to come in.

During those days, when they stumbled home drunk and only one of them could remember where their room was, there were instances where Jack would roll over in his sleep and sling an arm around Gabriel. When he woke up, he would laugh his awkward laugh and try to hide how red his face was. Gabriel wouldn’t laugh back, would only smile wryly until Jack got the hint he was being teased and punched his shoulder. Hard enough to hurt, not hard enough to bruise. Shy kid one minute, indignant adult the next.

Then he remembers his dream—memory, really—in bits and pieces, but at the end of it he finds himself left with thoughts of Reinhardt. Forty-five minutes between him and a status update.

That gives him motivation enough to haul himself out of bed, the floors chilled against his bare feet. Jack is awake in an instant, and Gabriel catches him reaching out before realizing what he’s doing and drawing his arm back. Gabriel pretends not to notice. “I need to go clean up,” he says, gesturing towards the front door.

Sleep-addled, it takes Jack a few moments to get Gabriel’s meaning. “Oh.”

Flashes of Jack sitting, head down, fully-clothed, under the spray of the shower. Gabriel definitely does not want to leave him here alone. God only knows what state he would return to find him in. Clear as day on his face, Jack doesn’t look like he’s a fan of the idea either. But, again, his tongue is caught in his throat, and Gabriel has to take over.

“Wanna take a walk to my room?” he asks, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his pants. He had never planned on spending the night, and he’s itching to get out of the jeans he had stupidly put on the night before.

“Yeah. Give me a sec.”

Jack is dressed in a manner of minutes, and they make the short walk down the hallway and around the corner in silence. Just beyond Gabriel’s door is a housekeeping trolley, humming quietly as it hovers over the carpet. The nearby sound of a vacuum swallows the beep of the electronic lock as Gabriel swipes his card.

The room is a perfect mirror of Jack’s, and he digs through his bag for his SEP hoodie and sweatpants. Something to remind him of home. The hotel can’t seem to decide whether it’s living in the past or the present, and it grates on Gabriel’s nerves. Vintage and modern collide in a manner he finds wholly unappealing. In a way, that makes him more eager to get into the shower, out of Jack’s sight where he can finally, finally take a few moments for himself.

“Are you all right?” Jack’s tired voice cuts through the still air, and Gabriel glances up at him reflexively.

He’s standing near the bed, eyes trained steadily on Gabriel, studying his face. His gaze is sharper now than it has been in days. Gabriel doesn’t know what to make of that. “I’ll be better once I get in that shower,” he answers, and then he stands up and prods lightheartedly at Jack’s shoulder.

Gabriel gets a look in response, one that clings to his back and follows him until he closes the bathroom door. It’s only once he’s flicked on the fan that he breathes a heavy, ragged sigh. His fingers find their way to his temples, rubbing slow circles over the tension gathered there. There is so much more left to come. The meeting. The debriefing. The psych evaluations where he would have to sit in a sticky leather chair under too-bright lights and lie his ass off for the sake of keeping his job.

The shower heats up quickly, makes it harder for him to focus.

Before the mission, he remembers going to a little coffee shop off Magdalen Street with Ana. She had told him that, during their time in England, she would positively hate herself if she did not take the opportunity to try their tea. Gabriel never had the taste for the stuff, but it was mostly curiosity that had him accepting her offer.

The tables were filled with college students, but they managed to find one tucked away in a back corner. Ana warmed her hands on her cup, serene and unhurried. Gabriel was not similarly inclined. “So,” he said as he stirred sugar into his coffee, “why am I here?”

“Hm?”

“If you just wanted to grab some tea, we both know you would have asked Reinhardt. Jack, if Reinhardt said no. Which he wouldn’t. So what’s the deal?”

Ana smiled. “I must say, Gabriel, nothing gets past you, does it? Could you not even humor me?”

“No.”

She sampled one of the sweet breads she had ordered, taking her time though she could not quite keep the amusement from her face. “It’s about Jack,” she admitted finally. “I won’t insult you by presuming you do not know of his little…predilection for you.”

“Ana, I knew about it long before I even met you.” Gabriel had an idea of where this was going, but he would give her the benefit of the doubt. Let her say her piece before he jumped the gun.

“I’m not surprised. You know him far better than I, but he isn’t subtle. Regardless, I thought I ought to warn you. As a friend.” Gabriel gave her a tight smile, and she at least had the good grace to appear apologetic. “Listen first before you get angry, Gabriel. Please.”

“Go ahead.”

“I glanced over your files once I learned you would be my commanding officer. I know how hard you worked to get here. As a friend, the last thing I want is to see you potentially throw it away by making a foolish mistake.”

That took him off guard. Concern was the last thing he expected. “What do you mean?” he asked cautiously.

Ana regarded her tea solemnly, and it was apparent that she was choosing her next words very carefully. “I think…because you know Jack so well, you can be blinded to some things. I ask that you do not risk more than he would be willing to risk for you.”

“Ana—”

“You’re not as hard a man as you’d like us all to think. You may have been able to fool Jack all of these years, but I know.”

“You think I would fraternize with a subordinate,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. When your subordinates are your friends—that is when it gets tricky.” She patted his hand; her skin was warm from the tea, rough from years’ worth of callouses. Infuriatingly reasonable. Gabriel had thought that of Ana Amari the day he met her, and it remained true. “No one can say what the future will bring.”

The air is choked with steam. Muggy. Hard to breathe. Gabriel stands beneath the water, hunched forward, forehead pressed against the warm tile. He feels tightly wound, like a coil pressed in on itself and waiting for the slightest give. A knot, buried deep in his chest, that lingers on even after the heat from the shower has loosened the muscles in his shoulders, his back. If he closes his eyes, he thinks he could sleep here with the water rushing over him, hands braced on the wall in front of him, feet spread. But there’s no time left.

Downstairs, he has to face Liao and stand tall while she lists off the extent of Reinhardt’s injuries. If he dies from them, Gabriel will carry that blood on his hands for the rest of his life. He knows it. Liao knows it. Maybe Ana knows it too. But Jack will give him that look like he’s trying not to be disappointed, like he’s weighing the merit of every one of Gabriel’s decisions and finding them all lacking. Not in so many words, and maybe Jack isn’t even aware he’s doing it, but Gabriel can see it all written there on his face. For how close they are, there is still a fundamental disconnect.

After the meeting, after Reinhardt and Liao, he will have to face Jack and address this thing he’s tried to keep under wraps, quiet and out of sight, for years. Never the time, never the place. But he would own up to his personal mistakes in the tunnel as he would his professional ones in the omnium.

The water stops with a click, the sensor above the showerhead blinking twice as it fails to pick up on any movement. It’s what prompts Gabriel to get out and towel himself off, palming his scruffy chin in the mirror and prodding at the bags under his eyes. He looks about how he feels, and he hates it. He takes a moment to steel himself, to carefully put every piece back into place until he’s the commander he needs to be.

 

 

The conference room is all windows, dark wood, and empty space. It is clearly meant for a party far larger than theirs. When Gabriel and Jack walk in, Ana and Torbjörn are already sitting at the far end of the table, attempting to chat normally with Liao though the tension in the air is thick and distinct. When she notices them enter, Ana’s relief is palpable. Jack gives her an awkward half-wave, less put-together than he ought to be. Gabriel hadn’t had the energy to straighten him out up in the room.

Xiulan Liao is all business at the head of the table, studiously cleaning her glasses until both Gabriel and Jack are seated. She puts them on and gives them brusque once-overs, her magnified eyes blinking owlishly behind the lenses. “It’s very good to see the two of you back in one piece,” she says before finally looking away, sifting through the papers in front of her. “I’m sure you’re anxious to know how Agent Wilhelm is doing, Commander.”

“I am.” Gabriel nods to Ana and Torbjörn; idly, he notices that Ana’s hands are heavily bandaged and folded gingerly on the tabletop.

“He’s in a hospital not far from here. His condition is stable, and he is expected to make a full recovery,” Liao reads off a sheet. “A miracle, considering. Four broken ribs and two fractured, a broken arm, multiple contusions, and quite the crack in that fat head of his.” There is an undercurrent of fondness running beneath Liao’s words. “He doesn’t remember much of the explosion, though his shield is mangled beyond all repair. We think he was able to get it up in time, and it absorbed the majority of the impact before breaking. The rest was his armor, bearing the brunt of the omnium’s weight until we could locate him.”

“Is he conscious? I want to speak to him.” Gabriel will not let himself rest easy yet. Though he respects Liao a great deal, he knows that her job involves filtering information through the suits in the UN. Everything she tells them has been carefully screened and deemed acceptable for them to know. He refuses to believe it until he hears it from Reinhardt himself.

“Of course, Commander.” Liao slips a small black remote out of the breast pocket of her suit. The window behind her darkens, and the hexagonal cells set in the glass gradually swell with light before coalescing into a blank screen. Gabriel doesn’t look at Jack, though he can feel his eyes trained on him. Silently anticipating a reaction, waiting to gauge it. Sometimes Gabriel wonders if Jack is even aware that he’s doing it—these unmindful criticisms of his.

The minutes stretch on, and nothing happens. “If he’s even awake,” Liao mutters almost as an afterthought. She shuffles her papers again, revealing the tablet that had been buried underneath. Her long, finely manicured fingernails tap loudly on the holoscreen.

“What happened to your hands?” Gabriel asks Ana, uninterested in Liao’s fidgeting. That earns a snort from Liao.

Ana’s earlier relief has since been smoothed back behind an expression of total calm. Her tell manifests itself in the way she pulls her hands just a bit closer to her body, like she wants to hide them. “The price of foolishness.” Her response is prim and practiced. It immediately annoys him.

“Torbjörn?” Gabriel prompts him instead, and his eyes glance warily between Gabriel and Ana. It’s clear he isn’t sure who he rather piss off: his commander or an Amari.

But that isn’t the point because Gabriel wants to hear it from her, firsthand, and if she wants to bullshit, he can do it too. Thankfully, Torbjörn is spared his decision. Ana’s temper catches, and she fixes Gabriel with a severe look. She doesn’t like to be talked over, Gabriel knows. “I—” The word is enunciated clearly, deliberately. Liao stops tapping to listen. “—injured them trying to dig you idiots out.”

“With your bare hands?” Jack is incredulous.

“A moment of indiscretion,” Ana says dismissively.

“Nearly two hours of indiscretion, actually,” Liao butts in. “When we arrived, she would not remove herself from ground zero. I had to threaten dishonorable discharge before she would follow orders, Commander.” She clears her throat. “Though it is doubtful we would have found Wilhelm in time had she not nearly dug him out herself—”

“For fuck’s sake, Amari,” Gabriel says without thinking, cutting off the tail-end of Liao’s report. “You have a kid. What if the whole goddamn street caved in under you?”

“Reinhardt has a wife. You have a mother. Sisters. I fail to see your point.” Ana’s voice is cold and even; Gabriel regrets bringing up Fareeha almost the moment the words have left her mouth. “What would you have done in my place, Commander?”

The same goddamn thing. There comes a time, in the heat of the moment when things like protocol and chain of command cease to matter. Ana knows, and Gabriel would have conceded it to her had Liao not been sitting there beside him. He can hardly allow defiance in the face of direct orders, and he hopes Ana will understand. “I would have followed my orders, especially if the lives of three of my men were at stake,” he says with a hard look, though his tone lacks the same conviction. A half-assed reprimand.

Ana holds his gaze for a second or two before glancing away to the screen. Liao resumes her tapping not long after, and the moment is gone. Torbjörn coughs uncomfortably. “It sure was a sight, Gabe,” he tries for lighthearted. “Ana was a terror, tearin’ through all that jagged metal, circuitry sizzlin’ like a Christmas ham while livewires snapped every which way.”

Treason, Lindholm.” Liao’s reminder falls on deaf ears.

“Aye, aye. That too. Sure.” Torbjörn shoots them a wink once Liao’s looked back down. “Woulda damn near hauled Reinhardt’s sorry ass out of that pile of rubble on adrenaline and grit alone.”

“Far more blood and tears than that,” Ana admits, her smile halfhearted and not wholly genuine.

The conversation is cut short when Liao raises a hand. The screen finally comes alive; the image fades in, white and blurred while the cells actuate the image. Gabriel thinks he’s looking at a hospital bed, but when the edges come into focus he realizes it’s Reinhardt’s broad chest in a white gown. He’s too broad to fit in the frame. The top of his head is cut off—just before his hairline. He has three pads of gauze taped to his face, and the side with his ruined eye is concealed entirely. The parts that are uncovered are red and raw. Scrapes and burns that glisten wetly from the antibiotic gel coating them, making them look fresher than they are.

But the bastard is smiling big, his eye flicking quickly between the camera and a point to the left where his own screen must be. “It seems we’ve all made it out once more!” he booms. Reinhardt lifts his hand to give a thumbs-up, and Gabriel can’t help but to zero in on how stiff his movements are. Jack has gone very still beside him, but Gabriel doesn’t let himself look.

“How you feeling, big guy?” he asks instead, keeping his voice light. Reinhardt looks like shit. Some of his dressings are sporting dark patches—the one over his eye in particular. “Those doctors changing your bandages often enough?”

Reinhardt tries to wave him off, but the motion is all wrong and he winds up knocking the camera off-kilter. They get a good look of the panels in the ceiling and the top of a non-sentient bot’s head before he can right it. “I am feeling…quite happy to be alive,” he says, unbothered. “Have I thanked you yet, Ana?”

“Yes. A great many times, in fact.” Where Reinhardt’s smile has spread to his entire ruined face, Ana’s is taught and forced. “You were delirious when you woke up on the transport.”

“Dying is no reason to forget one’s manners.” No one laughs, but Reinhardt continues on. “What about the two of you? One would not think you had endured such circumstances by looking at you.”

“Must be the injections.” Gabriel shrugs it off, trying not to think about it. In the mirror, he had looked tired and worn down—a man who hadn’t had a good night’s sleep the night before, maybe, but not a man who had spent days trapped with no food or water.

“Oh?”

“Can’t say more than that. Program NDA,” Jack finally speaks, and when Gabriel glances over, he has his hands clenched tight in his lap. “Are you sure you’re all right?” His voice is surprisingly steady, though the effort he’s putting into it is apparent as he struggles to focus. His eyes are a thousand miles away.

“A little sore, perhaps, but nothing I cannot handle. The doctors were amazed I had survived at all! You know, Jack…” Reinhardt touches his nose in that dramatic, knowing way of his. He likes to do it when he thinks he has something clever to say. “It can only be the mug. You see! Truly indisputable proof of its luck!”

Jack actually smiles; it is small and tentative, but it actually reaches his eyes. “Guess you’re right again,” he concedes.

“We’ll all have quite a bit of time to catch up later,” Liao says, regaining their attention. “I won’t ask what happened underground. God knows it must be the last thing either of you want to talk about. The official debriefing has been pushed back until next week.”

“Why?” Gabriel asks warily. “That isn’t procedure.”

“Neither is having our op literally ripped out from under our feet,” Liao responds dryly. “The UN is sending over some of their people to pick through the rubble personally. The English government has been forbidden from interfering with the scene. I doubt they even know what they’re looking for.

“What are we supposed to do until the debriefing?” Ana sounds as annoyed as Gabriel feels.

Relax. That’s what all of you are going to do. Think of it as a small vacation to get you ready for your furlough. When the week is through, we’re flying back to Switzerland where we will hopefully wrap this whole thing up. Then the three of you—” She looks at Jack and Gabriel, hooks a thumb back to indicate Reinhardt, “—will have your initial psych evaluations. You will be reassessed after your furlough and either benched or not depending on how things work out. Do try to be honest this time, Reyes.”

Gabriel grunts noncommittally. “I thought those were supposed to be confidential, Xiulan.”

Liao’s lip curls at the sound of her first name. “They are, Gabriel,” she shoots back. “But the doctors have politely requested I ask you to tell the goddamn truth. You’re wasting everyone’s time otherwise.”

“Maybe I should just skip ‘em. Save the trouble.”

“God. Get out. You’re dismissed. You’re all dismissed. You get some rest, Wilhelm.” Without looking, she points the remote over her shoulder and clicks off the screen before Reinhardt can get a word in. Jack catches his eye, and he smiles that weak smile again.

“A moment, please,” Ana interrupts, raising one hand. Blood has begun seeping through the bandages. “If we have no assignments, I would like to return to Cairo. My week would be better spent with my daughter, I think.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but no promises. I won’t lie. You’re all smart people, and you probably realized they want us grounded here, under their thumbs, until they determine what went wrong.” Liao suspects a set-up. Gabriel can vouch for his team, but he cannot vouch for those on her end. He pockets that for later.

“How ridiculous. If I was the one responsible for the sabotage, Jack and Gabriel would not have survived it.” Ana doesn’t smile when she says it, but that earns a genuine laugh from Liao. This is something the three of them have discussed before Gabriel and Jack arrived, he realizes belatedly, frowning. Liao gives him a peculiar look, and Gabriel covers it up by coughing pointedly into his fist, as if to protest Ana’s joke.

“Are you still here?” Liao snaps irritably. “Didn’t I tell you to get out?”

“Yeah. Just one thing. We found some omnics down in the sewers. You might want to take a look at their activity logs. I downloaded them onto a PDMM, but they’re encrypted for some reason.”

Liao waves him off. “Drop it off to me later. Go on.”

On another day, Gabriel might have put up more of a fight, might have met her moodiness with more indignation. But he’s realized how quickly his energy has left him. Maybe now that he knows Reinhardt is in stable condition—conscious, too, which is more than Gabriel had allowed himself to hope for—he can finally get a full night’s sleep. There’s still Jack to consider; he trails behind Gabriel, out of the conference room and into the elevator lobby.

Gabriel presses the call button, hard, twice, as if that’ll make it come faster. He can hear Jack shuffling around behind him, can imagine him rubbing his chin like he always does when Gabriel isn’t in the mood to break the silence. “Torb said something about a continental breakfast in the dining room. I think that’s where he went,” Jack offers.

The elevator is two floors away, according to the screen above the door. “You want to go?”

“No…not really.”

“Might as well get room service if it’s on the UN’s tab.” The doors open silently, and the elevator within is in the same faux-classic style as the rest of the hotel. The patterned wallpaper—curling, reaching fingers of green ivy on a dull red backdrop—hurts Gabriel’s eyes.

When the doors close, Gabriel sees the two of them standing there, side by side, in the burnished brass. Their eyes are dark smudges in the imperfect reflection, finer details eaten away by the minute flaws in the metal. Jack exhales heavily, and his shoulders drop as the tension leaves them. The elevator isn’t particularly large, and when Gabriel switches his weight from one foot to the other, the sleeve of his hoodie brushes against Jack’s bare arm.

Jack goes still, and Gabriel finds himself intensely interested in the way he seems to stop breathing altogether. There’s something unbearably earnest, he thinks, about how trying to control his body language is the last thing on Jack’s mind. After several minutes—long enough to get his bearings, Gabriel presumes—Jack shifts a little bit closer, until Gabriel can feel the warmth of an arm against his own. There are five floors left to go.

About five years earlier, they had been investigating a fledgling terrorist organization when Gabriel had killed his first human being. Commanding officer with Jack as his second, running a black op for the SEP. One of the first missions where he would test his exemplary sim scores out on the field. Where all of his work in NROTC would finally pay off. He briefed his team: in and out without a trace, combat to be avoided at all costs. The location was an abandoned automobile factory at the edge of some no-name town in upstate New York—the perfect, out-of-the-way spot for an upstart group of subversives. It all went to shit two hours, thirty-seven minutes into the op.

Four floors. Jack’s hand bumps against his: an accident, Gabriel thinks, because he jerks away immediately after. Gives him an apologetic look that Gabriel can just make out in the doors’ reflection. There is an unspoken boundary between them, and Gabriel can see Jack chafing under it.

Lavin—their tech—had tripped the alarm while trying to access their schematics and weapons logs. By the time they were ready to disengage, a squadron had already assembled to meet them. “We kill them and we might still have a chance of getting out of here without them tracing this to us,” Jack was saying as he loaded his sidearm, cool and measured (not unlike he had been in the King’s Row omnium). He suggested it easily enough, words issuing smoothly from his mouth like the most innocent thing in the world. It’s gonna rain later, so don’t forget an umbrella, he might as well have been saying for all the gravitas his tone lacked.

Three floors. That all seems so insignificant now. From another life. They are different people now, the two of them. “Someone wanted us to die there in the omnium,” Gabriel says quietly, voice barely above a whisper. Their hands brush again. Jack doesn’t answer. He’s likely already pieced it together himself, the paranoid son of a bitch. Gabriel finds himself smiling, impulsively, though he can’t think of a single goddamn thing to be smiling about.

Gabriel nodded, grim, and though the enemy was better armed, they outmatched them in sheer ability. As they made their way down a long corridor, a soldier ambushed him from around a corner, and Gabriel shot him point-blank, between the eyes, blowing out the back of his skull and sending brain matter and skull fragments spraying against the far wall. They hadn’t ammunition enough for a full assault, resorted to breaking bone with their hands, their fists, battered and bruised. By the time they made it out, he remembers tasting blood in his mouth—sharp, bitter, between his teeth. Not his.

Two floors. Their hands don’t touch again; Jack’s are rigid at his sides, and he stares straight ahead, eyes boring into the brass. There is a faint pink line above his jaw where he must have cut himself shaving, already appearing days old though he could not have gotten it before this morning. He is perfectly still, standing at attention there beside Gabriel. Finally, Jack glances towards him and catches sight of his smile. “You…seem awfully happy about that,” Jack says slowly, voice just as low. His eyes are clearer now than they had been at the meeting, carefully moving over the lines of Gabriel’s face, trying to make sense of him. Gabriel can’t blame him: he’s having trouble making sense of himself at the moment.

He kept it together through the debriefing, the disappointed head-shakes of his superiors, and the pitying look from his mentor. In the showers, the water swirled a diluted red around his bare feet as his fingers worked away the blood dried in his hair, on his face. His knuckles were cut and stinging from the soap, and they stained his towel when he finally managed to haul himself out. Back in his room, Gabriel fumbled around in the dark, either forgetting or forgoing the light switch. When he felt his way to the bed, it was stripped, fresh sheets folded atop the bare mattress, waiting patiently for him to return from his mission. He sat on the floor instead. His hands still felt sticky, bloody, and he picked at the gauze he’d hastily wrapped around them. The only light came from beneath the door, where the fluorescent overheads from the hall peeked in. He felt like he was standing at the very edge of a sheer precipice with the knowledge that he would fall—jump—and there was nothing he or anyone else could do to stop it. Empty and too-full all at once.

One floor. Jack’s hand is cold when Gabriel laces their fingers together. His mouth opens, hesitantly, like he wants to say something but hasn’t come up with the words yet. Gabriel watches, waiting for his reaction. Jack’s grip is loose, and Gabriel squeezes lightly, running his thumb over the back of his hand. That causes Jack to close his mouth and clear his throat, giving up on speaking. Instead, he turns his head to the door, face cast up to the screen where the floor numbers steadily climb. He squeezes back, though his eyes are half-lidded glassy. Gabriel has to look away.

Jack came in without knocking, the light from the hallway spilling in and blinding Gabriel. He squeezed his eyes shut and made a last-ditch effort to control his breathing, tried to stop gasping air in through his mouth. It was like drowning but without the water. He couldn’t seem to get enough to soothe the burn in his lungs. The door slid shut quietly, heralding a few heavy footsteps. It didn’t take long for Jack to cross the room to him, and Gabriel could feel him standing there, considering what to do. What to say. He was an old hat at this sort of thing; Jack had had this crisis long before entering the SEP. If he could breathe, Gabriel had a mind to ask him if this was better: to be older, worldlier, or if there was something blunter about it if you did it while you were still young and stupid. Without truly understanding. He had known he was signing up for this, years back when he first decided to go military. Rustling of clothes. Gabriel’s eyes readjusted to the darkness enough to see Jack’s vague outline crouching in front of him, steady on the balls of his feet. Gently, Gabriel felt Jack’s hands settle on his shoulders, sliding up to cup his jaw on either side, thumbs rubbing small circles against his cheeks. Gabriel remembers being surprised by how comforting he found the touch, how warm Jack’s skin was.

The doors open, and Gabriel lets go.