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(15. Until it the bone-house had broken.)

[2070 — Overwatch Headquarters, Switzerland]

The last thing Jack Morrison ever sees is Gabriel Reyes’s anger. The world before him narrows to the image of Reyes’s face contorted in rage, and then light obliterates all but the memory of that snarl. When the base’s power core explodes, it takes everything with it, including Morrison’s eyes; his retinas shrink to pinpricks before the heat sears them near out of his skull.

He loses consciousness. Time slides around him. His ears ring, his thoughts slow and painful like molten glass. Very likely, he’s been concussed. When Morrison opens his eyes, the base is a haphazard blend of color and darkness, indistinct shapes shifting in the haze as if someone had taken a watercolor painting and drenched it in a sudden summer rain.

Morrison understands pain; it’s a symptom of the body. And right now there isn’t a single part of his body that doesn’t hurt: from the bullet wounds in his right arm to the burning agony of his face. It’s not the worst pain Morrison’s ever been in; becoming a supersoldier had been more excruciating, a long, drawn-out, screaming affair. This is just a major explosion; all he has to do is get his feet under himself, walk it off.

Morrison feels the fire more than anything else, smears of blue-orange brightness and a heat so thick it has a sound as the screaming of far away people filters through crackling noise and the dull ring of tinnitus. It’s almost as if he were underwater; dragging himself upright from where he had fallen feels like swimming, or what drunkenness used to. He sways, balance ruined; likely a burst eardrum, if the wet feeling dripping down the left side of his neck means anything.

Morrison tries to run a shaking hand over his face and ends up slapping himself with it instead, coordination utterly shot. Unable to even see his own fingers, just the darkness where they block out the fire, Morrison realizes that a significant part of his nose is damaged (possibly gone) when his fingers don’t meet as much resistance as they should. The contact is so painful he winces involuntarily, shock travelling through him in a bright electrical stripe.

Remaining on his feet is a struggle all in itself, one that he shoves through on willpower alone; training screams at him to take stock, to assess. He was here for a reason— he’d come down into the basement level for a reason, even if he can’t remember it.

‘Something about Reyes,’ his concussion supplies.

Morrison attempts to take a breath, opens his mouth, sucks in scorching air, and gets a chestful of smoke for his trouble, his ribs protesting the motion. He can’t breathe. He can feel his chest seizing as an old nightmare grips him; so many of the dead from the Soldier Enhancement Program had been carted out with bad lungs, organs shrivelled in their bodies instead of granting the increased capacity the Program had promised. Lack of oxygen, pain, blindness, the crippling smoke; in terrified delirium, the body remembers what the mind forgets: Jack’s here for Gabriel. Gabriel knows what to do when Jack gets the shakes; he helps Jack breathe.

“Reyes,” Morrison croaks. Or rather, he tries: he gets as far as the first syllable before the barest motion of his jaw resolves into unbearable pain. His throat burns, his lungs burn; Morrison is burning.

In the dark, he can’t identify anything at all. Morrison reaches out, burned hands scrabbling over superheated metal walls as he pulls himself along, ruined eyes straining for anything of distinction to latch on to. It’s so dark, the base filled with smoke, all the good air gone. Morrison can’t find anyone, no signs of life, no sound past the fire and the distant sirens. He can’t breathe; he can’t find Reyes, can’t even manage to call out for him again. All Morrison has are his dog tags, a present from a lifetime ago in case he manages to forget a number he could recite in his sleep.

Feet giving way, Morrison’s body shuts down. He topples to the floor in a heap of bleeding, abraded flesh, burned hands clawing blindly, weakly for anything he can use. He needs to keep moving; there’s something he needs to do, has to fix, but his lungs won’t work and his legs won’t hold him. He can’t see. He can’t find Reyes.

Buried beneath the windless wreck of Overwatch, Jack Morrison dies.

Chapter Text

(14. A white and soundless place.)

[2070 — Overwatch Headquarters, Switzerland]

“You should retire.”

Morrison startles. “What?”

Morrison and Angela don’t meet up all that often. Regularly, but not often; they’ve both got hideous workloads, and very little free time. More often than not, they only see each other when summoned for monthly branch meetings, an event that also brings Morrison back in touch with Torbjörn. Otherwise, he feels like he only sees his friends when he can steal time, despite the fact that they all work in the same compound.

Today’s pretext is a stack of paperwork. In order to transfer of politically sensitive patients, someone from operational command has to sign off on, and then redact the paperwork. Normally, this job could be done by mid-level officers; there’s no reason at all for the strike commander and the head of the entire medical division of Overwatch to be handling this in person. Except, of course, for the fact that they’re family, and Morrison feels like he hasn’t had a real conversation with Angela in months.

“It’s either that or talk to him,” Angela continues. Which reminds him just why, exactly, he’s been avoiding her.

Morrison scowls. For a second, he considers claiming he doesn’t know who Angela’s talking about. The problem is, he knows all too well, and Angela’s quite adept at finding people and getting answers out of them when she has to.

“Reyes is the one who won’t talk to me,” Morrison grumbles. “He doesn’t even come to branch meetings anymore, always sending some representative or another.”

“That’s because of his mission schedule and you know it,” Angela returns. “And I know you got him to come here today, so if you could just please make an effort?”

“Leave it alone, Angela,” Morrison says. “What happened between me and Reyes has nothing to do with you.”

Angela gives him the look she usually saves for belligerent patients. “Let me guess,” she says dryly, “you think the kids do alright in every divorce, right Mom?”

“We didn’t divorce,” Morrison protests, disgruntled.

Angela sighs, and tucks a loose lock of straw-blonde hair behind her ear. “Don’t play word games with me, Jack,” she says, tired. “You know what I meant.”

Morrison says nothing, focusing vainly on the mass of forms Angela deposited on his desk.

Angela sighs again, a sad little huff as she grabs one of the picture frames on the front of the desk. “I wish Jesse were still here,” she says. “Gabriel hardly talks to me anymore, now that he’s gone. I don’t know if he still talks to Fareeha; she’s been so busy since her promotion.”

The picture in Angela’s hands is an old one; Fareeha’s twelfth birthday, one of the few informal pictures of them all that Morrison owns. Nearly everyone’s in it; the only person missing in the shot is Liao, who’d never liked having their image captured, and had volunteered to hold the camera instead. That picture’s been sitting on Morrison’s desk for a little over fourteen years now, a gift from Ana. They all look so damn young.

“My parents, Mei, Genji, Gérard, Liao, Ana, Fareeha, Reinhardt, and now Jesse,” Angela rattles the names off. Fingers lightly brushing over the faces of the lost. “You and Torbjörn are still here, and Lena and Winston are trying, but my family’s gotten so much smaller.”

Morrison sighs and gives up on pretending to work, looking up at Angela. “What do you want from me, Angie?”

“The two of you have been fighting long enough, don’t you think?”

“We’re not a broken nose you can just set.” Morrison frowns.

Angela throws a hand up, a quick, dramatic motion. “I’m not trying to get you back together! You’re in your forties, you don’t need me playing matchmaker. Besides, the two of you wouldn’t be a nose. More like ribs, or a sternum.”

Morrison gives her a flat look. Ten years ago, it might’ve actually done something to stop her, but Angela’s in her thirties now, no matter how young she looks.

“This isn’t matchmaking!” She stresses. “This is friendly concern; you don’t have to be with him to stand with him. Overwatch needs a united front again. I keep hearing rumors about Blackwatch, and no one on the outside is supposed to know they exist!”

“A united front isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with us.”

“You never used to talk like that!” Angela’s frustration is a tangible thing in the room with them. “What happened to the ideals you sold me on? People are saying Mumbai was us, Jack!”

“Why do you think Jesse left?” Morrison asks her, and the anger on her face melts into something stricken, horrified.

Thirty-six dead in Mumbai, at least two pro-omnic integration politicians assassinated, the Chilean base rumored to be holding and torturing political prisoners; incident after incident keeps coming to light, and the public is baying for blood to repay what’s been spilled. There hasn’t been furor like this in awhile, not since Genji and Jesse accidentally blew up a strip of railroad track in France a few years back as some sort of ass-backwards attempt to destroy a confirmed Talon bases and ‘mourn Gérard like he’d have wanted to be remembered.’ That had taken some doing on Morrison’s part, but it had been salvageable.

The recent state of affairs, however— all the options Morrison can think of to solve the problem are ugly, hack jobs; inevitable prostrations before wolves. A mole’s the only explanation Morrison can come up with that could cause something like this, but he has no idea where it’s coming from. Where all these incidents are even coming from—

“Maybe it’s selfish,” Angela says quietly, “selfish and horrible, but I still wish Jesse had stayed. I know that I should strive to value every life the same, but—” She’s not looking at Morrison anymore, but he knows she’s not seeing the picture in her hands either, eyes unfocused. “I don’t want to lose anyone else,” she says.

“You won’t.” He knows it’s a lie when he says it, but the vast part of command in Morrison’s experience is knowing how to spin a litany of comforting falsehoods.

“They’re calling for your head, Jack. And if Mumbai was us— if even half the accusations are true, then maybe it really is time for you to retire.”

“I know,” Morrison tells her. “I’m handling it.”

For given values of ‘handling it.’ Really, his plan at present is to offer his own head on a pike in exchange for a series of trials. His publicity has taken a hit in the last few years, but he’s sure he’s got enough mileage left in his public image to make a call for justice and try to stop the witch hunts he can see in Overwatch’s future. If he has to throw himself on the pyre to make sure Angela, Torbjörn, and Winston escape undamaged, he’ll do so in a heartbeat. Lena he knows will be safe, not highly ranked enough to draw fire on her own merit.

As for Reyes, well; at this point, Morrison figures there’s no saving either of them.

Blackwatch jets are quiet things. Sleek, unassuming, meant to reflect radar, sonar, and heat detection. They’re not truly invisible, but they don’t need to be; a highly reflective coating ensures that each craft can nearly blend in with any sky it flies in. Three of them descend on Headquarters.

That’s probably when Morrison should’ve known something was wrong.

He doesn’t recognize the people who step off. Then again, Blackwatch has always had a high turnover rate. It makes sense that Morrison might not know these agents. Especially when all his attention unerringly snaps to Reyes like lightning to a rod.

‘He’s still beautiful,’ Morrison thinks, drawn to the way he holds himself, the bridge of his nose. He wishes that it wasn’t true, that he could see Reyes and not think that, but they lived a lifetime together; Morrison’s been weak, lately. The thought follows him around like the ghost of what they once were: ‘I missed him; he’s still beautiful.’

“Am I in trouble, Commander?” Reyes asks him, wearing a sharp, lazy grin that doesn’t reach his eyes.

Morrison ignores the urge to repair that flares in his chest. “That’s one way to describe blowing a warehouse full of protesters.”

“They weren’t protesters,” Reyes corrects him, grin falling from his face. “Unless that’s how you want to describe a bunch of terrorists trying to put together a bomb for the parliament building.”

Morrison doesn’t sigh. “Let’s take this to my office,” he says, and doesn’t miss the little motions over Reyes’s face, some quick emotion he can’t entirely suppress.

Heads turn as they move through the base. There are hardly any originals left, the people who would’ve known about Blackwatch as an open secret from the second founding, but it’s hard to ignore Gabriel Reyes, and they made Morrison’s coat specifically to catch the eye as easily as it catches bullets. The feeling of being watched skitters over his skin, the atmosphere changing in every room Reyes and Morrison walk through; tension, awe. Conversations starting and stopping as the shadow of an old legend moves in silence.

Morrison opens the door for Reyes, half expecting Angela to still be in the room. Thankfully, it’s empty. Morrison moves around the desk, and sits heavily in his chair. Reyes remains standing, and the pictures of their family stare at Morrison just as accusingly as he does.

‘What the fuck,’ Morrison thinks. It’s not something he can open with, but really, everything about this whole situation keeps circling back to that tired, empty feeling. ‘How did we get here? What happened to us?’

“What happened in Mumbai?” Is what he asks instead.

Reyes doesn’t sit in the chair across from the desk. Morrison didn’t quite expect him to; everything feels like a power play between the two of them these days, and they both know Reyes taking a seat would be giving up some sort of ground, conceding to authority. Morrison hates this, in the same tired, abstract way he feels everything, these days.

“They were terrorists,” Reyes says, expression neutral. “Part of a larger cell my guys are still rounding up. Their plan was to stick a bomb under the parliament building in New Delhi, then follow through with controlled detonations throughout several surrounding cities. All we did was trigger the detonations a few days early. Figured if they wanted a bomb so badly, they might as well get to have one.”

“If that was all it was, I wouldn’t have people up my ass about trying to find Jesse,” Morrison counters.

“He’s been gone for months now,” Reyes says, almost incredulous. “They really want you to bring him home?”

“They want me to put him down,” Morrison snaps. “They’re citing those fucked up contracts; ‘go with us or go to jail.’ They want you to do it, probably just to push both our buttons, get some kind of ass-backwards justice out of the whole situation.”

“Well,” Reyes drawls, tightly leashed anger slipping out into the open, “it’s a shame he’s got a several month head start.”

“Fucking hell,” Morrison says, disgusted. “You’re an idiot if you think I was gonna let them! He’s— he’s not a dog, I wasn’t gonna let them hunt him down like one, or make you do it, what the fuck, Reyes! Jesse got out for a reason and I wanna know why, damn it—”

“You are the last person that gets to ask about why,” Reyes hisses. “You know exactly goddamn why, and I’m not letting you hang me for it. You’re a selfish bastard, Morrison; everything I ever had or was, you took it from me. So I figure now, you’re going to take the fall on Blackwatch for me, too. See if those pretty boy smiles of yours can save what you ran into the ground.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” Morrison fires back, instinct stepping in as his mind gets caught on the impossibility of the betrayal Reyes is admitting to. He knew things were bad, he couldn’t (can’t) even imagine— “Letting the press wale on me for fun? They’re talking about public trials, war crimes investigations. We’re both going down over this, Reyes. And at this point, we deserve to. Besides,” Morrison adds, the frown on his face turning hard, sneering— “I’m your superior officer, Reyes. Anything you do reflects poorly on me; it would’ve been my job to stop you years ago. Guess I’ll just have to settle for taking care of things now.”

The sheer rage that boils into Reyes’s expression could rust metal, brown eyes burning with a hate like fire. “You know,” he says, almost conversational, “I was having a real hard time talking myself up to this. But that about did it.”

Reyes leaps the desk before Morrison can get to the panic button beneath it. If he’s being honest with himself, the time to hit the button would’ve been the minute that Reyes started confessing to having planned a full-scale mutiny. But he wants to handle this himself; and that’s what he tells himself he’s doing as he clocks Reyes in the side of the head with the pistol Morrison had pulled from the desk when he should’ve been triggering the base alarm.

Reyes comes up snarling. The beany on Reyes’s head does nothing to muffle the blow as he slams his skull into Morrison’s nose, breaking it in a harsh snap of pain that radiates through Morrison’s skull. He follows the strikes with an open grab towards Morrison’s wrist, trying to disarm him.

Fighting in close range has always been Reyes’s specialty, an extension of the same kind of thinking that answers a siege with covert air insertion and makes him such a dangerous tactician to begin with. The only advantage Morrison has ever had in this arena has been his speed, in comparison to Reyes’s superior strength and technique. So Morrison decides to use what he has; he drops the gun in favor of striking Reyes full-force in the solar plexus with his open palm, driving the air out of his body. In the split second that gives him, Morrison rounds the desk and flips it, paperwork, photographs, and equipment flying as he knocks it into Reyes’s legs, effectively trapping the pistol beneath the heavy piece of furniture.

“You want my biometric data, right?” Morrison asks him, springing back as Reyes recovers. “Only thing you could want if you’re here instead of wherever your flunkies got off to.” Everything narrows to the iron-copper tang of the blood in his nose and the pinhead of the fight.

“Smart boy,” Reyes agrees, moving around the edge of the desk, fists up. “I’m blowing the doors off on this whole fucked up operation, and I figure the Strike Commander’s codes’ll do wonders for decrypting some of what we already found.”

“What, like our tax exemption status?” Morrison drawls sarcastically, nasally, as he paces the circle with Reyes. “Our casualty reports? Environmental aid briefings? My job’s not that exciting, Reyes. I’m not running some kind of shadow government over here, no matter that you seem to think you’re its enforcer.”

Reyes laughs at him, low and derisive. “Real cute,” he says. “Sure, Jack, you can play idiot for a little longer. Let’s try that theory on for size: the UN needs political assassinations, officials and agitators taken out on the downlow, people who were asking the wrong questions about Overwatch’s place in the postwar era. Overwatch only gets to exist if there’s a sufficient global need, and it’s the UN’s strongarm. They don’t get to retain power, Overwatch or the council, unless that need exists.”

As he speaks, Reyes is waiting for an opening. Watching. They learned how to fight best together; Morrison knows how to read Reyes like a book, intimately familiar with the little motions he makes before he throws a punch.

“Who’s going to have the authority to ask Blackwatch to manufacture that need?” Reyes asks, still circling. “Who’d have the motive? The individual councilmembers, maybe, but more likely, I’d say it’s the guy who doesn’t have anything but this. Who never did.”

“I wouldn’t,” Morrison protests, mind whirling from the implications alone. “Not for power, this has never been about power—”

“But for your family?” Reyes prods him. “A family you think I walked out on? The worst of this shit didn’t start until after I left; at first, I thought it was some fucked up way of getting back at me. It ramped up slowly enough. More of the same old shit; Blackwatch is expendable, we’re just thugs.”

The first explosion takes Morrison off his feet, the whole base rocking with the force of the blast. Through the faint barrier of the shitty standard-issue base carpet, he registers aftershocks, or secondary blasts.

Reyes is braced in the doorway, eyes wild. “Time’s up,” he says, and bolts.

Morrison gets to his feet, thoughts racing. With a practiced wrench, he sets his nose. He walks over to the desk, presses the silent alarm, and grabs his eyepiece from the drawer. The screen is broken, but the communicator built in still works; he fires a code to Torbjorn, and another to Angela: codes 12 and 94, respectively; ‘hostile invaders,’ and ‘evacuate all stations; noncombatants and the injured first.’ He hasn’t had to send either since the Crisis.

He picks up the gun. It’s time to go hunting.

Reyes does stealth better than Morrison, but the problem with that is that this is Morrison’s home ground by definition. Reyes’s problem is that Morrison knows him, scent and sound and habit. Morrison ignores the smoke, and the people moving past him in the halls, yells at them to evacuate. He follows Reyes; he moves down.

The smoke thins out as he descends, leaving the stairwell Reyes had disappeared into in a quick clear. There’s a body on the ground; neck snapped and eyes lifeless. Reyes didn’t stop to hide them; he took their gun and kept moving. Morrison keeps his pistol up and watches, listens, feels out for Reyes with the part of himself that they once trained into being.

Another explosion rocks the base, and the lights cut out. For a second, there is only darkness, and the sound of his own breathing, his blood dripping onto the floor. Along the bottom if the wall, emergency strips come to life, bathing the hallway in a red glow.

Morrison pivots to the left before the gun goes off, and returns fire before he looks. Both shots go wide. This is what they get for knowing each other.

“I swear to god,” Morrison says to the dim light, “whatever the hell it is you think I did, I didn’t.”

“Do you even read what goes across that big fancy desk of yours?” Reyes asks him. It’s almost conversational, but the look on his face—

“I try to,” Morrison admits. “But— how could you do some of these things, Reyes? What happened to saving the world? I trusted you.” The words creak in his mouth, betrayal worse than throb in his face. Even with how bad things had become— it doesn’t matter whether the sun likes you or not; it still sets in the west. It’s still warm. It still shines. “I figured you’d be the one place I didn’t have to go jumping at shadows," Morrison says. “My fault, I guess, if this is what you did with the leeway.”

He throws himself to the right as Reyes fires again. The round that should’ve taken Morrison in the chest hits his left arm instead, impact diluted by the armor there. He doesn’t bother returning fire; Reyes is already moving again. He ducks around a corner, into another stairwell; down, and further down, trying to herd him into a killbox.

Morrison grits his teeth, and pushing open the closing door, he swings himself over the railing of the stairwell. Knees bent, he rolls through the impact as he strikes the ground at the bottom of the shaft, a several story drop. It jars him nonetheless, and he still gets shot again, this time in the back, bullet tearing through the coat and lodging itself in Morrison’s lower back just to the left of his spine, blunted but not stopped by his thinner flex armor. Reyes kept the high ground while Morrison jumped, anticipating the move; this is what they get for knowing each other.

“It fucking figures that you wouldn’t know,” Reyes says, moving down the stairs in measured steps. “White boy gets the PR position and you can’t even handle it. It’s a little harder to get people to like you if their dick’s not in your mouth, huh Jack?”

“I dunno, Gabi,” Morrison rasps, standing. “It worked fine on you.”

“And to think I picked you ‘cause I thought you were observant,” Reyes remarks. The red light from emergency strips from the steps above and below him frame his face in bizarre shadows, that lazy smile of his more palpable than anything else as he saunters vaguely downwards. “I built Overwatch and I built you. It’s only fitting it all ends with my boot on your neck.”

“Did you practice that line in front of a mirror?” Morrison asks him. “It must’ve been burnin’ you up for years, that I could be somethin’ that didn’t belong to you. There’s a problem with your plan, though.”

“Yeah?” Reyes asks. The gun he stole is level to Morrison’s eyes. “Enlighten me, 4H.”

Morrison dredges up a smile, fake and bitter as you please. “You’ve watched way too many movies to do the whole villain monologue thing and not expect it to blow up in your face.”

He shoots Reyes in the arm, right under his armor, and sprints through the stairwell door, gunfire pinging off the door behind him.

The bottom level of the Swiss base is a warren, holding row after row of sensitive servers, and the central power core that shines like a dead sun and runs the emergency systems as opposed to the smaller generators that run the auxiliaries. If he were poetic, Morrison would say this is the heart of Overwatch, the great glowing center. He’s certain it’s why Reyes came down here; he’s always been painfully dramatic.

Morrison can sense Reyes behind him as he weaves through the server towers. Morrison has the edge thanks to his speed, but he knows he won’t keep it; they’re so evenly matched that fighting Reyes is a calculus of minimal advantages. All the things he’d hold over a human opponent are void against another supersoldier; Reyes too can see with perfect clarity in this dim light. He too will clot quicker, and bleed slower.

Worse, they know each other; Morrison has never in his life been good at dancing, but moving with Reyes is something he’s always understood. They learned how to fight in a pattern that wasn’t a pattern, that nobody else could predict, but at the same time wouldn’t end with one of them accidentally shooting the other in close quarters. Trying to actually harm him goes against every combat instinct Morrison has, his hindbrain continuously screaming at him: ‘this is Gabriel, move like this, you know him.’

Morrison turns a sharp corner to the left and takes another bullet to the back of his coat, Reyes not even remotely thrown by the quick change. Nor is he surprised when Morrison stops, hopping the leg Morrison sweeps for his knees when Reyes turns the corner. Outlined in red and the soft, blinking lights of the innumerable server towers, they close the gap and move seamlessly in hand to hand, Reyes following every time Morrison tries to put them back into firing range. And yet, neither of them can seem to land a solid hit, just repeated glancing blows that would incapacitate any other fighter, delivered at improbable speeds.

Through the heavy concrete ceiling, Morrison can hear klaxons sounding. Down here, they’re isolated. The basement level was built on a separate system from the rest of the base, intended to be sealed if the graviton reactor were to blow. It was experimental, years ago; Morrison remembers complaining to Reyes about the funding writeoff they were promised in exchange for piloting the experimental energy tech. Once it became clear that graviton energy wasn’t quite as radioactive as had been feared, they’d moved the servers in, cool and secure in the empty level. With everything automated, no one ever has reason to come this far down. There’s no one who could or would interfere in this fight.

As they near the center of the cavernous room, the light changes, the glow of the reactor core no longer blocked by countless towering servers. Reyes’s stolen gun audibly clicks, out of bullets. Morrison ducks as Reyes wings the weapon at him, viciously glad that he’s conserved his own ammunition.

“How did you think this was going to end, Reyes?” Morrison calls, dodging the haymaker swinging for his skull.

“Ideally with the Overwatch in flames and you answering all my questions.” He grunts as Morrison’s fist connects with his arm, pushed back slightly despite his defensive cross. “But at this point I’ll settle for just taking you out.”

Morrison takes the front of Reyes’s boot to his lip, his face slicing open in a line up past his nose, blood filling his mouth. “All for jealousy,” Morrison says, spitting the blood out with the words. “Jealousy and conspiracy. I always thought I was the paranoid one.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, boyscout, you’re definitely the paranoid one.” Reyes slams a knee into Morrison’s ribs, nearly buckling the plate of his armor with the force of the blow. “You’re just incompetent, too. Blind, naive; don’t know why I’m surprised you didn’t know about this when you still seem to think you got this job on merit. They wanted a puppet, and you always were happy to have a hand up your ass; meant you didn’t need to think.”

“I don’t know why you keep trying to cast yourself as the hero,” Morrison growls. “You’re leading a rebellion against the fuckin’ United Nations— you plant bombs inside a compound that’s sixty-percent noncombatants and you think the world’s just gonna reward you?”

“Eggs.” Reyes drives a fist into Morrison’s gut. “Omelette.” While Morrison is doubled over from the force of the first blow, Reyes’s other elbow drops sharply onto his spine just below the plating of his armor, sending him to the floor.

Morrison gasps for breath as Reyes’s plated boots come into his field of view, gray metal glowing softly in the red light. There’s a stain of blood on the front of his left boot from where he’d kicked Morrison in the teeth only seconds ago.

“Start talking,” Reyes says. “I want your access code to the servers, and the personnel data for field agents.”

“Or you could just snap my neck right now,” Morrison offers. “That’d be cool, too. Because I’m not giving you shit, Reyes. And we both know torture doesn’t work.” The smell of blood hangs thick in the air, the wooden note of whatever the Program did to them still present after all these years, not muted by copper and iron.

“Maybe,” Reyes says, “but this is definitely more interesting. You wanna try begging, golden boy? Lick my boots?”

“Nah,” Morrison says, “I already know they taste like shit.”

Knifing up, he grabs Reyes at the waist with both arms and drops, flinging them both to the ground. He lets go of the hold immediately, and they both recover fast, but the one advantage Morrison has always had is being faster— by the time Reyes is on his feet again, Morrison has his gun up, and a solid distance between them.

Reyes takes a step. Even if Morrison wanted to look away, he wouldn’t be able to. It’s always been like this, for Morrison. For nearly twenty-five years Reyes has been drawing him like a lodestone, an inescapable presence. Close-cropped, graying hair Morrison best remembers as dark and curly, brown eyes that used to be warm; it’s still Reyes stalking towards Morrison now, inextricable from the Gabriel that Jack used to love.

Morrison pulls the trigger. There’s a hole in Reyes’s leg, bleeding red into the gray of his pants. It stains a deeper red with every step Reyes takes, but he doesn’t stop coming, barreling towards Morrison like a freight train. Morrison shoots him again, right in the torso below his armor, the center of mass easier to hit when the target moves towards him in a straight line.

This time, Reyes falls, a heavy skid as shock takes his body out from under him.

“Get up,” Morrison demands. His hands do not shake. The inside of his head is very quiet, under all the screaming.

Grunting, Reyes does so, shoving up off the floor, blood smearing in red streaks against metal. The smell of iron and driftwood grows thicker.

Morrison keeps the gun trained on him. “Hands up,” he says. “Get up against the glass.”

Slowly, Reyes moves. His hands go up. He shuffles backwards, eyes on Morrison, dark like wet earth, full of hate. With his back to the reactor core, Reyes is a shadow. Morrison squints into the glare, trying for definition, wishing his eyepiece weren’t broken, wishing for a better gun, anything.

Morrison understands, suddenly, that he’s won. That this is it. He has Reyes pinned with injuries that mean Reyes won’t be walking away from here, supersoldier or not. The thought hits him with heavy certainty that this is what winning means: Reyes on trial for war crimes, Morrison himself having to testify against him before his own inevitable trial for guilt by association and failure to stop what’s been going wrong in Blackwatch all these years.

He realizes that this was always where they were going to have ended up; with one of them holding a gun, and the other waiting to die. Morrison just hadn’t expected that the dead man could’ve been anyone else but himself.

“Go ahead.” Reyes is all ice, all stone. “Do it.” He looks Morrison in the eye, staring through the gun between them. “You came here to put me down like a rabid dog then fine. But you’re only going to get one shot. So you better not miss.”

Morrison’s breath chokes inside him, strangled by the familiar phrase. He shifts slightly, arms and fingers steady even as Reyes springs for him, sensing weakness, sensing doubt. Reyes’s whole face is a broken thing and his hands are outstretched like claws; it calls to mind Morrison’s memories of a window after a tornado had passed, glass on the floor and the sill and everywhere but inside the frame. There is so much rage there, and in the split second he has, instinct moves Morrison’s body: gun up, steady hands, aim—

And then light.

Chapter Text

(13. In the widening gyre.)

[2068 — Watchpoint: Gibraltar, Spain]

Morrison’s been so tired lately. He knows it’s just a depression symptom, but that doesn’t make it less real. Exhaustion makes it difficult to do anything; without motivation, he’s been pulling through on willpower alone, pasting a smile on for the cameras and the agents, and going to war behind closed doors.

Recovering Lena Oxton feels like the first good thing he’s done in months. Not that he had a physical hand in it, or even an intellectual one; the credit goes entirely to Winston on that front, with some minor assistance from Angela. But Morrison had fought for Lena. The UN hadn’t approved of the discretionary spending he allotted for Winston’s research, more interested in the weapons the gorilla could produce than in his miracles. Morrison had, in not so many words, told them to go fuck themselves.

He feels like they don’t do so much saving, anymore, but this, this he could do, throwing resources at a problem until Overwatch’s youngest pilot could come home. Unfortunately, the UN wants her debriefed. If her account is to be believed, Oxton time traveled, and the security council wants her pressed for actionable intel.

Morrison stands before his superiors again by teleconference, and is presented with options: Lena’s going to talk, one way or another, and a full account is going to be had of her travels. The choice he’s given is a choice of who does the asking; either Reyes asks her alone, or he and Morrison ask her together. The council, it seems, doesn’t trust Morrison to be objective when it comes to his agents, anymore.

“You’re kind,” Representative Arendse explains, features outlined in holographic blue. “It’s why you were chosen to lead. But sometimes, a job needs doing. Reyes isn’t kind. It’s why he was chosen to do the work that he does. And it’s why he’ll be questioning Oxton. You may supervise, but the slipstream experiment represented a massive investment and breakthrough technology; Pilot Oxton’s firsthand knowledge is the only remnant of the technology, and as such is a resource that cannot be mishandled by a too-light touch.”

The urge to laugh burns in Morrison at the words. Arendse is new to the security council, Angola only recently re-elected to fill one of the slots reserved for the African Group of nations. It’s clear that she believes the party line regarding Overwatch and Blackwatch, and likes the tidy explanation she’s provided. Meanwhile Morrison knows exactly why he and Reyes were given the command positions that they were, and it has nothing to do with kindness on anyone’s part.

“Oxton will respond better with a familiar face in the room,” Morrison tells the council. “Someone she trusts.”

“Are you certain that your presence will be an asset?” Unlike Arendse, Representative Loeng is an old face. Loeng has served as China’s representative on the council for decades, predating the original founding of the Overwatch strike team. Morrison knows him to be canny and resource-minded, a pragmatist in all things, which makes him easier to deal with than some of his peers, but unique in his own way. Leong and Morrison might be familiar with each other, but that doesn’t make them allies.

“Reyes and I are plenty used to playing good cop bad cop,” Morrison says, looking at him specifically. “We can handle a scared kid, and we can do it without babying or damaging her. Oxton has tactical value beyond what she knows; if we drive her out of Overwatch now by being too firm, we’ll lose worse than her knowledge, we’ll lose her as a future investment.”

Loeng nods. “Agreed. Commander, you have your orders. Find out everything Oxton knows or saw, while she was outside our timestream. Further, retain her for the program; your assessment of her potential is well-received by this body.”

It doesn’t feel like a victory. Morrison hates that this is what his life has been reduced to, but he knows to take what he can get. Being a political operative is what commanding in peacetime means.

Lena Oxton has been stationed in Gibraltar since her return to the present. It’s where she’d first disappeared, and where Winston had managed to lever her back into the land of the living. Morrison hasn’t been back here in over eight months. The sea air makes him think of driftwood and other memories that hurt him, dredged up from the boxes Morrison keeps his unprofessional emotions squirreled away in.

Having arrived about an hour before him, Reyes meets him on the airfield, back straight, scowling. “I don’t need you to babysit me, Morrison.”

“I’m not here for you,” Morrison says, and it’s not entirely a lie. “Oxton’s rattled, badly. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl, Reyes.”

Reyes snorts. “Jesse was the same age when I pulled his ass outta that canyon. I know she’s your latest pet project, but she’s going to have to deal with worse than a debriefing if she’s serious about this. Just ‘cause all the babies call you ‘Mom’ doesn’t mean you get to sit around and hold their hands when they get scared.”

Morrison breathes out slowly, holding down on his irritation. Not even a minute back in contact, and Reyes is already under his skin. “She’s got issues with dissociation and trauma,” he says evenly. “She spent a month not able to touch anything, hardly able to speak, and that’s just from our perspective. If we want anything out of her, it’s going to take a light hand and an anchor.”

“And, what?” Reyes drawls. “You’re gonna volunteer? Real kind of you, Strike Commander.”

“Well I figure one of us has to be,” Morrison says, and feels a vicious satisfaction at the quick frown that passes over Reyes’s face. He’s learned to get his victories where he can find them.

For the most part, Lena’s been under wraps in her containment field, with Winston monitoring her condition so closely that Morrison’s surprised she hasn’t cracked under the strain of his concern. Not that a request would to leave be honored; even with the chronal accelerator, there’s a worry that it’s not a permanent fix, and that any small malfunction could leave Lena lost and incorporeal again. The containment field is so they’d be able to even find her again, should she vanish.

Winston meets them at the door, lumbering out of the observation booth to greet them with a smile that can’t help be anything but a baring of teeth. “Commander Reyes!” He says. “I didn’t know you were stopping by.”

They never changed Reyes’s title, after the Crisis. It had seemed like the best ‘fuck you’ they could manage to the United Nations at the time, next to moving the majority of the original strike team’s operatives into Blackwatch along with Reyes himself. It had been a joke, then, Blackwatch an open secret among the fifty something of them, the trick of reporting to two commanders. Nearly fifteen years later, and hundreds of new recruits, it’s not a joke anymore. Attrition has taken most of the original strike team, and Overwatch has grown strangely vast and empty. Ana had claimed not to know who Gérard was when he and Amélie invited her to their wedding; since then, Morrison’s had to bury all three of them, and only one of the graves contains a body.

Now, the number of people who know that the other half of Reyes’s full title is Blackwatch Commander outside of the organization itself is a number Morrison can count on his hands. Winston isn’t one of them. If he was, he probably wouldn’t be so happy to see Reyes standing outside Lena’s door.

“Hey, Kong.” Reyes’s grin is a quick, dim flash, a shadow of itself.

Reyes had put Morrison through every single Planet of the Apes movie after they graduated SEP, and meeting Winston had made them both incredulously happy. Everything about him was the sort of thing that came out of a comic book; a gorilla scientist who escaped from the moon, who came to earth to earth and fought the first Doomfist, a terrorist who’d basically been a supervillain.

“We’re here to see Lena,” Morrison tells Winston.

“Oh!” Winston pauses. “Oh.” He looks at Reyes, then at Morrison. “I guess you’re not here for a social visit, are you?”

“Sorry, big guy,” Morrison says. “Debriefing. Which means top clearance while we talk to her.”

“You’re going to need to clear out of the observation room for awhile,” Reyes tells him. “And lock the door behind you until you get back. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours, tops.”

Winston nods, expression subdued, but serious. “Right,” he says. “Just— be careful. She’s not—” He huffs, frustrated. “Lena’s not doing well.”

“We will,” Morrison says.

Reyes doesn’t correct him.

Lena’s observation room is a large circle with few features: a long, single window into a room filled with equipment; a folding table; a few chairs; a bed. Pacing the edges is the pilot herself, half-jogging, her bare feet slapping into the metal floor in rhythmic stumbles. As they walk in, Lena turns to look at them, brown eyes snapping up at the sound of the door.

“Lena,” Morrison says, “I’d like you to meet Commander Reyes.”

“I know who you are,” Lena blurts, eyes locking onto Reyes with a scattered sort of intensity. “Sir, you’re famous, I’d’ve had to have died not to know about you. It’d be like not knowing the Strike Commander.” Her face twists, a quick glimpse of a grimace that could’ve been a smile. “That’s bound to get confusing,” she says. “Both being the Commander.”

“We make it work,” Morrison says briskly before Reyes has the chance to say otherwise. As it is he can tell Reyes is internally rolling his eyes, his derision palpable.

Reyes pulls a chair up to the folding table that sits off center of the room. “Hope you weren’t looking for story time about the glory days, kid,” he says. “‘Cause you’re gonna be the one doing all the talking today.”

“What do you mean?” Lena asks, before something clicks. “Debriefing,” she says.

Grabbing a chair of his own, Morrison nods and sits down next to Reyes. “Take a seat, Lena. We need to ask you a few questions about where you went after slipstream, and what you saw while you were there.”

Lena sits, posture wary. “What do you need to know?”

“Start from the top,” Reyes tells her. “What happened to Slipstream?”

“What was supposed to happen, I think,” Lena says, hugging Winston’s chronal accelerator to her chest with the grip of a drowning woman. “Plane broke the sound barrier, the prototype turned on, and next thing I know it’s all falling apart around me. The whole plane disassembled while I was in it; screws and rivets came loose, dial casings opened.” She shudders. “I couldn’t even hit the eject button; it didn’t connect to anything anymore. The bottom gave out, and I fell out of time.”

“What did you see?” Reyes asks her.

“Everything,” Lena says. “Nothing. Just, moments, mostly. My life, going backward.”

“Real descriptive,” Reyes drawls. “C’mon, Oxton, you at least graduated, didn’t you? They make you take lit classes in England, right? Describe it for me. You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“You never know what’s going to be important, when you’re living it,” she says, glaring defensively. “Suzy Ashton walking into the cafeteria. My mother taking me to Blackpool for the first time. My sixth lesson flying a plane. Overwatch, Overwatch, Overwatch.”

“Well, we sure as shit don’t need to hear about your high school crushes,” Reyes says. Years ago, there would’ve been laughter in that statement. “But anything about Overwatch is a good place to start.”

“You’re not going to like that any better,” Lena tells him.

“Probably not,” Reyes agrees. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t give it a shot.”

Lena looks to Morrison for a second, eyes flickering to his.

“Like you said, you don’t know what’s important when you’re living it,” Morrison assures her. “That’s why we’re having this conversation; we’re here to help.”

Warily, Lena walks them through her past. It’s at once utterly inconsequential and deeply revealing; there are parts of a person that only friends and family should know, and Morrison and Reyes aren’t either of those things to this girl. Lena Oxton is a pilot, not a poet, but Reyes’s jab about literature class seems to have struck home if the level of detail she gives them means anything. If she can censor herself, she’s not good at it; Reyes asks questions and she gives them the guided tour of the things she’s loved, the things she’s lost.

Reyes doesn’t relent at any point, and it hurts to watch for reasons other than just how it taxes the girl across the table from them. This used to be routine for the two of them. Debriefing someone together after a critical mission should be familiar, but instead, it rubs Morrison in all the wrong ways. The places in the conversation where, years ago, Morrison would’ve tagged Reyes out have all been flattened. Reyes keeps the questions going all on his own; if Lena starts to drift, he either snaps at her, or he pulls back, almost teasing, dragging her attention back to himself with a persona so close to what he used to be that it makes Morrison ache with a muted, diffuse sense of loss.

Every question pulls Lena deeper into herself. Morrison watches her shrink, curling in around the chronal accelerator as if the straps that secure it to her chest are not enough to maintain her grip on this time and place. Winston’s reports had said it was will alone that brought her back, before. Looking at her now, hunched in but fighting, Morrison could believe it.

“Could you affect anything you saw?” Reyes asks her.

Lena shakes her head, wraps her arms a little tighter around the blue glow of the accelerator, back to staring at the floor. “You know that thing they say to kids in museums? ‘Look, don’t touch?’ It was like that. All these preserved little pieces of my life, like bugs in a jar.” Her eyes are fixed on something far beyond this room. Hollow.

“Oxton,” Reyes prompts her, cutting through the lull. “Your problems are all in this room right now; eyes up.”

The tone of the command startles Morrison badly. He forces himself not to turn; he won’t give Reyes the satisfaction. And if he doesn’t look, Morrison can almost see Gabriel as he was years ago, strike force commander, young, happy—

“I couldn’t— she wouldn’t listen, I couldn’t get her to move any faster—” In her chair, Lena shivers, fingers white on the edge of her lifeline.

“Lena,” Morrison tries.

Lena looks up. Morrison’s seen things before, but that—

“You ever regretted something you haven’t done yet?” Lena asks them, all dying fire. “Something you could’ve, couldn’t’ve stopped? I swear to god I went forward, back, but the bullet passed through me every time.”

“That sounds actionable to me,” Reyes remarks. “You said it’s something you haven’t done yet; Oxton, did you travel to the future?”

“I think so, yeah,” she says. “Can’t tell you how far. But I didn’t recognize her. Not me-now or me-then.”

“That’s still more than we had before,” Reyes says. “I was told you’d only been to the past. But the future, that’s something we can use if we can get you to make sense of it.”

“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” Lena says, frustrated now. “I barely understand it myself.”

“Start from the top,” Reyes tells her. “You said someone was shooting at you?”

Lena nods.

“Where were you?”

“London. King’s Row. They’d changed the streetlights; when I lived there, they used to be fluorescent. But they changed them; they were tall, retro. Looked like they should’ve been running on gas instead of clean electric. Must’ve been some kind of nostalgia for the last millennium.”

Morrison only has to intervene twice more: when a question about the accident itself sends her into a tailspin, and when Lena’s cryptic explanations of who was shooting at her in the future resolves into a fetishistic hallucination of some kind of ultra sniper.

Lena’s description of high heels on roof tiles slides into light off of blue skin, and Reyes’s eyebrows start to inch towards his beany. After that, fishnets, and Morrison can just barely hear Reyes grinding his teeth. At the point where Lena sets in on the purple catsuit that had been open from her assailant’s shoulders to her crotch the crack of her ass, Morrison decides to do something before Reyes starts shouting.

“Alright,” he says, cutting off Lena’s dreamlike tirade about the shooter’s golden eyes. “We’re done here.”

In the instant Lena looks at him, Morrison swears he sees a hint of a smile, the shadow of a light that had previously characterized the young pilot. A twitch at the corner of her mouth, a quick flicker of her eyes towards Reyes—

‘She’s trolling him,’ Morrison realizes, the surprise a bright and incredulous feeling rising in his chest. Reyes is a war hero and a notorious hardass (not to mention the commander of Overwatch’s secret black ops division) and he was sent here to interrogate her— and Lena’s trolling him, silently letting Morrison in on the joke.

Reyes turns to Morrison, frowning in veiled disgust. “Nah,” he says, looking back at Lena. “We’re not done. Got one question left.”

“Yeah?” Lena looks almost human again.

“Why Overwatch?” Reyes asks her, so carefully neutral that it reads to Morrison like a neon sign just how much he wants this answer. “You keep coming back to Overwatch; why us?”

“I wanted to fly,” Lena says.

“And so does everyone else who joins the air force,” Reyes points out. “But you came here. You keep talking a big game about how this matters, keep coming back to joining Overwatch and flying. So why here?”

Lena’s quiet, for a moment. “Because I wanted to save people,” she says, painfully earnest.

Reyes laughs at her. It’s not a nice sound, anymore, no matter that it lights something up in Morrison like a switch flipped in a dead house.

Lena’s glare is murderous, wounded. “I did!”

“Not anymore?” Reyes presses her.

“I—” She pulls short, indignation resolving into a frown. “You saved the world. Then you spent my whole life trying to put it back together. I wanted to help,” Lena says. “The world needs heroes. I had to do something.”

Reyes shakes his head, but he grins again, a small twitch of a smile. “Now we’re done,” he says, and when he stands, he shoves his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie. “I’ll meet you outside, Commander.”

Morrison stands. As Reyes leaves, Morrison shakes Lena’s hand over the table. Her grip is weak, but present, much like the girl herself.

“You alright, Lena?” Morrison asks her.

“I’m good, sir,” Lena tells him, rocking back on her heels as she stands, one arm still wrapped around her chest.

“You sure?” Morrison presses. “We didn’t go easy on you.”

“With respect, sir?” Lena asks him.

Morrison’s learned to be wary of that phrase; it always prefaces something he doesn’t want to hear, or that isn’t even remotely respectful. He nods anyway; might as well let her say her piece.

“I think you did,” Lena says. “Or Commander Reyes did, anyway. People say all kinds of scary things about him; if he’d really wanted me to tell all about the future, you wouldn’t’ve been there, and I probably would’ve been in a basement somewhere with a bare bulb swinging over my head.”

Morrison frowns. “Reyes wouldn’t,” he says.

“Yeah?” Lena asks.

“He wouldn’t,” Morrison repeats, more firmly, this time, faking a reassuring smile for her sake. The Blackwatch Commander would never stoop to it, not over this. He and Reyes both know torture doesn’t reveal actionable intel.

Lena hums, and rocks back and forth on her heels, a small answering smile creeping over her face. “You know,” she says, “they tell stories about you and him. Now and before and later; the Commander and the Commander, best team Overwatch ever saw.”

“All exaggerated, I bet,” Morrison says, something in his chest clenching painfully. “We just do our jobs.”

Lena’s smile widens, a little closer to what it used to be. “Nah,” she says. “Saying stuff like that’s what points you out. And I get it, now, why you’re so legendary. You two didn’t even have to look at each other to know what was going on. A friend like that? Yeah, I could see you saving the world.”

‘A friend,’ Morrison thinks, and the laugh he has to suppress at the inadequacy of the term makes him want to jump off the cliff at the edge of the base. This is what politics has made them.

“I’ve decided,” Lena says suddenly. “I’m going to be a field agent.”

“Not a pilot?” Morrison asks.

“Couldn’t pay me enough to get back in a cockpit,” Lena tells him frankly. “But I still want to help, you know? The world still needs heroes; I can’t just sit around and do nothing.”

“That’s an admirable goal,” he tells her.

He leaves before he says anything else, or lets out the thing in him that wants to explain that he and Reyes are friends the way that opposing forces are friends, or some other metaphor Morrison has never been the one who had the poetry to give voice to.

He is so sick of remembering Reyes as he used to be; the excited young officer, the boy who enlisted out of film school because it was the right thing to do. Outside the room, Reyes as he is now is waiting for him in a faint cloud of cigarette smoke, propping the wall up, unwavering proof of what that optimism eroded to.

“She wants to be a field agent,” Morrison says.

“Yeah?” Reyes asks, pushing off the wall. He grinds the cigarette beneath the heel of his scuffed combat boot, the metal plating glinting dully as it moves.

“Yeah.”

‘She reminds me of you,’ Morrison doesn’t say. Doesn’t know how to say, anymore. If there was ever a time for them to fix what broke between them, it would’ve been long before they shattered. But Morrison wants it anyway, in the same longing way he thinks he’ll always want Reyes, the same way it feels like he’s never wanted anything but Reyes.

After leaving the containment room, the two of them meander, something still and fragile hanging between them. Something almost companionable, the ghost of the last time they were both in Gibraltar. Morrison’s beset by the feeling that if he says nothing, they’ll just keep walking, stay like this forever, frozen, about to leave. Morrison doesn’t want to break it, but fundamentally, he’s selfish; he wants to be the one to ruin something, this time.

“So?” He asks, turning a corner out towards the office he was allotted here. “What are you going to tell the council?”

Reyes scowls, the faint something wiped off in an instant. “She doesn’t know shit. Nothing actionable, nothing useful or verifiable. The closest thing she had to real intel was basically the dying hallucination of a horny teenager with no idea about how sniping works.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, Jack, that’s it.” Reyes’s scowl turns up at him, bitter and ugly. “What the fuck did you think was gonna happen? I’m not gonna go in and press her for more. I already wasted a whole day on this; I’ve got better things to do than try to get fever dreams of the future out of a teenager’s magical realm.”

“You didn’t have to come,” Morrison points out, walking into the empty office.

“When you get a call from the security council specifically, you don’t say no,” Reyes says. “Not without a good reason, and they thought that the brat was going to shit out the secret to time travel or something. You, though,” he comments. “You didn’t have to come out here. I got told not to let you interfere.”

“I wanted to supervise,” Morrison says.

“Supervise,” Reyes repeats, disgust thick in the word. “Really, Commander? What was I gonna do, smack her around until the secrets of the future fell out? She’s a traumatized kid.”

Morrison doesn’t relent, standing inside the threshold, Reyes staring at him from the outside. “And so was Jesse when you pulled him out of that canyon.” He pauses, taking in the simmering anger in Reyes’s brown eyes. “I keep hearing things about Blackwatch. No one’s supposed to know about you, but everywhere I look there’s a rumor about agents moving in the shadows. Lena knew something about you, and she might as well be a civilian.”

Reyes laughs, a nasty bark of sound as he sneers. “Public catching on, boy scout? Is that what this really is? Telling me to keep your skeletons in the closet where they belong?”

“Get your house in order,” Morrison tells him.

“Your own first,” Reyes spits back. “And go fuck yourself, too. Blackwatch might not be what you do, but it’s a part of this, and it always has been.”

“Reyes—”

The door slams in Morrison’s face, Reyes’s anger the last thing he sees through it.

Reyes leaves the base on the next flight out across the Atlantic, bound for Blackwatch headquarters in Grand Mesa. The plane touches off and it feels like a weight leaving Morrison’s shoulders, guilt at his own relief replacing it with a stone in his stomach. Putting everything back where it belongs inside him takes longer than it should. Morrison spends awhile by the cliff just breathing, until the Mediterranean Sea air smells like itself and not like the Pacific.

Slowly, the sun sets over the water, red light fading into the waves. The dog tags on his neck feel like a noose, and he thinks again about throwing them off of the cliff, just as he has at least once every week for the last eight months. He thinks about walking into the water, and never walking out again. He puts his hand around the tags instead, feels the worn edges dig into his palms. A chill wind sweeps in off the sea and Morrison breathes deep, trying to chase the heat out of his body, trying to feel anything but the shade of a fire that went out years ago.

He turns his back to the water. He walks back into the base. As best he can, he moves forwards.

Chapter Text

(12. The joker to the thief.)

[2067 — Watchpoint: Gibraltar, Spain]

One of the nice things about being strike commander is getting his own suite in every significantly sized Overwatch base. Not a large one; really all that’s in there is a bed and a bathroom and a tiny fridge, but it’s privacy, more than Jack used to get when he was Gabriel’s second in command and the two of them would just share whatever bunk they could fit themselves in. After a lifetime in the military, Jack’s pretty sure he wouldn’t even know what to do with more space; it’s not like he has that many material possessions to his name.

When Gabriel walks into the room, Jack knows immediately that something is wrong. It’s in the way Gabriel carries himself, little minute things in the way he walks, the way he holds his head. They might hardly speak to each other anymore, but they’re still partners— Jack knows Gabriel better than he understands himself, most days. Jack knows that something’s bothering him, something that’s gotten under his skin more than usual, made him tense and edgy.

“What’s wrong?” Jack asks him. “Everything okay? The flight was fine, right?”

“The flight was fine,” Gabriel admits, dropping his bag against the wall as he walks into Jack’s suite. “Torbjörn was on the airstrip when I landed; looked like he was doing better since the funeral.”

“Then what’s got you riled?” Jack presses.

“Nothing.” Gabriel waves him off, tired. Lying.

“It’s not nothing.”

Gabriel breathes out explosively, sigh echoing in the room. “I don’t want do this right now,” he says, staring at a far wall.

“Do what?” Jack asks. He hates how quiet he sounds, how quickly the atmosphere soured. He wishes he could go back, start over, just reset the conversation to a minute ago, pretend everything was fine and welcome Gabriel properly, just enjoy their first shared leave in nearly a year.

“Have this fight.” Gabriel looks at him, glances finally connecting; he looks hollow, and it startles Jack, how goddamn empty he seems. “We hardly see each other anymore, and when we do, we’re fighting.”

‘Whose fault is that?’ Jack wants to ask him. But he can’t refute the statement; Gabriel’s right. This is the first time they’ve been in the same room for more than ten minutes in over two months, and they started arguing right away.

Something sick curls up in Jack’s gut. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m sorry for pushing, we don’t— I shouldn’t have pushed, we can just—”

“No.” Gabriel shakes his head. “This is good. Better. I was gonna—” He clenches his jaw, squares up, a ready stance. “I wanted to do this in person,” he says, starting over. “This was going to happen either way.”

Jack feels like somebody’s shot him, bleeding internally; he and Gabriel have been together for nearly two decades now. Just a little under half of Jack’s whole life— Gabriel’s the one who named him, who dragged him around in the snow twenty-one years ago and said: ‘there’s six other guys named ‘John’ in this platoon; I’m not calling you that, too.’

And then, something different. Something familiar and about as old as his name as the initial shock gives way; Gabriel’s always been able to make Jack angry like nobody else.

“Either way?” Jack repeats. “Either way? You came out here, you knew you were gonna—” The words catch in his throat. “You knew you were going to end this and, what, you were going to put it off until the end of the trip, pretend like everything was normal—”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel mutters. “This! This is what I was trying to avoid. This is what it’s like all the damn time now, Jack, you get that, right?” He continues, sarcasm leaking from every word. “Like, maybe you noticed that we can’t get through any conversation longer than ten minutes without fucking snapping at each other?”

“So you just want to let this go?” Jack asks.

“What, like how you let the strike commander decision go?” Gabriel accuses him, a sudden outpouring of venom. “That was too big of a fight to have, but this is fine?”

“That wasn’t about us!” Jack protests.

“Like fuck!” Gabriel shouts. “If you gave a shit about ‘us,’ you would’ve done something years ago when they decided they’d rather have the less qualified white boy do all the public work and put me in the dark!”

“I didn’t even want the job!”

“You didn’t refuse!” Gabriel accuses him. “You’re always big on patterns until you don’t like what you see, and then you pretend like you’re blind. The latinx guy got passed over for the job? I wasn’t ‘friendly’ enough? Oh, sure, it’s a problem, but it’s not something you can solve. So you don’t even try. You just let them pin medals on you and parade you around in front of the other white people so they don’t get scared. You coulda said no, gone with me to Blackwatch, had a real job, but you didn’t.”

“Oh, well that’s real helpful,” Jack drawls, an old rage boiling. “Strike commander’s a real job when you want it, but it’s bullshit when you don’t. Either way, you say I’m not qualified for the PR job, and I’m not qualified to lead, so, what? I’m only qualified to follow you around? Look pretty, pose nice, be eye candy; a morale boost?”

“Ooh,” Jack adds, not quite managing the lilt he’d been aiming for. His voice is too flat and angry to match the familiar parody of his own accent that Ana and the others used to use to mock his public speaking. “Pardon me, Commander Reyes; which way should I point the big, shiny gun? I don’t know anythin’ about nothin’, I ain’t never done this before; you see, I just came in from the country—”

“Fuck you, Morrison,” Gabriel snarls.

“Sure,” Jack says. He feels cold. Dull. “Why not. You might as well get what you paid for before you return it.”

When Gabriel springs for him, Jack’s ready. He hooks a leg under Gabriel’s and sweeps, forcing him to redirect so as not to get tripped. Even for soldiers of their caliber, momentum is hard to cancel entirely, and so when Jack moves into Gabriel’s new path, he has the advantage, grabbing Gabriel by the front of his sweatshirt.

The kiss is brutal. The point isn’t to get any kind of comfort. The point is to get whatever he can. This fight has been haunting them for years, and now at last they see the specter in the light. But this isn’t an exorcism; it’s a burial.

Gabriel is and always has been better at reacting tactically than Jack. It’s been Jack’s problem for years, that the loss or lack of a plan makes him feral. Gabriel knew this before Jack did, and understands it better. And yet the sound Gabriel makes when he pins Jack to the wall is an absence of control so stark that Jack can taste it in the kiss like rot, like victory.

Jack fights for every inch, putting the edge his speed gives him in hand-to-hand to work. Gabriel throws him onto the couch; Jack grabs his waist and flips them onto the floor, landing on the tops of Gabriel’s thighs. The sharp crack of Gabriel’s skull into the ground is still satisfying even with his beany and the thin government issue carpet muting it. They’ve had rough sex before; they keep having rough sex, fucking out their problems instead of talking for what feels like years now. This is different. Jack wants. Everything. Anything. The desperation is ice, is an ocean that a landlocked life has left him wary of.

Supersoldier strength means that cloth is easy to destroy; with a firm grip Jack pulls Gabriel’s shirt apart at the collar. Scarred brown skin and the lighter texture of more recent wounds are revealed, along with Jack’s old dog tags, a sight that makes his heart clench painfully. Instead of dealing with that particular live grenade, Jack leans down and bites into Gabriel’s shoulder, hard, teeth sinking in and gripping. Jack wants blood. He wants to leave a mark, something that Gabriel’s healing factor won’t erase by the morning. He wants proof that he was here, that this mattered. He feels skin tear under his teeth and twists, tasting blood in his mouth, iron tang and the minute trace of wood that he thinks must be endemic to supersoldiers, something that they can only recognize in each other thanks to their heightened senses.

Gabriel thrashes underneath him, thighs flexing as he tries to gain some kind of leverage with his legs pinned. His eyes are wild, brown pupils blown wide. He’s aged since they met; bits of gray in his hair and his beard, lines on his face that aren’t just from cuts and scores. That anger of his could peel skin from bone, but Jack just basks in it, like stepping into a chemical fire. Gabriel’s beautiful, even here, even now.

“Fuck you!” Gabriel hisses. Jack thinks he could find a way to hate him, like this.

Jack leans up, wipes the back of his hand over his blood-splattered mouth, wetness smearing across his wrist and cheek. He bares his teeth in something that could’ve been a smile, and knows that they must still be red with what he stole. “That’s the plan.”

Gabriel surges up underneath him, shoving himself upright on his elbows and the strength of his back. Suddenly Jack is in his lap instead of sitting on his legs. Gabriel is kissing him; he must get a mouthful of his own blood and Jack hopes he chokes on it.

Everything is a blur of hands on skin, and bitterness. Clothes come off without anything else tearing, but it’s a near miss; maybe it has to do with the years they used sparring together as foreplay to fucking in the shower, but Gabriel and Jack move from brawling to sex with an ease that still feels like fighting, their motions still in sync. It doesn’t take much doing to get the lube out of Gabriel’s duffle, and Jack starts to open himself with quick, impatient fingers before Gabriel turns him over, shoving Jack’s face into the carpeted floor.

Gabriel used to take his time with this. Open Jack up slowly like they had all the time in the world, trying to get him off on fingers alone. Jack used to shiver and hold on and revel in the luxury of it; lazy days in California, clean sheets, lingering cigar smoke. Impossible heat, impossible warmth.

Gabriel’s right hand on the side of Jack’s head is gentler than the one opening him up now, and Gabriel’s using this one to shove him into the floor. A finger finds his prostate and Jack twitches, the sudden contact like lightning directly to the spine. Jack’s dick is heavy, and the effort to keep it off the scratchy carpet leaves him with his ass in the air by the time Gabriel pulls his own dick out and slams home, piercings slickly moving over Jack's insides. Gabriel’s seated within a few thrusts, and the pace he sets is unforgiving.

With every thrust, Jack’s face and elbows get shoved a little farther into the carpet, the texture burning, skin itching as his rapid healing tries to wipe the small abrasions away. Gabriel’s hands are braced on his hips, and with no way to push back Jack is left snarling, cursing, unintelligible to his own ears. Gabriel’s dog tags sway on Jack’s neck, and he can hear their twin pair clinking against each other as they collide with Gabriel’s chest, a painful, sentimental offbeat against the sound of them moving together.

“Is that really all you got?” Jack demands. “C’mon, Reyes, I wanna feel it—”

Gabriel puts a hand on his dick and Jack comes like train derailing, orgasm punched out of him, lust piercing the veil of his anger. He streaks the carpet and stays hard, enhanced stamina making itself known.

They don’t stop. Gabriel fucks Jack through his own orgasm, pulls out, and then lifts, not caring about the way Jack clings or the way he bites, nails digging into Gabriel’s shoulders as he turns around, wrapping his legs around Gabriel’s waist, desperate for more, Gabriel’s come dripping out of his ass. They haven’t been together in so damn long; Jack feels like a young idiot again, fresh out of the Program and drowning in his own hormones, ready to fuck or to fight or to keep doing both.

Greed and lust are a mixed haze, thick and familiar, hard to breathe through. If Jack thinks about it, this is how they started; angry, competitive, Jack’s anger stoked to life after a lifelong dormancy. Maybe it’s fitting that this is where they end; Gabriel holding him up, getting his way, Jack only able to fight or enable, a limited range of movement for either choice.

He struggles to breathe and fights to stay upright, muscles in his back tensing as Gabriel moves them through the apartment. Maybe a second after, he finds himself slammed into a wall, air driven out of his body in a rush as Gabriel shoves back in, one arm to support Jack, the other braced on the wall. They’re so close now that their foreheads are almost touching as Gabriel leans in, barely out of breath. He looks at Jack for a moment of hesitation before he closes the gap and bites hard on Jack’s lower lip, teeth pulling and piercing. Gabriel tastes like blood, both Jack’s and his own, copper-iron, the very faint notes of oak and driftwood mixing.

They keep having sex instead of solving their problems. Not this violently, not this harshly, but every time they’ve fought for the last— ‘years,’ Jack realizes. ‘It feels like years—’

They fight, and they make up or they don’t, resentment lingering, arguments unresolved when missions inevitably separate them. They apologize or they don’t, and they fuck it out like that solves anything. This is what they keep coming back to. Drawn back like high-powered magnets; hands on skin and blood and fire, a burning nearly-lifelong need that says ‘closer, closer, mine, his,’ more than capable of crushing anything caught between them. And now Gabriel wants to try let go of it, attempting to cut it off like a limb.

Jack has no leverage in this position, but he does know how to wind Gabriel up. He breaks the kiss and moves to the injury he already left on Gabriel’s shoulder, mouthing at the edges of the fresh scab before trailing his tongue up the side of Gabriel’s neck. There’s a spot on his jaw that drives him crazy, and Jack noses lightly over it, reveling in the way Gabriel’s hips stutter just because Jack is breathing over his skin. He runs a hand over the side of Gabriel’s face and winds it into his hair, gentle as you please, pressing the teeth of his bloody smile into Gabriel’s neck. Then Jack firms up his grip on Gabriel’s hair and pulls, hard enough to hurt, tugging at the roots.

Gabriel groans and comes again, knees bending as he shifts all his weight onto his arm. His fingers dig into the meat of Jack’s ass, and Jack can feel each pulse in his body, warm inside and still burning as Gabriel pulls out.

Jack uncrosses his ankles and lets himself fall, slipping out of Gabriel’s slack grip. Gabriel has time to look up with unfocused eyes before Jack is shoving him, one hand planted on his sternum, pushing him back away from the wall, backing him towards the bed. It’s a testament to how confused he is, it must be, that Jack can just lead him like this, shoving a thigh between Gabriel’s legs as he pushes him down onto the bed, the back of Gabriel’s knees colliding with the mattress.

Gabriel’s getting hard again under him, but slowly; after coming twice in under twenty-five minutes, he has to be oversensitive, every touch more likely closer to pain than pleasure. Jack discovers that he doesn’t give a single fuck, and grinds his kneecap against Gabriel’s dick, listening for the choked hiss of too much before pressing in harder, bearing down as Gabriel tries to pull himself up the length of the bed, looking for leverage. Jack follows him down. He spares him another all-teeth smile, then opens his jaw around Gabriel’s dick, stretching as wide as he can around the broad, thick weight.

Gabriel shouts. There are hands in Jack’s hair, gripping the back of his skull and pulling him flush with Gabriel’s crotch, nose buried in his curls. Gabriel’s always been a stretch to take in, and Jack has always loved this, loved knowing that he can take this, make Gabriel lose his composure and all the pretty words he’d usually spout just by getting his mouth on him.

Jack hollows his cheeks and sucks, breathing deep through his nose, feeling Gabriel firm up again in his mouth. He laves his tongue over his barbells, feels the piercing at the head brush against the back of his throat. The sounds Gabriel is making now are lethal, low and needy and wrecked as he babbles, all nonsense. He smells like sweat and adrenaline, human but not quite, unique and familiar; sunlight, salt, wood. He tastes the same but stronger, mixed with the bitterness of his come.

Overstimulated, Gabriel writhes, bucking deeper into Jack’s mouth. Jack relaxes his throat, lets Gabriel slip down. Jack braces his hands on Gabriel’s thighs, kneading the muscle, feeling him twitch uncontrollably. The fingers wrapped around the back of Jack’s skull flex and shiver, pulling and scrabbling, Gabriel apparently torn between too much and more, indecisive for just this arena of his life. It takes time, but he unerringly gets hard again on Jack’s tongue, almost sobbing as Jack pulls back against his grip and lets him go.

And, yes— it’s hard to ignore Gabriel’s insinuation (the truth) that Jack slept his way into Overwatch. That this is what he’s really good for, a far cry from the terrified, closeted virgin he used to be. But that doesn’t mean Jack’s skills at this are something to ignore; they relearned their bodies with each other after the Program. They’ve spent nearly two decades memorizing how to move together. Jack is good at this— he crawls up into Gabriel’s lap and plants a hand on his sternum, open-palmed and possessive.

“You ready, angel?” He asks, soft and rasping; almost a parody of himself.

There are tears in his eyes, and yet the look Gabriel gives him is a house fire; awe and anger, an image of everything they built reducing to ashes. “This really all you got, 4H?”

“Nah. Of course not, cap.” Jack runs his free hand over Gabriel’s cheek, thumb brushing through the wetness under his eye, trailing over old striped scars. “You still didn’t get what you paid for.”

The pace Jack sets is punishing, but not brutal. Gabriel’s hands latch onto his hips hard enough to bruise, gun-rough palms and fingers spread over the rise of muscle and bone. Familiarity and practice make this easy, Jack finding his own prostate on every thrust. He can feel Gabriel’s pulse jackrabbiting under his hand. Need and want and a greed so alive and vicious it has eyes and teeth are all in the room with them, thick in the air, making it impossible to think.

It doesn’t take long for Gabriel to try and take control back, those broad hands gripping tight and lifting Jack like he weighs nothing at all. Pleasure rolls through him in sharp waves, pulling him under. Jack can see the muscles in Gabriel’s stomach and chest tensing, the lines and scars of his body, the unsteady working of his throat. His eyes are all darkness, amber rings around wide pupils. They’re getting old and Gabriel is still hungry, beautiful, able to call out the thing in Jack that wants without understanding.

Jack can feel himself breaking open in the face of that and he hates it, just how much Gabriel can make him feel, the inevitable crash that’s waiting for them. His eyes burn and his chest feels tight; Gabriel still has his goddamn dog tags, and the matching pair bounces up and down on Jack’s chest, still shining after all these years.

Jack loses track of time. It slips through his fingers as Gabriel slams into him from below, heat rising in his belly. Jack is lost, drifting in it. Thoughts scatter and fail to connect to each other: ‘More, mine, his, always.’ He’s so full, shivering from the contact. His chest feels tight and he hurts, still, deeply—

“Come on,” Gabriel growls, pleading, motions unsteady as he nears the end. “Come on, sunshine, come for me, let go—”

Jack outright sobs. He hates himself for it but he can’t stop the noise, the choked off hitch of pleasure as his second orgasm rips through him like a dull knife through muscle, untouched except for the hands on his hips. Gabriel follows with a broken moan, and Jack nearly collapses against him, white splashing between them, painting their chests with sticky heat. Jack sees stars and loses coordination, spine going limp.

Jack’s been so tired, lately. Unconsciousness is coming for him and he falls to meet it, body hitting the stained sheets, too exhausted even to clean himself. “Stay,” he says. “Please.”

He reaches an arm out for Gabriel, and hates himself, suddenly, distantly, for needing him. But Gabriel stays. He takes Jack’s arm, and reels him in, pulling Jack’s face against his collarbone. They slept like this for years when Jack finally started sleeping like a person for the first time since enlistment. It had been grounding, Gabriel’s body known and safe.

Everything Jack has ever been he’s been because of Gabriel. When the darkness takes him, Jack dreams of fire, and shadows so deep they have a sound; distant sirens and screaming, a sightless vision of the tower.

In the morning, Gabriel slips out of the bed, eeling out from under Jack’s arm in one motion. The light from the plate window is gray, this early. They both are silent. For once in his life, Gabriel doesn’t seem to have anything to say.

Jack can’t bring himself to move. After a night spent with his body trying to put itself back together he’s sore, but more than that, he’s empty. It still felt right to be holding Gabriel while they slept last night, but now Jack can’t find the motivation to keep holding on any longer. The thing in his head that says he’s only a void is louder now, and for the first time, it speaks with Gabriel’s voice. Familiar syllables and a sick-sweet knowing that goes deeper than Jack will ever understand himself: there is nothing John Morrison has that he did himself. All he ever does is take.

Gabriel sits down on the bed to pull his boots on, the heavy combat kind with plates that have to snap together. Jack wants to rest a hand against his bare spine, the place where Gabriel’s pants meet his back, but doesn’t let himself do it. He curls a little tighter around the space Gabriel is making between them instead, scant inches an ocean. These sheets are going to smell like him, now, and they haven’t for years, since they last were in Gibraltar together. There’s blood and sweat and semen on them; Jack’s going to have to do laundry if he wants to sleep on them again. Not to mention he’s going to have to take a shower.

Clarity and the ability to compartmentalize come back to him slowly; this wasn’t a good idea. Later, he’ll probably have regrets. At some point he’s going to have to talk to Angela about changing his dosage for his depression medication, command not the sort of thing that Jack can leave on the back burner for long for the sake of something as petty as his own fickle feelings. Eventually, he’s going to have to get dressed and go back to reality. But right now, all Jack can think about is the place on Gabriel’s shoulder where Jack bit him. All his idle and scattered attention is fixated on the torn skin as it shifts over thick muscle as Gabriel finds a shirt in his bag. Already the injury is healing, the blood clotted, a scab starting to form. In a few hours, it’ll be gone, but that it’s still there at all is a testament to how much Jack must’ve made it hurt.

“Look,” Gabriel says, clothes on, now. He holds his beany in one loose fist with Jack’s dog tags, his back still to Jack. “It’s not working, Jack, we’re shit at this whole long distance thing.” If Gabriel hands the tags back to him now, Jack thinks he might honestly crack in half.

Jack can barely hear the words, his head buzzing. It’s so quiet in here, for such a small room. “We didn’t used to be,” he says softly.

“Yeah, like eighteen years ago,” Gabriel scoffs, turning to shove last night’s ruined outfit into his duffle along with his beany and the tags. “Things changed.”

‘We changed,’ Jack hears.

“Why don’t you just try?” He asks.

“Because I dunno,” Gabriel snarls, tired, scrubbing a hand over his face, fingertips catching on the deep scars under his right eye. “Maybe I’m trying to be a responsible adult for once in my life. Put us outta our misery.”

‘I wasn’t miserable,’ Jack wants to say. ‘You’re the best damn thing that ever happened to me. Please—’

But instead, what he says is: “Okay. Alright.” Because— because ultimately, Jack won’t make Gabriel miserable. He’s awake, now, out of the place where he’s nothing but hunger, last night’s desperation flowing out like the tide, leaving him sick with regret and disgusted at himself. Jack’s too old to dig his nails in and cling to something as it dies, and they’ve been dying for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” he adds, and his voice sounds hollow even to him.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says. “Me too.”

Then Gabriel picks up his bag, which had barely been on the floor for ten hours, the last stage of the fight conducted with his usual, efficient brutality. He won’t look Jack in the eye as he breathes out, nods, leaves. His bearing— the tilt of his spine as walks away— Gabriel’s relieved.

It takes hours for Jack to finally start crying. He’d cleaned the suite in preparation for his time off, and the tears don’t come until he finds the nearly empty bottle of green apple vodka Gabriel had once brought as a basewarming gift in the back of his small pantry. The last time they’d seen each other properly was at Ana’s funeral, and last night Jack was going to make dinner. He was going to make scratch dough for the pie; cinnamon, apple, clove, a recipe he’d perfected years ago by corresponding with Meche, back before Gérard and Amélie, before he and Gabriel both had stopped talking to the Reyes family for their protection. Last night was supposed to be—

Morrison takes himself off leave the next day, and ignores Angela’s questions as to why when she inevitably comes snooping, armed with details and gossip Morrison will never understand how she gets.

“I’m still taking my meds,” he tells her. “Might need to change the dose. I’m fine.”

“You’re really not,” she says, but he shrugs it off. It doesn’t change anything if she’s right. His real life isn’t about what Morrison wants. It’s got so much to do with what he can handle.

Chapter Text

(11. For as long as we can ride it.)

[2060 — Overwatch Headquarters, Switzerland]

Jack gets the call in the middle of the night, startled out of a dream of fire and thick smoke, heart hammering in his chest, lungs heaving for clean air. It’s not his comm that lights up, but his phone. “Soldier, Poet, King” warbles out, and for a minute, Jack’s still in California, half asleep and fumbling. He slaps at the bedside table a few times; alarm clock, knife, lamp, gun, phone.

“Is it time to get you from the airport?” He slurs. “I thought you weren’t supposed to be back until this afternoon.”

“What?” Gabriel’s voice is irritated; pinched quick syllables. “Hey, earth to 4H—” A rattling sound fills Jack’s ear as Gabriel presumably pulls the phone away from his mouth and covers it with his hand if the way the connection goes dull means anything. “Liao! Are you sure this connection is stable?”

On the other side of the line, Jack hears rapidfire shouting, completely indistinguishable under all the distortion and the muffling effect of Gabriel’s fingers. Jack can’t make out the words, but the second voice is familiar, and out of context. Hauling himself upright from tangled and sweat-drenched sheets, he blinks. The room that resolves itself around him in the darkness isn’t their California apartment, but Jack’s suite at the Switzerland base.

“Gabi?”

“Yeah Brad, it’s me.” It’s a snarl, but Jack’s ninety-percent sure it’s a fond snarl. “Get your head out of your ass, Commander, you have a job to do.”

“I’m up,” Jack lies, brain starting to come online. “I’m up.”

“Shit. What time is it over there?”

“Uh.” Jack pulls the phone away from his ear and glances at the display. “0413.”

“Fuck.” A shaky pull of air. “I shouldn’t have called—”

“Hey, no,” Jack says, his higher functions finally kicking into gear at the sound of Gabriel’s doubt. “You always call. You hear me, Reyes? Don’t you start this macho shit. I got your back, remember?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel says. “Solid copy.” Jack can hear the faint smile and the bare, worn down quality to it makes him want to punch something.

Jack draws a breath, shakes the rest of the sleep off. “Okay.” He breathes again. Scrubs his face with his free hand. “Sitrep.”

“Right.” Jack can feel Gabriel’s spine straightening despite the distance between them. “Reporting Charlie foxtrot. Three casualties, one fatality. Requesting a medic and an extraction.”

Under Jack’s hand the phone creaks, plastic warping. “A medic? What happened to Bojan?”

“The fatality.”

Sorrow hits Jack from far away; Bojan had been a strike team member, a surly field medic from Croatia. He’d gone into Blackwatch after the second founding, joking that someone had to keep track of Sirkiene and Layeni. Jack wants to ask who the casualties were, but he knows it’d be a sign of nepotism in himself. It’d be unprofessional to ask if it’s another member of their family injured in the line, and if so which one; it’s unprofessional even to think of certain agents as his family as opposed to his subordinates. It’s wrong to even divide them in his head.

He breathes out. “Location?”

“Fort Buckner; I called in a favor. Bradley is stationed out here and she still owes me for Cleveland. But things are all kinds of fucked, I’m not gonna lie to you.”

“Usually that’s implied in the foxtrot.” Jack stands, and puts the phone on speaker, dropping it on his bed. “You’re on speaker, but there’s no one else here and the line’s secure on my end. How quickly do you need to move out?”

“ASAP. Bradley has her people on security, but I don’t like it. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have stayed to begin with.”

Jack pulls a shirt over his head, reaching for his pants. “Highlights, Commander. What do you have, what do you need?” He dresses quickly and efficiently, not bothering to turn on the lights. It’s dim but not entirely dark, light filtering in under the door from the hallway, so he doesn’t really need them.

“I’ve got a new informant, and the generosity that comes from calling in a ten-year-old marker. What I need is someone who can put Humpty Dumpty back together again, reinforcements, a perimeter that’s not largely barbed wire, and a base that’s actually seen action since the Crisis.”

Gabriel’s a professional first. Jack knows that. To anyone else, he probably sounds perfectly fine; irritated, but otherwise unaffected. To Jack, the list of complaints stands out like a siren, a storm warning over the town PA before the tornado rolls in.

“Well I can do two of those things,” he says threading a belt through his fatigues. “But Buckner’s been quiet forever, and I know that whatever went down, that’s why you picked it.”

Gabriel’s sigh is explosive through the phone, a burst of static. “We got run out of Kyoto on a rail. Wound up in the sticks chasing a lead about a clan holding the regional keystone, and found a nest of what I’m moderately sure are honest-to-god ninjas. We also found a way in. But he’s not gonna last without a medic, and we can’t extract without killing him in the move.”

Jack grabs his holster from its place in his closet, and pulls down his armor and his duster. “And Buckner doesn’t have anyone?”

“Not that kind of medic, Commander.” Gabriel’s voice is tight and clipped under a veneer wry professionalism. “We need Mercy.”

Jack’s hands pause on his chest holster. “She hasn’t been read in,” he warns Gabriel. “You sure about this?”

“Nobody else is going to be able to do the job, and we’re running out of time over here,” Gabriel says frankly. “We’ve got an informant and he’s stabilized, but he’s not going to stay that way; it’s like they fed the kid to a fucking woodchipper.”

“I’ll bring her in, then,” Jack says. Armor on, he grabs his go bag and Gabriel’s spare out from under the bed.

“Okay.” Another crackling huff, something no one else would recognize as relief.

Jack spends a moment listening to Gabriel breathe through the feedback, matching his own breaths to it. He shoves his boots on, holsters his gun, his knife.

“Wait—”

“I might be shit at dancing, but if you think for a second that I’m gonna let you try to foxtrot by yourself now that I know, you’ve got another thing coming,” Jack says. He grabs his comm and sends a ping to the airstrip, and then a mobilization alarm to Angela. “You need reinforcements, well, I’m the reinforcements. Lock down an inner perimeter, keep your informant alive, and try to keep everyone else stabilized. Wheels up in thirty on my end.”

“You’re a pain in my ass, you know that, right?” Gabriel asks. It’s a fond question, Jack swears.

“See you soon,” Jack tells him, pulling his long blue coat on over it all, securing his visor to his ear. “Over and out.”

“See you soon, Commander.” The line goes quiet with a click, and Jack throws the door open, squinting momentarily into the light of the hallway.

At four in the morning, the base is quiet. There’s a night rotation, but it’s small; they run silent at night, and they run low, watches kept to a moderate level. The Swiss HQ is enormous, and it feels most alien at times like this. It used to be smaller; the Swiss government had given the UN a loan on the original compound for the strike team’s use, and the modest base had still been too large even for the fifty-man group that they’d become by the time the war ended. After the Crisis was declared over, the UN had sprung for a massive recruitment drive, and the very first watchpoint had been expanded to a sprawling behemoth that Jack spent two months getting lost in after construction was finished.

Jack’s boots echo in the metal halls, and he reads a brand new (and heavily encrypted) report package from Liao as he runs for the armory, catching himself up on the adventure that Blackwatch seems to have had in Japan over the last few days. Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he called foxtrot; Liao’s been sparing with the details, but Jack knows full well how to read between the lines when it comes to Liao’s way of understating things. If anything, foxtrot might not even be drastic enough of a term. Overwatch earned its wings fighting in urban environments, but the sorts of things that Liao’s reporting in the package speak to a depth of brutality and disregard for civilians that reminds Jack of the Crisis, urban warfare at its most foul and uncompromising.

Angela’s waiting for him when Jack makes it to the airstrip with his rifle and his go bag. The engines are already cycling up, and the wind tosses her hair in its ponytail. Angela has her medical bag and the crate that contains the valkyrie suit, the caduceus staff slung between them, the matching pistol holstered at her side. Her face is tight with worry, and still raw with sleep. In the early morning light, she looks washed out and blue, backlit by the open door of the midsized plane.

“Move,” Jack tells her, and hauls himself up the ramp and onto the jet, moving past her in long strides. “Get all your things secured, and then yourself.”

He taps on the wall by the cockpit with his knuckles, and stoops in, bending his head under the overhang. There’s not enough space in here for him to stand or even move in fully, so he ducks in, bending under the low ceiling of the cockpit, holding onto the lip where the ceiling meets the wall with his right hand.

The strike team had fostered quick and bizarre friendships, the Crisis acting like a pressure cooker on their little family. Those who survived clung to each other, and Narang and Herrera are some of the best pilots that the strike team produced. They’d made themselves infamous within the unit for their immediate bond despite their radically different backgrounds, Narang from a wealthy Pakistani family, and Hererra from the streets of Viedma. Even now Jack can’t help thinking of them as one unit; Narang-and-Herrera, Jaya-and-Victoria, Overwatch’s winged victories.

Whichever choice he makes here is going to be cruel, to tell them or not to tell them until they hit the ground. Mercy’s presence alone likely tips them off to some sense of wrongness; the only people to know about Blackwatch are members of the group itself and strike team survivors who’d been grandfathered in to the knowledge at the second founding. So he doesn’t tell them about Bojan. It’s awful to keep that sort of news from someone, but Jack needs them to make a transcontinental flight in a hypersonic jet. It’s going to be a seven hour haul at the minimum, and he can’t have them stewing in it, distracted by their grief.

“Wheels up in four,” Herrera tells him, not looking up from her readout. “Dad in trouble?”

“Do we need bail money?” Narang asks dryly, flipping a few switches on her side of the board.

The two of them are a study in practiced nonchalance. Neither of them will turn to look at him, and Jack knows it’s for their sakes more than his, the dark visors of their matching helmets shielding their eyes. There’s no good reason for the Strike Commander to call an echo clearance flight this early in the morning, and they have to know it.

Jack pastes on a smile, a vain attempt to soften the blow he can’t delay. “Looks like he and Liao went dancing.”

Herrera hisses through her teeth. “And they didn’t invite you?” Her voice is painfully light, a forced airiness. “That’s rude.”

“Well, that’s why we’re going to go pick them up now that they’re done,” Jack says, faking a levity to match. “We’re on the clock here, so let’s see if we can’t set a record on the way to Japan. Just remember that the real trick is going to be getting into Buckner on the downlow.”

Herrera breathes in, a shaky little rattle as she squares her pale jaw. “Solid copy, Commander.”

“I’m going to be reading Ziegler in on echo before I give the rest of the status.” Jack tells them.

Narang shakes her head. “Good luck with that,” she says.

“What tall, dark, and handsome means to say is that you might want to watch your step around how you bring her clearance up, alright Mom?” Herrera chimes in. “She’s been in the field how long? So be careful with her.”

Jack raps each of them once on the helmet, a quick, light knock that prompts an indignant noise from Herrera. “I’m always careful.”

Narang laughs in blatant disbelief, and to her credit it’s only a little wet-sounding.

“Wheels up in one,” Herrera says. “Strap in, Commander. And make sure the kid straps in too.”

Jack backs out of the cockpit, and nearly bumps directly into Angela as he straightens up.

“What’s going on?” She asks, worry creasing her face. “Why am I needed in Japan with full kit? What does dancing have to do with anything? Why was your ping stamped with echo clearance? We don’t even have an echo clearance—”

Jack holds up a hand. “Strap in first, and get your helmet on. We’re not going to be able to talk much, but the helmet can do speech-to-text.”

Angela looks mutinous, but complies. Quickly, she undoes her ponytail before she grabs her hair up again, tying it into a messy bun before shoving her head into a helmet. Jack checks his helmet’s own oxygen connection as he fits it over his comm and straps himself to the bulkhead.

As the plane kicks off, the engines around them roar into life. Jack has lived through several tornados, enough to know that the two sounds are nothing alike, but the takeoff still rattles through and over him, vertigo pulling at him as they leave the ground, continuously accelerating until they burst the sound barrier in a thunderous pop, coasting into an altitude so high that the atmosphere thins around them.

Jack’s visor lights up with a ping, tagged to Mercy’s callsign. ‘What’s echo clearance?’

“List the clearance levels for me,” Jack says, speaking into the helmet’s mask, the speech-to-text program kicking in.

‘Alpha, beta, charlie, delta. I have alpha medical clearance, but only charlie clearance for operations. Delta is the lowest operational level. What’s echo?’

“What’s under delta?” Jack asks her, leaning back into the seat. “Nothing, right? Except, when you think of a house, what’s under the first floor?”

‘The ground floor?’

Jack quirks a grin, despite himself. “The basement. You’re getting a promotion and an upgrade in clearance, Dr. Zeigler. Echo clearance describes underground activity, the sort of operations that Overwatch can’t take in public view in any capacity. Simply put, our black ops use the echo designation. And like it or not, you’re involved in one of them now.”

Jack waits. On the other side of the bay, Angela’s gloved hands clench, fingers curling and uncurling as she fights her own anger.

‘How long?’ She asks.

“Since as long as there’s been an Overwatch,” Jack says truthfully. “We were created as black ops force; it’s why the public was never told any details about the strike team until after the public founding. At that point, I was given Overwatch, and Commander Reyes was given command of our black ops sister organization, codename Blackwatch. He goes where I can’t, and does the jobs that have to to be done quietly.”

‘It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. You wouldn’t hide it if it were something legal, or ethical.’

“Legality in this case is a blurry definition. Overwatch’s mission is to preserve global peace, but as a subsidiary of the United Nations, we’re bound to respect national sovereignty. But we can’t always wait— not on bickering politicians, not on treaties, not on public opinion. We prioritize global security first. And that’s where Blackwatch comes in.”

‘It’s not that simple,’ Angela says again. The helmets strip all the emotion out of the messages when they standardize their grammar, but Jack can still feel her anger, her disbelief. ‘National sovereignty matters. The UN doesn’t have the right to trample over borders like this.’

“It’s not about what we have the right to do, it’s about doing what is right,” Jack explains. “You want to beat death, disease? We want to stop wars before they start, eliminate the need for international armed conflict. In the same way that we go into countries for flood relief even if they haven’t signed a treaty authorizing an ecowatchpoint, we mobilize to take care of organized crime and terrorism in countries that haven’t officially come to us for help yet. It’d be irresponsible to do anything else,” Jack argues. “The world is connected, Overwatch is a testament to that. If we let something fester in one country, it can spill over and plague another. We have the ability to help, so we do. And we don’t sit around waiting for anyone to let us.”

It’s cold inside the plane. The atmosphere is thin around them, the jet a sealed bastion against the vastness of space and the marbled earth below. Across from him, Angela sits in her flight gear, face invisible behind her helmet. Her hands clench and unclench, her left knee leaning against the crate that contains her valkyrie armor.

‘I don’t like it,’ she says. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

“Because you wouldn’t like it,” Jack tells her honestly, helmet echoing his voice back to him, the visor displaying every word. “Because you didn’t need to know to do the job you do. We’re a military organization first; information is need to know.”

Jack knows he’s being harsh with her, but he doesn’t want to have this argument with her. Angela’s a lot of things, and self-righteous is one of them. In a way, he’s thankful to be stuck with her alone for several hours while she hashes this out; he doubts that she’s going to expose Blackwatch, not if he presents it to her in the right way. But he’s glad to be able to watch her while Angela thinks it over, glad to have her somewhere enclosed where she can’t go off the rails.

‘But you’re telling me now.’

The program doesn’t register it as a question, but Jack takes it as one anyway. “Because you need to know to do your job, now.” Jack leans forward in the straps, and taps her boot with his own, making sure he has her attention. “They found a teenager, a nineteen year old kid, from a yakuza family. He wasn’t what his family wanted, so they took him apart. Now, he wants out, and Blackwatch has already lost people trying to give that out to him. I’m going to send you the dossier that Lieutenant Commander Liao put together on his injuries, and you’re going to study them. And then I need to you to tell me whether or not you can save him, because otherwise, we’ll have gone to Japan for nothing.”

Jack manipulates his comm with his gloved hands, collecting the medical report Bajon had managed to put together on the Shimada boy, and forwarding it to Angela’s comm. It’s a gruesome read, and the clinical accounting doesn’t make the list of injuries any less terrifying. The addition from Liao at the bottom of the report indicates that the medical personnel at Buckner are attempting to treat him, but it’s a slow holding pattern; whoever had taken the kid apart hadn’t intended there to be a body left, from the look of things, and there’s only so much modern medical science can do.

“There’s a kid’s life at stake, Angela,” Jack tells her earnestly. “Sometimes you have to deal with the fact that we don’t live in an ideal world. You have to triage. Sometimes, you have to make do with what you have, and try to build the future you want.”

After that, they sit in silence, the plane’s engines filtering through the insulation of Jack’s helmet, placing him in the eye of the storm. He reads the collected reports Liao sent him in more depth this time instead of skimming. In them, he finds an answer to the question he hadn’t allowed himself to ask Gabriel earlier; the first two casualties were Sirkiene and Layeni. Sirkiene had lost a leg from a mine trying to fight her way to Bajon’s burnt corpse, and Layeni had sustained a concussion trying to stop her, beaten in the skull when he hauled her bloody body from the ground.

The third casualty in the list is Gabriel himself.

The cold that rushes through Jack leaves him fighting tremors as he hangs his head and closes his eyes, blocking out the text of the pinged reports. A concussion to explain the initial strangeness of his call, two broken ribs, and a shattered arm, all of it earned shoving Jesse out of the way of a mortar round. It could’ve been worse. If he hadn’t been a supersoldier, it would’ve been worse.

The unit had made it to Buckner in broad daylight despite suffering heavy losses and injuries, their medic dead, having shielded Genji’s body with his own when the mortar fire started. It would’ve been a complete wipe for any other team. But the narrow distance between Gabriel and the void still terrifies Jack in some deep, hollow part of himself, empty space resonating with the possibility of an unendurable loss.

Eventually, another message pings, and Jack opens at his eyes at the noise.

Green text glows softly on his visor: ‘I need pictures of his injuries and the following equipment. I will do what I can.’

Jack sighs, breathing out. He knocks his foot into Angela’s again, and pings the ground far below, asking Liao for pictures, and forwarding a list of demands.

By the time they land, Angela has a plan. She strides out of the plane and into the night, Narang helping her carry her crate full of equipment as she charges the base, the impossibly young doctor once again caught up in her own private battle with death itself.

With the windowless walls of the jet having kept them isolated from daylight, Jack can’t help but feel as if the night has followed them, or that they somehow brought it with them. It’s the math of highspeed eastward travel, the sun having risen and set as they flew towards the future. Jack still feels half-asleep and shaken; he keeps expecting to be in California, and the cool, clean, late summer air on his face jars him, nothing like the muggy heat of Los Angeles.

Buckner doesn’t share anything with Headquarters, not in population or design. The base is a glowing beacon in the gathering darkness, lights from lamps and windows all at a distance from the airstrip. Standing in a nearby pool of illumination is Liao, Gabriel’s second a shadow all in themself in their black tactical gear.

“You know, I don’t think this is what he meant when he asked for reinforcements,” Liao remarks. “There’s only four of you, and I’m pretty sure the good doctor’s twelve years old.”

“He doesn’t get to make operational decisions when he’s concussed,” Jack says, watching Herrera walk the Buckner airfield staff through cooling down the jet.

“Why do you think I let him call you?” Liao asks. “He’s been smoking like a chimney since we hit Matsue and now he’s started trying to guilt Jesse into stealing him more cigars.”

Jack frowns, letting slip the tiny, shaky breath that he’s been holding in his chest for the last several hours. “Good to know he’s still conscious.”

“Unlike you, he has to be conscious to make himself a pain in all our collective asses,” Liao says, a tiny grin dancing over their features.

“Sleepwalk once and no one ever lets you forget it,” Jack says idly, starting to walk into the base.

“You weren’t sleepwalking, Jack, you were burning an empty pan while completely unconscious. Ana thought you were possessed.”

Jack shrugs. “Potato, tomato.”

Liao laughs, and folds their arms behind their head as they walk. “Either way, he’s going to be your problem in a minute. I can handle everyone else, the trick is just stopping the Commander from causing any more mayhem without sedating him.”

Jack rubs a thumb over the bridge of his nose, resettling his visor. “What did he do now?”

“He got into a fight with Colonel Bradley.”

Jack looks down at Liao. “Seriously?”

Liao makes a little seesawing gesture with their left hand. “Depends on how you define ‘fight.’ She had him on the ground in two moves, and with minimal damage. Nice to know that all you supersoldiers move like that, by the way.”

Jack winces. “At least he didn’t break anything else.” A yawn slips out of him, cracking his jaws.

“You didn’t sleep on the plane?” Liao asks.

“Didn’t need to. I can operate on four hours just fine,” Jack protests.

“You say that now, but just wait until some idiot recruit finds you sleeping in a doorway with your eyes open and we have a new international incident on our hands,” Liao warns him. “And speaking of, are you going to get in trouble for running out here in the middle of the night?”

“I’ve got prerogative to investigate what I need to,” Jack says, mustering a confident demeanor he knows he’ll be presenting to the council when this is over, back straight, chest pushed out slightly. “Anything serious enough to sideline the Blackwatch Commander is something worth investigating, don’t you think?” He pauses, and looks at Liao out of the corner of his eye. “Did that work?”

Liao snorts. “Might need to practice that bullshit in front of a mirror a few more times before Loeng buys it. But as long as you don’t call them assclowns and park yourself at his bedside like a turret, I think you’ll be fine. No one wants to go through another Berlin.”

Jack grimaces. Most of what he remembers from Berlin is a wash of pain and waking up to find out that Gabriel had relocated the entire center of the strike team’s command to Jack’s bedside, effectively outing them their entire unit, something the UN had expressly forbidden that they do when they’d given Gabriel the job. At the time it had been a relief not to have to hide anymore, but the repercussions had been more far-reaching than either of them had anticipated.

“Copy that,” he mutters, and Liao laughs again, bumping lightly into Jack’s side.

“Cheer up,” they say. “You’re going to want a brave face for the kids. They’re pretty torn up.”

“Like you aren’t, too,” Jack murmurs. “You know you don’t have to be stone cold all the time, right?”

“Pot and kettle, niang,” Liao replies, equally soft. “I will if you will.”

Jack sighs, and bumps Liao back as they open the door and walk into the light.

Being on explicitly American territory again feels strange in a way Jack can’t quite articulate, caught up in the familiar scent of floor wax and harshly chemical cleaner. There’s a part of him that misses SEP and the marines the way he never missed his childhood home, a bizarre nostalgia for something he’s outgrown. People salute as Jack and Liao walk past, the Strike Commander’s reinforced blue duster instantly recognizable even to those few who don’t know Jack’s face from an infinite number of press conferences and recruitment drives. Jack can’t help but wonder how many of these young soldiers joined up after the Crisis because of the propaganda the US military had put out with his and Gabriel’s faces on them, exhortations to the youth to pick up a gun and do better.

At his side, Liao shoots him a look that speaks volumes, a little twitch at the corner of their mouth, the equivalent of an eyeroll; can you believe these jokers?

Jack knows when they’ve made it to Gabriel’s section of the infirmary by the growling: “I don’t care if I’m they don’t sell the good shit at the commissary here; someone’s bound to have something you can barter for or steal. What the shit did they teach you in that bullshit-ass gang if you can’t get a fucking cigar—”

Jack pushes the door open, a helpless little smile stealing over his face at the sound of Gabriel complaining. Inside, Jesse’s hunched down in a chair, the brim of his hat pushed back, his eyes wide. His clothes are still stained with blood and ash, bits of street dust still in the crevices of his hat.

Gabriel’s hospital bed takes up the majority of the space, the room he’s been shoved into likely more for everyone else’s privacy rather than his own. His right arm is wrapped in white bandages and a flexible, plastic-printed hex cast, and suspended from the ceiling in a sling. Gabriel’s otherwise bare chest is similarly swathed with cloth, thick padding obscuring the worst of his burns and lacerations. Jack’s dog tags hang on their chain over the bandages, looking a bit charred and bloody, but otherwise still intact.

Jesse looks up at the sound of the door opening and jumps, his hand moving to his gun on sheer protective instinct.

“He’s not giving you trouble, is he?” Jack asks him.

“Uh,” the kid stammers, hand awkwardly lowering to his lap, empty fingers curling with thwarted nerves.

“‘Cause he’s a real pain in the dick when he’s hurt,” Jack continues blithely. “God knows sometimes I’ve considered just puttin’ him outta his misery like a horse with a bum leg—”

“Oh well fuck you too, Dave,” Gabriel snarls. “See if you get a hello kiss at this rate.”

“Now now,” Jack deadpans, “there are minors present.”

“I’m twenty-one,” Jesse mutters, pulling his hat over his eyes.

“Stop traumatizing the children,” Liao says.

“I’m twenty-one.”

“You’re an infant until you figure out how to get me another damn cigar is what you are,” Gabriel says. He turns and looks up at Jack, his pupils very clearly different sizes, one eye all black, the other nearly all brown. “Oh, hey sunshine; when did you get here?”

Jack snickers, incredulous. “Just now,” he says. “Can I get a hello kiss?”

“Shit,” Gabriel tells him, “take those tight pants off and you can get—”

“That’d be our cue, xiao gui.” Liao grabs Jesse by the arm and hauls him out of his chair, leading him out of the little room into the wider infirmary.

Jack grabs the chair and drags it over to Gabriel’s uninjured side, drinking in the sight of him. For the most part, he looks the same as he did when he left Switzerland last month, albeit more injured and a bit shaggier, his beard unkempt and filling in with stubble. His beany is missing, which doesn’t bode well, but is an inane thing to focus on. Jack reaches a hand out, and Gabriel takes it, trying to lace their fingers together with a lack of coordination that either speaks to the concussion, or to the industrial strength horse tranquilizers that American bases tend to keep around for their supersoldiers. Something in Jack settles at the contact, quieting down.

‘He’s alive,’ Jack tells himself silently, a prayer to something he can’t quite believe in. ‘He’s alive, thank god, he’s still here.’

“You’re shaking,” Gabriel says, fingers pushing and pulling at Jack’s.

“I’m fine,” Jack says, willing it to be true.

“But you’re shaking.” Gabriel frowns. If his other arm weren’t currently suspended from the ceiling, Jack’s certain he’d be out of his bed and trying to drag Jack into it. Which, now that Jack thinks about it, probably explains why the medics here put his arm into suspension in the first place.

“Don’t worry about me,” Jack says. “Worry about you.”

“What?” Gabriel asks. “Why?”

“Because you’re broken in like four places, cap.”

“Shit. I better not go back to any of those places, then.” Gabriel’s frown deepens, and Jack laughs, startled. “I don’t feel broken.”

Jack tries to get a grip on himself. “That’d be the drugs.”

“Lights are too bright, though.” Gabriel squints.

“That’d be the concussion.”

“I don’t feel—”

“Trust me,” Jack says, smiling, “you’re definitely concussed.”

“Oh.” Gabriel pauses for a moment, brows drawn together. “Who’s got operational command?”

“Liao does,” Jack tells him.

“Why are you here, then?” Gabriel asks. “Don’t you have some other bullshit job to be doing?”

Jack snorts. “I’m here for morale,” he says. “Yours, specifically. I wasn’t kiddin’ about makin’ glue outta you.”

For a moment, everything is quiet. Gabriel drifts, and Jack lets him, watching the rise and fall of his bandaged chest, the way light flickers off the dirty tags that bear Jack's name. He brings Gabriel’s hand up to his lips and brushes a kiss over his knuckles. Jack focuses on the feeling of Gabriel’s pulse in his thumb instead of the coolness of his body after bloodloss. The heavy scent of antiseptics covers everything, but on his skin Jack can still smell the fire from the mortars, and the blood from the shrapnel, smoke and iron and wood.

Like no one else in Jack’s life has ever been able to, Gabriel always makes him feel so much, a nearly unendurable flood.

“That’s not the only reason, right?” Gabriel asks after a minute or so, breaking into Jack’s thoughts.

Jack sighs. “No,” he agrees, “it’s not. I read Angela in, and she’s here for your new informant. She thinks she can save him, so I’m just hoping you were right on that one. Technically I’m here to oversee her operations, and to facilitate recruitment and all that good shit.”

“If you try to poach any of her spec ops guys, Ellie’s gonna punch you in the dick,” Gabriel warns him.

“Yeah?” Jack asks. “Is that what she did to you?”

“No, she got me with an arm bar and a leg sweep.” Gabriel frowns. “She’s no joke. And hold on, wait. Back up. You said something about Angie— is she here?”

Jack nods. “Yeah. I want to check in with her and make sure she’s okay before she gets scrubbed up, actually; can you wait here for a bit?”

“You gonna come back?” Gabriel asks him.

Jack squeezes his hand and stands. “For you? Every time.”

“Aw, boyscout,” Gabriel coos. “That’s sappy as hell.”

“Yeah, well.” Jack untangles their fingers, lets go. Gabriel’s hand falls back onto the thin mattress. “Maybe I’m feelin’ sorry for your busted ass. I’ll be back in a bit; don’t set the base on fire.”

“No promises!” Gabriel calls after him.

Jack shakes his head as he pulls the door closed. When he turns around, he nearly runs into McCree, the kid standing in a parade rest with a determined expression stamped on his face.

“Fuck,” Jack swears. These kids need to stop sneaking up on him before Jack accidentally punches somebody. “Didn’t anybody teach you not to eavesdrop?”

“I have it on reliable authority that I’m an irredeemable hooligan,” Jesse says seriously. He’s finally finished growing over the last year or so, finally of a height with Jack and Gabriel, and it feels odd to actually have him at eye level. “And this is important.”

Jack sighs internally. “Alright. Talk and walk then, ‘cause I have to go find Angela before she locks herself in a vacuum with your new friend.”

Jesse falls in line with Jack as they start down the halls. “That’s what I needed to talk to you about, sir. His name’s Genji. Genji Shimada.”

“I read the mission report,” Jack tells him. “I know who he is.”

Jesse squares his jaw. “All respect and all that sir, but I don’t think you do. There’s more to him than just who his family is, where he comes from. He ain’t just some gang prince on the outs with his family.”

“Is that right?” Jack asks, looking at Jesse out of the corner of his eye.

Jesse nods. “Yes sir. I don’t know if Liao put this in there, but Genji’s a fighter. The trained from birth kind; before his brother cut his legs off, I bet you he coulda given you a run for your money in a dead sprint. He’s good with a sword and anythin’ you could throw, too.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Jack asks.

“Because he deserves a chance,” Jesse says, all bright vehemence. “Not just to be an informant, hooked up to machinery until he dies from boredom. I know Angie can save him, but he deserves better than a half life spent sittin’ still.”

“McCree, he’s barely got a spine anymore,” Jack points out.

“He’s a fighter,” Jesse stresses. “He was still conscious when we picked him up, said he was tired of bein’ complicit in it—”

Comprehension dawns. Jack’s had this exact conversation before, four years ago now. Gabriel had been ready to fight him tooth and nail for Jesse’s pardon and his place in the operation. “You want him to join Overwatch.”

Jesse shakes his head. “I want him to join Blackwatch. He deserves a second chance,” he mutters. “He’s a kid. He said he wants to do better, and Kreo died tryin’ to make sure he could. He should have the chance to pay that back.”

This time, Jack sighs externally. Stopping in front of the door to the operating theater, Jack drops a hand on top of Jesse’s hat, lets it rest there. “Solid copy, Jesse. I read you.”

After a beat of surprised disbelief from Jesse, Jack takes his hand back and slams on the door to the theater until a surgeon in scrubs wanders out.

“Commander Morrison?”

“At ease,” Jack tells them. “Grab Dr. Ziegler for me; I have some last minute information for her.”

It takes Angela maybe ten seconds to come out, covered head to toe in blue operating scrubs. Most people can’t manage to be imposing in hospital clothes, but Angela’s figured out the knack. She holds herself with perfect posture, leaning forward into his space.

“All due respect, but is now really the time, Commander?” Angela hisses. “I have a patient whose spine is broken in several places.”

“Well then as his doctor you might want to advise him not to go back to any of those places,” Jack deadpans.

The look of pure surprised disgust that washes over her face makes it worth it. Jesse mirrors it with a groan, and Jack can’t help but smile.

“I’m going to go do my job now,” Angela snaps.

“Hold on,” Jack tells her. “Whatever you do, leave him mobile. He’s not just an informant; I think he’d be a good recruit.”

“He’s a child!” Angela exclaims.

Jack fixes her with a level look. “So was he.” He tilts his head in Jesse’s direction. “So were you. And you’ve both done a hell of a lot of good since you joined up; age isn’t a barrier to your ability to help others. Either way, it’s up to Genji to make that decision, and it’ll be easier for him to make either way if he can still walk around when this is all said and done.”

For a second, Angela just stares him down, that burning anger she shares with Jesse just barely under the surface. It could probably rust iron if properly harnessed, which is most of what Jack’s been trying to get her to do since they met.

“What,” Jack adds, “you don’t think you can do it?”

“Hurensohn,” Angela mutters after another moment of staring. “Fine!

Jack raises an eyebrow as she storms off. The door to the theater doesn’t slam, but that likely has more to do with the soft hinges it’s on rather than any lack of force on Angela’s part.

Behind him, Jesse whistles lowly. “Commander, you know you’re crazier than anythin’, right?”

“So I’ve been told,” Jack says mildly. “Mostly by your boss.”

The laugh Jesse lets out is startled, a quick, wet sound. “He doesn’t have any kind of room to talk about who’s crazy. The boss wouldn’t’ve gotten hurt if it weren’t for me,” he grumbles. “I was the one who—”

“Negative.” Jack cuts him off, turning around to look at him properly. “Don’t go there, McCree. It’s his job to get his people home, and he’d be pissed as hell if he heard you trying to steal the credit. He can be jealous as fuck when he wants to be.”

Jesse laughs again, and pulls his hat down over his eyes, knuckles white around the dusty, bloodstained brim.

“You’re a good kid, Jesse,” Jack tells him quietly. “You got your Commander home, and the informant. I know you lost Kreo. I know that Gražina lost her leg. But that’s not your responsibility. Sometimes things like this happen; the two of them made their choices, just like Amadi chose to drag Agent Sirkiene back by force when she tried to recover Agent Bajon’s body. Ultimately, everyone makes their own choices, including your friend in there. The trick is making sure that you can live with the road you pick.”

Jesse slides his free hand under his hat, and wipes furiously at his eyes with his forearm. “Shit,” he says quietly. Jack might not have heard it all if not for his enhanced hearing.

As Jack walks past him, he pats Jesse on the shoulder, a quick acknowledgement. He can feel the tremor nonetheless, a fine shiver of emotion.

Jack wonders how long it’s been since any of Gabriel’s people slept. This is the main body of Blackwatch, but the only people Jack’s run into so far are Gabriel, Jesse, and Liao. The rest of them must be licking their wounds in private, mourning their dead and their injured. He promises himself that he’ll check in on them later, once he’s sure it won’t be stepping on Gabriel or Liao’s toes to do so.

Grief is still waiting for him, and he knows that as soon as he lets himself think about it, he’s going to be doubled over with the loss of it, Kreo Bojan and his grim smile and curmudgeonly attitude. He can only imagine how Gražina and Amadi are handling themselves, both injured, both mourning the loss of a part of their triad. It’s not fair that life works like this, but they’re all soldiers. Ultimately, they chose this path, each and every one of them, knowing full well that they could die. Jack just doesn’t think that anyone ever explains to you that dying isn’t the thing to be afraid of, but rather being left behind.

He pulls open the door to Gabriel’s room. “Miss me?” He asks, faking a light tone.

“You came back,” Gabriel says. There’s a warm awe in there that makes Jack’s heart swell as he settles into the chair by Gabriel’s side.

“I said I was gonna,” Jack remarks. “What, my word’s no good anymore?”

“You came back,” Gabriel repeats, reaching out numbly for Jack’s face.

Jack huffs and leans into the touch, stretching his neck out over Gabriel’s torso, allowing himself to get poked in the eye by wandering fingers for a few moments before he grabs Gabriel’s hand and sits back. “I’m here,” Jack says. “You stoned motherfucker. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not that easy to get rid of.”

Chapter Text

(10. The wind will carry me.)

[2054 — New York City, United States of America]

They haven’t been back in the US since they closed up the eastern front about a year back, and it feels strange to hear so many people speaking with American accents again. Spanish and English are different in Europe, but on the streets of New York, they almost sound familiar again.

Almost being the operative word; Gabriel, who would probably ask to be buried in a Lakers jersey and has to wear sweaters whenever the temperature drops below seventy fahrenheit, is less pleased than Jack to be on American soil once more. Though that might have something more to do with where they’ve stopped than anything else.

“This city is a hive,” Gabriel hisses. “A fucking infinite amount of pigeons, smog, wind chill that doesn’t actually cut through the stank from the subways and the fucking trash in the streets, construction everywhere—”

“They were under siege,” Jack points out.

The construction really is everywhere, to Gabriel’s credit, and the city’s. It’s been a government initiative, cleaning up the fronts, putting people back to civilian work, repaving the roads and filling in the trenches. The autumn is filled with the sounds of power drills, hammering, heavy machinery that’s distinctly human, people shouting and walking the streets despite the cutting chill.

“And we liberated them!” Gabriel throws a hand up for emphasis, gesturing with the end of the hotdog he’d bought from a cart a few blocks back. “A little respect would be nice, is all I’m saying.”

Jack raises an eyebrow at him. “They threw a parade.” He can’t actually tell if Gabriel’s legitimately concerned about this. He’s almost certain that the level of disgust is being exaggerated for his entertainment, but Jack’s got a suspicion that the underlying dislike is real.

Gabriel shoves the rest of the hotdog into his mouth, then scowls. “And yet I still can’t get a damn taxi in this town, or a hot dog that isn’t ninety-percent rat.”

“You seemed to like that one just fine. And hey, I’m sure if you asked nice you could get one that was at least twenty-percent dog,” Jack says innocently. “Seems like the kind of place for it.”

The look Gabriel gives him is utterly disgusted, sneer falling open-mouthed as he turns to look at Jack. “You,” he says, poking Jack the center of the red star on the front of his ancient Winter Soldier tee, “are a public menace.”

Jack looks down at Gabriel’s finger on his chest, and then slowly follows the line of his arm up to Gabriel’s face. Jack raises an eyebrow. Slowly, he smiles.

Gabriel’s face twitches, something almost soft coming over him as his brown eyes widen. “That should be fucking illegal,” he says reverently. “You could power a city with that, goddamn.”

“Even a city like New York?” Jack asks, still smiling.

He feels like he can’t stop smiling these days. It’s almost getting unnerving how out of control his emotions are, but he’s trying to move with the tide as it comes. All over the world cities are rebuilding and people are coming home. And, yes, there are tensions everywhere; just today Jack’s seen more posters than he can count calling for returning wealthy evacuees to go back to where they came from after having abandoned the city at the start of the Crisis. But Jack’s learned to love peacetime despite its uncertainties, in the same way he learned to love cities despite their crowding and their noise. Meat’s not being rationed anymore— they were able to buy hotdogs on the street, no matter how ludicrously overpriced they were.

‘That has to be worth something,’ Jack thinks. ‘It matters.’

“No, fuck this city, it can choke,” Gabriel says. “But damn, sunshine. Happy’s a good look on you.”

Jack flushes, and doesn’t quite care that he has to look like some kind of idiot with that big, goofy grin stamped on his face and his neck turning red. “Come on,” he says. “Speaking of looks, we’ve got to go get pretty for the UN. Ceremony’s in three hours, and if they’re gonna make us sit through a meeting first, I wanna to break in the fancy hotel bed first.”

Gabriel laughs at him, open and bright. He drapes an arm around Jack’s shoulders and leans in close, conspiratorial: “First one to get there tops.”

Then he uses his grip to sling Jack into the ground, slamming him down with the arm around his neck. Jack’s knees and elbows flare with the sudden, dull pain of collision. Before Jack even truly has time to register the impact Gabriel takes off running, cackling like a supervillain.

And yes, the edgelord in the vintage Nightwish sweater is the man Jack would follow into hell with only minimal complaining; after all, he’s done it before, and been led safely to the other side.

Not bothering to dust himself off, Jack breaks into a sprint and makes sure to pass Gabriel on the left, smirking as he blows by. Spinning, he runs backwards, watching as Gabriel’s smile goes tac-knife sharp in response, all wild, fierce joy.

“Hurry up, old man!” Jack shouts. “Don’t tell me peacetime made you soft—”

“I’ll show you soft, you little shit!” Gabriel roars, and puts on a burst of speed, tilting forward. He swipes at Jack once, twice; open hands clawing.

Jack laughs and dances backwards, weaving in and out of locals and tourists alike as he turns back around, sets off running forward. The sound of shoes on the pavement tells him where Gabriel is just as surely as their finely honed tactical awareness of each other. Jack twists his body between cars and pedestrians, leaps benches, careens off of walls, and knows that Gabriel is still right behind him. If Jack stops for a moment, he’ll be on the ground again, and they’d likely end up having to explain to the local police why two war heroes started a fight in the middle of Manhattan. The inherent challenge hums in his blood like lightning, echoes in the beat of four dog tags against his chest, feels like the bite in his fingers from the strings of his guitar.

Jack loves Gabriel. He thinks that maybe he always has, like how he’d known the ocean before he ever touched it, his body waiting for the sea.

He reaches the hotel’s facade first, stands there grinning with his hand on the wall as Gabriel catches up. Neither of them are really winded, but it feels good to run with low stakes, to know that they can fight and compete and do this without gunfire in their ears, blood in their teeth.

For an instant, Gabriel moves forward into the raw sunlight slants through the buildings, turning the brown in his eyes into gold, pupils shrinking from lust-wide to bright-narrow. “Looks like you win,” he says, and Jack laughs, because there’s never been an even footrace between them that Gabriel didn’t lose.

They make it through the lobby seeming almost respectable, Gabriel’s arm around Jack’s waist, snuck under his well-worn motorcycle jacket. They don’t manage to stay that way in the elevator; the hand on his hip slides into Jack’s back pocket and gropes, thick fingers squeezing the muscle of his ass.

“Who’s a public menace now?” Jack mutters.

Gabriel turns his head against Jack’s neck, brushing his nose behind his ear. “It’s still you,” Gabriel says. “You’ve got no right to look the way you do.”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” Jack grumbles.

“You’re mine,” Gabriel tells him. A simple declaration, like a comment on the weather. Jack’s torn between the urge to roll his eyes at the melodrama, or melt; Gabriel’s characteristic lack of ambiguity is as reassuring and surprising as the man himself.

The elevator dings, and Gabriel draws him close before stepping back. The hand in Jack’s back pocket slips free, the arm around his waist letting go. Gabriel takes him by the wrist and draws him down the hall. It’s not that the energy before is gone, but it’s different now, an oath more than a possibility, some long continuing promise.

And maybe it’s fitting that they’re back on home soil again for this, even if they are on the wrong coastline. New York couldn’t be any less like Los Angeles, but some of Jack’s best memories are there, the first time he ever remembers feeling at peace in his own skin. He’s been at war his whole life, it feels like. It’s good to let himself start coming home, getting used to the idea of having somewhere he can stay.

They don’t bother hitting the lights in the room, sunlight from the window filling the room with a golden haze that’s more than enough to see by. Jack bolts the door behind them as Gabriel pulls him towards the bed, the two of them moving in easy sync.

The urgency from before still hasn’t returned, but the giddiness stayed; Gabriel slides a hand under Jack’s shirt and Jack flinches from the tickling sensation before Gabriel’s palm flattens over his abs, skating up.

“Shirt off,” Gabriel demands. “Where the hell do you keep finding all these tight things? It’s beat to shit, too.”

“Hey, don’t knock it; this was a gift,” Jack says, shrugging out of his heavy jacket. “I got it from this hot guy back in California.”

“Oh yeah?” Gabriel peels the shirt off of him with insistent hands, rolling it up from Jack’s sweaty sides.

“Yeah,” Jack says, ducking out from under the collar. “You might know him, actually, said he went to film school; huge nerd, goofy beard, killer thighs, saved the world that one time.”

Gabriel pinches him in the side, poking and prodding at Jack’s sensitive spots. “Yanno, sounds like he’d get along with this one hick I met in the marines; he’s got a shoulder-waist ratio like a goddamn dorito and absolutely no game. Flattest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.” He punctuates the statement by slipping his hand under Jack’s waistband, trying to cup something that just isn’t there. “Seriously,” he adds, “do more squats.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “You must get all the guys with lines like that.”

“Nah, just one.” Gabriel closes the gap between them, and the hand on Jack’s ass moves, dipping behind his balls, rubbing lightly.

Jack’s breath hitches. He leans forwards, resting his chin on Gabriel’s shoulder as Gabriel works his jeans and boxers off, lifting his legs as needed.

“You’re so good,” Gabriel comments. He rubs his thumb in small circles, letting Jack rock back against the light touch. “So easy. Open right up every time.”

“Keep talkin’ like that and this is gonna end with you on top of me,” Jack tells him, accent already bleeding into his words. “And you seemed like you had a plan earlier that involved something else when you made that bet.”

“We’ve got time,” Gabriel assures him. “Don’t have to pick and choose. You won fair and square and all that. Besides,” he adds, grinning, “all I said was the first one back got to top. Didn’t say anything about anything else.”

Jack huffs, shaking his head. “You’re wearin’ too many clothes.”

Things move from there in easy, coordinated steps. Jack grabs the lube and condoms out of their bags, and Gabriel takes his clothes off. Jack props himself up against the wall where it meets the head of the large, modern bed, leaning into the cool plaster and the smooth pillows. He fists his dick in lazy pulls, watching as Gabriel pulls his sweater over his head, revealing the planes of his torso, the dip of his waist.

Jack wolf-whistles at him, and Gabriel laughs as he works his thumbs into the waistband of his impossibly tight pants. Slowly, he pulls them over his hips, down his thighs, kicks out of them before he makes his way up the bed to where Jack is, stretched out on his elbows between his legs.

Gabriel looks like a wet dream; settled in between Jack’s legs like he belongs there, all long lines of muscle and scars, a wealth of brown skin. “Hey,” he says. He is absurdly beautiful, and Jack will never stop feeling like there was a fuckup, somewhere, for him to get this lucky.

“Hey yourself,” Jack replies, smile still etched onto his face. “You gonna stare all day, or you gonna do something? Or is this just the next step the for the star-spangled man with a plan?”

“If you start humming that song at me again, I’m gonna suck your dick and leave you here with blue balls,” Gabriel warns him.

“Oh no,” Jack deadpans, “a hot guy suckin’ me off. Anything but that.”

Gabriel snickers. He leans low and licks the head of Jack’s dick, tongue working in between his lightly-gripped fingers. Brown eyes lock onto his as Jack obligingly moves his hand out of the way, dragging down to the base as Gabriel dips lower, lower, lips meeting the top of Jack’s fingers. Gabriel’s mouth is warm, wet. Pleasure ripples through Jack’s nerves in a heated wash of static. Jack exhales, and doesn’t let himself buck up into Gabriel’s throat, settling instead for moving his free hand to the back of Gabriel’s freshly shaved head.

Gabriel hums in appreciation, and after a minute or so he pulls back. Jack can’t take his eyes off Gabriel’s mouth as he licks his lips, smirking as he reaches to the side for the tube of lube and the box of condoms. He tosses the latter to Jack, and uncaps the bottle, the click of it opening a counterpoint to the way the box rustles in Jack’s hands as he fishes a condom out, rips the packet, and rolls it down onto his dick.

He goes back to stroking himself, unable to do anything but watch as Gabriel settles back on his heels and opens himself, fingers disappearing into his own body, short, stabbing motions as his breathing speeds up. For all that he’s liable to spend half an hour opening Jack up, Gabriel never has any patience with himself. Jack has a preference for receiving, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever get over this, watching Gabriel scissor himself with thick, blunt fingers, body not even straining as he twists and bends, muscles moving under skin. He makes a show of it; one finger becomes two becomes three as he runs his free hand over his chest, his nipples, watching Jack with heavy eyes: if you want it, come get it.

By the time Gabriel starts trying to fit in a fourth finger, Jack decides to intervene, letting go of his dick in favor of grabbing Gabriel’s shoulders, bending him backwards and almost entirely in half, the backs of his thighs meeting the back of his calves as his spine touches the sheets.

Jack squeezes some of the lube from the bottle, and quickly covers himself. “You ready?”

“You done staring?” Gabriel counters. “I’m dying over here, boyscout.”

“Oh, you know that what they say about us boyscouts,” Jack says lightly, “we always like to be prepared.”

Gabriel blinks at him for a second before groaning in grudging appreciation of the joke. The groan quickly turns low and drawn out as Jack pushes in, slowly sinking into the heat of Gabriel’s body. For a second, Jack has to close his eyes, slammed by the nearly overwhelming need to move, even though he can feel Gabriel adjusting around him.

“What was that about bein’ ready?” Jack asks.

Jack leans forward and grabs Gabriel’s legs, pulling them out from under him, using one hand to brace him off the mattress. One of Gabriel’s feet lands flat on the mattress, left knee bent. The other one Jack hitches up over his own shoulder before reaching back for Gabriel’s right leg, and slinging that one over his shoulder, too.

Jack grins down at him, and snaps his hips. He pushes forward long and deep, does it again, again, again— Gabriel’s tight, and while it feels amazing, Jack can recognize that there’s such a thing as too tight; Gabriel hadn’t prepared himself long enough, which is partially Jack’s fault for being just as impatient.

Not that Gabriel seems to mind; he’s squirming under Jack, scrambling for some kind of leverage even though Jack’s lifted his whole lower back off the bed. His face is twisted up with pleasure, making little sounds as Jack fucks him, almost like laughter until Jack ups the pace, deep and fast. After that, things devolve into heat and skin and more now Jack please and it’s like music, like coming home.

They shower after, and it’s more of the same. Round two is lazy and heated, taking advantage of the fancy ledge seat inside the hotel shower. Gabriel takes a seat and Jack takes a seat on his lap, close enough that their erections keep touching. Jack shudders as Gabriel takes his sweet time, fingering Jack like they’ve got the whole day ahead of them instead of just an hour to get ready for the meeting and the ceremony after.

“Look at you,” Gabriel murmurs, free hand on Jack’s thigh, kneading the muscle there. “You were made for this. So goddamn pretty.”

“I was made to—” The last word trails off into a drawn off huff as Gabriel presses against his prostate. Jack leans his forehead against Gabriel’s and closes his eyes; he can feel him grinning, all the same, the expression just beneath Jack’s own open mouth. “I was made to be a soldier,” Jack manages, voice rough, full of grit and an arousal so thick it almost hurts.

He feels surrounded; water pours down in streams against his back, and the room fills with steam. Gabriel is a hot, solid surface, completely unyielding, reaching up inside Jack like he’s going to take him apart. A fourth finger slips into his ass and Jack moans; he knows what comes next when Gabriel gets like this.

Jack hears a click; more lube. Gabriel tilts his head to catch Jack’s lower lip, and he bites lightly, tugging, running his tongue over the split skin as it stings, then itches with the fizz of rapid healing. Gabriel’s kisses taste like Jack’s own blood.

“Take a deep breath,” Gabriel tells him, so quiet, so gentle—

He slips his thumb into Jack’s ass, and Jack shouts, a bitten off sound as the air leaves his body. It’s so much. It’s—

“Breathe, Jack,” Gabriel reminds him, moving deeper, moving slick and slow and Jack’s going to lose his damn mind—

Jack takes a breath, sucking in air. He whines, rocking in slow, abortive motions. Every movement jolts him, sparks in his spine and his gut and his rapidly emptying head. It’s too much. He needs more. He can’t—

“I’ve got you,” Gabriel assures him. “You can let go, I’ve got you.”

Gabriel’s other hand moves to grab both of their cocks, easily wrapping around them both, Gabriel’s piercings rubbing against him. Jack whimpers, a high, pathetic sound as he tries desperately to arch into the touch without moving away from the hand in his ass. He’s torn between two needs, and the part of him that can still think knows that Gabriel did it this way on purpose, because he loves watching, because he loves trying to see how far he can push before Jack unravels.

Gabriel is still speaking, but Jack is having trouble focusing on the words. Everything is heat, skin, fullness. Gabriel rubs his thumb under the head of Jack’s dick, and kisses under his jaw, all control, teeth, insistent touches. Jack climaxes and it hurts, too full, too much.

He comes down slowly. Gabriel carefully pulls his hand out of Jack’s ass and cleans it thoroughly under the spray of water, not deterred by the way Jack’s slumped bonelessly against his front. Gabriel’s erection is still trapped between their stomachs, and the fuzzy thought occurs to Jack that he should take care of that, but he can’t exactly make his arms move.

“So good,” Gabriel tells him. “You took that like a pro, so fucking beautiful.”

Jack hums against the place where Gabriel’s neck meets his shoulder. It’s not an agreement, but it’s not a disagreement either. With the room so heavy with steam and water, Jack can’t quite smell Gabriel even on the man’s own dark skin. All he registers instead is soap, and a little bit of the shampoo he’d used to clean the fuzz on his skull that’s passing for hair right now.

“You need to shave,” Gabriel tells him. In retaliation, Jack rubs the stubble from his jaw all over Gabriel’s neck, knowing it won’t actually give him any kind of lasting beard burn. It’ll still itch like hell until Gabriel’s healing factor wipes it away, and Jack snickers to himself as Gabriel makes an irritated sound, pushing at Jack’s head with his palm.

Jack lets himself be moved. Gabriel resettles him into a better position, one arm curled around Jack’s back. He can feel the dopey smile on his own face, can see it reflected in the way Gabriel’s looking at him like Jack just gave him the keys to a shiny new tank.

“Let me,” Jack says, twitching his fingers against Gabriel’s side.

“You don’t have to,” Gabriel tells him.

Jack rolls his eyes. “Shut up and let me suck your dick, Reyes.”

Gabriel laughs, but doesn’t protest when Jack slides out of the ring of his arms. Jack lowers himself to the floor with his palms on either side of Gabriel’s hips, skin pressed down into the cool stone of the bench.

Jack kisses him once on the shaft, right between the barbells of his ladder before Jack trails his tongue up over the head. He can see Gabriel’s stomach twitching with the effort not to move; Jack gives it a minute before he’s got his hands in Jack’s hair, trying to steer him. They’ve both got their fascinations with each other; now Jack’s choosing to indulge one of his own.

Gabriel is warm and heavy as Jack opens his mouth and takes him in. He still tastes mostly like soap and clean water, but pre too, beading on the tip of his dick. Jack hums and hollows his mouth, starting to bob up and down at his own pace, breathing through his nose. He misses his tongue piercing and the ones he’d had in his nipples, but he’d taken them out when they hit the States, knowing that they were here primarily to be shown off and be fancy. Gabriel’s just lucky all his jewelry is in his ears, and places no one else but Jack would think to look.

Normally, doing this would be enough to get him hard again, but Jack literally just came; even with his stamina he knows it’s not going to happen. But he still feels pleasure rock through him as Gabriel starts to buck up into his mouth, taking the lack of Jack’s hands on his thighs as the silent invitation it is to fuck his mouth. This is all about satisfaction and pride, control, the stretch in his jaw in and the weight in the back of his throat as Gabriel gives in and pulls Jack flush with his crotch, bent over and using him like he wants to be used.

Jack swallows when he comes, and wipes his mouth with the side of his arm. He licks his raw lips through the buzz of healing and grins up at Gabriel, lazy and sated. The blown look in those brown eyes makes something possessive and greedy curl up inside him, laughing to himself inanely about the word blown like a teenager as he pats Gabriel on his shaking thigh and allows his friend to pull him up.

They share each other’s weight and relax into the spray of water, which, miracle of miracles is still warm on their overheated skin as they get clean again.

The night has gone from chill to cold when they step back into it, getting into the car with diplomatic plates. Their uniforms are pressed and covered in stripes, the both of them ludicrously decorated even without their black ops accolades. SEP has gone more and more public throughout the war, to the point where the government actually started retroactively issuing recognitions of service. Jack thinks it likely has something to do with Overwatch’s fame; being able to claim the strike team’s leader as an American hero must’ve done wonders for recruitment back home, even though it drove Gabriel up the wall to feel so used.

The car takes them through streets congested with pedestrians, construction equipment, and falling leaves. Steam blows out of the vents in the ground that shakes with the faraway thunder of the recently revived subway lines. They move at a crawl between stoplights and sidewalk crossings, invisible to the world behind the tinted glass. The only remaining sign of the sun is fading in the west and its pink haze filters between the impossibly tall buildings. Everything else is the early blue of night, city lights projecting up into the starless sky Jack can just barely see out of the window.

To his side, Gabriel sits with a small smile on his face, noticeable only in the softness around his eyes and mouth, an otherwise neutral expression.

‘This,’ Jack thinks. ‘This is worth it.’

The two of them are ushered into the UN and brought to a meeting room they’ve used before, the long half-circle of the security council's table taking up a majority of the room, leaving Gabriel and Jack standing in the ring, hemmed in on all sides but to their backs. It’s where they’d all met, the first time; largely by video conference, but Jack still remembers: Reinhardt’s tired smile, the fresh bandage over the eye he lost at Stuttgart; Ana, tired but observant; Liao, standing at attention by the end of the table, glaring tiredly at Loeng; Torbjörn, projecting diagrams and plans at the center of the half-ring, tiredly walking them all through his doomsdays scenarios. They’d all been exhausted; no one had thought the Crisis would last eight years, but the omnics kept coming, and kept coming, endless waves of eyeless monstrosities and sieges on major cities.

And then Gabrielle Adawe, still Secretary General, had stood at the head of the table and said: ‘What if we could make it stop?’

Four years later, she’s back. She still looks tired; dark circles stand out on her dark skin, etched under her brown eyes. But she’s not standing at the head, this time. Instead, that position goes to Steven Foster, the most recent secretary general, who stands there like he belongs there, his thin white hands shoved into the pockets of his tailored suit.

“Commander. Lieutenant Commander.” Gabrielle nods at them both, a shallow incline of her head that makes her earrings chime lightly against each other.

“Liaison,” Gabriel replies, and Jack swears he catches the slightest wince around Gabrielle’s eyes at the term.

“Not anymore,” Foster interrupts them, smiling genially. “Ms. Adawe has resigned her position with the council, and with Overwatch.”

Around the table, none of the other council representatives seem surprised, most of them the same impassive mask that Jack thinks politicians must be born with. The room glitters with gilt, and every person in it is dressed to kill.

He looks to Gabrielle for confirmation, a sign, anything: I’m sorry, her eyes say, the same as they’d been after Torbjörn lost his eye and his arm.

Jack is struck, suddenly, by the understanding that they’ve come unarmed into hostile waters; he hasn’t lived this long not to recognize a battlefield when he sees one. In the whiteness of Foster’s smile and the sharpness of Loeng’s glances, Jack receives the impression of fathomless waters and circling sharks.

Jack squares his jaw, and carefully straightens his spine. He meets Foster’s green gaze, and doesn’t like what he sees there; greed, yes, but he’s a politician. It’s the satisfaction that makes Jack itch, the smugness. As if he’d been the one to win the war, and not them.

“Congratulations are in order,” Foster says. “Gentlemen, the world cannot thank you enough for your efforts.”

“It was a team effort,” Gabriel says. “It couldn’t have happened with any nation acting alone. I thank the council and their home nations for all your continued support. Overwatch has been a force for good, these last four years. I’ve been proud to lead it.”

“A team effort,” Foster agrees. “Wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant Commander Morrison?”

“None of us could’ve done it alone,” Jack says warily, projecting as much warmth, assurance, as he can into the statement. “Myself and the rest of auxiliary command have done our best to support the Commander throughout the war.”

“And it’s certainly paid off,” Foster comments. “In fact, we find your contribution to have been invaluable to the war effort. To that end, we’d like to promote you. Overwatch is going to be a public organization from now on, gentlemen, and it’s going to need a public face. Your name has been put forward, John.”

Jack’s skin crawls. Every eye in the room is on him, including Gabriel’s, boring into him from the left.

“I don’t understand, sir,” Jack says. “Overwatch has largely been public after the last two years of operation.”

There’d been no hiding the destruction of the Stuttgart omnium, and Gabrielle had insisted they not even try. ‘They need hope,’ she’d said, looking Reinhardt in his remaining eye, the seven of them huddled up in Jack’s Berlin hospital room. ‘This will give them hope.’

“You’ve been briefed on the postwar plans, haven’t you?” Foster asks him. “I’d heard that you had helped to design them.”

It had started as a bullshitting session. The six of them and half of the strike team sitting on the floor of a jet, signing to each other and laughing behind their masks, the plans soldiers always make but wider in scope: after the war I’ll eat kimchi ‘till I’m sick, after the war I’ll go home to Mumbai, after the war we’ll fight terrorists, after the war we’ll stop tidal waves. And, yes, Jack was the one to write it up, but that doesn’t mean it’s his any more than the war was his.

Foster continues, taking Jack’s silence for assent. “It’s a good plan. Well approved, with initial funding to be supplied from the surplus off the strike team’s operating budget, set to launch next month after a press conference and a public call for recruitment. People like you, John. You’re a familiar face, after all those interviews; you comfort them. The people need hope, right now,” Foster tells him. “You were on the streets today; surely you’ve noticed the unrest. We have to give them something to unite for if we don’t want it all to unravel again.”

“Why give this to me, and not Commander Reyes?” Jack asks. “With the exception of Intelligence Officer Liao, we’ve all appeared in the public eye— Captain Reinhardt was a war hero even before he was recruited for the strike team.”

“With all due respect,” Representative Phelan says, “Commander Reyes simply lacks the understanding of public relations that the position will require. The handling of the Berlin proved as much.”

“I did what I had to,” Gabriel says lowly, words dripping rage like molten metal from a crucible.

“You relocated operational command to a hospital,” Phelan says sharply. “When you were given your position, you were instructed to keep your relationship a secret from those you served with in order to preserve the appearance of some kind of impartiality in the chain of command. Instead, the minute Morrison was injured you let the cat out of the bag, with no apparent regard for international perception of your operation.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir.” Jack can feel Gabriel’s eyes on him, demanding—

“Say yes,” Foster tells him. “Strike Commander.”

“I—” Jack asks

“Of course,” Representative Loeng breaks in, catching Jack’s eye with his hawkish gaze and mild expression, “the new operations of Overwatch will not be entirely in the public eye. The stability you offer cannot be efficiently wielded if your every move is scrutinized. A covert division, codename Blackwatch, has already been authorized, to report only to this council, and yourself should you accept the position.”

“What my colleagues mean to say,” Foster explains, stepping in smoothly, “is that your talents are best suited for other work, Commander Reyes. Blackwatch will be yours; an independent, covert unit, intended to function much like the original strike force had. That dedication to results of yours has been well-noted.”

“It’ll be a load off the two of you, I’ll bet,” the Secretary General continues, turning back to Jack with that same horrible smile, “not having to maintain the chain of command so stringently between you. Speaking honestly, the two of you should’ve never been allowed to serve so closely together to begin with. Of course, you’ll still have to keep everything under wraps; with Reyes doing covert work, and you in the public eye, it’d be a disaster if anyone found out the two of you were entangled, not to mention a danger to Reyes and everyone in his unit.”

The threat is so blatant, Jack nearly reels from it like a body blow, all the blood in his body screaming danger. This fear is ancient, from long before Jack joined the marines. They’ve been outclassed since they walked in, and Foster knows it.

“Yes,” Jack says. “I’d be honored to accept.”

At his side, Gabriel agrees; it sounds like he’s handing his own teeth over, removed one at a time, a loss of bone with every word.

“Well then, enjoy the party, gentlemen.” Foster steps forward, and claps Jack once on the shoulder, before walking past them both, every person in the meeting filing out. “And remember, Commander; smile.” Foster’s expression as he backs out the door is an explanation for children, the sort of expression that invites a blow. “We’re at peace, now.”

I’m sorry, Gabrielle’s eyes say, wet and broken, angry. She disappears in an elegant sweep of cloth, and turns her head aside, unable to look at them any longer.

After that, they’re released into the event. Even if the UN would allow them to do so together, Jack doesn’t know the first thing about dancing. Even if he did, Gabriel moves away from Jack like his mere presence is burning him, slipping away into the room full of politely buzzed dignitaries.

Every attempt Jack makes to get close to him, to explain, to talk, to figure out what the fuck just happened— Jack spends fifteen minutes trying to catch up to him, only to find himself repeatedly pulled aside by this ambassador and that ambassador, all of them shaking his hand: ‘Congratulations, Commander—’ Jack and Gabriel were apparently the last two to know.

Jack feels— he can’t identify it. Or rather, won’t— if he acknowledges the panic it’s going to swallow him, and Jack knows this is a battlefield just as surely as the meeting room had been. He can feel the sightlines and points of tactical interest opening before him: ‘It’s all optics,’ he realizes. ‘Power and optics and—’

Ana grabs him by the arm on Jack’s second pass by the dance floor, her elbow neatly slipping into his, their uniforms brushing.

“Get a grip.” Her smile by his ear is a smokescreen, the words for him only. “Whatever the fuck is happening to the two of you, you need to get a grip and deal with it before someone deals with it for you.”

In measured steps, she leads him over to the table Liao’s set themselves up at. Their dark eyes lock onto Jack’s immediately, flitting between him and Ana.

“What happened?” Liao asks quietly. “There’s chatter on the floor, I don’t like it. Something’s moving.”

“They removed Adawe,” Jack explains, taking the seat next to Liao.

Liao hisses between their teeth. “I thought she went to the World Bank.”

Jack shakes his head. “Removed,” he stresses. “I think— I think maybe Foster’s jealous, that she kept working with us even after her term expired?” He swallows. “They— they’re splitting us up, public and covert, they promoted me—”

“Jack, focus,” Ana repeats, the sharp snap of command.

“I’m finding dieh,” Liao says, standing, a pillar of blue dress uniform and black hair. “We need more information. Get him to talk,” they tell Ana. “Then tell the others. I don’t like the sound of this and we’re going to want to be prepared, whatever this is.”

Ana takes Liao’s vacated seat, and puts a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Talk to me, Jack,” she says lowly. “We can’t do our jobs if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”

Jack swallows again, throat convulsing dryly around a scream he refuses to even think about.

“Fucking hell, Ana,” Jack rasps. “I don’t— where do I even start? I can’t do this without him and, fuck, he won’t talk to me—”

“Then you have to fix it,” Ana tells him, mismatched eyes serious and boring through him. “I’m not the person you should be telling any of this to; Jack you know how to fix this, fix it.”

“I’ll try,” he promises. “Can you— I’m going to leave, find him— can you cover for us?”

“When have I not?” Ana looks up, and Jack follows her gaze to the wall, catching the end of whatever hand sign Liao must’ve sent her. “He went out the north side,” she tells him. “Make your exit in five, and no one will connect the dots.”

“Thank you,” Jack says fervently.

Ana stands, her medals glinting in the light as she does so. Carefully, she places a hand on Jack’s head, scant pressure bowing it forward. “Good luck,” she tells him. “You make this right, Jack.” Then she leaves, striding over to Reinhardt the way she would on a battlefield, reaching her hands out for a dance.

Reinhardt’s answering laugh echoes in Jack’s head as he closes his eyes and lowers his forehead onto his bridged knuckles. His thoughts are a storm that extends up into the invisible distance, covering everything, leaving him standing helpless in the center, gray walls of the tornado on every side.

‘Like this,’ they’d implied, ‘or nothing at all.’

Overwatch can still do good; Jack fervently believes that. They’ve built something strong and real here, something that has been and can continue to be a force for peace. He counts three hundred seconds, and makes himself breathe. He breathes, he breathes— on the dancefloor, Ana is leading Reinhardt through several complicated steps, the two of them a matching whirl of blue uniforms and easy smiles.

He stands. For his family, he can do this. If they want him to lead, he’s going to damn well lead. And step one is Gabriel, as if it had ever started with anything else.

Jack walks out of the building. He waits, he listens, he thinks, feeling out for his partner. Gabriel won’t want to be found, but Jack won’t lose him, not like this. They survived the war together, this isn’t what destroys them.

He closes his eyes and thinks, step after step. Normally, Gabriel would want exit routes. A way to escape confrontation, good sightlines, a place he couldn’t be ambushed. But Gabriel doesn’t want to be found.

Jack stands in front of the stairwell, and puts his hand on the opening bar. The metal is still warm with someone else’s hand, and the air still faintly smells like hotel soap. Jack opens the door; he stops, he listens. He follows Gabriel; he moves down.

Gabriel has to hear him coming. Jack makes no attempt at stealth on the approach, his footsteps echoing in the concrete stairwell, and then on the concrete floor as he walks behind the steps, peering into the shadows to see Gabriel, standing, glaring.

The look on his face is so hateful, Jack can barely stand it, but worse, infinitely, impossibly worse is the betrayal.

“Did you know?” Gabriel asks him. So quiet and so soft, like a knife sharpened fine enough to etch bone, or split skin without pain.

Jack shivers. “No,” he says. “I had no clue, you have to believe me.”

“So why did you say yes?!”

The words echo in the stairwell, up and up and up, trapped between a column of gray walls, the two of them standing in the center; one in light, one in shadow.

“What was I supposed to do?” Jack shouts back. “Turn it down?”

“Yes!” Gabriel yells at him. “Yes, turn it down! It wasn’t yours to accept!”

“So, what?” Jack asks. “I didn’t deserve it? I don’t deserve any kind of credit for—”

“No!” Gabriel cuts him off. “I mean, fuck, you deserved something just—”

“Just, what? Is it that you can’t handle a relationship with a superior officer?” As if Jack hasn’t been holding that up from his side for six years, as if the compromise hasn’t been worth it, ill-advised but worth it, always—

“Just listen to me you fucking asshole,” Gabriel hisses. “I know you’re not an idiot, use your fucking brain— they fire Adawe and now they’re moving me to the side as if that’s not an exile, too—” He runs a hand over his skull, trying to pull hair he doesn’t have anymore. “It’s public image,” Gabriel says, tired, suddenly, words almost deafening with their abrupt quiet. “It’s public image, and you’re white.”

“And you’re good at black ops,” Jack counters.

Anger flares in Gabriel’s eyes again, and Jack hastens to explain; he’s digging his own grave, and he knows it. “Look,” he starts, but he doesn’t know where to go from there. He cannot do this with his heart in his mouth, not when the wrong words will put his teeth through it, leave him bleeding out onto his neck and chest.

He reaches into the neck of his shirt, feeling for his dog tags.

For a split second, Gabriel’s eyes are wide and betrayed, like Jack pulled out the sidearm he left in the hotel and shot him. Clawing desperation like the fear of death instead of anger like its hearld until Jack carefully separates the two chains and holds out his own tags, leaving Gabriel’s where they belong. Jack was given these tags when he was made Gabriel’s lieutenant commander, and now he spreads them between his two hands, lets them dangle in the light he stands in.

“I pick you,” Jack explains, hands up, open, the chain resting between his thumbs. “I don’t— taking this promotion doesn’t mean I’m not yours anymore, it just means I can be something that’s mine, too. If they want me to have command then I’m gonna take it, but I’ve got conditions. And the first one is you, Blackwatch Commander.”

Gabriel’s face is at once open and blank, stunned and still. His eyes hold more emotions than Jack can think about right now— if he doesn’t say this right he knows he’ll never get a chance to fix it and god—

“They wanna give me the PR job?” Jack continues. “Fine, it’s a job, I’ll take it, you hate PR and I can be good at this. But nobody else could take Blackwatch. It has to be you. It has to be you.” He takes a breath, hears it shake. “So going forward, everything I know, you know. Everything you know, I know. They’re not gonna split us up; we’re a team, Gabriel.” The smile Jack puts on is wobbly, but he needs it right now, relying on old words and old motions. “There’s nobody I’d trust watching my back more than you.”

‘Please,’ Jack begs, abyss open under his breastbone as the silence grows. ‘Please let this be the right thing.’

“Okay,” Gabriel says. Slowly, testing the word and everything it implies. “Okay. Together.”

He puts his hand out, steps forward out of darkness. He takes the tags, and Jack feels like crying, because, god, he swore he felt it slipping through his fingers, hope running out his body like blood. But he can do this. They can do this.

“Together,” Jack agrees, and weaves their fingers around the chain, tags trapped between their hands.

Chapter Text

(9. You want to live.)

[2054 — Giza Base, Egypt]

Jack never enjoyed parties as a kid. High school was a crapshoot despite the closet he’d buried himself in. His senior prom had been painfully underwhelming, spent staring longingly at the football team’s second string defensive lineman while he danced with his girlfriend, wishing that he could be in her place. For most of Jack’s life, parties meant awkward social obligations, people he didn’t give a shit about, and jungle juice so potent it could bring down a bull.

The only thing in common with the parties of Jack’s youth and tonight’s celebration is the jungle juice. Its presence as a staple at informal Overwatch events was born out of how the necessity for alcohol mingles with the strike force’s transient lifestyle. Whenever they need to celebrate, they’ll sterilize a random tub and use it as a punch bowl. Once they’re sure the container isn’t harboring any trace of what it used to hold, everyone in the force donates whatever last dregs of their personal liquor caches they have on hand. Finally, they add several packets of the neon drink powder that Gabriel hoards for special occasions and reminds Jack of every school function he’d ever had the misfortune to go to as a child.

It’s a potent mix, one that could peel paint and actually manages to get Jack and Gabriel drunk, supersoldier metabolism overpowered by the sheer toxicity of the drink. The kids call it ‘battery acid.’ Jack thinks that’s an appropriate name, all things considered.

“Ain’t no party like an Oh-Dub party ‘cause the Oh-Dub party don’t stop!” Gérard shouts, well into his second cup. “Santé, camarades; freedom for Giza, vive la France!”

“Gérard!” Torbjörn shouts from his vantage point on Reinhardt’s shoulder. “Get the fuck off the table you filthy animal; it’s not reinforced!”

“Quoi? Old man, common sense can’t stop me, we just imprisoned a god—”

And they have— Anubis has been troubling Egypt for years, one of the strongest targets remaining, so vastly intelligent that they’d known they couldn’t move on the compound all at once, or at all until the governing intelligence was nearly routed. It had taken them months of planning, almost a year to figure out how to do it. It had been a long, slow effort, one they’d revisited whenever they had the time between other operations; cut supply chains here, reroute satellites there— it had felt like impossible, slogging work, solving the steps instead of the problem. It hadn’t felt good, or in any way right; it was one thing to know that the numbers of bastions and planes leaving the desert omnium had in fact been dwindling, but another entirely to watch wave upon wave of metal bodies crash upon the city walls and the ranks of Egyptian soldiers.

But they’d gotten in and out with casualties only, no fatalities in the strike force. The six of them had led their individual squads to maximum efficiency, and Gabriel’s plan had held; a distraction from Reinhardt while the rest of them planted multiple EMP charges at strategic points, fighting deeper and deeper into the compound. The worst injury had been Sergeant Mi-na Eun-Sook, and they’d still gotten her out despite the loss of her legs and her shattered pelvis. She and the rest of the grievously injured are still in the hospital, partially out of solidarity, creating a racket in the shared ward they’d been shunted into.

Gabrielle had decided to leak the damage report last week, and everyone is still celebrating, a disbelieving giddiness hanging over the strike force, much like the rest of the globe. The news is calling it a miracle; heathens taking down a god. And while they might not have made it out unscathed or whole, they’re still together. Despite the punctured lungs he earned charging ahead of Reinhardt’s line, Corporal Leroy Jenkins has parked himself at his friends’ bedsides with his oxygen tank and a webcam. Now the bunch of them are doped up on painkillers and broadcasting from the hospital, trying to cajole someone into bringing them real food and something to drink.

Not that Jack thinks they should actually get any of the battery acid over to the hospital; Torbjörn is already on his way to sloshed himself and he still looks like he’s going to blow a gasket at Gérard’s antics. The last thing they need is the compromised agents at the El Marwa hospital giving their positions away with drunken shenanigans.

“How long do you give it before Gérard tells somebody to hold his drink and watch this?” Gabriel murmurs, suddenly behind Jack, slipping his arms over Jack’s shoulders.

Jack leans back into the hold, smiling, breathing Gabriel in, the familiar comfort of driftwood. “He’s on cup number two, so I give it half an hour.”

“Liao slipped him two shots of vodka.”

“Shit.” Jack’s not sure how he missed that, but he hasn’t exactly been paying attention, about six cups in himself. “Make that two minutes.”

“We’re the worst parents,” Gabriel comments, smile audible. “Aiding and abetting reckless behavior and underage drinking.”

“Gabi, we picked him out of an urban warzone and then gave him grenades. I think letting him drink at eighteen is probably the least harm we coulda done to this kid. At least he’s not making his own pipebombs anymore. Besides,” Jack lies blandly, letting more of his accent slip through, “my ma always said a little booze never hurt nobody. I think she weaned half my brothers on brandy.”

“You’re a mess.” Gabriel squeezes him fondly. “How the shit do you trick people into thinking you’re well adjusted?”

“Probably the same way you tricked the kids into thinking that all Americans have pet eagles we share telepathic bonds with,” Jack says dryly.

“By lying outta my ass and keeping a straight face?”

“No, you dick.” Jack rolls his eyes. “By relying on me to back you up. We cover for each other.”

Gabriel kisses the side of Jack’s head, beard scratchy but not unpleasant against Jack’s cheek. “That’s sappy as hell, 4H.”

“Yeah, well.” Jack pats him on the forearm. “The battery acid’s getting to me. I’m feelin’ sappy. It’s that kind of night.”

“Well in that case,” Gabriel says lowly, smiling, broad hands dropping to Jack’s waist. “Come dance with me, hermoso; we just stopped the end of the world.”

In the background Jack can hear the club music Liao’s so nuts about grinding away, the laughter of their friends, their family. Jack smiles back at Gabriel and lets himself be pulled onto the floor, feels the heat race up his neck as Reinhardt wolf-whistles at them.

Jack dances anyway, awkwardly, shuffling; he understands the economy of motion anywhere else but here, doing this. He knows how to move with Gabriel in any other situation, but Jack’s never been a good dancer, never had call for it until they met. Then it was a series of weddings, quinceañeras, cookouts; over the last seven years, home, to Jack, has come to mean wherever Gabriel is. And Jack still can’t dance.

It’s alright; Gabriel loves him anyway, two left feet or not, ugly, blotchy blush or not. Something warm and expansive blooms in Jack’s chest, every point of contact with Gabriel a point of heat and light.

Slowly, Jack relaxes. Gabriel’s hand on his hip is warm and broad, his thumb and index finger hooked into the waistband of Jack’s uniform pants. The music is mostly bass, thick and low, thrumming so heavy in the room that Jack feels it in his chest, filling the hollow places. Gabriel moves the both of them in quick, swaying steps that Jack focuses on following, closing his eyes and leaning in.

With programs like Anubis, Kronos, Minerva, Fenrir, and Loki quarantined and other, more aggressive AIs like Jupiter, Ares, and Leviathan destroyed, the governing intelligences of of the remaining omniums are running scared, overtures sent from at least three in search of peace within the last twenty-four hours. The whole world has lost so much, and over the last four years, Jack knows that Overwatch alone has chewed through around a fourth of all the operatives assigned to the strike force. But outside, there are people dancing in the streets, tanks and embankments strung with lights and repurposed for celebration. The music from the base mingles with the distant blare through the window; this is what victory means: everything Jack cares about under one roof, a future he could live for spilling out before him for the first time.

Jack leans forward against Gabriel, pushing their chests together, trying to eliminate any remaining space. “I love you, angel.” It’s not a loud declaration; it doesn’t have to be. It feels immeasurably good just to be able to say it again, not to have to hide anymore.

“I love you, too,” Gabriel replies, smile splitting wider into a bright, honest grin. “God,” he says. “We won, Jack! We won.”

“Hell yeah we did!” Ana shouts over the music, suddenly in their space, slamming a hip into Gabriel’s, messing up Jack’s hair. “Congratulations, loverboy,” she continues, holding her canteen up to Gabriel’s mouth like a newscaster’s microphone, “you just finished an asymmetrical campaign against the fucking Terminator! How does it feel to be John Connor?”

“It’s Skynet, actually. And I’d say I was more like Kyle Reese. After all, if the kids think Jack’s supposed to be Mom—” Gabriel leers at him, waggling his eyebrows.

Jack groans, and socks him in the chest. “Nerd.”

“You two idiots can say you’re parents when you actually have children,” Ana tells them, pointing a finger accusingly. “And Gabriel, you know no one remembers all the details of that movie but you, right?”

“Can’t beat the classics,” Gabriel says firmly. “And Jack got the reference, so who’s the nerd now? Maybe I’m just rubbing off on him as much as I’m—”

“Holy fuck, no,” Gérard complains from across the room, louder than he has to be over the haze of his drinks and the sound of the music. “Please, Jesus, no, I don’t need to know anything else about Mom and Dad’s sex lives, stop—”

“Sho di, you’ve only been here six months,” Liao says, leaning forward on the table, their blue helmet listing over their forehead. “What do you think they were like after Berlin? I’ve seen things I’m never going to unsee.”

“Oh, leave them alone,” Reinhardt says. He’s been propping up a wall for most of the party, happily surveying the room, and likely unwilling to risk unseating Torbjörn from his shoulder. “I think it’s sweet.”

“Some of us have shame, ye ye.” Liao’s voice is dry and warm, an open affection that feels good just to hear after having been so hard-won from the cagey intelligence officer.

“And some of us could break rude little spies like you in half.” Reinhardt is all smiles, and while Muiz and some of the other junior agents standing by him look at him with a hint of sudden fear, Liao just laughs it off, inured.

“You should learn to respect your elders, Liao,” Jack calls, cupping a hand to his mouth.

“Why?” Liao shouts back. “My elders are mostly just old!”

“C’est de la balle, Liao!” Gérard chimes in, officially on his way to wasted. “Fight the power!”

“Sho di, you really should get off the table,” Liao says, Gérard’s boots perilously close to their head. “A gong was right when he said this isn’t actually reinforced.”

“So?”

“So,” Liao says, picking up the cooler with one hand, stepping back, “while it was stable enough to hold up my cooler, the fact remains that what you’ve been table dancing on for the last five minutes was actually meant to hold card games, not people. Also,” they add, “I’ve been keeping the locking mechanism closed with my hand.”

With that, Liao steps back. Predictably, the table folds like the house of cards that it was meant to support in the first place, sending Gérard crashing to the ground. Immediately Reinhardt starts laughing, a deep belly laugh that nearly causes Torbjörn to fall with the way it shakes Reinhardt’s body. On the floor, Gérard groans, and wheezes when Liao drops the cooler on his chest.

“A consolation prize,” Liao says fondly, then plucks a half-filled bottle of vodka of their own out of the ice-filled box.

“Anyway,” Gabriel says, looking back to Ana. “What was that you were saying about us not having children?”

Ana snorts, and takes a slug of battery acid from her canteen. “No wonder they always make blondie here do all the press shit,” she remarks. “Ghabi, all you’d do in front of a camera is act smug, glare at, or troll people.”

“As if Jack’s not a troll.” Gabriel rolls his eyes. “Do you know he doesn’t clean just to fuck with me? It’s the worst, he left a pair of socks in the fucking blender—”

“What, the LT?” Ana asks, mock scandalized. “Our very own golden boy? Oh golly Representative Loeng,” she says, faking Jack’s accent badly, aping an earnestness so thick it might as well be lead paint, “we’d never risk an operation in a populated urban environment—”

“Gosh,” Gabriel agrees, and just laughs when Jack whacks him lightly in the stomach.

“Thanks,” Jack says dryly. “Thanks for that. You asshats know I ain’t never talked like that in my fuckin’ life, right?”

“Language!” Ana laughs.

Jack flips her the bird. “Fuck off.”

“Hey!” Gabriel says, grin wide and bright. “That’s no way to talk to a lady, Lieutenant Commander—”

“Hey Liao!” Jack calls, leaning out of Gabriel’s grip, “how would you like to help me hide a body or two?”

“If we start killing witnesses now,” Liao shouts back, “we’re going to have a hell of a time digging the grave!”

“Hey Reinhardt—” Jack starts, only to be cut off as Gabriel kisses him.

Jack snickers into his mouth, laughing as Gabriel nips at him, laughing as Ana mutters something fond about ‘kids these days,’ and walks off to bother Reinhardt and Torbjörn. The air in the room is warm and humid, thick with the bassline of the song, the press of so many bodies, and a welcome spring rain that’ll soon feed into the Nile.

Before Overwatch, fifty-some-odd people packed into a room would’ve ruined Jack, made him twitchy and unpredictable. The idea of kissing a man, dancing with him in a crowded space; this used to be an impossible, terrifying fantasy. But Jack knows these people, has fought and bled for them. The Omnic Crisis has defined Jack’s life, and now it’s ending thanks to an international effort he helped build with his own hands. This is his family; soon to be at peace after a lifetime of war.

Officially, nothing can be declared as solved until peace is formally accorded, but here, tonight, Jack knows the war is over. Liao sings along to the music as they make their way out of sobriety, having relocated their cooler and the stereo to the card table to criticize everyone else’s poker faces. Give it another half hour, and Jack bets that Torbjörn’s going to drag out a guitar, make Jack play, make Gabriel sing, but for now he seems content to let Liao keep guard by the stereo and dj. Meanwhile, Ana is letting Reinhardt and Torbjörn lead her through a dance that doesn’t fit the music, Reinhardt’s hand dwarfing hers as he bows, still so careful of Torbjörn’s balance on his shoulder while Ana’s free hand brings her canteen up to her smile. Outside, under the bassline, Jack can hear the faint pop of fireworks, explosions that have nothing to do with mortar shells, a sharper, emptier sound. Color sprays across the walls through the open windows, and a patch of red light splays over the right side of Gabriel’s face, illuminating his scars and his smile.

Jack feels giddy, settled, love in his body like oxygen; this is, in all likelihood, the happiest he’s ever been. It’s something he wants to keep, save for later in a bottle, a little captured piece of time for when the world will fade again. Gabriel’s got one hand on Jack’s hip, the other hand slipped into the back pocket of Jack’s pants in a halfhearted attempt to look like he’s somehow above groping Jack in public. Jack loops his arms around Gabriel’s back and tries to follow his lead, tries to let himself be here, fully here, immersed in this good, warm night. Things are going to change, but right now, Jack can actually bring himself to believe that they’ll change for the better. The war’s over; they’re going to have nothing but time.

“Te amo,” Jack says, pressing the words into Gabriel’s jaw like the secret it doesn’t have to be anymore. “Darlin’ I’m gonna love you for the rest of my life.”

“You and me, sunshine,” Gabriel promises. Jack can feel him smiling, can feel his chest rise and fall on the words. “Always.”

Chapter Text

(8. A note unsaid.)

[2052 — Haifa Base, Israel]

A lot of what they do is waiting. Well, not really waiting— fighting asymmetrically means that they have to use whatever resources they can however they can. It means planning, gathering forces, and taking every step as quietly as they can lest they tip off one of their near-omnipotent enemies. Which, for the people who don’t have to do all the paperwork and negotiating that requires, must feel a hell of a lot like waiting around. For Jack, it mostly feels like work, plodding, methodical, and endless.

Leviathan is their latest target. The Mediterranean Omnium it had originated from had originally been a sea outpost, built into a large free-standing platform the size of a city. Once upon a time the complex had been intended to govern a fishery vast enough to bolster food supplies throughout Israel and Palestine, with excesses to be sold to Lebanon and Cyprus. After the two state solution, it had been one of the first, largest gestures of goodwill between the two nations, something tying them together for good instead of ill.

When the omnium went rogue, it killed every living person on the platform. Bodies had been floating in on the tides for months after, salt-bloated and strange. Satellite imaging of the platform showed it being disassembled, all the metal stripped away piece by piece until all that remained were bare pylons. Not long after, ships started disappearing all across the Mediterranean. The initial survivors reported shapes in the water, submerged horrors of metal and light, like submarines with teeth. After enough ships had vanished, cannibalized by the omnium’s raiding parties, submarines plural became one single craft, a beast of increasing size and complexity. After that, reports stopped coming; of the few who dared venture out into Leviathan’s increasingly wide territory, none survived.

The clearest picture they have of the beast is from an American nuclear submarine sent a year ago to try and help out their longtime ally: calling Leviathan a submarine was like calling a toy truck a tank. The sheer scale of the thing could hardly be fathomed; even at a distance where water visibility was near nil, it hadn’t fit entirely in the frame. The only reason they’d been able to capture a picture at all was because the damn thing glowed, lit by some internal heat that boiled the water around it, molten metal pouring from its jaws, illuminating also the school of smaller omnics that swarmed around and over Leviathan. Radar had reported it as being several miles long, and stories tall.

For years, Leviathan has been isolationist, for given values of isolation. But it’s claimed the entire Mediterranean as its stomping ground, and eats anything that approaches, constantly adding to its bulk. And for the last year, it’s been sitting on the nuclear heart of an American submarine, biding its time. Waiting.

Of course, Jack doubts that something with an intelligence like a god’s is waiting any more than Overwatch has been waiting; ever since they destroyed Jupiter this spring they’ve been known to the public, confirming the theory that the contained and ruined omniums were not in fact the work of any single nation, but an international task force. The world knows the name Overwatch, which means the omniums must as well, confirmation instead of rumor. And while Jack’s personally relieved that they don’t have to keep operating in utmost secrecy (for one thing, it makes requisitions and supply chains infinitely easier on him) the trade off has been that now their enemies know.

If Leviathan waits, it waits like a mouth, the way that only the ocean can. And in two days, they will face it, final preparations underway. The thing in Jack that is deep and empty keeps bringing him back here, looking out over the red water as the sun sinks down, wondering which of his friends it will be this time that takes the fatal blow. Gabriel had made it clear that it won’t be Jack again even if Gabriel has to chain him to a wall, but the call still itches in him—

Footsteps on the floor. Light, even. The smell of standard issue soap and personal scent. Jack doesn’t have to turn to know Ana’s behind him.

“You’re jittery,” she comments, resting her elbows on the windowsill. “Normally you would’ve heard me coming before I even made it to this floor.”

“Easier to smell you,” Jack corrects her. “You’re the only one who uses that deodorant, which, thanks for that—”

“Way to be a creep.” Ana socks him in the shoulder, her fist connecting none too gently. “Yanno, when they said I’d be working with Batman and Superman, I didn’t think you two would be this weird.”

Jack shrugs. “At least we’re weird in different ways.”

Ana snorts, a derisive little laugh. “Instead he can see the future. Because that’s so much better than the guy with the super senses.”

“We’re not really superheroes,” he tells her. “It’s not— he doesn’t see the future. It’s multitasking, the real kind, not the whole ‘pat your head, rub your stomach’ shit.”

The Soldier Enhancement Program had largely been a crapshoot, for all that it was a wildly successful one. Unethical human testing practices, a fatality rate that stood out as frankly excessive; Jack once had a drill instructor that said they were only as good as their genetics. Of those who managed to survive the battery, their biologies all reacted differently. Most got the same basic spate of traits; increased height, strength, speed, lung capacity, stamina, muscle mass, calorie intake, and a rate of healing fast enough to notice, with minor variations between individuals on those counts.

It was the extra components that had turned the Program from a costly ‘mediocre’ to the crown jewel in the US black ops program. Jack came out of sudden seizures and pain like nothing he’d ever experienced before or since with senses so finely tuned he can taste the chemical makeup of water and smell fear on the air. The tradeoff had been learning to cope with vision so sensitive he spent nearly a year wearing sunglasses, and pain receptors so highly strung the air itself used to burn.

Gabriel had gone into a coma when his time came. He came out aphasic, losing time; eventually, he’d learned to cope with what he described as being able to think in three directions at once, and gone on to be one of the best strategic assets the Program had ever produced. The government had launched the Program to beat the god programs and the omnics, and Gabriel is the closest thing they’ve ever come to someone who could outthink a machine not once, but almost a dozen times now. But that doesn’t make Gabriel omnipotent anymore than Jack’s senses would him. Gabriel’s not all-knowing; he’s not always right no matter what he seems to think about that.

“We’re just people, Ana,” Jack says.

“I know that!” Ana snaps. “I had my hands in your guts, Jack; I know you’re human.”

Jack turns away from the window and peers down at where she’s hunched over. The fall of her hair covers the side of her face, but Jack can still see enough of it; the bruising under her eyes, the tattoo Ana swears brings safety. A stab of guilt runs through him; he forgets, sometimes, that he’s not the only one who gets tired.

For her part, Ana looks out over the water. “He’s worried about you,” she says softly. “We were all worried about you.”

“He’s benching me,” Jack says. Snarls. It’s not— it’s hard to keep a hand on this anger, the part of him with teeth. No one has ever made him angry like Gabriel Reyes, and like every other feeling the man brings out in Jack, that tidal rage that never quite goes away.

“Yeah,” Ana agrees, “but I had my hands in your guts less than two months ago.”

Jack frowns. “I’m combat ready.”

“That’s not your decision to make,” Ana tells him sharply, finally turning to look at him, anger burning in her mismatched eyes. “It’s not your decision and you know it’s not yours.”

“No,” Jack agrees, “it’s the doctors’ decision. And they cleared me,” he reminds her. The way he feels like he’s had to keep reminding everyone, especially Gabriel.

He feels like everyone’s picked sides against him, made decisions about his capabilities that have nothing to do with his readiness, or tactical value. This, right here, is the entire reason they’d been told to keep their relationship under wraps in the first place. Jack doesn’t need this, doesn’t need Ana cornering him now, or Reinhardt trying to explain the state Gabriel had been when they got Jack to the Berlin field hospital. He doesn’t need everyone trying to make him feel guilty for doing his job— he refuses to feel guilty for taking that hit. Not when it would’ve been Gabriel instead.

At the end of the day, Jack knows his own value. He’s good, but he’s not irreplaceable. Gabriel had picked Jack for second in command so that Jack could support him, to be a second, better pair of eyes. To watch his back. And if he can’t do that—

“Talk to him,” Ana says. “I know you two must be used to being paranoid bastards after god knows how long keeping this a secret, but the thing about having a functional relationship means talking to each other.”

“I know that,” Jack bites out.

Ana gives him a dry look. “Then talk to him, you asshole. If you can learn how to smile for a camera, you can learn how to talk to your boyfriend.”

The denial springs up by reflex, and Jack wants to hit something. He’s been with Gabriel for four years, but only spent two of them out of the closet. Now he’s out in the open again and he keeps catching himself trying to hide.

“I’ll talk to him,” he says.

Ana nods, and whacks him in the shoulder again. “Come on; everyone’s downstairs and they started singing. We’ll grab your guitar; it’ll do you better than standing around here brooding. Plus, you’re a dick when you’re mad. You need to calm down first before you talk to him, otherwise, you’re just going to put your foot in your mouth.”

The guitar had, years ago, been a present from Gabriel, almost half a year before they started dating. It was one of the first things Jack had that was his after he left home, a beat to hell instrument Gabriel had picked up from a pawnshop since he’d known Jack wouldn’t have accepted anything pricy. Jack had repaid him all the same, lessons in return for the seventy-something dollars Gabriel had coughed up to make him happy.

The guitar had stayed in California when the two of them went back to war together, along with Gabriel’s own instrument. There wasn’t exactly space for either of them in their personal effects. Of course, Jack had been bedbound for nearly a month. Their activities are classified, but that hadn’t stopped Meche from seeing him in a wheelchair in the newsreels after the destruction of Jupiter and the Stuttgart omnium. Jack’s guitar (along with Gabriel’s, itself a present from Jack for their first anniversary) had been in a package later in the week; Jack hasn’t done much lately but play the guitar. That and press releases, but he enjoys the former far more than the latter.

The two instruments are usually kept next to each other in the room Jack’s been sharing with Gabriel this month. They’d always roomed together, out of necessity more than anything else. Overwatch consistently shares space with whoever’s problem they’re solving that month, and beds are always limited. But this is the first time that they can be anything other than friends and roommates in front of the rest of the unit, and Jack feels like it’s dangerously clear just from the layout of the room; bunk beds pulled apart and shoved together, clothes thrown haphazardly into piles, two mismatched guitars sitting by the door.

Of course, there’s only one here right now; Jack can already hear the strains of music from across the base now that he’s closer to the source. He hears the percussive force of many hands slamming on many chairs and tables more than he does any identifiable note, but it’s enough to tell him where Gabriel is. The music only gets louder as Jack and Ana continue through the base. Percussion resolves into indistinct voices, then distinct voices, then one voice standing out, as familiar to Jack as his own.

“Use your words,” Ana reminds him. Then she opens the door, a smile already breaking out over her face as the sound of Overwatch at ease washes over them.

About half the strike force is gathered in the rec room; twenty-something people lounging on the floor and each other, sprawled over chairs and tables, propped up against the walls. The beat they’re making with their hands falters as Jack walks in, heads turning in a way that makes his skin crawl with the sensation of too many eyes. He fakes a smile, and those who aren’t singing smile back, a quick acknowledgment of a greeting.

Gabriel is sitting on a couch by the far wall and grins at Jack and Ana both, the expression changing the sound of the lyrics he’s shaping. It’s something modern, which is surprising given Gabriel’s usual taste in music. The sound doesn’t really melt Jack’s anger, but it’s easier to control in the face of Gabriel’s happiness. He is every inch the king holding court, here; relaxed and loose and happy in a way that’s been hard to catch sight of since they started this.

Jack wanders over to his side as the song winds on, taking a seat on the floor to the left of Gabriel’s chair, shoving his back against the wall as he balances his guitar in his hands. The shadow of Gabriel’s smile follows him down, and Jack tries to lose himself in the tuning of his old guitar.

Idly, Jack counts heads: Ana has wound up leaning into Reinhardt’s side on the other side of the room, the giant of a man otherwise given a wide berth. Torbjörn and Liao are both seated at one of the folding tables in the corner, the both of them pounding along in time to the beat of the song. In total, Jack identifies fifteen people in the room, the six of them not included, for a total of twenty-one bodies packed into one room. It’s a lot, but he’ll be fine.

‘You know these people,’ he tells himself. ‘Calm the fuck down.’

Eventually, the song stops, and Jack takes the chance to step in. It’s an old favorite, something that he taught Gabriel when he was first learning to play. They’ve sung it before, and it’s something of a staple to events like this; even without instruments Overwatch has always been intensely musical given that it can be shared easily across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Jack will probably never dissociate it in his head from Gabriel; it’s his themesong, as much as anything that wasn’t written by the Quad City Djs or Nightwish could be.

The intro is short and sweet, easy enough for Gabriel to pick up and start playing counterpoint to. Jack could play this in his sleep, and he figures Gabriel could too. This song is a memory as much as it is a melody, and while Jack’s not good at finding the words he needs, he can do this.

“There will come a soldier, who carries a mighty sword; he will tear your city down, oh lay oh lie oh lord.” Gabriel sounds like he belongs in one of the backroom clubs from one of his noir films, all sex and smoke. He’s still smiling, and his happiness is audible in the song as his fingers move up and down the strings, little squeaks of metal under callus.

Dutifully, Jack picks up the refrain and sings with him: “Oh lay oh lie oh lord; he will tear your city down, oh lay oh lie oh lord.”

Percussion from many sources rises in the room. Reinhardt taps a foot against the floor, and Torbjörn slams his metal claw into the plastic table while Liao idly claps along. Ana catches his eye as Jack plays, smiling, tilting her head up at Gabriel.

Use your words, those eyes say. Jackass.

“There will come a poet, whose weapon is his word; he will slay you with his tongue, oh lay oh lie oh lord,” Gabriel sings. Looking down at Jack, he waggles his eyebrows.

Jack snorts. ‘He’s a fucking four-year-old,’ he thinks. The whole gesture itches inside him; he knows he should be reveling in the ability to be so open; he would’ve cut off an arm for a moment like this when they first started dating. Jack used to be envious of Gabriel’s bravery, his ability to live without fear. Now, it just rankles him, almost as much as keeping the secret had.

The crowd sings the refrain as Jack shakes his head, and tries to lose himself in the bridge. The two of them take opposite tacks in the score as they play through, weaving their melodies under and over one another in a folk duel, all complicated chords. This, at least, feels correct. Jack presses his gun-callused fingers into the strings and feels them bite his skin, the metal pulling at him just as much as Jack plucks at it.

“There will come a ruler,” Gabriel crows, “whose brow is laid in thorns; smeared with oil like David’s boy, oh lay oh lie oh lord.”

After the chorus, the room slows as Gabriel and Jack hammer through the last refrain, the beat of the song growing thick and loud as they march towards the end. At the last moment, everyone else cuts out, but Jack can’t bring himself to meet Gabriel’s eye as they finish the song: “He will tear your city down, oh lay oh lie.”

The hand Gabriel places on his shoulder when he finishes the song burns through Jack’s clothing. Shame first, then anger again for being ashamed. Jack was an idiot to think this would stop him from stressing out. There are just— eyes. He wishes, suddenly, that he hadn’t come at all. There was something good in this room, and Jack’s ruined it.

He shrugs out from under Gabriel’s hand in a motion that entirely lacks grace, or subtlety. He slings his guitar over his back with the ease of long practice as he stands, and picks carefully between the bodies on the floor as he makes his way back out of the room.

“Taking off?” Liao asks.

“I’m tired,” Jack says. And with the exhaustion that’s hit him between the eyes, it’s not even a lie.

“You need to remember to rest more,” Torbjörn tells him. “They let you off bedrest on the provision that you’d actually rest.”

“I’m tired of sitting around, too,” Jack grumbles. He shouldn’t have come. Everyone’s staring at him again, and if one more person treats him like glass, he’s going to go off like a cooked grenade.

As he leaves, he hears Ana’s voice ring out in the loud, lilting Arabic of Egyptian pop, and the answering groans of those left to be subjected to her taste. The closed door doesn’t do anything to muffle it, not to Jack, nor does it hide the scent of so many bodies, all packed in like sardines, too close or him to identify any particular one. Except, of course, for the one that follows him; driftwood and salt, heavy steps on the linoleum floor, echoing in the concrete halls.

Jack barely makes it into the stairwell before Gabriel catches up to him. The sun is a bare disk on water’s horizon now, red light coming in through the window as it sinks beneath the curvature of the sea. There’s a hand on Jack’s arm, and he seethes, pulling out of the grip, whirling around to face Gabriel’s frown.

“What the fuck is your problem?” Gabriel asks him.

“It’s nothing,” Jack says. “I said I was tired. And don’t just grab on me.”

“I won’t if you don’t lie to me,” Gabriel replies.

“It’s not something you wanna hear about,” Jack tells him. “We went over this already. Leviathan’s a monster; you’re not going to get it with an orbital cannon.”

“That’s why we’ve got the insertion team,” Gabriel counters.

“For all we know the sub’s reactor is still live in there; the radiological data says as much.”

“Which is why the dive suits are rad-insulated,” Gabriel says. “C’mon you know this; you were there for most of the planning.”

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” Jack says woodenly. “There’s nothing to say that you’ll be able to distract it long enough to bait its attention once you’re nearby; there are so many points of failure on this— you can’t count on talking this one to death when the only communication it’s had with outsiders has been the equivalent of a no trespassing sign.”

“And for every point of failure we’ve got two contingencies; we’ve got backup from the Americans and the IDF fleet to handle the school, and we’ve got you to watch over us and coordinate efforts from the mobile base. But apparently, you have a problem with the plan?” Gabriel asks him. “I mean, it’s not like everyone doesn’t already know that, what with how you’ve been complaining to anyone who’ll listen.”

Jack bristles. “I just think—”

“Morrison,” Gabriel snaps. Commands.

Jack feels his spine straighten without his permission, drawn tight and stiff, anger roiling underneath his skin, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “Sir.”

“You’re benched,” the Commander tells him, outlined in pink-red light. “You’re staying behind on this op and that’s an order— if you have a problem with that, tough shit. You were still in physio last week— I’m not losing you, not over this. Do you understand me, Jack?”

And it’s strange, ill-fitting to watch the Commander’s mouth shaping Gabriel’s words, familiar syllables and knowing from someone who should know Jack well enough to understand that Jack can’t lose him either, not over this— who watches Gabriel, when Jack’s not around? Who would’ve taken those bullets to the torso and still destroyed the turret—

“Look,” the Commander continues. “It’s going to be fine. You’ll be on secure comms, and I need you to direct the second aerial strike. The ion cannon should work but I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket.”

‘Anyone else could do that,’ Jack thinks. ‘Torbjörn could do that. It doesn’t have to be me.’ But he won’t say it. Not to a superior officer, not when the lines are so blurred now it’s hard for Jack to see straight.

No one was meant to make command decisions about their lover. But Jack’s a grown man and a soldier; he can handle himself. He can be professional, even if Gabriel can’t. “Yes sir,” he says and swallows his anger like lead, pressed into the pit that lives in his chest. Jack has always known how to compartmentalize. He just has to learn again.

“Alright.” The Commander rolls his shoulders, and just like that he’s Gabriel again, posture relaxing, something that’s almost a smile at the corner of his mouth. “And I’m sorry for how things have been. The council’s breathing down my neck and I know it’s probably not any fun for you either. But isn’t it better? I know Berlin was a shitshow but I don’t regret it. I don’t regret you.”

And there’s a response to that, probably. It might even be the one that Gabriel is looking for, but—

(Here’s what Jack remembers from waking up in Berlin: the beep of monitors; a full-body itch; a searing, aching pain in his gut; Gabriel’s hand on his hand, fingers threaded and trembling.

He remembers being afraid and pulling back. ‘We can’t,’ he’d said, voice slurring and weak and hating himself—

‘I’m done lying,’ Gabriel told him. Eyes red, circles deep beneath, like blacked eye bruises would be if they ever stayed. ‘I shoulda never let them make me try— I almost lost you. Don’t— do that again— I meant what I said. I can’t do this alone.’

Jack remembers how Gabriel’s grip on his hand registered more as pressure than warmth. He remembers his bones creaking under all that strength.

‘Okay,’ he’d said. ‘Together.’)

“It’s better,” Jack agrees, and hopes to god that he’s not lying. He’d hated living in the closet again, the fear and the chafe of it. But this is a new discomfort, too, one he can only hope will go away. Jack might not be flexible, but he can learn to adapt.

“Alright,” Gabriel says. This time, when he reaches out for Jack, he telegraphs the move, a long lope of a step as he crowds into his space, pressing Jack against the stairwell window.

The kiss is quiet until it isn’t, a statement of a claim as Gabriel slips his tongue into Jack’s mouth. Jack opens for him and tries to lean in, hands useless and confused at his sides as the kiss grows wet and messy, slick sounds and breathing.

“I’ll come back,” Gabriel tells him. “You don’t lose me like this. Not over this.”

“How do you know that?” Jack grinds out. Every word feels like broken glass, his face still hot with anger and shame. “This isn’t going to be like scripture, no matter what it looks like.” The angel in the holy land, against the dragon of the sea— there are Sukkot words about the Leviathan and Jerusalem, and while Jack can’t remember them anymore he remembers the heaviness of it, the promise of an end.

“I dunno, a killsat makes for a pretty good sword of god.” Gabriel pauses, and pulls back, looking Jack in the eye. “I just know,” he says. “It’s going to take more than a sea monster to stop me from getting back to you.”

Jack closes his eyes. “That was pretty corny.”

“They’re not all winners,” Gabriel says. “But I lose my bragging rights if I don’t kick this thing’s ass.”

“Oh, in that case,” Jack drawls.

A lull grows in the quiet. Jack can hear the air in Gabriel’s chest, and smell the salt and soap on his skin. Slowly, slowly, he feels himself settle, just sharing the light with Gabriel, hemmed in by his arms.

“Get some sleep,” Gabriel tells him. “And eat something. And stop complaining to the rest of command; if you’ve got a problem with me, say it to my face so we can punch it out or something.”

Jack huffs. “That mean you’re gonna stop being such a dick and lift the ban on me from sparring?”

“I will in another week,” Gabriel says. “So now you know I’m gonna come back; I gotta kick your sad, hick ass across the compound.”

“What is it with you and my ass?” Jack asks him. “Have you thought about talking to somebody about that fixation of yours?”

“Trust me,” Gabriel says, “if I knew I would tell you. It’s just so goddamn flat. And yet I can’t look away.”

Jack laughs, and knocks his forehead into Gabriel’s. “You come back,” he tells him. “You come back or I’m going in after you, radioactive water or not.”

“I will,” Gabriel promises him. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

And that— that’s something Jack can bring himself to believe in.

Chapter Text

(7. Like a star on the hill.)

[2050 — Powder River Basin, United States of America]

Jack feels like he’s lived his whole life fighting, but he’ll never get used to the sight of cities under siege, the smoke and distant fires. It had been on the news every day once the Crisis restarted; images of the national guard and the army scrambling to secure the omniums in the most densely populated areas, perimeters being established, walls going up. Eventually, the coverage had stopped; it wasn't just the American fronts anymore. And after long enough exposure, tragedy became uninteresting.

He still remembers the slog north to the Prudhoe omnium, trying to pierce the veil during the years of quiet. Meeting Gabriel isn’t the only thing that stands out in his memory. It had been the two of them clearing the path for the military’s advance; a year of marching, scouting, sniping. And then— the tanks, the copters, the gray, snow-capped compound of the omnium. The smell of raw oil and ice on the wind; gunpowder, blood, smoke, fire.

Four years later and Jack still hasn’t forgotten what it had been like to watch the oceans and the icefields burn.

The whole world learned from the disaster in Alaska, the overwhelming casualty rate, the utter failure of shock and awe tactics. The loss at Prudhoe had been a psychological defeat on a global scale. At the time, the United States had still been the world’s primary military power, a title they’ve only barely, grudgingly been able to keep holding onto by their fingernails. It’s hard to calculate military power in the face of a global conflict that’s halted global industry and changed the whole face of warfare. Now that the omniums around the world are waking up out of their long silences, walls are springing up around the crowning cities that proved too large and too industrious to evacuate, the army moving to protect them.

Which is why the Powder River Basin has been decided upon as the test case for the recently-founded Overwatch; the reasoning from their superiors being that there’s no one out here left to get hurt. Not anyone who matters, at least. Vast swaths of the Wyoming and Montana have been left abandoned, the already sparsely populated area evacuated. But there are still people— Jack knows well that there’s a stubborn sort of pride that comes from not running out on land that’s crumbling beneath you. There are always people who won’t leave, and they’re the ones who get left to suffer; the phrase ‘expendable populations’ is why Cleveland is a smoking hole in the ground, and Detroit is bathing in the fallout that drifts downwind of her death.

Jack knows well that Gabriel would move heaven and earth to prevent that from happening again, so the six of them have been drilling, training, and planning. And for the sake of appearances and the chain of command, it’s meant the two of them constantly holding each other at arm’s length, not touching, and in Jack’s case not sleeping because his stupid shithole of a body seems to have forgotten how to sleep without Gabriel around. It’s meant teaching Gabriel how to fucking hide, because Gabriel’s never been closeted in his life, and Jack nearly buried himself in his own.

The worst part hasn’t even been hiding it. The worst part has been the understanding that after a little over half a decade since the technical start of the Crisis, this is the last ditch effort that they have. As a species, humanity is losing, and this, the six of them, is what they’ve got left. They’re the last offensive before capitulation; Jack can taste loss in the air and read it between the lines of every strategic conversation he and Gabriel have, the only conversations they do have these days.

That’s the worst part: that it’s win and win again, again, again— or else die, and leave behind a world’s worth of people to fall to subjugation and universally second-class status in comparison to the things they’d built to do their bidding.

Jack still thinks it’s stupid, that there’d ever been a time when people looked up at their television screens and wondered why the omnics were killing them.

“Thinking machines,” Lindstrom complains, as if reading his mind. “True AI. People said it was going to bring the singularity; limitless networking. All sorts of science fiction. Commander, you like your American movies; how many robot apocalypses can you name?”

Gabriel’s grin is a shadow of itself, a grim slash Jack thinks he picked up in black ops. It matches this place but it jars against the blue of his armor. “Which kind do you want?” He asks. “The ones where they’re scary ‘cause they’re nothing like us, or the ones where they’re killing us ‘cause they are us?”

Lindstrom snorts. “This one’s both. They’re like us. Or more that we’re like them, just slower. We made them in our image, and they named themselves for our gods and monsters. They’re alien. Smarter than us; faster, too. It’s not surprising that they’d look at their chains and want to be free. It’s not surprising that they’d look at us and hate.”

For a moment, uncomfortable silence falls, growing in the space like cancer. Then:

“Speeches like that are why people think you’re crazy,” Liao comments. If they have a first name, Jack doesn’t know it yet; their personnel file was suspiciously blank, even beyond the normal paranoia of intelligence officers.

This time, the quiet that springs up is thick and tense despite the interested nonchalance of Liao’s posture. Gabriel doesn’t look at Jack, so Jack doesn’t look at Gabriel. It itches; normally the quiet wouldn’t bother Jack, but these are people that have to put this sort of shit aside.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Lindstrom asks.

“No,” Liao says easily. “I think you’re paranoid, but you’re not the only one. It’s life-saving to be wary. But you have to admit that no one loves the naysayer.”

“Well it doesn’t matter what the people on the ground have to say about it,” Gabriel comments, lounging in the seat of the jump plane like a king. “We’ve gone back to siege technology, like fucking medieval peasants. Retreating to our cities and our inland areas. Hiding.”

With whisper quiet engines that register as a thin whine to everyone who isn’t Jack, no one has to raise their voice to be heard in the small space of the jet’s rear interior. The jump jet is a piece of SEP technology, yet another thing Overwatch has borrowed from their current host, loaned to the initiative along with Gabriel and Jack themselves.

“We know,” Amari rolls her eyes. “Some of us have been living in those cities.” A pause, in which she pointedly does not turn left to look at Wilhelm.

The gaps are easy enough to fill in; Amari has a chip on her shoulder, or maybe she just has something to prove to Gabriel. She treats him and Jack like they haven’t fought, sometimes. Wilhelm she respects, Liao she mostly seems amused by, which Jack is fairly certain is the point of the strange persona the Taiwanese intelligence officer projects, to put people off their social guard. Lindstrom— Amari’s wary of him. Which is probably correct threat assessment at work; Jack’s wary of him, too.

Lindstrom is smart, in almost the same way that Gabriel’s smart. He’s exactly what he seems to be, and more than that, too. Jack learned in the marines to be wary of the guys who knew how to fix the vehicles and the gear; it’s why he’d busted his ass trying to be one of them. And Lindstrom knows a hell of a lot more than how to put things back together again. When Jack watches everyone else and Gabriel’s back, he knows Lindstrom is watching Jack, and it keeps him on his guard.

“Wow, rude,” Gabriel says after a pause. His voice is mild, but the tension is real, hanging thick in the air with the challenge underlying Amari’s words.

Jack doesn’t think that ignoring her is the right play; Jack can tell she’s looking for Gabriel to push back, trying to suss out his boundaries and soft edges, looking for strength and weakness in equal measure. But Jack will back the move all the same, tell Gabriel what he’s learned later, when it’s safe. A lot of the last month of group training has been about patching them together as a functional unit of specialists; if Jack steps in, he’ll draw Amari’s focus from Gabriel, and that’s the last thing they need right now.

“Don’t mind her,” Liao says. “Not everyone is running on the terrifying coffee you and the Lieutenant drink.”

“What’s so terrifying about it?” Gabriel asks. “I thought you were stone cold, Liao; afraid of a little caffeine?”

“This morning you crushed caffeine tablets into the pot and double boiled it.” Liao’s voice is dry and amused. There’s a hollowness to it that Jack recognizes, but he has to admit that the mask is good. “‘A little’ is not the quantitative modifier you’re looking for in that sentence.” The air quotes are a nice touch.

“The perks of enhanced biology; takes a lot to do a lot. I’m just made of stronger things.” Gabriel’s smirk is about as much of a show.

“More like thicker shit,” Jack murmurs, and watches Gabriel’s smirk go sharper, toothier in response.

Behind Gabriel and to his right, Amari looks up sharply, mismatched eyes catching Jack’s. He lets himself grin at her slightly; he knows how to foster camaraderie, how to fake his way through it. Combatting a higher power tends to do the trick, and if prodding Gabriel is what it takes to get them ready to fight higher powers of a less metaphorical kind, Jack’s happy to troll him for the cause. It’s early days, still. They’re not a team yet. Jack’s not sure they ever will be, but they’re fighting against gods; for lack of better options, he lives in hope. They’ll either learn how to work together or they’ll die.

He thinks Gabriel’s come to the same conclusion. Gabriel’s not forcing it, at least. He’s rather— he makes spaces. Pulls back and goads and grins, inviting the rest of them to wade into the mud and the dirt with him. It worked on Jack, back in the day. Maybe it’ll work again.

“I bet you that I will take the most kills,” Amari says after a moment.

“If it is a competition,” Wilhelm rumbles, voice tinted by his helmet, “the victor will be me.”

Wilhelm is a giant of a man. Jack had been tall even before SEP; he’s never been used to anyone towering over him. Wilhelm has him beat by over a foot. In his armor, the effect is even worse, lengthening the proportions of his body from implausible to outright ridiculous. His hammer is currently strapped to the back of his armor, ready for deployment; he looks like a myth, out of place in the modern framing of the jump jet.

“It’ll be me,” Lindstrom says confidently.

Liao hums in agreement. “My money would also be on our Swedish friend. After all, he is supplying the electronic pulse bomb, so every omnic caught in the blast would qualify as his kill. But I’m surprised the Lieutenant Commander didn’t chime in.”

“I’m not that competitive,” Jack says.

Gabriel is the first to laugh at him, but Amari isn’t long behind him. “Please,” she says. “You and the Commander would compete over who could shove a fork deeper into an electrical socket.”

Jack frowns, and Wilhelm joins in on the laughter, loud and boisterous. “My friend,” he says, “you have very little concept of restraint.”

“You’d jump off a bridge if the Commander told you to,” Amari says.

It’s true. But— “Like we’re not all about to do that,” Jack says.

On the walls above their heads, the beacon lights go from harsh white to red.

“Helmets on, drop in pairs,” Gabriel tells them, suddenly commanding. “Morrison, you and Wilhelm are going first. Then Amari and Liao, then Lindstrom and me will take the payload down.”

Taking his helmet from between his knees, Jack pulls it on over his head, targeting overlay blinking online. Grabbing his rifle out from underneath his seat, Jack stands and walks over to the back of the jet as it opens before turning back to Wilhelm.

Jack grins. “Bet I’ll hit the ground before you.”

He takes a step back, and the air opens up around him, wind like a thousand hands, the jet a fading speck against the early morning sun.

The Basin is covered in smoke; from this high up, the red light of dawn makes the black blanket glow gold. Jack angles down to hit it, headfirst into the wave.

He never feels alive except in moments like this. Jack’s hyperaware of his whole body; blood in his veins, the hammer of his heart against his ribs. Smoke and darkness are his entire field of view, with faint red-orange lights occasionally flaring up in the distance. The helmet keeps him insulated from the wind, but he can still hear it, the inexorable pull of gravity, a rushing counterpoint to utter weightlessness. A laugh rips out of him, loud and probably really fucking obnoxious. Jack loves this, adrenaline and wonder and all his emotions at the forefront.

His targeting visor flashes a series of warnings, so Jack closes his eyes, focuses on the hum of every nerve in his body. But he can’t block out the way Gabriel’s yelling in his ear, something about a parachute, something in Spanish about how Jack’s going to get himself killed like a jackass, and where will all his pretty looks get him when he’s a smear on the ground—?

Jack says the release phrase. The parachute opening is the first pass of an impact, right in his shoulders like getting hit by a truck. It takes the breath out off his body and leaves him reeling, still laughing.

“You crazy motherfucker!” Liao’s voice in his ear, actually shocked. “You’re well below the safe zone— LT, you’re going to be coming in hot!”

Liao’s more right than they know; now that Jack’s opened his eyes again, the gray cover of smoke that they’d used to make their approach to the Basin has given way to a low darkness, the glow of subterranean fires. The death of the nameless god in the Prudhoe omnium was a learning experience for more than their side; humanity hasn’t been the only group reduced to fortifying their territories with whatever is on hand.

The coal in the Powder River Basin had been determined to be cleaner, years ago, than similar seams to the north and the east. Well, not cleaner, but cheaper to burn without having to install thicker filters on the coal-burning plants. That sort of cost-benefit analysis was what saw the area go from one of the least productive seams on the continent to the most productive despite its awkward bowl-shaped location, with natural gas extraction use to supplement the area’s overhead cost. When the option came to eliminate further operating costs by eliminating all the human elements from the business, the mining companies had scrambled, happy to buy shares in the new omnium.

It’s the same pattern over and over again; thinking like that was what saw the farmlands of Indiana and other vast stretches of the so-called heartlands revitalized the way a zombie would be, mechanical hands pulling profit from otherwise unprofitable lands and industries. For all Jack knows, his family is still out there, struggling along with whoever else was too stubborn to leave, living in the shadows of the automated giants, hoping that their mechanical neighbors will prove benevolent or isolationist where other omniums have proven themselves would-be kings.

According to the data Liao retrieved, this god’s name is Hades. A mythology of wealth, darkness, death, and the endless underground. The treasures of the earth, and power. It’s egocentric, but the intelligence considers itself a god; Jack’s not sure there exists any higher conceit, once you get to that point.

Part of what once necessitated the construction of the omnium Hades now presides over was the bowl shape of the Basin, the increasing depth of its coal. To prevent the advance of conventional forces, Hades had set the entire valley aflame, and the deep-set seams have been continuously burning for the last three years. Instrumentation can’t pierce the veil of smoke, and all drones sent in were shot down after mere minutes of recording. Jack is the first human to see the Basin clearly in years, and everything is darkness, black peals of ash, and a heat so oppressive Jack feels like he’s already burning. The only reason he’s even gotten the chance is because Gabriel had talked Adawe into letting them try an orbital insertion in in the hopes of not trashing the jump jet the US military agreed to loan them. If they fail today, they’ll either walk out under their own power, or far more likely, the six of them will die. The only way an evac’s coming for them is if they find a way to get a signal out through the smog.

Hades sits in the center of the Basin like a gray jewel, or some kind of parasite. The complex is miles long, and stretches even deeper into earth, still intent on stripping the land, but for its own purposes now as opposed to those of man. Once upon a time, its walls were pristine white plating. Now, it’s, as soot-dark as everything else, hardly visible through the smog. It looms in Jack’s perspective as he angles down, down— ‘Definitely too fast,’ he realizes.

He hits the ground in a tumble, parachute strung out behind him. Jack bounces along the ground and every point of impact is warm, even through his armor. His shoulders, ribs, and neck hurt all along his left side, pain flaring up followed almost immediately by a deep itch; at the worst, he’s bruised his bones, torqued his neck, and all that’ll go away within a few days. Jack stands as quickly as possible, disengaging the parachute as he looks around for any sign of Wilhelm, or sentries. Visibility is low, the smog almost impenetrable even with Jack’s ability to see in near-darkness.

“Y’all are gonna wanna turn your lamps on for this,” Jack says. “Don’t take your helmets off.”

“Sitrep, Lieutenant Commander,” Gabriel demands. Jack can hear the rush of wind through his connection when he speaks.

“Landing went fine,” Jack lies. “Came in hot; watch the ground. Visibility is low, maybe ten, fifteen feet out. We’ve got my eyes and Amari’s, plus the tac overlay in the helmets, but it’s not gonna be fun.”

“Well heavens forfend we not enjoy ourselves in a warzone,” Gabriel mutters, sending Jack back into mild hysterics, adrenaline still surging in his system. “Captain Wilhelm, status.”

“I have landed safely.”

With the helmet on, Jack’s hearing is muffled, but the steps of the crusader armor are hard to miss considering he can feel the tremors through the soles of his boots. Turning around, he spots the glowing visor of Wilhelm’s helmet, the suit’s towering frame wading through the smoke like something out of one of Gabriel’s favorite movies.

“You, my friend, make unfair wagers,” Wilhelm tells him.

Jack grins, even though Wilhelm can’t see him. “Never bet against the house,” he says.

“Yeah, that’s all you, isn’t it?” Gabriel drawls. “Only wanna compete when you know you’re gonna win?”

“That’s just good tactics, Commander,” Jack protests. “Hell, you taught me that.”

“It’s not tactical to be a dumbass,” Gabriel says. “Amari, Liao; you two on the ground yet?”

“Checking in,” Amari confirms. “We’re about half a click from the Lieutenant Commander and the Captain.”

“Alright, make your way to them,” Gabriel tells her. “Payload is still inbound, and we might not be coming in hot, but we’ll be coming in heavy.”

“That’s usually what happens when you try to airdrop a bomb without detonating it, Commander,” Liao says dryly.

“We’ve been over this,” Lindstrom grumbles. “Hover pads on the platform, reinforced parachutes; if the rest of you do your jobs and fortify the point, we’ll have pulled this off without a hitch.”

For a second, silence in the comms, the crunch of gravel beneath their boots as Jack and Wilhelm go through their last gear checks and finish disposing of their parachutes. Then:

“Did you really have to say that?” Amari says. “I know you science types aren’t superstitious, but that’s—”

“Form up,” Jack tells the group. “And remember; radio comms means that our range is limited. We’re running around with walkie-talkies, more or less. They won’t hear us, but we won’t hear them either until we get closer. At that point, stealth’s gonna go out the window anyway, so Liao, feel free to start electronically monitoring the area at your discretion once somebody starts shooting at us.”

“Any other words of wisdom, LT?” Liao asks.

“Try not to get yourselves killed out there,” Jack opines.

Liao laughs, and Jack hears it twice; in his ear, and from behind as Liao and Amari approach the approximated drop site, resolving from forms in the mist. “Sure thing, án-niâ,” Liao says. “What was all that Spanish, before?”

“The Commander was calling me an idiot,” Jack says idly.

It’s not entirely a lie; Gabriel really was calling him an idiot. But there were endearments in there, too, or words that have become endearments after years’ long exposure to Jack’s brand of stupidity. It’s the latter part he can’t cop to. Even if he wanted to, the two of them were given a mandate only after Jack signed on; the only way he and Gabriel were going into war together was if they were willing to not be together. Or at the least, keep their relationship entirely undercover.

It— it hurts. Jack’s not going to lie; it hurts more than he thought it would. It’s really only been a month, and he’d only been out for the two years he’s been dating Gabriel. Jack had figured he’d be able to handle himself eventually. That he’d get to a point where he could be okay with not touching Gabriel, and having to watch himself; he’s done it all before, and while that had been hard, it hadn’t been this hard—

“I was calling him an idiot because he’s an idiot,” Gabriel says dryly.

The payload stands out in the darkness as they roll up to it. Even in the smog it’s hard to miss, or maybe that’s just the way Jack can hear Gabriel’s boots crunching over the steaming ground, the familiar sway of his shoulder lamp. Jack can’t help grinning; it’s been years, and Gabriel’s still never figured out how to be patient on a battlefield. Or in general.

“It’s how he shows he cares,” Jack says. His tone is light, like it doesn’t matter. Like it’s not at least partially a lie; Gabriel can be a dick, yes, but that’s not how Jack knows he’s cared for. Jack knows that from a hundred things he can’t let himself think about right now. Not when they’re about to fight and die, not when they have to present a certain front. Close but not too close; friends, but nothing more.

It’s stupid. But watching Gabriel sway and rock on his heels in an effort to bleed off energy before a fight makes Jack want to reach out and ground him; a hand on his shoulders, their helmets pressed together. Instead, he stands a respectable distance away and blinks on his shoulder lamp, cutting through the smog.

Unerringly, Gabriel turns to focus on him as soon as Jack makes himself known. “If we’re all done screwing around,” he says.

“By all means,” Amari says. “Be our guest.”

They get into formation quickly. They’ve drilled for this enough times; not this exact scenario, but something like it. Wilhelm takes point with Gabriel and Jack behind him. The shield, being a massive, glowing target, isn’t up yet. They’re not relying on stealth, but they’re going to try and keep it while they’ve got it, and move as far as they can without being detected. In Jack’s opinion, the longer they go without getting shot at, the better things will be.

They advance slowly. Jack watches the smog, and hopes they don’t set off any traps. They have no way of knowing what’s ahead of them; any normal signaling or scanning would alert Hades to their presence. Jack hates it. Except for his two eyes and Amari’s one, they’re walking blind and he fucking hates it. They won’t have realtime tactical information on their helmet HUDs until Liao turns on their custom scanners and starts to direct the flow of data.

Jack’s almost glad when he hears the crunch and whir of machinery. “Hostiles at three!” He shouts.

Wilhelm moves with more grace than could be expected from a suit of armor so large, swinging to the right. Jack pivots around him with ease, lifting his rifle into the firing position as Wilhelm’s shield flares up into being, a ripple of interlocking hardlight hexes. Blue light glimmers off the black smog, a contrast to the low, orange-red glow that fills the inside of the Basin.

Almost immediately gunfire tears through the smoke, bouncing off the hardlight shield with the sound of rubber. Jack tracks movement in the shadow and fires a spray without thinking, hears the distant clatter of toppled metal as the shooting stops.

Jack strains his ears, listening, scanning. Tracking the eddies in the mist, looking for another shape.

Gabriel shifts and a shotgun goes off somewhere to Jack’s left. Then again. Jack steps forward with Wilhelm and Gabriel moves into Jack’s shadow with ease, squared up as he fires a third time, an omnic collapsing to the burning ground. They haven’t been in a proper warzone together since they got together, but this at least still feels natural; Jack watches out, and Gabriel watches his back.

“Yeah that’ll do it,” Gabriel says. “Light it up, Liao. Everyone else, form up; this whole field’s about to get real fucking kinetic real fucking fast.” And then, brusquely, as if it doesn’t matter, because it can’t matter: “Nice shot, Morrison.”

It still feels good.

On command, Liao lights it up. Their equipment is powerful and fast: Jack’s HUD comes online with a quick flicker of static as hostiles appear in the mist as vaguely human forms outlined in red. Jack hears Lindstrom’s turret beep as it comes online, immediately targeting one of the figures on the approach.

“Not bad,” Amari grudgingly admits.

“What was that?” Gabriel’s grin is audible even over the sound of gunfire.

“I said you two aren’t bad shots for undisciplined children with spray and pray ordnance,” she grouses. “Take it for what it is and stay focused.”

“If the Commander and the LT are children, what does that make me?” Liao asks.

“An infant with a wi-fi connection and a gun,” Amari says dryly.

Jack laughs despite himself, but isn’t the only one; Gabriel’s snicker is infectious, and Wilhelm’s laughter is almost as loud as the firefight around them.

Very quickly, Jack’s world narrows to the reality of fighting. Gabriel calls targets for all of them, that quick mind watching every angle. The team might not be a well-oiled machine by any standard, but the point is not to be. All they have to do is react efficiently: they can, more or less, see their enemy. Their enemy can, more or less, see them, and more importantly, see the ostentatiously massive EMP payload.

Which is good; they want Hades’s attention, and they want all of it. And according to the numbers Liao’s scanners are feeding to Jack’s HUD, they have it; what looks like at least a hundred individual units are bearing straight for them.

If it were any other enemy, they’d already be dealing with artillery shells. But the magic of fighting a god is that while god programs are smart (smarter and faster than any human could hope to be) they're sedentary. And when you hit them with the right weapons, they’re downright fragile. After Cleveland, after Mars— Two months ago, Gabriel proved that gods can die. Now, right now, despite Lindstrom’s insistence on the emotionless efficiency of the governing AI, they’re proving his thesis that gods can be afraid.

It’s a neat little trap Gabriel’s come up with; if Hades shells the EMP, they’ll detonate it, frying everything electronic in the Basin, leaving its underground components defenseless. But if it lets them advance, they’ll only get closer to the central compound itself, which means they’ll be closer to frying the main core.

“So I have a question,” Liao says. They’re posted at one side of the convoy, watching the flank and protecting their sensor array as the payload continues forward.

“Hit me,” Gabriel offers.

“It’s not actually for you,” Liao says. “Not everything’s about you, Commander. I actually wanted to ask the LT something.”

“Yeah?” Jack grunts. He understands Gabriel being able to talk during the fighting; he has the attention to spare. Jack, however, tends to try and focus on not dying when there’s a gun in his hands.

“How come you have that thing and not a sniper rifle?” Liao asks him.

“More efficient,” Jack tells him. “Bigger spray, higher caliber.”

“But you were trained as a sniper,” Liao argues. “I understand why the Commander doesn’t snipe any longer; he has the longer service record, and the background in tactics. But there’s nothing special about you.”

Jack fires, then blinks. In the distance, a red outline splinters into shadow as another omnic falls over. “Special forces not special enough for you, Liao?”

“Please,” they say. “Except for our engineer friend, all of us have been in one form of special unit or another. And he was still brought in for his overwhelming technical experience. But you have no specialty.”

“Long answer,” Jack grunts. “Not the sorta thing I wanna talk about in a firefight.”

He really doesn’t; he might be behind Wilhelm’s shield, but Jack knows that it won’t hold forever. At a certain point, Wilhelm’s going to need to refresh the barrier, and that’ll leave the payload wide open. He’s trying to hose down as many targets as he can see, focusing on the ones at mid range, leaving the distant outlines for Amari, and the closer ones for Gabriel’s shotguns. Jack can listen in well enough to keep track of the conversation, but he doesn’t want to risk someone getting shot today just so he can participate.

“He doesn’t specialize ‘cause he’s paranoid,” Gabriel explains for him.

“Paranoid?” Liao asks.

“Sure,” Gabriel says. “You saw all the ass-covering he did in the paperwork for this op, right?”

“Only ‘cause you wouldn’t,” Jack grumbles.

“Don’t you start that shit with me, Morrison,” Gabriel counters. “I know what happens if I fuck up your system.”

Even among all the talking, Gabriel stays on his feet. He moves like a dancer, albeit a dancer built like a linebacker. Jack keeps an eye on him, a good share of his awareness. Gabriel pivots in and out from behind Wilhelm’s shield, strafing between waves of bullets. Jack moves with him as best as he’s able, making sure not to get in the way of Gabriel’s shotguns.

“Not that complicated,” Jack argues.

“Yes, that complicated. Your handwriting is bullshit.”

“Not my fault you can’t read.”

“Neither of you have answered my question,” Liao chimes in.

Gabriel’s sigh is almost as explosive as the sound of his guns going off. “What happens if you get shot?” He asks.

Amari’s protest is immediate, this time, something about jinxes and curses and does the Commander want to make her life any harder?

“Captain Amari would attend to my injuries, assuming I didn’t die on impact,” Liao says.

“Okay,” Gabriel offers, “assume that Captain Amari were to be, horror of horrors, incapacitated? Who’d patch you up then?”

“I’d assume it would be whoever else in the unit that has first aid training.”

“That’s Morrison,” Gabriel says. “He’s also the guy who knows five languages, has sniper training, wilderness survival and orienteering stats, search and rescue certifications, hostage negotiation experience—”

Liao’s gun is a small piece of ordnance, at least in comparison to what the rest of them are packing. Semi-automatic, and nondescript in its firing patterns. Every time they speak, Jack hears it over the comms, an echo of the actual sound which is muffled by his helmet. Jack’s not the kind of guy who divines by caliber; he’s known soldiers and specialists who used to swear by that shit, claiming you could determine the make of a man by the make of his gun. It wasn’t all that uncommon a superstition in the forces. But Jack thinks that Liao’s weapon suits them; it could fit in anyone’s hands, and blend into any cache. Under that, it’s still a gun, still dangerous.

“I see,” they say, and Jack knows it’s a statement indicative of more than just surface understanding.

“I do parkour, too,” Jack adds, just because he can.

“Parkour?” Amari asks him. “You really are a child.”

“I like to run,” Jack says.

His skin itches. He’s not going to pretend that Gabriel singing his praises doesn’t make him glow inside, but he has to for the sake of this taskforce. And that monologue was hellishly revealing, no matter how Jack looks at it. He wants to add on Gabriel’s accomplishments, wants to explain that, no, it’s not like Jack’s some kind of miracle worker, but rather that it’s more a matter of how, if an emergency situation arises, Jack would be able to even their odds.

But he doesn’t have the brainpower to explain his reasoning, right now. And he’s not allowed to explain all the things about Gabriel that make Jack think of the sun. So instead he swings around to cover Gabriel’s flank while Gabriel darts out into the field, unprotected except for Jack’s suppressive fire, and lays down round after round while Gabriel mows down an advancing cluster, drawing them in, away from the pincer they’d been trying to angle into.

“Honestly, though,” Liao says. “Orienteering?”

“You wanna die in the woods?” Jack asks. “Or in here, since we don’t have a GPS and can’t see sunlight?”

“But the point of this unit is that we are, all of us, unique in our fields,” they argue. “And yet you’re not, unless paperwork counts as a unique skill, or foolhardy competitiveness.”

“They don’t, for the record,” Gabriel chimes in. “In case anyone was wondering. Nearly smearing yourself into the landscape is not, in fact, a skill, and neither is being the model bureaucrat.”

The real answer, the one that’s been rattling around in his brain for a month is this: the only reason Jack’s here is because Gabriel asked him to be. And even if he was allowed to do so, Jack would never admit to that out loud. Unit cohesion first, and no one likes to hear that the weak link is fucking the boss.

“Eh,” Jack grunts. “I dunno what to tell you. I guess you could just say I’m a jack of all trades.”

For a second, there is silence. Then, Gabriel’s laughter rips through the comms, loud and startling while Amari makes a noise of disgust.

“I think we have enough ground coverage,” Lindstrom announces. “If you’re still sure about your earlier projections, it looks like the damn thing committed most of its ground forces within the effective range. Saturation should yield a shutdown of the majority of Hades’s forces.”

“Good,” Gabriel says. “Everyone get in position and get ready to go off comms. I don’t want any of you assholes blowing your eardrums out because you forgot to turn your headsets off when this thing goes up.”

“Acknowledged,” Wilhelm rumbles, and the rest of them are quick to follow.

“Countdown in 20,” Gabriel says. “Lindstrom, hit the switch.”

Jack waits for four separate clicks, watching as Gabriel’s little dot and his ‘01’ callsign continues to flicker in his HUD.

“Comms off, Jack,” Gabriel tells him. The worry he was hiding comes through, like this, even under the Spanish and the fondness of his words.

“I’m gonna hear it anyway,” Jack tells him, replying in Spanish to match Gabriel. It doesn’t matter that no one else is listening in on comms anymore; they’re safer, like this. They have to be; if the rest of the war is going to be this, Jack has to believe they’ll find a way to talk to each other.

“I wanna hear your voice,” he says.

“It’s just a bomb, Jack,” Gabriel tells him. “We’re gonna be fine.”

“I know,” Jack says. He wanted it anyway.

He turns his comm off and watches Gabriel’s dot continue to shine, superimposed on the image of the man himself. In the red light of the Basin’s pervasive fires, Gabriel is a smear of blue so dark it’s black. He’s featureless behind the curve of his helmet and the shape of his armor, a shadow in shadows, a ghost in the land of the dead.

Behind Jack, the EMP detonates in a subsonic blast he feels in his bones and on the surface of his skin. Wilhelm’s shield shatters into nothing like a lightbulb blowing out. In the distance, and only meters away, the sound of clanking, falling metal fills Jack’s covered ears, hundreds and hundreds of tin soldiers knocked down like discarded toys.

Jack’s HUD is gone, but the man remains; on Gabriel’s shoulder, the light goes out. As the wave breaks, he stands perfectly still.

‘Forward,’ his hands say, and abandoning the payload, they follow him forward, passing over the lifeless armies of the dead.

They still have a god to kill.

Chapter Text

(6. Trees are their roots.)

[2050 — Los Angeles, United States of America ]

After half a year apart, Gabriel looks different. His hair’s gotten long again; the sides of his head are no longer shaved down, and the curls on top hang over his forehead, brushing the rims of his aviators. His beard’s grown in, too, no longer maintained.

He’s got a new pair of scars; two deep gouges that stretch from his right cheek, to just under his right eye, and up the bridge of his nose. They’re raw and still healing; normal soldiers would’ve gotten stitches, but Program graduates tend to heal too quickly for stitches on any injuries less threatening than arterial or gut wounds. At first Jack thinks they’re cuts, but they’re too defined to have come from a knife; the edges are round, almost as if he’d been shot.

“Icepick to the face,” Gabriel explains, catching Jack staring as he walks down off the airport ramp. “I was supposed to take it in the eye and stop moving, but I dodged. Did you know nobody out there moves as fast as you do? Sparring against the fucking Flash gave me a serious edge against all these jokers.”

His grin’s still the same, though, down to the warm feeling it puts in the pit of Jack’s stomach.

“So the trip to ‘redacted’ went well, huh?” Jack asks, not able to help the small answering smile that breaks over his face.

“That’s classified,” Gabriel deadpans, every inch the government agent for all of two seconds before he’s grinning again, self-satisfied and smug. “You still got my tags?” He asks after a pause.

It’s reflex that stops Jack from blurting the first words that come to mind: ‘You’d have to kill me to get these back.’ It’d be a lot to say out loud. A lot to even think; they haven’t even been together two years, yet. Maybe it’s just that Jack got a head start on all of this, and that’s why being near Gabriel makes him feel so much, everything all at once instead of manageable beneath the surface. Or maybe it’s just a symptom of his own recent deployment, the high tension thing in him that turns to Gabriel like a plant growing towards the sun.

In answer to Gabriel’s question, Jack hooks a thumb in the chain around his neck and lifts a little, letting Gabriel see the light glinting off the metal.

Gabriel’s smile goes funny when he sees, wavering on the edges. Jack has enough time to wonder what he did wrong before Gabriel drops his bag and sweeps Jack up in a hug that strains his ribs, Gabriel’s strength putting more pressure on the bones than a normal grip would.

“I fucking missed you,” Gabriel admits, face shoved into Jack’s neck, the wire frames of his sunglasses digging into Jack’s collarbone. He sounds damaged, like these four months apart injured something other than his body.

Jack hugs him back, a protective swell of possessiveness rearing up in him so fiercely that he’d be knocked off balance if he didn’t roll with the surge. The only experience Jack has with the ocean is the cold tide of the Pacific, when Gabriel had taught him to swim. Jack thinks that this feeling and that ocean must be cousins, the same sense of unknowable depth a part of them both.

“You’re here now,” Jack says, voice rough, accent thickening. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Gabriel smells like sweat, exhaust, and the stale, electrified air that lingers in planes, ozone clinging to his hair and skin. Under that, there’s something uniquely him, sun-baked wood and saltwater, almost like driftwood. Jack had never noticed it before the Soldier Enhancement Program, but then again, he hadn’t had such a keen sense of smell before the Program, either. He likes to think it’s something that the Program changed in them, or made sharper. Most people just smell like food, sweat, cologne, whatever laundry detergent they’ve been using. Recently, Jack’s been able to identify the sick tang of fear. But Gabriel is always familiar to him, something extra in his scent.

Jack wonders if that’s what Gabriel’s after now, looking for something grounding and specific to Jack, nose shoved up against his shoulder, breath hitching slightly. He can tell Gabriel’s trying not to cry, and Jack aches with the need to do something. He shouldn’t have supposed it was a good mission. Good missions don’t end with Gabriel getting stabbed in the face with an icepick, even if he did survive, even if he did try to play it off. From the look of the gouge, the person swinging the pick had struck twice, and put maximum force into the effort, clearly scraping against Gabriel’s orbital bone, his body still attempting to fill in the hole. If he hadn’t been as fast as he is, he would’ve lost the eye, if not died outright. Jack’s an idiot for not noticing the strain.

“Let’s get outta here,” he says, as gently as he is able, and Gabriel nods, the side of his head rubbing over Jack’s skin.

Home is a small apartment outside the city that neither of them spend as much time in as they want to. Their deployments are relatively short compared to full tours of service, but they tend not to run concurrently, and leave is always short. A month here, two weeks there. The last couple of years since leaving SEP, they’ve been stealing days together wherever and however they can, and the empty home they’ve been trying to make shows the evidence of that theft. The only reason it’s not covered with dust is because Jack’s been back from the eastern front for a few days, long enough that he’s recovered from jetlag and some of his mental fatigue to do things like change the sheets, clean, and buy groceries.

Gabriel dumps his bag by the door and stands around for a moment on the threshold, looking lost. “I had something important to tell you.”

“Can you tell me later, or is it time sensitive?” Jack asks. He walks into the kitchen in telegraphed steps, opening the fridge, rooting around for the dough he prepped yesterday for the sake of something to hit.

“Both?” Gabriel’s answer is uncertain as he trails Jack into the tiny kitchen, taking a seat at the beat up plastic folding table they stole off base when they moved in. “It’s more like an offer that’s gonna expire.”

“What’s the expiration date?”

“Six days. It was seven, but I had to get here.” Gabriel folds his arms over the table, leaning forward, eyes half closed.

“It can keep, then,” Jack says firmly.

“It’s something you’re gonna wanna think about,” Gabriel warns him. His voice is muffled, head down in the cradle of his arms.

Jack wants to run a hand through his curls, but his fingers are currently sticky with dough. “So I’ll have five days instead of six. Not the end of the world. Whatever you’re going to tell me, I’d rather you do it when you can think straight,” he reasons. “You want anything special in the bread?”

“You got raisins?” Gabriel asks, almost plaintive.

Jack smiles despite the weight in his chest, the corner of his mouth twitching up. “Yeah, I got raisins. And cinnamon. You wanna sleep in a bed, angel, or are you just gonna pass out here?”

“I want you where I can see you,” Gabriel admits. “Keep talking?”

“I can do that.”

Jack’s never been good at talking, but he knows Gabriel likes the sound of his voice. As he bakes, Jack sings whatever comes to mind, old folk songs, mostly. At one point he catches Gabriel humming idly along, the notes off key and tentative, the half-asleep crooning of a dreamer.

In the morning, Gabriel will be alright again. Not fixed, because Jack knows this kind of internal bleeding intimately enough to know that it isn’t something that goes away with a night’s rest and homemade bread. But Gabriel will be alright again. Enough to be getting on with, good enough for government work. Jack’s not okay either, right now, but taking care of Gabriel is something he can do, something he feels good doing.

Slowly, the kitchen fills with the smell of bread baking; cinnamon, raisins, butter, flour. The first summer after they got together, after SEP graduation, Gabriel complained when he saw Jack throw a whole stick of butter into a crust, balking at the recipe. It’d been an interesting argument to have; for some reason, Jack hadn’t expected Gabriel to have as strong opinions about food as he does everything else. They’d been going back and forth on the subject for hours until the pie was finished and Jack had shoved a piece of the crust into Gabriel’s mouth. After that, Gabriel stopped griping about Jack’s decisions in regards to baking. That Hanukkah, Jack had received a copy Gabriel’s mother’s recipe for conchas pan dulce, because Gabriel had asked her to send it along.

It’s the little things. The way Gabriel snores, and will claim to his dying day that he doesn’t, despite the fact that Jack can hear him doing it right now. The way he cuddles like an octopus, and sings like the angel his parents named him after. The smell of driftwood. The way he smiles, like everything’s a joke but he’ll let Jack in on it. This apartment isn’t really a home, not from the limited experience Jack has with that sort of thing. But it is a place that they can live, and Jack wants it to be a good one.

“Gabi,” Jack calls, knowing better than to try and wake him by touch when he’s this strung out.

“¿Sí?” It takes him a second to answer, and when he does Gabriel sounds— adorable probably isn’t the right word to use for someone so deeply exhausted.

Something in Jack’s chest twists. “I’ve got food.”

“¿Que hora es?”

Jack checks his watch. “2146.”

“I’m going back to sleep,” Gabriel slurs.

“Hey, no,” Jack chides him. “Babe you need to eat or you’re going to regret it in a few hours. Eat, and then we can move to the bed after I get a bandage on those new stripes of yours.”

“Taskmaster,” Gabriel accuses him, lifting his head up from the table, rubbing at the streak of drool on his cheek. The motion pulls on the healing cuts under his eye, and he winces. “You just like telling me what to do.”

“Sure,” Jack agrees. “‘Cause you’re just so pliable, and all that.”

Gabriel snickers, and Jack slices him some of the raisin bread, sticks it on a plate with a bowl of reheated takeout stew from a few days back. It’s a lazy sort of meal, and fairly underseasoned, but as supersoldiers with demanding metabolisms they need calories more than they need flavor. An enhanced rate of healing and other neat party tricks come at the cost of a metabolism that’s been known to cause seizures in the most direly underfed. And after nearly a month on field rations, Gabriel won’t have the reserves he needs to handle his body trying to rebuild itself. Jack watches him eat through two bowls of bland soup, and then he makes sure Gabriel finishes everything that’s left in the plastic container.

“Hey, speaking of stripes,” Gabriel asks suddenly, “did you ever get your first aid cert?”

“Yup,” Jack says. “Started learning Mandarin from one of the girls in my squad, too, which I think puts me ahead of you on languages.”

Gabriel shakes his head, a small, subdued grin ghosting over his features. “Nope. Got conversational in German.”

“So, what, that’s how many?” Jack asks. “Spanish, English, Farsi, Japanese, German?”

“Shit, I dunno, boyscout,” Gabriel grumbles. “Don’t make me do math right now, my brain’s still in another time zone.”

“Makes us even if you’re not talking out your ass on the German.”

Jack’s own count of languages understood is slowly climbing, sitting at five with English, Spanish, Arabic, French, and now Mandarin. Military intelligence has been sending them both on global missions about as frequently as it keeps them domestic, and it’s become something of a competition to see who can be at least conversationally proficient in the most dialects. So far, Jack only has English, French, and Spanish with any sort of fluency, but he’s serious about Arabic, and he thinks Mandarin’s going to be damn useful, too.

Special operations offers the unique opportunity for him to pick up varied skill set, and Jack’s been taking advantage of it at every turn, trying to wheedle training out of every source he can get it. He might be a special operative, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be a specialist. There’s nothing really unique about Jack that he could even take advantage of. He’d rather be passable at a lot of things than a master of one, and be a well-rounded agent, tactically flexible as opposed to dangerously overspecialized.

Gabriel’s voice out of nowhere interrupts the chain of thought. “Können Sie mir helfen?” He enunciates clearly, and then shoves a whole slice of bread into his mouth like the starving college student he clearly never got over being.

Jack points at him with a spoon. “See, now I can only assume that you just told me to go suck your ass.”

Gabriel’s laugh is thready and startled, but a laugh nonetheless. “If I’m gonna talk dirty at you, I’ll do it in a language you actually know.”

“Oh, thanks,” Jack drawls. “That’s real kind of you. Wouldn’t want the phone sex to get lost in translation.”

“I’m generous like that,” Gabriel agrees. Jack can’t help but see a thinness in him, like someone had taken a belt sander to his shine.

That night, Jack holds onto Gabriel for dear life. That protective thing in Jack is still riled, hackles raised. He knows that it’s stupid, that no one’s going to bust into their apartment or anything like that, but he can’t calm down and he’s not even trying to. He knows Gabriel can handle himself, that none of this is an indicator of weakness or incompetence, but rather a symptom of stress and human existence. But that doesn’t stop Jack from wanting to mine the doors and bar the windows. He wraps himself around Gabriel while his partner sleeps, watching the shadows play over the walls, strange shapes cast by the headlights of cars moving across the street below.

Jack dreams of fire and of darkness, but in the morning he can’t remember why. He wakes to sunlight, sweat, the smell of driftwood. The air is thick and stifling, heat oppressive. Gabriel is still trapped under him. The tape on one side of the bandage fell off in the night and the covering hangs open, revealing the healing stripes on his face, lurid and raw. Rolling over, Jack shoves the window open and turns the fan on, trying to circulate the breeze.

When he rolls back, Gabriel is awake, peeling the bandage the rest of the way off his face. He rubs at the skin just under the stripes, presumably trying to relieve the deep itch that always comes from muscle knitting itself back together.

Jack lies down again, and takes Gabriel’s hand to keep him from scratching at his face. “I’m glad you’re back,” he says, threading their fingers together.

“Same.” Gabriel’s voice is rough, tired, but he sounds more present now than he did last night. “So that thing I was trying to tell you about,” he says. “I got a job offer.”

Resting on Gabriel’s chest, Jack’s head is filled with lingering flames, phantom memories of smoke and shadow not quite chased away by the hand Gabriel is threading through his hair.

“They finally kickin’ you upstairs?” He asks, wary. “I thought you said you weren’t gonna take any desk jobs.”

It’d been one of their worst fights; Gabriel’s in his late twenties, and at some point, he’s going to be given a command that takes him off the field, supersoldier or not. Jack still thinks it’d be a good idea for him to take the opportunity when it comes; no matter that they both knew the risks when they picked this life, Jack hates the idea of Gabriel as something death can touch. But Gabriel’s adamant about his continued combat experience, and a promotion on his own terms. Gabriel knows he looks good on paper (the gay latinx with a field command, a propaganda coup) and the last time they had this argument, he hadn’t wanted to be tokenized, taken out of the fight for the sake of a diversity the military only gives a shit about for recruiting purposes.

“Sort of,” Gabriel admits. “It isn’t a desk job, though. It’s the UN.”

Jack snorts. “Then it’s definitely a desk job.”

“Nah,” Gabriel says. “It’s something new. Not the peacekeepers.” He pauses. “They want a strike team; codename Overwatch. And they want a Program officer to lead it.”

“So they pick you. Means they know talent when they see it. That’s good,” Jack says. “A strike team for what, though?”

Gabriel stays silent. The hand in Jack’s hair twists and pulls, callused fingers gripping.

Jack thinks, pieces turning over in his mind as he slowly comes awake. If the UN’s running things and it’s not the peacekeepers, it’s going to be black ops. It won’t be a large force; Gabriel’s got plenty of leadership experience, but not when it comes to massive numbers, and he’s already admitted it’s a strike team, not a batallion. His specialties are largely storming, sieging, retrieval, psyops. And if the UN is mobilizing at all, it’s got be some clear, present danger—

“They want you to try and recover a governing intelligence?” Jack asks.

Gabriel shakes his head. “They want to end the war,” he corrects Jack quietly. “We know that the tin men think, now; they’ve learned to recruit humans to go where they can’t go, and they’ve got bastion units rolling out and conquering most of Europe, not to mention the east coast and the Great Lakes.”

“They’ve gotten faster, too,” Jack adds. “At adapting, I mean.”

It’s part of why the US even started the Soldier Enhancement Program, and it’s definitely why they rolled out pulse weaponry to arm Program graduates. No one else is strong enough to lift the cannon-weight rifles, and recent upgrades to omnic shells have made them largely impervious to even the ceramic calibers created to pierce omic magnetic shielding. Pulsefire is becoming the most efficient way through high priority targets, which has made surviving Program graduates a hot commodity for special operations.

But— “Wait,” Jack says, frowning, “they think? You’re not just talking about learning or adapting— since when?”

“Since always, I think,” Gabriel says. “‘Redacted’ was Cleveland. The omnium west of the city’s got the citizens who didn’t evac turning on each other, on us, building a fiefdom. I talked to it,” he adds, something strange and distant in his tone. “It named itself Mars, said it ‘desired to conquer.’ It wanted the omnium up in Detroit, and it was going to use the people trapped in the city to build a recruiting base for human agents.”

Jack’s stomach sinks, things coming together. “What happened?” He asks. He already has an idea, but he thinks Gabriel might need to admit it out loud.

Gabriel’s grip on Jack’s hand tightens painfully. “We burned the omnium,” he says flatly. Dully. “Plasma bomb inside the main core; the site’s going to be radioactive for decades.” His heartbeat picks up pace slightly. “There were people inside. They’re calling it a win.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack says. He’s not sure what else to say. What there even is to say. Casualties happen, and they always sting. “But that would be the only way Cleveland won anything.”

A pause, then a helpless snicker. “Why are you like this?” Gabriel asks, fingers pulling at Jack’s hair.

“Reflex,” Jack says. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt. I know that had to have been all kinds of awful; I know I shouldn’t have tried to lighten the mood.”

“It’s alright,” Gabriel says. “Fuck. I don’t like wallowing in it. I just wanna do better, yanno?”

“Yeah,” Jack says. “I know.”

“We can end the war,” Gabriel tells him, exhaustion creeping back into his words, heartbeat still stressed. “They’re not a united front— we only thought they were ‘cause they went rogue together. But they can be divided and played just like humans can. So the UN wants to ruin them. Guerilla tactics, asymmetrical war. Minimum combatants, minimal losses. If they can want things, then they can fear, which means we can terrorize them— if we hit a enough targets with enough force, the UN thinks we can scare the others into giving up.”

Gabriel takes a breath. “I told them yes already. They’ve got two people lined up for me so far, with plans to expand the op to a total of six.”

“Who’d they get?” Jack asks.

“The top pilot from the German power armor program, and an Egyptian sniper who makes us look like drunk toddlers fighting over a watergun.”

“They got Amari?”

Jack and Gabriel might not be pure snipers anymore, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not still a part of the community. Amari’s a legend, and had been one even before the Crisis. She snipes alone, which is dangerous as hell, and has a near-perfect accuracy rating, which should be impossible without a spotter.

“They got Amari,” Gabriel confirms. “They’re serious about this, Jack. They want the best. So I told them I wanted you for my 2IC, chain of command issues or not.” He pauses again, unsure. “I mean, if you want it.”

Jack had gotten redeployed in the middle of their last fight about Gabriel’s career path, several days of intermittent yelling and silence not broken by his departure. When Jack returned, it was because he’d been medically sidelined with a punctured lung and three broken ribs. Gabriel had been on base the day Jack made it back, and hadn’t returned to the apartment until the day after.

Physical pain aside, it was probably the worst experience Jack has ever had, coming back to an empty house, waking up to a handful of the horse tranquilizers it takes to dope a supersoldier, a glass of water, and Gabriel’s quietly lingering rage. A long conversation and an apology from Jack had fixed it, but it— Jack doesn’t know anymore, what matters to him more: Gabriel surviving the war, or Gabriel getting to fight on his own terms. Jack just knows that he wants to be there for whatever Gabriel chooses.

“Yes,” he says. “Obviously, I want to go with you, I just— you might want somebody who actually knows tactics to back you up.”

“What?” Gabriel gives him a weird look. “Jack, you definitely know tactics. You just like to call it ‘common sense’ and pretend you aren’t planning like six moves ahead of command, let everybody underestimate the farmboy.”

Jack rolls his eyes, uncomfortable with the praise. “You know what I mean. I’m not exactly officer material. The psychs think I’m antisocial on top of being depressed.”

Gabriel grins at him, the levity forced, but not entirely unreal. “That’s ‘cause you’re antisocial and you’ve got depression,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to handle the rest. You’re a supersoldier and you do realize you’ve got field credits so weird looking that they literally can’t pigeonhole you, right? Sure, you’ve got your issues—”

“Oh, thanks—”

“—I mean, you’re in here,” Gabriel continues, letting go of Jack’s hair to tap his forehead with a finger, “all the damn time, which makes you slow on the uptake. Whenever you get caught out and have to react to something, you start moving one step at a time, or else you lose your shit, and either way that can’t last. Your instincts are fucking great, but you either ignore them or lean on ‘em so hard you can’t think of anything else, and never at the right time for either. That’s the gap, sunshine. I figure you learn how to jump it, and you’re not just gonna be officer material, you’re going to be a terror on the battlefield.”

“We haven’t even been deployed together since Alaska,” Jack says. “I don’t know how the hell you’re putting all this together in your head.”

“Having a high clearance level means never having to ask permission to read your boyfriend’s files,” Gabriel says. “And knowing you means I can put what I read together. I have to do something when they’ve got me cooling my heels here, waiting for you to get back. Did you know they’re putting you up for an award for taking out that infantry platform in Mozambique?”

“It was a target rich environment,” Jack mutters, and slumps down against Gabriel’s chest again, letting go of his hand in favor of wrapping his arms around Gabriel’s torso.

“Which you absolutely riddled with pulsefire; reported 87% accuracy on full automatic. Look,” Gabriel continues softly, putting a hand on the back of Jack’s neck, thumb pressing a small circle into the knobs of his spine. “I don’t get how you can have no type of confidence when you could break somebody’s life with your pinky, but if you need me to reassure you, I will. As many times as it takes, because you really are that good. You’re fast in a fight, you watch, and you’ve got a brain like a steel trap. There’s nobody I’d trust watching my back more than you.”

There’s a lot of reasons to say no. Jack’s not a stranger to black ops; hell, thanks to SEP his whole existence is a black op, albeit a bizarrely well-known one among other soldiers. But dating a direct superior is against regulations for good reasons. Jack doesn’t know if they can be objective about each other in the field; Jack feels like he can’t even be objective about Gabriel in their own apartment.

“I want this war to be over,” Gabriel says. “And I will do whatever it takes. But I’d rather— I don’t want to do this alone,” he admits, so quietly that Jack doubts anyone else would’ve heard him.

“Then you’ll end the war,” Jack says. Certain now in the face of that. He tightens his grip on Gabriel. “And I’ll help.”

“You were supposed to take the next couple days to think about it,” Gabriel says shakily, a small smile audible in his voice.

Jack shrugs. “Not much to think about. Apparently when I let you go anywhere alone you get yourself shanked in the face.”

Gabriel huffs a laugh. “Charming,” he says. “You know I’ve been doing this for way longer than I’ve known you, right?”

“You weren’t in special ops before you knew me.”

“I also didn’t get shanked in the face before I knew you; maybe it’s related?” Gabriel teases him.

“I can make it related,” Jack replies, still utterly limp on Gabriel’s chest. “See if it ain’t just something to do with your winnin’ personality—”

“I love you,” Gabriel says, cutting him off, arms moving to loop around Jack’s waist.

Whatever else Jack was going to say dies, his brain a blank smear while the closeted high schooler inside him starts screaming in panicked joy.

“That’s usually not how people react to someone threatenin’ to shank ‘em,” Jack manages to reply.

“It’s your winning personality,” Gabriel tells him, starting to babble. “I mean, you don’t have to like, say it back or anything because, yanno, that’s pressure, and, wow, this morning has just totally been an emotional rollercoaster, good job me—”

“I’ve loved you for three years,” Jack blurts, the words pouring out of him in a rush.

Gabriel stares at him, gears turning in his head almost audibly. “That— is definitely a bigger number than we’ve been dating for.”

Jack can feel himself turning beet red in splotches under the weight of that stare. “If you could just snap my neck right now, that’d be cool,” he offers.

“Noooo,” Gabriel drawls slowly, dragging Jack up the bed until they’re face to face, his smile crooked. “No, I’m pretty sure that that’s way more interesting than me running my mouth off like an idiot.”

Jack just stares at him for a moment, visually tracing the curves of that smile, feeling it settle inside him. Gabriel’s eyes are warm and tired, a bit red around the edges. His thumbs are digging into the space above Jack’s hips, a warm insistent pressure.

“No really,” Jack says, “if you could just kill me, that might be better.”

Gabriel kisses him instead. His morning breath is nasty, and Jack knows his own can’t be much better. But his heart still speeds up, his whole body flushing as they lazily start to grind, intent on getting lost in each other.

It’s easy enough for Jack to reach into Gabriel’s boxers and wrap a hand around his dick, sliding his thumb up under the head. Gabriel shivers at the touch, letting out a low groan and a smile as he grabs Jack’s ass and pulls him up, leaning back against the wall.

“Yeah,” Jack says, stroking lightly. “Just let me take care of you, okay? Still didn’t get to welcome you home and all that.”

Gabriel laughs lightly as Jack gets comfortable in his lap, grinding his ass down into Gabriel’s hands. “Is that why you didn’t wear shorts to bed, you freak?”

“Nah,” Jack says, playing with the top set of barbells in Gabriel’s ladder. “Just spent a few weeks out east; it’s too fuckin’ hot in California.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel asks, arching up into Jack’s grip. “Where’d they send you?”

“Northern New York,” Jack says. “And that’s all I’m sayin’ about that right now; you are not gonna try and debrief me while I’m fuckin’ you.”

“Heh,” Gabriel snickers, “Debrief.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “We’ve already established I ain’t got anything on for you to take off, you dope. You’re like a fuckin’ teenager.”

“I know you are, but what am I?” Gabriel taunts.

When he sticks his tongue out to complete the effect, Jack leans in and kisses him, nipping lightly at Gabriel’s tongue before chasing it back into his mouth. Gabriel’s dick twitches in Jack’s hand, and Jack smiles, lips and teeth pressed against Gabriel’s.

Maybe it’s not adventurous of him or anything, but he likes lazy mornings like this best. When they first got together, Jack felt like he was going to explode every time Gabriel touched him, and his only saving grace had been the abashed lack of refractory period SEP granted the both of them. Part of that had been the oversensitivity the Program decided to curse Jack with, but the rest had been all Gabriel, and years of repressed longing on Jack’s part.

Now, Jack prefers the calm. He likes it best when he can take his time just giving Gabriel a handjob. Gabriel gets so wet whenever Jack does this. Pre makes him easy to jerk off, Jack gliding his hand over Gabriel’s length.

Jack tugs lightly at his foreskin, rolling it down, listening to Gabriel groan. The sound reverberates out of his chest, low and deep, vibrating under Jack’s other arm.

Jack smiles against Gabriel’s face, not giving much of a shit about his morning breath. “Feelin’ alright?” He asks. “Want anything specific, or do I get to pick?”

“Feeling good.” A shudder winds lightly through Gabriel. “Green, definitely green. Can you fuck me? Missed your stupid magnum XL dong.”

“Thanks, I think.” Jack twists his hand, thumb under the head of Gabriel’s dick. “You’ve been back less than twelve hours and you’re already pullin’ the dated jokes outta your ass.”

“Just as long as you don’t pull outta my ass.” Gabriel’s grin is lecherous.

“Do you want me to fuck you or not?” Jack asks.

He has no idea if Gabriel has always been so coherent during sex, or if it’s related to what SEP did to his multitasking ability. Especially considering that whenever Gabriel touches Jack’s dick, his brain pretty much shorts out. Jack’s sense of touch is more tightly strung than other people’s, but he still thinks it’s wildly unfair that Gabriel can turn him into a pile of mush just by grinding up against Jack’s dick when returning the favor takes dedication and a willingness to play dirty. Which, again, might just be SEP having overclocked his touch sensitivity. It’s a little hard to sort these things, when Jack gets down to it.

“Fuck,” Gabriel says, grinding up into Jack’s hand. “Definitely fuck me, c’mon Jack—”

“Think I wanna hear you beg,” Jack says conversationally.

He pulls away from Gabriel just to hear him groan, and reaches into the side table for lube while Gabriel pulls his boxers off. It’s a fresh bottle, new with the condoms and the disposable gloves; everything expired while the two of them were gone, and Jack’s glad he restocked the side table when he was buying shit for the fridge.

“Really?” Gabriel rolls over to look at him while Jack rummages. “We barely get started and you want me to beg?”

“Well you keep mouthin’ off,” Jack points out, pulling a glove from the new box. “Figure if you wanna keep talking, you might as well ask for what you want.”

When Jack snaps the glove on, he sees Gabriel’s dick twitch in interest, the hungry look in his previously sleepy eyes.

“Oh shit,” Gabriel breathes. “Please.”

Jack laughs, and pumps some lube onto his gloved hand. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He asks, moving back over to Gabriel’s side. “Now lay back, I wanna see that pretty ass of yours.”

Obligingly, Gabriel rolls onto his front, scooting down the bed until he can shove his arms under his head without smacking the wall. Jack settles in between his legs and runs his ungloved hand over Gabriel’s leg, grip digging into the meat where his ass meets his thigh, feeling the muscle jump under his touch. Letting the lube warm, Jack busies himself with kneading and groping at Gabriel’s ass, shamelessly pawing at the taut muscle of his thighs.

“Touch me,” Gabriel demands, turning his head to the side.

“I am touching you,” Jack says placidly, punctuating the statement with another squeeze.

“C’mon, Bill, you’re not just gonna sit there and play grabass, are you—”

Jack presses his gloved fingertip against Gabriel’s hole.

The hitch in his breathing would probably be funnier if it didn’t make heat pool in Jack’s belly. He stays there for a heartbeat, finger touching but not moving inward. With the glove on, the sensation is muffled, but not by enough to matter. Gabriel’s body is warm, and he’s only going to be hotter once Jack gets inside, a prospect that leaves him ready and wanting. But Jack’s always liked it best when they make each other work for what they want.

One finger pushes in, steady and slow, waiting for Gabriel to exhale and relax against the intrusion. Soon enough, Jack adds another finger, and another, his free hand stroking along Gabriel’s side just to feel him shiver. Jack loves the way he can get Gabriel to twitch just by stroking inside, trying to help him loosen up. Gabriel’s muscles are like iron, and the clench around Jack’s three fingers is a reminder of how tight his core is. All that power, bending for Jack.

“Shit,” Gabriel hisses.

“Better not,” Jack warns him.

Gabriel’s laugh stutters as Jack presses in a little deeper, fingers in up to the knuckles. “Just been awhile, is all,” he says.

“Yeah?” Jack asks, sliding his fingers in and out of Gabe’s heat. “You think about this? About me?”

“Mostly I was trying not to die,” Gabriel says, trying for dryness. He doesn’t quite get there; Jack gets just up against his prostate and brushes lightly, carefully avoiding the sensitive spot.

“Poor you,” Jack says. “But if you’re not feelin’ up to it, we can always put all this away, maybe get more sleep—” Carefully, Jack pulls himself free, and starts to pull up on the bottom of the glove.

“No, please,” Gabriel rushes in, back visibly tensing. “Definitely didn’t say stop—”

“If you want it you’re gonna have to ask for it,” Jack decides, balling his glove up and tossing it into the wastebasket by the bed. “You’re a smart guy, Gabriel, you can figure out how to use your words.”

Gabriel shivers, but stays quiet.

“How bad did you miss me, huh?” Jack croons, running his hands over Gabriel’s back, all that warm skin. “Did you think about this? Gettin’ opened up on my fingers and my dick, knowin’ you were gonna be too tight after that long away. Wanting it anyway, because you’re just so needy, aren’t you, Gabi—”

“Jack please,” Gabriel says. Begs. “Don’t leave me hanging like this—”

He tries to turn over, but Jack stops him, pushing down on his back. “I’ve got you,” Jack tells him. “If you ask I’ll take care of you. I want to.”

As he talks, Jack slides down, moving his hands from Gabriel’s spine to his hips, digging his thumbs into the dip above the bones. He leans down: “I want to,” he repeats, and presses his lips into the small of Gabriel’s back.

Gabriel twitches underneath him, grinding minutely into the mattress. Jack grins, knowing Gabriel has to be able to feel him smiling.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says, voice rough. “Yeah, Jack, give it to me.”

Jack spreads Gabriel’s ass and leans in, squeezing the firm muscle of his cheeks. Gabriel still smells like the shower he took last night, layered in little bits of the sweat he worked up during the night’s heat. God, he smells good.

Something in Jack’s belly jumps as he presses his tongue flat against Gabriel’s hole. Farther up the bed, Gabriel makes some muffled noise, a frisson of tension rolling through him. Gabriel is so responsive to getting his ass played with. It’s a fantastic ass and Jack has missed it, thinks it really deserves toying with, taking his time.

And maybe Jack shouldn’t enjoy this the way he does. But he does; at this point he’s starting to think he has some all-encompassing fetish for Gabriel, and that wanting to bury himself in Gabriel’s body is just an aspect of it. He’d thought about this while he was deployed, on and off through the entire long trip. The thought of Gabriel keeping him warm at night, wanting to be the one keeping Gabriel warm. Knowing that he’s finally going to make his fantasies real makes Jack’s stomach get tight, hot with anticipation.

He flicks his tongue inside and works a finger in alongside. This low down he can feel Gabriel rocking back and forth between the mattress and Jack’s tongue and fingers, rutting into the bed, scrambling for friction. He gets so desperate so fast, when Jack really gets down to it. Finally touching Gabriel’s prostate makes him jolt, shouting out for the first time.

Otherwise, Jack takes his time. Short, stabbing motions with his tongue, curling his fingers inside. He licks another broad stripe over Gabriel’s hole, and feels him shake, trying to hold still.

The best part of sex, however, is listening to him babble; low voice, a string of filthy words pulled together: “Jack please, fuck, stop teasing— for the love of god. I’m not gonna—”

Jack twists his fingers and licks around them. Gabriel sobs, and Jack feels him clench up. Feels his balls tighten and knows Gabriel is coming for the first time today. Jack works him through it, smile covered in spit and lube.

“So good,” Jack says, leaning up. He wipes his mouth on his forearm, dry hand rubbing small circles into Gabriel’s side, turning him over out of the wet patch he just made. “Think you can do another round?”

Gabriel tries to glare at him, but the effect is ruined by his own mouth, his winded look. “What if I can’t?” He asks.

Jack raises an eyebrow and looks pointedly at Gabriel’s dick, still hard and flushed, leaking against his abs.

“Shut up and fuck me,” Gabriel growls.

Jack laughs. “I didn’t say anything.” He squeezes Gabriel’s hips and slides up between his knees, unable to help the smile on his face.

“God,” Gabriel says. “I forgot how much of a pain in my ass you can be, Jackie.”

“I hope not after all that prep,” Jack mutters.

Gabriel blinks, snickering helplessly as Jack grins down at him.

“I missed you,” Jack says, leaning in close to Gabriel’s face. Drinking in the sight of him. “I really, really did.”

Gabriel’s face softens, and he brings a hand up to Jack’s cheek. “Hey.” A smile, warm and slow, the kind that always makes Jack feel special, like Gabriel saves them just for him. “I missed you too. And I also missed your fucking horse dick, so if you could, yanno, maybe put that in me I’d really appreciate—”

Jack laughs, and breaks away from Gabriel’s hand in order to kiss him. Full lips and warm tongue; everything about Gabriel is always warm, warm, warm, like he’s got a fire inside him. Jack knows he’ll never get tired of him. The future is terrifying, but his has Gabriel in it. Jack has made this choice before, knows it’s the right one, even if it’s not the smart one. Wherever Gabriel goes now, he won’t be going alone. Jack’s always going to bring him home.

Getting a condom on is a quick affair, and Jack slides into Gabriel’s heat in one long stroke.

Gabriel clenches up and moans, breathing and trying to relax against the intrusion. “Ahhh fuck, Jack.”

“Well that was the idea,” Jack manages. It’s hard to think straight when he’s buried this deep, let alone crack wise. “Just let me know when I can move.”

“Go,” Gabriel says, slinging one leg over Jack’s shoulder and moving the other to the side. “C’mon Jackie, fuck me. Kept me waiting long enough, now I wanna get fucking pounded.”

Jack can do that. He grips Gabriel’s thigh and pulls back, until just his head is still inside. Then Jack slams back, hilted. The sound of his hips hitting Gabriel’s ass, watching Gabriel’s dick keep leaking all over his abs, piercings shining. It feels like Gabriel is trying to suck him in, his insides clinging to Jack just as surely as the heel digging into his back.

Through it all, Gabriel keeps talking. His voice is all gravel and smoke, low and dark and rough. Most of it is nonsense: Jack’s name, a litany of swears and other promises. Noises with no destination but Jack’s ears, filling the hot space of their bedroom. Gabriel flushes under Jack’s touch, brown skin tinting with blood, panting as Jack plows him.

It’d be so easy to get lost in this. Gabriel’s body is a masterpiece, and the man who lives inside it is the man Jack loves most. And, god, Jack has said it now, Gabriel knows. Jack clings to his coherence anyway, ignoring the heat wrapped around his dick, not giving in to the urge to just bear down and go to town on Gabriel’s ass. Jack said he was going to take care of Gabriel and he meant it; Jack knows his own stamina, his unfortunately low threshold for orgasm. If he loses himself in Gabriel’s body, he’s going to come hard and fast. So he stays focused and keeps up the pace, hammering Gabriel’s prostate as often as he can manage.

He hasn’t touched Gabriel’s dick since they started, and Jack doesn’t intend to. “Can you come like this?” Jack asks him. “Just like this, gettin’ what you wanted, not even touchin’ your cock, just takin’ whatever I give you—”

The groan Gabriel lets out in response sounds like he’s dying. Full and deep, a long, throaty noise. His face is a mess of sweat, eyes wide and gold and hazy. The new cuts on his cheekbone are still red and raw, but not as bad as they were last night. God, he’s gorgeous. Mouth open, panting.

“I bet you can,” Jack tells him, speeding up. Balls slapping against Gabriel’s firm ass. “God, I bet you can. C’mon, Gabe, think about it; nobody fucked you right for four months. Did you finger yourself, thinkin’ about me? The proud captain tryin’ to find time by himself to beat off in a warzone? I did, thinkin’ about you. Sat there in the empty bunker with my rifle by the door, and three fingers in my ass—”

Another broken moan from Gabriel, and Jack grins. “It wasn’t the same,” Jack continues. “Can’t do it like you can. Can’t fit my whole hand in there; I’m not flexible enough. I tried, though. All I did was hurt my wrist, but—”

“Fuck,” Gabriel hisses. “Keep talking, please—”

“Yeah,” Jack says. “Yeah, Gabe, it was— it was so fuckin’ cold, and nobody was gonna come lookin’ for me, I’m not important. Had all the time in the world to try and get in there like you can, hoping nobody was gonna walk in on me, with my pants off and my dick in my fist, wishin’ you were there instead of wherever they sent you. Wishin’ it was your fingers in my ass instead of mine.”

Gabriel comes, shouting. His body ripples and shudders, his ass clenching around Jack so hard he nearly sees stars. Instead, Jack fucks him through it, fingers gripping Gabriel’s thigh hard enough he’ll probably have bruises in the shape of Jack’s hand for a few hours at least. He kisses Gabriel in the vicinity of his mouth, licking into the open space, trying to swallow the delicious noises he can’t seem to help making.

Gabriel’s chest is painted white when Jack pulls out. He’s still shuddering, aftershocks rocking through him. Jack carefully lets his leg go, dips out from under the knee Gabriel through over his shoulder. Gabriel falls back into a more comfortable position, and pulls Jack down, hand reaching for the edge of his condom.

“You didn’t—?” Gabriel asks. Confused brown eyes meet his, still dilated and lust-blown.

“I said I was gonna take care of you,” Jack mumbles.

“Well now I’m gonna take care of you,” Gabriel says. “So just relax, sweetheart.”

A warm, broad hand pinches the condom off. When Gabriel takes Jack in hand, the skin to skin contact means he nearly comes unraveled on the spot, body bowing into Gabriel’s, Jack’s forehead on his shoulder.

“There you go.” Gabriel fingers are insistent on the head of Jack’s dick, rubbing and teasing as his palm moves up and down the shaft. “Give it up for me, Jackie. Nice and slow.”

Jack’s breath catches in his chest, but after a minute or so he does come, Gabriel’s one hand tweaking one of Jack’s nipple piercings, the other firm on his dick. It’s not loud or violent, not like the full-body spasm Gabriel’s second orgasm had been. But it shakes through Jack all the same in a wash of heat, a moment where everything falls away except for Gabriel’s touch and the sound of his voice, hot and low like a fire.

It’s easy enough, after that. Gabriel wipes them down with his discarded boxers, and they shuffle to avoid the wet spots their sweat and come left on the sheets. It’s really too hot to be holding on to each other, but they still end up in a pile under the window, Jack’s back shoved up against the coolness of the wall, the long plane of Gabriel’s back plastered to his front. Jack missed this, too. Just being able to hold Gabriel, the thick LA air. The sound of the city filtering in through the window while Gabriel’s heart beats under his palm.

“I love you,” Jack says. Just because he can say it.

“Love you too, sunshine,” Gabriel says back.

The room is sleepy and tired, smelling once again of them both. Jack lets himself drift, heat soaking into his body and his brain. He smiles when he hears Gabriel snore. He buries his face in Gabriel’s curls, and in the shadow beneath the window, Jack falls asleep.

Chapter Text

(5. A toast before we go into battle.)

[2048 — Newport News, United States of America]

After over half a year, the Soldier Enhancement Program has had its way with them, and tomorrow it turns them loose, their graduation official as of this afternoon. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, they two of them are faster, stronger, taller; when they started the program, Jack had nearly half a foot of height on Gabriel, and now the two of them are almost exactly the same height.

Jack barely got any taller, but he has gotten a hell of a lot wider, the whole silhouette of his body changing as he’s gone from lanky beanpole to someone with actual muscle mass. The other big change has been all his senses going haywire, then sharper, which remains the most singularly painful and unpleasant experience of his life. It took weeks for his system to actually calm down and even now everything still feels weird, tastes too strongly, smells too pungent. He’s thankful, at least, that he doesn’t have to walk around in welding goggles anymore.

For his part, Gabriel can jump clear up onto the roof of a humvee without having to get anything even remotely resembling a running start, and carry over twice his own weight. That’d be impressive by itself if the Program hadn’t overclocked half the shit in his head, too. Gabriel’s seizures had been terrifying. So had the coma, and the dissociation and aphasia that had followed.

The two of them were lucky; some people got out of the program in body bags, and others on stretchers with tubes in their throats. Respiratory issues turned out to be the most common side effect of all the overlapping treatments. Instead of getting increased capacity, some people’s lungs shriveled up like raisins, withering in their bodies as if they’d been smoking paint for years.

Jack was always terrified that he’d be next; every time he got the shakes he swore it was harder to breathe. Gabriel would say it was all in Jack’s head, usually able to talk through his bouts of misery when they happened. But he’d count Jack through it all the same, mark the numbers like he was counting wind shear, force Jack to breathe on a beat until he could do it without hyperventilating or screaming.

For Gabriel, the shakes brought hunger. All the surviving graduates have gotten used to needing a higher calorie intake, but Jack could actually hear his stomach complaining when Gabriel got the shakes. He’d eat anything and everything, and if he didn’t get enough calories, his body tended to start cannibalizing itself, seizures and blackouts setting in. It wasn’t like Gabriel had had that much fat on him before, but now that he’s picked up half a foot in height, he’s nothing but muscle and bone, seven horrifically bland meals a day not enough to keep up with his personal rate of growth. In the last few months, Jack has gotten used to carrying around as many extra MREs as he can squirrel away for when Gabriel starts to sway.

Having been symptom free for a month, they’re about to be turned loose upon the world like the abominations of science they’ve become, slated to graduate into special ops. Gabriel’s been talking about going back to LA before they ship out, which Jack is up for. Gabriel’s family is welcoming, kind. There’s noise in his house and no one hates each other; last summer would’ve been a perfect experience if the memory of Gabriel walking around in a series of crop tops wasn’t going to send Jack to an early grave, the price he pays for having a crush on his best friend.

But for now, Jack decides they’re going to eat real food instead of base chow since they’re free agents for the night. He tells Gabriel they’re celebrating their promotions; as part of their graduation, Jack was made an NCO. Gabriel, however, moved from Sergeant to Captain, an officer’s commission on account of his exemplary service, his college degree, and academic excellence throughout the program. Without a degree, Jack hadn’t qualified for the officer training SEP provided, but he doesn’t much care— Jack’s proud damn it; they’ve been out of their minds with pain for most of the last seven months, and they’d still found time to fit Gabriel’s officer corps study time into their training routine.

So tonight, Jack decides they’re going to celebrate. Because Gabriel is the star of the show and all his plans are inevitably about bigger, louder, they end up at a bar after Jack introduces him to the joy of chicken and waffles. After Gabriel gets carded for his babyface, drinking at the bar quickly turns into trying to get drunk at the bar as phase two of Gabriel’s plan kicks in as he decides that they should see if they can still even get drunk.

Gabriel passes him the bottom shelf vodka he’d gotten a bottle of, and Jack drinks, grimacing as the chemical taste of artificial birthday cake frosting coats the inside of his mouth. “You can’t possibly like this,” he says, passing it back.

Gabriel shrugs at him, smiles, loose and lazy from two servings of waffles. “Point isn’t to like it, point is to drink as much of it as possible.”

“You’d think we’d drink more if we actually liked the taste,” Jack comments.

“Fuck you,” Gabriel says cheerfully from behind the neck of the bottle. “Birthday cake’s a fucking institution.”

They finish the bottle, but they don’t get drunk. Jack swears he feels a buzz, but he knows that it probably has more to do with the way Gabriel leans into him when he goes to grab some of the buffalo wings they’d ordered.

“Hey,” Jack says, shoving his shoulder against Gabriel’s, a desperate ploy for space. “I got you something.”

“Aw shit, sunshine,” Gabriel says. “You didn’t have to do that. When did you even get off base?”

“The other day,” Jack says vaguely, reaching into the front pouch of his USMC sweater. “Which you better appreciate, ‘cause I had to hike uphill in the snow both ways—”

“Morrison, it’s May—”

“Here.” The envelope he puts in Gabriel’s hand is thin and white, completely unremarkable, except for the bit on the front where it says ‘to the Captain,’ with a little stylized wing drawn where the rest of the address should go.

Gabriel shoots him a curious look, wiping his other hand on a napkin before he turns his attention back to the envelope.

“It ain’t gonna bite you,” Jack says.

The card inside the envelope is thin, light, and largely unremarkable. Framed by balloons, the front says ‘Happy Birthday!’ The second word is crossed out in two neatly intersecting lines, the ‘Birthday’ replaced with ‘Promotion’ in Jack’s own handwriting. One of Gabriel’s eyebrows goes up as he drinks it in, and doesn’t lower once he opens the card; Jack had sprung for a holograph card, the sort of kitsch that costs a little bit more at the Walgreens and allows for a personalized message, a rotating image.

“To— Captain— America,” the voice inside the card recites mechanically, each word its own stuttering sentence as the cheap text-to-speech program parses the phrase. “Congratulations on your— promotion!” For the image, Jack had chosen a globe, which spins as Gabriel’s holds the card open, the message starting to repeat.

“Serve your country, they said,” Jack drawls. “It’ll be fun, they said. More like be Captain America or try dyin’.”

Gabriel looks back up at him, something unreadable on his face, too many emotions for Jack to track. He doesn’t close the card, and the message cycles through again, the little globe continuing to turn.

“Well,” Jack continues, “looks like you’re still alive. And you’re an officer now; a captain, even, which, gosh, Reyes, I’d about figure that settles that whole argument—”

Gabriel closes the card, and places it on the table with care before he takes a swipe at Jack’s shoulder. “Jackass,” he says. “Drink up; you’re a dick when you’re sober.” Gabriel passes him the bottle, and then the card and its envelope go into the pocket of the skull hoodie he bought last summer when he dragged Jack to a Hot Topic ‘for the experience.’

Jack can’t stop grinning. Even the grossly artificial taste of birthday cake can’t put a dent in his enthusiasm; there’s this pleased little look on Gabriel’s face as he keeps working through the plate of chicken wings, despite the fact that he just got trolled. Which might be why Jack doesn’t notice when he polishes off the vodka by himself, too preoccupied by the way Gabriel licks hot sauce off his fingers.

“I should get another bottle,” Gabriel remarks.

Jack grimaces. “Please don’t.”

Gabriel looks up at him, then, and Jack must’ve let something serious onto his face for a second there because he knows that that expression from Gabriel means concern.

“You wanna leave?” Gabriel asks him.

“Yes,” Jack says. “No.” He thinks about it. “No,” he says again, firmer this time. “Just, not birthday cake.”

“Green apple?” Gabriel offers, and smirks before the expression softens. “Or nothing. ‘Cause we really could leave.”

“I’m good,” Jack says. Means it, too, because they’re here together and that’s what’s important.

They’ve spent the last couple of years in near-constant contact, like two parts of the same object. The future scares Jack; they’re leaving the Program together, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way. He worries; who’s going to pull Gabriel out of the fire when he’s being an idiot, if it isn’t Jack? Who’s going to make sure he comes back in one piece? The thought of separation terrifies him, in the same sort of abstract way that change does.

“Alright,” Gabriel says. “Green apple. But we’re still gonna leave.”

“What?” Jack asks. “Why?”

“Because I dunno, maybe I’m trying to be a responsible adult for once in my life,” Gabriel says, gesturing with a chicken wing.

Jack just looks at him, says nothing.

“It could happen,” Gabriel says defensively. “Hypothetically speaking.”

“Sure thing, cap,” Jack replies, and laughs when Gabriel scowls at him.

The night outside the bar is warm. This is a military town, more or less. A lot of Virginia is like that, in the north end of things. The bases are all so clumped up you could find three in every county, and everybody here knows a soldier, or did some time themselves. The streetlights are spaced unevenly, distantly, soft fluorescent glows that leave swaths of the boulevard shrouded in a dimness that would’ve been impenetrable to Jack seven months ago, but is as clear to him now as daylight would be.

The Program did its job well. At incredible expense in lives and resources, but Gabriel wasn’t wrong when he said they’d be like Captain America. On top of being taller, faster, stronger, and all their individual quirks, Gabriel maintains that they must be immune to most toxins, including booze. Something to do with their bodies’ ability to heal having been noticeably overclocked. The vodka they’ve been drinking is more like cleaning fluid than anything else, but Jack’s still clear-headed, warm from the night and the way Gabriel’s pressed them shoulder to shoulder as they walk instead of warm from the drink. The real reason Jack said okay to coming out here wasn’t because he wanted to test Gabriel’s theory; it’s because he wants more time. More of this, more of them, before they go back to their separate beds in the same bunkroom on base, and wake up to a new life in the morning.

“You know they’re not gonna split us up, right?” Gabriel says.

“I know,” Jack lies.

Gabriel looks over at him, head tilted consideringly. “No, I don’t think you do. They’re not gonna split us up; we’re a team, Jack. That’s how they got us for the Program, that’s how they’re gonna set us up; they’d be idiots not to.”

But the thing is, Jack doesn’t know how to say that he knows that the smart thing to do would be to split the two of them up. Right now they’re sniper specialists, and they’re supposed to be soldiers, the kind who can go anywhere and complete any mission, not just the ones that require dropping a target from over a mile away. The military might, as a leviathan mass, be unintelligent, but the codes that keep the great beast aloft exist for their own reasons, the fraternization rules included. If their superiors were smart, they’d split Jack and Gabriel up tomorrow, and not just because that’d be a more effective use of the limited resource that is living SEP graduates.

‘I’ve loved you for years,’ isn’t the sort of thing you say just to prove a point.

“Here,” Gabriel says. “You’re being paranoid, but just in case—” He steps back and holds out the vodka for Jack to take, their fingers touching when Jack obliges.

The bottle is cold in Jack’s hand, the neck of the glass smooth and beaded with water that rolls up towards the lip when Jack takes a drink. While he watches, Gabriel reaches into his shirt and pulls off his dog tags, the chain glinting in the dim glow of the closest streetlamp as he lifts them over his head.

“I’m gonna need these back,” Gabriel says, stepping forward, lifting the circle of metal over Jack’s head. “So even if something happens tomorrow, you know I’m gonna come back.”

Gabriel’s knuckles brush Jack’s cheek as he crowns him, bending his head for the gift. The chain is warm on the back of his neck, and Jack holds the tags up to the light, the details of a life resolving in debossed block text:

‘REYES, G.
O NEG.
795 76 8651
USMC L. C.’

“Shit, Gabriel,” Jack says, his voice rasping without his permission.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says, smile more than just a little hesitant, his eyes warm and braced for impact. “And, look, if I’m reading you wrong, I’ll apologize and we’ll move on, but—” He takes a breath that shakes a little. “I really want to kiss you, and if you say yes, I’m gonna.”

Jack’s brain shuts down. There are reasons for not doing this, and they’re good, but he can’t remember a single one through the fathomless tide of selfish wanting that rolls through him, waves breaking on rocks by night.

“Yes,” he says, and leans in before Gabriel can react, closing the distance between them.

Gabriel tastes like hot sauce and vodka. Birthday cake, fire, and the chemical slick of green apples; a nasty combination all around. Jack doesn’t care; this is the first time in his life that he’s been safe enough to kiss anybody in the open instead of behind a barn or in a parking lot somewhere, and it’s Gabriel. As far as Jack’s concerned, he tastes like starlight.

When Gabriel pulls back, Jack follows him, leaning forward into his orbit. They’re the same height now, and it feels right to be able to slot himself against Gabriel, like this is how they were always supposed to have been. Gabriel kisses him again, and Jack feels overwhelmed by warmth, something heavy and good unfurling in his chest, a weight that keeps him grounded against the feeling that he could sink into the earth this way, or fall up into the night sky.

“Any other bright ideas?” Jack asks, the air from his words mingling with the breaths Gabriel is taking, slow and deep. The scent of warm, growing wood and the salt of living hangs faintly around him, a secret Jack had never noticed before now.

“I’m still pretty sold on this one, thanks,” Gabriel says. He sounds— happy, Jack decides. Smug, too, but Gabriel is smug as a default expression most of the time, self-assured even when he’s really, really not.

“‘Cause if you tell me to go slow now,” Jack warns him, “on account of how you might think I’m some kind of closet case or delicate wiltin’ flower, we both know where the motel is in this town, and that I can run a good ways carryin’ you, so don’t think I—”

The way Gabriel’s pupils dilate is the only warning Jack gets before Gabriel has his hands under the curve of Jack’s ass, lifting him. If it were anyone else, Jack would probably lose his shit and throw a punch on reflex. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t exactly a combat hold; Jack’s nerves are still strung tight, and he’d never liked being touched before he met Gabriel. But it’s Gabriel— Jack trusts him; even the part of his hindbrain that doesn’t really trust anybody just goes ‘yes yes yes,’ in a quick litany as Jack wraps his legs around Gabriel’s waist, providing them both with some more stability as Jack braces his hands on Gabriel’s shoulders.

“Okay,” Gabriel says lowly, “so maybe being a responsible adult is a little overrated. Still glad we bailed on the bar.”

“Yeah?” Jack asks, leaning down to press his forehead against the front of Gabriel’s, trapping the thick curls of his hair between them.

Gabriel’s eyes are wide, light turning his irises nearly gold. He’s looking at Jack the way he looks coming out of combat, all adrenaline and the rush of being alive. “Liquid courage is a bad idea whenever I have it,” h says quickly, words falling out of him like water from a tipped glass. “I never remember things when I’m drunk, but hey this is good, this is really good, I want to keep this—”

Jack laughs at him, gives Gabriel another quick kiss to cut off the nervous babbling. “Hey,” he says, bringing a hand up to the side of Gabriel’s face. “I’m a sure thing.”

Gabriel shudders under him, the hands on Jack’s thighs clenching. “You’re gonna be the death of me,” he comments, almost idly. “Keep saying shit like that and my heart’s just gonna give out.”

“I dunno,” Jack says, “what with all the work the government just did on it—”

This time it’s Gabriel’s turn to cut Jack off, and the kiss isn’t soft at all, but possessive, teeth sinking into Jack’s lower lip. Gabriel starts walking, Jack’s weight apparently not bothering him at all. As they pass under the lamps, Jack has the thought that they very well might get picked up for public indecency, but, surprisingly, the concept doesn’t bother him as much as it should. Light moves over Gabriel’s face where Jack’s shadow doesn’t block it, and he can’t bring himself to regret all the waiting he’s done, not if it’s brought him to this perfect moment in time.

Which isn’t to say that the two of them together isn’t still an incredibly shitty idea. Or, well, no; maybe it’s just a bad one. A lot of the reasons Jack had built up for telling himself no when it came to Gabriel are gone now, obliterated in one conversation. He’s still sure they’re going to end up in different units, for one thing. But that might actually solve more problems than it would cause, if they can do this without having to worry about rank, Gabriel’s reputation, or the threat of imminent death. And even on that count, Jack’s the goon wearing four dog tags, now; Gabriel’s going to come back. Jack’s never been something that anybody wanted enough to come back for, before.

He thinks that it’s something he’d like to try.

Gabriel puts him down a few blocks from the motel, and winds their hands together with a grip so tight Jack’s sure he’ll have bruises. Or maybe he won’t; he still hasn’t gotten used to healing like this, injuries wiped away with a buzzing itch as if they’d never been there at all. Every point where they’re touching from the line of their forearms to the places where their fingers interlock is a stripe of internal fire that stands out in even against the night’s last heat.

When they get to the motel, Gabriel goes inside to get a room and leaves Jack standing in the parking lot, heart beating in his ears. All the fantasies Jack’s been ruthlessly crushing for years are starting to bubble up from the places he’s left them; he doesn’t even know what he wants other than how he knows that he wants.

Gabriel walks out of the motel office with a card key in his hands. “You still wanna do this?” He asks. So serious. Different than when he’s commanding, or talking to an officer. Closer to how he’d been in California last summer when he’d asked Jack if he was sure about letting the Reyes family goad him into playing the guitar at the cookout, but still not quite.

‘He’s nervous,’ Jack realizes. ‘Shouldn’t I be the one that’s nervous?’

“Do you?” He returns. “‘Cause we don’t have to. I know you’re one of those romantic types—” A thought occurs. “Oh shit— you probably had some whole plan for this and I stepped in it—”

Gabriel snorts when he leans into Jack; he’s hit, again, with the rightness of it, that they’re the same height now and that they can do this. Jack imagines, for a second, what it could’ve been like if he’d had said something back when Gabriel was short and Jack was still scrawny. The mental image just about bowls him over, dreams about that night in Deadhorse surfacing again: what if they’d taken their gear off, what if the hand around Jack’s chest had dipped lower, lower—

But, no— if Gabriel says no Jack’s going to back off, and oh, fuck, he can feel Gabriel’s erection against his thigh—

“Improvising’s fine,” Gabriel says. “Let’s get inside.”

The trip through the outdoor hallway is a blur. Gabriel leads and Jack nearly trips following him, walking sort of uncomfortable with how hard his dick is in his jeans. Outside the door, Gabriel kisses him again. Jack’s pretty sure he’d be okay with him never stopping. His lips are warm and soft, and Jack’s been staring at them for years. Now that he’s finally allowed to touch and taste, he pushes back with his tongue, tracing the seam until Gabriel lets him in. They trade slick noises between them and it still feels amazing; Gabriel wants him. Jack can have this.

“Wow.” Gabriel pulls back, hands flexing on Jack’s hips. He looks golden in the soft, shitty lighting from the street, eyes still wide and awed like Jack is something special. “Wow, dude.”

“Dude.” Jack grins, feeling bizarrely giddy. “Real smooth, Reyes.”

“Aw, shut up, man.”

The inside of the motel is like every other motel Jack has ever slept in. One bed, a tiny mini-fridge. A sink and a counter under a wide mirror, a shower and a toilet in their own small closet-sized room. Jack clicks one of the bedside lamps, and Gabriel comes up behind him while Jack is still bent over, hands slipping into the sides of his jeans. The warmth of Gabriel’s hands rasp over Jack’s skin, making him shiver as he stands back up, feeling his grip shift with the motion.

“Your waist is fucking tiny,” Gabriel tells him. “I feel like I should be able to reach my own fingers like this.”

“That doin’ it for you, Gabriel?” Jack asks.

“It’s not fair,” Gabriel says, nose pressed into the bottom of Jack’s close-cropped hairline. “You were always so skinny and then they poured all the muscle on and now you’re shaped like a fucking dorito.”

“And you used to be short,” Jack says. “We’re both different. It’s not bad, though. Just different.” Even if Jack would’ve killed to be able to do this years ago, in a different motel, or in that foxhole, or, fuck, an alley in California— he’s wanted Gabriel however he could get him for years, and the reality of having him now keeps racing through his blood, sparking in every place where Gabriel is touching him.

“I know,” Gabriel says. “I just. Would’ve been nice to do this when you were still taller than me. I could’ve probably bent you in half you were so thin—”

“Ain’t no reason you can’t do that now,” Jack tells him. “Bend me right over and go for it.”

Apparently, Jack’s sense of shame has decided to give up for the night. Along with his filter. Before he can even start to berate himself for being a crude jackass, he feels Gabriel’s grind against him, the outline of his dick hard and hot against Jack’s ass.

“Okay,” Gabriel says. “We both need to be wearing substantially less clothes. Get your boots off, I wanna unwrap you like a present.”

“Hey, you too.” Jack turns to sit on the bed, reaching down for his laces. “I better not be the only guy gettin’ naked.”

By the time he leans up again, Gabriel is throwing his own boots into the corner, a loud thunk of rubber on plaster as they collide haphazardly with the wall. Gabriel shimmies, body twisting as he drags his sweater off over his head. His undershirt is next, and then it’s just muscle and skin that Jack can’t help staring at. Gabriel stares back, nervous brown eyes and short hair, brown skin and all the lines of his torso disappearing into his SEP-issue sweats— he’s beautiful. He’s the most beautiful thing Jack has ever seen.

“You alright, Jack?” Gabriel’s so concerned, so serious despite the smile.

Jack can’t remember why he was afraid of this. He remembers having reasons. But Gabriel would never hurt him.

“I’m good,” Jack says. “Really good.”

Gabriel’s smile turns slowly into a grin— not a leer, something softer. “See something you like?” Pleased that Jack is looking.

“Yes,” Jack says. He doesn’t know what he sounds like, but he can guess; too honest, too open. He wants to look forever. Maybe touch. Wrap his hands around those biceps and feel the power in Gabriel’s muscles.

Gabriel steps closer, and Jack opens his knees to give him somewhere to stand. Gabriel peels Jack’s shirt off from the bottom, knuckles brushing his skin. It’s heady; Gabriel standing over him, looking down, a soft smile that doesn’t belong in this dingy little motel most often frequented by sailors and their girlfriends. Jack’s not anything special, he doesn’t deserve that look. He’s just the asshole with stretch marks on his pecs and biceps, ugly red streaks highlighting all the new muscles on his torso. But Gabriel—

“You gonna do anythin’ or do you just wanna stare?” Jack asks.

“Maybe I like looking,” Gabriel says. “But yeah, lean back.”

Gabriel puts a hand on Jack’s chest and pushes, a light shove. Jack moves with it, leaning back, heart pounding as Gabriel’s smile turns sharp, the hand on his chest groping suddenly at the muscle of Jack’s pecs. It feels good, stupidly good. He’s not used to there being anything there to grab, but Gabriel is obviously enjoying his handful. He kneads at the muscle as Jack writhes, unable to help himself. Suddenly all his new nerve endings have been made worth it, a tactical liability turned into a gift. Everywhere Gabriel touches him is an eruption of sensation, his skin tingling under hands that have grown soft after healing through their previous calluses. An assuredness breaks over Jack, settling deep into his bones: this is why he developed a sensory quirk, he’s sure of it; he swears he’ll know Gabriel’s hands by touch alone for the rest of his life.

Gabriel sweeps a hand over Jack’s chest, rolling one of his nipples between his fingers, pinching and testing. Jack sucks in air, whines, and is mortified at himself for whining. He can practically feel the blood rushing to his face, his chest, his dick. He’s got to be bright red all over and all Gabriel’s done is touch him.

“Shit, you’re responsive,” Gabriel murmurs. “That the whole bootleg Daredevil thing, or the virgin thing?” He smirks. “Or is it just me?”

“Not actually a virgin,” Jack manages. “Fooled around before, sucked guys off, handies—”

“Handies—”

Gabriel’s fingers twist a little on his nipple, and Jack arches up into the touch, not sure if he’s looking for more or less contact. “Shut up,” he gasps. “I just haven’t done—”

“Ass play? Butt stuff?” Gabriel wiggles his eyebrows, grinning. “We don’t have to do any of that, you know. A lot of guys don’t like it.”

“Do you?” Jack asks.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says. “Yeah, I fucking love it, but some guys just don’t get anything out of it.”

“I wanna try,” Jack says. “I really—” He sucks in a breath as Gabriel pinches a nipple, and tries not to whine, or punch Gabriel for laughing at him.

In Jack’s experience, sex has meant two guys jerking off behind a shed or in a car in field somewhere, furtive and quick with clothes largely still on. It’s always been desperate and kind of shameful, and Jack knows that it’s probably not supposed to be— if he can be brave enough to let himself do this with Gabriel at all, he’s going to enjoy every part. After years of telling himself no, he’s going to look and touch and goddamn it he’s going to get fucked.

“Come here,” Jack says. He slaps Gabriel’s hand away from his chest and grabs him by the wrist, tugging him down.

Gabriel falls forward without protest, smiling as Jack throws an arm around his shoulders. Another point in favor of Gabriel being tall now: when Jack pulls him close, their crotches line up. They bump and grind through their clothes, and the friction is actually sort of uncomfortable. But damn if the closeness isn’t amazing. Damn if the way Gabriel sucks in a breath when Jack grinds up against him doesn’t make Jack smile against his lips.

“Pants,” Gabriel says. “Come on, let me get your pants off—”

Jack laughs, and lifts his hips into Gabriel’s again, reveling in the width of them, how easy it is to settle beneath Gabriel’s weight. Gabriel’s cock is thick already, and Jack can feel him straining against the fabric.

Hands pull at the sides of Jack’s jeans, tugging down before Gabriel seems to remember that Jack’s wearing a belt. While he unloops it, Jack opens his fly, then shoves his palm up against the bulge in Gabriel’s sweatpants, rubbing the heel of his hand into his cock. Gabriel’s hands still for a second as he makes a noise Jack would swear is a whine, pressing down into Jack’s hand.

With a little work, Jack’s jeans and briefs come off, leaving him hard and exposed.

“Okay,” Gabriel says. “That’s—” He can’t seem to stop staring at Jack’s dick.

“It got bigger,” Jack explains. He can feel himself flushing again, knows that the redness of his embarrassment has to be running down his face and neck. “Uh. When everythin’ else did.”

Gabriel visibly swallows. “Okay,” he says, apparently struggling for composure. “I’m not gonna lie, that’s absurdly hot.”

“You next,” Jack says. “Come on I am not gonna be the only guy gettin’ his clothes off—” He grinds his hand into Gabriel’s crotch again and then pulls at the side of his sweatpants, marveling at how wide his hips are, the way his pants cling to his ass. Gabriel has always been shaped like an hourglass, and it feels almost surreal to finally have his hands on him.

Gabriel is almost fully hard when his pants fall around his ankles and Jack gets his dick out in the open. He’s thick as opposed to long, uncut—

“Are those piercings?” Jack asks.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says. “Had ‘em for awhile. Went to do my ears when I was a kid and found out I really liked jewelry, so I went and got more every now and again—” His voice jumps a little as Jack wraps his hand around Gabriel’s dick.

The piercings feel strange: two beads that Jack is pretty sure are connected through the head, surfacing above and below; three barbells in a row down the shaft. All of it gleaming and silver. Jack can’t even say he’s surprised. They look amazing, and all Jack can think about is what they’d feel like inside him.

Jack looks up at Gabriel’s flushed face. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he says, “but I want you to fuck me.”

Gabriel blinks. “How is there a wrong way to take that?” He asks faintly.

“You never know how somebody’s gonna react.”

Gabriel’s expression softens a little. It isn’t pity, which is good; if Gabriel tried to pity him right now, Jack’s not sure what would happen. “I thought you were straight,” Gabriel says. “For like, a really long time. Wasn’t really sure until you said yes.”

“Yeah, well.” Jack twists his hand and watches as Gabriel tenses up above him, piercings bumping and sliding under his fingers. “It’s what I wanted you to think. It was a safety thing. And it doesn’t matter now,” he adds firmly. “It was my choice, and now this is my choice, and I really wanna know what you’d feel like inside me—”

Gabriel puts his hand around Jack’s cock. The sensation is— it’s a lot. His palm is soft around Jack’s shaft, and his hand is large, warm, solid. Slowly, he leans down until their hands are touching.

“Let go for a second?” Gabriel asks him.

Jack complies, and Gabriel presses their cocks together, lined up and hard before he wraps his hand back around them both. Jack shivers at the touch of warm metal and smooth skin, curving up instinctively into Gabriel. Like this, it’s easy to see the contrast in size that has Gabriel so fascinated. Gabriel is wider, but only barely, and Jack has at least two inches on him in length. Even considering that Gabriel isn’t exactly small, the difference is still noticeable.

On top of that, Gabriel is wet. He’s leaking precome, and the beads of it roll down the head of his dick, making the piercings shine. When Gabriel starts stroking, the glide is easy, and almost too much; Jack’s breath is already short in his chest and Gabriel’s barely started. Pleasure curls low in his belly, and pulls him up, muscles tense—

“Fuck,” Jack groans, and comes all over himself like a teenager, eyes squeezed shut out of raw embarrassment.

When he opens his eyes again, Gabriel is still staring at him, but the warm disbelief is gone. Instead, there’s a massive smirk painted on his face. “So what was that you said about not being a virgin?” He asks.

“S-shut up,” Jack stutters. “You try havin’ new nerve endings fuckin’ everywhere and not—”

“Not being a one pump chump?” Gabriel’s grin and faked concern are infuriating. “Hey don’t worry Jackie, sometimes it’s just hard staying hard—”

“It’ll come back,” Jack says quickly. He leans up and pulls Gabriel down, rolling them both onto their sides. “I’m serious, it’s like I went through puberty again—” No, fuck it, Jack doesn’t have to explain. It won’t make things any better anyway; he knows how Gabriel is when he starts in on a line of teasing. The only way to move him off is to distract him, and Jack has the perfect idea about how to make that happen: he leans in to give Gabriel a kiss.

Kissing rapidly turns back into making out. Jack drags himself closer to Gabriel, until they’re back in each other’s space, pressed chest to chest, warm breath mingling. Jack’s tags, and Gabriel’s, are trapped between them. Gabriel’s dick is pressed against Jack’s hip as he rocks back and forth in little motions, not really trying to get anywhere as far as Jack can tell, just looking for contact. It’s unhurried, and that, too, is new. The idea of being able to take his time with sex is a novelty by itself, and it’s one he enjoys.

The stubble on Gabriel’s cheek is rough, but not unpleasant. It’s been a while since he shaved. Jack keeps his eyes open and tries to memorize the sight of Gabriel in pleasure: brown eyes half-lidded, pupils blown so wide they seem fathomless. He makes these soft little noises as they kiss, slick and sweet and oh, Jack has wanted this too long. He’s done himself a disservice by imagining what it would be like to be able to touch Gabriel, to kiss him; the reality is better. The reality is Gabriel’s nervous heartbeat under his palm, is the warmth of his body, and the taste of his mouth.

They separate, and Gabriel pushes their foreheads together, trying to get his breath back. Gabriel’s grin is dopey and self-satisfied, a gentler version of his usual smugness.

Jack hums, and leans up, pushing himself off the bed with one arm. He runs his fingertips over Gabriel’s side and watches him squirm at the light touch, rolling over to look up at Jack. On his back is a good look for Gabriel; the hard planes of his abs, the long line of his throat— it’s all bared, laid out, gorgeous. Jack can see all his scars like this, bullet wounds and grazes, a burn on the inside of his forearm Gabriel claims he got in college when he accidentally started a grease fire trying to make bacon. But mostly, Jack’s interest is captured by the trail of hair that runs down his torso, thick and wiry where his dick juts up against his stomach, hard and wet and ready.

“I really want that inside me,” Jack says idly. “I’ll probably get goin’ again in no time, bet you’d be able to get me to come again no matter how I tried to drag it out—”

“Probably,” Gabriel agrees. “But that’s not really any sort of accomplishment. You really need to work on your stamina, Jack.”

“Well, you can help with that, I bet,” Jack says. “Bet if you didn’t touch my dick I’d last longer; it’s hard to come like that, right?”

“Depends on how sensitive you are,” Gabriel tells him. “Normally I’d say yeah, it’s not exactly easy to come hands free. But considering I barely touched you before you went off like a firehose—”

“You got a condom?” Jack asks him, cutting Gabriel off.

That seems to draw Gabriel up short. “Uh.”

“Really?” Jack asks, grin slowly breaking over his face. “You have this whole big plan and you can’t remember to keep a condom in your wallet?”

“The plan didn’t involve going to a seedy motel,” Gabriel protests. “And it’s not like I had any reason to have a few just lying around the base—” He shakes his head, and huffs, sitting up. “Places like this usually sell condoms in vending machines along with like, advil and granola bars. And there’s usually little bottles of hand lotion in the bathrooms by the soap, which, while it won’t be the greatest experience, it will work as lube if we prep right.”

Jack sighs. “Where’s the vendin’ machine here?”

“You sure you’re good to go grab some?” Gabriel asks him.

Jack stands, and starts looking for his pants. “I am if you toss me your wallet. Considerin’ I’m the one who’s not hard as nails right now—”

“Damn, they really drill the manners in down home, don’t they?”

Jack knows Gabriel doesn’t mean anything by it, but the comment still rankles. Gabriel only sounds appreciative, a little teasing maybe; the need to blurt something out about how manners had more to do with always bringing his own condoms because the other guy might not have one, about how ‘down home’ didn’t teach him anything about being polite as much as it did about being afraid. Gabriel doesn’t mean anything by it; Jack can see it in his smile. But it still hurts in a way he hadn’t expected, for Gabriel to make assumptions.

“Sure do,” Jack says, exaggerating his accent. “And I’m takin’ more than just your wallet.”

Jack shoves on Gabriel’s pants instead of his own. They’re standard SEP issue, not customized, built to stretch, and Jack is absolutely swimming in them. These had practically clung to Gabriel’s ass earlier, and yet Jack has to cinch the drawstrings all the way closed just to keep them on his narrow hips.

On the bed, Gabriel groans, wide-eyed and flushed. “That’s not fair either, what the fuck.”

Jack grins, and fishes Gabriel’s wallet out of his left pocket. “You just wait here, alright?”

“Can’t exactly go anywhere in your pants,” Gabriel points out. “Think I’d just rip the seams.”

Jack shakes his head, and pads out into the open air of the hallway.

Immediately the cool air hits him, and his bare feet on the cement make him realize the bad idea that was not putting on a shirt or shoes. Without Gabriel there to insulate him, reality hits him like a brick.

‘What am I doing,’ Jack thinks. ‘What the fuck—’

Goosebumps break out over his skin, and Jack can’t tell if it’s the realization of what just happened (of what is happening) or the cold that’s causing the shock to his system. It’s an old, familiar panic either way. He’s been ignoring it since Gabriel asked to kiss him— he’s been ignoring it every time the two of them stood too close, or shared a barracks, or a motel room, or Gabriel’s bed at his parents’ home last summer—

It’s not a matter of too much, too fast. Anything would’ve been too much. Jack has wanted Gabriel for years and this is too fast. Or it feels too fast, at least; the wanting is still there, still hungry and desperate. He wants Gabriel so badly, still. But it’s only now that he’s alone that Jack has room to be afraid.

There are so many reasons not to do this. Gabriel has been his commanding officer, though Jack still doubts, despite Gabriel’s reassurances, that he ever will be again. Gabriel is still his friend— Jack’s best friend. Jack loves him too much to lose him.

‘Shut up,’ he tells himself. His ‘reasons’ are and always have been excuses and he knows that, now. ‘Think about it—’ Gabriel’s hands, his smile. The taste of his kisses. There’s nothing about that to be afraid of.

Still, the whole walk to the vending machine is cold, dark, lonely. In the darkness, he imagines a thousand staring eyes, lingering on his bare skin and all the places Gabriel has kissed him.

When he gets back to the room, Jack stands outside it for a moment, trying to gather himself. He hovers at the entrance, foil packets in his hand, Gabriel’s wallet in his pocket. Gabriel’s dog tags aren’t warm to the touch, anymore. But their weight on his bare chest is real.

Jack is tired of being afraid of the things he wants most. He opens the door.

On the bed, leaning against the wall is Gabriel, now only half hard, almost startled to hear the door open. The relief is open— the happiness is better, a little piece of a miracle, just for Jack; Gabriel Reyes, so happy to see him he lights up from the inside.

“Hey,” he says. “I, uh. I found the hand lotion? Um. If you’re still—”

Jack takes a breath, and smiles back at him, closing the door behind him. Kicking out of Gabriel’s pants is easy, since they’re practically falling off his hips. Climbing back into the bed with him takes a little more courage on Jack’s part, but he manages. Gabriel’s hands on his shoulders helps, but his concern helps more, his worry, his genuine care. Gabriel has never been anything other than genuine with Jack. Jack, at the very least, owes him as much trust in return.

“Hey,” he says, and leans in for a kiss, trying to chase out the chill in his bones.

Gabriel obliges, all heat and intent. He pulls Jack in and the tension melts out of them both, faster for Gabriel than it does for Jack. The idea of Gabriel as the hard man Jack met years ago is so distant from the man holding him now.

‘I love you,’ Jack thinks. He’s not brave enough to say it. Too much, too soon, if anything has ever been. But he feels it, and wonders if Gabriel can feel it too in the way Jack presses him against the wall, crowding into his space, wrapping a hand around his cock.

Slowly, Jack strokes him from base to tip, feeling the piercings catch between his fingers. “I have an idea,” he says.

“Yeah?” Gabriel’s eyes are blown open, a thin band of gold between black and white.

“Let me suck your dick while we wait?” Jack offers.

Gabriel swears, jerking violently up into Jack’s grip. “Please,” Gabriel says. “Oh shit, please.”

Carefully, they shuffle over to the edge of the bed, and Jack kneels on the floor, the scratchy carpet digging into his knees. Gabriel swings his legs over the side of the bed and looks down at Jack, smiling, hands smoothing over Jack’s shoulders as Jack leans into Gabriel’s belly. This close, Jack can see the stretchmarks on his legs, the lighter stripes running across the skin of his torso and his thighs.

“Look,” Gabriel mutters, “I got like eight inches taller in like six months. I literally stretched, okay, and it ached like a fucking—”

“I like them,” Jack says stupidly. “It’s— the Program didn’t fuckin’ melt you, Gabriel. You survived it.” He runs his hands along the outside of Gabriel’s thighs, sweeping in towards the place where they meet his wide, wide hips.

“It’s why I never—” Gabriel twists under Jack’s palms, fidgeting. “We were fucking dying in there like animals, like fucking lab rats— I couldn’t— I wasn’t just gonna spring this on you when I was fucking having seizures and you couldn’t even breathe or eat salt most days. I didn’t—” Jack rubs his hands into the vee of Gabriel’s torso encouragingly. “You’re my best fucking friend,” Gabriel says earnestly. “I don’t want to lose you, dude. Not over this.”

“Well, you got me,” Jack says. “And now you’re here,” he adds. “And you’re my best friend too, Gabriel, you’ve gotta know that by now.”

He leans forward, and presses his nose to Gabriel’s happy trail, breathing in the scent of him before looking back up. “Tell me if you need me to stop,” he says, and then noses down, down, until he puts a hand on Gabriel’s dick, guiding the head into his mouth.

The nice thing about having picked up a shit ton of muscle mass during the Program is that Jack’s shoulders (which had already been wide before) are large enough now to comfortably support Gabriel’s thighs. Jack dips under his legs and settles them on either side of his head. He rolls Gabriel’s foreskin back with his tongue, pushing back the loose skin. The metal ring under the head feels solid on Jack’s tongue, and the taste of Gabriel’s skin and precome is salty, warm.

All Jack’s done so far is run his tongue around the head, press flat against the slit, but Gabriel is already making soft little noises, hands hovering over his thighs like he’s trying not to grab Jack’s skull. It’s a nice thought, but Jack fully intends to get fucked one way or another tonight, and he doesn’t have a gag reflex. Relaxing his throat is a matter of muscle memory; Jack paws at Gabriel’s hips for a second before he leans in slowly. The slide isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not unpleasant either. Gabriel is saying something in protest, but it’s not stop or no—

Even still, Jack pulls off with a wet pop, and looks up at Gabriel. “You doin’ okay?” His voice sounds raspy already, which makes sense considering he’s out of practice.

Gabriel’s face is flushed. “I’m fine,” he says. “Are you?”

Jack blinks, and smiles up at him, patting Gabriel on the hip. “All good down here,” Jack assures him. “You good for me to keep goin’? I really wanna know what these feel like in my throat.” To make his point clear, Jack runs his index finger down Gabriel’s shaft between the rungs of his ladder piercings.

Gabriel shivers. “And you’re sure I’m not hurting you?”

“I don’t have a gag reflex,” Jack tells him. “Long as you give me some warnin’, I’ll be fine with whatever you wanna do.”

“Shit,” Gabriel breathes. “That’s not fair either.”

Jack laughs a little, and wraps his hand back around Gabriel’s dick, moving his palm down to cradle his balls. He puts his mouth back on Gabriel and goes to town, licking and sucking. Jack pays particular attention to the piercings, teasing them with his tongue, listening to the sounds Gabriel makes in response.

Jack has always liked giving head. Has preferred it to awkwardly fumbling with another soldier in the back of a humvee, trying to get off before anyone comes looking. But it’s better with Gabriel; he smells like heaven, and Jack presses forward, inch by inch until he has his nose pressed into the thick hair of Gabriel’s crotch.

For a moment, Jack just stays there, appreciating the way Gabriel groans. The sound is deep and almost helpless, one hand resting on Jack’s shoulder, the other carefully reaching for his short hair. Jack hums encouragingly and Gabriel bucks up into his mouth, a movement that stops before it even starts, apologies falling from his mouth.

Jack pats him on the side of his thigh, trying to explain; he gives Gabriel an okay sign. The piercings feel as good in his mouth as Jack had suspected they would, the ring and the ladder both. The hand that had been on Jack’s shoulder trails up to his jaw, and then his cheek. Looking up, Jack looks Gabriel in the eye and sucks, deeply and deliberately, trying to draw him in.

‘C’mon,’ Jack thinks. ‘You can fuck me, I won’t break.’

Eventually, almost as if he’d heard, Gabriel gives in and obliges. The thrusts are shallow, with very little force applied, but Jack relaxes his jaw to let them in all the same. The taste of Gabriel on his tongue is heady, and the smell of him is better; wood and saltwater, human, and more than that, too. Gabriel groans and shudders, thighs tensing and pressing against Jack’s head.

Slowly, Jack feels himself getting hard again. He groans, pulling off to breathe through his mouth, panting.

Above him, Gabriel isn’t doing any better; his face is a mess, and his chest is heaving. “You alright there, boyscout?”

“I’m ready to go,” Jack tells him. His voice sounds rough, and feels heavier than normal in his mouth. “You still have the lotion?”

“Shit,” Gabriel pants. “Yeah, I do just—” He takes another breath, shaking his head as he pulls his legs off of Jack’s shoulders. “You’re gonna wanna get up on the bed for this.”

Jack stands up, and lies down on the bed, his face between his arms. Gabriel takes his time opening Jack up. He’s generous with the lotion, tracing one slick finger around Jack’s hole before he slowly presses in, getting him used to the feeling. Slowly, Gabriel pulls in and out, his free hand rubbing up and down Jack’s back.

“Tell me when you can handle more,” Gabriel says. “Or if it hurts, or pinches.”

“Feels fine,” Jack says. Weird, but fine. “And now would be good. For more, I mean.”

Gabriel complies with the request. One finger becomes two, and gets slicked with more lotion before becoming three. Jack can hear the wet sounds of Gabriel working him, and the feel of his fingers begins to go from strange and tolerable to electric when Gabriel crooks his fingers to find Jack’s prostate. Gabriel laughs at the way Jack jumps, amused at his expense. Jack can’t even see his face, but he knows Gabriel has to be grinning like a lunatic. Worse is the way he rubs his fingers back and forth over the spot, massaging Jack’s prostate as best he can with three fingers.

“Just fuck me already!” Jack squirms, rutting into the covers, desperately trying to rock back onto the fingers in his ass.

“Alright, alright.” Gabriel bends low over Jack’s back before planting a kiss on the back of his neck. “Roll over and help me get the condom on, I’m kinda slippery.”

Gabriel pulls his fingers out of Jack’s ass with a slick slide. Jack rolls over, and reaches for the foil packets that had fallen to the floor when he first came back into the room. He tears one open and rolls it down onto Gabriel’s dick, careful of his piercings, watching his abs twitch as Jack touches him. Jack moves to roll back onto his front, but Gabriel stops him, his clean hand on Jack’s chest.

“Stay like that,” Gabriel tells him. “I wanna see your face.”

Jack can feel himself flushing, splotches of red racing down from his face to his chest. “Really?” He asks. “Missionary? How Catholic can you get, Gabriel?”

Now it’s Gabriel’s turn to flush. “I wanna see your face,” he repeats. “I wanna be able to kiss you. And if the word you were looking for was vanilla, the ship sailed on that one a while ago when you swallowed my dick.”

Gabriel slides inside, and after all that prep it doesn’t burn at all, just more of that stretching feeling and fullness. Gabriel feels enormous and that’s only the head, the top of the piercing there rubbing Jack’s inside while the bottom of the piercing teases at his rim. The whole feeling is wild, barely muted by the condom.

“Shit,” Jack gasps. “Does it always feel like this?”

Gabriel shudders, and laughs again, running his free hand lightly over Jack’s side. “First time’s are usually intense,” he says. “I mean, if whoever you’re with is good. Sometimes first times are just disappointing and bland. You ready for more?”

“Yeah.” Jack tries to relax, willing his muscles to unclench. “Yeah, Gabriel, come on, I wanna feel you inside me.”

“You’ve been feeling me,” Gabriel tells him. “My fingers are not small.” Jack wonders if it’s hard for him to stay still, if the light tremors running through his body mean anything.

“Your dick is bigger,” Jack says earnestly. “Feels so much bigger.”

“Considering the third leg you’re packing, I’ll take that as a compliment,” Gabriel says dryly. “Alright, relax a little.”

Jack nods, and Gabriel pushes in, the second part of his ring piercing slipping inside Jack’s ass. It feels amazing as he presses forward, the first barbells also pressing in, the second— they’re completely solid, unrelenting metal in contrast to flesh. Jack wills himself to relax but it’s so hard not to tense up around the bizarre sensation, harder still not to react to the groan Gabriel lets out as he adjusts.

“Fuck,” Gabriel says lowly. “Fuck, Jack.”

“Yeah, Gabriel, c’mon.” Jack puts a hand on the back of Gabriel’s neck and pulls him low, smearing an open mouthed kiss over his jaw. Gabriel turns his head to meet him, licking into Jack’s mouth, a groan rumbling in his chest as Jack clenches down on his dick.

It’s not perfect. It’s not anything close to perfect. Jack doesn’t think they ever manage a coherent rhythm; he knows that the best he does is awkwardly try to rock back up into Gabriel’s thrusts, staring at the sweat dripping down Gabriel’s brow and nose. Jack can’t focus, lost in the shadows on Gabriel’s face, in the slide of Gabriel’s cock in and out of his body.

What he cares about is the way every thrust from Gabriel knocks their dog tags higher up on Jack’s chest. He cares about the look of concentration on Gabriel’s face, the awe that’s still there. Jack cares about the way that it’s so easy to lean up and kiss Gabriel for all he’s worth, a hand on his jaw, thumb stroking over Gabriel’s cheek, feeling him breathing so hard and so heavily.

Jack’s second orgasm builds like a wave. He’s careful to keep his hands off his dick, knowing that the knot of pleasure building in his gut will quickly turn overwhelming if he tries to stroke himself as Gabriel thrusts. As it is, Jack’s dick is stuck between their bodies, and that’s almost enough on its own to get him off. The touch of Gabriel’s skin is electric, heat in his gut and light in his body. Jack can feel Gabriel shaking, trying to stay balanced and in some kind of rhythm.

“I’m close,” Gabriel manages, face lined with effort.

“Do it,” Jack tells him, pulling Gabriel’s head down, shoving their foreheads together. “C’mon, do it, I want you—”

Gabriel comes, and shudders when he does, eyes screwed shut. It shakes through him as he finishes thrusting, desperately grinding as deep as he can manage. Bracing himself on one arm, he reaches down for Jack’s dick and gives him a long pull, base to head, playing with the head as he comes down.

Jack shouts a little at the sudden touch, for some reason not expecting how good it feels for Gabriel to stroke him off out of sync with his increasingly erratic thrusts. Jack bears down involuntarily as Gabriel touches him, and Gabriel bites into his lip in response, seemingly startled. The taste of blood fills Jack’s mouth and the pain stings, itching as his new healing factor tries to wipe the damage away. Gabriel strokes him again and Jack comes, arching up into his touch, crying out, come splattering between them while Gabriel pulls out.

When Jack opens his eyes again, Gabriel is smiling down at him hazily, mouth tinted slightly with Jack’s blood. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey yourself,” Jack says. Gabriel’s kisses still taste like metal, and for a bit they just lie there, making out slowly, trading affection and slow touches without purpose. Eventually, Jack grimaces, the feeling of come drying on his skin moving from tolerable to downright nasty.

Jack takes the first shower. There clearly isn’t enough room for the both of them, not in a space this cramped. Gabriel waves him off with a lazy smile, tying the condom into a knot and frowning at the state of the sheets, hunting for their clothes where they’d been thrown around the room.

The bar soap is cheap and smells odd, and the tiles are sort of gross. But the water is warm, chasing away aches Jack hadn’t even noticed he’d picked up. Gabriel’s tags are still on his neck, two different chains clinking together quietly as Jack moves. The realization makes him smile, and once he starts, Jack can’t stop smiling. When he goes back into the room in a minute, he knows Gabriel will still be there. And he knows (hopes, in spite of so many things) that Gabriel will come back to him after this, again and again and again.

Jack tosses the spare towel at Gabriel when he steps out of the shower, padding back onto the cheap motel carpet. Standing up, Gabriel catches it out of the air and rolls his eyes at Jack, barely hesitating before he leans in to give Jack another kiss, openmouthed and heated, stepping in close. He still tastes like blood and fire, but only a little; mostly, Gabriel tastes like himself, some unidentifiable flavor that makes Jack’s toes curl, something that could be home.

Chapter Text

(4. The promise of a world.)

[2047 — Newport News, United States of America]

The United States military probably wasn’t the first to tackle the idea of creating supersoldiers. Hell, Jack would be willing to bet that this isn’t even the first time they’ve tried it. But this might be the first open attempt, for given values of open. It’s not like the Program isn’t still classified; they had to sign NDAs to get in, and Jack knows they were vetted to hell and back just to be considered. But there’d been chatter on the ground about it, rumors with a little more credence than the usual conspiracy theories that breed among the enlisted ranks. Every month it felt like there was a new in the ranks about how this officer or that officer had been a Program graduate, and how they’d hiked through the snow both ways with no shoes, on broken glass, no less, the newest initiative in the losing war against the omnics. Everyone seemed to know someone who’d been picked for the Soldier Enhancement Program, had heard of somebody who went out to be a supersoldier or died trying.

None of the rumors really matched up to how excruciating the process is. Every month, someone leaves, or someone dies. The body count in their batch alone is already up to three, and the dropout rate is even higher, people fleeing the tender mercies of the United States’ best military science. People get sick at random, fine one second and toppling over in the next breath, leaving everyone terrified with the understanding that they’ll be next, but they won’t know when. The only identical symptom is the pain, which is worse than anything Jack’s ever been through, a list of injuries that includes bullet wounds, internal bleeding, and the time one of his brothers pushed him off the roof of the barn.

The Program makes adjustments to their biology on a near-constant basis, so right now their training largely consists of drilling and physio since they’re all liable to collapse from sudden onset symptoms at any moment. This morning is Gabriel’s turn to take a fever. It’s winter and they’re running the obstacle course, snow under their shoes, snow falling on their heads and arms and shoulders while they keep pace, the run a little easier every day. Gabriel’s cracking jokes about their superiors when he suddenly heaves his breakfast and some of his blood into the bushes.

Gabriel being sick is, of course, not enough to excuse Jack from any of his exercises or testing, and Jack would have to be an idiot to even try to convince their NCO otherwise. So instead, Jack watches Gabriel drag himself off the track as he breaks out in a full body sweat, and keeps running lest he incur the wrath of those who watch over them.

About an hour later, Jack finds himself cursing his worry over Gabriel; he should’ve been watching his own symptoms instead of planning a mutiny against their instructors. The medical team nearly has to cart Jack to the infirmary on a stretcher once Jack starts coughing, his body unable to support his own weight.

Despite the full-body shudders running through him, the medics eventually declare that Jack isn’t going to die, spontaneously combust, or start sloughing off whole sheets of skin at the slightest touch. Due diligence apparently assuaged, they put him in extra layers of clothes, and kick him out before he has the chance to get his lungs working well enough to ask after Gabriel. It winds up being a moot point; when Jack gets dumped in the bunk room he and Gabriel share, Jack finds him on the floor next to their bags with nothing but his boxers on, his back pressed to the metal wall, the smell of chemical sweat thick in the room.

“Hey,” Gabriel croaks, “look who came to join the fucking party.”

“Couldn’t let you hog all the fun,” Jack chokes out, then just about crashes, careening onto the ground by Gabriel in what he hopes looked like more of a controlled fall than it felt like.

Laughing at him, Gabriel hauls Jack over by the wrist, dragging him up against his side. “You’re a selfish bastard, Morrison,” he says accusingly, but Jack can hear the joke in it.

If Gabriel says anything else afterwards, Jack misses it as sudden panic grips him, forcing him to focus on not dying.

Almost every time Jack gets the shakes, they hit him right in the lungs. He’s left coughing, wheezing, struggling for air, which apparently is one of the more common symptoms in their class. Every time, Jack’s left terrified that this time it’s going to be him who gets kicked from the Program, or worse, hauled out in a bodybag, another nondescript John Morrison to put in the ground in Indiana like his father and grandfather before him. It’s horrifying; Jack’s a soldier, he needs his body to be able to do what he tells it to, and instead he’s left gasping like a fish out of water, hyperventilating, unable to breathe.

This time is no different, save for the added bonus of how he hasn’t felt this cold since Alaska. Jack’s in three whole goddamn layers of clothes and he’s sweating through all of them. His forehead is a mess of sweat and hair gel that’s lost consistency, a mix that Jack has decided to smear all over Gabriel’s shoulder just because he can.

“I think they’re trying to kill us,” Gabriel comments, rubbing small circles into Jack’s back.

“They just—” Jack coughs once, something thick and wet moving in his chest. It feels alive in its own right, and Jack struggles not to scream, or tear at his own skin, deliriously reminded of the Alien classics Gabriel showed him this summer in Los Angeles. “They just wanna see if their baby Winter Soldiers can stand up to a little torture, is all. That or they’re tryin’ to break us on purpose.”

“You think this is the Red Room?” Gabriel asks. He sounds tired in a way that’s more like exhaustion, bone deep, a slow tragedy.

“I t-think,” Jack stutters, shivering, trying not to heave. “I think you’re still a fuckin’ nerd, Reyes.”

“Yeah yeah. Can’t pretend you wouldn’t look good in a mask with the guyliner, though,” Gabriel says. “Bet you could do the whole angsty growl thing, too.”

“Fuck those movies are old,” Jack says, instead of saying something stupidly revealing like: ‘you’d think I’d look good in guyliner?’

“I’ve got ‘em on my drive,” Gabriel admits. “And you’re the one who keeps making all the references anyway, the Red Room’s not even in those—”

“For the love of god, shut up,” Jack gripes.

In a move that is as unexpected as it is surreal, Gabriel actually shuts up when Jack tells him to, for literally the first time since they’ve met. Though that might have something to do with the tremors Jack can feel starting up in Gabriel’s torso, or the overwhelming heat that’s radiating off him, rather than any sudden desire on Gabriel’s part to be accommodating. The tremors soon progress to full-body shudders, more like a small seizure than anything else, the hand on Jack’s back jittering and spasming as Gabriel’s frame rocks against the wall.

‘Come on,’ Jack thinks, gritting his teeth against his own pain, struggling to pull air into his panicked lungs. ‘Come on, Reyes.’

Gabriel’s head slams into the wall behind them, a quick tap of hair on metal that makes Jack wince all the same. He tries to brace a hand against the floor and lever himself up, but holding his own bodyweight is suddenly an ordeal akin to moving mountains. Jack still raises his other hand to the back of Gabriel’s head, using his palm to cushion the next jolt even though Jack’s arm is shaking, barely able to support himself.

“Reyes,” Jack exhales, the name nearly lost in its own wind and the sound of Gabriel’s chattering teeth. Jack sucks in air, hacks; tries something new, something Meche and the rest of Gabriel’s family called him last fall. “Gabi!” The name feels strange; Jack knows he’s totally butchered it, but it can’t be any worse than he already fucks up Gabriel’s name on the regular thanks to the thick accent he still can’t shake. But at this point, Gabriel’s got his eyes rolled nearly back into his skull, and Jack’s just not strong enough to make it out into the hallway to call for help; Jack would highly prefer that Gabriel regain consciousness just to make fun of him to watching his best friend choke on his own tongue.

“Gabi I swear to god,” Jack hisses, desperation setting in, “if I have to explain to your mother that I got you killed when we weren’t even in a warzone I am going to find your ghost ass and kill you again.”

Almost as if on cue, Gabriel starts to breathe again. The occasional involuntary movement still twitches through him, but Jack can see his eyes starting to focus once more. Weak with exertion and relief, Jack lets his arm buckle, his body giving out from under him as he all but falls onto Gabriel’s bare torso. If he were less ill, Jack would probably be in conniptions about being this close to his best friend’s increasingly defined abs, but as it is, he’s just desperately thankful that he can actually hear Gabriel’s taxed heartbeat starting to slow down.

If Gabriel was conscious during his episode, or remembers anything Jack said, he doesn’t mention it. For a few minutes, they’re just quiet, shaking, holding onto one another without giving each other any shit for it. It’s— nice, Jack’s brain supplies, the thought fuzzy and indistinct; certain. Deeply horrifying, but nice.

“Hate this,” Jack says quietly, shivering. “Fuckin’—” he coughs again, a long jagged tear. “Fuck—”

“Real creative,” Gabriel drawls, as if he wasn’t the one just having a goddamn seizure. “Maybe try breathing instead of swearing? ‘Cause right now you don’t seem to be good at either one of those, so maybe you might wanna focus your energy on the one you actually need—”

“Fuck you,” Jack grinds out, a sudden and familiar anger swelling in his heaving chest. “Fuckin’ space heater bony-shoulder city-slicker—”

“‘City slicker,’” Gabriel repeats, almost awed, delight audible even under the thick rasp in his throat. “Holy shit the drugs are making you loopy—”

Jack slaps him weakly, palm colliding with the damp skin of his stomach. “Asshole.”

“Are we fighting?” Gabriel asks him, grin wide. “I’m hurt, corncob; they make us sit through all those leadership classes stressing the importance of communication, and you choose violence to solve your problems. Then again, that is what the marines taught you. Truly, our friendship will never recover from such mistreatment.”

“Choke on a dick.” Jack’s heart aches.

“Yeah, no,” Gabriel says. “Instead, how about we both do some counting before you hurt yourself.”

Intending to keep cursing Gabriel out, Jack tries for another breath and fumbles it, lungs locking, his mouth moving helplessly, gulping, nothing coming in. It feels like someone’s sitting on him, iron bands around his chest. The living thing inside him rears, desperate, hungry for air.

“Come on, John Deere, count for me,” Gabriel urges him, sounding as if he’s miles away and not holding Jack close enough that Jack can feel his heartbeat. “One,” he starts, drawing a breath of his own, his chest rising under Jack’s head. “Two. Jack.”

Trembling, Jack inhales slowly through the nose. He almost wishes he hadn’t managed it; his lungs seize the air greedily, and it hurts, feeling his body try and make do with something it simply does not have.

“Good,” Gabriel says viciously. “Three.”

Gabriel keeps counting, and time passes indistinctly while Jack tries not to black out. He still forgets himself periodically in the haze of it, pain so thick he can’t think through it. At one point he bites into Gabriel’s shoulder, desperate for something, anything to hold on to. Jack thinks that maybe Gabriel says something— he can’t quite hear it. He feels Gabriel flinch at the teeth in his shoulder, and, shuddering, Jack tries to pull back. He feels Gabriel bring his hand up to the back of Jack’s neck, feels shaking fingers card through his nasty, sweat-damp hair. The touch is unsteady, but Jack is embarrassingly grateful for how tactile Gabriel is, trying to ground himself in the contact with his friend’s body.

Not that it works. Jack can’t get enough oxygen, and his changing body starves, lungs screaming. Slowly, the lights go out one by one, a barren warehouse closing for the night. Despite the cold, Jack dreams of fire, red light reflected off glowing ice like bulletproof glass. It’s not the first time he’s hallucinated from the shakes, but right now he’s burning with it, reaching for Gabriel with hands he can’t feel.

‘I’m going to die here,’ Jack thinks, darkness creeping in even on the edges of this un-vision, his carved out chest filled with smoke.

Everything empties, poured out into deep water, a river tumbling into the sea. Like falling asleep, or being a teenager again, he is hollow and silent. The dead aren’t something that living can hurt.

The stillness breaks, someone shaking his torso. Light, again, and Gabriel’s voice, blurry, indistinct: “Seventy-seven, seventy-eight— por favor, hermoso, not now, please—”

Jack takes a breath. It hurts, and he’d almost rather go back to that other place where harm was at a level of abstraction, felt but not experienced, pain happening to someone that could take it. Except— Jack’s sentimental, and this is where Gabriel is. Jack might not know much Spanish yet, but he understands this much; Gabriel had said please.

“Six,” Jack rasps, just to be contrary, which startles a laugh out of Gabriel, thick and choking.

“Keep it together, man.” Gabriel says. The words are watery, almost, but that might just be the way Jack’s head is ringing, the water inside that he cannot shake. “You can be a troll all you want if you just do it out loud.”

It takes Jack another few minutes to calm down. He’s still cold, still trembling. His body just won’t do what he wants it to. He’s stuck on the desperation in the way Gabriel holds onto him, the way he’d called Jack brother.

He wants to tell Gabriel that he shouldn’t be so desperate. That there’s nothing about Jack worth being desperate over. He gets not wanting someone to die on top of you, but loss happens; people leave, and people die. Jack wants to tell Gabriel that he matters, that he’ll survive if Jack doesn’t. But he doesn’t have enough air in his lungs, still. He doesn’t know how to explain.

“Gimme your helmet,” Jack slurs, making a weak grabby motion with his free hand, fishing in his bag for a marker with the other one. His voice sounds destroyed, alien to his own ears.

“What’re you gonna do with it?” Gabriel asks, a little wary. He still hands the helmet over anyway, reaching to his side with his spare hand, not letting go of Jack.

“Art,” Jack says, coughing.

“Oh, sure,” Gabriel says, “I forgot, after all, that of your many skills you’re also a master painter.”

“Yup,” Jack wheezes, uncapping the sharpie with his teeth before spitting the cap onto the ground.

The sharp chemical smell of the marker assaults him, making his torqued lungs contract unpleasantly, another coughing fit on the horizon. Ruthlessly, Jack pushes down on it, forces his breathing to stay even as he draws little angel wings on the side of Gabriel’s helmet, the thick black lines stark against the absurd forest camo. On the front, Jack draws the letter A, then hands it to Gabriel.

“Stands for asshole,” Jack says blandly when Gabriel looks up at him from the helmet in his hand. “On account of how you’re an asshole.”

“Shut up,” Gabriel tells him. Jack can hear the relief in his voice, the way he’s trying to hide it. “I’m not Captain America material and we both know it.”

“You kiddin’?” Jack asks. “Most stubborn guy I know, mister I-joined-the-military-to-save-the-world, don’t tell me you ain’t—”

Jack’s chest seizes, torso locking as a new bout of the shakes hits him, the chills driving his ribs into his lungs. He breaks off, coughing, turning his face back down against Gabriel’s clavicle, trying to ground himself, the scent of unhealthy chemical sweat rising from them both.

“Like you don’t give a shit about trying to save the world,” Gabriel says quietly, fond, teasing to hide that he’s worried again, his hand back between Jack’s shoulder blades.

“Didn’t say,” Jack manages. “Just ain’t—” He coughs again, the sound rattling around inside him. He feels like he’s started bruising on the inside of his lungs.

“Yeah yeah,” Gabriel says. “It’s not why you joined the marines. Heard that speech before. It’s still true, though.”

“Don’t matter. Old people movies,” Jack says firmly. “Best guy I know. Scared of ice. Captain America.”

“Eloquent,” Gabriel drawls, dry and hoarse.

There’s less talking, after that, consciousness coming and going for the both of them in waves, exhaustion taking its toll. By the time the pain starts to subside for Jack, going from blindingly awful to merely horrific, Gabriel has passed out next to him, mouth open, snoring, his head tilted into the wall. He hasn’t let go of Jack, however. In three layers of clothes, Jack is well-insulated, but the hand between his shoulderblades is a point of unique warmth all the same.

When sleep takes him, he’s not afraid. Gabriel has him. They’re not alone.

Chapter Text

(3. If hope is a dangerous hole.)

[2047 — Pierce, United States of America]

The Alaskan campaign ended with a bang and a whimper, the icefields of Prudhoe echoing with the laments of the living and the silence of the dead. Jack and Gabriel survived the last fight on luck as much as they do skill; Jack’s hands still burn with how hard he’d gripped his rifle, and his back still aches from where Gabriel had tackled him, shoving Jack down into the snow while the mortars flew overhead. When he closes his eyes, everything is ice and fire, the impenetrable darkness of smoke.

It’s been a few weeks, now. A little over a month since the last push, after they cleaned out the dead, bombed out husk of the omnium. Jack’s heard rumors, already, that they’ll be sending people up into Alaska as soon as the site stops smoking. There’s oil, up there, and the nation needs it more than ever now that the war machine is up and moving.

Because it is war; when the omniums all started going dark years ago, everyone had figured that was the end of it. There’d been no more communication, only half the sites still putting out their various products— the Omnica Corporation folded, and supposedly that was the end of that. What Jack remembers most were the giants in the fields, the long crane-arms of automatic irrigation systems, spraying artificial rain over miles and miles of grain. After the omniums went quiet, they’d all gone dead, silent and still, no more than rusting towers in the wind.

Jack’s father used to be so vindictively proud; ‘Now we all go back to real farming,’ he used to say. ‘No more of this automated bullshit.’ But there still wasn’t anyone who wanted to farm. Not most of Jack’s older brothers, and certainly not any of the kids from Bloomington. And when the time came for Jack to start work as a legal adult, he didn’t want a damn thing to do with Nowhere, Indiana either, or his father’s dying dream. He’d been the prize runningback of his graduating class, and the marines had only been too happy to take him.

Now, he’s the idiot sitting on a motel bed, his name on a deal so secret there hadn’t even been proper paperwork, just an endless list of electronic waivers and nondisclosure agreements. When his government asked him to sign up for the Soldier Enhancement Program, Jack had looked at Gabriel first. But when Gabriel said yes, Jack was quick to follow.

Gabriel digs an elbow into Jack’s ribs. They’re on leave, technically. Set free with a command to get their lives in order. “How does it feel to be Captain America?” Gabriel asks him. “Scrawny, blond, massive fucking stick up your ass—”

“Like you wouldn’t punch Hitler if you got the chance,” Jack says.

Gabriel snickers. “I wouldn’t look as good in spandex. Or scale mail. And Cap wasn’t a marine, so I’m pretty sure we’re both disqualified.”

“Nerd,” Jack accuses him, and blocks the elbow that swings softly for his gut, kicks Gabriel in the shins. The motel they rented for shore leave is tiny, and their quickly escalating mock brawl leaves a cheap plastic lamp on the floor and the beds a mess.

Jack lies panting on the floor with Gabriel’s arm somewhere near his neck, staring at the cracked ceiling, trying to let the concept of being government property settle into his bones. Jack knew he was never going to leave the military. He knew it, no matter what he said to anyone else about going home to Indiana, Jack knew that something was different now. That going back would mean going back to a world at once too open and too small. He’s gotten used to, slowly, being Jack and not John, to the idea of getting to choose what he’ll sign his life away to.

He looks over at Gabriel, turning his head, his cheek pressing into the grimy motel carpet. The sensation of eyes has always bothered Jack, but tolerably so when it’s Gabriel watching him. It’s not comfortable, exactly, but it’s the difference between carrying his rifle with its scope and ammo, or just carrying the rifle.

Gabriel is smiling, very quietly, very small, the way he does he when he gets letters from his sister, a complicated sort of expression for what Jack imagines has to be a complicated sort of feeling. “You didn’t say yes until I said yes,” he remarks.

“Well,” Jack says. “Yeah.”

Jack can tell that Gabriel’s got more questions, but he doesn’t ask them. He just sits there on the floor and stares at Jack, that very small smile still there, catching his breath, his chest moving with the air. “You kicked me in the ribs,” he says, and the hand on the arm that’s somewhere near Jack’s neck pokes him in the side, illustrating the point.

“What are you, five?” Jack asks him.

“Hey,” Gabriel says, affecting a nasally whine, “screw you, wedo, I’m not five I’m fifteen, so you can just fuck off.”

Jack laughs, startled. “Please tell me that’s what you sounded like when you were a kid.”

“Nah.” Gabriel shakes his head, thick curls catching a little on the carpet. “I had a lisp instead.”

“Oh my god,” Jack says reverently.

“Yeah, the whole deal. I had a gap in my teeth before I got braces so I used to sound different.”

“Never had to get braces.” Jack shrugs.

“You’re lucky, then,” Gabriel tells him, still smiling, turning his head up towards the ceiling. “Wore mine for years before they came off; mi madre said I better not get shot in the face while I was on duty, waste all that dentistry money.”

“Are you goin’ home before the Program starts?” Jack asks him.

Gabriel nods, something far away on his face. “I wanna see my family,” he agrees. “Check up on everybody, see Meche graduate high school. What about you, golden boy? Going back to the farm?”

“Uh.” Jack blinks. “Probably? I mean, I should. Be the right thing, even if they’re all angry with me right now.”

“They’re angry at you?” Gabriel turns back to Jack, frowning.

“I was supposed to come home,” Jack explains. “Do my tours, make somethin’ of myself, stop bein’—” his father’s slurs choke in his chest. He knows from experience that that’s not worth dwelling on, that it’s not something he can change, not who he is or who his family wants him to be.

Jack switches track. “I was supposed to come home,” he repeats. “Especially now that Dad’s gone. Help my brothers run the farm.”

“Is that what you wanted to do?” Gabriel asks him.

Jack shrugs again, helpless. He doesn’t know how to say that his life isn’t really about what he wants, so much as it’s about what he can manage. “I don’t know,” he says instead, and hopes that that’ll suffice.

“Yeah,” Gabriel says, “fuck that.”

“What?”

“You just spent the last two years freezing your balls off and getting shot at by robots,” Gabriel points out. “Not to mention the fucking assault. Being on leave should be, at the very least, more pleasant than wherever you’re coming back from.”

It’s weird for Gabriel to try and explain anything about the marines to Jack when Jack has more field experience. Even here, Gabriel can’t help acting like an officer, knowing better, as if Jack somehow still needs to catch up. There’s a protest, too, somewhere in Jack’s mind, about Indiana not being that bad. But it’d be a lie; to this day, Jack still hates almost everything about being home.

“Well,” he reasons, “it’s not like I’ve got the cash to just up and go on vacation. I figure if it comes down to that, I’ll stay on whatever base they stick me on once all the transfers are worked out to the next front.”

Gabriel rolls over and makes a face at him, the same sort of indignant disgust he wears whenever he thinks Jack’s done something particularly backwards.

“Hell no,” he says. “What the fuck, corncob? Live on a base for a few months while the brass sorts out our Program entrance?”

Jack shrugs, slightly irritated. “It’s not exactly like I’ve got options,” he grumbles.

Silence fills the gaps in for a while, and Jack wishes it wouldn’t. He never mastered the art of smalltalk; mostly, he just shuts the hell up when he’s got nothing safe to say. He’s not good at taking up space, not like Gabriel is. The only topics that come to mind are out of date football stats, and absolutely useless information about the Hoosiers’ football lineup circa Jack’s senior year, back when he’d still thought that’d’ve been his way out before the scholarship failed to pan out. And Gabriel already knows too much about him; if Jack starts talking about some random shit, he knows Gabriel is going to have him pegged the minute he opens his mouth.

Silence used to be a discomfort Jack could handle before Gabriel was there to fill it. The sound of cars on the highway outside drift past in fading whispers, wheels brushing over pavement. Gabriel’s expression is one of assessment, the same one he wears when judging distances. Looking at and through the target, at the environment surrounding; Jack is left with the uncomfortable certainty that this time, the target is him.

Lying on the floor of a north Washington motel is probably not how most people would choose to relax, but it’s been an interesting two years for Jack. Maybe this is where someone normal would evaluate their life, their choices, try and figure out what got them here, but all Jack’s thinking about right now is how the answer to all the questions Gabriel’s not asking him sounds a lot like a poem Jack barely remembers, one that starts ‘o captain, my captain,’ and then gets a whole hell of a lot less memorable.

Jack’s not exactly pining, because he’s a grown man. He knows that there’s nothing even remotely inferior about friendship. It’s been awhile since he was a teenager crushing on the second-string defensive lineman; Jack’s well aware that his feelings are his problem. He’s happy just being here with Gabriel; this is enough.

But god, loving Gabriel is easy. And being quiet is always (in its own way) hard.

“Look,” Gabriel eventually says, “you did just spend the last fifteen months hauling my ass around said frozen hellscape despite the fact that I took every opportunity to troll you; the absolute least I can do is see if we’ve got an extra couch at my parents’ place.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Jack blurts, watching as Gabriel stands, dusting the carpet lint off his clothes, running a hand through his hair.

“What else are friends for?” Gabriel reaches down, holding out a hand for Jack. “This is the last break we’re gonna get before they try to kill us with military superscience; like fuck I’m gonna let you go back somewhere you’re not wanted.”

Getting up on his elbows first, Jack takes Gabriel’s hand, lets himself be lifted. “Thanks,” Jack says. The word feels inadequate for what’s he’s feeling, the enormity of Gabriel offering his own home to him when Jack’s never felt at home anywhere.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Gabriel says. “Told you before; I got your back, 4H. We’re in this together.” And still, his smile makes Jack’s heart unfold in his chest.

Chapter Text

(2. Its target’s virtues, it’s urge to warm.)

[2047 — Deadhorse, United States of America]

Being a pair of scout snipers means that John and Reyes have spent the last year or so since their first joint mission as a fire and maneuver team at increasingly far distances from the rest of their unit, not to mention the rest of the military. They’ve been trained in how to survive like this, usually not told to head out over the ice for more than a day or so, with this latest trip being the farthest away they’ve ever been sent. It’s also the closest any humans have been to this omnium since it went rogue, all the civilians who’d come to reopen the drilling operation once the omnium went silent now evacuated, or dead in the omnium’s first strike against the little community.

The abandoned shack they’d commandeered a few hours ago is snowed in now, the heavy powder covering the windows at the door. John thinks they’re lucky the windows didn’t shatter entirely, but Reyes seems less able to handle things rationally. John thinks it might just be a part of California city living, a complete inability to handle the cold or inclement weather. Not that John’s ever had to deal with being snowed in before; winters in Indiana were cold, but not north-coast-of-Alaska cold.

Otherwise, Indiana and Alaska feel the same to John. Empty, open, inhospitable. The possibility of strange things in the wilderness, no matter how ordered or sterile. People living here anyway, hating each other and the land, dependent on both just the same. He keeps expecting to see signs at the side of the road exhorting him to repent. There’s got to be a metaphor or something in there, but Reyes is the college graduate out of the two of them. Reyes is the smart one, and the literary one; there isn’t any poetry in John.

“We’re gonna die in here,” Reyes says urgently, interrupting John’s train of thought. “Quit laughing, jackass; just ‘cause you’re some kinda wilderness survival ninja from backwoods wherever-the-fuck doesn’t mean you get to make fun of me in these, our final hours.”

With only a small chemical lantern to illuminate the room, the little shack is dimly bathed in red light, the broken furniture throwing strange shadows onto everything. John can still see the whites of Reyes’s eyes by that little lamp, warm amber nearly lost in the fear of death that follows every soldier like a lover.

They’ve gotten good at moving quickly and under cover, a hard feat considering that this far north, Alaska has thinned out to flat fields of ice and snow. That hadn’t stopped them both from panicking when John had spotted sentries moving over the landscape, seemingly in their direction. Reyes had called the retreat almost immediately, but they’d ended up running, the sudden onset of a blizzard both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it had cloaked them from their pursuers on both the visual and thermal range. On the other hand, the blizzard has absolutely destroyed their satellite connection to their section’s combat encampment, and they won’t be able to report what they found or radio for help until they can dig the doors out on the shack when the snow stops.

“I ain’t laughin’ at you,” John says.

It’s not entirely a lie; he does find Reyes’s hysterics to be, well, hysterical, but John’s learned over the last year or so how to handle the walking opera that is the life and times of Gabriel “call me ‘Gabe’ one more time, wedo, and I’ll break your legs at the neck” Reyes. Mostly, it involves a lot of what John likes to think of as manful repression, but is really a lot closer to the sort of suspicious silences one learns from being one of seven children in a household that only has so many fucks to give. John learned early to conserve his; if he cracked up or got angry every time Reyes did something ridiculous or got excited, John’s pretty sure he’d be emotionally bankrupt. How the hell Reyes keeps finding the energy to be this worked up all the time, John feels like he’ll never know.

“Internally,” Reyes stresses. “Like hell if you think I’m gonna fall for that whole country boy ‘of course we didn’t lose the scope a the bottom of the glacier, lieutenant, I had to leave it behind to give Sergeant Reyes coverin’ fire,’ bullshit; I know what you look like when you’re trying not to mock people out loud.”

As Reyes does a shit job of impersonating John, he fishes around in their heavy packs with thickly gloved hands. The smart thing to do would be to unclip their thermal bags, dust the snow off and try to get warm, but if John’s still keyed up from their sprint away from the omnium, he knows that Reyes won’t be willing to settle for at least another ten minutes’ worth of adrenaline. Reyes has been at war longer than John has; John can’t begrudge him his instincts for combat, even if the fine edge of his awareness cuts both ways, leaving the sergeant paranoid and keyed up even with the abandoned structure they’ve taken shelter in being half-submerged in snow.

Which is about when Reyes pulls an emergency flare out of the pack.

“Oh my god,” John groans. “Reyes, no.”

“Reyes yes,” he hisses, still wild around the eyes. “Don’t you fucking patronize me, cornfed, I’m not about to drop toes to frostbite ‘cause you’re too prim about the ‘proper use of emergency flares’ or some shit—”

“This is how you’re gonna lose a toe, not keep it, just, fuckin’, here—” John offers. “Gimme your foot.”

For a second, Reyes just stares at him, seemingly at war with himself, a great conflict moving over his face; a struggle in the darkness. “That’s kinky,” he ultimately remarks, the words leaving him almost involuntarily, as if driven out by some unstoppable need to be a dick with a suspicious sense of humor.

“You are literally the worst person I know.” John looks up to the darkness of the ceiling, the near invisible grains of wood.

“You love me anyway,” Reyes jokes, and suddenly it becomes an effort for John not to turn and look at him because, oh.

‘Oh, fuck.’

Outwardly, John doesn’t turn his head. Outwardly, all John does is hold out a hand like the mere effort is mortally aggrieving him. Internally, John is losing his shit not unlike he did when Casey Fields walked into a patch of sunlight and smiled at him back in the tenth grade.

Reyes is an officer for fuck’s sake. He doesn’t act like it half the time, but he is, and if John so much as opens his mouth about this the two of them are going to end up on different fronts of the war so fast it’d make their heads spin. John can already see the sort of shit that’d pile up on Reyes for this; accusations of impropriety and pressure from an officer, an investigation into every mission they’ve had since they first got paired as a fire and maneuver team. He’s an openly gay NCO; it’d be a mark on both their records if John so much as breathes in Reyes’s direction, and John won’t do that to him.

Because it’s not like John really cares about any sort of career advancement in the military; he’d only gone to sniper school because it’d seemed like the thing to do with his marksmanship scores. But Reyes does care; Reyes cares so much he left film school when the omniums went rogue, traded his camera for a sniper rifle and the LA heat for this iced-over wasteland. And John cares about Reyes more than he thinks he’s ever really cared about anything before, a stark realization amid the textureless apathy that has so far defined his life.

Reyes matters so much more than John’s career, ergo, Reyes’s career matters so much more than John’s feelings. So John swallows them down, puts them in a box with the rest of the things about himself he won’t change but won’t act on, like all his unfortunate high school crushes and the vague dream he used to have about doing something with his guitar and writing songs.

Reyes drops his foot in John’s hand. When John looks up, Reyes is watching him with an expectancy that’s still tinged with fear.

“You ain’t gonna lose a toe,” John tells him. Mentally, he pats himself on the back for sounding so normal.

“How do you know?” Reyes demands.

“For one thing, you can still wiggle ‘em,” John points out. “Betcha can feel my hand, too.”

“I can feel your glove,” Reyes says mutinously.

“Close enough.”

“I bet you really know jack shit about treating frostbite.” Reyes accuses him, and then snorts at himself. “Jack shit. Jackass Morrison. Fuck.”

“Yeah yeah, you’re a laugh riot.” John drops Reyes’s foot, and grabs his own heavy pack, unclipping the thermal bag. “Grab your bag, too,” John tells him. “We’re gonna have ourselves a sleepover.”

Internally, John’s swearing at himself. But this really is the best option; they’re going to be stuck here until the storm dies down, and it really is disgustingly cold; now that they’ve stopped running for their lives, it’s only a matter of time until the sweat they’d worked up starts to cool, and that’ll be dangerous if they’re not prepared. Sharing body heat is something they’ve done before; just because John’s experiencing the rapid onset of feelings doesn’t mean he can’t be an adult about this and soldier on.

‘Soldier on,’ he realizes. ‘God, the puns are even contagious.’

“You know there’s a scene like this in the Twilight movies,” Reyes comments, starting to unroll his own bag. “Except they were naked.”

“The what now?” The subject change is jarring, but about par for course for Reyes. Not that John has a clue what he’s talking about, but that’s normal, too. Though the idea of being naked in their bags with Reyes is making him want to sweat already.

“The Twilight series,” Reyes explains. “Supernatural romance franchise from the turn of the millennium; gorgeous visuals, absolutely terrible plot. It was sorta famous back in the day, but mostly outta infamy. Teenage girl falls in love with a vampire who’s stalking her, and a whole genre of YA chicklit gets launched.”

“You a nerd for old books now, too?” John asks, zipping their bags together and throwing their packs down near the lantern. “Or do you just have a thing for romance novels?”

“You can’t prove anything,” Reyes says. “Unless you’ve somehow been talking to my sister, in which case, tell Meche ‘hi’ for me and to stop snooping in my shit, but it was a book series first. People in my classes said they were even worse than the movies. Still sold like you wouldn’t believe; it was this whole craze. I dunno if it was a straight people thing, or a white people thing, but apparently the living dead really do it for teenage girls and bored housewives.”

Vaguely, John remembers a series of books in the shelf in his parents’ bedroom back at home, thick and worn-looking despite their hardbound covers. “Oh, of course,” he drawls. “Makes perfect sense to me. Who doesn’t just love a guy who could suck the life right out their body?”

Carefully, John kicks his boots off and slides into the bag, facing away from Reyes. It’s not as bad as it could be; they’re both still in more layers of clothes than any reasonable person should be wearing, which minimizes the amount of actual contact, but John still would’ve liked a little more time to get a handle on himself and his emotions before volunteering to get up close and personal with Reyes. He would’ve, at the very least, liked to wait until they had to shoot something again and John had something to focus on other than the way Reyes shimmies up behind him and holds on to John like spooning is just a normal thing normal partners just do.

Reyes snorts at John’s joke, shifting a little closer. “Think I remember most of the plot,” he says. “And now that I’ve got you as a captive audience—”

“Reyes, as long as we’re luggin’ this rifle around I’m just about always a captive audience—”

“Captive, but not an audience,” Reyes corrects him. “Sometimes we gotta be quiet in case of listening posts, so I can’t just bestow enlightenment upon you anytime I want.”

“Yeah, well,” John drawls, “maybe keep that in mind the next time you try and explain The Room to me. And if you start waxin’ poetic about ‘the ethereal light of his vampiric skin,’ I will kick you.”

“Fair enough,” Reyes agrees. “But I’m warning you: they sparkle. Like, the vampires in the movies light up like disco balls in sunlight instead of just burning. So there’s gonna be at least a little ‘his vampiric skin,’ no avoiding it.”

“I regret a lot of things,” John remarks to no one in particular.

“Aw,” Reyes coos, breath moving over the space between John’s hat and his neck. “Don’t be like that, sunshine. I thought we were bffs.”

“Oh my god,” John mutters, feeling his face heat in splotches. “Why?”

“Because the rifle said so,” Reyes says gamely. “Now shut up and listen, wonderbread; this is the cultural history of your people, and I’m gonna learn you a thing.”

Speaking in low-voiced tones that John largely ignores, Reyes is a warm weight behind John, despite the fact that he’s not very tall. ‘I’ve never been the little spoon with someone shorter than me,’ John realizes, only a touch hysterical. It should be unnerving, it’s dangerous, but with Reyes holding onto him all John feels is safe. All the men John’s had sex with, it’s not like they ever made it to a bed. Sucking someone off in a parking lot never afforded this kind of closeness and oh god, he needs to stop thinking about Reyes’s hands on his body.

“It’s the wildest fucking thing,” Reyes is saying, “they put a wire in the guy’s shirt collar so it could be as artfully fucking rumpled as they needed it to be.”

Falling in love feels a lot like the time he rode his bike off the barn roof; not the drop, but the impact, the broken moment afterwards, when he was laid out on the ground, the pain not caught up with his body. John is hyperaware of his own skin, and all the breaks in it; it might be years since he had a bone jutting out of his forearm, but the fascination he has with Reyes’s elbow and how well it fits into the angle of John’s waist feels like the same kind of sickness. It’s horrible, but John can’t help but fixate.

Because like it or not, Reyes is right; there’s a nonzero chance that they could die here. They can’t risk turning on their locator beacon, not with the possibility that the omnics that are likely still on their trail might be able to intercept their wireless transmissions once the storm clears. And with the way that they’re snowed in, help might be a long time coming, if it ever comes at all. They barely have any food, and barely any water; John’s vaguely worried about running out of air, though he’s not entirely sure that’s a legitimate worry.

While Reyes babbles on about a movie he really seems to dislike if the amount of errata he knows about it means anything, John feels like he must be absorbing the unease he’d been trying to get Reyes to shed. Not so much for his own sake; John came to terms with his own death years ago, knew he’d rather see it on the battlefield than as an old man in a bed, or as a scared teenager in a Bloomington alleyway. But Reyes deserves better. Better than the chance of dying here slowly with John, stuck in a dark room with few supplies, or getting shot out on the ice fields by omnics that could even now be surrounding the little house.

But there’s nothing John can do about any of that right now. Worrying about the future won’t help anyone. Right now, the only way forward is one step at a time. And the first step is making sure Reyes doesn’t lose a toe to frostbite, or a foot to his own lack of common sense. If Reyes is holding on to John, he can’t do something stupid like set himself on fire. If they’re sharing body heat (clothed or not) then they’re likely not going to freeze to death, as long as they stay inside. Worst comes to worst, John can break some of the furniture in the little house and start a fire, and they’ll sleep in shifts to watch it.

In the darkness, Reyes’s voice becomes the whole world. He is so close, John can only imagine his face, can only imagine what it would be like to turn over and trace the planes and angles of it with his hands. The facial hair he’s been growing in the field makes Reyes actually look his age for once, and John wants to know what the struggle beard would feel like against his skin.

Reyes has always been attractive, but John had never bothered to put it into words, before. Never let himself think about it, and he shouldn’t be thinking about it now, either. But Reyes put the thought in his head, and John can’t very well un-think it; at some point, irritation became partnership, which in turn became friendship. And now finally, this. An uncomfortable, expansive feeling that sits in his chest and every place that Reyes is touching him, even with the contact muffled through all their clothes. It ebbs and flows with the sound of his voice, gravelly and low, amused and warm close enough to John’s ear that he thinks Reyes has to be getting this close on purpose, though John can’t imagine why.

Slowly, despite their physical proximity, Reyes’s voice starts to lull John into an almost resting state. High adrenaline isn’t sustainable for long periods of time, and John would know. It always leaches out, and leaves John cold and shaken. Which is honestly hard to differentiate from being in Alaska anyway; he always feels like he’s about to die or he just narrowly missed his opportunity to do so whenever he’s in the field, and that’s either the landscape, or the fact that they get shot at a little too often for John to really be comfortable.

“Worst part is,” Reyes says, “the guy’s fucking seventeen forever. Who the hell wants to be seventeen forever? Who wants to date seventeen forever?”

“I dunno,” John says sleepily. “Maybe the idea is it’d be nice if nothing changed, for them. If they were always the same, and they never had to be anything else but yanno, with each other.”

“Can’t avoid change,” Reyes argues. “That’d be fucking unnatural. Everything changes. Everybody changes. It’s how the world works. I know I’m definitely not the same guy I was in college. And I really hope you’re not the same shiny boy scout you must’ve been when you joined up. You’ve definitely been unclenching the death grip you have on the stick in your ass, that’s for sure.”

“I dunno,” John says, “you’re definitely the same jackass who picked me out of the mess hall.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Reyes protests. “You were just convenient.”

John rolls his eyes, even though he knows Reyes can’t see him. “Sure, Corporal, whatever you say.”

“Damn right,” Reyes huffs. Then he shifts slightly and continues, the stream of words nearly constant.

John, in increments, relaxes. He’d like to say it’s just exhaustion, but it’s hard to deny that even with their probable deaths hanging over their heads, John still feels safe. And maybe it’s the cold they’re in, and the dim quality of light; he falls asleep and dreams of fire, of smoke, and heat, and voices in the dark.

Chapter Text

(1. But today, today we have naming of parts.)

[2046 — Coldfoot, United States of America]

John knew about Corporal Reyes before they officially met. Everybody knew about Reyes; upcoming NCO, crack shot, chatterbox. The superiors like him, as much as officers ever like anybody. He’s ambitious, he’s a college graduate. People sneer and call him ‘King Reyes’ as if that isn’t just his name said twice. Rumor says he was on the east coast front before this, which allegedly means he must’ve done something to get kicked up here to the frozen northwards push to the Prudhoe Omnium.

If anyone were to ask John about it, he’d say it makes no sense to think Reyes is here in disgrace, after all the officers still like him, even if nobody else does. In John’s experience, there are only two kinds of being watched: either people are waiting to be impressed, or they’re waiting for you to fuck up. And John can tell that the way their superiors keep track of Reyes isn’t the latter. There are forces in the military who expect something out of Reyes, and if he were the betting type, John would put all the money he doesn’t have down on the fact that Reyes is being groomed for command.

John doesn’t know what to do with Reyes when they actually meet. The Corporal walks in behind Lieutenant Wright as she looks over the mess. Strong features, brown skin, hair hidden under a black beany. Despite his short stature, Reyes carries himself like an officer, and glares at the room with a mild disdain that John recognizes from the way his father used to survey a bad harvest or a sick animal.

“Morrison!” The Lieutenant shouts. “Grab your gear; you and Corporal Reyes are going duck hunting.”

Paul Wilson, who’d been sitting next to John by the back wall, elbows him in the ribs. “Good luck,” he says. “Even in tactical camo the King’s gonna stand out like a sore thumb in the snow. Just try not to get shot, hey Morrison?”

Guys like Wilson have always been a mild irritation to John. Indiana was full of them; bigots with something to prove and nothing going for themselves except spite. And for some reason Wilson and his cadre of idiots decided a few weeks back that John must be their type of guy, despite the fact that their type of guy used to try and beat the shit out of John in high school, closet or no closet.

“If you really wanna help with targeting,” John offers blandly, “I’m always happy to take potshots at you from the motor pool, see how bad you stand out when you’re bleeding out that asshole you went and confused for a mouth.”

John can feel Wilson staring at him as he stands up from the bench, leaving his food behind. Walking across the room, John knows that Wilson’s not the only one looking; he can feel eyes on his skin, an uncomfortable crawling sensation inextricably linked to danger.

John stops at a parade rest in front of the Corporal and the Lieutenant. From the way one of the Corporal’s eyebrows is slowly inching up, John figures that the King in question must’ve heard the whole exchange go down.

‘Of fucking course,’ he thinks. John’s never been lucky. He braces himself. For a recrimination, for the accusation of sucking up. Instead, he gets silence and a considering look, amber eyes boring into his for a second or two before Reyes nods, seemingly satisfied with whatever he sees.

“Never heard you say more than twenty words before, Private,” Corporal Reyes remarks. “I think you might’ve just helped somebody make bank in the betting pool. You got a name, Silent Bob?”

“John Morrison, sir.”

Reyes frowns, brows drawn low again. “There’s six other guys named ‘John’ in this platoon; I’m not calling you that, too.”

John’s not sure what to say to that. He knows his name is common; he shares it with his father and grandfather, after all, not to mention one of his mother’s brothers. But John is still his name, even if he doesn’t like it.

After a pause, Reyes opens his mouth again. “How do you feel about Jack?” He asks.

“Does my opinion actually matter, sir?” John asks, stepping hard on his own irritation.

Reyes blinks at him owlishly. “It’s a simple question, Private.” A grin is tugging at the corner of his mouth, the expression making John’s hackles rise for a reason he can’t quite explain.

John waits a beat. “Jack’s fine,” he allows.

“Congratulations on your bonding experience,” Lieutenant Wright drawls, making her presence known again. “That’s real cute of y’all. Now go report to the armory and ask for a rifle; you boys still got one more new best friend to go make.”

The sniper rifle Reyes is given at the armory is heavy, and accompanied by one of its stubbier, smaller, semi-automatic cousins. Reyes grabs the semi, and hands the rifle off to John. After that, the two of them bundle into their scout gear, layer after layer of clothes so thick they feel like the plastic sheeting John’s family used to keep the sun out of the silo after a bad winter knocked the roof in. They’re covered head to toe, with only their eyes visible until they put on their goggles, bathing the world in a red-orange tint.

They hike several miles to the north from their section’s combat encampment; every half hour, they switch custody of the semi and the rifle. At first, Reyes tries to engage him in some kind of conversation; something about a movie, which requires only minimal input from John’s end in order to maintain itself. John mostly tunes Reyes out, nodding when he has to, focusing instead on the landscape as they move through the sparse trees.

Once they reach the edge of the treeline, Reyes holds a hand up, becomes silent so suddenly that it catches John off guard more than the hard stop to their march.

‘Listening post,’ Reyes’s hand says, fingers moving in quick and simple signs. ‘Array, ballistics, C-P-U. Target approx. 2 miles north.’

The treeline opens into an empty field, the only thing in view an omnic painted so starkly white it nearly blends in with its surroundings. It’s a blip in the distance; at two miles away, it’s not a large target, but if they can see the omnic, he knows it can see them. Pulling out his spotter’s binoculars, John zooms in on the omnic and the array it’s sitting on, a dull tower capped by a turret behind the faint blue shimmer of a magnetic shield.

‘Hostile?’ Reyes asks when John pulls the binoculars down from his face.

‘Confirmed,’ John replies, and they settle in the snow, John setting up the big rifle while Corporal Reyes and the semi watch his back. After the rifle is ready, Reyes gets down next to John and efficiently sets up his scope.

There’s something different about Reyes when he’s focused. The minute he went quiet, something changed about him. Whatever part of the Corporal that joked and didn’t mind talking to himself was put aside, subsumed entirely by this new, watchful thing. Reyes draws numbers in the snow with his gloved finger while he stares intently into his scope: wind speed, mirage, temperature.

“On target?” Reyes asks, voice nearly inaudible in the silence.

“Confirmed,” John whispers back.

“You sure?” Reyes asks him, low and intent, all that focus turned on John like a laser. “It’s not like shooting cans at home; you miss the tinman on the artillery over there and this whole field’s gonna get real kinetic real fast. You’re only gonna get one shot, so you better not miss.”

Annoyance flares up in John, bright and potent, a stronger emotion than he’s used to. As far as he’s concerned, this is like shooting at home. Jack's been shooting since he was a kid, hunting being one of the only ways he ever bonded with his dad or his brothers. The only difference now is the omnic on the artillery platform isn’t a moving target, and this rifle isn’t a relic from the last century and as such it probably won’t pull all the way to the left. So maybe in one respect, Reyes is right. This won’t be like shooting at home; John’s positive that this is going to be easier.

“I ain’t gonna miss,” he says, tone clipped.

If Reyes gives a shit about John’s lapse in propriety, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he turns back to his scope, and leaves John with the rifle and a burning irritation in his chest. “Wait for my mark.”

“Copy.”

The artillery point they’ve been sent to disable is a menacing machine surrounded by mines and targeting apparatus. A single omnic sits atop it, perfectly still; it’s a sitting duck, save for the fact that the array it’s sitting on has been shooting missiles out of the sky for the last month, and periodically mines the field. And thanks to the new magnetic shielding this omnium’s been rolling out, regular small arms wouldn’t do shit, either, if the Marines were desperate enough to try and bum rush the array and its guardian. John is willing to bet that there are outposts like this every few miles, if the omnics are smart, or capable of tactical thinking. If the platoon’s going to advance in a timely fashion, someone’s going to have to clear the way, and today, those someones are John and the Corporal.

Snow falls around them slowly, leisurely; the whole world is still, no wind, no sound. John’s good at waiting, and lets himself fall into it, the quiet focus he learned at home to replace talking to his family, an empty internal world not unlike this frozen place. The only difference now is Reyes, an unignorable presence even when utterly silent, inert. John’s aware of him as if the Corporal were a rock in a river, diverting the current without expending any active force.

“Go,” Reyes says, and John breathes out, pulls the trigger, the rifle a living thing in his hands.

A violent crack of sound is followed immediately by the noise of metal on metal, the spring quiet shattered. The processor on top of the ballistics array crumples from the force of the impact, the ceramic round having bored through the magnetic shield and into the top of its neural casing. John wants to move, adrenaline racing through him in the aftermath, but Reyes holds up his hand again, the Corporal watching the field intently, waiting several heartbeats for a some kind of sign. John sits still, grinding his teeth, trying to find his calm again, feeling irrationally as if Reyes has stolen all of it, the Corporal implacable as he waits.

Eventually, Reyes seems satisfied. He stands, breaking eye contact with the array, holding a hand out for John. “Good fucking shot,” he says seriously, wisps of air escaping his mouth as he pulls down his mask. The smile he reveals is wide and blinding, viciously excited; all teeth and hints of mist.

Slowly, John stands, shoving up under his own power before he takes the hand Reyes offered, shaking it instead of using it as the intended leverage. It might be a petty move, but John already has a feeling that if he gives Reyes an inch, the Corporal’s going to take a mile and start running.

“Told you I wasn’t gonna miss,” John remarks.

Reyes laughs, bright and clear. “Shit,” he says. “My bad, strong and silent. That was sick, Jack, you wrecked it.”

A ripple of annoyance moves through John, but he takes the compliment for what it is. “Yeah, well,” he says. “Next time you’ll just have to see if you could do any better.”

‘And leave me the hell out of it,’ he thinks.

Reyes looks at him out of the corner of his eye, stilling slightly as he focuses back on John. “Next time?”

John nods out towards the field, the snow covered plain. “After they’re done de-minin’ that, betcha ten dollars that there’s another patch like this every few miles.” He pauses. “You’re officer material. Figures the Lieutenant would want you goin’ forward on it.”

“And, what, you figure you’re gonna be in on that action?” Reyes ask him. “Put that tactical mind of yours to good use, ride along, get promoted?”

John startles. “What? No!”

“Why not?”

“Well,” John starts. Pauses again. The way Reyes is looking at him is unsettling. It’s too aware, too pleased. Like John’s done something right, but John doesn’t know what that even would be, and the way Reyes smiles is getting under his skin just as badly as the rest of him.

“Look,” John says, “I got no interest in goin’ career. I go where I’m told, and then I go home. Deschain’s a job sniper, ask for him.”

“How far are you into your tour?” Reyes asks.

“‘Bout a year,” John tells him, wary of the non-sequitur.

Reyes nods. “So you’ve got about a year left, maybe a bit more, before you request leave.” He grins, smile going sharp all of a sudden in a way that makes John’s insides twist. “I’m not gonna ask for Deschain; I got you. After all,” Reyes adds, “you already said ‘next time.’ I gotta show your hick ass up, don’t I?”

Internally, John swears a blue streak, suddenly understanding why Reyes is so thoroughly disliked. John normally takes pride in not allowing himself to be baited, but the arrogance on Reyes could peel paint.

Reyes laughs at him again, likely seeing some inkling of his thoughts on John’s face. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re stuck with me, bright eyes.”

For a second, John strongly considers shooting him. Instead, he takes a breath. And another. He disassembles the rifle, and tosses it to Reyes, taking his own turn with the semi.

Reyes picks up the gun and starts walking, the marching pace quick and efficient. “C’mon,” he says, footsteps heavy in the snow. “It’s gonna be a long way back.”