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An Eye For An Eye

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Jack drew his baseball hat lower over his face and grunted a thanks to the bartender as she brought him his beer. Out of the corner of his eye he was watching his mark, a member of LumériCo’s board of executives, and project manager of a local reservoir dam that displaced two thousand people. The financial trail of this project led – over dozen corners, shell corporations and black money – right back to Talon’s doorstep. It was the reason this case caught his eye, but not the reason he stayed. Resisting the pleas by the community he visited, though only half understood due to the language barrier, made him remember why, once upon a time, he became a soldier. That was why he stayed, why he was here now.

The bar was the exact kind of establishment that tourists wouldn’t look twice at. Not a “happy hour”-type dive bar with cheap drinks en masse, but just this side of shady to look well-frequented, though perhaps by the wrong sort of people. It was certainly not luxurious or glamorous. A place to conduct business in. Neutral ground. Probably the only reason Jack didn’t get kicked out immediately for so obviously being a gringo that didn’t belong.

His disguise was less of an actual disguise, and more of a misleading illusion. Over the last couple of weeks he’d grown a beard, that mainly served the purpose to imply that he was brunet instead of blond. He always found it funny that his facial hair grew in so much darker than his head hair. Together with the baseball hat that covered said hair, a pair of old-fashioned glasses, a non-descript US sports-club sweater and jeans that were torn at the knees, he gave off a harmless vibe. Just a stupid gringo that looked like a typical American asshole looking for some adventure south of the border. He caught everyone’s attention, but at the same time, no one took him seriously enough to remember more than the stereotype he exuded.

The LumériCo executive was sitting in a corner booth, some fancy mixed cocktail with feathers and a glittering umbrella sitting in front of him. He seemed to be waiting quite anxiously, looking at his phone every fifteen seconds or so. It made Jack nervous by proxy, though he hid it by casually sipping his beer. Over half of the acting skills he accumulated over the years, dealing with politicians, were dedicated to keeping his face from grimacing every time the vile liquid touched his tongue.

Just when Jack feared he was going to be forced to buy another one, he saw the executive sit up ramrod straight in his seat, staring incredulously at his phone. Jack mimed stretching his back and looked around. No one had entered the bar – so what was this about?

The executive all but leapt out of his seat and hurried to the bar, so clumsy in his haste – or perhaps more inebriated than should be possible – that he nearly crashed into Jack. Confused by this strange behavior that caught the attention of everyone in the bar not drunk enough to forget their own name, Jack felt safe enough to observe the man more openly.

Miss,” he called out in Spanish, waving at the bartender, who stared at him dumbfoundedly. “The holovid. Can you change the channel to a news station and turn up the volume?

The woman shrugged and pulled out a tablet from which she controlled the holovid station crammed into the corner above the bar. The image flickered twice, and then settled on a news channel, just as the man asked.

All eyes were trained on the shitty little screen, where a frazzled looking woman was sitting at a desk, speaking animatedly into the camera. Jack’s Spanish was passably good, but with the bad connection of the thing and the rapid delivery, he only got half the information.

“… first reports coming in … uncertain … establish a live connection … difficulties …

“What the hell is going on?” he asked.

“… unknown origin,” the news anchor continued. “… Zürich, Switzerland… Overwatch … reported explosions inside the …

Jack gasped. There was a cracking sound, and he detachedly looked at the shattered beer bottle between his hands. Some shards of glass were imbedded inside his palm, and there was a mixture of crappy beer and blood spreading over the table top. Distantly, he heard a chorus of voices speaking in Spanish and English at him, but when a hand touched his shoulder, he jumped out of his seat. Within seconds he was outside, ignoring the cries following after him.

LumériCo could wait, and damn the mediocre beer he didn’t pay for yet. Something happened in Zürich, something happened to Overwatch, and he needed to know more. Preferably from an actual source, not a sensationalist media outlet.

Taking several detours that would shake any tail that might have followed him from the bar, he went back to his hideout, where his phone was. As he walked, he picked the shards of glass from his flesh, uncaring of the blood. His enhancements would make sure there was no lasting damage.

Gabriel was in the Zürich HQ, his mind told him helpfully, and he picked up the pace.

His hidey-hole was little more than that, made haphazardly cozy with scraps of clothing, cardboard and the remains of a mattress he’d found abandoned in the street. It looked like the temporary retreat of a homeless person, and though he went for that look deliberately to give the impression nothing valuable was there, it also rang painfully true.

Hidden under a rock and an old pair of pants that were riddled with bullet holes, he found his phone. Without thinking, his fingers flew over the screen, pulling up a familiar number.

“Come on, come on, come on,” he muttered, wedging the phone between his chin and shoulder as he quickly changed into his battle gear. The dial tone rang coldly in his ear, until there was a beep and a smooth mechanical voice told him that the number he was trying to reach was either disconnected or- …

Cursing, he stopped halfway through attaching the shin guards of his combat boots and dialed another number. This one thankfully picked up after the first tone.

Hola, old man.”

“Sombra,” he growled. “Tell me what the fuck is happening in Zürich.”

“Yeah, I was wondering when you were gonna call me about that.”

“Cut the crap, just tell me what you know.”

“Alright, alright. Satellite images tell it all. As far as I can tell? Overwatch HQ is nothing more than ash and dust.”

“I heard something about explosions on the news,” Jack said.

“The news?” Sombra asked, sounding mock-enraged. “You consulted the news before me? Jack, I’m hurt.”

Sombra.”

“Yes,” she sighed, “explosions. They rattled the whole city. Looks like a coordinated attack. They blew up some empty buildings in the old district that got destroyed during the Omnic Crisis, no one got hurt – aside from Overwatch HQ. A source tells me they have 30 to 40 heavily injured, at least 100 lightly injured, and uncountable dead. Numbers rising, of course.”

“Any word about Gabriel?”

“Not yet. He’s presumed MIA.”

“Fuck. Fuck.”

“Hey, grandpa, watch your mouth. I’m a minor.”

Jack ignored Sombra’s last playful quip, mind reeling at the thought that Gabriel was still unaccounted for. It could mean anything. Perhaps he was already dead, torn to bits by an explosion. Perhaps he was still alive, but heavily injured, bleeding out somewhere, trapped underneath rubble and debris. Perhaps he was fine. He had to be fine.

“Theories as to who did this?”

“Well, the obvious perpetrator is Talon,” Sombra said thoughtfully. “But that’s not what I’m hearing on the net. Someone said it’s an inside job, and for some undiscernible reason this theory went viral within minutes. There are so many reblogs and requotes and likes, it’s gonna take me a few minutes to figure out where the theory originated.”

“An inside job?” Jack echoed incredulously. “Like what … a traitor? A mole?”

“I don’t know. Look, I’ll contact you when I find out more. No pay. I wanna know too.”

The line clicked, disconnecting. Jack sighed and went back to getting dressed. He was torn. He couldn’t exactly show up in Zürich to investigate the attack and search for Gabriel. As he was still considered dead, and dead men didn’t appear out of nowhere, his hands were bound. But he had to do something, and the urge wasn’t about to go away. At least not until Gabriel was found.

Leaving behind the mess of makeshift bedding and some empty food wrappings, as he made the trek to where he’d parked his camouflaged jet, Jack felt the panicked urgency return that made him hightail it out of the bar before. If Talon was behind the destruction of the Overwatch HQ, this was all but a declaration of war. Anything might happen next. Perhaps this would prove to be an updraft under the wings of  Overwatch, allowing it to regain the support and integrity needed to continue its mission for another while yet. Perhaps this was the death knell announcing its definite death. The world was in a delicate balance right now, the silence before a storm; they were collectively holding their breaths, waiting to see how this would play out.

All of this, however, was secondary to Jack. He had resigned himself to the fall of Overwatch a year ago, when he decided to remove himself from the equation by faking his own death. He didn’t lie awake at night regretting that decision. He did, however, lie awake worrying, wondering anxiously whether Gabriel was okay. Whether he was safe, and warm, and healthy. Whether or not he was thinking about Jack too.

As he climbed into his aircraft, engaging the autopilot to bring him across the Atlantic, this worry increased tenfold; came crashing down onto him with a force the weight of Overwatch never possessed. There were few things Jack truly feared, but losing Gabriel was one of them.

His mind was preoccupied with alternately drawing up increasingly terrifying scenarios and dispelling them with the last remnants of optimism and hope he could dredge up. Thankfully, his jet had supersonic flight capabilities, meaning that the flight from the Americas to Europe took less than four hours. Otherwise he would have spent even more time brooding and making himself crazy over potentially nothing. What he didn’t expect, however, was that there was already news from the bombings in Zürich, both officially and from Sombra.

Sombra briefed him on her findings, firstly providing stringent evidence that Talon was behind the attack.

“The make of the bombs, the tactics they used to infiltrate the base, it all points to them,” she said. “But again, that’s now what the official story says. And they have foolproof evidence too – or so it seems.”

“Why, what are they saying?”

“Just look at this. It was posted on a news site just a few minutes ago, and it has gone viral too. I have to warn you though … Maybe sit down?”

Jack scowled, looking down at the pilot’s seat he was occupying.

“Don’t worry about it, just send it to the ship, and I’ll take a look.”

“Contact me when you’re done.”

Mystified, Jack waited a few seconds for Sombra to upload the video to his ship computer, and then pulled it up on the holoscreen installed in the console. At first he got his hopes up – the initial screen looked like the typical early-century Hollywood terrorist vids where someone would claim responsibility for an attack or demand ransom money for an abducted victim’s life. This was right up Talon’s alley. Black flags with a white symbol on it that might or might not be Talon’s insignia hung limply in the background, and a broad shape was sitting in front of a light source, causing deep shadows to hide their face. Was this Talon taking responsibility for the HQ bombing? Could this be one of the leaders of this elusive terror organization?

Jack hit play, and unconsciously leaned forward in his seat, wanting to catch everything. But then the figure started speaking, and a cold shiver ran down his spine.

“Hello, world,” said the shadow mockingly, with the voice of Gabriel Reyes. “Welcome to a new era. The time of Overwatch has ended, and we are finally free from its tyranny. Its corruption has cost thousands of lives, and I promise to you that each and every person perished in the flames has had a hand in the plight that plagued our world. They will call me a terrorist for this – but be not fooled! Freedom comes at a cost, and I have paid it gladly.”

Just when Jack thought the vid was over, a hand appeared in the right corner of the screen a split second before a shot rang out. That was when the holovid finally ended.

Blindly, Jack fumbled for his phone, and started talking as soon as Sombra accepted the call: “Jesus Christ, Sombra, that was Gabriel! It can’t have been Gabriel. What the hell did I just watch?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said, and Jack could almost picture her sour face when admitting to not being all-powerful and all-knowing. “The speech patterns and voice frequencies all match Gabriel Reyes’ vocal indicators – from this point of view it’s clear that this was really him. Except for what he said, purely from an empirical standpoint, it’s him. No evidence of tampering with the audio at all, and it’s not a recording of a recording either, I would be able to pick up on that. I don’t know how they faked it, if it’s really fake.”

“But it has to be.”

“Maybe. Or they blackmailed him into saying that, and it’s really him.”

“What about the gunshot? Can you tell if- …”

“It sounds real. No confirmation of the bullet actually hitting though. The vid ends just a few frames short.”

Jack groaned and rubbed his face with both hands.

“Is there any way of telling where that vid was broadcast from?”

“I’m trying to determine that right now, but it looks like they cleaned up their tracks pretty thoroughly. Maybe I’ll be able to glean a general region, but I doubt it will give me a clear location.”

“Alright. Okay. I’m- … I just landed in Switzerland. I’ll try to take a look around the rubble, see if I can find anything else that links Talon to this. And I want to know who else did or did not survive.”

“I can get you a list, if that’s what you want. But sure, go ahead and go digging in the meantime,” Sombra quipped.

“Thanks, we’ll hear from each other,” he told her, and hung up.

*

Ifrit’s dark outline contrasted starkly against the shining white cones of light beaming across the devastated scene from their watchtowers. There was a strict perimeter around the entire crime scene guarded by local and federal police, and even the Swiss military civil servants. Behind and below, there were hundreds of investigators, rescue teams with search dogs, paramedics, firefighters and other catastrophe response teams busy with sifting through the rubble left behind by several large explosions that tore Overwatch HQ to pieces.

Not long ago, the world had been different. Though tainted by corruption, and doomed as an organization, Overwatch always stood for the hope in a better future. Someone just destroyed its heart, and Ifrit needed to know who.

Three tents stood next to his still figure, containing the bodies of the people they found so far buried in the ruins of the former Overwatch HQ. Most of them were quite intact, seemingly sleeping peacefully. They must have asphyxiated from the smoke, or bled out internally. Some were disfigured by the weights that must have crushed them. Others were unrecognizable, burnt beyond recognition. In a former life, Ifrit knew some of them. Now they were corpses. Evidence. Parts of a tragedy whose origin and ending he needed to decipher. He couldn’t let himself mourn them, not when the fates of so many were still unknown. Many would be found, dead, in the coming hours – many more would be declared missing.

There was one, however, who he knew they would not find here. And the thought relieved him, as much as it filled him with dread. Because though it meant he wasn’t buried in the ruins of the Overwatch HQ, it only meant that Talon must have taken him hostage instead. Forced him to make that statement. Executed him, maybe, after he’d given them what they wanted.

Mere hours after the broadcast, the entire world seemed to believe this bogus story about Gabriel somehow being fed up with the corruption in his own organization and deciding to just up and blow it all to hell. There was more to this – the video, no matter if it really was Gabriel saying these words – was clearly meant to be a smoke screen. And it worked. Interpol had officially started an international manhunt, and already some small-time worm from the UN was forced to make a statement, divorcing not only the Strike Commander, but all of Overwatch from the United Nations and their views and values.

The boat was sinking, and the captain jumped off first.

Raging silently, he wondered where Ólafsdóttir was, and how big her part in all this was. It would be so satisfying to just put an end to her scheming by wringing her neck. But as it always was with these things, the Hydra had more than one head.

A searchlight beam wandered dangerously close to Ifrit’s location, so he swiftly ducked behind cover and waited until it had passed him. He had to be more careful. As much as he felt different, stronger, more sure of himself whenever he donned the armor that transformed little old Jack, the Captain America wannabe, into Ifrit, the feared and relentless vigilante, just feeling different wouldn’t protect him from detection. There was something, though, about superheroes, vigilantes and their alter egos. He must have read some theory about that somewhere, a lifetime ago. Whatever security a new identity, a mask and a visor offered, the world was still real and dangerous. He was sure if he got himself captured, no one would hesitate to pin the blame on him instead of Gabriel. As tempting as doing so was, because he’d put Gabriel though so much already, it wouldn’t help anyone. No, he needed to be out here, where the action was.

He and Sombra failed once before, with Amélie. If Talon had Gabriel, they needed to be better this time. There was no room for error. He didn’t dare believe he was dead already. He couldn’t be.

His first priority was the command tent, from where the rescue work was being coordinated. That’s where all the information would be stored. He didn’t much care about whatever evidence they found, or who they thought guilty of committing this crime. He wanted to know who made it out alive. Needed to know. Not just for his own conscience, the worry and love that belonged to Jack Morrison, but also for the mission that Ifrit was on. He knew he’d need more help than just a teenage girl with expensive machinery and a mind too quick and brilliant for anyone her size and age. He needed people he could trust, even if he couldn’t tell them what man lived under the mask he wore.

On the top of his list was Angela Ziegler. He had Sombra for intelligence, and himself for the man- and firepower. But if they were to be successful in finding, and possibly rescuing Gabriel from Talon’s clutches, there was no doubt they’d need someone capable of patching them up afterwards. Someone discreet and skilled. Someone knowledgeable in the unique physiology of SEP soldiers.

And then there were the others – Reinhardt, and Liao, and Winston, and Torbjörn, and Lena, and Kimiko, and Mirembe, and- … He had to know whether they made it out alive. But otherwise he thought it better to keep his distance from them. For their own safety.

Though it was the small hours of the night, it wasn’t even 24 hours after the bombing, and so rescue efforts were still going strong. Dozens of people swarmed the area around where all the evidence and information was logged in a small, portable hardlight tablet. If he could just snatch it, take it somewhere secure to hack into it without any time pressure. But there were too many volunteers, policemen, soldiers and paramedics swarming the command tent – not to speak of the UN official standing right next to the investigator holding the tablet in his hands at all times.

Making too much of a ruckus could draw the wrong sort of attention to Ifrit’s operation. Someone was bound to realize the tablet was missing sooner or later, and if the circumstances surrounding its disappearance were too suspicious, the subsequent alarm would make life hell for him. So the stealthy approach might be prudent. But how to do it?

It took him half an hour to properly map out his plan and retrieve all the necessary materials, which included a crime scene suit, a medical mask, some duct tape, his voice modulator, his natural omega guile, and a convincing lie. Donning the suit and mask behind the cover of a piece of concrete, he switched the modulator to make his voice sound feminine, and pocketed the roll of duct tape. Then he hunched his shoulders, ducked his head, and plodded into the command tent.

“Ahem,” he said, making a beeline for the UN official. He recognized the man, some under-secretary or some sort. Alpha, the stereotypical empty-headed type. Thankfully, he was French-speaking. “Nous avons trouvé quelque chose. Vous devez verifier- …

Quoi?” said the man, and at the same time the policeman holding the tablet barked out a surprised: “Was?”

Ah. Suivez-moi.

Wringing his hands and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Ifrit waited for the two men to take the bait. They exchanged a glance, and then the commissioner gestured for the disguised Ifrit to go ahead.

Qu’avez-vous trouvé?

Nous ne sommes pas sûrs,” he answered, voice shaking.

He led them a bit away, towards his former hiding space, continually telling them they had to see this, he found something, he needed them to confirm it was really what he thought it was.

Wir sollten nicht so weit- …” said the commissioner. He didn’t get any further, literally. In quick succession, Ifrit knocked the UN official out cold with the butt of his sidearm that was stored nearby under a fallen rock, and then pointed it at the commissioner himself.

Dites-moi le mot de passe.”

J-je ne sais pas, ah, pas de Français- …” he stammered, raising his trembling hands into the air.

“Dammit. English then?”

“Yes, yes, English. Please!”

“The tablet,” Ifrit growled and jerked the muzzle of his gun in the direction of the hardlight tablet now tucked into the inner pocked of the policeman’s jacket. “Give it to me. Slowly. And then tell me the password. Any movement I don’t like, and you get a round of pulse munitions to your knee.”

“W-what do you do with it?” the commissioner asked, slowly complying. He pulled the tablet from his pocket and gently set it down on a piece of rubble next to him.

“Don’t worry about that. You’ll get it back once I’m done.” Ifrit inched forward and snatched up the tablet. “Now, the password.”

“No password. You have a key, like I have. In my, my- …” He pointed at his other pocket.

“Give it here, then.”

The key looked like a thick thumb ring – smart, not simply unlocking the device after a first log in, it probably verified access with every swipe of the finger.

“What happen now?”

“Now you sit down over there, and let me shackle you. Until I’m done. Then you’re free to go back and get help for your friend here,” Ifrit said, nudging the unconscious body of the UN official with the tip of his boot. He reached up and readjusted his voice modulator to its usual setting. “But if you tell anyone what really happened here, I’ll find you and hurt you.”

“You can’t- …!” the policeman cried, fear in his eyes, but Ifrit was already upon him with the duct tape before he could say anything else.

The tablet yielded its entire contents to Ifrit with a simple swipe of his ringed thumb. Several folders and access to the police database were there, but he ignored most of that. He didn’t care about the progress of their investigation. An index quickly led him to a list of survivors, and scrolling to the bottom of the list he was relieved to find one Ziegler, Angela, even alongside a helpful note as to where to find her and how to contact her in case of emergency.

He hesitated for a split second, thumb hovering of the screen, and then quickly went over a second list to confirm that Gabriel wasn’t considered dead. Neither were any of the other names burning in the forefront of his mind. Then he locked the device and removed the access ring from his finger. Dumping it and the tablet in the commissioner’s lap, he gave a mock salute.

“Thanks for the help. Good luck getting out of your restraints.”

Ignoring the policeman’s muffled cries of indignation and rage, he bent down to pick up his pulse rifle and discarded mask and visor. A few minutes later he was back at his transport, and en route to the hospital Angela was supposed to be in.

*

The familiar clicking sound of a gun’s safety being turned off made him freeze mid motion, as he was climbing in through the window of the hospital room in which records said Angela Ziegler was recovering from light contusions and a few fractured bones.

Bleiben Sie wo Sie sind; ich werde nicht zögern zu schiessen!

Ifrit chuckled and got comfortable, sitting sideways on the windowsill. Cool nighttime air teased what little skin his battle uniform revealed, and brought the scent of freshly cut grass from below the window with it.

“It would be in your best interest to hear me out, doctor.”

A soft shuffling sound, and then the nightstand light was turned on. In the sharp, contrasting light, Angela suddenly looked so much older than he remembered. More tired, with dark hollows around her eyes, and lines etched around her mouth. Her left arm was in a cast, but her right was steady as she pointed her Overwatch-issue sidearm at him. Smart girl.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked.

“The people call me Ifrit, and I am here to ask for your help.”

“Ifrit,” she said. “I heard of you. You are a rogue element, unknown alignment. There is … was an ongoing investigation into your activities. If you truly want my help, how can I trust you under these circumstances? I mean, you did just break in here.”

He shrugged, unfazed.

“You don’t have to trust me at all. But if I’m right, I will retrieve someone from the custody of Talon, and when I do, I expect there to be things that will need patching up. I hear you’re quite an expert at that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’re a doctor. In a few days I will either have rescued a wounded person, or be wounded myself. It seems prudent to have a doctor on call for such a case.”

“Why not go to a hospital? We are currently in one, you know,” Angela pointed out dryly, her gun hand still not wavering.

“I guess they aren’t happy about vigilantes seeking their help, and would alert the appropriate authorities. I can’t have that.”

“How can you be sure I won’t alert the authorities?”

“Because I’m going to tell you who it is I will be rescuing.”

“Who?”

“Gabriel Reyes.”

He heard her inhale sharply, and then saw her hand and the pistol held in it fall about an inch.

“You believe Talon captured him?”

“Yes. There is no other explanation.”

“Yes there is. He might be dead. The statement, the video might be telling the truth. We don’t know that those possibilities are not true. So I’ll ask again: why are you so certain Talon has him?”

Ifrit hesitated. It was true, they couldn’t be certain.

“It’s just a hunch,” he said eventually, trying to sound as relaxed and nonchalant as someone with no ties to Gabriel Reyes might. “A working theory. If they find his body in the wreck of the Overwatch HQ, fine. In the meantime, let’s just assume he’s not. And let’s also assume he didn’t blow up his life’s work because of … what? A midlife crisis?”

Angela dropped the gun and huffed, a sound and sight so familiar, he felt his composure crack a little. Thankfully, his mask and visor would cover any slipup he made.

“Fine. I suppose it won’t hurt if I promise you my assistance.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

“However,” she continued, not acknowledging his thanks, “I would like to make some stipulations.”

“Such as?”

“Keep me updated on your investigation. And you will leave the choice of location to me, once it comes down to doing my job. I won’t operate in an unfamiliar environment with untrustworthy equipment.”

“Done. Anything else?”

He saw more than heard her sigh.

“Just promise me you will save Gabriel. He is a friend.”

“You have my word,” Ifrit said without hesitation. “Expect a mission report every twenty-four hours.”

“How diligent of you,” Angela retorted, with a strange undertone. Wistful, almost.

He didn’t let himself think about it too much and dropped from the window to the ground three stories below. His combat boots, and the enhancements strengthening his legs and skeleton absorbed the blow from the fall, leaving only the telltale heat and itchiness behind that signaled micro-damage being repaired.

A quiet chirping sound alerted him to a call on his secure channel.

“How did your date go, old man?” came Sombra’s voice, directly fed into his ear via the visor strapped around his head.

“Successfully. Do you have anything for me, or are you only gonna sass at me, kid?”

“I saw you got your hands on that survivor list without my help, good on you. But I did track down that supposed broadcast from Gabriel. Southern Italy. Sicily, to be precise.”

“That’s not horribly precise,” Jack grumbled.

“Well, sorry I can’t present Talon to you on a silver plate, gringo. You’ll have to sniff them out yourself.”

Jack ended the call there, knowing that if he let her, Sombra would gladly chew off his ear with her bored teasing. He didn’t want her to become too familiar with him though, even if it was her personality to directly invade one’s privacy and instate herself as the centerpiece of attention. She was still just a child, a teenager at most. A brilliant hacker and programmer she may be, children had no place in war.

And it looked like he was going south, to follow the trail, the stench of death and corruption that Talon left wherever they went.

*

Not many people would actually believe the fact that Jack was a born con man. He always saw it as a testament of his skill and talent that no one even suspected his two-faced nature. When they were young, Jack and his twin brought the whole town to the brink of insanity with their tricks and pranks. Many times Jack had taken Charlotte’s place and vice versa, both before and after her transition. Once he’d taken her oral math exam for her, and no one could prove anything, he was so good at impersonating his sister.

It didn’t stop there though. He conned the US government into thinking he was their little tin soldier, a poster boy for modern warfare. He conned the public into thinking he was their shining golden hero, leading the good forces of Overwatch in the war against evil in the world. He conned Ólafsdóttir into believing him to be meek and easily manipulated, weak and at her mercy. He conned the world into believing him dead.

But the truth was darker than that, too. He tricked his friends, the closest thing he had to family aside from his parents and sister – he tricked Gabriel. He even tricked himself.

Sometimes he looked in the mirror and didn’t know who it was that was staring back at him with a face that did not seem to belong to him anymore. It belonged to an image that he created with the purpose of protecting himself and those closest to him. Sometimes even he believed he died when he blew up an unfortunate John Doe’s body inside an Overwatch issue car on that fateful Christmas Eve.

It was a talent that served him well many times over the course of his military and Overwatch career. But sometimes it felt like it only put stones in his path when it came to personal matters.

Jack Morrison was a born liar. A liar who lied, and lied so well the lie became the truth.

*

Jack had never been to this part of Sicily before. He had been to many places all over the world – his snow globe collection tucked away in a steel crate full of his personal belongings he’d stashed away in his father’s barn attested to that. But it was now just like it had been back then. He wasn’t here for sightseeing. This wasn’t a vacation. And so he had to put aside the small, pleased part inside him that rejoiced at the fresh air coming from the sea and the picturesque sights of the Sicilian landscape.

He still bought a snow globe. For old times’ sake.

As he returned to his stealth plane for the night – having found indication that there was apparently secret government activity near Marsala, a harbor town on the westernmost point of Sicily – and as he tucked the snow globe between some of his laundry to secure it for transport, he wondered what Gabriel would say.

Absentminded, he chewed on a sharp corner of his thumb nail that had gotten caught in the seam of his shirt before, and readied the jet for flight. Marsala was only a stone’s throw from his current position, but if the trucks and helicopters and boats he observed going in that direction turned out not to be part of a secret operation by the Italian government after all, he’d need the plane close by for extraction.

His spine itched. Gabriel could be within reach. If he was there. If he hadn’t for reasons unknown suddenly become a turn cloak. If he wasn’t dead.

Jack shook himself, initiating the transport’s starting sequence. No use thinking like that. If Gabriel were here, he’d hit him upon the head.

But he wasn’t here, was he.

The flight to Marsala only took about fifteen minutes, even in stealth mode and flying below the radar. He landed on the outskirts of the town, avoiding the flight path of the helicopters he saw circling over the harbor. Something was going on for sure, but even if it was really Talon activity, that didn’t necessarily mean he would find clues as to Gabriel’s whereabouts.

He sent his usual, dry report to Angela, to her private computer in her new apartment in Zürich. Just the bare bones of where he was and what he’d done that day. She never replied, but he knew she was reading them. Somehow, writing her sobered him up even more.

Think positive, he told himself, as he geared up into his Ifrit outfit and prepared himself for an all-nighter, staking out the possible Talon base.

He hunkered down behind some bushes next to a street corner where he’d seen a convoy of black, unmarked cars and trucks drive past as he landed in the hopes of catching another. All this activity was worrying though. It meant that there was either a large operation underway … Or they were breaking camp.

He was lucky. Only a couple of minutes after he set up next to the street leading into town, a large, armored van approached from inland. As it slowed down to take the corner, Ifrit rolled out from cover, and hurriedly attached himself to the back of it without jostling it too much. Hopefully, however was inside would dismiss the sounds and movement for a bump in the road. When a few seconds passed without any signs of alarm, Ifrit relaxed and flattened himself against the van’s surface.

As they crossed the town, he tried to pay as much attention to his surroundings as he was able, in the darkness, with his face practically pressed against the vehicle’s metal hull. As far as he could tell, they were heading west, towards the harbor and the sea. His estimate was verified, when the smell of brine and fish intensified, and the low horn of a large ship echoed through the night.

The van slowed down, and Ifrit reacted quickly. Jumping off and ducking away, he peered around the corner of a building, watching the van take a turn. After waiting a few seconds, he followed on silent feet.

The vehicle he’d hitchhiked was parked in front of a wharf, the sleek white flank of a large ship bulging inside. Tiny black and white dots of people buzzed about, a handful of which had emerged from the newly arrived van. Some carried material, but most of them simply looked busy, walking to and fro. It would be child’s play to join the veritable masses of important looking people and have a peek around, Ifrit thought.

He opened his duffle, brought along for the likelihood of encountering a situation such as this, and stowed away his mask and visor. He hadn’t brought his pulse rifle, but two pistols instead. From the looks of it, those wouldn’t raise any suspicion though, so he left them attached to his hip holster. Out of the duffle he took a black baseball cap, under which he tucked his treacherous, blonde hair. His scruffy beard would do the rest at making him as anonymous as possible.

He stored the duffle bag behind a trash can not too far away, and approached from a different angle that brought him directly to the wide open wharf. No one even glanced at him, when he marched past what probably consisted of their security – two guys and a woman in gear similar as his, lazily clutching their MPs to their chests.

Inside, Ifrit was surprised at how relatively quiet it was. Sure, men and women were trying to make themselves heard, and there were machinery noises coming from the ship’s belly. But it was orderly. Focused. Efficient. He straightened his back, low growl rising in his throat, as he brushed past two men hunkered over a list, looking busy, but not hurried. Confident. He knew where he was going.

Where he was going, was apparently the ship itself. He naturally followed the stream of people in front of him, the majority of which were headed to a platform that led straight into the ship’s interior. A loading bay? Was this ship to transport them all … somewhere?

He couldn’t very well turn around on the spot, so he resigned himself to exploring the inside of the ship for a short while. Perhaps he could find out where it was headed, and what its cargo was.

People quickly dispersed, once inside the ship’s cavernous loading area. Choosing at random, he made his way past some large crates and tanks of mysterious fluid – flammable and corrosive, apparently – and into a long corridor. Suddenly, Ifrit was alone.

The corridor didn’t seem to lead anywhere. For minutes he went straight ahead, ignoring the closed doors, closets and cul-de-sacs. Not a soul crossed his path, until he arrived at another loading bay that was just as busy yet somehow empty as the last one.

Raising his head, he made his way off the ship again, somehow disappointed. It was so large, surely there was something valuable inside? But whatever it was, he wasn’t just going to stumble upon it all willy-nilly. Plans would be nice, or maybe even an inventory. Looking around, as inattentive everyone had been not to notice a stranger in their midst, he somehow doubted these sorts of documents just lay about for anyone to grab and look at.

“Hey you!”

Thankfully, this seemed to be an international operation, and he was accosted by an English speaker. Though he looked anything but friendly.

“Yessir,” Ifrit replied reflexively.

The man approaching him was clad in similar protective gear as him, though he was carrying a submachine gun instead of pulse pistols, and a mean frown instead of a polite smile. No helpful symbols marking him as an agent of Talon. Still, he seemed to be in charge here. A security chief, perhaps.

“Stop loitering about, and follow me. The tank won’t haul itself onto that damn steel trap.”

“Aye, sir.”

A tank. Ifrit followed the security chief back into the depths of the wharf and towards the ship. Did they mean a tank as in a military vehicle? Not a fish tank, for sure. A container of some sorts?

“You grab that end, and you there take this one. Don’t fucking drop the thing, or I won’t hesitate to shoot you in the fucking balls, alright?”

Ifrit obediently moved towards what looked like … a stasis pod, perhaps, like in early 21st century sci-fi movies. Opaque white, oblong, and just large enough for a big person. There was a viewing panel, a bit like a porthole, but it was on top of the thing, and Ifrit didn’t dare stand on his toes to get a glimpse inside.

“Steady,” the security chief barked. “It’s heavier than it looks. And don’t. Drop it.”

Ifrit bit back a chortle, but feigned difficulty getting a grip on the underside of the tank. Thanks to his enhancements, he could lift and carry almost double the weight even a reasonably trained weightlifter was able to. After a couple of steps, the poor guy asked to carry the tank alongside him was already panting and sweating.

“Up that ramp there, come on. Come on, we don’t have all night!”

Walking backwards up even the slightest incline with a weight in his arms was tricky at best, but they managed despite the other people bustling past and around them and getting in the way.

“Put it down here.”

With a faked groan, Ifrit lowered the tank onto the prongs of a forklift waiting for them. Just as he did so, he put his face on the optimal height to peer through the viewing panel and inside the tank.

His heart stopped beating for a moment.

“Chop chop, let’s get back to work!”

Numbly, Ifrit feigned having stitches in his side, which earned him a scoff from the security chief and a huff from his lifting partner.

“Be right there,” he said, waving them away. “Go ahead.”

Because he had to make sure he’d seen what he’d seen.

Once the two men were gone, he didn’t hesitate another second to fall to his knees, and he all but plastered himself onto the tank for the clearest view. Through the thick glass and in the dark of the tank’s interior it was hard to tell, but … there was a face. And not just any face, though perhaps it was wishful thinking – not it wasn’t – but it looked like Gabriel. It was Gabriel in there, lying with his eyes closed as if peacefully asleep. Or dead. But no, they wouldn’t go to such lengths to transport a dead man’s body. Would they?

He had to think quick. Maybe he could hide in the vast belly of the ship, tag along for the ride to wherever they were taking him, but it would separate him from his tech, his gear. Or he could go back to his jet and follow the ship that way – but he’d need a transponder. Something to track the tank with.

A quick glance told him he was unobserved. Reaching into his pocket he procured the earpiece part of his mask, which he used to communicate with Sombra when in the field, and jammed the signal transmitting part into a seam where the tank probably opened. No way of telling if it would hold, but it was better than nothing. Even if it fell off, it would tell him the ship’s location, and he could go from there.

Then he knelt there, one hand pressed over the transponder, and one hand flattened against the tank’s side, as if he could feel Gabriel’s warmth through the thick casing. Getting up, turning around and walking away from that was the hardest thing he’d ever done. But he had to.

He’d have to tell Angela about this. Maybe she could tell him what the tank was for. Looking over his shoulder one last time, he memorized everything about the contraption that he could – its size, form, make and materials.

But he found him.

As he left the wharf, his feet only kept their calm, even steps through sheer force of will. He wanted to sing and dance with joy. Gabriel was there, he’d had him literally at his fingertips.

Next time he would take him home.

Chapter Text

The feeling coursing through Jack’s veins like electricity, a mixture of anxiousness and joy, left him all fidgety as he sat in his jet’s pilot seat, waiting for Angela to say something. Anything.

He’d called her right away instead of sending the usual written report, as soon as he got back from his foray into Marsala on which he discovered Gabriel’s body being prepared for transport on a ship. He told her he found Gabriel. He told her about the ship, the tank Gabriel was in, and the transponder he put on it to track his movement. Angela had remained silent as of yet – but he could see her expression just fine.

She was relieved. Angry. Worried. He let her have a few moments to compose herself – even if she didn’t know it, he owed her that much.

“You are sure it was him?”

“No mistaking.”

She nodded, and discreetly turned away to wipe away a few tears that had escaped her.

“From what you described, the … tank he was in seems to be some sort of medical capsule. Perhaps a stasis pod. If he was merely unconscious, removing him from the tank might cause him to wake. But if he is in a coma, extraction might be fatal. There is no knowing what might happen.”

“So you suggest I snatch him alongside the tank?”

Angela nodded.

“If possible. Whatever condition he is in, changing the environmental parameters is risky. I’d rather we know more.”

“Roger that.”

She gave him a weak smile at that.

“I can’t help but wonder,” she muttered, half to herself, only hesitantly directed at him. “If you knew him personally- … Your manner, it reminds me …”

“I was in the Soldier Enhancement Program,” he said in Ifrit’s gruff, monotone voice, thankful for the mask hiding his facial expressions.

“That’s what I thought.”

There was a short moment of silence, neither of them certain what to say.

“I’ll send you another report once I know where they are taking him,” Jack said eventually and cleared his throat. “It might take me a few days to properly stake out whichever place they’ll hold him in, but I expect to be able to extract him within the week. Is … have you already prepared a place where I can bring him?”

“Ah. Yes, I- …” Surprisingly, Angela’s cheeks colored, but she met his gaze head on. “I have been conducting medical experiments in a house in the Swiss capital city of Bern. I am sending you the coordinates. There is a park nearby where you could land.”

“Thank you.” Jack simultaneously thought about the logistics of transporting a medical capsule unseen from his jet to Angela’s house, and wondered about what kinds of experiments she could have been conducting in secret. Something too dangerous even for Overwatch? Or did she have suspicions about security? His console pinged, and he confirmed that he had received the coordinates.

“I suggest we keep contact to a minimum from now on. I will only send the next report, and then confirmation once I have Gabriel safely in my custody. I trust you will keep a low profile until then, and prepare for the worst.”

“Of course,” she said, wincing. Perhaps she was imagining what ‘the worst’ would entail. “Good luck. And hopefully until soon.”

Jack only nodded in reply, and disconnected the vid call. On another screen, a small blinking dot slowly inched across a map of the Mediterranean Sea towards the harbor in Tunis. By the time it reached its destination, Jack would have caught up with it, thanks to the superior speed of his jet in comparison to the huge freighter.

Trusting the signal, and trusting that he gauged the most likely destination correctly, Jack set the transport to autopilot, and forced himself to seek an hour of fitful sleep on the tiny cot installed into the small hold. He’d need all the energy he could get for what lay before him.

*

The ship that transported Gabriel from Sicily to Tunisia indeed docked in the port of Tunis, posing as a regular freighter. In the confusion of the harbor, and dozens of fake names, fronts and bribes, it would have been impossible to track one small stasis pod – were it not for Jack’s foresight in installing a makeshift transponder.

Dressed as a tourist, and staring at what would look like a hardlight tourist guide, he immersed himself into the bustle and hustle of Tunis. In reality, however, he was looking at a remote access to his ship’s computer that showed his tracker’s location. He’d never been to the city before, though he had some experience with the desert hinterland. If he recalled correctly, there were talks about installing an Ecopoint near Lac de Gafsa, a lake that mysteriously appeared in the beginning of the 21st century.

Today he would follow the transponder’s signal to wherever they were bringing Gabriel. Tomorrow he would rest, and the day after he planned on staking out the place. He chewed on his thumb nail, trying to suppress the grin about to take over his face. Three more days, and he’d have Gabriel with him again. Safe, and hopefully sound.

In contrast to Jack, who was on foot, it seemed like Gabriel was being transported in a fast-moving vehicle, headed to the outskirts of the city. To catch up, he hailed a taxi and gave the Omnic driver a hotel as destination, that seemed to be in the same direction as Gabriel’s escort was headed. Twenty minutes later, the taxi spat him out in front of a shabby building that had definitely seen better days. Some of the damage to the façade seemed to be as old as the Omnic Crisis. In fact, the whole area looked as if not much reconstruction had been done since then.

Jack clutched his hardlight tablet tighter, and drew his cap lower over his face. He was too obviously out of place. He’d need a better disguise once he came back to surveil and plan his entry and exit.

Thankfully, the signal had stopped only about a mile from Jack’s position, and there were few people out and about in the street. Some children playing soccer paused and watched him as he walked past, quiet and serious. Jack ducked his head and hurried along.

The building that the tracker indicated Talon had brought Gabriel to was a hospital. Debilitated, as the rest of the houses surrounding it, but clearly well-frequented, if the hovercars parked in front were any indication. Jack cursed silently. Civilian witnesses, possible casualties. Children, ill people, elderly people. Of course Talon was cowardly enough to hide behind civilian lives, in hopes of deterring the likes of Jack – the likes of Ifrit. Appealing to the soft heart of a hero. Well, they were in for a surprise. Ifrit, though just as unwilling to harm innocents, would not hesitate to find another way.

Already, Jack’s head was spinning with different scenarios. But that was not what he was here for today. This was the location, and he’d worry about how to get in and out with a seven foot tank in 36 hours, after resting and restocking his supplies.

He bought enough unhealthy, but high-energy, protein-rich food to feed ten regular people. This meant it was just enough to feed one super soldier for two days, with leftovers to perhaps sustain a second one’s energy long enough to fly from Tunis to Bern without either of them collapsing due to low blood sugar. As he stuffed his face with salted peanuts, granola bars and the cold contents of a can of beans, he checked his heavy pulse rifle and his stock of ammo. His tactical visor, the recoil protectors, his combat boots. The lightweight chest piece of his armor, and his ammo belt.

It was a familiar routine. Thinking back, he realized that this had been more or less his life for about two decades now. He was old enough to be eligible for retirement pay, were he still in the US army. Not old enough to be obsolete on the field, however, and much of that was thanks to the SEP’s results. Not that every program participant had been as lucky as him and Gabriel.

As a child, he would never have imagined himself in this situation. Sitting in the cramped cargo hold of a stealth jet, shoveling cold beans into his mouth, while checking his weapons and gear with an ease that only came with years of practice. Until the age of fifteen or so there had been no question – Jack would inherit the family farm, become a farmer like his father, and his father before him. Charlotte used to be the one dreaming of big cities, foreign cultures and strange sights. Now she was the one hauling hay bales, while he hopped continents, adding to his snow globe collection as he went.

Then again, no one saw the Omnic Crisis coming. Without it, Jack doubted he would have veered off the course set by his ancestry. The SEP, Overwatch, Talon wouldn’t exist. He would never have met Gabriel.

After he threw away the evidence of his food binge, Jack stripped and curled up on the narrow, stiff foldaway bed installed in the jet’s hold. 24 hours of rest before he could stake out the hospital, and then stage the most impressive rescue of all times.

Suffice to say, he was struggling to fall asleep.

He tossed and turned for hours, or so it felt, feeling cold and hot in turns, and generally just unable to turn off his racing thoughts. After a nearly successful attempt to fall asleep, he bumped into the wall, thinking blearily for a second that it was a person, and jolted awake again. Frustrated, he kicked off his blanket, and stared into the darkness. There was a pressure in his throat, like he was fighting a scream, or a whine, and his spine itched so much he felt compelled to scratch himself.

“Fuck,” he told the shadows. He knew what this was. His body always had the worst timing.

Usually, Jack’s annual biological wakeup call manifested itself in a strange mixture between an alpha rut and an omega heat. This time, there was no sign of any rut symptoms, meaning his body craved above all else company. His skin tingled pleasantly at the mere thought of a warm body next to his – hands, arms wrapped around him, breath brushing against his neck.

Fuck,” he repeated, scratching irritably at his arms.

Dealing with ruts on one’s own was easy. It was like a fog descending, closing off all rationality and forethought. Even opening a locked door required too much brainpower at this stage, so confining the suffering individual in a room with ample – and simple – entertainment was enough.

Heats, though, were much harder to suffer thought alone. At least in Jack’s case, they made him hyperaware of every little detail in his surroundings. Smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, they all got a boost that even surpassed his already heightened sensory state due to the SEP enhancements. Which meant itchy skin, nausea, migraines, and hot flashes alternated with the shivers.

None of this bode well for the upcoming ‘rescue Gabriel from the clutches of Talon’ mission. He needed to be fully rested, at his best, as there was no margin for error. Any mistake caused by a dizzy spell could be fatal both or him and for Gabriel.

There was a sudden burst of smell – metal and engine oil and ozone – that was so strong he nearly instantly threw up.

Yeah, there was no way he was fit for the challenge ahead of him.

With a groan he threw himself in the direction of the console, hitting its surface with a sweaty palm.

“What’s up?”

“Sombra, I need your help. This is going to sound very bad, but I assure you, my intentions are pure.”

“Hey, wow, are you alright? You sound like shit, viejo. What do you need? Some porn? Illegal drugs? Guns?”

“Just … talk to me. Please.”

Clearly having heard his whining undertone, Sombra was quiet on the other end for a few seconds.

“Oh shit, you’re in heat. Sure, I’ll try to help. Never done it before, but this isn’t such a bad first time. Even if it’s with your ugly mug.”

“I’m not- …” Jack grit his teeth and climbed onto the pilot seat. “I don’t want to take advantage of you. There are other alphas or betas I can call.”

“Yeah, like who? A phone sex hotline? Relajate, Sombra’s got you. You ever had an AB sweet-talk you before?”

Jack huffed out a laugh.

“Yes, actually. Ana is an alpha/beta switch too.” His face fell. “Was, I mean.”

“Alpha boy not always there to take care of you, huh?”

“Shut up. He … He was busy. And we weren’t on the best of terms towards the end, you know that.”

Sombra made a non-committal noise.

“So what do I do exactly?”

“Just … Just let me talk. And I’d be very grateful if you weren’t recording any of this, because my inhibitions will be lowered to fuck all. Just listen, and at least try to sound interested. Like I’ve got your attention. It will come instinctually after a while, when it’s really bad, but … Don’t take anything personal. In this state, I’d say anything to make you happy.”

“I get it, old man. No judgement from me.”

“Thanks,” he sighed, leaning his head against the seat behind him. His hair was already soaked with sweat. Already, explaining all this to Sombra was taking more of an effort than it should, but her compliance felt nice. She was letting him guide her into doing what he wanted, and it felt good.

“What kind of music do you like? Play me some, please,” he asked, and let his mind ascend into the icy clear state of heat.

*

There were many advantages to an omega’s heat, if he had a smart, guiding alpha to anchor his haywire senses. But even more productive than the near-clairvoyance of a guided omega was the way other people started to perceive someone in heat. If a smart omega – and they always were tricky, slippery, cunning in some way – wanted to, he could always turn people’s heads. But during a heat? The world was a puppet house, and he held all the strings. Except his own.

“Can you please help me find out more about that hospital you told me about? We can check out some of the entrances and exits together, if you want.”

Sombra had to only ask, and Jack jumped to please her. She wanted information, and Jack could be very persuasive and observant.

He directly went to the hospital the next morning, marching up to the front desk, asking for information.

“What kind of information,” the disgruntled nurse manning the desk asked him. Jack saw she wasn’t upset with him, but rather at her slacking colleague – this nurse wasn’t supposed to work at the reception today.

“Oh, I just moved into the neighborhood, and you see, this is very embarrassing, but I’m a total klutz, honestly, so I thought I better see what the local hospital is all about, and you know, I thought why not ask the nice front desk lady.”

The woman’s eyes relaxed slightly, and she sighed.

“As I said, what do you want to know?”

“I just want to know, well, get to know the lay of the land, so to speak, seeing as I’ll probably spend some time here, see how the people are and the like, right? Actually, I was a bit worried coming in today, because of that big, scary black van parked out front – this isn’t a dangerous neighborhood, right?”

“Oh no, very family friendly,” the nurse said, leaning forward on her desk. “Nothing to worry about. Just some stupid government thing. They seized the basement for a top secret patient, apparently.”

“Oh that’s alright then, sorry for making a fuss about nothing,” Jack giggled. “Thanks for the help, you’re very nice. I hope you’ll be my nurse when I eventually come in with a broken foot or something equally silly.”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” the nurse replied with a soft smile. “Poor omega, don’t you have someone taking care of you?”

“It’s alright,” Jack said in a tone that said it wasn’t really alright. The nurse gave him a pitying look and bent down to rummage in a drawer. Then she held out a lollipop to him, the kind you gave to brave little kids getting their shots.

“Here, you’re so sweet, why don’t you have a sweet yourself?”

“Aww, thank you so much! I love strawberry, it’s my favorite flavor.”

On the way out, Jack gave the lolly to a kid – both the boy and his mother smiled at him like he was an angel descended from heaven.

As he rounded back and wandered to the back of the hospital, Jack encountered a guard with the Talon logo sprayed onto his bulletproof vest, standing in front of a door. The man held up a hand.

Arrêtez! Accès interdit aux personnes non autorisée.”

Jack gasped, and replied in French: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I don’t want to cause any trouble, I’m just lost.”

The guard’s expression softened, and he unsubtly let his eyes wander over Jack’s form.

“No harm done,” he said.

“Sorry, I just thought … well, you looked trustworthy, and I really don’t know how to get back to my hotel. Can you help me maybe?”

The guy scratched his neck and looked around.

“I shouldn’t be talking to you.”

“Oh, please, I’d be so grateful, Mr.- …?”

“Call me Mehdi.”

Jack smiled.

“Thanks. Just point me in the right direction and I’ll let you do your job.”

He kept a placid, pleasant expression on his face as the guard started to tell him an omega as lovely as him should not be out and about on his own.

“Don’t you have an alpha to take care of you?”

Something inside Jack twitched, and he was so, so tempted to say something sassy. To challenge this bloated idiot of an asshole with a roaring alpha growl. To tell him that his alpha was behind that door somewhere, being kept against his will, and Jack was going to get him back. It would please Sombra to hear about it.

But Sombra wasn’t his; he wasn’t hers. This wasn’t about her. It was about Gabriel. Jack would do anything for Gabriel.

“I’m- … I’d just like to get back to my hotel.”

“Why don’t you tell me which one, and we’ll see whether I can help you or not, hm?”

Jack named the nearest three star hotel that came to his mind. He’d memorized it all, thanks to Sombra’s debrief, so at least he knew he wasn’t saying something wrong. The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled in a reassuring way.

“Oh, that’s right around the corner. Why don’t you go inside the hospital and wait for me there, I’ll escort you personally. My shift is over in five minutes.”

“That is very kind of you, Mehdi. I’ll wait inside, then.”

The anger boiling in his stomach immediately went to his head. His senses lost their focus, and he nearly felt like vomiting into the next best garbage can. There was a child crying in the distance. The corner smelled like dog piss. There was a faint, annoying whirr from a vent or a fan coming from the hospital behind him. His clothing stuck to his sweaty skin. A stone had lodged itself into the sole of his boots, and he could feel it grind against the asphalt with every step he took. Jack wanted to scream and tear off his entire leg to make it stop.

“Sombra,” he groaned, and took a deep breath. “Gabriel. I have to- …”

He couldn’t help the hungry baby, and he couldn’t do anything about the faulty vent, and the heat would be more bearable once he got back to the plane, and the stone wasn’t a problem, it was fine just where it was. No matter how tempting the idea of interfering, bettering, improving, fixing things was, he just had to get the information back to Sombra.

Once Jack got back to his jet, he wasn’t just much calmer, but also quite satisfied with the results of his excursion. He knew the nurses’ shift rotation, and that no one at the hospital knew anything about the fact that Talon was hiding Gabriel in their cellar. He knew the number of patients and the layout of the hospital, including emergency exits, the faulty rooftop ventilation shaft. He knew what kind of gear the Talon grunts were equipped with, and their level of preparedness. He knew now for sure that this is where they kept Gabriel, and he knew how to get to him. He also knew how to get him out with Talon being none the wiser.

“Did you do your grocery shopping?” he asked Sombra.

“Yes, dad. I even got some veggies.”

“Good. Can you please tell me the plan again?”

He sat back, emptying his bottle of Gatorade, and let Sombra’s voice wash over him. This was for her benefit only, as he already memorized both points of entrance and egress, alongside plans B and C for both. She was worried about him, the unknown factor of his heat, and even if she would rather die than admit it, she liked Gabriel. She wanted this to work as much as he did, and she didn’t like not being there with him. Sombra liked to be in control of things, have all the strings in her own hands, so Jack let her have this at least.

He would thank her later for not mentioning his purr, but it always felt good to indulge. And anyways, he could hear that she was pleased too. Jack had done good today, and his reward was some soft electro jazz to fall asleep to. Maybe Sombra’s taste in music was more diverse than he thought.

*

Sombra kept him fed with a steady stream of information filtering in audio, text and messages into his visor. He didn’t need them – he could see and hear and smell and feel enough on his own. But it helped with the overload threatening to short-circuit his nervous system due to the onslaught of information his brain had to deal with because of his heat.

It helped that there was a faint salsa beat in the background, and it showed him the environmental temperature alongside air pressure, humidity, and the direction of the wind. A map overlay showed him the path he needed to take.

His hands settled tightly on his pulse rifle. It was difficult to be Ifrit in heat. Ifrit was hard and cold and distant. The heat took the world and pressed it against his skin, pouring it in through his nose and ears and eyes until he choked. His spine tingled, and he hit the first guard a bit too hard – not Mehdi, sadly, he would have liked to punch him. The fingers that searched for a heartbeat did not tremble.

Down a flight of stairs, along a corridor, left and right turns. Perfect ninety degrees. White walls. Smell of antiseptic. Filtered air. Dry. Sweet. Cold. Four guards join the first, their shapes so distinct Ifrit thought they would remain imprinted into his retina forever.

The tank was exactly where the transponder told him it would be. No one had noticed the little thing, so obvious, stuck to the bottom of the tank. Gabriel inside.

Don’t open it, bring him back to the jet, find something to transport it with it’s too heavy to carry or you could but the grip is awkward- …

He froze, mesmerized by Gabriel’s peaceful face only half visible through the small, fogged up window in the pod.

“Jack. You triggered an alarm.”

Ifrit took a deep breath filled with a thousand smells. None of them belonged to Gabriel. The tank was airtight.

He lifted the pod onto his back, awkwardly balancing it there, bent forward. The stairs suddenly felt insurmountable. But he didn’t have to think about it. His body moved through pain and awkwardness, carried by his mind, his will. Gabriel. He had Gabriel. He needed to bring him outside, there was a transport there, and it would bring him back to his jet, which would bring them to Angela, who would fix them up and make it all better.

There was the taste of strawberries in his mouth. The artificial kind.

When shots rang out, he reacted faster than instinct. Two clips of his pulse rifle found their way into and around Talon armor. He didn’t check their pulses. One was a woman; she wore a perfume he’d smelled on a French ambassador once, it had notes of anise and amber and cinnamon. It took him forty-nine steps to get the tank to the car he’d stolen exactly two hundred and sixty-one minutes ago. He didn’t stick to the tempo limit.

“-ck? Jack, I can’t remotely put in autopilot unless you give me the override. You’ve got to help me out here!”

He blinked blearily, thinking for a second that Gabriel had blinked back. The rational part of his brain told him he was starting to hallucinate, the strain on his senses proving too much without a proper anchor.

Charlotte,” he muttered. “The password is always charlotte.”

Sombra snorted, the sound distorted by the transmission, but a few seconds later Jack felt the jet rumble to life and lift off. His hands were hot, heating the metal of the pod beneath them. His arms were just a little too short to fully encompass it, but he could comfortably lean against it, press his forehead to the glass panel and stare at Gabriel’s still, unmoving face. He could see micro-expressions on people, it’s what didn’t just make him a great lie detector, but an even greater liar himself. But there were none on Gabriel’s face. He was as still a stone. As still as death.

The taste of strawberries got replaced with the sharp tang of iron, and his eyes were burning, watering, straining. He just had to wait for a sign. He could hang on for long enough.

Two female voices registered in the background, somewhere in his mind separate from the main part that was dedicated to watching over Gabriel.

“… trust you?”

“I work with Ifrit. I can’t tell you more, but he’s been compromised.”

“Compromised how?”

“He’s in heat. There’s no one for him to anchor with. I’ve tried, but … Last I know he was hallucinating, and he’s rapidly losing his grip on reality.”

“Damn. I’ll have something ready for him. Will he make it on his own?”

“He’s a tough old man.”

“Anything else I need to know?”

“I’ve done a remote scan of the med pod, I’m sending you the results. I don’t know much about human anatomy and stuff, but even I can see that something is really weird. Not good weird.”

“Duly noted. Just make sure they get here safe, and I will take care of the rest.”

“ETA 72 minutes, doc. Sombra out.”

“Thank you.”

The voices melted into tonal brushstrokes, dripping down Jack’s throat like clinging oil. There was meaning here, somewhere, but his eyes were trained firmly on the features of a man, a man lying beneath a pane of glass thick enough that he couldn’t safely break it with his hands. A man, a man with a name that kept slipping from his mind.

“This is all on you, Jack. I hope you know what you did,” he said, mouth moving, but the voice couldn’t slip through the cracks in Jack’s vision. He knew what he was saying either way. He always knew. If only he were to open his eyes and look at him, they would have that connection again, this warm bond that used to weigh down Jack’s flighty thoughts.

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

“I know, I know,” Jack crooned, pressing his heated cheek against the metal of … the metal of … the thing. With the man inside.

“If you hadn’t done it all wrong I wouldn’t need to clean up your damn messes all the time. Do you even know how many of my people had to risk their lives for your mistake?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“You never mean to, and that’s even worse. You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re messing up left and right and I have to deal with the consequences.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What good are your fucking excuses? I need someone capable of handling these things, but instead they gave me you, and I have to fucking work with what I’ve got. Do you understand? You’re less than dirt under my boot. You’re only useful because they said so. I’ll drop your sorry ass as soon as I think it’s convenient.”

“Yessir, comman- …” Jack coughed, hands slipping, and knocked his head on the floor. His head spun. “Gab- …? Gabriel, please. Gabriel? Gabe?”

“Stay down, you worthless piece of crap. Losers don’t deserve to use their feet.”

“Jack? Jack, can you hear me?”

“Eat dirt, you coward. Face me, and fight me like a real man, instead of hiding behind your little bodyguard.”

“Just hold on, you’re almost there. She’ll take care of you. Both of you. Just hold on.”

“I’m not even angry at you, Morrison. I’m just disappointed. I thought you were something, but turns out you’re just like the rest of them. Just as stupid, and afraid, and you all think you’re better than me.”

The world was moving, and the air was so hot, but Jack couldn’t, he couldn’t move. It was all so much. Everything hurt. It was too loud. He choked on his next breath. His eyes burned. His spine itched. It was so loud, when the bay door was opened from the outside – it only sounded like that when it was opened from the outside. Someone was outside, and they were getting inside. Inside, where Jack was. With … with the man. The tank.

He screamed when a hand touched his calf, and tried to kick whoever was here to hurt them. He had to protect them. Him. The man was important, and he couldn’t let them- …

A sharp sting registered, high on his neck. His eyes flew open, and he saw an angel leaning over him. Her lips moved, and her cheeks were wet with tears, but her shining light dimmed, dimmed, until darkness fell. Along with the light went her voice, and the last thing he felt was a familiar, sharp relief, like water after dying of thirst. Some sort of instinct told him it was safe – he was safe now. And he let it rock him to sleep.

*

When he woke up, Jack felt like he had a cold. His nose was blocked, and his hearing muffled. When he groaned, his tongue felt like lead. It was a familiar feeling, known to him from years of suffering through ruts and heats on his own, a feeling brought on by chemical suppressants that combated some of the symptoms. But there was no way he got his hands on them, not since- …

He sat up with a gasp, and was halfway to jumping off the narrow twin bed, when he saw her.

“I can’t believe you would do something like this,” Angela said, in her strong, calm, scary voice. Usually, she reserved this tone for patients that disregarded her doctor’s orders, thus risking their health.

This? Jack had done many things wrong recently. Running around, in heat, without any anchor or suppressants? Faking his death? Playing vigilante? Going after Talon alone?

“I know. I’m sorry.” To all of the above.

Angela shook her head, tired, pale and slim in her lab coat. Her blond hair was tied into a limp ponytail, and even in the dim light he could see the dark circles around her eyes. Her arm was no longer in a cast.

“If I wasn’t grateful to you for bringing Gabriel to me … If I weren’t so glad to see you, Jack, I hope you know I’d be kicking your dumb ass.”

He chuckled mirthlessly.

“Yes, I know.”

“And I’d be giving you the talking-down of your life, but … It’s Gabriel.”

Jack finished climbing out of the bed. His legs wobbled underneath him, but he ignored it.

“Could you wake him up? Is he alright?”

Angela grimaced.

“That’s the thing. I could technically open the pod, and I was able to do some scans on him. But something is wrong. The readings I’m getting … I don’t know if he will survive the reanimation process. Not without a lot of ifs, and maybes.” She stopped, swallowed. “Jack. There are organs missing. He barely as any blood. The electromagnetic impulses in his brain are off the chart. I don’t know what I’m looking at, to be honest. I- … I have an idea, but it’s dangerous, and- …”

Jack stares at her, this young, brilliant doctor. Always with a spine made from titanium, a tongue nearly as sharp as her scalpels. And she was unsure. She was afraid.

“Angela,” he said, lowering his voice into a purr. “Angela, it’s alright.”

She breaks into tears then, and he lets her slump against his side, head tucked under his chin, her ear close to his clavicle, where his purr resonated the most.

“You died,” she whispered, tears soaking into the material of Jack’s undershirt. “You died, and Gabriel … The last year and a half was just so, so much. Amélie, and Ana. And now the headquarters. No one knows what to do now. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know. Shh, it’s okay.”

“Jack, there is something I have to tell you, and I think it has a connection to Gabriel and the state he is in. Talon … they might have found out.”

Jack stiffened, his purr petering out.

“What? Angela, what are you talking about?”

She stepped away, wiping her tears, and donned a tight, steely expression.

“I have been experimenting with our bionanites. Making them stronger. I tested larger doses, with more calculating power, and higher adaptability. I … In short, Jack, have been looking for a way to resurrect the dead.”

Stunned and breathless, Jack could only stare at her. Angela met his gaze, visibly bracing herself. Fearing his judgement?

“Why?” he asked. “How? Does … does it work?”

“Why?” she echoed, laughing bitterly. “Jack, everyone was dying, and there was nothing I could do.”

“Oh, Angela.”

“It started with Genji and his cybernetics, but it wasn’t a proper resurrection. And then I made Ana’s biotic grenade prototype. Enhanced healing. But it wasn’t enough. So I started modifying my Valkyrie suit.” She sighed, and hung her head. “Jack … how difficult was it to extract Gabriel?”

“I got in and out without a problem, why?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Angela- …”

“I needed to tell you about the resurrection technology beforehand,” she went on, ignoring him. “In case there are fatal complications to Gabriel’s reanimation process, I would attempt to use it on him. If my readings are right, he is the ideal subject.”

Jack balked at that.

“Subject? Angela, do you hear yourself talking?”

“I have to, Jack!” she suddenly burst out, and then cleared her throat, smoothing her hands down over her lab coat. “I would do anything to not lose another patient. Another friend. I need to do something.”

When she turned around and left the room – it looked like a spare bedroom, comfy but impersonal – Jack followed her. She led him down a set of stairs, and through a door that led into the basement. The sharp, fluorescent light reflected off her hair, giving it an almost divine glow.

On top of a stretcher lay the tank, and inside it, Gabriel. The sleek design looked unassuming, almost friendly, but smart, the way most medical machinery did. A variety of monitors and other equipment surrounded the pod, beeping and measuring away. The air was stale. Even with Jack’s muted senses the room felt oppressive. Perhaps it was all the secrets Angela had kept in here.

“I am going to start the reanimation process,” Angela announced, stepping up to a big, hulking machine that arched over the tank. It whirred and connected itself to the pod, apparently doing its work.

Jack was left to mutely watch the machine slowly inching it way across the pod’s surface. Some of the monitors flashed with information from time to time, or made a noise that must mean something to Angela, if her busy movements were any indication. He couldn’t tell how long it took. Perhaps an hour, two hours, perhaps more. After a while his feet started to ache, and the residue pain the suppressants had blocked began to settle in his bones. He wanted to sit down, but it felt wrong, and there were no chairs anyways.

Suddenly, all the noise fell away, leaving Jack’s ears ringing. Like a blossom, the pod fell open around Gabriel’s body, lying still and rigid on the bedding. Jack gasped. There were scars, most of which were familiar to him, but also new ones. Fresh ones. Wounds and stitches. Gabriel’s chest cavity looked strangely flat, his stomach unnaturally concave.

“I am administering the nanites now,” Angela said hollowly, brandishing her Caduceus staff out of nowhere. Jack realized that she had been wearing her Valkyrie suit underneath the white coat all this time, because when she raised her staff and activated its healing beam, her sleeves fell back, revealing the suit’s telltale material. Golden light spread around the staff’s tip, where the biotic nanites were trapped in their canister, but instead of forming a steady stream, they collapsed. Within a fraction of a second, both Angela and Gabriel’s bodies seemed covered in their bright glow.

When the light fell away, Jack blinked, feeling as if he had stared into the sun.

“Did it work?” he asked, finally approaching the bed. Gabriel still lay there, unmoving. “Gabe? Gabe, can you hear me? I’m here. You are safe now.”

His hand connected with Gabriel’s arm, covered in the thin material of a hospital gown. The skin was cold and inflexible, shockingly smooth under his fingertips.

“Gabe? Angela, he’s not responding.”

It was in that moment that Jack realized all the equipment surrounding them had gone silent.

“Angela,” he prompted, turning around.

She looked like a wreck. Nearly all color had drained from her face, and her eyes were glassy, framed by black circles. Her mouth, lips chapped, hung open in pure exhaustion.

Ich hätte es wissen müssen.”

She wavered, stumbled, and righted herself with a grimace.

“Angela,” Jack repeated, more forcefully.

She shook her head.

“Jack, I told you it was experimental, I don’t- …”

But then there was sudden heat beneath Jack’s hands. A loud, choked gasp, and Gabriel opened his eyes.

“Gabriel! Gabriel, you’re safe, it’s okay.”

He laughed, cradling Gabriel’s face with his hands. The panic in those lovely brown eyes softened into recognition, and with a second, shuddering breath, color started returning to his cheeks.

“J- …”

“Shh, baby, don’t talk. You’re good. I got you.”

“Jaa- …” Gabriel coughed, visibly straining to breathe. Jack fumbled to grip his hand, to squeeze it tight, but the fingers remained limp.

“Angela is here, she’s gonna take care of you, Gabe,” he told him, and turned away. “Can you give him something for the pain?”

“…-aaack. J- … aah …”

“Hush, Gabe, I got you. Angela?”

Shaking off her shock, the young doctor hurried to fill a syringe with a clear fluid, and proceeded to administer it to Gabriel through a vein in the crook of his elbow. Jack held his arm still, because the hand in his was still unresponsive, the arm lifeless, almost boneless. The sedative had to be fast acting, because Gabriel gave a relieved sigh after a few moments.

Jackie,” he whispered.

And then he closed his eyes.

“Oh no.”

“What?” Jack murmured, stroking Gabriel’s cheek with a knuckle. When she didn’t reply, he turned to her. “What is it?”

Angela was preparing another syringe, though her infallible hands were shaking almost imperceptibly. His heart seized in fear.

“Step back,” she told him, and bodily put herself between him and Gabriel.

 “What is going on?”

She administered the new agent, this time directly into the main artery sitting high on Gabriel’s neck. All of a sudden, the machines and monitors around them started screaming and flashing. Jack surged forward, reaching for Gabriel, but then he was thrown back by Angela’s weight barreling into him.

On the gurney, Gabriel’s body was taut as a bow string, back arched off the bedding. His eyes and mouth were open in a silent scream.

“Gabe!” Jack shouted.

It started at the hands and feet, rapidly making its way along the limbs towards Gabriel’s chest and head. At first it was an unnatural blackness, so dark it seemed to absorb all light. Then it became an ashy, flakey texture, reducing the shape of Gabriel’s fingers to blurred shadows. When Jack tried to grab onto his arm, it had no substance, and his own hand fell through the space where Gabriel’s elbow used to be like there was nothing there. Faster and faster it ate away at Gabriel, faster than Jack could follow it with touch. By the time it reached his face, his arms and legs had already disappeared. Desperately, Jack tried to catch Gabriel’s eye, tried to give him comfort, tried to tell him- …

And then he was gone. Vanished into thin air.

He took a ragged breath, only now realizing that he had been screaming the entire time.

Mein Gott, was habe ich getan …”

Jack closed his eyes, tuned her out. He lost him. He lost Gabriel. Just like that. Died under his hands, fading away in pure agony because of- … No, it wasn’t Angela’s fault.

“Talon did this,” he whispered. Inside him, the icy cold of shock and loss transformed into a bitter, burning hatred.

“Jack.”

Despite the haze hanging over his mind because of the suppressants, his thoughts raced. He would need Sombra’s assistance again. Perhaps he’d help her purchase those cranial implants she wanted, in exchange for her help in bringing down Talon. They had to pay for what they did. He was going to hunt them down, one by one, and crush them under his boot like the vermin they were. And once he got to the top, he was going to- …

“Jack, look!”

Torn out of his bloody thoughts, he jerked around to see what Angela was pointing at.

A sliver of darkness. A shadowy cloud, hovering in the corner. Jack blinked, and it was gone.

“What the fuck?”

“I- … I think … that was Gabriel.”

They stared at each other, wondering, fearing, hoping. That perhaps, Gabriel had survived the resurrection.

“I need to use your phone,” Jack said.

Chapter Text

“Do you always do that?”

Jack looked up from the stove where he was baking pancakes for himself and Angela. She had a nice gas stove, high-end pans, dozens of cooking utensils, expensive ingredients, and apparently zero experience in even cooking the easiest of meals. But thankfully Jack knew how to cook a hearty, all-American breakfast, and though Sombra was in the Americas herself, and thus incapable of appreciating his cooking, she was watching him over the holo-call station they set up in Angela’s kitchen.

“Do I always do what?” he asked, flipping a pancake. It was perfectly golden brown.

“Whistle when you work.”

He grunted.

“It’s an old habit of mine. I’m sorry, is it distracting?”

He saw her shake her head, a blur of pixels in the air.

“Nah. Shows how old you are though, the stuff you whistle.”

A few minutes later she laughed at him as he twirled silverware around his fingers, danced around the kitchen and whistled ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’. Little did she know, this song used to be the original Overwatch’s battle rally. In a way it was strangely fitting. They had a lot of work ahead of them. But Jack felt good – weirdly good, considering that not even twenty-four hours ago, Gabriel melted away under his hands. But not all was lost.

Angela came shuffling downstairs, rubbing her eyes. She stayed up late, probably only having slept two or three hours, studying a blood sample she took prior to the … unsuccessful resurrection she performed on Gabriel.

“This smells amazing,” she sighed, looking at the spread of food in front of her.

“I hope it tastes good too.”

They ate in silence, as even Sombra got herself a sandwich in the way of a late night snack on Jack’s and Angela’s insistence. To fill at least some of the silence, and to allow Angela to wake up properly, Jack turned on the little, retro-design radio sitting on the counter. As it was tuned to a Swiss radio station, Jack let the moderator’s words blend into the background as white noise. He enjoyed the man’s pleasant voice filtering through the kitchen. At least he did, until he noticed Angela sitting rigidly in her seat, eyes wide, cheeks pale.

“Angela?” he asked.

“Shh …” She pointed at the radio.

It was then that Jack caught a few words, and realized the man was talking about Zürich and Overwatch. As if cold water had been poured down his back, he also came to the realization that he hadn’t spared one single thought to the devastated HQ since he vacated the ruin’s premises nearly a week ago. Did they report more casualties since? Did the investigation still point at Gabriel as the perpetrator? What of their friends? Though he confirmed they all made it out alive, they had to be in shock. And what of Overwatch’s future?

“I completely forgot,” Jack said numbly as soon as the station switched to playing music.

Angela looked at him with a sharp gaze – all traces of sleepiness had vanished, and she was every part the smart, no-nonsense woman he knew.

“They are discussing the disbandment of Overwatch. Director Petras is giving a press conference tomorrow, and they are saying that … Well. The world thinks it doesn’t need Overwatch anymore. That we have done more harm than good.”

Jack snorted.

“Petras? He’s just a puppet. Ólafsdóttir is the one pulling his strings. Well, she and others I don’t know about.”

Angela blanched.

“Ólafsdóttir? I thought she was just a regular UN Secretary.”

“No. Yes. I mean, that’s her position within the Overwatch branch of the UN, sure. But she has strong ties to Talon.”

“My God. I discussed projects with her aides – Iceland is very advanced in bionanotechnology. We were- … I mean, I thought- …” Angela sighed sharply and pinched the bridge of her nose. “It doesn’t matter. If Overwatch gets disbanded … Jack, what will happen with our people?”

“I don’t know. I’m not Strike Commander anymore.”

She gave him a look.

“Maybe not, but don’t tell me you don’t care about the fruit of decades of your labor.”

“I don’t. Or did you really not draw the conclusion that Sombra is the Sombra, responsible for the leak revealing all of Overwatch’s dirty laundry to the public?” Jack said wryly.

“Fair point. But you can’t agree with all the haters, protesters and opponents out there that say Overwatch did more harm than good? Just look at what we achieved! All the relief aid, all the conflicts nipped in the bud, all the lives saved. Omnic rights activism, even! It can’t all have been bad?”

“No. But enough of it has been soured. Overwatch’s influence got abused by the greedy and the powerful for their own ends.” Jack shook his head. “In the beginning I might have placated myself by saying that, even if some rich guy made profit off of it, as long as we were saving lives it didn’t matter. But it does. And it can’t be done by such a big, public, vulnerable organization. I don’t know if it can be done at all.”

Sobered, Angela leaned back in her chair.

“What about the people that depend on Overwatch? And I’m not even talking about the sick and poor out there we are- … were helping. What about my research? What about Torbjörn? Reinhardt? Lena? Winston?”

“Rein and Torb should be grateful to get to retire like this. At the peak of their achievements. As for you, I’m sure you will find a way to continue helping people. And Lena- …” He paused, averting his gaze. Lena was not easily dismissed, and neither was Winston. Both of them, in a way, were out of place. Or out of time, in Lena’s case. Could they exist in a world without Overwatch?

“I can’t disagree with you. But I also wish you’d see how truly important Overwatch still is. I see you are disillusioned by … setbacks. It’s just the reality of things, and I am aware that not everything is as bright and hopeful.” Angela sighed. “I will keep an eye on everyone, like I always have. Our friends’ health and safety is my primary concern, and it will remain so, even if I do have to move on eventually. For now though …”

“Let’s maybe concentrate on the task at hand, why don’t we?” Sombra suddenly cut in.

Both Angela and Jack jumped a little. It seemed like he wasn’t the only one who forgot the young hacker’s digital presence.

“So the blood sample … it turned to smoke just like Gabriel?” Sombra asked.

Angela cleared her throat.

“Yes, indeed. Even though I took it before the procedure, it underwent the same physiological changes as Gabriel.”

“And from the readings you sent me, it is transmitting some sort of signal. Who to, though, and why, and how?”

“That’s what we need to find out.”

“Can we use the sample to find Gabriel?” Jack butted in.

“Maybe. If we can amplify the signal, if it connects to Gabriel, if, if, if.” Sombra sighed.

Jack shoved half a pancake drizzled in maple syrup into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. The women, meanwhile, were discussing things that went over head – things like neurotransmitters, biocharges, some ‘normalized difference index’, and the capabilities of the processor Jack had bought Sombra last night. His own thoughts were simpler, less practical, but guided by instinct.

He recalled the sensation of Gabriel’s body painfully dissolving under his hands, the look in Gabriel’s eyes as it happened. Despite the suppressants he’d been on, because of the emotional stress that sent his heat spiraling, he could remember it as crisply as if it were happening right in that moment. It had been agonizing. Involuntary. Destructive, but coordinated. Almost … deliberate. Organized. Controlled, in a way that almost seemed subconscious.

“What if we let it loose?” he asked.

Both women fell silent, and he realized he’d interrupted quite the heated discussion.

“How do you mean?” Angela asked first.

“I mean, there seemed to be a systematic pattern to … whatever your experiment turned Gabriel into.” Jack saw Angela wince and underlay his next words with a purr. “I just mean that they are bionanites. They are programmed to repair the body. What if the sample you took is still following its programming?”

Sombra laughed after a moment.

“See, old man, I knew there was a brain in that white-man’s head still. It’s genius. Right now the sample isn’t transmitting much more than its base code. It’s dormant. But if we let it free … it might lead us right to the rest of its colony.”

Angela rubbed her eyes.

“Could it really be this easy?” she mumbled. “If it doesn’t work we might lose our only lead. The question is whether or not we think it is work the risk.”

“That’s not a problem, actually. If I can … record the signal once the sample is released, I will be able to trace it back to the source,” Sombra said. “So I’m in. For. Whatever. To use the sample. Unless you want to poke at it some more, doc?”

Angela rubbed her face with her hands, looking frail and tired. Her stack of pancakes wasn’t even half eaten. Worried, Jack nudged the plate in her direction, and she gave him a weak smile.

“I think I’ve done enough poking for now,” she whispered.

“So we’re doing this? Hell yeah, operation ‘find the Gabriel cloud’ is a go!” Sombra cheered.

They were a step closer to finding him. Something inside Jack breathed again in relief, after it had spent the time since witnessing Gabriel’s resurrection in hibernation. They had a plan, an idea, even one as simple as this. It felt wrong, somehow, to make decisions like this again, even though Sombra made a vote out of it. It felt too much like balancing life and death on the tip of his tongue, the way he used to when he was Strike Commander. He hated the feeling, the acidic poison of it. Every move he made became the sound of a guillotine, every word he said became a gunshot.

Gabriel’s life depended on it, this time. It never used to, not like this. Sure, he’d sent him to deal with international terrorists, gangs, warlords and tyrants when Gabriel was in charge of Blackwatch. It used to feel like blindly throwing knives in Gabriel’s direction. He might get hit, it might be fatal, but it might as well not be.

This, however. This felt like deciding whether or not to throw the knife that might cut through the noose wrapped around Gabriel’s neck – the knife that also might kill him. And if it missed …

They decided to take a few hours, among other things to allow Angela to get some more rest, and for Sombra to prepare her tech. Jack spent the time sitting in Angela’s basement and impromptu surgical suite, on the bed where Gabriel died and was resurrected. In his hand he held the vial with Gabriel’s blood, dissolved into the faintest haze of smoke.

Where was Gabriel now? Was he afraid? Was he in pain? Was he even aware?

The omega in Jack despaired at the possible answers to these questions. He wanted Gabriel loved and safe, warm and happy. He wanted to see and hear and smell and touch him to make sure he was there and okay. He wanted Gabriel to take refuge in Jack’s presence.

The alpha in Jack wanted to so desperately be wrapped up in Gabriel’s arms again, feel his heartbeat under his cheek, feel the rumble of his voice. He yearned for the distant memory of tangled legs, warm beds, and Gabriel, all to himself.

For once, these instincts did not war with each other. Both came down to the need to find Gabriel and bring him home, for good this time. He didn’t care if Gabriel was some sort of shadowy fog now, he just wanted him back.

He failed too many people already, he couldn’t fail the only person that really counted.

*

In the end, it all turned out to be much simpler than they thought it would be. Jack imagined the process of finding Gabriel’s location to go way over his head. He imagined tons of tech jargon, enigmatic mumbling from Sombra, machinery and screens involved. Even Angela, he thought, expected more than Sombra telling them to pull off the lid of the container where they kept the sample, and to let things unfold.

Jack gripped the vial tighter, watched the thin fog inside curl once more, and then pulled the stopper.

“Did you get it?” he asked after a few seconds.

“No,” was Sombra’s reply. “It hasn’t moved yet.”

“Oh.”

He raised the vial level to his eyes and observed the smoke inside. It continued to lap gently against the glass, occasionally twisting and doing slow somersaults. Nothing had changed.

“Looks like my theory was- …”

“Wait! Don’t move!”

Trained by decades of people shouting things like that at him in life or death situations, Jack immediately froze.

“What is happening?” Angela voiced his thoughts. “Sombra, did you get a reading?”

“Yes. And no. I mean … My systems picked up a signal. But it didn’t come from the sample.”

A second of stunned silence, and then Angela whispered: “Did it somehow ping Gabriel’s location?”

“I think so.”

“So I can move again?” Jack said through gritted teeth.

“Oh. Yes, sure. Sorry.”

Jack sighed, and was in the process of putting the stopper back on the container, when Sombra cried out again.

“What now?” he growled.

“Don’t- … The signal went away when you put the lid on.”

“We can’t leave it out in the open like that,” Angela argued, and stepped to Jack’s side. “It will get contaminated. Or we might lose it. What if we have need of it again?”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Just humor me. Or humor the tiny cloud of bionanites,” Sombra quipped.

“Alright. So what do we do now?”

“I’ll follow the signal,” Jack answered. “Just give me the location, and I’ll investigate. Maybe it’s not where Gabriel is at all. Maybe it’s a trap. Talon has certainly noticed that Gabriel is gone, and we have to be careful.”

Thankfully, it seemed that Gabriel – if it was indeed him – hadn’t gotten too far. He was still in the country, even, namely in a forest only a few hours away. Angela lent Jack her car, with which he drove to the edge of the wooded area.

The sun was setting, which meant that Jack’s window of opportunity was closing swiftly. He had to find Gabriel before nightfall, or his search would end with him stumbling around in the dark. Sombra had given him a very precise GPS location, but he had to be prepared for the possibility that Gabriel had already moved on. It looked like the signal’s position was located off the beaten path, near a rocky outcrop that was overgrown with shrubbery and moss. Jack approached it slowly, carefully, checking his tactical visor’s readings in case this was a trap. But it looked like it was all clear.

“Gabriel?” he dared to call out.

There. A noise, like rustling leaves, but sharper. It looked like there was a small cave hidden beneath the rock, so Jack crept towards it cautiously.

“Gabriel,” he said again. “Are you there? It’s me, Jack.”

The noise came again, but this time it was clear that it wasn’t the rustle of leaves. Jack couldn’t properly identify it, though he saw it as a sign that Gabriel was there and understood him.

“I’m coming closer, okay? I’ll help you get back to the car, so we can return to Angela’s house. She’ll help you get better again.”

There was movement in the cave, undeniably human, though it looked like a shadow shifting in front of darkness. Something felt off, the shape of it, the weight implied by its speed. When a pitch black hand – no, a clawed paw – reached out of the cave, Jack froze in horror.

“Gabe?” he shouted.

“J-j- … aa-ck?”

At the sound of his name, Jack threw all caution to the wind. This was Gabriel. It had to be him, and in whatever state he was in, he needed help.

“Gabe, I’m here. Can you move? Are you alright?”

When he came to kneel right next to the cave’s entrance, Jack was assaulted by the acrid stench of death, sweet and sickly. As he reached out to the darkness, he balanced himself with his left hand, which met something cold, and hard. It was then that he noticed the bones.

“Gabe …” he breathed, terrified.

“Jack …”

Most of the bones were small – mice, birds, perhaps some lizards or amphibians. They were picked clean, like they’d been there a while. There were others, too. A cat skull. Vertebrae big enough to belong to a deer. Dog, or perhaps fox teeth. Stark white upon the soft, fertile earth covering the ground.

“Gabe,” Jack said again, and forced himself not to recoil when something cool touched his fingers.

“J- … Jack. I c-ca- … can’t …”

It was Gabriel’s hand that clutched his, suddenly warm and alive. But then the cave reverberated with an ear-ringing roar, and the hand dissolved into mist.

I can’t,” Gabriel hissed, withdrawing.

“Please, Gabe, let me help you!” Jack shouted desperately, surging forward, after the brief contact, chasing it. But then a hot weight barreled into him, pushing him back and out of the cave again. All the air left his lungs as he landed heavily on his back. He only managed to see a sliver of smoke out of the corner of his eye, retreating swiftly into the cave. Then, he heard Gabriel’s growl.

“No, no, n- … Nngh …”

As Jack knelt on the ground, he watched a hand, a claw, a tendril of shadow scratch at the earth, and the glint of eyes directed at … a glowing ball resting between a rock and a tree trunk.

“What’s that?”

Curious, Jack crawled closer to it, and only stopped when Gabriel’s growl grew into a roar.

“Okay, okay, I won’t touch it,” Jack reassured him, underlying his voice with a soothing purr. Gabriel’s growl, too, softened into a rumble that harmonized with Jack’s omega signal. Encouraged by this, Jack got an idea.

Gabriel had just undergone a traumatic experience, after weeks of confinement, experimentation and captivity at the hands of Talon. What he needed now was calm. Reassurance. The stability of a bond.

Shifting to lie on his side, turned away from the cave entrance, Jack settled among fallen leaves and branches, resting his head on soft moss. There were still tendrils of his heat coiling through his body, and if he encouraged his instincts, the surrounding greenery made quite a comfortable nest. His purr intensified involuntarily at the thought. A nest. A mate. Gabriel.

He smiled, wiggling happily to accommodate the warmth settling in behind him. The low, rough rumble vibrating against his back was as familiar as the hand that settled hesitantly on Jack’s hip.

“Look who’s the cuddler now,” he mumbled, and turned around.

Gabriel was buck naked, as the day he was born. Jack couldn’t complain about the view. Whatever the smoke and darkness were, it seemed to have abated, leaving behind warm, brown eyes, and a very familiar shape.

“This helps,” Gabriel said, eyes alight with wonder, as he entwined their fingers. Jack met the pressure, drew him closer and wrapped his arms and legs around Gabriel’s form.

“God, Gabe, I’ve missed you so much.”

Gabriel chuckled.

“Seems like we both only realize how much we need each other after the other has had a near death experience.”

Jack tilted his head back and growled.

“Don’t talk like that. You’re here now. Whatever Talon did- …”

His words caused a shudder to ripple through Gabriel’s entire body, and Jack held him fast to communicate to him that he was safe. His nose buried into Gabriel’s curls turned into tongues chasing the salty taste of skin, which turned into teeth testing the curve of a jaw, which turned into mouths clashing in a desperate kiss.

“At first,” Jack panted between kisses, “all I could think about was to kill every last one of them. To tear them to pieces, like seeing you die tore my heart apart. But then … all I could think was that … I need you. And I didn’t tell you- … I didn’t fucking tell you how much I fucking love you.”

“I love you, too,” Gabriel growled, voice muffled, teeth digging almost painfully into the soft flesh of Jack’s neck. “I love you so damn much, when I smelled you- … It was like you completed me, made me conscious again.”

Jack cried out, from the pain of it, from the desperation in the gesture, from the way Gabriel’s hands clutched at his back.

“Come home with me,” he breathed. “Come home with me. We’ll make a real nest. You and me.”

“Home … Where is that?”

“Wherever you want it to be.”

Gabriel stilled, mouth still attached to Jack’s clavicle. He could almost feel him think, feel him reach out.

“Somewhere quiet,” he said after a while. “Somewhere familiar.”

“Okay.” Jack nodded, cradling Gabriel’s head to his chest. “Okay. I think I know a place. But first, we have to let Angela take a look at you.”

*

Jack hovered anxiously, earning many exasperated glares and sighs, but he didn’t care. This was Gabriel she was poking and prodding at. None of these machines, measurements and tests could tell better than what Jack already knew intuitively: he was here, and he was alive. Nothing else was of consequence.

“What about the bones Jack reported?” Angela asked while taking Gabriel’s blood pressure.

“I’m- … It’s embarrassing. I kind of … ate them. The animals, I mean.”

Angela looked up, searching his face.

“Do you have an unusual appetite for meat? Blood?”

“I’m not a damn vampire, doc. I just ate them, alright? I was hungry, and there was nothing else.”

“Alright.” She nodded. “What about the glowing object?”

Jack’s eyes registered Gabriel’s fist tightening. He knew the ball was cradled inside it, out of sight, close by, safe.

“I found it when I- … I must have instinctually returned to the ruins of the HQ. I found it there. It was a gift from Tekhartha Mondatta, the Omnic Shambali monk.”

“Perhaps I should take a scan- …”

“No!”

Jack and Angela both startled at the volume of Gabriel’s voice. Sheepishly, he cleared his throat and continued: “No. It’s just a trinket. It looks nice. Perhaps I instinctively searched for it because it was my focus point during my last rut.”

“Well then. It looks like everything is in order – you’re as healthy as ever.”

“Thanks, doc,” Gabriel said, jumping off the cot. “Now what?”

“Even if you weren’t currently the most wanted man on the face of this planet, I would suggest finding a quiet place to recuperate, away from any stressors and aggressors. Your body and mind have been through tremendous trauma – what you need right now is time. A safe and secure environment.” Angela hesitated, glancing at Jack. “Some company, maybe.”

“We already have a place in mind,” Jack said.

“As long as you can reach me in case of emergency- …”

“Of course.”

Angela sighed, but seemed satisfied with their answers.

“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” she said, and bustled away.

Gabriel quickly redressed himself in a comfortable combination of sweatpants and a too big t-shirt, before pressing his side to Jack’s in an endearing gesture.

“Hey,” Jack muttered, throwing both arms around his- … around Gabriel. “How do you feel?”

Gabriel groaned.

“Not you too. I’m fine. Just tired. I could sleep forever.”

“I’m sure Angela will let us stay for a while if we need to,” Jack suggested.

“No. I’d rather know what kind of shitty hideout you’re going to park us at.”

Jack gasped in mock outrage.

“How dare you call my childhood home a shitty hideout!”

An apologetic rumble rattled through Jack’s bones, and he let Gabriel peck at his mouth for a while.

“Won’t we intrude on your dad?”

“Nah, I called Charlotte, she says it’s fine.” Jack paused for a second, thinking back on his short exchange with his twin. “It might actually do dad some good. Charlotte said he’s been having trouble with remembering stuff. Got upset over mom again.”

“Oh.”

The happy little nibbling gestures stopped, replaced by a warm hand at the small of his back.

“It’s been happening for a while now. It’s why Charlotte moved back in,” Jack admitted.

“I had no idea. I’m so sorry, Jackie.”

He hummed, letting the warmth of his partner settle in his bones. Gabriel was soft and pliant against his side, relaxed and so alive. So present, in every sense of the word. A gift. A miracle.

“I was wondering,” Gabriel mumbled after a while, swaying slightly, “did your family know about … you know. Did you tell them your plan?”

Jack hesitated for a second.

“Yes. Well, I told them to expect a call, and that it wasn’t true. But I didn’t tell them everything, only that I thought it necessary to deal with certain … tensions. Within Overwatch.”

Gabriel chuckled quietly.

“It explains why your dad was so awkward about me crying at your damn funeral.”

Jack stiffened.

“I’m sorry about that. I never meant to cause you pain.”

There was a short silence, the heat from Gabriel’s breath shifting along Jack’s neck to his jaw and ear.

“We did say we’d talk about that later, didn’t we,” Gabriel muttered thoughtfully. “I won’t deny that it hurt. A lot. But perhaps not why you think. Or not the way you think.”

“How, then?”

“Are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes. I need to.”

“Okay.”

Jack braced himself, preparing for the worst. He knew what he’d done to Gabriel, on a logical level. After the fact. But hearing it from the man he loved – hearing how he must have broken his heart and left him alone, in pain. Jack deserved the pain of it.

But then Gabriel gently took his hand, and walked backwards, eyes mellow and warm on him. Confused, still poised, Jack let Gabriel lead him upstairs, out of the operating room in the basement. There were soft noises coming from the kitchen, probably Angela treating herself to some afternoon tea, or listening to the news. For a moment, Jack guiltily thought of the future of Overwatch. Neither he nor Sombra ever imagined something like this to happen, and the fate not only of the organization but of all of Jack’s friends was on the line.

Gabriel gave Jack’s hand a tug, and the serious glint in his eyes told Jack that he knew exactly where his thoughts had strayed.

“Which way to the guest bedroom?”

Jack pointed at one of the doors, and allowed Gabriel to lead him inside.

The bed was made with military precision, with the rest of the room being spotless. All of Jack’s belongings that didn’t stay with his transport fit into a single duffel bag, which leaned against a lone, empty chair. Gabriel hesitated at the foot of the bed for a moment, and then let himself fall onto the mattress.

“I was to one to clear out your personal belongings, you know,” Gabriel started, voice muffled by the duvet. “Not that there was anything left. Did you take everything with you when … when you left?”

Jack uncertainly hovered next to the bed, until Gabriel sighed and pulled him down.

“I took a few clothes, Fareeha’s drawings and the snow globes. Not much else. I guess I didn’t have much in the way of worldly possessions anyway. But it helped that you were all out of the building. You’d all gone ahead to the chalet, remember? I’d booked that chalet. So I- … I planned that. For that to happen.”

They fell into a tired kind of silence, both preoccupied with their own thoughts. Jack purred quietly, to soothe both himself and Gabriel, slotting his chin against the curve of Gabriel’s shoulder, and breathed in his warm, earthy scent.

“I burned my hands, you know.”

“Huh?”

Gabriel wiggled and shifted, until they came to rest face to face. His mouth sloped downwards, upset.

“I tried to pry open the car’s doors. The metal was- … It burned my hands.”

“God, Gabe.”

His purr ground to an abrupt halt, emotions closing up his throat until he thought he couldn’t breathe anymore. Distantly, he felt Gabriel’s hands – those very same hands that burned because Jack thought he knew better – wipe at his cheeks, but behind his closed eyes all Jack could see was the burning wreck of that car. The fire he started, which hurt Gabriel.

After a while he became aware of the fact that Gabriel was speaking. Muttering, slowly, breath tickling against Jack’s scalp.

“Your funeral was nice though. No. The Arlington one was horrible, actually. I hated it. Nearly cried when I presented the flag to your dad.”

Jack winced.

“He told me about that. And that you did actually cry at the service in Bloomington.”

“Yeah. That happened.”

“I did that. I did all of that.” Jack sniffed, and embarrassedly rubbed at his eyes. “Do you think- … I’ve been wondering. Whether Ana would still be alive. If Gérard and Amélie- …”

He felt Gabriel stiffen.

“Gabe?”

A few labored breaths. And then: “Amélie … isn’t dead.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“She is with Talon now. She’s the one who brought me to them.”

“Jesus Christ. How?”

“Brainwashing, I suppose. But …” Gabriel sighed deeply. “I don’t know if it would have changed anything. You staying, I mean. You might not have aggravated Ólafsdóttir as much as me, which could have bought us some time. But eventually? Talon always had plans to destroy Overwatch, or they wouldn’t have had these strategies in place.”

“So I’m not the one to singlehandedly destroy the biggest and most successful peacekeeping organization in human history, along with the lives of all of our friends?” Jack chuckled humorlessly.

“No. We were compromised a long time ago.”

Relieved, Jack nosed at Gabriel’s shoulder.

“But Jack?”

“Hmm?”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell anyone? Ana, or Winston, or Angela, or- … Why take such drastic measures?”

This was the question that Jack had dreaded most. He’d feared hearing about the pain he’d caused Gabriel, and he knew he deserved the bottomless guilt, and the sorrow. Because there was one very simple reason why he’d kept silent, taken the easy way out. The way that hurt others more than him.

“Because I’m a coward,” he admitted quietly.

Gabriel’s arms tightened around him.

“Jackie, that’s not true. I’ve seen you face half a dozen Bastions with nothing but your stupid pulse rifle and strong determination. I’ve seen you take responsibility for the failure of others in front of the entire world. You’re not a goddamn coward.”

“But I am.”

“No you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“You’re not.”

“No, I’m not not- … I’m n- … Gabe!”

He gave Gabriel an indignant punch to the chest for that, but he didn’t hit hard. They were both laughing, after all.

“Seriously,” Jack said after a while. “I left because I was afraid. I didn’t tell you because I was frightened out of my mind – that something would happen to you, that you wouldn’t believe me, that it would make things between us worse. I was scared to do something, anything. It paralyzed me for so long. When I came up with my plan, I thought … I don’t know what I thought. Nothing, probably.”

“I think that you were in a really bad place, and you thought that you were alone. I felt some of that after Ólafsdóttir threatened me and my family. And after years of that treatment? I don’t know, Jackie, I think you did the best you could. Maybe you didn’t do great, but- … I’m just happy that we’re here now. Together. You and me,” Gabriel said, rubbing his strong, broad hands along Jack’s spine.

“You and me,” Jack repeated, combining their voices into a smooth rumble vibrating between their bodies. It felt good to rebuild their shared connection, the solid, dependable focus bond they used to have. A united force, stronger together.

Though Jack’s primary dynamic was alpha, he had seen it as necessary and desirable to hone his omega instincts when he was very young. Growing up in a family of alphas and betas, his omega nature was what was lacking in order to achieve true social balance. He’d often purred his sister to sleep when she got bullied in school, and smoothed over the bonds of everyone in their little family so they became even tighter knit.

The first time he felt that the alpha side of his designation was just as if not more useful was with Gabriel. They made each other stronger though their focus bond, braving the challenges of the SEP thought their close connection. With the rest of their unit, mainly alphas and betas or switches, with only few omegas, Jack again felt that his other side was needed the most. In that way, Gabriel had always been special to Jack. With him, he didn’t have to be a switch. Didn’t have to choose. He could be both, at the same time.

“Does this mean we’re fine?” Jack muttered, blinking. Gabriel, too, rubbed at his eyes. It seemed like their intense focus made them forget about important bodily functions, like blinking.

“Of course, Jackie,” Gabriel rumbled. “We’ve always been fine.”

“But we haven’t. Have we? Not always.”

“Just because we’ve gotten out of touch with each other, lost sight of what we wanted, and were too afraid to talk about our feelings, doesn’t mean we weren’t alright. That we can’t be fine now.”

Jack sighed.

“So you forgive me?”

“Jackie! Of course I do.”

“Because,” Jack blurted out, “all I want is for you to be safe and happy. Are you happy?”

Gabriel was silent for a while, but Jack made himself wait patiently.

“I’m always happy with you,” Gabriel whispered then.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but … for what it’s worth? I’m happy too,” Jack admitted quietly.

They lay there for a while, basking in each other’s warmth and presence. Separated for so long, pining and dreaming, they deserved a few minutes of rest.

“There is only one more thing,” Gabriel finally broke the silence.

“Anything, Gabe.”

“Before you whisk me away to your family home,” he said, “I’d like us to visit mine first.”

*

Jack was notoriously bad with babies. Perhaps it was for the same reason he was great with horses, dogs and cats, while he was great with adults, cows and chickens. Because babies, just like horses, smelled bullshit from a mile away. And as much as Jack pretended he knew how to handle them, fooling all the cameras and people watching him smile without noticing the strain in it, he was completely helpless. They were like sharks tasting blood in the water. Like horses went crazy if their rider was nervous. Without fail, every time someone handed Jack a baby, it started crying.

This was no different with sweet, sweet Ángel Aguilar, Gabriel’s one year old nephew.

“Oh heavens,” Isabel, the child’s mother and older sister to Gabriel, gasped in surprise, wrangling the screaming infant back into her own arms. “I’m so sorry, Jack, he doesn’t usually do … that.”

“It’s okay,” he sighed in defeat. “It’s not the first time it’s happened.”

She quirked a skeptical eyebrow, scanning him from head to toe as if there were something visibly wrong with him that automatically repelled any baby within a foot’s distance of him.

“The diaper curse?” Gabriel asked, poking his head in from the direction of the living room, where he and Isabel’s husband Ernesto had been chatting for the last little while. The entirety of the expanded Reyes-Aguilar family had taken both Jack’s resurrection and the fact that Gabriel was an innocent fugitive completely in stride, welcoming them both into their homes without question. Well, of course they would welcome Gabriel, the prodigy son. But Jack?

“Yeah. The diaper curse.”

Gabriel grinned at him, body fully emerging from the doorway. He held out a bottle of beer to Jack.

“Here, this might suit you better than this little pants pooper here.”

Jack watched with half a smile as Gabriel swooped his nephew out of his sister’s arms, swinging him with loud airplane noises through the air. He looked so relaxed, not only in Isabel’s home, but belonging to a family, holding a child. It was an old ache, an echo of the days before Jack couldn’t imagine anything else but a gun in the holster at his hip and scars splattered across his skin. Before war became the air he breathed. Sometimes he still couldn’t help dreaming about a sun-warmed porch, and a warm presence by his side to enjoy a morning coffee with. But moments like this, Gabriel nuzzling Ángel’s cheek as they playfully growled at each other, they were stolen. And yet Jack couldn’t help his answering purr.

It was only when he realized that four pairs of eyes were on him that he fell silent. Because Ángel was reaching out to him with tiny, chubby fingers.

“Uh, me?” Jack stammered, pointing at himself with the neck of the beer bottle still full in his hand.

Gabriel’s smile was in equal parts devious and hopeful when he inched closer, closer still, until Ángel was wedged safely between their chests. Two sets of dark brown eyes were trained on Jack, two growls, one mighty and imposing, the other inexperienced and stuttering. Touched, Jack responded with a fluctuation between a growl and a purr, careful to keep the sound contained in the space created by his and Gabriel’s arms. Both Gabriel and Ángel quieted, as if mesmerized. Settling. Calm and content.

Usually, he didn’t like doing this. Using his dual voice felt like manipulating the minds of those who could hear him. It was like an instinctual off switch. Like a mother cat lifting her cub by the neck, causing it to go limp. Like hitting the right nerve, killing the entire limb. Jack only used it a few times, and half of the time it had been unconscious. But like this? Gabriel was showing Jack that he trusted him unconditionally. That he not only trusted him with his own life, but his nephew’s as well. In modern human terms, Isabel and Ernesto were Ángel’s parents, his custodians. Gabriel was his uncle. Jack was no one. But in terms of the dynamics, Gabriel was the dominant alpha of the unit, and him offering what amounted to his heir to Jack was a gesture made meaningful through its simplicity. It invited him into their family unit, beyond blood.

They were right to come here, Jack thought, as he rested his forehead against Gabriel’s. He suspected that Gabriel felt that Jack needed this, even more than he himself wanted to see his family. Because it had been years … decades, nearly, since Jack had been part of a healthy, stable, balanced unit. Not since his mother’s death.

Before going to the house that was now a testament of the fractured Morrison family, Gabriel was kind enough to offer Jack the respite of his own family. And no matter what else happened, Jack was never going to forget this.

Gabriel’s younger sister Paquita and the Reyes siblings’ parents joined them all for a celebratory dinner – but before eating, Gabriel’s mother said grace, thanking the Lord for returning her son and his partner to them. Or so Gabriel later translated to Jack. They both had stuffed their faces until their bellies were round and taut with food and drink and laughter.

“Partner?” Jack echoed, drunk on the happiness coursing through his veins.

Gabriel’s eyes were very gentle when he smiled and took Jack’s hand.

“Yeah. Does that bother you?”

“W-what, no. Not at all. I’m, uh, not bothered at all. By that.”

In response, Gabriel laughed, nearly doubling over.

“How anyone ever thought you were suave I will never understand,” he giggled, affectionately rubbing his chin against Jack’s jaw when he saw his scowl.

“I’m very suave, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh, I’m not so sure. Show me?”

As hastily as they wished to depart to expressly demonstrate their eloquence and sophistication to each other, there were Reyeses to please with promises of future visits, cheek kisses, strong handshakes, very long hugs, and shovel talks. Jack let it all happen to him with good will, something he saw Gabriel appreciated strongly when they finally were able to extract themselves from the friendly words and loving hands trying to ensnare them. Gabriel showed his appreciation very directly indeed.

“Whisk me away, oh shining knight in white armor,” he whispered in Jack’s ear as they reached their camouflaged transport.

“Isn’t it, ‘knight in shining armor’, darlin’?” Jack snorted.

“Whatever. Save me.”

They laughed in unison as Gabriel affected a dramatic swoon with such enthusiasm he actually would have hit his head on the pavement, had Jack not saved him with a perfect Tango dip.

“You can pull me up any second now, you know,” Gabriel snarked.

“Maybe I like you here, right where you are. In my arms,” Jack retorted with a growl, and kissed him.

“Mmh,” Gabriel hummed in between kisses, “perks of having a supersoldier boyfriend.”

“As your partner I feel intensely jealous of this boyfriend of yours. Who is he again?”

With a playful frown, Gabriel smacked him upon the head.

“Pull me up, idiot, my leg is starting to cramp. And you’re whatever I want you to be, alright? You’ve already died on me once. Boyfriend, partner, it doesn’t matter.”

“Fair enough.”

Properly chastised, Jack gentlemanly helped his partner-boyfriend-lover climb into the narrow loading bay of the jet before squeezing past him into the cockpit. The flight from LA to the farmhouse near Bloomington, Indiana, was only going to take roughly an hour, so they should make it before bedtime. Though judging by the sounds from the loading bay, someone was already tired and should be tucked in.

After inputting the coordinates and completing the starting sequence, Jack turned around in his seat and fondly watched Gabriel trying to settle on the narrow little cot.

“Have you really- …” Gabriel interrupted himself with a yawn. “Really been sleeping on this thing for the last year?”

But Jack couldn’t bring it over himself to reply, noticing the steady rise and fall of Gabriel’s chest. Smiling, he watched the motion for the next hour, until the board computer told him that the aircraft was beginning the landing sequence.

There had never been a more peaceful sight.

Chapter Text

Jack stood on the mattress of his bed, only clad in his boxers and a t-shirt, his pulse pistol in hand. For half a second he was confused as to how he got here, but then he heard his father’s muffled voice shouting downstairs and remembered: he’d been asleep. This was his childhood bedroom.

“Gabe?” he asked the darkness of his room, but by the way the bed tilted under his weight he already knew his lover wasn’t here.

Wary, he opened the door to his bedroom, only to nearly bump into Charlotte.

“Hey, what’s going on?” he asked her.

She scanned him from head to toe, an eyebrow rising at the sight of the pulse pistol in her brother’s hand, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. Then she shrugged, causing the morning robe she must have thrown on hastily to slip off her shoulder.

“Dad’s having an episode, probably. I don’t know. Let’s check.”

Jack cursed under his breath, secured his pistol and went ahead downstairs, his sister’s footsteps following closely.

“Dad?”

His father’s voice had gotten even quieter from distance. He wasn’t in the kitchen or the living room, and the front door was open. Gabriel was also nowhere to be seen.

“Oh shit, he got out,” Charlotte sighed. “He’s probably in the barn.”

The shouting did indeed come from the barn, accompanied by the panicked lowing of cows and the barking of several dogs – Charlotte’s pack of rescues. From what Jack could make out, his father was mostly swearing intelligibly, and he wasn’t overly worried, until he heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun going off.

“Get outta here, fuck off!”

That had Jack launching into a sprint. If the situation weren’t so dire, he’d be laughing at his father’s language. He burst into the barn, nearly tripping over the German Shepherds trying to go the other way, streaming outside and into the arms of their mistress.

“Dad?” Jack shouted.

“Step back, boy, let me shoot it, it’s gotten to the cattle! Let me get another look at ya, bastard, I dare you,” Jack’s father roared, nearly wedged between the panicked cows trying to get away.

“Dad, you’ll get trampled, just let that fox or whatever it is be.”

“No, son, it was black, and it was huge, like a bear or something.”

“Even more reason to get the fuck out of here, come on, dad!”

Enough was enough. Jack grabbed his father, disarming him with deft hands, and dragged them both out of the barn and into the night air. Throwing open the barn doors he let out the panicked animals, confident they’d find them and herd them back later.

“Are you alright?” Charlotte asked, crouching low on the ground and trying to calm down her distressed dogs. Jack brought their father over to her, and told him to sit down.

“We’re alright, I think. Do you have any more ammo?”

His father shook his head.

“Okay,” Jack sighed and weighed the old shotgun in his hands. “I’ll go back in there and see what all that fuss was about. I should be able to deal with even a damn bear.”

“Be careful,” he head Charlotte shout after him, and he gave her a thumbs up.

Inside the barn it was eerily quiet, now that all the cattle had gotten out. Usually, even at night, it was filled with the noise of cows shifting in the hay, munching, slurping down water and knocking against the stalls. Now there was only Jack’s breath, and the near silent fall of his bare feet. Into the silence, he cocked the shotgun.

“Alright, come out,” he growled.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow shift, dark as night, sharp against the stream of electrical light coming from the ceiling. There was an answering growl, so it wasn’t a fox, and it didn’t sound like a dog or a coyote or a bear either. This sounded like the kind of growl you heard in movies, in your feverish nightmares. The culmination of danger and aggression.

Jack felt himself slip into his Ifrit persona alongside with the familiar feeling of his enhancements kicking in. He needed to be sharp and decisive. Concentrated. Whatever this was, it made the hairs on his arms stand on end.

The growl came again, further away, even as Jack advanced along the stalls where the cattle usually fed. It seemed to have retreated to the other side of the barn. Apparently it was smart enough to fear Jack, and the shotgun in his hands.

“I don’t want to hurt you. If you just leave the way you came we can forget about this,” he said calmly. Whatever had gotten to the cows probably didn’t understand his words, but tone of voice was still very important when dealing with wild things.

The noises coming from the poor creature had become less threatening and more pitiful instead. Jack assumed it had only growled at him before to chase him away. Wild things always were more afraid of humans than the other way around, and he didn’t have the heart to shoot a confused … cougar? Or maybe something escaped from the zoo …

He was approaching the end of the barn, seeing a large, hulking shadow wedged into the corner, so dark that it almost seemed to suck the light away. Its feet rustled in the hay, and it rumbled pathetically, shifting, pressing itself against the wall as if trying to hide. Jack was thinking of the best way to chase it out the door, when he spotted something, not too far away from the shadowy corner, but clearly in the light.

A small, metallic orb. Just like the little ball Gabriel- …

“Shit,” Jack hissed. “Gabe? Gabe, are you in here? Are you hurt?”

The lights overhead flickered, drawing more darkness into the corner as the bulbs strained to provide the barn with light. Jack tightened his grip on the shotgun and advanced, unheeding of the panicked screeching coming from the shadow as he stepped over the gift Gabriel had received from Tekhartha Mondatta. He was just about to raise the gun and shoot the wall to startle the creature into fleeing, when he saw a hand reach out of the shadowy corner and into the light.

He remembered a claw reaching out to him in the Swiss forest where he found Gabriel. The animal bones strewn across the cave floor.

He lowered the shotgun, and knelt on the ground.

“It’s okay, Gabe,” he whispered, staring into the darkness as he felt around in the hay. There, the Omnic orb. He gripped it tightly, and then held it out, displayed in his open palm. “Is this what you need? Did you drop it? It’s okay, you can come and take it back.”

Gabriel started to move slowly, crawling laboriously along the ground with too many, and then too few limbs. A yellow eye blinked at Jack, before half a dozen red orbs lit up, only to be replaced by a sharp-toothed maw.

“That’s it, you’re doing great,” Jack encouraged him.

Shuddering, as if shaking off an old weight, Gabriel surged forward, taking a sharper form. His clawed hand connected with Jack’s clumsily, fluctuating between a healthy brown and the unnatural black of the cloud surrounding him – sloughing off of him. His face was the most solid, but along his spine the smoke rose like dark fire, and his legs were still emerged in the stuff.

“S-sor-rry,” he stammered, teeth clattering. His fingers snaked around the orb, tangling with Jack’s.

“What happened?”

“N-nhh- … Nightmare.”

Throwing aside all caution, Jack drew Gabriel’s form in, hugging him tightly. For half a second his skin crawled at the feeling of buzzing smoke under his hands, but then it solidified into the body that Jack knew like the back of his hand. Every scar, every muscle and curve accounted for.

“Angela should have warned us about this,” he growled.

“I don’t think she knew.”

“So we should just let it happen again whenever you get upset?”

Gabriel withdrew slightly, letting Jack see his bared teeth.

“I wasn’t- … The nightmare wasn’t so bad. But I woke up and I … I couldn’t remember where I was. I looked at you, saw you lying next to me, but it felt as if you- …” He groaned in frustration. “I can’t explain it. It felt as if I weren’t myself in that moment. I lost control, and I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“So you decided to hide out in the cow barn?”

“No. I went downstairs, tried to get out. But something startled me. The next thing I know is – you. Here. Reaching out to me.”

Jack hummed.

“My dad tried to shoot you. Thought you were trying to eat our cattle.”

A strange look flitted across Gabriel’s face, and Jack grasped him tighter in concern.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.”

Unimpressed, Jack raised an eyebrow at him.

“Okay, alright,” Gabriel relented. “I’m just hungry.”

“Well, as long as you don’t actually start nibbling on my dad’s cows, I think it’s fine. But we have to find out more about what’s happening to you. You were in a similar state when I found you in the woods, making this is the second time it’s happened.”

“I know. It won’t happen again.”

“You can’t know that,” Jack chided.

Gabriel sighed, as if in defeat. So they sat there, in the hay, in the empty cow barn, until Jack got reasonably annoyed at Gabriel’s lack off attire.

“You’ll get hay in unexpected and unwanted places if we stay much longer,” he groused, pulling him onto his feet. “Come on, let’s go the long way around. I can explain to my dad and Charlotte what happened later.”

“What exactly will you say?” Gabriel asked. Jack could tell he was trying to sound nonchalant, but in truth he was anxious. Embarrassed? Worried?

“Did you know,” Jack said lightly, “nearly 70% of the soldiers that fought during the Omnic Crisis and survived it suffer from nightmares and PTSD to this day.”

Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Gabriel grimace, and then nod. It’s not like it was wrong. They both still dreamed of the Crisis, and though they learned how to handle them, flashbacks were still disruptive. It was a plausible explanation. Jack’s family didn’t have to know that Gabriel had been resurrected by experimental technology that may or may not have turned him into something as of yet unknown, causing him to have blackouts and strange cravings, alongside a body that could dissolve into thick, black smoke.

Jack herded Gabriel into the house through the back door, sneaking him upstairs like a forbidden teenage lover. When he told him the thought in the security of Jack’s bedroom, they laughed. But before Jack went back downstairs to talk to his sister and father, he fussed around, making sure Gabriel was well-tucked in, warm and comfortable. He rubbed his cheek against Gabe’s chuckling when he protested at the prickly feeling of his beard and muttered “fuck off, Jackie”.

“I should make a proper nest,” Jack muttered under his breath, too distracted by the thought to bring a glass of water in case either of them got thirsty during the night to notice Gabriel freezing under his ministrations.

“A nest?”

Jack paused, trying to decipher Gabriel’s tone.

“I’m being too forward, aren’t I.”

“No, no. It’s just- …”

“It’s okay. We don’t have to have one.”

Gabriel sighed and sat upright, kicking off the covers Jack had so carefully tucked in around him, earning a slap to the thigh that he took without flinching.

“I didn’t think you were the type to, you know, settle down like that,” he admitted quietly.

Jack raised his eyebrows at him and daringly nuzzled close, purring as loudly as he could. The gesture made Gabriel laugh again, probably because the vibrations tickled.

“Fool,” Jack mumbled into Gabriel’s warm skin, nipping at the broad shoulders, neck and bearded chin with his teeth. “I just want to keep you safe. You’ve been resurrected, for God’s sake. Allow me to be a bit overprotective.”

Gabriel grumbled, relenting, but pushed Jack away.

“Your dad and sister are waiting.”

With a quick kiss, Jack deftly disentangled himself, grabbed his father’s shotgun, and rushed out the door and down the stairs with a lightness in his heart. Once he saw Charlotte and his father sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by his sister’s dogs, he sobered a little.

“Hey, guys, relax,” he said.

“Thank God you’re okay,” Charlotte sighed, drawing him into a quick hug. “We already herded the cows back inside when we saw you weren’t there anymore. Thanks to these boys here it was quick work.”

Jack chuckled, scratching one of the dogs that had come close to sniff at his hand behind the ears.

“Good boy.”

“So what was it that spooked the animals? It looked huge,” Jack’s father asked.

“Nothing. I mean, it wasn’t an animal. Gabe- … He had a nightmare. Woke up disoriented. When you went after him with the shotgun, he spooked and fled into the barn.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Charlotte sat down hard. “Dad, you could’ve killed him!”

Their father stared at Jack, frowning.

“Don’t you think your old man would’ve recognized a human being? There was something in there, I tell ya.”

“Well, if there was, I didn’t see it,” Jack retorted, perhaps a bit too snappishly. His father’s eyes narrowed, but he thankfully didn’t say anything. “I’ll just get a glass of water and go to bed. You should sleep too.”

“Of course.”

“Tell me if the two of you need anything,” Charlotte offered.

“Thanks, sis, we’re alright.”

Gabriel already seemed to be asleep when Jack got upstairs. He carefully climbed into bed behind him, leaving the glass of water on the bedside table. Just when he had calmed his breathing and felt himself falling asleep, Gabriel spoke, voice quiet.

“What do we do when it happens again?”

Jack stilled, blinking in the darkness. The wide expanse of Gabriel’s back was a broad, pitch black shape in front of him, and he reached out to press a steadying hand against it. When, he said. Not if.

“We’ll burn that bridge when we cross it,” Jack whispered, trying to sound as unconcerned as possible. The muscles under his palm didn’t relax.

After a few more moments of tense silence, Jack decided he had enough. Kicking off the covers, he stumbled to his wardrobe, blindly pulling at the contents of the uppermost shelf. Since he wasn’t careful enough, he got nearly buried under what felt like a metric ton of pillows, duvets, blankets and comforters.

“Jackie?”

“Oof.”

Jack bundled up as much of the fluffy softness in his arms as he could, and transferred it to the bed, where he proceeded to dump it all on top of Gabriel’s still prone form.

“What- …?”

“Hush. Don’t move.”

There used to be classes for kids; alphas, betas, omegas, switches. How to properly utilize their strengths and abilities. How to recognize situations where it was appropriate or needed to use them, and circumstances where it was unfitting. Most schools in the US used to offer these classes for free – as far as Jack knew they didn’t anymore – and Jack distinctly remembered hating ‘switch school’ because it mostly catered to A/B or B/O switches. A/O switches like him were just too rare. So his parents sent him to alpha classes with his sibling, but he hated that too, because all the other alphas wanted to practice alpha-omega bonding with him instead of utilizing their focus. He begged his parents to let him try omega classes, until they relented.

Maybe it was the lazy teenager in him, but he loved the activities, the instructors, and the other kids. None of them pushed him into showing them his switch abilities. There were a lot of puppy piles and purring, taking care of each other’s needs and comfort. He was taught how to soothe pain with only his voice. He learned how to properly braid long hair – something Charlotte loved him for immensely for the duration of their teenage years – and how to cook comfort food and wholesome meals.

He also learned how to make a nest.

His hands still remembered how to properly twist and fold a blanket for maximum stability and softness; remembered it the same way they knew how to take apart his heavy pulse rifle and put it back together. The only difference was that making a nest required just about the same amount of overwhelming love and care as baking apple pie did, while disassembling a gun purely ran on automated movement.

He merged all the softness and fluffiness around Gabriel’s form, leaving enough space for him to move, and for Jack to join if he so chose. He accompanied every fold and stroke with purrs and rubs against Gabriel’s skin to merge their bodies’ scents into one. A perfect cocoon of warmth and comfort. A shield against the world, and all the pain and suffering. Inside this nest, Jack would make sure it was all going to be perfectly alright.

Crawling inside, body fitting seamlessly against Gabriel, Jack finally believed that he’d reached heaven on earth.

*

They were having brunch on the patio, when one of the neighbors came by. Charlotte quietly told them to let her handle it, lest John – who had been calling her Charles all morning and making comments about wanting to talk to his wife – say something inappropriate. Jack grabbed a jug of lemonade and a plate stacked high with pancakes, and gestured at Gabriel to follow him inside.

“Why are you hiding me away?” he asked, once they were seated at the kitchen table.

“In case you don’t remember, we are supposed to be here incognito. I’m still supposed to be dead, and you are an internationally wanted criminal.”

Gabriel frowned at his plate.

“But … doesn’t the community here love you? I thought you were their local hero or something. Wouldn’t they keep your secret?”

Jack laughed.

“Oh man, you don’t know Mrs. Johnson. She will a: believe anything you tell her, and b: pass it along to anyone within a hundred miles. She must have caught a whiff of ‘the Morrisons have guests over’, and decided to come snoop.”

Knowing that Charlotte would handle it, and thus completely unconcerned, Jack continued to eat his breakfast. He brewed himself some more coffee, baked another batch of pancakes for them both – hungry supersoldiers, they needed the calories – and whistled quietly along to the music playing on the holovid. Some new instrumental artist, an Omnic. As he bustled about in the kitchen, two of Charlotte’s dogs came sniffing, looking to cause trouble. He averted their snouts, keeping them from eating anything that wasn’t dog food, and distracted them with belly rubs that turned the German Shepherds into panting puppies.

“Hey.”

Jack looked up, watching his sister collapse on a chair.

“That bad?”

She snorted.

“Mrs. Johnson? Nah. But I had to herd dad upstairs, he was getting … loud. And he still called me by the wrong name.”

“I’m sorry, sis. You could’ve told me, I would have handled it.”

She just shrugged and buried her face in one of her dogs’ neck ruff. Knowing her, Jack let her be, as she would likely stay immersed in her pets for the next hour or so.

A TV droned in the background, and Gabriel was sitting listlessly in front of it. Jack wondered for a moment, thinking that perhaps being cooped up inside all the time wasn’t doing either of them any good. But they were still on the run. Being home, being safe, none of it should make them forget that. Talon was still out there. Jack had stolen Gabriel, and the world thought that he was to blame for the HQ bombing. As far as they knew, the investigation hadn’t yielded any new information. Or Ólafsdóttir was keeping a tight lid on it.

Jack retrieved his phone from his room, and dialed Angela’s number.

“Yes? Is everything alright?”

“Gabriel had a nightmare last night,” Jack said, not wanting to beat around the bush. “He panicked, and went back to the smoke-state we’ve seen after he was revived. Is there anything we can do to prevent that from happening again?”

Angela was quiet for a few moments. Thinking, or adjusting to what Jack said.

“It might be an instability in the nanites. Or they react strongly to mental turmoil by physically mirroring that state. I can’t know for sure. If I may ask, what was the nightmare about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Then my best guess is trying to keep him in a stable an environment as possible.”

“I’ve built us a nest already,” Jack replied. “And he says that my presence helps. Twice now, physical contact made him … shift back.”

“A nest should do it. At least, until things here have calmed down enough for you to return for a checkup. Right now there is … chaos on the streets.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Protests, both pro- and anti-Overwatch. It looks like Petras wants to cut us loose, to minimize the fallout for the UN.” Angela sighed heavily, causing the line to crackle. “Don’t hate me for thinking, sometimes, they should just shut down Overwatch. This waiting and not knowing is far worse.”

“Of course I don’t hate you for thinking that. Remember, I have initiated the fall of Overwatch, knowing it would inevitably end in a forced retirement for most agents, and closure of all our Watchpoints and Ecopoints.”

“I know. Still …”

“Don’t worry yourself too much over this, Angela. Whatever the UN decides to do, you will find a way to continue helping people, and that’s what’s important. That’s what Overwatch was supposed to be about.”

“If you say so.”

Jack closed his eyes. The dejected tone of Angela’s voice pained him, but there was very little he could do. She had to come to the conclusion that the time of heroes was over – that Overwatch had become obsolete – on her own.

They ended the phone call with some pleasantries, both not really putting much effort into them. Neither of them thrived on small talk, but it was just a way to say goodbye without being rude.

“Who was that?”

Jack rolled his eyes, turning around to face Gabriel standing stiffly in the doorway into the living room.

“I know you were able to hear Angela’s voice, so I won’t answer that.”

“Fine. What were you talking about?”

Jack sighed and sat down on the couch, gesturing for Gabriel to join him.

“I asked her what I can do to help you with your nightmares, and to keep your from … going up in smoke again. She said the nest is probably the best thing for now. And no stress,” Jack said, putting extra emphasis on the last part. He didn’t let Gabriel protest as he drew him down, until they both lay flat.

“We are definitely too big for this couch,” Gabriel remarked calmly, digging his chin into Jack’s sternum as he spoke.

“I’m comfy.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

A few seconds passed, and then Jack felt the tension leave Gabriel’s body.

“You’re right, it’s comfy.”

“I’m right more often than you think.”

Gabriel snorted, nuzzling into Jack’s shirt with his nose.

“Asshole.”

“You love it.”

Jack grunted as Gabriel’s weight suddenly lifted off his torso, and blinked up at Gabriel’s serious face.

“What?”

“You know that I love you. Right?”

The question was tacked on, quavering and uncertain. Jack stared at him incredulously, reaching up to tug at Gabriel’s beard and shake him.

“Dude, of course I know. You don’t have to tell me.”

“I do though,” Gabriel protested. “You deserve to be told. I should tell you more. I love you, Jack.”

“Yeah, I love you too.”

Gabriel must have seen something in Jack’s expression, because he dropped a few kisses around Jack’s mouth, rumbling quietly in his throat. The gesture went right to Jack’s core, leaving him helpless and melting into the couch.

“I don’t mean worry you,” Gabriel said between kisses. “I’m just so glad you are here, and that we’re together. Whatever state the world is in right now doesn’t matter, as long as you and me are together.”

Jack grunted.

“I know. It was hard sometimes, you know. Being without you.”

He felt Gabriel nodding.

“Let’s … not do that again.”

“What, faking our deaths and actually dying?”

“That too. But I meant before. I nearly ruined it all by not noticing that Ólafsdóttir had you backed into the corner. I left you alone. And you, too, you just … withdrew.” Gabriel rubbed a thumb against Jack’s cheek until he met his gaze. “You and me are shit on our own, but we can do anything when we are together.”

“Hey, I did well enough solo this last year,” Jack protested weakly.

“You had Sombra’s help,” Gabriel pointed out, the asshole.

Jack laughed, mouth open to shoot back a snappy retort, when he heard something. He poked Gabriel in the side and held a hand to his ear, indicating he should listen.

Usually, he wouldn’t be this paranoid about noises in a farm house with two other people in residence of all places. But something about that sound had triggered his fight or flight response. Just when he was ready to discount it, he heard it again.

Door, he gestured. Gabriel nodded and replied: Understood.

They quickly disentangled themselves from each other, taking cover behind the couch. There was no time to warn Charlotte, who was in the kitchen, or Jack’s father upstairs.

Jack drew his handgun, which Gabriel commented with a raised eyebrow, but unsheathed a hunting knife from his boot himself anyway.

Never unprepared, Jack thought, listening for more signals of the intruders.

They were good. Had Jack not known about their finnicky front door that liked to make a clicking sound even when opened carefully, he would never have heard them coming. Their steps were silent. He had no idea how many of them there were. If they knew they were up against two supersoldiers, there were probably more than ten.

The millisecond Jack saw the tip of a steel-capped boot peek around the corner he lunged at the person’s legs, throwing them to the ground to open the men behind them for Gabriel’s counterattack. The man crumpled under Jack’s weight, landing on his back with a huff, and was easily knocked out by the butt of a pistol to the face. Behind him, Jack could hear strangled cries and the distinct sound of a sharp blade being driven into body armor usually impenetrable to such attacks.

Kneeling on the ground, Jack whirled around and took aim, downing three of the masked assailants with precise shots. Two more were left standing. One of them fell after Gabriel cut the backs of his knees, and Jack followed up with a kick to the head. The last one died with a blade to his throat.

“Was that all of- …”

Before he could finish his sentence, he and Gabriel both spotted a shadow rushing past the living room window. Without question, they separated, Jack running outside, while Gabriel probably jumped after the last guy through the window.

Jack sprinted to the corner of the house, hoping to catch him there, but the guy was infinitesimally smarter than that, having already crossed the lawn and heading for the fields.

“I have a clean shot,” Jack called out, taking aim. His first shot missed, and the second hit the grass. The next one got him in the thigh, just as Gabriel caught up to the attacker.

“Motherfucker,” Jack heard him say, right after knocking him out. “Talon found us.”

“It was to be expected. I thought we’d have more time, but …”

Gabriel nodded, looking troubled. Jack put a careful hand on Gabriel’s shoulder.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel sighed. “It’s just … he said something, and it reminded me of …”

“Of what?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“Never mind. We should go back inside. I’m sure your family wants to know what happened.”

Six dogs and a sister were standing over the dead and unconscious, probably dying, Talon agents sent after Gabriel. They were clogging up the hallway and half of the living room, and stained the carpet with their blood. Charlotte sighed and nudged one with her sock-clad toe.

“I guess I should be grateful they didn’t shoot up the place first.”

Jack opened his mouth to apologize and explain, when he was suddenly pressed against the wall by a heavy weight.

“Jesus, Gabe?”

“Nngh- … J- …”

He grappled until he found some purchase, managing to hook his arms under Gabriel’s armpits to keep him from falling any further. With a grunt he lifted him up, cringing at the feeling of his half-dissolving legs. Smoke clung to him, slippery like oil, dry as sand. Gabriel coughed, releasing a burst of black vapor into the air.

“Holy shit,” Charlotte gasped. “What is happening to him?”

“It’s alright, he just needs some rest,” Jack assured her, maneuvering the shifting mass in his arms to gently step up the stairs. “I’ll be right back down to help you clean up the mess.”

“Mess?” he heard Charlotte grumble to her dogs, and the answering yowls and barks. “You hear that boys, he calls this a mess. Men, am I right.”

Jack fumbled with his bedroom door for a second, jostling Gabriel enough to tear him out of his stupor.

“W-what happened? Am I- …?”

“Shh, it’s okay, you’ll feel better right away, I promise.”

He settled him in the middle of their nest, refolding the blankets, comforters and pillows to encompass him with gentle pressure. Under his hands, Gabriel’s form slowly began to solidify again. For a few minutes, Jack continued to massage his limbs and rub warmth into them, until the silence grew heavy.

“That thug said something that unsettled you,” he said.

Gabriel didn’t reply, except for a miniscule nod of the head.

“Do you want to tell me now, or do you want me to go help Charlotte first?”

A few quick, shallow breaths passed beneath Jack’s hands; then, a quiet “go”.

“Sure, babe,” Jack muttered, dropping a kiss on Gabriel’s cheek. “I’ll be back later.”

He’d told Charlotte about the risk of harboring her supposedly dead brother and his wanted boyfriend in their childhood home, of course, and Jack himself had been unsure whether it was a wise decision. Not only could it possibly expose the fact that Jack was still alive, but it also endangered Charlotte and their father. But Charlotte never shied away from a difficult task. Or a show of force, for that matter.

She waited in the kitchen for Jack to … handle the rest of the Talon agents. Some of them were only severely wounded, not yet dead, and he quietly, efficiently released them. As he did so, expertly, and with routine, he wondered. Perhaps some of them had been brainwashed. Perhaps some of them were blackmailed. Perhaps not all of them were evil. But in a situation like this he didn’t have time to ask them. It was his life and the lives of his loved ones, or that of these men and women.

In war, soldiers thought they were serving. Protecting. Fighting the good cause. In truth, none of them believed what they were thinking. In the end, it was all about the face on the other end of your gun. And for soldiers like Gabriel and Jack, who were trained to shoot what they once thought empty tin cans, shifting over to killing human beings … It used to be difficult.

As he helped Charlotte wrap the bodies and load them onto their truck, he thought that this was what had become so wrong about Overwatch, and Blackwatch. They tried to forget that they were soldiers. Covered their scars with the achievements of their scientists reversing climate change, making progress in the medical field, finding cures. They became killers that started to believe they were something else, when in fact they weren’t. And killers were tools. They were neither good nor bad. He had the bodies of men and women working for Talon loaded on the back of his truck. He used to be a body working for Overwatch. For the UN. Which in turn had been infested by Talon.

They were all one and the same, in the end. Human. Not heroes. Not symbols.

“Earth to earth,” he muttered, covering those bodies with the soil he’d dug up to form a makeshift mass grave. The hole was deep enough so no wild animals could get at the remains, and the shape was inconspicuous enough not to alert any humans to the contents of this patch of upturned ground. He’d only been digging for about half an hour, barely sporting a sweat. Apparently the SEP turned them into the perfect serial killers too.

While driving back home, Jack forced himself to shake off these morbid thoughts. There was no use in ruminating about the state of his soul. His morals were intact. He and Gabriel had defended themselves and their current home. They weren’t the first ones to make a hostile move. Perhaps these were only platitudes. But at least he knew he was going to sleep soundly tonight. Or tomorrow.

Gabriel was still awake, though bleary, looking up anxiously from his nest at the sound of Jack’s footsteps. The soft sounds coming from him tore open Jack’s heart and beckoned him into the nest, to comfort his beloved. He paid no heed to rumpled clothing or unbrushed teeth, only wanting to share warmth and safety.

“You were gone so long,” Gabriel keened, pressing his nose insistently against Jack’s jaw. The tips of his fingers were cold against his clavicle as this big, imposing man curled in on himself to fit into Jack’s embrace.

“I’m sorry, I just … wanted to make sure to clean up properly.”

Gabriel nodded, thawing slowly under loving ministrations. His breathing and heart calmed, the stiffness sloughing off his bones, and the crooning sounds escaping his throat gradually evolved into quiet words.

“I don’t remember much from my time at Talon,” he began hesitantly, pausing to allow Jack to groom his curls. “I remember when … when Amélie brought me. There was a doctor. No, I am loathe to call him that. A butcher.”

“Gabe, you don’t have to tell me- …”

“It’s okay. I want you to know.”

“Only if you’re sure.”

“I am. I want you to know … how grateful I am that you rescued me from that place. They took things, and put others inside me that made me feel … not like myself. I don’t know if some things I remember actually happened. And others that I know must have happened I can’t remember. Like that announcement I apparently made to the world, claiming responsibility for the HQ bombing? I recall them making me say those words, but Jack … It didn’t happen like that. I didn’t- … I would never- …”

“Shh, love, I know. Don’t think about it, I know, I believe you.”

Gabriel shuddered, burrowing further into Jack’s warmth.

“And … there is something else. A name.”

Perking up, Jack didn’t let himself hope for revenge. Perhaps Gabriel remembered more about Talon, their internal structure. A leader perhaps? Or someone like Ólafsdóttir, a co-conspirator?

“What name?” he prompted gently, when Gabriel fell silent again.

“After a while, they stopped calling me Commander Reyes, or Gabriel. They gave me a new name, Jack, and- … The scary thing is, if I had been there for much longer? I- … What if I had started listening to that name?” Gabriel shuddered again, but continued, stronger: “The agent out in the field called me ‘Azrael’. This was their name for what I was supposed to become. A creature of death and destruction. I don’t want to become that. But what if I already am? What if, what Angela did to me, completed their process?”

Jack, disquieted, felt an involuntary purr rise in his throat. He’d had similar thoughts, of course, and that was what made it scarier. It wasn’t a theory anymore. It had become a real fear.

“You were basically unguarded,” Jack whispered. “And I was able to follow you across continents with only a makeshift tracker.”

“What if they wanted you to find me, at this point in time?” Gabriel finished the thought. “Maybe not you, because they can’t know who you are. But … someone. Someone with ties to Overwatch. Someone was bound to come look for me, whether it was you, Overwatch, or damn Interpol.”

“They didn’t just want to shift blame of the bombing to you,” Jack suddenly realized. “It was to start a manhunt for you, so you could be found and recovered.”

“Just like Amélie.”

They both froze and stared at each other.

“No,” Jack growled, before Gabriel could say anything. “No, don’t even think that. You’re not like her. There are too many unknown factors, and they have nothing to gain from this.”

“Nothing?” Gabriel parroted, disbelieving.

“Well, they’ve already achieved the fall of Overwatch, their greatest and most public adversary. Amélie contributed to that. What should you be doing then, as a sleeper agent?”

“Just think about it. They don’t know you still live. They don’t know you’re the one who has me. But if it weren’t you?” Gabriel shook his head. “Without you, these … attacks might have happened much more often, and I would be scared – which in turn would trigger them even more. I would be desperate. And the only place I knew they could make me better, would be- …”

“Talon.”

“Exactly.”

It was a scary thought. That, in another world, Gabriel might have fallen prey to Talon’s machinations, out of pure despair. Because, without Jack, he would be suffering alone, and might have been driven to collaborating with their enemies simply to survive.

“We can’t afford the luxury of hiding for much longer,” Gabriel said quietly, mournfully. His fingers ghosted over the shape of their nest, and along the curves of Jack’s body. When he spoke next, there was a hint of bitterness: “The world has never granted us anything we deserve. We deserve rest, Jackie. We deserve peace and happiness. But they won’t let us.”

Jack hummed, knowing Gabriel was right. All they ever got were short glimpses, even after they had fought and suffered for so long.

“We’re soldiers,” he said. “The war is all we have.”

The warm, rhythmic breathing caressing Jack’s throat halted for a second.

“Sometimes I wish we weren’t soldiers anymore,” Gabriel sighed, and settled down to sleep.

Curled tightly around him, Jack remained wide awake for a while longer. Remained vigilant over his beloved’s resting body, watching it for signs of a troubled mind. It was only much later that he closed his eyes and joined Gabriel in slumber. For once, they were undisturbed, cocooned inside the eye of the storm.

Tomorrow, they had to pick up their mantles again and go to work.