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Winning Hearts and Minds

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Bradford’s backed against the wall, one arm raised against the psionic onslaught. It’s too late. The Avenger is in ruins, Shen is dead, Tygan is bleeding out in the labs, and ADVENT’s newest weapon – the Chosen – are advancing towards him.

There’s three of them, prowling down the Bridge towards the Commander’s quarters like they own the place. The Assassin has her blades; the Warlock, his psionic soldiers; the Hunter, his sniper rifle switched out for a pistol. Here is XCOM’s last stand.

The Commander racks Bradford’s rifle, then pauses.

“Time to go home!” the Hunter says.

“Not yet,” the Commander responds.

The world warps and distorts. Everything is made clear for one brief, shining moment – he sees pixels and programs, all mixing together in one glorious conflagration at the beginning and end of time – and then there is nothing.

 

Keep doing that,” the Hunter says in the Commander’s ear. “I like the challenge.”

The Commander turns to retort, but the world rematerializes first: Shen is commenting on the power core levels in Engineering, Tygan is handing Technician Lasko a cup of coffee, and Central is nagging about the Avatar Project. Nobody is any the wiser of their near death experience.

 

Save.reload(“Hologlobe”)#1

- 216:01:23

 

“I’m glad they haven’t learned to work together,” Shen says, popping her head out of the hole-that-used-to-be-the-Engineering-Bay’s-elevator. The Avenger is grounded for the next three days thanks to the Chosen’s assault, according to ROV-R’s models. “We’ve got enough work on our plate as it is.”

“We’re alive,” Tygan says. “We have that much to be thankful for.”

 


Bradford sighs with relief as he drops into his bunk. The Commander has changed, ever since they met the three Resistance Factions and the Chosen. There are rumors of the Assassin harassing the Cascadia region resistance. The Commander has set XCOM on a relentless pace to track down the Assassin. He’s been up since 2 AM, and it shows in the speed of his reactions.

Which is why, when a Specter of Lt. Melnick bursts down his door, Bradford does not draw his gun in time.

 

“Hide behind the load screen all you want, Commander,” the Assassin purrs. “It’s my duty to come back for more.”

“I am doing what is right,” the Commander retorts. “Can you say the same?”

“I’m not the one sending men to their deaths in the safety of my home.” The Assassin snaps off a mocking salute. “Perhaps I’ll see you on the front lines.”

The world begins to crackle into existence, but the psionic network still lingers on the Commander’s skin.

“We’ve got reports of ADVENT protecting a data relay in Manitoba,” the Commander knows Bradford will say. “I say we go pay them a visit.”

The Commander tries not to throw up at the thought of watching the Assassin torture XCOM’s finest yet once again. The Assassin will hand Lt. Melnick off to a Specter, who will make a dark copy of Ranger, who will go after Bradford. The Commander will be too late yet once again.

“Reload, reload,” the Commander mutters feverishly, as time and space warp.

 

Save.reload(“Memorial/Bar”)#8

- 24:21:21

 

It’s harder to keep morale up around the Avenger. Everyone’s on edge, waiting for the Chosen or ADVENT or Vahlen’s pet monsters to strike. There’s almost no alcohol left in the Bar, which is a problem for Bradford, the functioning alcoholic, and for the rest of the men, who use alcohol in the stead of therapy. As a result, there are more dicks drawn over every possible surface and shitty roll-up cigarettes than Bradford has ever seen gathered in one area. It is, in short, a dick singularity. It would be hilarious if it weren’t for the cause.

Melnick is back, but since his rescue from the Assassin, the soldier doesn’t talk as much. He keeps to himself. Bradford will occasionally find the Ranger rocking back and forth, huddled in an abandoned room on the lower floors of the Avenger.

Still, it says something to their men. We won’t give up on you.

“If you’re looking for a drink, Commander,” Kelly says mournfully over her mug of dandelion coffee, “we’re still waiting for Melnick’s moonshine.”

“Feels like I’m literally dying,” Evans groans. “God… what was in that bottle?”

“The lovechild of nightmares and Everclear,” Rosalez says as he looks into the bottle. “Jesus, is this mold?”

“No, I mean, literally dying.” Evans traces a path over his heart. “Could’ve sworn… got shot right here.”

“That’s your cue to go to bed. Up,” Bradford says, chivvying the soldier from his seat. “To the drunk tank you go.”

The Commander looks around the sorry scene. Twenty pictures have joined the faces on the memorial wall in the four months since the Commander returned. Engraved into the wall beside it are all the names of the Resistance: civilians lost during Haven raids, dead family members, partners missing in action, Templars captured by ADVENT, Skirmishers who swallowed their guns, Reapers consumed by the undead….

That wall is almost full.

“The Resistance has taken a hit,” V-Day, the Resistance’s DJ, says over the radio in the corner. “But we’re still here, and we’re still standing. We’ve lost contact with the Puerto Rican haven, but XCOM managed to rescue–“

Bradford taps his tablet, and silences V-Day.

“We should move the memorial,” Leong muses. Kelly slaps the rookie over the head. “Ow! I’m not trying to be rude! It’s just… it makes us drink more.”

“No such thing as a therapist in the apocalypse,” Bradford says dryly. “Still. You need a chat, come see one of us– Commander?”

“GTS,” his superior mutters. “Need to punch something.”

 


 

We’ve tread here – twice. We know how it ends,” the Warlock says. “Still, you insist on playing this game. The Elders’ cause is righteous. You could save them all this pain.”

The Commander is bent and bowed from sleepless nights and adrenaline packed days. Still, the head of XCOM straightens and stares down the Chosen, though with far less conviction than in previous times.

“I will save them.”

“Like you saved all those civilians?” the Warlock asks. “Or does your version of saving involve far more explosives? The Elders are far less destructive.”

The Commander stays silent.

“It’s been a while since you played. Your soldier and I are having such a pleasant chat. She’s been telling me all about you. Not one built for war, are you? Yet you play at a soldier, and everyone suffers for it.”

“I will hunt you down,” the Commander says, but the voice quavers. “And I will get Kelly back.”

“What’s left of her,” the Warlock says. The air crackles, heralding the end of this entropy. “Catch you later, Commander.”

 

Save.reload(“Manhattan”)#20

- 01:20:58

 

Bradford’s hometown is a Lost-infected nightmare.

It used to be a college town, as well as the closest city to the XCOM Alpha site and Fort Riley. It used to play host to K-State with its 22,000 students and the Wildcats in the NCAA Division I’s Big 12. It used to be the city where Bradford grew up.

Now, it’s home to the Warlock hideout where a battered Kelly is sequestered.

“I’m so cold,” the Ranger whimpers as Bradford gently lifts her from her prison. “I don’t wanna die…”

“You’re not going to die,” he tells her with more strength than he feels. Outside, the Lost moan and shamble towards the ruins of the Riley County Courthouse. Oh, how the Little Apple has rotten.

“I don’t wanna go.” Kelly’s breaths get shallower, even as Bradford does his best to stem the bleeding. “Wanted to do so much. Wanted to love–”

“Stay with me, Captain,” Bradford says. The Lost are pounding down the doors now. XCOM will have to evacuate via the roof.

“Sir?” Kelly’s pupils are pinpricks as the first cracks appear in the temporary barricade. “I’m scared.”

The doors break, and the world falls into darkness as chunks of flesh fly from the Lost and machine guns roar and there are teeth on Kelly as she screams and screams–

 

There used to be students, there,” the Warlock tells the Commander. “Students you condemned to death by building your base so close by.”

“Your creators made the damn machines that transformed them!” the Commander shouts. Impotent rage seethes in the air, sending sparks of psionic energy racing towards the Warlock. But in this world of everything and nothing, only words have power. And the Warlock knows this.

“You know you can’t save everyone, Commander. Sometimes you have to break some eggs…”

“I did what I had to.”

“And they died because of you.” The Warlock clicks his tongue. “A billion dead in the first war, and more are soon to follow if they follow the false hope you offer.”

 

Save.reload(“Manhattan”)#23

- 01:30:24

 

Somehow, they get Kelly back. They have to give her a new arm, thanks to a Lost gnawing it off, but she’s alive.

“We did it again, Commander,” Bradford tells his superior as Shen wheels Kelly to the Engineering Bay for measurements. “I told them to expect the best, and you’ve showed–“

“This is the best?” the Commander asks. “She is missing her goddamn arm!”

“Everyone came back alive.” Bradford leaves out the other part of the equation: missing a few bits, badly injured, a few psychological kinks thrown in there for good measure, but hey. All the important bits came back.

The Commander stares at him. “The city is lost, Bradford, both physically and metaphorically. XCOM’s Alpha Site is drowned under zombies. And–“ the Commander makes a choking noise.

“Sir? I think you should take a break,” Bradford says.

“What time do we have left?” the Commander says, in an eerie echo of Kelly’s dying words.

Then again, Kelly didn’t die… so why does Bradford remember teeth and blood and an anguished declaration of love?

He shakes himself. That relationship charting won't chart himself. Kelly has good synergy with the terrible trio of Bešlagić, Melnick and Rosalez, but she has even better synergy with Delela the sniper. Bradford hums. If he can get the two into the Training Center, he'll have a ranger-sniper duo for the missions where they deploy in cities. A knight, and her eye in the sky. Sorta like the Commander and himself.

Bradford quickly files that thought away and busies himself with paperwork.

 


 

The Commander sits up, the sheets pooled at the base of the bed. “You can shut up now.”

“Abandoning your men so soon?” The Hunter sighs. “I’m starting to question whether you even care about these people. Do mind the abyss, will you?”

“I’m trying to sleep here – wait. You can contact me via dreams?”

“No, actually, the Reapers’ leader poisoned you. It seems you should have helped them more. Playing favorites with the Skirmishers, were you?” The Hunter shrugs. “My brother will have more on his plate. Thank you for that. I'm thinking about vacationing in Brighton, if the Elders live up to their promises.”

“Huh.” The Commander stares at the blank void. It seems the Animus from Assassin’s Creed is a fairly good approximation of the afterlife. “Always wondered what would happen if I died.”

“Not quite dead,” the Hunter amends. “Your doctors and precious Second are desperately trying to revive you.”

The Commander ponders the thought. “So I’m still alive.”

“In the loading screen of existence, but yes. Nice clothes, or lack thereof.”

“So I’m still alive enough to do this,” the Commander says, and resets.

As the warm light of the Quarters banishes the blankness, the Hunter gets in a parting shot.

“Oh good, you’re going back. I was starting to get bored in Brighton…”

 

Save.reload(“Quarters”)#31

-48:20:37

 

“I thought you were supposed to be a tactical genius,” Volkov, the leader of the Reapers, says. Her face finally free of the gas mask, Bradford sees the hard-edged determination in her eyes. There’s also a vial in her belt that is dangerously close to the Commander’s cup of mushroom tea.

Bradford quietly prepares his pistol, though he’s sure the Reaper won’t try anything this time.

…wait, this time?

“And I thought you were supposed to be traditional, Volkova,” the Commander says. “The end of the world means the end of grammar?”

Volkov shrugs, though a smile plays over her lips. “What can I say? People respect the power, not the name. And what about you? Does Central even know your name?”

“The Commander is good enough for me,” Bradford says.

“Damned by faint praise, Central,” the Commander says mildly.

Volkov laughs. “As you were. But we really are quite hard pressed in the Ural Mountains. Though our best men could take down the Hunter’s hideout in minutes, disease has thinned our numbers.”

The Commander nods. “Fair enough. I’ll send a scientist over to help you. And the Hunter’s waiting to ambush your agent over in Brighton, England. We can deploy a team to help your operative out.”

Volkov stares. “Gifts from your time in the tank?”

“Some intel from the Resistance,” Bradford says hastily, though he shoots his superior a questioning glance.

The Commander nods once more.

“I’ll send word ahead. Thank you, Commander. I hope this partnership will help both of us.”

“As do I.”

 


 

 

“…I never thought I’d mourn artists specializing in dicks,” Delela says. The dick squid on the walls of the living quarters stares back at her. Bešlagić, Melnick and Rosalez were kind enough to sign off their last masterpiece. “But somehow, I really miss those guys.”

“Yeah, they were right cunts.” Kelly slings an arm around her friend. “But it’s too quiet without them.”

Ivanova, the newly rescued Reaper, looks on at the scene in silence. She stands apart from the rest of XCOM’s grieving soldiers, wringing her hands, shifting from foot to foot.

 

There is no honor in sending others to die,” the Assassin says.

“Don’t you have siblings to harass?” the Commander says.

“I do remember there being a competition,” the Hunter says.

“Wait, how are you all here?” The Commander stares at the two Chosen, lounging around in the loading screen. "I don't remember networking as one of your powers."

“That would be my doing,” the Warlock says, appearing out of the white mist.

“Great. So, how did I kick the bucket this time?”

“No, it seems you were sleeping on the job,” the Assassin says, disdain clear in her voice. “The Warlock has enough psionic power to return the righteous to their path, but insufficient amounts to force you to do your duty.”

“You won’t even let me sleep?”

“Not while you are free of the Elders,” the Hunter says. “Sweet dreams, Commander.”

 

Save.reload(“Ukraine”)#32

- 12:40:18

 

“–yes, it’s very creative. No, you cannot make banners of it for the Resistance. I don’t care how much morale you think it’ll raise.” Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. “And stop giggling. Now clean that dick squid up!”

Melnick, Bešlagić and Rosalez salute, then scramble for the cleaning closet.

Bradford sighs. Of course XCOM’s soldiers are as mature as your average pack of Marines.

The Commander stumbles past him.

“Night, sir,” he says, but his superior doesn’t reply. It stings a little.

“Shit, did someone bring a Lost onboard?” Lt. Ivanova, a hand-over from the Reapers, asks. The rescued operative fits in perfectly among the motley collection Bradford has accrued. She downs her coffee – actual coffee, now that XCOM has made contact with the Ethiopian resistance – and stares after the Commander’s retreating back.

The Commander walks into the wall.

“Someone’s got a hell of a case of the mornings,” Suleiman comments, and nearly inhales his own mug of bean juice. “God, I love this coffee. I could kick alcohol for it. And don’t you start! I know it’s Ramadan!”

“Wasn’t going to,” Ivanova says, her mouth quirking up. “Hey, Central, aren’t you gonna help your lover out?”

“Not one for fraternization,” Bradford says, but concern is nagging at him as persistently as a cold wind.

“Hey, Kelly!” Rosalez shouts. “You’ve got a chance!”

Kelly picks up a wet sponge lying on the bar counter and chucks it at the Specialist. It beans him on the head.

“Ow! Central! Kelly’s bullying me!” Rosalez whines in an exaggerated, high pitched voice that could shatter glass. It doesn’t fit the 37-year old man. “I’m dying again! Farewell, cruel world!”

“You had it coming,” Melnick intones, “you had only yourself to blame.”

“My old ears didn’t hear a thing,” Bradford says as he leaves to monitor the Hologlobe. It seems Kelly's synergy with the terrible trio has decreased. Then again, he fully approves of the sponge to the face.

“Wait, dying again?” Bešlagić says over the slop of wet sponges against the wall. “When did you die? And why wasn’t I invited to the funeral?”

“Dunno…” and Bradford can hear the frown in Rosalez’s voice. “Why did I say that?”

 


 

Bradford rolls his shoulders, then turns off the alarm on his tablet. Twelve hours after wrangling the trouble-making trio, his shift is over. A nice, hot shower awaits in the Quarters.

He hums to himself as he ascends the staircase. It’s Shen’s turn to wrangle the men – the Engineer has been making noises about heresy and exterminatus after finding the latest rendition of a Viper pin-up on a soldier’s gun. Bradford is still bothered by the anatomical accuracy, but he’s off shift. Not his monkeys, not his circus now. No, his only concern at the moment is if the Commander is fit for duty.

The door to the Quarters, where his bunk is kept in a little side-room, slides open. The Commander paces the floor in ceaseless circles. Bradford is strongly reminded of his sister’s parrot, and how it would pluck its feathers out when stressed. Dark shadows lie under the Commander’s eyes, and hollows have formed under the cheekbones. His superior looks just as bad as the day Bradford broke into that Gene Clinic.

“Jesus, sir. Did you sleep at all?” Bradford asks, the thoughts of a shower instantly banished. He guides the Commander over to a sofa before his superior can collapse on him. “Hello? Anyone home?”

The Commander’s face crumples. He can almost see something breaking inside.

Shit. Bradford has a feeling he just failed a charisma check.

“I can’t,” his superior sobs into his shoulder, “I can’t sleep, they’re so loud, I can’t go back–“

“You’ve got to slow down, sir. Who’s so loud?”

“The Chosen, I can hear them every time someone dies and now when I try to sleep–“

Every time someone dies.

“Gonna explain any time soon?” Bradford says in a tone that brooks no argument.

And so the Commander explains – or at least, makes a valiant effort – to explain how time and space are like water and can be reshaped at will. Or, in the Commander’s case, when a rage quit is necessary. Which turns out to be almost every time a soldier dies.

“So… why do we still have dead soldiers?” Bradford asks.

“That was the best timeline,” his Commander whispers.

Silence falls over the Quarters.

“Why didn’t you tell me the Chosen were stalking you?” Bradford grips his superior’s shoulder. “We would’ve tried something. Anything. How long have you been without sleep?”

“Lost count. You wouldn’t have believed me,” the Commander chokes out. “Who would?”

Bradford thinks back to the dick squid being scrubbed off the walls below decks. Rosalez is one for dick humor, not dark humor.

“Turns out, I do.”

“But why?” the Commander sounds out between gritted teeth. “When so many are dead, and so many are suffering because I lost the first war? Why believe me when ADVENT bombs innocent civilians and thousands are actual zombies and–“

Bradford leans in, until their foreheads touch.

“Commander.” He uses his sleeve to wipe the tears off the Commander’s cheeks. “Slow down. I believe you.”

“I’m sorry, Central. I failed XCOM.”

“Well, join the club of getting people killed,” Bradford says glumly. “But I know the truth now. We’re gonna take Earth back. And we’ve got you in our corner.” He clears his throat. “Are you going to tell the men?”

“Who would want to understand that even in the best timeline, they still die?”

“I’ll chalk that up as a no. And the Chosen are contacting you in your sleep?”

“Only the Warlock can, but he can link the other three in. Two. Shit. It's hard to think.”

“Shit.” Bradford runs through his options. “All right, we’ll try the Mindshield first, see if that blocks them, but as for getting rid of the Chosen… We’ll think of something. I know we will.”

“Do you still trust me?”

There is no other answer for the Central Officer.

“On your orders, sir.”

 


 

“Geist is wrecking around again,” Betos grumbles over the radio. “Tell her/him/it to back off Skirmisher territory.”

Bradford restrains himself from grumbling, though it’s very tempting. The leader of the Templars communicates only through conjuring words in psionic swirls that form letters. Geist also knows that Bradford’s eyesight is failing, and has been conjuring words in progressively smaller letters. He’s not sure if Geist is mute or just an asshole.

“Will do,” the Central Officer says. “You need any back up?”

“We tracked down the Warlock to a hide-out in Nigeria,” the Skirmisher says. “The psionic transmitters your team created helped.”

“XCOM can send a team to help assault it.”

 

Save.reload(“Nigeria”)#45

- 01:00:27

 

There’s a whirring sound, then the Hologlobe pops back into existence. The Menace team and Betos are alive once more in Nigeria: surrounded by far too many Lost for comfort, but everyone lives.

Bradford sighs. The first time the Commander hit reset this mission threw him for a loop threw him for a loop. He’s becoming oddly used to his superior rewriting time and space with a flick of a finger. Sure. He’s the CO for someone with god-like powers. There are cities overrun by zombies. There are three very competitive, eggplant-colored extras from “What We Do in the Shadows” trying to gun down the Avenger and take the Commander back. There was a fucking alien invasion, and Earth lost. Why the fuck not.

 


 

“When will you stop running?” the Warlock demands. “The Elders’ cause is just!”

The Commander sighs. “Not listening, fuck off, let me sleep–“

“I think it’s working. This may be the first time we’ve ever agreed,” the Hunter tells his brother.

“The Earth is mine,” the Warlock crows.

The Assassin harrumphs. “Not if I have a say in it!”


 

The Menace team returns, slightly downtrodden that they didn’t get to kill the Warlock. Bradford is alarmed by the fact that the Commander has called them all to the Bar. Nothing good ever happens there.

“All right, you lot. I know you can do better. I’ve seen the dicks drawn on… every inch of the Avenger, actually. So now it’s time to put it to fucking use.”

Heads turn. The Commander, of all people, is swearing?

“The Chosen are spying on us. Make them regret it."

The terrible trio perk up.

"I want you pumping out drawings like your life depends on it. I want 15 inch horsedicks on the Assassin. I want rule 34 Warlock twerking to goddamn big booty remixes. I want the most sordid fiction about Seekers introducing the Hunter to the wonders of tentacles. I want the Chosen to be so horrified, they never spy on us again. And if that means living and breathing and jerking it to the worst pornography to ever grace the Earth, so be it.”

Bradford pinches himself. It hurts. This is not an alcohol-induced nightmare.

Beside him, Tygan looks like he's having an aneurysm.

Kholi coughs. “So… you want us to sexually harass the Chosen until they quit? Uh, is that a war crime?”

“I want them to stop riding my ass and stop shooting us down,” the Commander growls. “And if none of you are behind me, then I’ll do it myself.”

Delela raises her hand. “Question. Does that mean we can write all the snek porn we want?”

“You can draw yourself fucking the biggest snake tits you want, as long as you send a copy to the Chosen. And run it past me first.”

“I’m down,” the soldier immediately says.

"Eh, I'll pass," Kelly says.

"It might stop the Chosen from kidnapping you again," the Commander says, looking her square in the eyes.

"…tempting."

“Why the hell not?” Melnick says.

“Prepare for trouble, make it double!” Suleiman cheers. “Wait, seriously? Anything we want?”

“If it’s a hard copy, I check it first, then we decorate the Chosen’s hide out with it. They will never have a safe space again.”

Bradford coughs. “Commander, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“They’re in my fucking head, Central, I haven’t slept in a week.”

“Can we capture Vipers?” Manuel asks.

“No,” the Command team says simultaneously, Lily louder than the rest.

“But you can make porn of them in your spare time and just spam ADVENT with it,” the Commander adds.

“Commander, this is a waste of time,” Shen says. “If you want to wage psychological warfare –“

“We don’t even know if the Chosen have libidos!” Tygan sputters.

“Did I mention that we’ll be allocating resources to turn your SPARK into a Space Marine?” the Commander says.

Shen purses her lips. “With a Bolter?”

“With a Bolter,” the Commander confirms. “In case another Specter makes it on board. And Tygan, anyone gets creeped out by massive fucking amounts of rule 34.” The Commander bangs a hand on the counter. “They messed with the wrong fucking species.”

There is a terrifying grin spreading across Shen’s face. “I guess I can get on-board with this. ROVR, to Engineering!”

Tygan looks terrified.

“You’re not allowed to use it on Tygan,” Bradford interjects.

Shen looks insulted. “Of course not, Central.”

Still, the Chief Engineer goes away, rubbing her hands excitedly as she gabs about Adeptus Astartes and heresy to the Commander.

Tygan glances at Bradford. “Are we the only two sane men aboard?”

“’Fraid so.” Bradford passes the Chief Scientist a beer. “This helps.”

 

Chapter Text

“…Bradford, what on Earth is this?”

The Central Officer swipes his tablet back. He almost knocks over his bowl of fried sardine on rice in his haste. “Relationships chart. Trying to figure out who has the best compatibility. Make sure we maximize our fighting potential.”

“I had believed OKCupid was gone,” Tygan says. “Clearly I was mistaken.”

“You know what OKCupid was?” the Commander asks, setting the chopsticks aside.

Tygan sips from his cup of mushroom tea. “I lived in Chicago, not China.”

“This is not a dating site!” Bradford closes the program. “It’s an analysis of relationships between our men. I’ve tracked the times each soldier has relieved the pressure on another, or healed them, or–“

“Sure,” Shen says. “Are you on there? Make sure Kelly doesn’t get a hand on it.”

“Thought you were on my side,” Bradford says, shaking his head. “Your dad would’ve backed me up.”

Shen plonks a – Bradford can only describe it as a hand-cannon – onto the Mess hall table. The Commander grabs her glass of orange juice before it can spill.

“Don’t play with your food,” the Commander chides.

“What in the universe is that,” Tygan says flatly. “Wait, have I been relegated to food now?”

“You’re still our chief scientist,” Bradford says automatically, but his eyes are on the gun. Jesus. It’s bigger than his assault rifle!

“An Astartes bolt pistol! Based on the Salamanders chapter. Well, technically, it should be a bolter carried by the Adeptus Sororitas,” Shen says, petting the massive gun. “Or even more technically, I should wield an Imperial Boltgun, as I don’t have powered armor and it would smash my bones.” She lifts it up as if it weighs nothing, then cuddles the boltgun. “Next time a Chosen shows their ugly face around here, they’re getting explosive rounds in the–”

“Don’t give them too much info,” Bradford says, “they could still be spying on us.” He turns to the Commander. “You’re looking chipper.”

“I slept a full eight hours last night!” The Commander is almost glowing with relief. “Also, I might have stared at Melnick’s rendition of a Viper for a few minutes, which may have cost me an hour. Didn’t know he was into chubbies, but who am I to judge.”

Bradford can feel the headache coming on. Shen’s left eye develops a twitch.

Tygan looks more interested. “And the results?”

“Horrified gasping from the Warlock,” the Commander says smugly, “and eight hours of sleep for me!”

“I can’t believe it,” Shen mutters. “This is such bullshit.”

“War has changed,” Tygan says gravely.

The Commander grins. “Hey, Central, aren’t you on the side of war, war never changes?

Bradford massages his temples and counts to ten. Having a well-rested Commander helps XCOM. Never mind that he could probably get the Commander a good night’s sleep if he actually worked up the courage, and–

“Run for it,” Shen tells the Commander, “I think Central’s gonna blow.”

 


 

“Commander, the Assassin continues to gain knowledge on our activities–“

The Commander lobs a pillow at Bradford’s head. “Don’t you start.”

Bradford sidesteps and holds the mug of coffee aloft like a shield. “–if we want to stop the Assassin, we’ll have to move fast!”

“You are enjoying this far too much,” his superior grumbles as the Central Officer tosses a pair of boots over.

“Think of it as payback. I’ve seen things I can never unsee,” Bradford says, handing his superior a mug of coffee. “On that note, we are ready to airdrop the payload on the Assassin’s base. And assault the Alien facility in Malaysia. Have I told you about the Avatar Project recently? Because that was a thing while you’re sleeping.”

The Commander pulls on a jacket. “Do you have a script for this? It’s so well rehearsed.”

“Maybe if you assaulted the facilities…”

“I can take a hint, master.” The Commander sips from the mug. “Drop Ivanova there to infiltrate. Then assemble Menace team to hit the facility.”

“Whatever happened to the nice, professional Commander?” Bradford teases as he follows his superior out to the Hologlobe.

“Aww, Central, you don’t respect me anymore?”

Bradford brings up his tablet, with Kholi’s latest creation on the screen. He’ll never be able to look at the Codex and jello the same way again.

“You authorized this monstrosity.”

“Here there be monsters,” the Commander muses. “Full speed ahead.”

 


I’ve slaughtered your men in two realities,” the Assassin says. The after images of Ivanova’s beaten body play over the Commander’s vision. “Still looking for one where they live?”

“They’re still fighting,” the Commander responds, and stands tall.


 

“Quick, I need derogatory nicknames for a female.” The Commander’s fingers drum against the bar counter. “New names for the Assassin, go.”

“Toots,” Leong says, laid up from a mishap with the Berserker Queen. He almost bites Kholi’s fingers, who was feeding him fish sticks.

“Bitch nuggets,” his boyfriend suggests, snatching his hand away.

“Need to be cuter than that,” the Commander says. “We’re waging psychological warfare here.”

“Sweetie patweetie?” Kokoren asks, testing her new mechanical eye. The Specialist was partially blinded during a sortie with regular ADVENT. Bradford doesn’t think the soldier will ever get over the embarrassment. The glowing screen around her eye as she zooms in on her partner, Leong. “I regret saying that.”

Ivanova begins to laugh, then clutches her chest. The Assassin slashed her across the pecs while the Reaper was infiltrating, but she’ll heal well. “No, not cute, just horrifying. Babe?”

Kelly shrugs from her seat, and winces. Luckily, the bandages circling her chest remain unstained by blood. The Archon King was kind enough to slam dunk her right next to Delela. The King is still on the loose, but Delela has vowed to personally mount his head on the Skyranger. “Sugar tits.”

“Done.” The Commander claps. “Give that woman a beer.”

Melnick passes his fellow Ranger a bottle. Kelly salutes the Commander with it, then pops the top.

“Stop enabling the soldiers’ alcoholism,” Tygan sighs over the intercom. “We have yet to reach artificial organ production.”

“I’ll have you know that I’ve managed to limit their consumption!” the Commander says, sitting next to Bradford. “Through classical conditioning.”

“Playing mindgames with us?” Kokoren taps the Commander’s shoulder. “How could you, sir, we love you so much. That’s why we make all that porn.”

Which I do not appreciate,” the Assassin says over the radio.

“Was that turned on?” bradford asks with a frown.

“Hell, you weren’t kidding about them spying on us,” Shen says. ROV-R buzzes unhappily. “I’m tracing the signal… no. No Assassin on-board. Through the psionic network, then?”

“I’m going to check the Avenger’s systems.” The Commander stands. “Shen, you stay there, you’re on your break.”

“Well, good thing we’re at the bar,” Bradford says. He cracks open the liter bottle of vodka, and chugs.

Shen shakes her head. “You really worry me sometimes, Central.”

“And the Commander doesn’t?”

“I’m not the one who loves you the most,” Shen says.

“And that would be?” Bradford says, his tempered voice cut with warning tones.

Shen toasts him with her own glass of beer. “Nobody, according to your shipping chart.”

“It’s a professional tracker!”

“XCOM, the dating sim!” Kholi cheers. “Yes, I know I’m not your partner, love. Bradford’s a bad matchmaker. Cheer up.”

Bradford keeps drinking. The subtleties of statistics are lost on his men.

Leong pouts, but accepts another fish stick.

 


 

“Thank’ya, pardner,” Melnick says, as Bešlagić lets off a salvo that destroys the army of Codices advancing down the partner.

“You’re a Russian cowboy now?” The Grenadier jams a fresh grenade into his launcher.

Melnick reloads his shotgun and guns down the ADVENT trooper flanking Bešlagić. “And yah my Bosnian pardner.”

Bešlagić makes kissy noises. “You can colonize my heart anytime.”

“Communist gay cowboys,” Suleiman mutters from his position on the rooftop. He’s got a clear view of the facility and the two idiots in his sights. “Reagan’s doing doughnuts in his grave.”

“This is not gay,” Melnick says flatly.

“Just very manly bonding,” Bešlagić says.

“Menace 1-5, stop flirting and set off the damn charges already!” Bradford snaps.

Bešlagić snorts as he runs from the blast zone. “Rude.”

On the Bridge, the Commander watches the facility go up in flames. “I see we’ve found the newest volunteers to wash the Skyranger.”

“I’m gonna PT the hell out of them,” Bradford growls. “Kids these days. No respect for their elders.”

The Hunter takes the opportunity to appear. He snipes Melnick from halfway across the ruins of the facility. Melnick drops, limbs sprawling over the shrapnel-studded earth. Bešlagić tries to grenade the in-coming Chosen, but he’s too close to the blast. The explosion sends hot plasma through his chest and Melnick’s face, while the Hunter remains unscathed.

“…I see why you stick to grenades,” the Hunter says as he absconds with the dazed Ranger.

“And reloading,” the Commander says.

 

“It seems the loading screen puts in more work than your soldiers,” the Hunter says.

“That was bullshit, and you know it,” the Commander says. “Is there a scope on that rifle?”

“No. I have the best eyesight.”

“Of course.” The Commander sighs. “Speaking of which, have you checked one of your hide outs recently?”

“You know I won’t remember this conversation. The Elders didn’t see fit to give me reset-proof memory.”

“We left you a present.” The Commander thinks of Bešlagić, and decides to blow the Hunter a kiss. “Enjoy!”

“I presume you did the same for my siblings?”

“XCOM doesn’t play favorites.”

“You’re the best partner,” the Hunter says in a mocking approximation of Melnick’s voice, and the world dissolves.

 

Save.reload(“USA”)#45

- 00:45:27

 

“Head’s up, expect a visit from the Hunter,” the Commander says. “So get to work.”

Bradford can’t see Melnick’s face, but he knows the Ranger pales. “Yessir. Off to the races.”

“Dude, you okay?” Bešlagić mutters over their com-channel. The two sweep the street leading up to the facility, clearing a path for the rest of the Menace Team to sweep in.

“Yeah. We’ll talk later.”

“I got your back, pardner,” the Grenadier assures his friend.

When the Hunter shows up, Bešlagić riddles the Chosen’s body with three clips’ worth of ammo. Like always, the Hunter disappears before XCOM can finish him off.

 


 

“Trust fall!” Leong yells, standing up on one of the chairs in the Training Center.

“Stop that right now!” Bradford says, running over from the observation table.

His partner, Kokoren, scrambles over from the mock-up barricade. “No, no, don’t you do it fucker–“

“Too late!”

Leong is surprisingly apt with his predictions. Kokoren dives to catch him, but she only manages to catch his head with her hands. Leong falls on his neck. There is a horrifying wet snap.

“I’m going to murder you,” the Specialist states.

Leong lets out a weak laugh, then a moan. “Eh heh… trust fail?”

“Central, look away, because I am going to gut this idiot like a Muton and that cow we found,” Kokoren growls as she reaches for the knife strapped to her thigh. “And then I’m gonna grind him up and make him into burgers.”

“Um… before you do that, I can’t feel my toes. This could be bad.”

Bradford sighs and touches his mike. “Commander, wake up.”

“Wuzzappen?” his superior responds after a few tense minutes.

“Leong broke his neck.”

“If he does it again, tie the idiot down,” the Commander growls. “I was having such a nice dream.”

Bradford walks into the privacy of the hall closet. Most of the crew knows that the Commander has ‘interesting’ psionic powers, but he agrees that they probably shouldn’t know the details. “Sir, I can’t remember anything that happens before a reset.”

“All right, I’ll fix the idiot myself.”

Up becomes down and light becomes dark, as time resets.

 

Save.reload(“Training”)#80

- 03:10:39

 

“You should be sleeping,” Bradford says. He pulls another foam mat over to the Commander’s position in the Training Center. “Oh, and Kelly and Delela have enough compatibility to start a partnership.”

“They weren’t partners already?” The Commander yawns. “Thanks, Central. Well, should be safe enough. Put up a rule that soldiers are not allowed to trust fall and such.”

“They’ll break it within hours.” Bradford finishes arranging the thick mats. They should cushion anyone who falls from the ropes dangling from the ceiling in the live fire course. “Sir. Go to bed.”

“You didn’t use to be this pushy,” his superior complains as Bradford hauls the pair of them out the door.

“You didn’t used to hear the aliens in your sleep.”

The Commander is obviously having trouble staying awake, judging by the slurring. “Aww, you do care for me.”

“Don’t push it,” Bradford retorts, and is grateful that the blue light of the hallways washes out the blush in his ears.

 


 

Bradford massages his temples. “Commander, can you stop flirting with the monstrosities trying to capture you?”

“How can I resist when there’s those gorgeous eyes right in front of me?” the Commander asks. “Catch you later, sugar tits.”

The Assassin sputters, arms still thrown back to bring the knives down on Kelly. The Ranger presses her advantage, and stabs the Chosen through the chest.

“I’ll be back,” the Assassin chokes out, before disappearing.

“Fucking purple thundercunt!” Kelly yells. “Why won’t they stay dead?”

“Can we stick plutonium in our grenades or something?” Girac asks, lowering his psionic shields. His partner for the mission, Yamamoto, is still recovering from being headbutted by the Assassin. “I’m with Kelly on this, sir.”

“Maybe they can only be killed in their seat of power,” Yamamoto suggests, if a bit dazed. “Like one of those Japanese animes…”

The Commander frowns and looks at Bradford. “We need to change it up a bit. Last time she teleported out immediately.”

“I am not enabling your bad habits.” Bradford shakes his head. “Menace 1-5, mop up the rest of the AO and head back home.”

 


 

“Tygan’s done some research,” Bradford says, slurring his words slightly. He’s not sure why the Doctor decided to hold the meeting at 7 AM, and he’s not quite sure why the world is wobbling after 3 drinks. It probably has to do with the fact that Manuel is dead, and so are twenty civilians from the Puebla resistance haven. Goddamn Chryssalids. The lack of light during the nighttime raid only worsened the casualties.

“The Chosen are… they’re whatchamacallit… right, got regenerating powers. But it drains them to heal. So we gotta… uh, chase them back to their main… urgh, this is hard to read–“

“Stop it,” his Commander says, suddenly frigid.

“Sir?”

“I don’t want another word out of you until you’re sober.”

“I’m completely fit to serve,” Bradford says, and maybe it’s the alcohol crooning in his ear, but he continues, “for you, under you, whatever you need.”

His superior picks up the flask on the table between him and sniffs. “Vodka. How many did you have?”

“Uh, three or so? Why? Thata bad ‘sing?”

His Commander sighs. “You have an alcohol problem. It’s affecting your ability to do your job.”

“I’m fine,” Bradford says shortly, and picks up the tablet. It slips out of his fingers, but he catches it before it hits the table of the Commander’s Quarters. He decides to conduct the rest of the briefing standing: if he sits down, he doubts he’ll stay awake. “We need to chase the Chosen to their home base. The Templars are… uh, fighting the Assassin, so we’ll need to… do things with them. Currently our weakest relatiooo-wow, is there an earthquake?”

The Commander plucks the tablet out of his hands. “When did you serve?”

“Enlisted when I was eighteen.”

“Where?”

“The… Army? Marines?” Bradford searches deep within his brain. “I… I can’t remember.”

“Regiment?”

“Don’t recall.”

“Rank?”

“I told you, I don’t remember! It’s not important.” Bradford tugs the tablet back into his hands. The pleasant buzz from the vodka has left his head. “Can we get on with the briefing?”

“Bradford, I can win you this war.” His Commander clasps his hands. “But I can’t win you a new brain. I can’t give you a new liver. And if you throw your life away like this, I can’t bring you back.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Bradford snaps, pulling his hands away. “You’re not ADVENT. I will drink if I damn well want to, and you need me functioning. Take away the alcohol, and you’ll get a DT wreck.”

“You’re chasing everyone away! The Templars, the Skirmishers, the Reapers – they see an alcoholic wreck. You’re so abrasive when you’re drunk.”

“So my people skills are lacking. I can work on them.”

“But you aren’t. The alcohol will kill you before ADVENT does.” His Commander turns away. “Don’t make me bury you.”

Silence reigns over the Quarters.

Bradford sets the tablet on the table and approaches his superior. He tentatively rests his head against the Commander’s back, in the groove between the shoulders. On his own back, there would be a hard knot of scar tissue from Operation Gatecrasher.

“I know what I’m doing. Trust me.”

“You’re dying.”

“Aren’t we all? I’m just moving a little faster than usual.”

“Not the time, John.”

“We still have a little time,” Bradford says. “Before PT, anyways.”

His Commander chokes out a laugh. “I’ll lead PT today. I don’t want to know how coordinated drunken Bradford is.”

“I’ll have you know they’ll be doing monkey fuckers all day.”

“Go to bed, Bradford.”

 

“See? Told you it looks like monkey fucking,” Bradford says as he joins the Commander in the hangar bay. Sprawled out in the grass are XCOM’s soldiers, in various states of laughter and pain as they grab their ankles and move their posteriors up and down.

“How obscene,” Tygan says. “If they pull anything, Commander, I’ll be in the labs conducting the autopsy on the Faceless.”

“Permission – to rename - tactical twerking,” Girac grunts out between squat-thrusts.

Leong wheezes. “No – no – can’t laugh – hurts!”

“Keep going, grunt!” Bradford barks out, though his head hurts a bit. “Two more reps! And then there’s the 1K run!”

“Who pissed in his cornflakes?” Melnick mutters.

“2K run!” Bradford amends.

“And Central will be joining you,” the Commander says, sipping from the mug of coffee.

“As will your Commander,” Bradford says, grabbing the mug and setting it down. “Hop to it!”

 

The great thing about running is that it really sobers Bradford up. The downside is that when he takes a tumble and lands face-forward on Kelly’s back, the soldiers will never let him forget.

 


“Welcome back, Dr. Golini,” Bradford says. The scientist is shaking slightly, but firmly clutches the bag of samples to her chest. “You get what you need?”

“Yes,” she states. “And I had help from Geist.”

“Thank you,” the Commander tells the Templar leader. “How could we repay the favor?”

“By killing the Assassin,” Geist says.

Bradford does a double take. The Templar leader can speak?!

“We’ve destroyed three hide-outs,” the Commander continues. In the periphery, Bradford catches sight of more Templar armor. It seems the Templars still trust XCOM as much as they trust the Skirmishers. “Are there any more?”

“Two more.” Geist conjures a map with their psionics. “The Templars will assault the one in Russia. If XCOM attacks the one in Peru, the Assassin can only run to her base.”

“The relations with the Skirmishers have improved?” Bradford notes that down on his tablet.

“We have a shared goal,” Geist says. The map disappears. “The samples should help your doctor find the base. Good hunting.”

“Would you like anything to eat?” Bradford gestures to the hangar bay. “It’s almost chow. There’s not much – a bit of rabbit stew, some potatoes – but we have enough to share.”

Out of the corner of Bradford’s eye, he catches the Commander smiling at him.

He can’t read the Templar’s expressions behind the mask, but Geist seems to consider it. “Do you have enough food for six?”

“More than enough. And beds, if you need them.”

“That would be appreciated.” Geist whistles, and other Templars rise from the dense forest around the Avenger. “We don’t mean to impose.”

“You aren’t. Fair warning, however,” the Commander says, “we’ve launched a… psychological campaign against the Chosen. It is a little disturbing.”

“ADVENT experimented on us,” one of the Templars snorts. “How bad could it be?”

 


 

“No, you cannot make XCOM-branded porn and export it.”

“There’s a Templar market!” Suleiman protests. “It brings foe-yay to a whole new level!”

Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. “It’s XCOM, not XXXCOM, boyo.”

 


 

“You can’t run this time, little rabbit,” the Assassin says, and starts running. “Not even into the past!"

Bešlagić loads his launcher and fires.

Slick fluid flies from the impact zone. The Assassin slips and hits the ground, careening towards the pit of broken metal. She screams, opening a portal that swallows her just before gravity pushes her to a pointy end.

“Yo, Kokoren, you caught that?” Leong asks.

“Got it, partner, and it’s gonna be a great poster. Say, Central, what was in that grenade?” Kokoren asks.

“Animal birthing lubricant.”

Silence hangs over the city.

“What? I grew up on a farm,” Bradford protests.

“We’re rubbing off on him!” Kelly cheers.

 

Chapter Text

“Bradford, it’s okay.”

“Stop that. I will get it up.”

The Commander lies back in the grass. The night air is sweet, marred only by the smoke of the burning abandoned city miles away. The shrieks of the Lost have long since faded. “Really, Bradford, I don’t mind. It’s to be expected.”

“You shut your mouth and let me work.”

“Alcohol abuse dampens many of the brain’s functions,” the Commander continues. “Memory, motor–“

Bradford glares at his superior. “I’ve done this thousands of times before.”

“But you’re having trouble now.”

“Well, maybe I don’t work well under pressure,” Bradford retorts. “Do you want this or not?”

“I can always ask Shen–“

“God no! I’d never hear the end of it.”

“She is probably busy,” the Commander muses, building a nest out of Bradford’s jacket. “Why don’t you warm me up then?”

“I’m working on it. Give a man some breathing room, Jesus.” Bradford blows on the tiny bundle of sticks. “I have a Boy Scout’s badge in fire starting. I survived for 20 years without electricity. This is not that hard.”

The Commander pats his shoulder. “I’ve got a lighter if you need it?”

“Wood must be too wet,” he grumbles. “I will light this fire or die trying.”

Laughter drifts down from the Avenger’s open Hangar Bay.

“Unless Shen gets the generators working, this is how you’re cooking dinner tonight!” Bradford yells in the men’s direction. “Laugh it up!”

 


 

“We’ll try to nail down the Assassin,” the Commander decides, marking off the base in central Peru. “Better capitalize on the Templars’ goodwill while we have it.”

“They still haven’t found the main base,” Bradford says. “Kelly and Delela are helping out. We’ll get them back in a week or two.”

“We might have to put more pressure on the Assassin,” Shen muses. “Force her out of hiding.”

“I’m sure the men can ensure that,” Tygan says dryly. “We could also try adapting the psionic trackers for the Assassin’s signature.”

“Get on that, please.” The Commander sighs, then freezes. His superior’s head turns side to side. The tension leaves the Commander’s shoulders as quickly as it came. “Not this time. No eavesdroppers here.”

Bradford scratches his head. “Bring me up to speed. How does this psionic eavesdropping work?”

“At the speed of plot,” the Commander says. “Besides that, I don’t know. Take that as you will.”

“Commander, now that I know what that means…” Shen lifts the Bolter from her hip and cocks it.

“Save some time, and call down an Exterminatus,” Bradford says.

Ponies are where you draw the line?” The Commander looks between XCOM’s senior officials. Tygan claps his hands over ROV-R’s carapace, muffling the GREMLIN’s speakers. “Not Vipers, or knotting, or semen inflation, or a–“

“I will forget this, I will forget this,” Tygan chants under his breath. “I did not hear this, I did not hear this.”

“Quick question: can you respawn?” Shen asks, drumming her fingers against her Bolter.

“Let’s not find out,” the Commander says, “otherwise you’re on your own against the very pissed off Chosen.”

“We’ll just have to deal with all this heresy another day,” Shen tells her GREMLIN, “Tygan, you can take your hands off ROV-R’s speakers.”

 


“Commander, the aliens continue to make progress on the Avatar Project–“

His superior looks up at Bradford, eyes bleary with sleep. The Commander straightens in the uncomfortable chairs that furnish the Mess Hall. “So this is my new wake-up call.”

“-if we’re gonna stop them, we’ve got to move fast,” Bradford finishes. “Retaliation due in two weeks, facility built in four, and there’s a data relay sending info we might be interested in over at the Parisian City Center. You’re welcome, sir.

“Thank you, Central.” The Commander stands. “The Skyranger can make it from here, so don't move the Avenger. Round up Menace Team and put Firebrand on standby.”

“Can we spam porn at them too?” Suleiman gripes, pencil dropping from his fingers. “Just flood all of ADVENT’s servers with guro and futa.”

“You want to… DDOS them.” Bradford scratches his head. “Not a bad thought. Shen, can you work up a virus?”

“Could try repurposing that ADVENT worm,” Shen says. “I still haven’t forgiven whoever brought that aboard. How can anyone work while the Speaker’s screaming, ‘hand yourself over to the nearest ADVENT officer’ and ‘Degenerates–‘“

–and mistakes of the old world,” the ADVENT Speaker’s voice filters through the Mess Hall.

“Sorry, sir!” Kholi calls from his place near the radio. The soldier turns the dial to V-Day’s Resistance Report.

“Considering some of our men’s intriguing… proclivities,” Tygan says, “he may have a point about mistakes of the old world.”

“By the way, Commander, a soldier has been banned from the labs.” Bradford grimaces. “You know why.”

Shen slides a finger along her Bolter. “Do you ever wonder if God stays in His heaven, because He too fears what He has created?”

 


 

It is your duty to protect your men,” the Assassin says. The after-images of Suleiman’s crushed body and the eggcase that had consumed Kholi’s have finally faded into the void. “Something you have failed while hiding on your ship.”

The Commander coughs. “So, while we wait for the world to reload, I thought I’d introduce you to my men’s hard work.”

The Assassin sneers. “You take credit for their labor as well?”

“No, this is all them. Chapter 1 of 20. Alien interrogation, the hard way. The good doctor was used to long, hard instruments, but the magnificent specimen before her had a plump co–“

Hands clamping over her ears, the Assassin whiled the rest of the loading screen away by declaring her dreams of returning the Commander to the Elders’ control.

Unfortunately for her, Kokoren had written a story that added whips and ball-gags to that scene.

Save.reload(“Peru”)#97

- 01:27:51

It’s a hard fought mission, interspersed with the Assassin appearing like the world’s most persistent stalker to try and drag a man off. Kokoren snaps Ivanova out of her daze with a good slap to the face. Ivanova manages to get the psionic tracker onto the Assassin’s leg before the Chosen took off. According to the data, mined from an ADVENT satellite, the Assassin is performing a very jittery dance all over Africa. They’re not sure how long they have until the Assassin figures out she’s tagged.

Geist had only laughed when informed of this. “It’s hot. She’s wearing all leather,” the armor-clad soldier had said. “Perhaps we can finish her off after she collapses from heat-stroke.”

“What a cheap way to die,” Bradford had said. “We can only hope. Speaking of heat-stroke, want a drink?”

“Are you making a move on me, Central?” Geist asks.

“A literal drink. Water.” Although Bradford can’t see Geist’s face, he’s pretty sure the leader’s eyebrows are shooting off their face. “Why?”

“I’ve seen what your men have created. I think it’s a fair question.”

“Some of us are professionals,” Bradford says, guiding the Templar leader to the Mess hall.

 


 

He returns to the Commander’s Quarters, still buzzing with energy. His schedule, on the other hand, says that Bradford should have been asleep about two hours ago. Skin still steaming from the shower, Bradford collapses onto his bunk. It’s a shame he has decided to limit his alcohol intake. The rotgut under his cot would put an elephant to sleep. He allows himself a mouthful before settling onto his pillow.

Once, he would have put the Commander on a pedestal, a shining beacon of leadership and union between the Earth’s governments and armies. Now that Bradford is aware of the Commander’s proficiency in kinks… he’s not quite sure what to think. On one hand, too much information. On the other, not enough.

Bradford doesn’t know anyone well enough on the Avenger. He can list off compatibility stats, past injuries, service records and the Avenger’s resources unprompted. He knows Shen was born in Taipei, but moved to San Fran, and loves anime and W40K. Kid’s a nerd. He knows Tygan was born in Chicago, got a double doctorate in chemistry and pharmacology, and was commandeered into studying the brain for ADVENT. He knows Firebrand was a rookie in the RAF, is the daughter of one of the European XCOM’s Raven pilots, and has a better sleight of hand than any of the Marines he knew. The Central Officer could name any of the soldiers’ family members or embarrassing things they did as a kid. But he knows nothing about the Commander.

He would like to know his superior more. There are scars lining the Commander’s back, radiating off his superior’s skin at odd angles like the path of bomb shrapnel. They could be from the stasis suit: there were those nasty hooks that dug into the Commander’s spine to prevent muscle atrophy. They could be from an IED. His superior has deft hands, just large enough to wrap around Bradford’s throat. The middle and index fingers on his Commander’s left hand are crooked. He thinks they’d look nice curled around his cock.

Bradford freezes. Well. That would be one way to work off the excess energy. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.

The Central Officer slides a hand down his chest. His Commander doesn’t seem one to play rough, despite being a little too gleeful about the tentacles drawing the Reapers dropped off at the Hunter’s hideout in Venice. Bradford wouldn’t mind taking orders while his Commander straddles his hips.

His hand drifts lower. The Commander is definitely a tease. Bradford cups his balls. He thinks his Commander would crack jokes about exploring the AO while fingering Bradford’s ass. He would try to pull the Commander’s shirt off, seeking the warmth of skin. His superior would laugh it off and pin him down, then spread his legs open like a butterfly on a board. I don’t remember you being so insubordinate, Central, he thinks the Commander would say.

Bradford shudders as he finally strokes his cock. Instead of lust, an undercurrent of disgust runs through him.

He tries again, thinking of pushing the Commander against the wall of the cleaning closet. Bradford strokes himself, plays his fingers over the head. The urge to throw up only intensifies. He’s nowhere near hard, and the energy that once filled him has been replaced by nausea. He wants to feel his superior in his hands, moaning curses into his neck. His body does not respond.

Bradford sighs. Whiskey dick. He rests his hand over his heart, trying to swallow the shame.

This too will pass, he tries to convince himself, settling back into the bed and pulling the blankets over his head.

It’s the possibility of never going back to normal that frightens him.

 


“I will bring you into the Elders’ embrace!” the Assassin declares as she disappears into thin air.

Kelly laughs as she readies her shotgun. “Damn Commander, you’ve got some taste in women.”

“Chain smoker, stalkerish, sleazy…” Evans hums and readies a ball of psionic energy. “Guessing you hung out around Army bars, didn’t you sir?”

“What are you talking about?” Bradford catches his superior glancing at Chief Shen and Dr. Tygan. “I’ve got great taste in men and women.”

“Sorry, sugar tits,” Kelly calls out. “The Commander’s spoken for!”

“Will you stop calling me that?!” the Assassin shrieks.

Kelly riddles the air with shotgun pellets. Orange ichor fountains off a suspiciously svelte figure in the middle of the street.

“Works every time,” she chuckles.

“YOU ARE SHOOTING ME.” Rookie Amanust appears from thin air, the Assassin’s blade at her throat. The soldier’s body withers, revealing the Specter hiding within.

“…How can this be?” The Assassin looks down the block, where Amanust’s prone body lies discarded on the road. “This was not supposed to happen!”

“A matroyshka doll of fuckups,” Melnick says. “Who am I supposed to shoot?”

Bradford scans Amanust’s vitals. Her armor beeps with life one second, then all vital signs disappear the next. It’s as if the soldier is glitching in and out of reality. “What the hell is happening down there?”

“I’ll save us all the headache,” his Commander says. The world flips inside out.

 

"What's wrong? Not good enough?” The Assassin paces back and forth in the Void as thy wait for the world to return. “Your men won't remember, but we both know what happened when you failed them. "

“Even you don’t know who the real soldier is?” the Commander asks.

“I am a conduit for the Elders’ power.” The Assassin settles into a meditative pose. “It is an honor to serve them to the best of my abilities.”

The Commander sits, brow wrinkling. The ground in the Void is surprisingly soft. “So… they’re using you.”

“They have given me purpose. It is no different than you and your soldiers.”

“My men chose this of their free will.” The Commander looks at the Chosen, into eyes born of madness and psionic energy. “But you were created. You never had a choice, did you? You don’t get to decide if you live or die.”

“I don’t run and hide behind a loading screen,” the Assassin states. “This is my duty. I will bring you into the fold, Commander. The Earth will be mine.”

“If the Elders keep their promises.” The Commander stands, as the blue light of the Hologlobe bursts into the Void. “I’d feel sorry for you, if you weren’t busy mind-raping my men.”

Save.reload(“Malaysia”)#117

- 05:48:12

“Hey, sugar tits!” Kelly yells. “Come out, come out, wherever you are! The candy man’s here!”

“I’m pretty sure this constitutes as sexual harassment,” Melnick says. “Ah, well. They started it.” The squad leader looks at his team, three soldiers short thanks to the mission parameters. “Hey, Central. Amanust looks a bit funny.”

"Nothing personal, kid," the Psi op mutters as she staggers around the street.

“Specter,” the Commander says beside Bradford. “Heal her, it should knock the Specter out.”

“…We’re Rangers, and fuck!” A psionic blast of energy knocks Melnick onto his ass. The Assassin materializes three feet away. Dark psionic energy crackles around her katana. “Ooh… she’s turning new tricks…”

“Awww, it doesn’t work anymore!” Kelly runs over, machete held aloft. “Bastard, hang in there!”

“Kelly, just shoot her!” the Commander snaps.

The Assassin grabs Melnick and forces his head up. The Ranger struggles, punching her with all his might, motions becoming erratic as he succumbs to panic. “Not again,” he pants into his mike. “Not again, not again, get out of my head!”

The Specter that has invaded Amanust decides to help out the Assassin by firing on Kelly. Bullets pierce the Ranger’s armor, hitting soft flesh and bone. Kelly’s vitals go all over the place.

“We’re not leaving you behind,” Bradford says. Despite the halo of psionic energy around Melnick’s head, the Assassin appears to have made no progress in penetrating his mind. “Hang on, Melnick. We’ll get you out of there.”

“Got it, sir,” Melnick slurs.

The Assassin bangs Melnick’s head against the pavement. His eyes loll back. His attacker grins. The halo of psionic energy spikes.

Though she’s bleeding out, Kelly loads her shotgun and fires on the Assassin.

Pellets pierce both the Assassin’s midsection and Melnick’s shoulders. The Chosen yowls and lets go of the Ranger.

“We will see each other soon!” she declares, and disappears in a psionic mist.

Kelly drops to her knees beside the downed Ranger. “Here to save the day,” she pants, throwing herself over his body. Amanust’s bullets shred through her lower legs, protecting Melnick’s vulnerable neck and head.

“This is the worst rescue ever,” Melnick mutters as he drags them both behind an alcove. He pats down his pants for the medkit. “Thanks, partner.”

“So… how do we get Amanust back?” Kelly asks as the nanobots in the medkit stitch her flesh together. She shakes the disperser. “Damn it. Empty.”

Melnick cocks his head. “…You said healing powers work, right?"

 

“Not another word.”

“It wasn’t that bad!” Melnick protests.

“So friendship counts as a healing power,” Shen says, not looking up from the brace she’s adjusting over Amanust’s back. “We’ve gone full anime. Don’t move too much, Amanust, or your arm won't heal right.”

“I’m a lesbian for a reason!” Amanust glares at her rescuer. “Couldn’t have been Kelly–“

“Someone’s a bit ungrateful,” Rosalez comments from Melnick’s bedside. “You know, thank you is two syllables and don’t cost nothing to say.”

“I’m flattered,” Kelly says, lying back on her cot, “but back then, I was pretty much focusing on getting you out alive. And I’m a bit shot up.”

“I’m trying to forget that an alien just took over my head, almost succeeded in making me kill my friends, and we all almost died.” Amanust takes a shuddering breath. “Yeah, that big lout over there is the least of my problems. But it’s something I can solve.”

Silence falls over the AWC. Shen's tablet beeps. She excuses herself.

Bešlagić pats the foot of her cot. “Well, you’ve got that moron over there,” he says, gesturing to Melnick’s bed, “the trigger happy ranger here,” he points to Kelly, “the even more trigger happy one,” he gestures to Shen, “and us two idiots here.” He motions to himself and Rosalez. “We’ve all been possessed by the Chosen at one time or another.”

“Cough it up, Amanust,” Kelly says gently, gingerly moving off her bed to sit at her teammate’s side. “We’ve got your back.”

“Want us to set you up with someone?” Rosalez asks. “Hear Central’s got a–“

“For God’s sake,” Bradford’s voice filters over the intercom, “it’s not a dating service!”

Kelly looks up at the speaker. “We’re the reason why he drinks, aren’t we?”

Amanust laughs weakly and taps the Specialist on the arm. “Knowing you guys, you’d set me up with a Skirmisher or a Berserker.”

“Excuse me, Reapers are all the rage now,” Melnick says with mock insult. His voice softens. “I’m sorry, soldier.”

“We’re good,” Amanust says. "But you're buying drinks at the next Haven."

 


 

How many times did that rookie die?”

“I’m going to have one of my soldiers carve a dildo,” the Commander says, “so you can go fuck yourself.”

The Warlock snorts. “How rude.”

“You know what’s really rude? Spying on somebody while they sleep. Didn’t the Elders teach you manners?” The Commander’s hands tighten on the imaginary sheets. “You are the alien equivalent of a windowless van.”

“Says the murderer.”

“Anyways, am I asleep, or did I die again?”

“Rest assured, the Elders will not let you die. They provide for all of their charges, for we must be united for what lies ahead.”

The Warlock conjures ghosts – Kelly, Leong, Shen, and good old Bradford – all under the Elders’ so-called care. The Commander stares into Bradford’s hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. The Elders’ influence has wiped the soul from the man’s eyes. The Central Officer lets out a moan, uncannily like the Lost.

The Warlock grins, all sharp teeth and wild white hair. “This is what awaits if you stray from their path.”

“Well, that’s creepy as all fuck,” the Commander says as calmly as possible.

 

“Late night, sir?” Bradford tuts as he brings two mugs of coffee into the conference room. “I told you to go to bed earlier.”

“The warlock,” the Commander mutters, accepting a cup. “Still bothering me. After I’m done conferencing with Betos, I’ll run by the men. Hope they’ve got ideas.”

“What’s he got to say this time?” The Central Officer blows on his mug. Steam wafts over the table. “Oooh, spooky, look at all the ghosts I can pull out of my ass.”

Look at what will become of your men if you fail.” The Commander musters a laugh. “You wouldn’t make a bad looking Lost.”

“…Sir, I’ve never questioned if there was a necrophiliac on board, and I’m not starting today.” Bradford takes a sip of coffee – sadly, not spiked with alcohol – and sets a hand on his Commander’s shoulder. “The aliens have lied to us over and over again.”

“But what are we missing? What is so important that they can’t tell us?”

He grips until fabric squeaks beneath his nails. “Commander. They’re lying to you. If it were so damn important that we all have to kumbayah and work together, they’d lay down their weapons and tell us outright. They’ve mind-raped our men. They’ve killed far more of our friends. There is no damn reason you should give them a second more than they deserve.”

“I’m guessing that’s none.”

Bradford claps his superior on the back. “Look at that tactical mind. I knew I brought you back for a reason.”

“All right, drink your coffee. You get snippy without the alcohol.” The Commander cups the mug. “Can I get a restraining order? Are there any police to enforce that? But then I’d have to tell the Chosen where I live…”

“After this, sir, I’ll be surprised if ADVENT doesn’t file a RO against you.

“They started it,” the Commander pouts.

 


 

Delela hums to herself as she watches over the city street in downtown Kinshasa. “What are those horns for, anyways?”

“Concentrate,” Bradford tells her.

“No, really. Viking helmets didn’t have horns because they were too easy to grab,” Delela insists as she readies her gun. Bradford understands why the Sharpshooter is distracted. The mission to rescue an ADVENT scientist will have to be set back a few days: XCOM lacks sufficient infiltration to get the man out alive. The sniper is only there to make sure her fellow infiltrators make it to the hideout. She has sat on this apartment rooftop for the past 2 days, waiting for a Chosen to show up. Intel points to the Warlock being the most likely culprit. “All right, signing off.”

“He looks like a demonic goat,” her fellow infiltrator, Cpl. Lauro, says as he enters the apartment block. “Maybe he’s just really into goats.”

Delela huffs. “I’m really into snakes, but you don’t see me putting on a Viper skin and hissing all over the place.”

“Think about it,” Lauro insists. The video feed from his camera shakes as he climbs the stairs. “He’s got the horns, the white mane, the crazy eyes… he’s a goat simulator.”

“Will you two quit chatting and help me out?” Evans screams as he bolts down the street, an entire platoon of troopers behind him.

 


“Goat simulator… yeah, I can see it. Goats are the devil anyways,” Bešlagić says, guiding the barbel back onto the rack. Rosalez sits up with a groan, rubbing his forearms all the while. “Those ghosts haven’t been pulled from heaven, can tell you that much.”

“Too long.” Kholi drapes a wet towel over Leong’s shoulders. His boyfriend thanks him with a peck on the cheek. “Why not goat sim?”

“Goatse,” Delela agrees as she passes a protein bar to her new girlfriend, Amanust.

Bradford loses grip of the pull up bar and goes crashing down to the floor.

“I’m too old for this,” he mumbles.

 


 

“This should be her last hide-out in Africa,” Geist says as they lead the Menace team into the halls of Kigali’s Natural History Museum. “If this is not her base, then it is the one near Addis Ababa.”

“Don’t know how she jaunts around in that leather suit.” Delela wipes the sweat dripping off her face and onto her armor’s camera. “Jeez, I’m cooking in here.”

“That looks it,” Kelly says, staring at the haunt. ADVENT machines whir amongst the bones of long-extinct animals: massive elephants, towering giraffes and hulking elands, all killed off by ADVENT’s death squads. “Damn… so that’s what we lost.”

Evans sighs. “She was here recently. Those vines’ leaves are crushed.”

“Could be a Lost,” Kelly says.

Delela searches among the piles of machinery. “But look at that whetstone. It’s still wet.”

“I don’t see anyone here,” Ivanova says. The Reaper cloaks and disappears from sight. After a moment, she reappears. “No life signs around. You’re right, Geist.”

Finally, a Reaper admits a Templar knows something,” Geist writes out in letters formed from psionic energy.

Ivanova claps them on the back. The Viper King hoodie over her shoulders wobbles. “I can play nice sometimes. Welp. Pack up and set the charges.”

“Sounds good to me,” the Templar leader says. “I’ll even let you have the honors, XCOM.”

Evans holds up his hands. “Wait, wait. We need to make this as creepy as possible. You know. To make her skeevy of visiting any other hide outs she might have.”

“Bouquet of flowers,” Delela suggests. "Classic nice guy approach."

“You’ve got gun oil?” Kelly drags a long, withered branch from a fallen tree next to a brass statue of a lion. She unsheathes the carving knife from its place on her thigh. “Keep the Lost off my back. I gotsa idea.”

 


The Commander winces.

Bradford looks up from his paperwork. “Something wrong?”

“The Assassin just reached her hideout.”

 


“THAT’S IT! I QUIT! YOU CAN HAVE THIS DAMN PLANET!” the Assassin shrieks, loud enough for even non-psi operatives to hear. “TAKE IT, YOU FILTHY ANIMALS!"

“That’s what she said,” Bešlagić whispers.

“NO! NO MORE! I DON’T BELIEVE IN A GOD, BUT YOU ALL NEED SOME SORT OF RELIGION. THE ELDERS CAN TAKE YOU THEMSELVES.”

“Never been into spirit porn,” Kelly muses. “How does that work, anyways? They’ve got nothing on them.”

“Maybe you just walk in on them,” Suleiman suggests, “and your asshole’s opening a–“

“NO. NO. ENOUGH OF THAT. GOODBYE.”

A gunshot rings through the psionic connection.

“This was not the way I wanted history to be written,” Shen says.

“Let’s make sure she’s dead,” the Commander says. “Cue up the squad. Bring the lube just in case.”

“Ding, dong, the witch is dead.” Bradford turns on his mike. “Sword team, lock and load.”

 


“Well, shit,” Evans says. “I never liked you, but this is a terrible way to die.”

The Assassin gapes up at him, half her jaw blown off, the other half horribly mangled. Anger hardens in her eyes. She reaches for her katana, but her limbs are weak, and cannot move a foot over to secure her weapon.

“She should be dead,” Tygan muses. “The shot would have exited through the medulla, destroying the ventilation center.”

“It’s the base, isn’t it?” Ivanova says, looking around at the dark crystals emanating psionic power. “You can’t die when there’s so much psionic power in you. Wait. Is it the Elders’ power running through you? Can you not die if they’re still alive?”

The Assassin tries to load her shotgun, but her blood-coated hands slip off the shells.

“Menace 1-5, put her out of her misery,” the Commander says quietly.

“She’s a monster,” Kelly says, hard edges in her voice. “I say we let her rot.”

“True,” Bradford says, “but we’re not. Take the shot.”

 

Chapter Text

“Where did you get that weapon?” the Warlock snaps upon XCOM’s next meeting with the somewhat creepy religious fanatic.

Kelly hefts the Assassin’s sword. “Uh, mall ninja shit. Nothing personal to you, goatse.”

The Warlock snarls. “The Gods have far better taste than my sister. I will not mourn her death, but she deserved better than you.”

“Dunno,” Melnick says, “not really a fan of all that black and red. Are the Elders gamers?”

Bradford restrains a sigh. “Get to shooting his ass already.”

The Warlock decides to blast Kelly with a shot that carves out a good chunk of her chest.

“He didn’t mean you,” the Commander says, and reloads.

 

Save.reload(“Greece”)#124

- 00:35:17

 

“This is why ADVENT won,” the Warlock says. “Your men need… guidance. The Elders would lead them to the right path.”

“You looked up goatse, didn’t you?” The Commander’s lips curl. “So, if ADVENT saved the Internet, have you given 4Chan a go? Lots of very interesting things there. Right up your alley.”

“You have no idea what awaits you.”

“Nor you.”

 

“I’ve always been a fan of teeth,” the Commander muses.

“Do you think it will be different this time?” the Warlock demands from an alcove in the abandoned high rise. Girac’s body cam captures the alien lips, bared in a grin. “Because I look forward to killing your men again.”

“Bite me.”

The Warlock looks confused. “Did you not–“

He doesn’t finish the sentence, as a high-powered plasma slug pierces his mouth and smashes his lower jaw. The Warlock screams and teleports away.

By the Elders’ grace, I’ll be back!” his ghostly voice says as it fades away.

“You could’ve kept the teeth,” the Commander says petulantly.

“Sorry, Commander,” Suleiman says, “you’ll just have to enjoy someone else’s pearly whites.”

Tygan side-eyes his superior. “That is far too much information.”

Bradford can faintly hear screaming over the psionic network.

 


 

They’re in the Mess Hall, celebrating the increase in XCOM’s relationship with the Templars. Geist has revealed himself, and is finally talking, but is still an asshole. Apparently XCOM had a psionics program running? Bradford doesn’t remember having that asshole running around the base. Betos has passed along a covert action mission – it’s hard to tell with Skirmishers, but he’s pretty sure Betos is a she. Bradford is starting to wonder if he drank too much.

Then again, when the Commander is blatantly flirting with a subordinate right in front of him, Bradford may not be drunk enough.

“Oh, come on sir. I know I’m your favorite.” Suleiman strokes the pistol at his thigh. “I don’t miss, even at close range.”

The Commander smiles. “At least take me out for dinner first.”

Cpt. Suleiman blows his superior a kiss. “Dunno what the Mess Hall offers that’s cordon bleu. Will you settle for ambiguously recycled protein blocks and possibly poisonous plant salad?”

“I’ll have the chef’s special. Burgers of ambiguous meat, possibly rat, possibly Faceless,” the Commander replies with a sweeping bow. “And you, my Captain?”

“XCOM, the dating sim! For all those people who don’t have a life!” Rosalez cheers from the corner.

“Because of the aliens,” Delela says, hooking an arm around Amanust’s shoulders.

“Even without the aliens,” Shen says, side-eying Bradford. “Hey, Commander, better quit before the old man has an aneurysm.”

“Wouldn’t want to reset for my favorite second-in-command,” his superior says, and flashes him a grin.

“I’m your only second, sir. Speaking of which, the Chosen continue to gain knowledge–“

As Bradford talks, he catches sight of Suleiman making a heart with his hands, and pouting as he breaks it apart. The Commander hides a snigger before snapping back to Bradford’s speech.

He’s not jealous.

 


 

Alarms blare around the Avenger. Somehow, the Warlock has tracked them down to a desolate plain in the mountains of Peru. The Warlock charges towards the Avenger’s ramp, psionic ghosts cascading off his form. Bradford has seen this happen time and time again - he raises his rifle, ready to defend XCOM to his last breath–

Engines whirr.

The Chosen comes to an abrupt stop as the SPARK’s cannons come online.

“Finish him,” Bradford says, as the Warlock’s body drops to the floor. He won't steal this kill. Not when it's a lovely display of Shen's engineering prowess.

Shen cocks her Bolter, and fires point blank.

 

“Aww, come on! Seriously?! He’s still alive?” Leong complains. “He got turned into chunky salsa!”

“Your precious Commander isn’t the only save scummer,” the Hunter says, his voice floating in on presumably a psionic wind.

“I call hacks,” Suleiman declares, then stares at his superior. “Wait. You save scum?”

"I have no idea what he's talking about," the Commander says with a shrug. "I'm just a judicious user of the reload button."

 


 

Despite appearances, there is rarely free time aboard the Avenger. The average soldier’s schedule consists of seven hours of sleep, an hour to clean up and eat, an hour PT or class training, then the rest of the day until dinner is spent either on missions or maintaining weapons or the various minutiae that keep the Resistance running. Dinner goes for two hours, as soldiers must also help cook. There’s about two more hours for the soldiers on day shift to do whatever the hell they want and meet up with night shift. Then off to bed it is.

The urge to drink gnaws at Bradford’s brain, but he focuses on taking small sips from the beer before him. It has to last until lights out.

Beside him, Shen and the Commander are discussing Warhammer 40K again. Bradford never saw what the old doctor liked in the game, but Shen has a tiny figurine of a Salamanders Space Marine tucked into her pocket. He doesn’t question why. Some things are meant to be private.

Scouting the lost city of Kelowna, Canada, the soldiers found a small gaming shop. Most of the books had rotted beyond repair, and the figurines had shattered into plastic dust at the lightest touch. Somehow, a few rule books and tie-in novels had survived the two decades since they were printed. Shen has her personal copy. The rest of the books go to the Avenger’s lounge.

“–I used to like the Tanith First and Only, but after dad died…” Shen shakes her head. “The Salamanders have a good battle cry. Into the fires of battle, unto the anvil of war!

The Commander speaks up. “I like the Lamenters.”

Shen flips through the anthology of Warhammer 40K characters. “But they have so much bad luck. Why not the Salamanders? They still help people. Or the Black Templars? ‘No Remorse! No Pity! No Fear!’”

“And the Lamenters?”

Shen’s face falls. “For those we cherish, we die in Glory,” she recites. “Yeah… I can see how that works.”

 


 

“…Is that MEC floating?” Melnick waves his arms. “That’s such bullshit! I grenaded the floor! Why didn’t he take fall damage?”

Bradford stares at the ½ ton robot, which repositions itself on what used to be the roof of a truck. A Lost attempt to claw at the MEC, but falls through the gap and impales itself on the twisted metal. Across the map, the Hunter curses in bewilderment that he has finally missed a shot.

“Uh, Commander? I think we broke the Matrix,” he says.

"…Fix your shit, Solomon," his superior says, and the world inverts.

Save.reload(“Greece”)#127

- 00:20:54

 

The Hunter salutes in a mockery of a soldier’s bearing. "How many times has this thing 'crashed' now?"

I can uninstall you,” the Commander says. “I’m not sure how, but I will uninstall you, and wipe you from the face of the Earth.”

“Bold words.” The Hunter struts before XCOM’s leading officer. “And yet we still stand here, in this flat white plane.”

“…I’m looking for the delete button. These powers didn’t exactly come with a tutorial. Did yours?”

“You could come back to the Elders and give me the Earth. I’m sure they would be positively delighted to help you out.”

“Fat fucking chance. Enjoyed Brighton?”

The Hunter laughs. “Too sunny for me. I need more gloom and doom. Just what the Elders prescribed.”

 

One defeated yet somehow not dead Hunter late, Bradford heads down to the bar. He stops just outside. The Commander and Kelly are sitting together: not the huddle of co-conspirators, more the distance of a teacher and student.

“But what do you do when… when the person you love just… they’re the stars in the sky and sun of your orbit, but they… they just don’t love you?” Kelly swallows a nervous laugh and drinks. “I want them. I could love him better than the other – I’m sorry, I’m just bitter. I don’t have a chance,” she says quietly.

“Is there something in the way?” the Commander asks.

“Fraternization regs,” Kelly admits. “XCOM’s pretty loose about’em, but… it’s just not like him to break that rule.”

The Commander blows out a breath. “Is it who I think he is?”

“As sure as I am about the two you’re crushing on.”

The Commander sits back, long legs loosely thrown over the bar stool. His superior sips from the glass of whiskey. “Well… not much. Not when their morals are incompatible with your desires. Or if their orientations just don’t match. I hope I can be part of their lives. I work to make them happy. I want to stay their friends.” His superior shrugs. “That’s about all you can do, Kelly.”

The Ranger looks away. “It’s stupid. We’re fighting a war, for God’s sake. So why did it have to be him?” she murmurs. “Why not someone my own age?”

“I’m not the best person to ask, Kelly, when I’m guilty of the same thing.” The Commander refills Kelly’s tumbler with a light, autumn colored ale. “You’ll find someone else who lights up your world and feels the exact same way for you.”

Bradford decides to take his leave. This conversation is not for him.

His urge to drink is significantly diminished.

 


 

“Central, I really don’t think you’ll get it up tonight.”

“Five more minutes,” he begs, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I’m almost there, I just–“

“John.” The Commander wraps an arm around his shoulders. “The relay will still be here in the morning.  I'll get the Reapers to have a look. Go to bed.”

Bradford bangs his fist into the steel frame. “Not if that fucking Chosen is still fucking–“

“Go to bed,” his Commander repeats. “I can work on it while you sleep. Everyone will still be here when you wake up. Then you can go for round two.”

Bradford sighs. He dusts off his pants as he stands. “Betos say anything about the Warlock?”

“The Skirmishers have destroyed another one of his hideouts,” the Commander says in a soothing tone. “All this will be over, one way or another.”

He looks into his superior's eyes, and for once in his life, he believes someone's telling him the truth.

 


 

“So you’re both named Konstantin Volkov?”

“What are the odds,” the man says dryly. “But yes.”

“One’s my friend,” Bradford said, punching the other man’s shoulder, “and the other drives me to drink. You decide which one.”

“Someone’s family was trashy, yes,” Konstantin, the woman, says. Bradford has faint memories of a vial of poison, but that never happened. He shrugs away the thought. “This is what happens when your drunken father picks names out of a hat.”

“Ah yes, the RNG method of naming your spawn,” Bradford says. “The Commander thought my first name was Central for how long?”

The Commander looks around at the rescued Haven civilians. One of them, a heavily pregnant woman, has already declared her desire to name her kid after her savior that day: Sgt. Kaytlynne Nevaeh Delela.

“All I’m saying is that it’s not that improbable,” his superior argues.

“Sure. Do you even have a real name?” Volkova – no relation to Volk – asks.

“Bradford, did you forget to update the archives with my name?” the Commander asks.

“Commander has a nice ring to it,” Bradford says quickly.

"Are you admitting to an authority kink?" Volk puts a hand over his broad chest. "Boy Scout Bradford, anything but vanilla? Volkova, is the sky falling?"

"Nose out, Volk."

He forgot.

 


 

Tragedy strikes yet once again, when the Warlock comes calling. The Chosen says he pulls his warriors from the void, and that shakes Bradford’s belief in a Heaven and Hell, because Rosalez is bleeding out and the psionic essence leaking from him forms a terrifyingly similar psionic ghost.

“One more day,” Rosalez breathes, the rattle of blood wet in his lungs. “One more day, please.”

“Hang on, buddy – SOFY!” Melnick screams in Bešlagić’s direction. “Medkit!”

“I blow things up!” his partner and friend yells back, tears quivering in his voice. Bešlagić charges towards the duo, heedless of the psionic ghosts that grab at his ankles. “I can’t fix them!”

Bradford wills Rosalez to hold on. He glances at the Commander – surely, his superior must have some ace in the hole, he doesn’t think Bešlagić and Melnick can survive without their trio–

Rosalez slips away, shivering and crying as death descends upon him.

The Void consumes Melnick’s screams.

 

Save.reload(“Canada”)#132

- 00:10:00

 

“There’s a special place in the Void for those who subvert the Elders!” the Warlock declares, and shoots Rosalez. Despite the full cover that shields the soldier on three sides, the lucky bullet pierces the weakened plates of Rosalez’s armor and instantly kills him.

 

Save.reload(“Canada”)#134

- 00:26:52

 

“Urgh… not feeling so good,” Rosalez says as he hits the ground. He doubles up. “Got this… killer of a headache…”

Bradford glances at his tablet. The soldier is lightly wounded (from what? His subconscious whispers), but the Commander needed their only power trio out in the field today. XCOM can afford to field a wounded man.

Melnick slides up against Rosalez to support the other man. “Hey. Hey, Commander, maybe we should send–“

The Warlock chooses to make his appearance by summoning a horde of psionic ghosts to the gathered Menace team.

This time around, Rosalez and Kelly both die.

 

Save.reload(“Canada”)#137

- 00:26:52

 

“I can do this.” The Commander’s fist clenches. “I can save them. I can give him one more day.”

“It’s okay, sir.”

The Commander’s head snaps up. “Rosalez?”

“Does this make me an extra concentrated ghost?” The Specialist grins and rubs the back of his head as he materializes. “I am the ghost of your regrets… spooooooopy…”

“Not funny.”

“Yeah. It’s not.” Rosalez plops onto the floor. “You can stop now, sir. I won’t hold it against you.”

The Commander ponders the void. “I don’t know if I can do that to Melnick and Bešlagić.”

“Yeah… it’s gonna hurt them big time. But it’s no picnic rubberbanding between life and death.”

“One more time,” the Commander pleads. “If it doesn’t work… I’ll let you rest.”

Rosalez nods, stands and salutes. “I trust you, sir. See you on the other side.”

 

Save.reload(“Canada”)#138

- 00:47:12

 

“How little faith do you have in your men, Commander?” the Warlock croons. There is a definite rattle in his voice, probably from Kelly doing her best to shish-kebab him. “My loss today was unfortunate, but it is as the Elders command.”

“I, for one, like being alive,” Rosalez comments as he swaggers into the Bar with a clean bill of health. “So thank you, oh Great Commandy One, for fucking around with the timeline. Or actual tactics that keep me alive.”

“And thank you for adding to my kill count!” Bešlagić cheers.

“It won’t last long,” the Warlock says, “the Elders take what is theirs."

“Who the fuck let that asshole near a radio?” Bradford grumbles over his beer.

“Psionics are a wonderful thing,” the smug voice of the Hunter says. “And a terrible curse, the Commander’s Second.”

“So rude. Won’t even learn our names.” Melnick sets down his beer. “This is the shittiest one night stand I’ve ever had.”

The air vibrates as the two Chosen waver. Then something pops, and the psionic pressure eases.

“Think they went to nab a dictionary?” Rosalez asks.

“Oh, yeah.” Bešlagić drains his beer. “Nobody wants to fuck a dried up eggplant.”

 


 

The Warlock grabs hold of Kokoren, and begins to infiltrate Kokoren’s mind. Tendrils of psionic energy wrap around her head.

“…This is not what I wanted!” the Warlock shrieks. “What is wrong with humans?”

 

“See? Whips and chains are great!” Back aboard the Avenger, Kokoren blanches. “Uh, except for the times they aren’t. Sorry, doctor.”

Tygan keeps wrapping the bandages around her arm. “Let’s pretend we never spoke about this.”

The Commander places a hand on his shoulder. “Relax, Bradford. We’re winning the war and hearts and minds.”

“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” Bradford mutters. “What happened to meet new aliens, then shoot them? When did we add fuck them into the mix?”

Tygan shoots the Commander a concerned glance. His superior nods.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” his superior says, guiding him out of the AWC. "And maybe a massage to loosen you up."

 

"Central? Should I stop? You're making… strange noises."

“No, keep doing that.” Bradford bites his tongue as the Commander’s hands work his lats. “I can forgive the flirting, and the porn, and the weird fetishes if – damn.”

“Degenerates!” the ADVENT Speaker proclaims over the radio. Bradford restrains a groan – for some reason, his superior tunes into this of all things? “They engage in sordid affairs in their base, all while the rest of us suffer!”

“They really love that word, don’t they?” the Commander asks, hands moving up to knead his trapezius.

“Well, he did just admit – ngh! – the civvies suffer – oh god – under them.”

There’s a sound like a psionic link snapping.

“Huh. We weirded out the ADVENT Speaker,” the Commander says. “Achievement unlocked!”

Bradford drags his Commander’s hands back onto his shoulders. “I didn’t tell you to stop.”

 


 

“Well, damn. Chief Shen’s got quite the eye,” the Commander says. “Let me scan that, and we’ll leave a copy at the Warlock’s hideout.”

Bradford’s mind is currently rebooting as he looks at the Titanic-esque rendition of the Warlock. He looks at Delela’s contribution, sitting in a pile to be delivered by the Skirmishers, and quickly erases that – although artistically admirable – from his memory.

“Is there an alien equivalent of French pose?” The Commander’s tablet emits a pale blue light as it picks up the details on the charcoal laden paper. “They used to be an independent species. Surely they had mating rituals. The Mutons have tattoos, perhaps–“

“Do you want to drive me to drink, Commander?”

“Quite the opposite. I like you better sober.” The Commander’s shoulders slump. “Might take a page out of your book.”

“Oh boy. Is the Commander developing morals in a war of the chosen?”

The Commander’s head shakes. “Our actions caused the Assassin to take her life,” his superior says softly. “Our enemy she may have been. In a better world, we might have been allies. What a waste of a life.”

“In a better world, she never would have existed.” Bradford grips his superior by the shoulders. “Our cause is just. She was harassing the Templar faction. It was our lives, or hers.”

“Still, I wish… I wish life had been fair to us all.”

Bradford has thousands of words to say, but now is not the time. He leans in, and rests his head against the Commander’s. They stay there, supporting each other, until their communicators ring with an impending Haven assault.

 


 “That’s… rapey,” Bradford says, sliding the tablet back to the soldier.

“I thought you said anything goes,” Lauro says.

“Yes, but…” the Commander sighs. “We’ve still got morals. How about this? Draw them like they’re enjoying it. Make it looks like we’re the Resistance, and they can’t resist us.”

“Ethics in porn,” Lauro grumbles. “And gangbangs! Never thought I’d see the day.”

“We’re waging psychological warfare," Bradford tells him. "We’re not monsters.”

 

“The Elders would guide you!” the Warlock says, somewhere in the distance. Bradford has noticed that this Chosen has moved progressively farther away, possibly because XCOM’s Skirmisher is in the team. “They did not have to forgive your sins! And yet you shun them!”

“So, uh, the Commander just kinkshamed me,” Lauro says, loud enough for the Warlock to hear. “So you’re not getting the gangbang treatment. Sorry about that.”

“The gods have followed you!” The air hisses with psionic energy, probably from the Warlock pulling his summoner bullshit again. “They would choose to uplift you! They have watched you for so long! And yet you turn away, and spit on their gift.”

“Get outta here, stalker,” Kelly tells the Warlock.

Mox, the Skirmisher, ignores her advice and pulls the Warlock in with his Ripjack.

 


 

“No, no, get this: skeletons,” Lauro says on his fifth try at keeping the Warlock busy enough that the Chosen will not try to raid the Avenger, “with ghost dicks.”

Ivanova tilts her head, intrigued. “So, a literal bone zone?”

Tygan looks at Bradford. “We drift further from God’s light everyday.”

 


 

Mox deposits the latest propaganda package on the console.

 “We did not break free from the Elders for this,” he says, and exits stage left.

Bradford takes a breath. He trained for a decade in the Marines, just to do this?

He turns on the intercom. “Take the…” Bradford’s face contorts as he realizes, yes, I will have to say this. “Burn the skeleton porn. We’re losing support in the Resistance because of this.”

“Hey, if it works!” Ivanova yells from the Living Quarters.

“We need the Skirmishers on our side!” Bradford sighs. “Oh, Commander. What madness have you unleashed?”

 


 

“Unclean,” the Warlock intones. “Unclean…”

Bradford leans against the bar. “Does that mean you’ll stop trying to take the Commander now?”

“I’m moving to Andromeda and setting up a monastery,” the Warlock says. “Good luck with the Elders.”

“Really? No last minute attempts to kill one of us?” Leung asks.

“I am forever unclean. Touching one of you will sully me further.”

"I object to that," Delela says. "I'm perfectly clean and innocent and lovable."

"I've seen the rule 34 you draw," Bradford tells her, "that first one's debatable."

 


 

“Well, I feel cheated,” Betos says as they gather around the fire. “Long have the Elders’ assassins chased us. Yet we have not had the chance to offer him the place in the Void he deserves.”

“Is it true?” the Commander asks. “The Elders are missing a spaceworthy craft?”

“My people can still hear echoes,” Betos confirms. “It is done. The Warlock is far from here.”

“He’ll be back,” Bradford says, “the Elders won’t let their precious pet get away. They’ve invested far too much in him.”

“We will go together,” Mox says, rotating his fillet over the fire, “and destroy the Warlock’s last stronghold. If he returns, he will finally fall.”

“We have a limited window of opportunity.” The Commander nods. “We’ll start the assault in two days. Let the Elders trip his traps first.”

Bradford looks at the soldiers splayed across the fields: some drinking, others gathered with their partners to drink. The Reapers mingle freely with the Templars, though he can hear an argument brewing that he’ll probably have to break up. The Skirmishers are far shyer, keeping to the edges of the party.

But this is home: Avenger, XCOM, and his Commander.

The fragile peace cannot and will not last. But for now, he sits back under the coverlet of stars, and listens to Betos’ war stories.

“That was stolen from Kokoren’s stories,” Mox says. “Do not try to fool the leader of these madmen.”

“I have far too much knowledge to ever be comfortable,” the Commander agrees.

 

Chapter Text

“What made the Warlock leave?” the Informant inquires.

The Commander hums. “I think it was… hmm, not quite sure actually. Probably the vore bursting series involving the three Chosen and a nest of Nazi Vipers.”

Bradford blinks.

The Informant is quiet for a few moments. “It is good that you lack access to nuclear weapons, Commander.”

 

Once the Informant has logged off, shaking his head all the while, Bradford turns to his superior. “Jesus Christ, sir. Remind me to never let you near my dick.”

“Wait, we drew the line at bone porn?”

“No, what you just described is like porn Mad Libs. Lauro’s work was scary. The Nazi Vipers…” Bradford shrugs helplessly. “It’s every sick fetish out there mashed into one. How do you deal with it?”

“Let it be known that I did it for humanity.” The Commander makes a face. “And that I need a drink to get the Nazi fetish out of my head. I might need to go kink-shame Girac. And Ivanova, for not keeping a lid on him.”

Bradford steers his superior away from his quarters, because there’s a secret stash of good whiskey hidden beneath his bed and he’s saving that for a celebration. This is not, by any definition, something to celebrate. “No, no. When you get drunk, you come up with crazy ideas like this. Bad Commander.”

“Are you going to punish me, Central?” The Commander’s grin widens. “I’m not opposed to the idea.”

The Central Officer cocks his head. “Let me grab Shen’s bolter…”

“Aw, Bradford,” his superior nudges him in the ribs, “don’t threaten me with a good time.”

Bradford shoves his Commander towards the communal showers. “Go freshen up,” he says, face flushing, “we’ve got to hit the Iraq facility, because the aliens continue to make progress on the Avatar Project.”

 


 

“Are… are you sure there’s nothing going on between you three?” Evans asks from his place on the floor of the Living Quarters. He eyes Rosalez’s attempts to rearrange Melnick’s hair. “That’s… uh, very boyfriend-ish.”

Melnick steeples his hands. “I believe,” he says solemnly, “that the Western world has so stigmatized affection between males that any sign of friendship is automatically deemed homosexual. Men need emotional care as well. Whether that comes as shooting the shit, or long embraces, or sitting together and commiserating, the slightest bit of emotion should not be considered gay. Rather, it should be seen as a natural reaction between friends. I care for Rosalez and Bešlagić. Their deaths would devastate me. Is it not natural that I spend my time living demonstrating how much they mean to me?”

“Of course not,” Kelly says as she pets Bešlagić’s hair with her mechanical arm.

Her boyfriend lets out a purr, stops and looks at his bondmates. “I didn’t know you had such a vocabulary,” Bešlagić laughs.

Rosalez tousles Melnick’s dark red hair affectionately as the larger man leans against him. “You big softie.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for healthy emotional relationships,” Leong says. Kholi pops a grape in his mouth. Leong chews, and swallows before continuing, “but you guys ran around shoving your fingers up each others’ asses–“

“The oil check!” Bešlagić chuckles. “Classic.”

“–Right,” Kholi says, “but I’m gay, and that’s a really gay thing to do.” He jerks his thumb in the Bridge’s direction. “If I ran around doing that to you, babe, Central would tell us to get a room.”

“Acts don’t define orientation,” Melnick argues. “We did it all the time in the army. And it was funny.”

“Whatever makes you happy, dude,” Leong says, and motions for Kholi to grab the bunch of grapes. “Hey. Food in food hole, please.”

“Not touching that with a ten foot pole,” Kelly says, rolling her eyes. “No, Roman, don’t you start! Bad Roman!” Bešlagić rolls out of her lap as he tries to dodge the gentle swats of her hands. Kelly catches him before he can thump against the hard metal floor. “Why do I put up with this?”

“The question of the year,” Bradford says as he walks into the Quarters. “Kelly, need you and Delela in the Hangar. Time to liberate supplies from ADVENT.”

 


 

“No. I know you made a promise, but you can’t mount the King’s head to the Skyranger,” Bradford tells Delela.

“We have all those heads floating around in the Hunter’s Lodge!” the Sharpshooter protests.

“We do not need more people giving out heads around here,” Bradford sighs. “Poor choice of words. Go laugh about it behind my back.”

“Speaking of which, stop shipping me with the Research and Engineering team,” the Commander says, walking into the Hangar. “It’s sexual harassment. They’ve stated they aren’t comfortable with it. Let it go.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Shen says, relief obvious in her voice as she loads the Archon King onto a cart. “No offense, but you’re kinda old.”

Aww. Who wants an old, dried up human?” the Hunter says over a psionic stream. “I don’t know what the Elders see in you, Commander. You’ve killed as many of their children as I have.”

Kholi shakes his head as he tromps off the Avenger’s ramp. “We’re the school shooter’s sitcom at this point.”

“That’s a no go as well,” Bradford snaps. The alcohol may have dulled his mind, but he still remembers Columbine. “If you’re going for a nickname, choose something else.”

“Neckbeard?” Ivanova suggests. “He does kinda act like a spurned nice guy.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Commander says, “but it doesn’t sound pleasant.”

Shen grimaces. “I do. I am all aboard team Neckbeard.”

Now that we’ve established pet names,” the Hunter says, “I so look forward to seeing you the next time I regenerate. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to kill you this time.”

“…That guy’s a lunatic,” Bradford says, looking around. “Was he always like that? Why do we put up with him again? Did some god download him in for shits and giggles?”

“Don’t look at me,” the Commander says. “He just sort of came along for the ride. Like DLC.”

“Are you still sad about the Assassin?” Suleiman asks.

“I do miss sugartits, yes.”

 


 

“See you on the other side!” the Hunter says, as Ivanova’s rifle introduces three new holes to his chest. “I’m keeping a spot for you in the Void,” he says, voice trailing off into nothingness.

“Aww, the Commander’s got a new boyfriend.” Kelly wipes the Hunter’s blood off her machete. “And he’s a neckbeard! How do you feel about this, Central?”

“Not biting the bait,” Bradford says flatly. “Clear out the AO – stop laughing – and come back home.”

 


“So, ADVENT thinks we’re all a bunch of sexual sadists now,” Shen says, turning on a custom-built filter to get rid of all the propaganda speakers’ blathering on the airwaves. “New orders, Commander?”

“That explains why the quality of the rookies is going down,” Bradford muses. “Commander, if we kick the aliens off this planet, and there’s Slaaneshi cultists running around, I’m gonna blame you.”

“If there’s any cults running around, they’d better be dedicated to RNGesus,” the Commander says, ordering Suleiman into position. “Praise be to the powers of resetting.”

“I’m gonna start work on an Exterminatus,” Shen mutters.

The Hunter grapples up to Suleiman. His hook digs into the Sharpshooter’s head, instantly killing the Major.

“Well, I was going to dig into his mind,” the Hunter says, “but not quite that way.

“Commander?” Bradford asks. “Gonna fix that?”

The Commander pulls out a tablet, and flips through a few pages. “Bullshit!” his superior says, and the world inverts.

 

This game has been crashing a lot lately, the Hunter says. “Almost seems like cheating.”

That was bullshit and you know it.” The Commander holds up the tablet. “My observations say right here – your grapple doesn’t deal any damage!

I could’ve upgraded it.”

“Like you would’ve put that much effort into something that wasn’t your gun.”

The Hunter laughs as the Hologlobe begins to reform. “Try to save your Major again this time. Maybe I’ll just capture him and let him rot in a facility, how about that?”

Save.reload(“Iraq”)#150

- 10:05:45

“Gotta say, Commander,” Melnick says as he hefts the resized Warlock’s rifle into his arms, “this is one heckuva gun.”

“Is that my brother’s rifle?” the Hunter asks as he zips around the map. “Did you finally shoot the crazy bastard?”

“We kinda scared him off,” Lauro says, firing in the Hunter’s direction. He misses.

“With aim like that, I’m surprised.” The Hunter tosses out a stun grenade.

Evans dives out of the way. The grenade detonates and harms no one.

“I’m not sure how you managed to miss with a grenade,” the Commander says.

“Well, you did it. I didn’t think you could, but you did. Congratulations. You’ve made an elite hunter choose death over world domination.” The Hunter pouts, though it's hard to tell with his very thin lips. "How could I miss?"

“It was crazy enough to work. Enjoying your latest care package?” Bradford asks.

“You’ll have to step it up,” the Hunter purrs. “I’m rather enjoying our little game.”

“I need an adult,” Evans says, “and no, Central, you don’t count.”

A Gatekeeper crashes through the wall of the facility.

“That doesn’t count either!” Evans shouts, summoning a storm of psionic energy.

 

“Oh! Time for the post mission selfie?” Ivanova scrambles over the body of a Gatekeeper. “Hang on, I want my kill in the pic.”

“Why do we always use your kills?” Suleiman gripes. “I hit more often!”

The Commander sighs. “All in, all in, just get in frame…”

“I hope this is not coming out of my research budget,” Tygan says.

On camera, Melnick does his best weight-lifter pose. Girac gives the camera two thumbs up. Mox crosses his arms and points his gun at the GREMLIN’s camera. Ivanova lifts her rifle over her head. Kokoren grins and flashes the camera two pairs of victory signs.

“Pretty sure I saw that on an album cover decades ago,” Bradford comments as his superior takes the picture.

“Okay, the next person to complain about the propaganda gets to recreate the Two Virgins promo poster,” the Commander says. “I’ll have you know I’ve increased supply income by exactly 13.5%!"

“Sure. Is that all from sales of the XCOM softcore calendar?” Bradford asks.

“I’ll have you know that my ass looks great,” Ivanova says in mock offense.

“Yeah, but it’s always covered by something…” Girac says. “Hey! Hey! Don’t point that at me! I’m just saying, Amanust had the right idea!”

“Central?” the Commander asks over the arguing of their men.

“Yes, Commander?”

“Start stripping.”

How cute,” the Hunter says. “Time’s running out. You can’t win them all.”

 


“Missed me, missed me,” his Commander chirps, dodging the strike of the training sword. “Aw, Bradford, are you afraid you’ll hurt me? You really shouldn’t,” his superior says and dances out of range, “I like it rough.”

Bradford faintly hears the wolf-whistles from the men gathered around the Training Center’s periphery. The blood rushes hot in his ears. The ghosts of the Hunter’s words linger in his head, and he is acutely aware that time is running out.

“Aren’t you going to make this hard for me?” his superior taunts, slapping his thigh with the broadside of the machete. A jolt of arousal shoots through him. “Act now, Bradford, or I’ll grind you beneath my–“

With one powerful strike, he knocks the machete from the Commander’s hand, and levels his own at his superior’s throat.

“Tease.”

The Commander is silent for a long time. The Training Center holds its breath.

At long last, his superior whistles. “Didn’t think you had it in you, Bradford.”

“Turns out, you’re a bad influence,” he says.

This is not the way he wanted it to go. All eyes are on him. If it hadn’t been for the Chosen threatening XCOM on all sides, Bradford would have never dared to think of such unprofessional behavior. But they are fighting the ADVENT with porn and god powers now. Every day could be wiped clean. He makes his stand, here in the Training Center, leaning against the banister with his machete in his hands.

"So are you going to come into close range willingly, or am I going to have to pull you in myself?" he asks his superior.

“I don’t know, Bradford,” his Commander says, striding forward. “It sounds like you’re writing checks your ass can’t cash.”

The Central Officer sets his machete in its rack. He drops into a defensive stance, and brings up his fists.

“Try me.”

 


 

Bradford threads a hand through the Commander’s hair, pushing his superior further down on his cock. He slaps his superior’s ass with his free hand. His Commander lets out a little moan and sucks harder.

He wants to be aroused. What could be better than finally getting his superior on top of him, lavishing all that keen attention on him? Somehow, that message is clear in his head, gets garbled somewhere about his spine, and by the time it reaches his groin it’s nothing more than Morse code.

“Need a breather,” his Commander says, lips popping off his cock.

Bradford groans and covers his eyes. It was all going so well. The coms were clear across the board. There were no soldiers to discipline. He had managed to shoot twelve wild turkeys for dinner, and traded one to a Haven for some homebrew blueberry mead. He knows much more about the Commander – how his superior’s lips taste, tinged with salt and honey and berries; the moans he swallows when he kisses the Commander back and scratches the length of his superior’s belly; the solid weight of his commanding officer straddling his hips, grinding against his cock, ordering him to get up – and he wants to know so much more. Does his Commander sigh with relief when he finally ends this dance and fucks his superior raw? How does it feel to have his hands tied behind his back when his Commander’s coaxing him to full hardness with those clever lips and he cannot touch, when he needs to touch and declare the Commander’s his?

That’s not happening. He has whiskey dick from the five years of giving up and getting blackout drunk. Or the glass of mead could have been too much.

“Guess I’m not getting a prick in the ass today,” his Commander says with a laugh. “Told Tygan I’d go in for a shot later. Something about Skirmisher tetanus.”

Bradford thumps the pillows. “Don’t joke about this, Commander. I just…”

“Let’s take ten,” his superior says, lying next to him. “I could try psionics–“

“No. You may like tentacles, sir, but there’s no way in hell I’m letting psionic tentacles near my dick.” He shudders. “I’ve seen enough Gatekeepers to know where that’s going.”

“I don’t think sperm’s humanoid enough to be raised as a zombie.”

Commander.

“All right. I hear you.” Tiny kisses plop over his shoulders. “I’m not disappointed.”

“But I am.” He runs his hands down strong legs, feeling the muscle moving beneath. “I want you. But my stupid–“

“Breathe with me.” His Commander pulls him close, free hand lazily stroking his cock. “We have time, John, at least a few days before ADVENT tries something.”

Bradford blows out a frustrated breath and loops his arms around his superior’s waist. “I’m sorry. Here, on my face. I want you to get off at the very least.”

“No,” his Commander says in Commanding Officer voice™, and gets up to straddle his thigh. “Eyes on me, John.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss a thing,” Bradford says, palming his superior’s side. “Please, Commander. I want to get you off.”

“I want you to watch and learn,” his Commander orders, guiding his hand onto his superior’s leg. “I don’t know much about you, John, and I think it goes both ways.”

Bradford cracks a smile. “This is how you want to start?”

His Commander leans down and kisses him. “It’s as good a place as any.”

 


 

Central walks into the Mess Hall, and immediately dreads the next thirty minutes because most of the men are making suggestive gestures.

“Had a good night?” Amanust pipes up.

“Of course he did, he’s a John,” Suleiman quips back. The rest of the soldiers erupt into laughter.

“…I don’t get it,” Bradford says as he pours himself some coffee. He takes out his flask and dumps a third of the Bailey’s in. He’s no good to the Commander if he’s withdrawing. Might as well get some of the daily-allotted alcohol ration in.

“John is a term for a man who frequents prostitutes,” Tygan sighs as he gets up from his seat. “I will be in the labs if you need me, Central.”

“The Avenger is not a brothel, Major,” Shen says, sitting by Bradford’s side, “take your dirty business elsewhere.”

Bradford shoots her a quick look of thanks. He frowns.

“Major Tariq Suleiman, did you just call your commanding officer a whore?”

“Wow, talk about Madonna-Whore complex,” Melnick chips in as Suleiman stutters. “Get turned down once and suddenly the Commander’s a whore.”

“How could he compete with a bond that’s over 9000?” Ivanova sighs.

“Social link, rank up!” Leong shouts, and the Mess Hall dissolves into laughter.

 


 

ADVENT has been quiet recently, and perhaps it is the anxiety for the coming storm that weighs on Bradford’s mind. Two weeks without a mission or the Hunter in sight? Bradford knows they’re up to something. He’s prepped all the Havens, given everyone of them plasma guns and battlefield medicine and training on how to shoot straight at ADVENT.

Now, if the universe would be so kind as to give him one day where he can fuck his superior properly.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Commander says, already pulling the sheets over them.

Bradford presses the heel of his hands to his eyes. He’s tempted to bury his face in the Commander’s belly, but the shame is overwhelming and he doesn’t want to be anywhere near the Quarters. Sweat cools on his back, reminders of a climax that never came. Tenth try was not the charm: his attempt in seducing the Commander ended in just as much failure as the first and second and all the rest on the floppy ED sandwich.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Well, after all the jokes I made about your dick…” His Commander kisses him on the cheek. “Really, John. I’m not bothered.”

The Central Officer instead buries his face in the pillow.

“If it really bothers you, we could try sildenafil–“

“God no. I am not that old, and we are not bringing Tygan into this.” Bradford huffs out a breath. “I… good night, sir. Sorry about tonight.”

“Talk to me, soldier,” his superior says, in that tone he’s never been able to resist. Two hands settle onto his back, massaging patterns into the hard knot of scar tissue from the Commander’s rescue all those months back. “I think I hurt your pride with all my dick jokes. And I’m sorry that I’ve hurt you. Is there something else?”

Silence rests over the Quarters.

Bradford wets his mouth and flips over. “When does it go back?”

“When does what, sorry?”

“The memory. The muscle tremors. The feelings.” He gestures vaguely down his belly. “Everything the alcohol has damaged. When does it go back to normal?”

“You’ve made progress,” his Commander says quietly. “Your memory is improving. You aren’t riding my ass about the Avatar Project or the Chosen–“

“Commander. Give it to me straight.”

“You were an alcoholic for a long time.” The Commander sighs. “I… may have asked Tygan, for a second opinion. I’ve seen damage before, but never like this–”

He waits.

“Some of the damage may… may be reversible." His Commander rests a hand against his heart. "It could take weeks. Months, maybe, but you could potentially regain most of your previous abilities.”

Something cold sinks into the pit of Bradford's stomach. “Not something you can fix?”

“I can’t turn back 20 years of time, John.”

Bradford chokes out a laugh and settles his head on the Commander’s lap. “Some CO I am. I haul you out of prison, just to give you a washed up drunk for a CO.”

“You gave me my life back. I owe you everything for that.” His Commander strokes his cheek. “This too will pass.”

“Should I track on the Relationships Chart if you’re about to leave me?”

“You stayed by my side. I’ll do the same for you.”

Bradford keeps back the bitter tears. “There’s better men and women out there, you know. You could go chase Tygan or Shen or both after the war ends.”

“No matter what happens. I'll stay by you.” His Commander kisses him. “And I'll forgive the wake up calls at 3 AM.”

He sighs. “I wasn’t your first choice.”

“Ultimately, I chose you.” He feels the pressure of the Commander’s hands, folding atop his sternum. “Have faith in me, John.”

 


 

The storm breaks.

“Commander, the Reaper HQ is under attack!” Central says, rushing to the console. “This is Central. All XCOM soldiers are to return to base! We need to fly out and aid the Reapers immediately!”

The Commander gapes at the message. The Chosen have never tried to assault one of the Faction’s HQ before. But here is living proof: Volk’s flickering image on the screen, frozen in his pleas for help, as fire consumes the heads mounted on the wall.

 


 

Bradford looks at the photos of Zaitlin, Girac, Templar Romanov, and rookie Hamidou. They’re the first additions to the Memorial in a very long time. Eighteen XCOM soldiers cling to life in the AWC. By morning, Bradford anticipates more will join the trio on the wall. For a few blissful months, he thought they could bring everyone back home.

Volk is badly injured, but he’ll live. Volkova was not so lucky. She, along with twenty other Reapers, rest under the trodden and bloodied grass surrounding the Niagara Falls. The Hunter has uncanny knowledge of the Reapers’ tactics, and it shows in how many of the practiced soldiers he felled.

Ivanova and Dragunova have left their kind to mourn with the XCOM soldiers. Ivanova cries openly, mourning her partner Girac’s appearance on the memorial wall. Tygan drapes her shoulders with a heavy blanket, while Rosalez attempts to comfort her. Dragunova shifts from foot to foot, face inscrutable under her mask. Her shoulders shake, but no noise comes from her.

Mox looks unsure, but he puts an arm around the Reaper; earlier in the fight, he had saved the Reaper from being decapitated by a Stun Lancer by pulling her to his position with the Ripjack. The Reaper returned the favor by shooting the Hunter before he could snipe the Skirmisher.

Dragunova nods and rests her weight against him.

“Into the fires of battle, unto the anvil of War!” Shen reads from her favorite anthology. XCOM has no chaplain, no priest, and so they rely on their favorite tabletop game to send off their fallen. Vulkan's fire beats in my breast. With it we shall smite the foes of the Emperor!”

War never changes, Bradford thinks bitterly. The good die young. The old stagnate. And the people forget the sacrifices we made.

“We are forged in such flames, so we make war with it, clenched in our mailed fists.” Shen closes her book. “And for those who fall, we will carry their memory into battle,” she says softly, as if it is for her ears alone.

Accusing eyes turn towards the Commander. Their superior, who has powers that rival those of the Chosen – the one who has guided them – the one Bradford loves – all of those powers for naught, because today, people have died and they’re not coming back.

“I couldn’t find a way out,” the Commander says hoarsely. “I was going mad trying. I had to stop.”

 

He stands from the Commander’s bed, beer in hand. A raging headache pounds behind his left ear, but he tries to focus on his superior.

It’s hard to think. The world keeps slipping by him.

“Commander, can you stop abusing your rewind powers?” Bradford grumbles over his beer. He motions to the sofa. “I’m getting motion sick just looking at this.”

“You died there,” the Commander says.

His heart skips a beat.

“Jesus, don’t scare a man like that.” Bradford offers a grin with cheer that he does not feel. “Are you trying to kill me?”

“You sink further into depression each time, chasing the memory of the men we lost. You cry for Volkova. You wonder if Volk will survive the night.” The Commander looks at the tattered scarlet XCOM banner hanging over the bookshelves. “I try to talk you out of it. I take away the beer in some timelines. It does not work. You draw your gun. Your brains scatter over that sofa. And then I reset.”

Bradford eyes the sofa with newfound fear. “I’m good, sir. Feeling a little down, but I’m still here.”

“But for how long?” his superior asks. “This is the tenth rewind.”

He wonders how many ghosts lurk this section of the Avenger, now that he has danced back and forth between existence and death.

“So you’ve chosen to be honest with me now?”

“Yes.” His Commander turns to face him, eyes bright with tears. “I need you, Bradford. I can’t watch you die.”

He stands, beer in hand. Bradford sets it down without another thought and crosses the distance between them in two strides.

“Hey. I’m still here.” He chases the ghosts from his mind with the thoughts of the present: the Commander has a neat knot of scar tissue, just under the chin from that fateful surgery, that Bradford can feel if he rests his head against his Commander’s chest. His superior’s fingers are crooked on the left hand with which he interleaves his fingers. Bradford taps his head with his free hand. “See? Brains still unscrambled. Uh, don’t think I’ve had that much to drink– sir?”

The Commander flings his hand off. “Those are the words. Every single time. That’s what you say right before you descend on that path.”

Bradford scrapes his mind for what would break the cycle.

He holds his hands out. The Commander’s head tilts.

After a moment, his superior steps into his arms.

He breathes in: warmth, heat, the musk of sweat under the stink of alcohol on his clothes, and something that belongs uniquely to his Commander.

“I’ve lived through…” His superior rocks back and forth in his embrace. “Eleven times now. First time the circle has been broken.”

“The world is our priority,” Bradford says gently. “Don’t drive yourself mad over my death. We’ve got an Earth to free.”

“Like how you cope with our men’s deaths?” His Commander’s eyes are diamond-edged and alight with fire. “I have the power to keep people alive. And I will keep rewinding until I find a world where you live, because I couldn’t save them, but I can save you.”

Bradford doesn’t know what to say. He runs his hands through his superior’s hair. He grounds himself in his Commander’s presence.

“I trust you to do what is right,” he tells his superior. There are other things he should say, thousands of words spinning betrayal and desire and loss all into one convoluted tangle of thoughts.

His Commander lets out a tired sob. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Central. Why did you bring me back? There were others, better and braver than I.”

“How many times did you reset while the Reapers were under assault?”

“A hundred and eight.” The Commander dissolves into sobs. “I tried! I tried, every single time someone died! The Hunter must have seen through me. Every time I reset, he targeted someone else! Volk and Volkova both died together. The Hunter made it onto the Avenger another time. I couldn’t do it anymore! I couldn’t save any more! Why did you bring me back? Why not someone smarter, or colder, or someone who didn’t care about their men as much–”

“Hey. Hey, Commander. I trusted you more.” For Bradford, that settles the matter. “You pushed yourself until you almost broke, because you love our soldiers. I’d follow you to hell and back. You saw us through the two Chosen. There’s one more left. We are almost there, Commander. The Earth will be ours.”

His superior hiccups. “Figures. I missed having you blabber in my ear.”

“I was dead for what, ten minutes?”

“One,” his Commander says with a brittle smile. “But ten times.”

Humans,” the Hunter scoffs. “Always so sentimental. There is a greater threat that the Elders fight. They have no time for that.

“What a cock-block,” Bradford mutters. “Uh, no, I didn’t mean it that way, I don’t actually want to screw right now–“

“I’ll just reset to save you the embarrassment.” The Commander smiles at him, a bit tremulous. “See you in two minutes? We’ll do a bit of cuddling?”

“Will it hurt my memory?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then yes. See you in three minutes… my Commander.”

 

“I ship it,” the Hunter says. “Thank you for the addition to my vocabulary, by the way.”

“No snarky remarks this time?” the Commander asks, settling into the lotus pose.

“It’s an experiment. You rewound time until one man was happy.” The Hunter cocks his head. “You humans really are quite strange. I’m a simple being: I kill things, and I’m happy. Too bad your three soldiers couldn’t benefit from your mercy.”

The Commander stands. “I did my best. Is killing all that you enjoy? Didn’t you used to be human once?”

“Who cares? The Elders keep me down,” the Hunter says, “but I enjoy killing. There’s power in having a gun in my hands. I’m not one of those little dogs, groveling for the next scrap of Chryssalid meat.”

“You never used to be this crazy.”

The Hunter flashes white sharpened teeth. “I had my siblings to take out all this emptiness.”

The Commander sighs. “Why do I still feel sorry for you?”

“That’s your weakness,” the Hunter says, “and that’s how I won the fight. You tried to save everyone. Look where that got you. Your precious Central dead, the Reapers decimated, the Reaper’s founder dead–“

“But they did not die. And I will mourn those who did, and make sure you never lay a hand on one again.”

“You can try,” the Hunter says with a shrug. “Don’t see the point why.”

“You live a bland, meaningless existence,” the Commander says. “If killing’s all that satisfies you, then I will hunt you down. Let’s see if you enjoy being on the other side of the rifle.”

“Haven’t been afraid in a long time. You’re quite the human, Commander. No one’s ever beaten me.”

The Commander looks the Hunter in the eyes. “I will cheat, steal and lie until humanity is victorious.”

“Sure,” the Hunter concedes, his voice fading as the world is rebuilt, “but where’s the fun in that? I should ask the Elders to renegotiate my contract.”

“Wait, you get paid for this? In what? Spacebucks?”

“Dead men and aliens. The Elders’ exchange rate is shit.”

 


 

“We have heard of your loss,” Betos says as she approaches the Resistance Ring table.

“It reverberates through the world,” Geist says.

“And for that, we are deeply sorry,” Betos says.

Volk weakly bangs his fist against the table, though it’s much harder when he’s wrapped in bandages like a mummy. “Your kind murdered us long ago. But it was the Hunter who dealt the killing blow.” He spits on the ground. “He must have been a Reaper. No one else knows our tactics like a Reaper does.”

“And for that,” Geist says, “we share in your misery.” The psionic leader conjures twin blades in his hands. “We Templars have long pursued mastery of the psionic arts. We can study and ensure that the Hunter will never teleport into your base again.”

“Where were you three days ago?” Central asks.

“Training.” Geist bows his head. “But now is the time for action.”

“We have rescued orphans from burning Havens,” Betos says. “We have trained them in our ways. But they are like you. We will happily give them a new family, unless you would use them to bolster your ranks.”

Volk stares. “Yes. If you have trained them, then I have no doubt they are ready for the Reapers.” He cracks a grin. “You did murder us for a good ten years. You Skirmishers need anything? Templar, you?”

“Food,” Geist admits. “Harvesting what is owed to us requires massive amounts of food.”

“I would say my Reapers would have that covered…” Volk trails off. “No. They have it covered. We are strong. The Hunter has not weakened us.”

“My people recovered a new recruit,” Betos says. “She still has knowledge of the trains. But we need more recruits, when ADVENT does its best to fell us. We need people to pass on the new ways. Geist, if you would fight alongside me, we Skirmishers will ensure you never go hungry.”

“And if you would fight by me,” Geist replies, “your people will never fear abduction by the Elders again.”

“My Reapers will find the Hunter stronghold.” Volk’s voice hardens. “The Elders’ time is up. They will never torment either of you again.”

Bradford and the Commander watch the Faction Leaders talk. Though grief still weighs heavily on his mind, a slow smile creeps up Bradford’s lips.

 

It’s late at night by the time the meeting ends. The Faction leaders drift into the massive camp built in the ruins of Niagara Fall hotels. Betos promises to free more Skirmishers to track down the Hunter’s final stronghold. Her men and women stand guard over the impromptu camp, or build up tents so that the wounded can rest. Geist and his Templars walk amongst the wounded Reapers, working their psionics into the fabric of bodies to close wounds. The Reapers cook up Chryssalids and Berserkers and show the Skirmishers how to crack bone and tear muscle with precisely aimed shots. Everywhere Bradford looked, he could see XCOM soldiers: laughing, trading stories, sometimes sharing bodies – Melnick was talking his way into a Templar’s pants – regardless, every one of them integrating seamlessly into the Factions.

Bradford ascends the stairs to the Quarters. It’s unusual that both leaders get to sleep at the same time; the moments they have are stolen in between shifts and at lunch breaks.

The Commander’s skin still steams from the shower. His superior’s hair is freshly dried. Bradford watches as his Commander strips off the dull grey uniform pants and flops onto the bed.

He takes off his weapons harness and hooks it neatly over the bedpost. Bradford has long since stopped using his own bed – the Commander’s is far larger. His shirt goes into the laundry basket. He kicks off his boots, and stores them by the gun clips under the bed. At long last, he draws the belt from its loops, steps out of his pants, folds them up, and sets them by his pillow.

“Are we going to cuddle like this?” Bradford asks as he nestles his face in the Commander’s belly. “Bit awkward for my back.”

“Mmm? Sorry, could you repeat that?”

He looks at his superior, reaches up to brush a lock of hair away. “You don’t look happy.”

His Commander blows out a breath. “Still thinking about the Hunter. Still wondering what more I could’ve done.”

“Commander. When you doubt yourself, I want you to remember this.” Central holds his superior’s hands. “If those three faction leaders had walked into the Ring a year ago, the meeting would’ve finished with all three dead on the floor. Now? Three walked in, and three friends came out. Remember that.” He squeezes, and wishes that he could hammer his belief into the Commander’s mind. “You might not’ve always made the best tactical decisions, and I’m still wondering why we’re sending two-dicked Viper porn to the Hunter. But you’ve shown them that the destiny of man is to unite, not to divide. XCOM is proof of that.”

After a moment, his superior inches down, and kisses him.

“I won’t let you down again,” his Commander says. “I promise you and our men.”

He urges the Commander’s shirt off, then wraps his arms around the barrel of his superior’s chest. “There’s the Commander I know and love. Always thinking about our ki– soldiers. Soldiers. Stop laughing. I know you’re laughing in there.”

“Can we get tax credits for thirty children of assorted ages?” The Commander smiles and snuggles against him. “I think this is the first time you’ve ever said you love me.”

“There you go. Now you know if love can bloom on the battlefield– hey. Hands off the goods.” Bradford defends himself from getting slapped on the ass, then slings his Commander’s arms around his neck. “Not quite in the mood today. I just want to hold you now.”

“Sounds like heaven to me,” his superior murmurs into his skin, and yawns.

Somehow, despite his lover’s loud snoring, Bradford falls into a comfortable sleep.

 


 

Bradford groans as he stretches at the campfire. He winces as something pops in his back, probably crooked from cuddling the Commander last night. “I am getting old,” he bemoans.

“But aged like a fine wine,” Volk says, newly freed from his bandages. Volk rotates the link of Chryssalid sausages, which taste oddly like lobster. Reapers sweep by his side, ushering new recruits and building supplies into the bustling camp. “Sorry, Commander, am I poaching your Central?”

“Roast away,” his Commander says, setting a hand on Bradford’s thigh. “Heavens know, I do it often enough.”

“Am I supposed to be hearing this?” Amanust asks as she pours out the apple non-alcoholic cider – no wine for Volk, not when he’s on pain medications. “Go be sappy somewhere else. Hey! Mox!” She waves at her fellow soldier. “Help me! They’re doing old people things again!”

“I go,” the former Captain replies. He notices Dragunova at the fireside, and walks faster towards them.

“Skirmisher!” Volk bellows as Mox sits down at the fireside. “In past days, I would have offered you a piece of Skirmisher ass! But we are on the same team now. I can only offer you Viper burgers.”

“And in the cities, there are ADVENT burgers,” Mox snarks back, “so humanity can be served with fries.”

Volk laughs and claps Mox on the back. “I think I’ll enjoy this alliance!”

“What a shame. I suppose I can still eat his booty like groceries,” Dragunova says as she polishes her rifle.

Mox looks around the fireside. Amanust hides her giggles in her scarf. The Commander’s mouth has dropped open. Volk rolls his eyes and cuffs Dragunova over the head. Bradford sighs and buries his head in his hands.

“Is… is that a good thing?” the Skirmisher asks.

“It is if you like it!” Amanust gasps between giggle fits.

Bradford massages the bridge of his nose. “Since you introduced him to the term,” he tells Dragunova, “you get to explain to Mox what it means to eat booty like groceries.”

He thinks the solitary Reaper has finally found a bondmate.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Wakey wakey, eggs and… turkey? This is the closest you’re getting to bacon, I’m afraid.”

Bradford stretches in bed. He looks at the Commander standing at the Quarters’ door, who bears a tray loaded with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and coffee.

“You spoil me. Breakfast in bed?” He grins. “Can I have you for dessert?”

“Not if you get crumbs all over my sheets.”

“I’ll change them after,” Bradford says, as the Commander sets the tray on his lap. “How long has been since we had actual eggs? Not Chryssalid caviar, Geist is weird. He’s on his way to being a proper god king.”

“Had to save you some before the terrible trio ate them all.” His superior laughs. “Think of it as a gift. You’ve got some trouble to deal with while I’m asleep.”

“My hero, delegating to the second-in-command. It’s the Marines all over again.” He reaches for the Commander. “I’m not gonna like this, am I? Who’s pregnant?”

The Commander bats his hands away and begins stripping down for bed. “Hurry up and eat. You’re not going to like this.”

 

Upon entering the AWC, Bradford heads straight for the preventative care lockers. He takes out a box of condoms and marches towards the back, where the embarrassed duo lies on cots facing each other in the Isolation Chamber. Dragunova has a rash splattered over her cheeks and neck. Mox scratches at his mouth, where a similar rash has developed. Bradford does not want to know why.

“Oh, this is gonna be good,” Melnick tells Delela.

“Out, you two,” Bradford says as he approaches.

“I’m injured!” Delela protests.

“I’m rejuvenating from having my insides become outsides,” Melnick says.

The other thirteen injured soldiers make similar excuses.

“Then pipe down.”

“Yessir,” they chorus.

Bradford walks into the Isolation Chamber. He makes it rain condoms over Dragunova’s head.

“How many times have I told you during safety briefings? I don’t care if you’re on the shot, pill or ring. Wrap your shit up! Both of you use the cortisone as needed, that looks irritated.” He digs into the box and tosses a few packets of lube her way. “In case you try this exercise again.”

Mox attempts to melt into his hospital bed, miserably failing due to his full plate armor. Bradford has attempted many times to give the Skirmisher an actual set of clothes, but Mox prefers to be prepared for all occasions.

“Oh, I’m not done with you yet.” Bradford chucks more foil packets at Mox. He finds a few dental dams at the bottom of the box, and throws them onto the growing pile of shame. “You too, Major Pratal Mox. I didn’t read Tygan’s autopsy but I’m assuming you have a dick or some sort of tab A, so you wrap it up too. For God’s sake. I know you’re close to human, but we’ve all been around the block! Do you know how filthy humans are?”

“From what Volk says, that may be just you, Central,” Dragunova says as she musters her former bluster. It’s hard to take her seriously when her lips and cheeks are puffed up from scratching.

“This is not the time for kids or STDs!” he snaps at her. “No jokes about child support; I still don’t have any brats running around. You men are kids enough.”

Mox raises his hand. “What are kids?”

Bradford has a horrifying moment of clarity.

“Mox, Skirmishers don’t reproduce, do they?”

“We are born in the Forge,” the Skirmisher says, “if that’s what you mean.”

“Oh no,” Delela’s whisper carries into the chamber, “how is babby formed?”

Melnick stifles his laughter in his pillow.

Dragunova slowly reaches for her gas mask on the bedside table and puts it on.

For a moment, Bradford considers running for the Quarters and letting the Commander handle this mess. His superior started this entire mess by going after the Chosen with Rule 34. His Commander can fix this mess with resetting time.

Still, Mox is one of his men. And though Bradford is considering swallowing his gun out of sheer embarrassment, he cannot let one of his soldiers down by failing to educate them on safety matters.

Bradford clears his throat.

“Well… uh. Okay. When a human female and human male love each other very much, and don’t get melted down into goo–“

 


 

Bradford makes his presence in the Quarters known by throwing a pillow at the Commander. “Next time, you’re giving them the talk.”

His Commander yawns and stretches. “But you’re Sexual Officer Bradford– mmf!”

“That’s it,” Bradford growls, straddling his Commander. He grabs the pillow and puts it over his superior’s face. “I put up with far too much shit from you–“

He hears a faint moan under the pillow.

“…there really is no way to punish you,” Bradford says, lifting up a corner.

His Commander blushes a brilliant ruby red and pulls the pillow back down. Bradford hears a muffled, “It’s just what you do to me, John.”

“In that case, I’m not gonna reward this behavior.” Bradford sets the pillow aside and throws his AWC-tainted clothes onto the designated laundry sofa. The Central Officer wriggles underneath the covers. “Surprised I still remember anything. Thought Mox and Dragunova would’ve jumped at the chance to reset.”

“I offered,” his Commander says quietly. “They said they had wasted too much time hating each other, for circumstances out of their control. Even it meant embarrassing mistakes, they wanted to explore a future with each other.”

Bradford doesn’t know what to say. He takes his Commander into his lap, and begins to run his fingers through his superior’s hair.

“It makes me think of all the time I wasted.” His Commander blows out a breath. “Chasing after Tygan and Shen, hoping things would change between resets. It never did. I guess some things are immutable. Like you. You were there, right beside me. You’ve been here from the very start. And you’ve never changed from that dependable Central Officer I needed since the aliens invaded.”

“Somewhere, a thousand friend-zoned nerds are cheering,” Bradford offers, getting a strained laugh out of the Commander. “If it makes you feel better, I didn’t know I was in love until you told me the Chosen were after you. Wasn’t time for love during the invasion. Everything went so fast.”

“But now it’s coming to an end.” His Commander’s eyes close. “What are they going to do after the war?” his lover asks. “The Skirmishers have no future. We don’t know if they can have children. One day, they will fade away. The Reapers will probably set up a government, but they’re too few in number, and they have a terrible reputation among ADVENT citizens. The Templars are… unstable. They will probably create a cult. And I haven’t touched ADVENT civilians! Who will draw the new borders? Will they flee out to the Havens, where there’s not enough food for the winter? Will the real war begin, amongst us humans?”

“One step at a time,” he tells his Commander. “First, we kick the aliens off our planet. We save who we can. We mourn and bury those we couldn’t.”

Tears form at the corners of his lover’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I should’ve done more.”

“You cut that shit out right now,” Bradford says, wiping the tears away. “This is the best we could have done. Don’t look back. People are depending on us.”

“That terrifies me,” his Commander says, “Do you know how many universes I’ve seen, John? I’ve seen ones where we won but the land became poisonous and we all fled to Mars. I know there are ones where you never found me, and I lived forever in the tank. I’ve seen ones where this is all just pixels on a screen, and nothing is real.” Hot tears roll down his Commander’s cheeks, faster than Bradford can stop them. “It’s enough to give anyone an existential crisis.”

“Look, Commander.” Bradford props his superior up. “I’m no priest, and I stopped believing in heaven when everything went to hell. But you’re real enough to me.” He pries the Commander’s hands open until they’re no longer clenched. “If this is all just a dream, then good. Manuel, Romanov – somewhere, they’re still alive. But if it’s not, then all this still means something. I fought for you, I fell in love with you, and I will follow you until the world ends.” He holds his superior’s head between his hands. “A simulation can’t change what we had. Those feelings are still real.”

“What if this is a dream?” his Commander asks. “When I wake up, will the world be whole but on the cusp of disaster? Will you be nothing more than a ghost?”

Bradford smiles and strokes his Commander’s cheeks.

“Through it all, no matter what happens, I’ll be standing right beside you.”

The Central Officer listens to the steadying beat of his lover’s heart, tucked inside the rise and fall of his Commander’s chest.

“They say psionics make you crazy.” The Commander pulls Bradford into a hug. “Geist is… probably the next dictator, if he doesn’t have some greater ulterior motive. The Warlock could’ve been a trail mix brand. Me, I think all my insanity was channeled into self-doubt and Cassandra-esque visions.”

Bradford laughs and pushes them back onto the bed. “No, I think a lot of your crazy went into ordering our men to produce porn.”

“You’re never going to forgive me for that.”

Bradford reaches out and feels for his tablet. He turns it on, and brings up Kokoren’s fanfic of a Skirmisher with a horse cock falling in love with a Viper.

“Commander, there’s no quicker boner killer than this.” He tosses his tablet away. “Or going over how babies are made. Sorry, sir. I’m not getting it up for a while.”

“There is probably an alternate universe out there where I end up giving Mox the talk.” The Commander’s head tilts. “Do we still have bananas in the Mess?”

“Are you going out for breakfast?” Bradford asks, squirming under the blankets.

“It is my shift. I can’t exactly eat you out for breakfast, John.”

“While you’re there,” he grins, “practice for me?”

The Commander's head shakes. “Promises, promises.”

“That a challenge?”

“You know it, Central.”

 


 

“Permission to change Dragunova’s callsign to Kirk, sir,” Ivanova says, flashing a smile at her fellow Reaper. “She is, after all, boldly coming where no man has gone before.”

“Denied,” Bradford says, not bothering to look up from the list of operations going on. The Templars are still looking for Leong, captured by the Hunter during the attack on Reaper HQ. He wonders if Mox will be in shape for the mission – the Templars mentioned the Hunter’s hideouts have increased their guard.

“On our next Covert Action, I will gut you like a Chryssalid,” Dragunova says, her voice muffled by her mask. “And Mox will help me hide the body.”

“Outriders are escorts who ride in front of the protectorate,” Tygan says. “Clean bill of health, Dragunova. In that sense, I believe her callsign is well earned. Mox, I would like you to stay in the AWC for another week just in case.”

“We’ll rely on you to broker Skirmisher-human conflicts, then,” Bradford tells the fuming Reaper. “Congrats, ambassador, you’ve been promoted.”

“It’s like one of Yamamoto’s Japanese animes,” Kokoren sighs. “But more slap slap fall in love! Maybe you’re my love!” She dances on her cot. “Ow! My ribs!”

“Far more kill kill,” Mox says soberly. “But I am glad to know her.”

“Volk says I am to obey,” Dragunova says stiffly. “And that includes not murdering my comrades in arms.”

“Ah, so he approves,” Mox says, putting an arm around her shoulders.

“If you are not what you say you are,” Dragunova replies, smacking his ass, “I will kill you myself.”

Rosalez whistles from his place at Melnick’s cot. “Get a room, you two.”

Tygan sighs. “Please refrain, until Mox is cleared as well.”

“Volk’s lifespan has also shortened significantly,” Kelly says, dropping her voice into Dragunova’s rough alto. “He can be the ambassador if he wants.”

Ivanova looks down at her blanket-covered feet. “After Volkova died… I don’t think he’ll care too much. Central? Where are you going?”

“Need to check on a friend,” he says.

 


 

Geist eyes the Reapers’ leader sleeping under a discarded map of the Hunter’s hideouts and the Commander’s sweater. “Is this how you plan to achieve peace?”

“Make love, not war, unless it’s against ADVENT.” Bradford shrugs, and opens up his tablet. “We’ve gotten the Elerium you requested. So there is a way into the Hunter’s Stronghold?”

 


 

Betos nods. “We will start manufacturing the explosives. Thank you, for taking care of Mox. He told me what you did for him.”

Central coughs. “Uh, we really didn’t do anything–“

“You offered him a future in XCOM,” Betos says. “For so long, we have been shunned by those we once mindlessly killed. You saw beyond that.”

“If it’s got a XCOM banner hanging from it,” Bradford says, “any Skirmisher can call it home. You fight with us, you bleed with us; you should sleep and eat with us too.” He glances to the side; his Commander is raising an eyebrow at him. “Under the same roof. Not… necessarily what Mox is doing. Unless you’re into it?”

Betos laughs. “No, though I do not discount the possibility in the future. I know Volk’s loss has cost XCOM as well.” Betos takes a deep breath. “I would like you to take another Skirmisher. Kordat Dax is young, only five years from the tank, and has never known any sort of individuality. But he was a Sergeant before he broke free. I believe it would be best for him to join XCOM.”

The Commander’s head tilts. “Is this a custody change?”

“If that is how you prefer to say it.”

“You know, soldiers have that stereotype of not being ready for commitment…” Bradford says sheepishly.

“Betos, I’m honored, but have you seen the porn we put out?” the Commander asks. “Especially the Hunter’s latest care package. We’re not the best role models by any definition necessary.”

Betos laughs. “That, I do not doubt. But you will teach him individuality.” She points to herself. “I can teach him how to grapple, and to fight until his limbs drop off. But that is not enough to be a being.” She sobers. “And you, out of all the factions – you wear different armor, and speak different languages, and look like completely different creatures – you would know how to show him freedom.”

 

“Elder puppet,” Mox spits at the black-clad Trooper.

“Hybrid mutt,” Dax retorts.

“Take that damnable helmet off,” Mox says. “Are you a puppet, or a free Skirmisher? Now!”

Dax reluctantly removes it. A curved scar goes along the Trooper’s forehead to the curve of his cheek, with magnetic rings punched in along its length. ADVENT has modified their soldiers, so that their helmets can no longer be kicked off. Angry black eyes stare into Bradford’s. He recalls, so long ago, stamping the life out of a Trooper in his quest to rescue the Commander. How things have changed.

“Ground rules,” Bradford says. “Don’t touch things with a big yellow sticker on them. Don’t take anyone’s guns; we’ll give you your own. And don’t touch people unless they say they want it. Right, that’s about it. Have fun.”

“It looks like a squid,” Amanust whispers to her girlfriend. “It’s kinda cool!”

“This is my face,” Kordat says. “Why are you staring?”

“Oh, this isn’t not gonna fly.” Kokoren grabs Dax Kordat’s shoulder. “Come on! Dress up time!”

“That is a waste – what is dress up?” the Trooper yelps.

“Oh, squiddie,” Kholi laughs, though grief for his missing partner lingers in his eyes, “you are in for a treat.”

 

Dax turns around and looks at his armor in the mirror. A squid, tentacles flared and ready to grab an incoming ship, is carved into his left shoulderpads. He drums his fingers over the spray of flowers painted onto his right thigh.

“I like these,” he says. “What are they called?”

“Forget-me-nots,” Rosalez says.

“For-get-me-nots…” Dax sounds out the syllables. “Yes. These, I like. Can they be another color?”

“Whatcha want?” Amanust asks, looking up from her paint kit.

Dax grimaces. “These… they are control color. Purple? ADVENT does not teach us names.” He points at the sunny sky above. “I want them like that. This blue.”

Amanust beckons for him to hand over his armor. “Gimme a moment. Wait, control color?”

“Yes,” Dax says, “the Hunter tried to take information from… what is his name…”

 


 

“Thanks for finally rescuing me,” a dazed Leong says. “Couldn’t pick me up earlier?”

“We had to track you down first, quit whining,” Kelly says.

“Now I know about alphas and omegas,” the Hunter says on a psionic wind, “and I have to question just where you learned this.”

Kholi stops hacking into the facility’s security grid. “Babe, how could you? That was our secret!”

Leong rests a battered arm over his face. “Just… just leave me to rot. Kill me.”

“I do not know what that means,” Dax says, lifting the sniper over his shoulders, “and I do not care to find out.”

 

Leong hands the chip he stole from the ADVENT facility to Shen. “Don’t ask where I hid it. It’s got instructions on how to disable the Hunter’s save-scumming.”

“This is it,” the Commander says. “No going back. You coming, Leong?”

Leong looks at the Revitalization Module. “So, uh, this won’t pump me full of crack, right? It’s Elerium that you’re putting in.”

“I’ll say the crass joke later,” Kholi says, sliding the Elerium core in, “but yeah.”

 


 

There’s a finality in the air as XCOM breaches the Hunter’s last stronghold with enough X4 to reduce an ADVENT facility to rubble. This is the last of the Elder’s Champions, a creature who may have at once been human but is now nothing more than a gene-modded monstrosity.

“XCOM give it to ya!” Amanust proclaims as she hits the ground.

“You couldn’t approach this with any semblance of solemnity?” the Hunter asks.

“Someone sealed up the entrances,” Leong protests as he drops in. “We needed to get in somehow.”

“Good hunting,” Dragunova says to her partner, as she cloaks from sight.

“Run, little rabbits,” the Hunter replies, “run behind the load screen. Try to make this fun for me, won’t you Commander?”

“Depends on what you have for me,” the Commander says. “Outrider, contacts?”

The Reaper stops short. “I have a pod of five Berserkers, one Archon, and a Specter. How do they even fit in that corner?”

“Surprise, surprise,” the Hunter says, as the alerted aliens charge the Menace team. “It’s my guards in a box.”

 

“Jesus, Commander, Rosalez is dead!” Melnick yells, laying his friend’s body on the cold hard ground. “Aren’t you going to do something?”

“Melnick, pop that pod and kill the Specter,” the Commander says.

The Ranger grumbles, but he runs straight into the unaware pod and slashes the Specter. The alien dissipates into black mist. Its guards, two elite ADVENT Captains, start and run away. Melnick draws his blade, and in a storm of strokes, cuts down both Captains.

“What am I missing…” The Commander taps the Hologlobe bannister.

“Outrider!” Mox screams, Ripjack singing through the air as the Berserker lifts him up.

Dragunova looses a shot, but not before the Berserker pulverizes Mox’s ribcage.

 

That’s dirty,” the Commander says. “Where did that Berserker come from?”

The Hunter grins, all sharpened teeth and mad eyes. “My brother isn’t the only one who can summon minions. I noticed your little Skirmisher was missing his girlfriend. She has a good eye for a Reaper.”

“Duly noted.” The Commander stands. “See you in a few minutes.”

“Too busy to banter with me?” The Hunter sighs. “And here I thought you were interesting.”

“We’ve got some surprises left,” the Commander says. “Wouldn’t want to tire you out.”

Save.reload(“Stronghold”)#273

- 0:35:00

 

“You know, sir,” Melnick says, “I could dash on in and pop that pod.”

“You’ll alert an Andromedon,” the Commander says. “Leong, snipe that Specter.”

Central orders the rest of the squad into overwatch as a Gatekeeper barrels into the room. Its shell opens up, revealing soft pink flesh. Dragunova fires off a shot, but not before the Gatekeeper unleashes a plasma beam that drills through Amanust’s gut.

“Why…” the psi trooper gasps as she bleeds to death.

“Melnick, get to Amanust and stabilize her!” Bradford says.

“Stay your position!” the Commander says, overriding Bradford. “Grenade the Gatekeeper. Suleiman, follow up and shoot the Gatekeeper.”

Suleiman’s brow is furrowed. Blood leaks from his lower gut. His breaths are labored as he takes the shot.

The Gatekeeper shrieks. Psionic energy cascades off its body, and it reanimates Amanust’s body.

“Commander,” Bradford warns.

“I know Amanust is dead.” The Commander’s eyes never leave the Hologlobe’s screens. “Trust me.”

“Got eyes on three contacts – I’m pinned down!” Dragunova shouts, as the Muton team charges towards her.

The Commander watches the Muton cleaves through Dragunova’s powered armor. The world inverts.

 

“You’ve got a heart of stone, Commander,” the Hunter says. “Takes one to know one."

“I think you’re mistaken,” the Commander replies. “I’m nothing like you, neckbeard.”

The Hunter cocks his head. “So is that what they’re calling me these days… nothing personal, Commander, but don’t I deserve a better nickname?”

“Reaper was taken.”

“I’ve dismissed that claim.” The Hunter grins. “With how many of them I’ve killed.”

 

Save.reload(“Stronghold”)#274

- 0:29:17

 

“Amanust, open up with a stasis on the Andromedon.”

“I have, like, the perfect null lance,” the Psi Operative whines. “It’s beautiful! It’ll hit six troopers and the Andromedon! Dragunova creams her pants at the thought of a claymore hitting so many enemies!”

Dragunova huffs. “I object to that statement, but can’t deny the thought.”

“HURRY UP AND SHOOT!” Melnick yells, fending off a Chryssalid with the butt of his shotgun.

“Trust me, soldier, you don’t want to know what happens in the other timelines,” the Commander says.

“Oh, okay. We live in the dankest timeline,” Amanust muses, as she summons a ball of psionic energy.

The Commander watches the battle unfold. When Mox wrestles a Viper to the ground and stabs it, Bradford’s superior nods.

“Let’s try that again,” the Commander says, and the world dissolves.

 

You were doing so well that time,” the Hunter says. “Why did you reset?”

“Had a bad feeling,” the Commander replies. “Didn’t want to tempt RNJesus.”

 

Save.reload(“Stronghold”)#279

- 0:13:11

 

“A warning, Commander,” Dragunova says, “I have a bit of a headache from the resets.”

“I’m sorry, Outrider.” The Commander orders Mox to whiplash the Sectopod. “If it’s any consolation, it will be over soon.”

“That is ominous,” Mox says, as he grapples away from the explosion.

The Hunter is quiet as he regenerates some health.

“What are you up to, Commander?” he asks, the curiosity clear in his voice as he teleports into the center of his stronghold.

“Melnick, run up and slash him,” the Commander says.

The Ranger somehow misses.

“How did you miss?” Dragunova shouts, fluid bubbling up in her voice from her injury. “He’s right in front of you!”

“Well, this is awkward,” Melnick says, as the Hunter looks at him. He grabs the Hunter, and kisses him. With his right hand, he stabs the Hunter in the back.

The Hunter shoots him in the side. “Not to my tastes, I’m afraid.”

He doesn’t notice Amanust lining up a dominated Gatekeeper behind him.

“Well, that was fun,” the Commander says, as the Hunter shrieks. “Reloading!”

“Wait,” Amanust says, “do you mean reload my gun, or–“

 

Are you trying to defeat me through reloads alone?” the Hunter asks. “Go on, make my day. It almost seems like cheating.”

The Commander shrugs. “All’s fair in love and war.”

“Don’t let Bradford hear that. He’ll get jealous.” The Hunter looks around the loading screen, and sits down to polish his rifle. “Come on, Commander, what else do you have for me? Don’t bore me.”

Save.reload(“Stronghold”)#280

- 0:13:11

 

“Bešlagić, get in a shredder,” the Commander says. The Hunter is almost dead: his armor is more holes than metal, from various assaults by the Menace team.

“I’m running low on ammo,” the operative pants. “Don’t know how much more…”

“One more shot,” the Commander promises.

Bešlagić lifts his cannon and fires. Plasma carves out chunks of alien architecture, but not alien flesh.

“Was that supposed to hurt me?” the Hunter asks.

“It was a 30% shot,” the Commander says. “Dragunova, claymore out. Mox, shoot it.”

The Hunter grapples Dragunova into the explosion, killing the Reaper and shielding the Hunter from the worst.

Mox goes berserk. He decides the best way to work out the panic is to run up to Bešlagić and stab the Grenadier in the face.

“Bešlagić is down!” Bradford says. “Mox, snap out of it! Amanust! Stasis!”

The Psi-operative chases after her teammate, psionic power boiling in her hands. “Mox, wrong team! That’s not how panic works! Shoot them, not us–argh!”

Amanust slumps, as Mox reels her in and guts her on his Ripjack.

“Traitor!” Leong shouts, squaring in on the small of Mox’s shoulders with his rifle.

“Congratulations, Mox, you’ve done more harm to XCOM in one move than any of my siblings,” the Hunter says. “Are you sure you don’t want to rejoin the Elders?”

Leong fires.

Mox looks at Amanust’s blood, fat dark droplets raining from his Ripjack. It melds into the orange-gold of his own. He sinks to his knees. “What… what have I done? My mind is my own. Commander… Elena…”

Bradford shakes his head. How could everything go to hell in minutes?

“It never happened, Mox,” the Commander says, and the world inverts.

 

Save.reload(“Stronghold”)#281

- 0:13:11

 

Bešlagić fires. He does not miss.

“Have you noticed,” the Commander says, as the Hunter’s sniper rifle drops from his hands, “that I have not lost a single man, whereas there are a hundred corpses outside your door? You promised to kill all who served me. You chased me between dimensions and tried to fatigue me through resets. It did not work. My madness had a purpose.”

The Menace team advances on the dying Chosen. “Dragunova’s got dibs,” Bešlagić says with a bow.

Suleiman passes the Reaper a fresh clip of Dragon rounds.

The Hunter looks at each XCOM soldier in turn. “You died,” he hisses. “You died, in so many universes.”

“Well, thanks Commander,” Amanust says. “I’ve probably tripled my kill count!”

“There was a purpose,” the Commander restates. “They escaped certain death.”

“You let your men die,” the Hunter says in wonder, “to see all the possibilities.”

“Hell, they’re all alive now,” Central says, “can’t say the same for you.”

The Hunter touches the golden ichor pouring from his chest. He bows his head.

“Perhaps humanity has a chance after all,” the Hunter says, “if they’re all as crazy as you.”

“It’s been a good hunt,” the Commander says.

“It has.” The Hunter closes his eyes. “The best of luck, Commander.”

Dragunova aims down her rifle, and fires.

 


 

“At this rate,” Tygan says, mournfully looking at the depleted beer taps, and then to Amanust performing a strip dance on the bar, “I will have to switch our research course from yet another alien encryption to the production of artificial organs.”

“I’m working on curing the men of their alcoholism,” the Commander says wearily. “It’s been a work more than two years in the making, but they get blackout drunk only on celebrations. The Hunter is dead. Let them celebrate.”

“Working slightly faster than the VA, I see,” Bradford says, nudging his superior’s side. “Well, you got a good start on me.”

“I can’t exactly use the same method on all the men,” the Commander says. “Maybe one or two. Suleiman?”

“Sorry, sir,” the Colonel says, and blows his superior a kiss. He winces as the bandages around his thigh shift. “More of a coffee than vodka drinker.”

Bradford mimes making a heart with his hands, then cracking it open like an egg over his knee. “I’ll just have you all to myself, Commander.”

Shen wrinkles her nose and sips her scotch. “Ew. Old people flirting.”

Bradford claps her on the back. “You can’t stay young and spry forever, Shen.”

“I’ll figure something out,” she says. “Not like Vahlen, though.”

“I’m still sad we never found out what happened to Vahlen,” Kelly says.

“You never met her,” the Commander says.

“Nope! But I can appreciate a good ass when I see one.” Kelly toasts the picture in the memorial cabinet. “Shine on, you crazy bastard.”

Bešlagić looks thoughtful. He carefully maneuvers himself on the barstool, to avoid aggravating his broken leg. “So, what’s your thought on a threesome–“

“Not happening,” Delela and Kelly chime in.

The song on the radio ends, replaced by the dulcet and somewhat breathy tones of Resistance Radio DJ V-Day.

 

“I’ve got a serious crush developing for that mysterious Commander running things over at XCOM,” V-Day says.

The bar is immediately filled with whistles and hoots.

“Oh no, Central,” Ivanova says, “everyone wants a piece of the Commander!”

Kholi bangs his glass of vodka on the counter. “I ship it!”

Bradford glares at the radio. He stalks over and raises his fist over the off button.

“Don’t you do it!” Shen says. “Don’t you break that too!”

Kelly waves her arms. “Shh, shh, I wanna hear where this goes!”

V-Day clears his throat. “I’m not sure if we’re talkin’ about a man or a woman here–“

“You are a bit of a shut in,” Shen tells her superior. Delela shushes the Chief Engineer.

“–but still… have you seen what’s been going on?!” V-Day lets out a breathy laugh.

His Commander relaxes onto the barstool. “I’m going for the harem ending now! Geist better watch out.”

Bradford locks eyes with his superior and slowly raises his fist above the radio.

Dragunova places her hands over Mox’s ears. The Skirmisher makes a questioning noise, tilts his head, nods, and settles back into the Reaper’s arms.

“Just today,” V-Day says, and there is an odd slapping noise in the background. Bradford begins to lower his fist. Shen shakes her head vigorously; Melnick and Kelly nod with shit-eating grins that stretch from ear to ear, “he or she kicked the hell out of some ADVENT goons!”

“’Scuse me, I did most of the grunt work,” Amanust complains. “You know, it actually takes effort to dominate Gatekeepers – not that way, Ivanova.”

“You missed that null lance!” Bradford faintly hears Leong say. “How could you miss? He was three feet away!”

“Like it was just another day at the park.” V-Day groans. Bradford can hear the DJ shuddering. He keeps his gaze locked on the Commander. “Ooh, ooh, ooh!”

Bradford taps the OFF button. The radio quiets, plunging the bar into silence.

“Dominance established,” his Commander says. “Duly noted.”

“I feel molested,” Kokoren says. Her partner, Leong, pats her on the shoulder.

“I hold therapy sessions every Tuesday in the AWC,” Bradford’s lover says automatically, in full commanding officer mode. “You can send me a private message if you’d like to discuss this earlier.”

“…did we just hear a peep show over the radio?” Rosalez downs his beer.

“Whatever it was, it definitely was not safe for work,” Shen says, getting up from her seat. “I’m off to go build things and bleach my brain.”

“Well, Central, now that you have done the equivalent of urinating to mark your territory,” Tygan snarks, “do you feel any better?”

“I realize I have approximate knowledge of many degenerate things,” his Commander says, “but watersports are not my thing.” His superior cocks a grin at him, the old spark returning to clever eyes. “Looking a bit cavemanish there, Central.”

 

“Harder!” His Commander’s voice ratchets up into a shriek as Bradford grabs a hank of hair and pulls his lover’s head back. “Oh, god, harder!”

Bradford slaps the Commander’s ass. His superior bites down on the pillow, muffling a sob that mixes pleasure and pain together.

“I want to hear you,” Bradford tells his superior, punctuating his words with sharp thrusts. His Commander arcs back into him. “Get that out of your mouth.”

“Yes, Central – Central! Oh, god. Harder, ha–“

He wraps his arms around the Commander’s waist, resting his head against his lover’s shoulders. “Beg for it.”

“W-what?”

Bradford bites down on the Commander’s neck and sucks hard. His Commander shudders and tries to buck him off. “Beg for it,” he says, leaving a darkening bruise. He stops thrusting. “You chose me, didn’t you? Me, and not V-Day, or Shen, or Tygan–“

“Please,” his Commander breathes, “please, please fuck me–“

“Why not any of the others?” he prompts.

“I’m yours, John, please–“ His lover’s words die in a pained grunt as Bradford thrusts in and knocks his superior’s head into the backboard.

“Jesus.” Bradford puts a hand to the back of the Commander’s head. “Take five, make sure you don’t have a concussion.”

“Did I say the fucking safeword?” The Commander growls and flips them over, so that his superior grinds on top of him. “Did I, Central?”

“No?”

“Good. Because I intend to fuck you into the ground.”

He watches the Commander ride him, powerless under thick thighs and the iron cords of muscle in arms that pin him down. His Commander moans, hips rocking on his own, so close to the cusp of climax but not quite there.

Bradford isn’t the strongest man, nor is he the most flexible, but he flips them over so the Commander is pinned back under him. His Commander snarls at him, exposing sharp teeth. Bradford rocks them together in short, sharp thrusts – his Commander rakes nails down his side, sending fire racing through his skin – he bites down on the scar under the Commander’s neck–

His Commander screams, loud enough that it must pass through the thick walls protecting the Quarters and filter into the Bridge. His lover shudders and locks two strong legs over him, crushing their bodies together.

Bradford’s ears whine. He can feel release fading away. The Central Officer growls in frustration and fucks the Commander deep, but it’s no use. The sharp sting of electricity that races up his spine when he comes is gone.

“For fuck’s sake. I was so close this time!” Bradford mutters.

“Sorry.” The Commander gasps for breath. “’ts too good.”

“So much for a victory fuck. This is my life now.” Bradford tosses the condom into the trash and looks at the mushy pile that his Commander has become. He works his way under his superior, careful to support his lover’s hips. “You sure you’re okay, Commander? Didn’t bruise you too much?”

“Gotta be kidding me… If riling you up,” the Commander pants, “is the way to go… should give V-Day a call…”

“Take down ADVENT, and we’ll see about doing this again.” Bradford pets his Commander. “Grab a towel. You’re making a mess.”

“I can’t feel my legs,” his superior whines. “There’s three under the bed. Next to the gun.”

“Which gun?” Bradford pushes a Bolter away. “There’s four of them.”

Bradford’s superior takes a deep breath. His lover’s breathing evens out. “Assault rifle? That big one that rivals your own massive gun.”

“Gonna assume that’s an innuendo to fluff up my ego.” Bradford kisses his superior. “Thanks for trying, Commander.”

His Commander smiles and butts against his side as Bradford retrieves the towels. “How are you feeling, John?”

“If it weren’t for the ED, I’d feel like a right god of sex.”

There’s a knock at the door. Bradford looks over at the Commander’s terminal: scanners picked up Kelly’s ID.

“She’s on Comms duty,” the Commander says, snapping out of the haze. His superior tosses him a towel, and begins to put on a shirt. “Go answer the door.”

“In a towel?!”

“Yes. It could be an emergency, Central, move it!”

 

Bradford keeps a tight hold on the towel as the door slides open. “Something come up on the comms, soldier?”

Behind him, the Commander squirms beneath the covers in an attempt to put on pants. “Ow, ow, ow…”

Kelly turns into a beet. “Making sure the Commander’s alive– everything seems fine – go sleep – bye!” She races down the corridor like her ass is on fire.

Bradford sighs and drops the towel as he slides back into bed. “Well, Kelly’s gonna need therapy, the entire Bridge thinks I’ve murdered you, and I’m exhausted even without getting off. Oh, and we killed the Hunter. What a day.” He wraps an arm around the Commander. “I’d tell you to stay,” he says, just as the timer signaling 30 minutes before shift change rings, “but someone has a walk of shame before them.”

“Ah, this was a bad idea right before my shift.” The Commander falls off the bed, and does the well-fucked waddle towards the shower. “I had hoped I would be more discreet.”

“As discreet as a Sectopod walking over the objective,” Bradford says, admiring the view.

 


“Shame,” Kelly intones, ringing the bell. “Shame!”

The Commander sighs, and points at each of the accusers in turn. “Melnick, you’ve got a thing for chubby Vipers and getting crushed by them. I’ll keep that in mind next time we retrieve some corpses. Evans, you really like tentacles and ovipositors, and you’ve been banned from the Labs, so you’ve got no room to talk. Girac, may he rest in peace, had this thing for Nazi uniforms of all thing-“

“To be fair, they were snazzy,” Evans offers.

“They were also genocidal maniacs,” the Commander snaps. “Kelly, I haven’t seen anything that scarred me, so we’re good. You have a legitimate complaint.”

“All right, so a little less shame,” Melnick says. “But can you keep it down?” He makes a face and looks away. “It’s kinda like hearing your parents bang.”

“That, we can agree on,” the Commander says. “And I won’t judge your tastes.”

Evans shakes his head. “No, I think we can judge Girac for his. See you after we’re done scanning, Commander.”

“Be back by dinner!” Bradford’s superior calls after their retreating backs.

 

“And you thought I talked too much, Commander. How about your screaming, eh?”

His Commander groans and sits down for the transition meeting. “It’s so quiet without the Chosen judging our every move. Just thought I’d fill the silence.”

“Mmhmm.” He leans over his Commander’s shoulders. “We’re getting you a gag.”

“Good thing my boyfriend’s the head of the requisition team,” the Commander snarks. “I’d hate to mentally scar Kelly again.”

 


“Say ‘ello to my little friend!” Suleiman whips out the Hunter’s sniper rifle.

The Commander looks down at the 4-½ foot long gun, then back to the pile of dirty uniforms that need to be washed. “Didn’t this used to be bigger?”

“It’s the first time I’ve had it out for you, sir,” Suleiman says, batting his eyes. “I’m just a bit shy.”

“Performance anxiety?” the Commander asks. “Now, of all times?”

Bradford grumbles and throws a pair of the Commander’s socks at his lover’s head. His Commander winks at him, promising an apology later tonight.

“Get your dick outta my face,” Shen grumbles, pushing the muzzle away as she measure the distance from Leong’s hands to the ground. “I’ve shortened it enough for a human to use it. You should have no trouble wielding this.”

“Holy overcompensating much?” Bešlagić says.

“Why does he get all the fun toys?” Delela grumbles. “Dad!”

Bradford looks up from the pants he’s folding. “What is it now, Delela?”

“The Commander’s playing favorites!”

“He’s the shortest sniper,” the Commander says, throwing Bradford’s shirts into the washing machine, “I have to make sure everyone can use the gun.”

“Ah, I don’t need this,” Suleiman says, passing his fellow sniper the rifle. “My aim’s good enough without it.” He grins at her. “Step it up, Delela, or Amanust might see this rifle more than you.”

Delela rolls her eyes as she feels her way down the rifle. “Five inches is about the max comfortable length, Colonel.”

“You said it, I didn’t!” Suleiman chirps.

Rosalez coughs into the jacket he’s mending. “Central, how long’s your gun?”

Bradford stands up, taking the laundry basket with him. “I’m not entering this dick waving contest. And these are your underwear, Rosalez. I’m not your mom. Fold your own laundry.”

 


“One thing I will note,” Tygan says, “is that the Avatar has a mouth. I presume, after seeing their Chosen in action, the Elders decided they wanted to never stop talking as well."

“Or other things,” the Commander says slyly. “Have you seen the recent turn in the theme of ADVENT propaganda?”

Bradford swats his superior.

“Now we know the real reason the aliens invaded,” Shen snarks. “What is this thing you Earthlings call love?”

“Oh no, you said the magic words,” the Commander says.

“What is love!” The terrible quartet chimes, right on cue. Melnick dances with Kelly, as Rosalez and Bešlagić headbang. “Baby don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me! No more.”

 


“You know this is how it has to end,” the Commander says, following him into his quarters. “We must cut the cancer out at its root.”

“Don’t have to like it,” Bradford snaps. He gets on his knees and begins digging beneath his bunk. The covers have a faint musty smell from disuse.

“The war will end. One way or another.”

“Geist keeps on ragging on about the real war has yet to begin.” Bradford finally finds the crate and undoes the buckles holding it in place. “He’s a nutcase that thinks XCOM had a psionics unit back in the Invasion, but he hears things I don’t. I’m trusting him on this.”

His Commander takes the bottle of whiskey from him. “We’re almost out of time. Two years went by in a flash. I thought we had all the time in the world.”

“Let’s have a drink,” he says, taking out two tumblers from the box. “I switched my lunch shift with Melnick. We have three hours. Let’s make them count.”

“John, we have to work tonight.”

Bradford switches the whiskey tumblers out for wine flutes.

“That’s still a bit too much.”

He sighs, and holds up a pair of shot glasses.

“I see two tea cups in there.”

His throat seizes. “Yeah… Raymond brought them around. Lily didn’t want them. She’s got a better set. He made that one for her, anyways.”

The Commander kisses his forehead. “Well, we’re drinking to his memory then. What better way than to use tea cups?”

“Up there,” Bradford muses as he washes the cups, “Raymond is yelling at us.”

“Or saying I told you so about Vahlen.”

Bradford shakes his head. “Never seemed the kind of guy to become a ghost,” he says, “but he’d probably watch over Lily in engineering if he did.”

“He’d be proud of her,” the Commander agrees, “for violating the laws of physics in a Nobel Prize worthy effort. If we win the war, I’m nominating Tygan and her.”

Bradford dries off the glasses, and adds a splash of ice. He pours out the Dalmore 25, which is not a Dalmore 45, because whiskey does not age in the bottle. The fumes of citrus and pine float up from the teacups.

“You’ll like it,” he says, even as the Commander grimaces, “it’s not Volk’s swill.”

“I trust you. To Dr. Shen,” his Commander says, taking the glass, “we’d have never gotten this far without you.”

“Should include a few more in there.” Bradford takes his own cup, grief banding tight around his chest. “We’ve lost more good men than we should have.”

“Here’s to them. To the nameless, to the forgotten, to the broken and the battered. To those we lost,” his Commander says, holding the tea cup aloft, “to those who fight, and to those we’ll give a future.”

They clink cups, and drink in silence.

 

“I’ve got two bottles of wine,” he admits, swirling the whiskey about his cup. Bradford leans against his lover. “One red, one white. Gambled for them, back before I rescued you.”

Bradford’s superior finishes off the whiskey. “Didn’t take you for a wine person.”

“Thought we’d drink at the New Year.” Bradford gestures to the whiskey bottle, and drains his cup. “That, that was for winning the war.”

His Commander sits back on the bed.

“I think we should have the wine now.”

Bradford’s heart sinks. “We made it through two years, Commander. There’s still a chance–”

“John, I know if I die, you’ll look at that bottle of wine and it will haunt you. Promise me this,” his Commander says, looking up at him, “you won’t drown yourself in alcohol. Do you hear me? If I die, keep up the good fight.” His lover caresses his face. “And I will see you at the bar on the other side.”

Bradford chokes out a laugh. “God’s in His heaven, and apparently it’s an alcoholic’s paradise.”

“Considering how many of our soldiers He’s seeing,” his superior says with a hint of black humor, “there’s probably a quarantined bar just for them.”

“Let’s have the red then,” Bradford says. “Blood for the blood god, or whatever Shen says. Maybe an offering will sate his bloodlust. I can’t exactly get you champagne, so… we’ll save the white for New Year’s.”

“What’s the saying? Wine loves an empty stomach?” The Commander rummages around in the cupboards, and withdraws an ADVENT ration pack. “Make it last.”

“How romantic.” Bradford cuts the foiled pack open with the knife from his weapons holster. “What do we have at Restaurant du Central… crackers, cheese product, mystery meat… I think these are dried grapes–“

“You mean, raisins?”

Bradford shakes the clear plastic bag. “Could be Sectoid nuts for all I know.”

“Your sense of humor is just another raisin to love you,” the Commander says with wide-eyed innocence.

The Central Officer preps the wine opener from the crate. “Why do I put up with this shit? And why are we the most stable monogamous relationship on the ship?"

“Because you love me. And I suck your dick, in more ways than one.”

Bradford rolls his eyes and points at the Commander. “If this cork hits me in the face, no matter how funny it is, delete the recordings and reset time.”

His Commander looks pensive. “It would give us more time.”

The Central Officer pulls. The cork pops out, coming out cleanly. He sniffs – no, the wine is good, nowhere near vinegar; they have no excuse. He pours out two fingers’ worth into the wine flutes.

“Here’s to us,” he says despite the lump in his throat. “To Central, and his Commander. May we see the New Year together.”

He holds his flute to the Commander’s lips. After a second, his Commander mirrors the action, and they drink.

 

A flute of wine and a pack of crackers later, the Commander is sprawled over the Central Officer like an octopus. “Oh, this is good!” His superior laughs and cuddles up to him. “I’m feeling bubbly already.”

Bradford just nods and sips at his wine. He works patterns into the Commander’s hair with his left hand.

“I want more time,” he murmurs into his Commander’s neck.

His superior places a hand on the clasp of his weapons harness, and looks at him. Bradford stops the Commander.

“Are you sober enough?” he asks. “What’s the safeword?”

“Newfoundland, because that was the moment we knew XCOM was fucked.”

Bradford nods. His lover loosens the strap, and lets the knife fall to the blankets.

The Central Officer stands to fetch a glass of water. Back on the bunk, his Commander strips off a pistol and knife, and sets them on the floor. Bradford hands the glass of water to the Commander. His lover swishes a mouthful of water around, and swallows. His Commander works his belt open.

“Someone’s eager,” his lover murmurs, opening up the condom.

Bradford runs his hands through the Commander’s hair. “No clever words this time. I’ve heard so many of them. I just… I want you all to myself.”

The Commander nods, and reaches for him.

 

His Commander groans as finally, finally, his lover sinks onto him. Bradford bites his lip and focuses on the crescent scar under the Commander’s chin, willing himself to last. He rests his head against his superior’s neck, breathing in the fumes of good wine and his Commander’s soap. The cold metal of the wall digs into his bare back.

The Commander’s eyes open. His superior tugs the pillow around, and props it between the wall and Bradford’s back. “Good?”

Bradford nods, and urges his hips up.

 

It’s a luxury to have time together, time that isn’t spent running around the Resistance with guns blazing or wrangling the men into doing chores. Bradford wraps his hands around the Commander’s neck – hands more suited for the barrel of a gun than a lover’s embrace – and there is trust shining out of his Commander’s eyes, trust that will not be broken.

They move together, well suited to each other’s rhythms. Fire races through Bradford’s veins. He clutches his Commander, even though the flames threaten to consume him. The Commander rakes nails along his thighs and grinds against him. There’s a jolt of electricity, and he falls, moaning the Commander’s name. He feels for the Commander, rubbing and stroking, and his lover follows him over.

Bradford sighs as soft warmth suffuses him. He loses himself in the heat of the Commander’s skin on his, in the quiet moans buried in his neck, in the clean soap smell of the Commander’s hair mixing with wine. Bradford’s mind is blissfully blank; well, no, that’s not true, his mind is filled with impressions of his lover rather than thoughts. They stay there, enjoying the other’s presence.

Far too soon, his tablet beeps, signaling thirty minutes before his shift begins. Bradford groans and untangles himself from his Commander.

His superior brushes his hair away from his forehead. “If I don’t come back–“

Bradford presses a kiss to his Commander’s cheek.

“Come back.” He touches their foreheads together. “That’s an order, not a request.”

His Commander nods, and settles onto the bed. Bradford leaves his quarters, but not before sneaking one last look at the Commander sleeping away on his bunk. Bradford briefly wonders if he can get away with asking Shen to cover the last thirty minutes of his shift. The Commander is very cuddly when waking up.

He brushes the thought away. He is XCOM’s Central Officer. In that duty, he will not falter.

 


“I may have doubted your methods,” the Informant says, “but I know the world is in good hands. Wake them up. Broadcast the truth. Make them remember who they were, before there is no one left to remember.”

The Commander nods.

The Informant’s voice is almost fond. “Farewell, Commander.”

 


“Dragunova is still badly injured from the Hunter’s stronghold,” Bradford says, reeling off the list of soldiers, “but this is make or break, Commander. If you want to send her out, she’s raring to go. Their level three bond could be a game-changer.”

“How is Mox?”

“Ready to shove the False Gods back into the garbage patch they came from.”

The Commander stops stripping down. “Get Dax ready for the Base Assault.”

“Commander, he’s just a Captain. Mox is a Colonel.”

“I know,” his superior says softly. “I cannot, in good conscience, let my team down by bringing an injured soldier when healthy ones are available. I don’t want to separate them either.” The Commander stares at the astronaut suit with no small amount of trepidation. “Let them face the new world, whether it ends in victory or in fire, together."

“Dragunova and Mox won’t appreciate that sentiment,” he warns.

“I know. Put them on Avenger guard duty,” the Commander says. “Once the Elders figure out we’re there, they will try to take my body from here.”

“I won’t let that happen,” Bradford says.

“I know. I’ve also made arrangements to bring twelve soldiers with me.”

Bradford shrugs. “You mean, cheats.”

“That is the less politically correct way of saying it, yes.”

 


Time is up.

Bradford has said all that he wanted. Well, no. There’s one last thing.

“Good luck, Commander,” he whispers, as the Avatar crosses the gate.

 


The Menace Team crosses the alien landscape, killing everything that looks at them funny. Which, considering the aliens’ bizarre biology, happens to be everything. Surprise. XCOM is full of xenophobes.

“The Warlock is back!” Bradford warns, as readings on the Hologlobe screen spike. “Commander, get out of there, he’s coming through!”

The Warlock appears in a flash of purple psionic power. “I RETURN, MORE GLORIOUS THAT EVER! The Elders have chosen me, just as they have chosen you, Commander.” He punches the air, the air crackling around his fist. “We are both destined to serve at their side, to bring their vision to this world and beyond. Come, allow yourself to be reclaimed!”

“I don’t think he has a mind of his own anymore!” Bešlagić warns. “He’s squirrel-shit nuts now!”

“THE GODS HAVE SEEN FIT TO BLESS ME, THE ELDERS’ CHAMPION,” the Warlock bellows. There is no trace of the individual that was in his countenance.

“He’s reached his final form!” Kelly dodges the lightning crackling in the Warlock’s hands. “Jesus, he didn’t just drink the Kool Aid, he snorted it!”

The Commander ducks behind a column. “Bešlagić, I need you to shred his armor! Soften him up for Suleiman! Melnick, follow it up!”

“On it!” the partners shout, and in unison, shoot the Warlock.

“You would forsake the Elders, Commander?” The Warlock staggers, orange blood leaking down his armor. Power boils within the Warlock’s form. “Then face them! Face those who have forsaken you!”

Psionic ghosts clamber out of thin air. Bradford gapes: no longer are they anonymous in ghostly bone. These specters bare faces of those XCOM lost: Volkova, Manuel, Yamamoto, Girac, Romanov, Hamidou, and all the men lost at the beginning of the war. A troop of thirty dead men advance from the Void, and more follow in their wake.

Volkova levels an accusing hand at the Commander’s Avatar. “YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD SAVE US.” Her longcoat, now made of nothing more than psionic power, billows around skeletal legs. “HOW DARE YOU LIE TO US!”

“YOU ABANDONED US.” Girac moans and lurches forward.

Ivanova makes to run to the specter of her partner. Dax grabs her arm and holds her back.

“Let me go!” The Reaper beats at him. “Let me go to him! Girac! It’s me!”

“It is no longer him,” the Skirmisher says, sharing a helpless glance with Kelly, “only a shadow of who he was.”

“YOU FAVORED THE OTHERS OVER ME,” Romanov says, the Templar drawing black psionic blades. “YOU FORGOT ABOUT ME.”

“YOU LEFT ME BEHIND!” Hamidou screeches in a voice of demons and dead. “I SHOULD DRAG YOU INTO THE VOID!”

Everyone promptly panics.

“Now would be a good time for Space Marine SPARK,” the Commander says, voice shaking. “How’s it going on your side, Central?”

Bradford glances quickly at the screens showing the fight raging outside the Avenger. “Shen’s got her hands full. We’re holding.”

“Everything’s going to shit like usual then,” the Commander says. “Rosalez, drop a capacitor discharge! Ivanova, remote start that fuel tank! Ivanova, listen to me! It’s not him! He would recognize you if it was Girac!”

 

The fight becomes less XCOM vs. Aliens, and more XCOM vs. their worst nightmare. The Warlock draws more specters out of their graves and into the world to swipe and claw at their former allies. Ivanova is the one to finish off Girac. She breaks and puts Suleiman’s pistol to her head, and it’s only a timely intervention from the Commander that saves the Reaper from joining her partner in the shambling crowd. Evans takes it upon himself to stay by Ivanova’s side, glowing with the power of a Solace, to keep her alive. The Commander assigns Dax, Kholi and Leong to Warlock-killing duty. It takes the combined forces of all three to chase the Warlock around the room. Rosalez, Melnick and Bešlagić are teamed up on dealing with the aliens summoned by the Avatars. The Elders come into the fight, wreathed in the forms of their Avatars, and add to the chaos.

Bradford doesn’t envy the Menace team.

“Shen, are you keeping them back?” he asks on a separate channel.

The Engineer’s voice is strained. “Trying to keep the Commander alive as well, but yes. SPARK’s on the task.” Bradford hears the faint sound of explosions. “I’m having the technicians run rockets out to him.”

Bradford switches his attention back to the main screen, just in time to catch Manuel shambling up to Rosalez. “YOU KILLED ME.”

“I’m sorry, dude,” the Specialist says, reloading his rifle, “it was you or the civilians.” He guns down the psionic ghost. “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.

“Hold the fucking line!” Kelly yells, throwing up a storm of blades to break through the advancing line of specters. “Delela, give me a hand!”

The sniper whips out the Hunter’s pistol and shoots every psionic ghost in sight.

It’s not enough. Romanov breaks through, draws black psionic blades, and stabs the Commander through the heart.

“Commander!” Bradford screams.

The world drops into darkness without warning.

 


Bradford sees too much – a world where the Elders have won and become whole, the Speaker proclaiming, long live the Elders – the Avenger aflame – Betos staring defiantly one last time as the Muton presses the rifle’s muzzle to her head – Volk’s sightless eyes staring at him, as Chryssalids devour his entrails – Geist’s eyes frozen in a soundless scream as his body melts into golden goo, purple psionic power leaving his hands with a final fizzle – the Resistance falling, burning, dissolving –

Is this what you see all the time, Commander? he calls into the void.

No, no, I have a save, it’s somewhere around here,” he hears his Commander murmur feverishly. “This isn’t the end! I was prepared! They won’t take me back!

Commander! Bradford cries. What can I do to help?

He hears something click. John? Let’s see… in which world did I… there, there we go! I can fix this!

The world goes white. When it returns, Bradford is standing in front of the Hologlobe, and the Menace Team line remains unbroken. Outrider, not Shen, is manning the defenses outside.

S%ne.re/0d(“Leviathan”)#22220132

- ??:%^:%@


“Outrider, how are you holding up?” Bradford asks. “Need more fighters?”

“We’re pinned down,” the Reaper says, cutting down another Berserker, “but I have seen worse. Not sure how they found us with the Network down.”

“They must have been chasing us,” Mox says, grappling to her position. His Bullpup barks as it spits hot plasma. “ADVENT know we are close to unseating them.”

Dragunova stands and kisses him. “Then let’s bring them down!”

“A little help here!” Amanust says, ripping apart the world around a cluster of Mutons with her psionics.

 

Under the sea, the Commander has managed to fell the first Avatar. The Warlock roars. “See those you have failed, in other times!” he says, summoning many, many copies of Kelly. “See how many times this one soldier died!"

Kelly looks at the horde of her psionic ghosts. “Wow… you really saved me a lot.” She thanks the Commander by gunning down a Codex on her superior’s flank.

“Move! You can’t take all of those things!” Bradford barks. He looks at the Lost swarming the battlefield outside, and switches channels. “Shen, we need plasma out there, stat!”

“Everyone, get to the Avenger ramp!” Shen says. “I’m hauling the cyclonic torpedoes out!”

“Wait, what are those?” Lauro asks, as he runs for it.

Shen waits for everyone to camp on the ramp before ordering her SPARK into the fray. She activates a shield system stolen from a Shieldbearer to guard the Avenger.

“SPARK, Exterminatus!” Shen orders, giggling as she does so.

Bradford opens his mouth to ask what the hell is going on. The launchers on the SPARK’s back open up. From them, 40 mm plasma rockets streak out. Bradford recognizes the Skirmishers’ handiwork, in the finely crafted alien alloy exteriors, the Reapers’ design in the explosives, but the Templars’ work in the… psionics crackling around the munitions?

The rockets come back down. All of the Hologlobe screens go white.

When they return, there is nothing but ash outside the Avenger. There are no trees, no rocks, not even the remnants of Gatekeeper armor. SPARK remains in the middle of the devastation, untouched in Amanust’s Stasis sphere.

“Permission to nickname Shen Agent Orange,” Kokoren says, voice shaking. “Holy shit.”

“The… the bodies…” Dr. Golini murmurs, lowering her pistol.

“Yeah, that’s a bit too OP,” Lauro says. “Someone nerf Stasis please.”

“I am A-OK with Stasis when it’s on our side,” Reaper Zhao says.

“Oooh, psi power!” one of the Templars aiding XCOM says, and begins to sap power that only she can see. “It’s like a piñata burst!”

“That only counts as one,” Dragunova deadpans.

“Shen, what the hell have you done?” Bradford asks. “Not that I’m complaining!”

“The Commander gave me permission to follow up on a little project of mine.” Bradford hears Shen patting her GREMLIN. “That’s right, ROV-R! Who’s a good boy?”

“I have felt a great disturbance in the force,” Templar Van Damme says over in Waterworld. “Like a thousand minds screamed, and were extinguished, and I want whatever caused that right here.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” the Commander grunts, in the middle of Null Lancing a horde of Kelly clones. “Oh, if only V-Day could see this.”

Mox points at incoming troop transports in the distance. “You missed some.”

Bradford can almost hear Shen pouting.

 


“At last, you see,” the Elder says as it stands before the Menace Team. “If we lose, there will be the end of all things.” It summons a spectral version of Bradford. “Do you not remember, how he died? It will happen again, if you do not surrender and lay down your weapons. It will happen again, if we win and you did not surrender."

Bradford stares at his psionic ghost.

“Rrrrgh,” it groans.

“Gotta say, Commander, I’m the prettier and more articulate one,” he says, forcing levity into his voice. Keep the Commander’s attention on the situation.

“We have solved the eternal question,” Ivanova says. “It is possible to have both a zombie and a ghost from the same person.”

“Excuse you, I’m still alive,” Central says.

“I’ve seen you in the morning before coffee, Central,” the Commander says, mustering psionic energy into the Psi Amp, “and I’m with her.”

Bešlagić and Melnick run circles around the Avatar, keeping it in a constant quick-step by firing explosives and shotgun shells at its legs. Rosalez’s GREMLIN buzzes the Avatar as he takes aim with his rifle.

“Why won’t you enter the Void already?” Dax fires his Bullpup. He misses.

“You will find our forces have far better aim, Commander,” the Avatar says, raising its arms to retaliate. Dax reloads and takes aim once more. “Far better than this traitor – urk!”

The Repeater on Dax’s Bullpup aims the bullet straight into the Avatar’s brain.

“That’s enough from you, false god,” Dax says, and spits. “Vox Tala For Ten!”

“YOU WILL DIE FOR THAT, TRAITOR,” the Warlock says, summoning Girac out of the Void once more, “THERE IS A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE VOID FOR YOU. I, THE ELDERS’ GREATEST CHAMPION, WILL AVENGE THE GODS!”

“Oh, no you don’t!” Kholi grunts, tossing a grenade at the Warlock’s feet. “Don’t you touch Squiddie!”

In the chaos, the specter of Yamamoto makes it to the Commander. “WAS I NOT GOOD ENOUGH? IS THAT WHY YOU LET ME DIE?” she wails.

“Commander!” Bradford clutches at the railing of the Hologlobe. He has faint memories of a black psionic gauntlet spearing the Commander’s chest. “Commander, listen to me. Three went in, and three friends came out. Remember that!”

“Rest,” his Commander says, bringing the ball of psionic energy up, “and be at peace.”

A blue beam of energy emits from the Commander’s hands, passing through the specters. A rift in the dimension opens up, tearing through the Warlock’s psionic puppet strands.

The soldiers dissolve into light blue pixels.

The Warlock presses his opening by raising his rifle and shooting the Commander. The Avatar slumps to the ground. Suleiman screams out a battle cry and raises his gun, tearing through the Warlock’s armor.

“YOU WILL RETURN!” the Warlock says. “YOU WILL SEE THE TRUTH!”

“Can you stand?” Kelly asks, spraying medkit into her superior’s wounds.

“Hard to think,” the Commander slurs, pressing a hand to the golden ichor leaking through the armor. “Took… took a lot outta me. Might… might need to reset.”

“No. We started the war together, sir,” Kelly groans, hoisting the Commander upright, “and we’re gonna end it together.”

“Gimme… a moment…”

“We don’t have time, Commander,” the Ranger replies. “Lean on me."

The Commander laughs, fluid bubbling up in the sound. “So I’m… finally being carried… instead of carrying the team.” The Commander’s Avatar raises its arms, and throws a Null Lance that nails the Warlock. “Have it back!”

Suleiman follows his Commander’s work with a nicely aimed bullet that pierces the Warlock’s chest. The remaining Elder screams in frustration.

“Ivanova!” The Commander takes a Skullminer from the weapons belt and tosses it to the Reaper. In its hilt, Bradford can see the technology developed from chip that Leong stole. “He’s yours!”

Ivanova ignores her faction’s creed of sticking to the shadows. She does the Templars proud by running straight at the Warlock, Skullminer held like a sword. She brings the Skullminer up in a swirl of long coat and black anger. Ivanova jabs it into the soft flesh of his throat. The Warlock grunts. She twists its twin blades.

“Go join my partner,” she says with deadly calm, “and this time, let Girac rest.”

Ivanova trades her Skullminer for her rifle, and shoots the Warlock in the head.

Bradford can almost hear Girac’s sigh of relief as he dissipates. Ivanova closes her eyes, and smiles.

He glances to the screens showing the battle outside the Avenger. XCOM’s men are bruised and battered, but they fight side-by-side Reapers, Templars and Skirmishers. Upon seeing their freed brethren, some of the arriving Troopers throw down their helmets and join the battle against the aliens. XCOM does their best to protect their newest allies, running out GREMLINs and soldiers armed with Medkits to patch up their wounds and ferry out ammo. The addition to their numbers bolster the fighters’ morale.

This is the world the Commander has built. So far, it’s looking pretty good.

 

“You were the fourth to be Chosen,” the last, and gravely wounded, Avatar says as it zips around the battlefield. “The Earth is yours, Commander, if you would but join us. You are the fourth of our children. Deny us, and the Earth will be destroyed.”

“Don’t listen to it!” Bradford says, “It knows its time is up! One more, Commander, and you can come home!”

“Fucking hell, can you say abusive parents?” Kelly grunts as she helps the Commander walk. “You hearing this thing, Commander?”

“I don’t speak bullshit,” the Commander manages to say. “Delela, fan fire! Kelly, you good with just using your shotgun?”

Kelly whips out her shotgun. “I’m a Ranger, I go both ways.”

“Then go there, and end this,” the Commander says, one last Null Lance boiling over in the Psi Amp, “on my command.”

The Commander fires. The Avatar screams as bright blue psionic energy tears it apart at a molecular level. It teleports right into Kelly’s line of sight.

Kelly shoots the Avatar in the face.

 


One by one, the Menace Team dash out of the stabilized Psionic Gate.

The Commander is not among their number. Then the com-link goes down.

“Commander! You okay?!” Bradford slaps at the communications console. No, it’s not a glitch, it’s not… “We just lost contact with–“

Bradford’s heart pounds away in his ears as his worst fears are realized. He rushes down to the Shadow Chamber, demands explanations from Tygan. The Commander’s body glows with a soft purple power that bleeds poison into the air. He demands the doctor and engineer do something, but there is nothing they can do but wait.

“C’mon, Commander, pull through,” Bradford begs under his breath, “come back to me. Let’s have a future together.”

Shen and Tygan remain silent in their desperate wait.

At long last, the psionic gate in the Shadow Chamber flares with energy.

The Avatar tumbles out, lifeless.

For a few, long moments, the suit on the table does not move.

His Commander starts breathing again.

“What’s going on?” Bradford demands, as Shen strips off the astronaut suit prison. “Why isn’t the Commander waking up?”

Tygan shrugs helplessly and goes to get the oxygen tank. “I do not know. All that I can conjecture is that in the final battle, something went wrong.”

 


When the Faction leaders arrive at the Avenger, they probably expected to see their men celebrating with XCOM, and the Commander at their head.

They did not expect Bradford, standing alone on the Avenger ramp, while his soldiers party around him.

“John!” Volk claps him on the back. “There is much work to be done. But tonight, we drink! Where’s that Commander of yours?”

“I did expect to see my Skirmishers mobbing your Commander,” Betos says, peering around, “they speak very highly of XCOM’s leader.”

“There is a real war on the horizon. Tomorrow, my Templars march for the coast. But I will give them tonight.” Geist hums. “Why do your men celebrate, when your Commander is not here?”

“It’s what the Commander would’ve wanted,” Bradford says hoarsely.

Volk stops. “Wanted? Past tense? John, what happened?”

Bradford suddenly remembers that the Templars have healing powers.

 

Geist lifts his hands from the Commander’s frail and cold body, careful to avoid knocking over any of the sensors or the oxygen tank. “I can’t say what exactly went wrong,” he says, “but I suspect fatigue, from extreme overuse of psionic powers. I have seen the same in my youngest acolytes. They recovered in time.”

Bradford’s knees go weak. He leans against the cot in the AWC. “So the Commander will wake up?”

“In days. Weeks. Months, perhaps.” Geist frowns. “The Commander may not be the same person you remember. We need to prepare our world for another attack. Our rightful home cannot be stolen from us again.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bradford murmurs. “As long as the Commander is all right.”

Geist eyes him. “You are not susceptible to psionic influence. Strange.”

“Wait, you’ve been mind controlling your Templars all this time?” Bradford asks.

“Psionics give me a certain sway,” Geist says. “Normally, you would volunteer to prepare our world. Perhaps your loyalty to the Commander overrides my suggestions.”

Bradford points at the door. “I’ll get you what you need in a day. Just… I need some time alone. And don’t mind control anyone on the way out!”

“I would not dare to harm my allies,” Geist says, but leaves regardless.

Bradford collapses onto the cot and sobs his heart out. At some point, Volk comes in, and makes sure he eats.

 


Days turn into weeks. The Commander sleeps on. Fall fades into winter, and with it, the Resistance reclaims the cities for their own. XCOM lives on, as a mediating force and to exterminate the last pockets of aliens that refuse to join the collaboration. Bradford, after almost three years of fighting with the Commander, has become a better tactician. He is the one who orders XCOM into battle, and whom withdraws them if need be. His soldiers are hardened warriors, but they easily take to the role of negotiators, switching between them as necessary.

Most days are quiet. Rain batters the Avenger. Shen makes repairs, and finally, water stops leaking through from the ceiling of the Bridge. Sun streaks into the Hangar. Tygan gets regular deliveries of ADVENT burgers from Skirmishers who bring him more ADVENT to free. Frost freezes the Avenger’s landing pads to the ground. Bradford leads the men in a defrosting exercise that has them all scrambling for the showers and hot coffee once they’re done.

Bradford brings the Commander out to the Avenger’s deck on cool, crisp days. His superior sleeps away on his lap, heart monitor beeping away in a slow, steady rhythm.

“Volk came by,” he tells his Commander, his hand furled in his lover’s hair. “Made a home for himself in Moscow. Literally made, mind you, it looks like shit. Been busy tearing out all the ADVENT propaganda. Ivanova went off for a couple of days to help him build the bonfire. Dragunova and Mox are setting up an online school, now that Betos has the psionic network running again. They’re teaching Skirmishers how to act around humans. Dax is apparently their best student.” Bradford shifts his Commander’s weight on his legs, and draws the blanket up around them. “Geist is scanning the coast. We’re picking up weird signals. You might want to wake up soon. Wouldn’t want to miss the show.”

The Commander’s soft breaths brush against his hand. A snowflake drifts past, carried on the cold breeze.

“No? Not even for Cthulhu?” Bradford sighs and holds his Commander close. He’ll have to descend into the AWC soon. There’s no point in risking hypothermia. “You came back to us when we needed you the most. I know you’ll wake up. Just… please. Wake up.”

 


Life goes on in the Avenger. XCOM is welcomed everywhere they land, perhaps too much so. Child support and breeding requests are showing up on Bradford’s tablet. He tracks down the giggling pranksters three times, and assigns them to washroom cleanup duty. On the fourth time, the breeding request for Central is real, and he ends up drinking himself into blackout oblivion in an attempt to forget. He understands that Earth’s population has been devastated, and that people are trying to rebuild. But he looks at the Commander, unconscious in the AWC, and there is no other for him.

Amanust proposes to Delela. Kholi officiates their wedding, Delela’s namesake attends and drops rose petals out of her pudgy hands (her mom has to carry her down the aisle, but Bradford can appreciate the thought), and XCOM drains the liquor stores of Berlin in a feat that will surely be told for centuries.

Somehow, Bradford gets corralled into making Tygan and Shen go on a date, in what he can only assume is a “pair the spares” spree among the Avenger’s men. It goes surprisingly well. At least, since the duo send shy glances to each other over breakfast and don’t bear any bruises or new holes, Bradford can assume it was mission accomplished. Lauro never shuts up about his new role as matchmaker, to his boyfriend Suleiman’s and girlfriend Kokoren’s annoyance.

Kelly, glowing with excitement and fear, announces her pregnancy at the start of December. Rosalez immediately names himself godfather.

“Aw, I wanted to be godfather. Fine, I can be the cool uncle,” Melnick grumbles. He salutes Kelly with his beer. “You’ll be a great mom, Kelly. Congrats.”

Bešlagić claps his partner on the back. “You can both be godfathers, pardner! Just don’t join the mob and make it too literal.”

Melnick drops his voice. “You come into my house, on the day my friend announces her baby–“

Kelly laughs. The tension lifts from her shoulders. “Is it okay, Central, if I move to non-combat roles?”

“Done, and Bešlagić’s going too,” Bradford says. “We need people in negotiations anyways. We’ll have to move you to the Center in Moscow, I’m afraid. Not a lot of room on board the Avenger for a kid."

Kelly’s nose wrinkles. “Can I use baby rage as an excuse to beat people into submission? I could help out Volk that way.”

“You’re the hero of the Resistance, who fired the first shots and the last,” Dragunova says. She looks a bit wistfully at Mox. “I’m sure that excuses anything short of nuclear war.”

Mox wraps an arm around her waist, and hums. The duo settles back into the Living Quarters’ sofas. “Don’t tempt Kelly. I watched Operation Gatecrasher.”

Rosalez huffs. “So you blow up one van–”

Bradford gets up from his chair. He’s happy for his men, but the ache is too much. The Commander is not dead, but his lover’s ghost haunts him all the same. In the twenty years he spent, scavenging the Resistance from what scraps remained, the ghost of the Commander was the fire that kept him going. His lover’s physical body lies in the AWC, and yet, his Commander’s ghost is the chains around his soul dragging him down. This is a long, horrible wait, of the lovers who wait for their soldiers to return from the war, the unknowing and the questions that drift among the almost-dead and the dead-inside.

He finds himself in the bar. The Resistance, even with their limited resources, is building statues of the fallen soldiers to enshrine in reclaimed Manhattan. But the grand memorial to the dead is not quite done. Ivanova sits by the memorial, toasting the portrait of her partner with a glass of rosé.

“Wish you could be here,” she murmurs. “Not the same without you.”

“Do you mind if I join you?” Bradford asks

Ivanova manages a wan smile. “I think, if Tygan sees you again in the AWC, he’s gonna kill you. Yeah. I got some good wine, and no one to share it with.”

She doesn’t blame the Commander for Girac’s death. Still, Bradford pulls his rank as XCOM’s interim leader, and gets Ivanova’s favorite – actual beef pho and spring rolls – delivered to the Avenger from the nearby City Center.

They sit, and drink.

 


It is mid-December. Bradford almost lives in the AWC, even though his men do their best to drag him out and act like a normal human being. He’s working on a New Year’s speech when the Commander suddenly gasps and arcs off the bed.

“Commander!” Bradford pushes his superior down. Relief soars through his chest. “Easy. We still don’t know what they did to you.”

His Commander croaks something out. Bradford brings out his flask – it’s full of water, for once – and lifts it to the Commander’s lips. His lover drinks greedily, then pushes him away, frowning at him. Bradford’s heart drops. He remembers Tygan’s concerns, that the Commander would not be the same if XCOM’s leader ever woke up.

“What time is it?”

“December 16, 2037.”

“I’ve heard that before,” his Commander murmurs. “Is this too a dream?”

Bradford caresses his lover’s cheeks. “I swear, this is real. The Elders are dead. Humanity’s taking back our world, inch by inch. And I’m here.”

The Commander doesn’t seem convinced. “What would make me think this is reality?”

Bradford stops, and thinks. “Uh… the first night of sleep you got was after Melnick drew the chubby Vipers and sent it off to the Warlock.”

“Sounds familiar, but didn’t that happen multiple times?”

“Lauro drew bone porn, the Skirmishers were weirded out, and Shen held a bonfire and threatened to have her SPARK roast him on it.”

The Commander blinks. “Yeah. I’m in the right place. Don’t remember the last part–”

“It was in the shift change debrief.”

“Well, I remember you debriefing me–“

“Yeah, you’re in the right place, Commander,” Bradford says, his cheeks heating up. “What were you dreaming about?”

The Commander looks down at the blankets. “I went to school, started a 9 to 5 job.” His superior reaches for his hand. “The world was whole, except for 2016, 2016 was a bad year even without aliens. All I had to worry about was a mountain of student debt and a shitty job market. I played enough computer games to exasperate Dr. Shen.” His Commander laughs. “Oh, this is so weird. I lived an entire life. And it was more like a loading screen.”

“What made you wake up?”

“Do you remember, long ago,” his Commander asks, “that I worried that XCOM might just be part of a dream? You said no matter what happened, you would be there beside me.”

Bradford grips his lover’s hand. “Memory’s still shitty… but yeah. Sounds familiar.”

“You weren’t there.” The Commander lets out a pained laugh. “And once I realized what was missing, I knew. You wouldn’t leave me like that.”

He sits on the Commander’s bed, and raises a hand to stroke his superior’s cheek. “Well, I’m here now. We’re alive.” He leans in, and kisses his Commander.

 

“We’ve gone full Inception,” Melnick says, walking into the AWC with a fresh set of bruises, some which look oddly scale-patterned. The Command duo break apart. “Welcome back, Commander! We missed you! Not the same without you judging us for our tastes in porn.”

The Commander laughs. “Good to see you too,– wait. Where are those bruises from? I don’t remember you having a tussle with Vipers during the waterworld mission.”

“I think we went too far, sir,” Melnick says in a strangled voice. “I… really like Vipers now. Like, really like. Got a date with one on Tuesday. At least, I think it was a date? She kinda licked me and we struggle-snuggled.”

“I missed you too, Melnick.” The Commander sits up. “Wait, what?”

“XCOM was a mistake,” Bradford says immediately. “Go clarify it before you end up eaten and or arrested for bestiality.”

The Commander leans back against the AWC cot. “What on Earth have I started?"

“This Advent calendar prize sucks,” Bradford grumbles as he goes to get healing paste for his wayward soldier. “You woke up just in time, Commander.”

 


“If another person comes to me with their fingers burnt,” Tygan says, waving the tube of burn paste around, “I will send them to Shen to cut their fingers off and replace them with robot hands.”

“Please,” Shen says, rolling her eyes. “You wouldn't give me that much excess work. You love me.”

“Perhaps I do,” Tygan says.

“Not as much as ADVENT burgers!” Delela yells from her place at the bonfire.

“That’s cheating!” Suleiman yells at the Templar. “You can’t use Volt and call it fireworks!”

Van Damme giggles and dances out of the Sharpshooter’s reach, into Ivanova’s watchful gaze. “What are you going to do about it?”

Volk draws his pistol, and shoots down the Templar’s construct. “Have pity on us mortals and just prep the damn fireworks,” he says.

Betos runs over. “Help! The Chryssalids, they’re burning!”

The Commander is still weak, but has found enough energy to join Bradford on the ramp of the Avenger. XCOM’s men count down the minutes to the New Year in the motley crew of Reapers, Templars, Skirmishers and civilians.

Bradford’s tablet beeps with a message from Geist. The Commander peeps over his shoulders.

“Nope,” his Commander says, “not dealing with this terror from the deep right now. Nope. Tomorrow, maybe, but I am so done with Waterworld.”

The Central Officer laughs. “It rises does sound more like a sext.” He looks over the celebration and holds out the wine bottle. “One minute left. You want to open it?”

The Commander braces the bottle against Bradford’s thigh. The cork pops out.

“Three! Two! One!” XCOM cheers. Fireworks light and fill the night. “Happy new year!”

The Central Officer and his Commander clink glasses together, then drink.

 

Chapter Text

         QUALITY ASSURANCE / Original chapter: Chosen

  • I really expected a swimsuit option in Anarchy's Children.

“Stop painting bikinis over the rookies’ armor. It’s crashing morale.” Bradford passes out the sandpaper. “And stop calling them TAA-TAAs. New meat is equally unacceptable. You were once a rookie too.”

“Yeah, but if shit’s going down, they’re the first to get fucked,” Suleiman says, taking up a chestplate, “so really, we’re just prepping them.”

“Squaddie, you were a rookie exactly two days ago," Bradford says.

“Exactly!” the Sniper says. “I speak from experience!”

The Commander sighs. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

 


 

         BUT SHIT, IT WAS 99 CENTS / Original chapter: Assassin

  • Anarchy's Children is the best DLC, clearly.

Yamamoto looks at Leong and grimaces. “You look like an extra from Mad Max.”

“And you look like a Juggalo stripper,” Leong retorts, hugging his ripped leather jacket protectively.

“Excuse me, it’s a Kabuki theater okami mask.”

Leong points at the fishnets laid overtop Kevlar armor. “So a Kabuki theater stripper.”

“Look, Central wouldn’t let me go out in fishnets alone.”

“Where did you even get those?” Rosalez asks. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Yamamoto tosses an empty shell at him. “No chance, Rosalez, I’ve seen where that mouth’s been.”

“Worth a try!” the Specialist chirps. “No, seriously, how the hell did you get fishnets in the apocalypse?”

Bradford walks into the Hangar just as Yamamoto says, “Look, when we were passing by Amsterdam, I wasn’t going to let those clothes go to waste…”

“Seriously? Grave robbing?” Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. “Return that to the Hangar and report to the quarters for disciplinary measures.”

“Sir, they’re Lost, so it’s not really grave robbing,” Yamamoto protests. “It’s more reappropriating resources. I also st– collected some sweaters for the Resistance!”

“Sweaters are valuable resources.” Bradford points at Yamamoto’s admittedly muscular thighs. “Can you say the same for those?”

“Do you want to see Lost in fishnets?”

Bradford can’t restrain the shudder going up his spine. “Gonna try to forget I ever heard that. Just put on some actual armor.”

Kokoren twirls, showing off her Kevlar-plated thighs. “Ready for duty, sir!”

“Well, that’s your Halloween costume down,” Shen says as she walks in, hauling a sparking MEC by leg.

 

         THE REAL O.G. / Original chapter: Assassin

  • Omitted for being out of character for Bradford and a little too gruesome in the details

“Yeah, I thought it was you.” Bradford tosses down the hazmat suits. “Clean it up. You’re doing the washrooms next.”

Rosalez groans. “But we cleaned up our fingerprints!”

“And scrubbed the security footage!” Bešlagić complains.

“Only you three could think stuffing Sectoid heads into the toilets is funny.” Bradford pauses and lets the last piece of information sink in. “You’ll also be responsible for wiping down the dissection table after Dr. Tygan is done with the Faceless. And carrying the supplies back from the next Supply Drop.”

“Roman!” Melnick elbows the Grenadier as he puts on the hood. “Why d’you hafta spill?”

“Don’t fuck with XCOM’s security,” Bradford says, “and that means not touching the security tapes. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the three reply dully.

Bradford pauses. “I need to grind this message in.” He turns on his com-link. “All soldiers, report to the Hangar.”

 

“I am legitimately going to murder you,” Delela hisses as she scrubs at the mold near the drain. “And nobody will stop me.”

“I’ll help you cut up the bodies,” Kelly says, opening up the drain. She screams as some black and crunchy scuttles out. She tries to hit it, but misses. “Cockroach! Kill it! Kill it!”

Her partner rushes over and stomps on the foul beast. "Ah, god, it stinks! I think there's a whole colony in here!"

"Get the pesticides, and the hazmat suits. If you’re going to endanger XCOM,” Bradford says, “you’ll do your part in keeping it safe.”

“Yes, sir,” Rosalez sighs. He wrings out his sponge in the bucket and gets out the bottle of polish.

“Why does he care so much anyways?” Bešlagić asks as he starts scrubbing the toilet rim. “The Reapers don’t eat the heads. He should be glad we didn’t start playing football with them.”

“XCOM is Bradford’s baby,” Melnick says with a long-suffering sigh. “And it’s bending us over and fucking us without the courtesy of a reach-around.”

“That’s right,” Bradford says, kicking the bucket of soapy water over to the Ranger on his knees. “You’re all my bitches now.”

 

         NO SOLDIER LEFT BEHIND / Original Chapter: Assassin

“Stop modifying my files!” Bradford storms into the Living Quarters. “These rankings are a fair assessment of how you learn.”

“You’re just jealous,” Lauro says, crossing his arms, “because I’m a genius.”

Girac points to the ratings. “According to that, you’re a dickhead.”

“Yeah, because the second coming of Einstein over there’s insufferable,” Kelly says, rolling her eyes at Lauro.

“Just because you’re a high school dropout doesn’t mean we all are!”

“Ivory tower prick,” she shoots back.

Lauro sticks out his tongue. “Glue huffer.”

“Where are you on the list, Central?” Shen asks.

“Second in Commandy One,” the Commander says.

Bradford feels his ears heat up, as the Living Quarters fill up with hoots and whistles.

“Central is our logistics genius,” the Commander says, voice rising, “and I won’t hear a word against him.”

“I don’t think that’s what he wants held against him, sir,” Rosalez says.

 


         ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE / Original chapter: Warlock

Kelly holds up the latest porn package, destined for the Warlock’s doorstep.

“Seriously, what is it with you and Vipers?” Kelly waves her arms. “Look at all the choices you have! Central… Shen… Tygan… maybe the Commander if that’s your thing… there are perfectly good humans on board to lust after!” The Ranger points at the chubby Viper happily smothering a XCOM soldier in its sizable rack. “This has scales! Central has smooth skin! What–”

“Uh, Kelly? Save the fanfic for when you’ve got time in your bunk,” Ivanova says.

The Ranger flails. “You know what I mean! It’s just… why love a monster? You’ve seen how many people the Vipers have killed.”

“I would far rather eat them,” Dragunova says, “and not in that manner.”

“Perhaps,” Melnick says, steepling his fingers, “we are drawn to the monstrous form because we see a little of the monster in ourselves. In humanity, there is always that which is dark, and wicked, and sometimes downright ugly. If the monster deserves love, do we not as well?” He rises from his seat and gestures at the mounted heads on the wall.

“Well, look at who’s the wicked smaht one,” Bešlagić says fondly.

“In the Faceless, we find the artifice and masks we must wear to become socially acceptable. In the Viper, we find the crushing societal pressure to conform to a certain image. In the Chryssalid, we find the biological imperative to spread and breed, regardless of the very real personalities and decisions that shape who we are and what we do with our lives.” Melnick takes a bow. “In short, to love a monster is to admit that we as humans are imperfect. But that in no way makes us less deserving of love.”

Delela claps. “Bravo! Bravo!”

“Did you just come up with an entire monologue to justify why you want to bone chubby Vipers?” Kokoren asks flatly.

Evans tilts his head. “So what does it mean if you like squids?”

“I think it means you just have a fetish for tentacles, dude,” Melnick tells Evans. “Or you really like handing the wheel to someone else.”

Evans throws his hands up. “Jesus, take the wheel!”

“He’s not kidding,” Rosalez says in a deadpan tone.

 

         MAYBE WE SHOULD LOOK FOR DRAGONBALLS IN THE STRONGHOLDS. THAT EXPLAINS WHY THEY KEEP COMING BACK. / Original chapter: Warlock

  • As half of WHaM was written before details about War of the Chosen came out, I originally thought that the Chosen had multiple strongholds, and that they didn't respawn. Instead, I thought they pulled a last-minute escape out of their asses and had to be hunted down and burned out of every hearth and home. Hence, there are some inconsistencies between how the Chosen work in early chapters vs. later chapters.

Romanov laughs and pushes against Evans. They’re stuck fast, bound together by thick psionic strands.

“Is this a sex thing?” Shen asks, stepping over the duo.

“A Dragonball thing.” Romanov wriggles. “Oh. We are far more stuck than I thought.”

“I kinda like it,” Evans says.

“I hope that’s your gun poking me.”

“Psi-Amp, actually.” Evans sighs. “Might as well get comfortable. I can’t reach my Amp, so I can’t cut ourselves out of here.”

“I would draw my blades,” Romanov says, “but I may slice you in half.”

“Please don’t.”

“Shen, you have any suggestions?” Bradford asks as he watches the pair struggle.

“Giant scissors, or a Bolter.”

 

         INT: 20, CHA: 0, ROLL FOR INITIATIVE / Original chapter: Warlock

“Wait, wait, how is Melnick Savant level?!” Lauro gapes at the list. “Have you seen him? I’m not sure there’s a brain inside that skull of his!”

“I’m not sure you’ve got a skin on,” Melnick says, ruffling Lauro’s hair, “you’re more wriggly than a worm in salt.”

Bradford’s Commander laughs. “Rich in brains, poor in sense, Lauro.”

Melnick mimes making a heart with his hands. The two halves fall apart. “You wound me, Commander.”

“And massive in heart,” the Commander adds.

The Ranger snickers. “That’s not the only thing that’s massive. Want a close range look, sir?”

“Commander, no,” Bradford says.

His superior eyes Melnick. “I’ve seen better.”

 

         POWER PERVERSION POTENTIAL / Original chapter: Warlock

Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. He understands that cleanup after a supply op can take a while.

Still, there is something profoundly disturbing about a Templar creating a ghost out of a fallen ADVENT Priest to help spitroast his? her? their? girlfriend to pass the time while Firebrand ferries the corpses back to the Avenger.

“Are there tapes?” the Commander asks. “I think we should delete them.”

“I’ll get the medkit for our friends over there,” Bradford says with a sigh. “You want a drink, Commander? I can’t unsee this.”

“Is there any vodka left?”

“I drank it all. We could use it now.”

The Commander looks blankly at the Templars. If they’re blushing, Bradford can’t tell, because those masks have taken a beating but at least still cover their cheeks. The mouths, on the other hand, covered in psionic burns…

“I think I have a bottle of scotch from Volkova,” the Commander says. “If you can test it for poison first, we’ll have it later.”

Bradford stares. “Why do you think it’s poisoned?”

“I just don’t want methanol poisoning on top of this shit sundae.”

 

         TYGAN CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER? / Original chapter: Warlock

“Really?” Bradford points at the poster. “You spent valuable resources on that? This is what you’re making in the Propaganda Center?”

“It’s raising morale!” Kokoren protests.

Girac claps the doctor on the back. “Tygan is the real waifu.”

“Please refrain,” Tygan says through gritted teeth.

Shen walks into the labs. She stares at the poster on the wall.

“Nice cat ears, Doctor,” she finally says.

 

         ADVENT CAME IN HOT, AND SO DID HE / Original chapter: Warlock

“Look at him,” Girac says, “he doesn’t reek of cheap booze or those nasty herbal cigarettes, I think he washed his hair because it’s not all stiff and greasy – hell, did Bradford shave?” Girac’s eyes widen. “What sort of twilight zone did I enter?”

Bešlagić watches as Central heads towards the Command team talking in the corner. Specifically, the Commander, laughing at one of Tygan’s comments. “Jesus, I think he’s decided to get his shit in order.”

“Five bucks says he fumbles,” Rosalez says.

“Aww, have a little more faith in Central,” Leong says.

“We don’t have cash,” Melnick says, keeping his eyes on the drama.

“My quilt and a pair of boots says he fumbles,” Rosalez corrects.

“Deal.” Melnick slaps Rosalez’s hand.

“Oh! I think he called the Commander over for a private conversation!” Ivanova says, the glee rising in her voice. “Are we going to see it, people?”

Dragunova scoffs. “You sound like a gossipy babushka.”

Ivanova waves a hand at her fellow Reaper. “This is the closest I’m getting to reality TV. Hush, you.”

The Commander nods at Central’s request. They step apart from the Command team.

“Annnd… I think he’s going for it,” Kelly says, the disappointment clear in her voice.

Ivanova crosses her fingers. “Come on… you got a 99% shot…”

Central says something, gesturing to the hallway as he does so. The Commander nods, then turns to talk to Shen and Tygan.

Girac winces. “Oof! Grazed!”

Allll byyyy myyyyseeeelf,” Rosalez sings, gesturing for Melnick to hand his boots over.

“Could’ve used a superior autoloader,” Ivanova says, shaking her head in sympathy.

“Run and gun, maybe,” Melnick says, taking off his boots. “What? I’m a Ranger. I know all about running and gunning.”

Rosalez grumbles as he slips into Melnick’s shoes. “Yeah, running from your responsibilities, like watching my ass!

“Mine’s just better looking,” Bešlagić says. “But I can watch yours.”

“I’m the damn third wheel again,” Rosalez sighs as he tries out his new boots. Bešlagić throws an arm around his shoulders and squeezes.

 


         I’M NO WEATHERMAN, BUT SOMETHING ABOUT THAT FORECAST JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT… / Original chapter: Hunter

“Reapers… the dealers of snow?” The Commander grimaces. “That had better be a reference to Simo Häyhä. I don’t want crack on board my ship, Volk, my men have enough vices as it is.”

“Don't take it literally. We lived in Russia and Alaska.” Volk grins and shuffles up to Bradford’s superior, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “Hey… you wanna buy some snow?”

“Depends,” the Commander says, “can I expect four to five inches?”

“Commander!” Bradford protests.

Volk claps Bradford on the back. “Mr. Weatherman here says up to seven, six if it’s too cold.”

The Commander unsuccessfully muffles a laugh fit by turning away to cough. “Pardon me, the smell of smoke is quite strong,” XCOM’s leader says, before laugh-coughing again.

“I am going to murder you with your cigar case,” Bradford hisses to his friend.

“Shut up, I’m trying to help you,” Volk says.

“Is that so?” the Commander asks, turning to Bradford. “Is this snow a new site-rep?”

“Sure, he’s been scouting around,” Volk slings an arm around Bradford’s shoulders, “and it’s cold outside, Commander. Better huddle up with a good friend.”

Bradford blinks as his brain reboots.

“As a dealer of snow,” the Commander says, “I’d expect you to be better equipped to deal with it.”

“I’m Russian, I know what I’m talking about.” Volk claps a hand against his chest. “John, why don’t you lend your Commander your coat?”

“He can have my cot if it’s truly that cold,” the Commander says.

“Ah, but that’s not a good way to transfer heat,” Volk says, nodding sagely. Bradford’s ears burn as he realizes what the Reaper’s leader is going to say. “Best to have two in bed, without clothes in the way. Can’t have cotton and leather preventing direct heat transfer.”

Bradford briefly considers the political ramifications of murdering Volk.

“Does latex prevent efficient heat transfer?” His Commander laughs. “I’ll keep it in mind, Volk. Have a good night. Sweet dreams, Central.”

The Commander barely makes it out of the Resistance Ring before erupting into a giggle fit.

Volk takes a cigar out from his jacket. “Well, I tried. Gold star for me.”

“You are the worst wingman,” Bradford hisses, smacking his fist against the No Smoking sign.

“The best, you mean,” Volk says, the shit-eating grin never leaving his face as he lights the fucking cigar inside the Resistance Ring.

The sprinklers turn on.

 

         IT WAS THAT, OR STEAL A BUNCH OF CLOTHES FROM ADVENT OUTFITTERS AND ANDROMEDON’S SECRET / Original chapter: Hunter

“Yes, Mr. Bradford sews most of our uniforms from scavenged ADVENT clothes,” Tygan says, “so please refrain from adding to his workload.”

“So, Central, after the war’s over,” the Commander says, “thinking of opening up a clothes range?”

"You're never going to let that go," Bradford says, lightly punching his superior's arm, "aren't you?"

The Commander's head shakes.

All of our clothes?” Kholi asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Stop wearing holes in your underwear. We can’t afford to get you new ones,” Bradford says. “Do you know how hard it is to get elastic?”

“I’m sorry,” the Specialist mumbles, “will do, sir.”

“Central Officer Bradford, lingerie expert extraordinaire,” Melnick crows. “Anything special for the Commander, sir?”

“Melnick, the Commander may order you into battle, but I’m the one who gets you breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Bradford says, raising his voice slightly.

“Something lacy, maybe. Are you a lace person?” Bešlagić aims at the Commander.

“I’d say silk, but it’s too dangerous,” the Commander says absent-mindedly. “You risk cutting off circulation. Nylon rope isn’t bad. There’s a bit of bite – sorry, what were we talking about?”

Bradford’s brain drifts to less than wholesome images. He swallows hard. Those are thoughts best kept to the shower and his bunk, not the middle of the Living Quarters where everyone can question his motives for rescuing the Commander.

“Thanks, Commander!” Leong gives his superior the thumbs up. “Now I know what to use when we go to capturing Vipers for Melnick’s har– I mean, zoo.”

“Stick with lead,” the Commander says.

Bešlagić frowns. “But lead isn’t that flexible…”

Amanust punches his shoulder. “Idiot, the Commander means kill them.”

“Sure, with a petite mort,” Rosalez says.

“At your own peril,” the Commander says.

“Think Central fancies himself a dreamer,” Melnick says, eying Bradford, “because someone’s gone a little glassy-eyed.”

Bradford steps outside to light a cigar and get away from his soldiers. He blows smoke into the air. Though he recognizes that the smoke is no better for him than the alcohol, there’s something calming about taking a drag and watching his worries drift away into the heavens.

Ceci n’est pas un cigare,” Rosalez calls after him.

These men will be the death of him.

 

         HOW DO YOU DO, FELLOW KIDS? / Original chapter: Hunter

Bradford walks into the armory. “Are you men committing a war crime?”

Evans scrambles to cover his rendition of a Faceless head. “O shit, waddup! It’s dat boy!”

Bradford stares. “What on Earth did you just say?”

“Central,” Shen says with a small smile, as she takes down the helmet of an ADVENT Purifier, “do you remember how old millennials were during the Invasion?”

“Shen, I can’t even remember how old I am. Of course not.”

Shen pats ROV-R on the head. “Well, they’re old enough that their kids can fight for XCOM.”

“What?!” Bradford splutters. “But they would’ve been kids when–“

“Weren’t a lot of condoms in the apocalypse,” Shen confirms.

Bradford shudders at the thought. Thousands of teens, who should have been preparing to go to university or enter the workforce, scattered and–

Wait. Teens? As parents? Bradford’s old enough to be a grandfather now.

Jesus Christ, when did that happen?

 

“Oh yeah, my dad used to tell me the story of Star Wars: A New Hope,” Kokoren says fondly. “I don’t remember much, but there was this big boom and Luke, use the Force!

“Those were always good! I fell asleep to No! I must kill the demons. He shouted. The radio said, No, John, you are the demons. And then John was a zombie.” Evans laughs. “Oh, that was my favorite. DOOM, the repercussions of evil! My mom had the best stories.”

Bradford feels his left eye twitch. “…Say what?”

“I think Central’s having a mid-life crisis,” Shen tells Tygan.

“As long as he refrains from chrome-plating the Avenger, I have no complaints,” the doctor replies.

Shen waves her arms. “Don’t give him ideas!”

“How old are you, Central?” Ivanova asks.

“Old enough to remember the Cold War, and kissing my ass good-bye.”

“Eh, what’s that?” Kholi asks.

Bradford gapes. “You don’t know what the Cold War is? It was only the specter of nuclear annihilation that hung over our heads for three decades.”

“Yeah, we had to deal with the very real boot of ADVENT kicking our asses for two decades,” Kokoren says dryly. “Mom really didn’t have time to give me a history lesson when we were running for our lives.”

“But she had enough time to teach you the lyrics to, I don’t know, Gangnam Style?!”

“Oh yeah! Oppan Gangnam style!” Leong begins an impromptu dance that looks like a crab having a seizure. “Ehhhhhh – sexy lady! Oppan Gangnam style! O-oo- don’t know the rest of the words, da nan a na–“

“Out of all the songs that survived, that’s a pretty good one,” his Commander says with a laugh. “Bradford, cheer up, Leong has a good singing voice.”

“I’m getting old!” Bradford protests, leaning against the armory wall for support. “I don’t understand what the kids are saying anymore!”

“If it makes you feel better,” Mox says, “I do not understand any more than you do.”

The Commander's head tilts. “ADVENT has viral videos?”

“We have mandatory propaganda sessions,” the Skirmishers says, fatigue evident in his voice. “If I had to sit through one more viewing of ADVENT burger’s the place for meat!, I would have torn out my own chip.”

Every day’s great with your Burger,” Kelly sings. “Uh, sorry. Does that trigger flashbacks?”

“Please stop,” Mox says.

“So ADVENT is like the military, Walmart, and McDonalds combined.” Bradford grimaces. “Sounds like hell on Earth.”

 


         NOT YOUR GAME OF THRONES / Original chapter: Avatar

“If we’re your kids,” Kelly says, “does that mean that every relationship on board is incestuous?”

“We’re XCOM,” Bešlagić says, “not the Hapsburgs.”

“Somewhere, Kelly,” Bradford says, “Freud’s moaning in his grave.”

Kelly flushes wine red. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean it that way!”

The Commander stops polishing Bradford’s rifle and stands up. “Well, that’s enough for me. I’m heading back to bed.”

 

         TYGAN, I THINK THEY’RE PUTTING CRACK IN THE BURGERS, BECAUSE YOU'VE GOT A PROBLEM, MAN / Original chapter: Avatar

“Tygan, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”

“I have no idea what you speak of,” Tygan says, lifting his face shield. He smears orange-yellow gore over his lab coat.

“Those juicy ADVENT burgers.” Bradford crosses his arms. “Is that why the Hunter found us?”

Tygan stares at him. “Absolutely not. I would never threaten XCOM in that way.”

“Gotta say, doctor, I’m not convinced.”

“I will tell the Commander that your loose lips will sink this ship.”

Bradford’s stomach drops. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Certainly not XCOM secrets, Middle Official Stanford.”

 

         HIS CODENAME WAS “MIDDLE” / Original chapter: Avatar

“XCOM is in shambles, his best buddy is captured, the aliens blew up their base, and Brad- I mean, Stanford, is depressed, right?” Paper ruffles, staticky over the radio. “Oh, hold up... looks like this is "to be continued..."”

One of these days, Bradford is going to hunt down V-Day and stuff a sock in him.

“Middle Official Stanford, that’s got a ring to it,” Shen says. “Any relation, Bradford?”

“Oh, Central, you have a twin?” Bešlagić asks, leering at the Central Officer. “You should’ve told us! We would’ve offloaded all our fuckery onto him, save you some time.”

“Twice the Central, double the trouble!” Kelly cheers.

“They have different last names though…” Leong says slowly.

“It’s his evil twin,” Delela suggests, “just like on Star Trek!”

Bradford unclenches his jaw long enough to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Far as codenames go, that’s super lame.” Amanust blows raspberries at her CO. “Boo. Boring! Why not something cool, like Solid Snake?”

“Don’t you start,” Bradford says.

“Yeah, why not the classics?” Shen asks.

“Don’t,” Bradford says.

“Like Deepthroat,” she continues.

The Bar explodes into laughter. Bradford pours himself a glass of scotch. It’s going to be a long day, and it’s only 9 AM.

“Maybe we should find your twin,” his Commander whispers into his ear, arms winding around his own. “I’ve always wanted to learn if twins have the same sized dick.”

Bradford prays for an earthquake to swallow the Avenger.

“Twin threesome fantasy?” he manages to say. “Don’t start abusing your powers.”

His Commander’s smile promises nothing but trouble.

 


         MISTAKEN IDENTITY / came out after WOTC was released

  • I misread the trailers, and thought that Dragunova was Volkov. Hence, Volkova was born. And then the game came out, and introduced Volikov, Bradford’s friend, which I also misread. This is why Winning Hearts and Minds is a shitfest. The writer just couldn’t keep people straight.

“You’re Dragunova,” the Commander says, pointing at the Reaper. “You work with XCOM currently."

“Volk says I am to obey,” Dragunova says.

“That’s not kinky at all,” says Volkova, who looks exactly like Dragunova.

The Commander makes a whimpering noise. “And you are Volkova.”

“It should be Volikova,” Bradford says, “but ever since you misread the names–“

“Look, Volikov is more of an Ukrainian name! Volkov is a far more common Russian one.” The Commander huffs. “I don’t have the best eyesight. The I blended into the L.”

Dragunova slings an arm around her look-a-like. “For how long did you believe me to be the leader of the Reapers, Commander?”

Bradford pats his Commander’s back. “So, are you finally going to call him Volikov?”

“I’ll stick with Volkov,” the Commander grumbles, “it’s my nickname for him.”

Volkova roars with laughter. “A proper name is a nickname?”

“I’ll need name tags to tell you and Dragunova apart,” the Commander says. “Bradford, can you get on that?”

Bradford laughs. “One wears a hood, the other doesn’t.”

“Which one?!”

Volkova and Dragunova point at each other.

 


         YOU’RE A KID, YOU’RE A SQUID / Original chapter: Commander

“Can we call him Giant?” Leong begs. “Like the squid?”

“Heterololigo has a nice ring to it,” Kelly says. “What? I stole – I mean, I saved a textbook from that university we visited!”

“Or Vampire, vampire squids exist!” Amanust hops up and down. “Come on, look at his armor, it’s totally vampire themed.”

Bradford eyes the spray of forget-me-nots on Kordat’s armor. “…If you say so. Kordat, what do you think?”

“I like Dax,” Kordat says. “It is the name I had when I joined XCOM.”

“Skirmisher’s got the final say.” Bradford writes it down in his roster. “Welcome aboard, Dax.”

“Yeah, no,” Rosalez whispers, “he’ll be Squiddie until the end of time.”

 

         THE FAMILY THAT SLAYS TOGETHER, STAYS TOGETHER / Original chapter: Commander

Sometimes, Bradford wonders what it would take for XCOM to start investing in a duct tape factory. It’s truly a magical substance. XCOM uses it to slap mods onto weapons (until Shen rolled out the plasma guns, those melt duct tape into slag), patch up wounded soldiers, the Commander uses it to tie him up in compromising positions, and maybe a good dose of duct tape will get Rosalez and Dax to stop fighting. Bradford is also a fan of percussive maintenance, but he doubts Tygan would appreciate Bradford slapping some sense into two severely wounded soldiers.

“You missed the shot!” Rosalez says. “Stop trying to blame me for that!”

Dax slaps a hand against his bleeding thigh. “You were supposed to watch my back!”

“Refrain from hitting yourself,” Tygan says, “unless you wish to bleed out.”

“I was watching your back!” Rosalez growls with thinly veiled frustration. “You couldn’t be damned to look over your shoulder before you threw that grenade.”

“You should not have stood in the blast radius.”

“You’re sloppy,” Rosalez says.

“You are adopted!” Dax says.

Bradford raises a hand to his mouth to hide the sudden burst of giggles. XCOM’s newest Skirmisher is settling in just fine.

“Just because you are all adopted,” the Commander says smoothly, winding an arm around Bradford’s waist, “doesn’t mean we didn’t want you. We chose to bring you into XCOM.”

“Wait, Bradford isn’t my real dad?” Kholi claps his hands over his mouth in mock-horror. “Babe! Did you know? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You shut your mouth,” Melnick tells him. “He’s everyone’s dad now.”

“Hapsburg, Hapsburg, how do you do,” Tygan mutters as he sews Leong’s arm back together. “Bleeding, bad chins, minds down the loo.”

 

         RESPECT FOR THE DEAD / Original chapter: Commander

  • After the Hunter is defeated, the Reapers discuss what to do with his ashes

“We will bury him like a Reaper,” Volk says.

“And then dance on his grave,” Ivanova adds.

Bradford rolls his eyes. “Ah, the danse macabre.”


 

         TAKING THE PISS OUT OF HIM / Original chapter: Commander

V-Day clears his throat. “Got some intel from our insider at XCOM, Middle Official Stanford. Let’s see… ah, bad news for all you Commander fans. MO Stanford says, the Commander’s taken.”

The Commander mouths, really?

“What a lucky guy,” V-Day says hopefully, “or gal, I’m not one to complain. Ah well. If you’re listening out there, Commander, hope your partner’s treating you right. And if they aren’t – well, you know where to call me. Blow up some ADVENT and I’m yours.”

His Commander turns off the radio. Bradford’s just glad that the Commander has stopped listening to the ADVENT Speaker’s drivel.

“Would you like me to wear a collar?” his lover asks, “To make it abundantly clear that I belong to you?”

“I should just tattoo property of Central Officer Bradford on your ass and be done with it,” Bradford says.

 

         AT LEAST IT’S WASHABLE

“I was joking!”

“It’s marker, stop making that face.”

“I… appreciate the effort – is this Comic Sans?”

“Did you want calligraphy? You try writing on your own ass.”

 

         ALL IN THE FAMILY / Original chapter: Commander

  • Omitted due to excessive fluff.

It never bodes well when Bradford awakes to the shrill beeping of his com-link. He yawns, and looks at the groggy Commander beside him, whose com-link is also having a rave-party.

“Commander here,” his superior says.

“Central speaking,” Bradford says.

“Well, whoever it is,” Shen says, raising her voice over the yelling in the background, “you gotta come down to Engineering and get the men out of my hair. The next person who blows something up is getting a Bolter to the face.”

“Got it,” they say in unison, “in ten.”

Bradford looks at his Commander. His lover looks very comfortable, nestled in the crook of his arm with the bedsheets thrown loosely over a hip. He is also very fond of the soft pillows and the coolness of the AC on his bare skin.

“You do it,” he says.

The Commander groans. “You hired them.”

“You enable their madness.” Bradford shoves his superior. “Your mess now.”

His Commander pushes him back into the pillows. “They’re my mess after sunrise, which it is not.”

Bradford looks at the bedside terminal. “Jesus, 4 AM. The fuck are they doing up now?”

“They’re young, mad and crazy,” the Commander says, “and not my responsibility.”

Bradford holds up a fist. “Fine. Roshambo.”

The Commander sighs, and shakes.

“Fuck!”

"Go on, get up," Bradford grins.

"Best of three?"

“Paper beats rock, now get your ass over to the AO,” Bradford says, burrowing his face into the pillow.

His Commander groans and shrugs a sweater on. “Next time, it’s your turn.”

“I’ll keep the bed warm for you!”

The Commander flips him off and leaves the Quarters.

Bradford barely notices that his communicator is still blinking and broadcasting to Engineering.

 

         OPERATION: FRIEND IN NEED / Original chapter: Commander

  •  This was omitted due to length. In the original version of WHaM, Bradford had Commander Shepard tendencies and united the Resistance by reporting to the ship and… you know the rest. Those were toned down to focus on the Commander/Central relationship and make WHaM a little less crack-fueled, but you can still see traces in Bradford's interactions with Geist in the Assassin chapter. Bradford doesn't nail Volk in this ficlet either, but it was fun to write them when they weren't ragging on each other as much.

“…you’re the Commander of XCOM, how?” Volk asks, staring at the blanket fort.

“I know things, and I kill ADVENT with that knowledge,” his Commander says, popping out from under the covers. “Also, I take less than a week to reply to an invitation. Central, you brought food?”

Bradford slides the package in next to his superior. “Booze, grapes, Berserker jerky, those plantain chips you like–“

“This is a sex thing, isn’t it?” Volk asks flatly.

“Of course it isn’t,” Bradford says, kicking off his boots. “Just while we wait for the men to finish disassembling that UFO. Ivanova was worried about you, Volk.”

“I do well enough on my own,” he scoffs. “She’s a worrywart.”

Bradford’s Commander looks at the Reaper’s leader.

“Volkova asked me to pass this along,” his superior says. “It was not your fault. If this is my time, this is the best way. I did not die. I will not leave. I will watch over you and the Reapers.

Volk’s face crumples. “Any other ghosts leave a messages for me?”

His Commander’s face twists. “Come closer. I don’t think you want Bradford hearing.”

Volk approaches, boots dragging against the floor. The Commander whispers something into his ear. Volk lets out a laugh that sounds more like a sob. “Yes,” he says, “that does sound like her.” He looks around at the tent. “This is your idea of therapy, then?”

“All we’re offering is a place among friends,” Bradford says. “If you’d like to be alone, my room’s free. You can walk out the door any time.”

“But if it is too quiet in the Reaper’s HQ,” his Commander says, “we’d love to have a third.”

Volk keeps his longcoat tucked around his shoulders. “I’m not taking this off.”

“No boots or socks,” Bradford says. “Coat is fine as long as you don’t stab one of us with the billion knives you keep on you.”

“I’ll behave, John.” Volk crawls into the tent, and stops short. “A… strategy map. John, you are the most boring person on Earth.”

“Sorry, Volk,” Bradford says, “I keep the whips and chains for the third date.” The Commander mouths the number. "Thirty-seventh date," he amends.

 

“Gotta say,” Bradford says, relaxing in the nest of blankets. Volk snores away on his left, longcoat discarded and tossed out with the empty beer cans, several iterations of a strategy map, and dirty bowls. The blanket fort – excuse him, war tent – roof sags under the weight of two tablets and Volk’s socks. The Commander wiggles on his right, trying to get comfortable between the sofa and his body. “This is a nice change of pace. We can finally spend some time together, instead of running around the world with our pants on fire.”

I’m healing up, but I’m coming for you,” the Hunter says on a psionic wind. “Been a while since I had a good hunt.”

Bradford groans. “Does he never shut up?”

“It’s certainly quieter with two of the Chosen gone. We’ll assault the Peruvian facility before the stronghold.” His Commander smiles at him and wraps strong around his waist. “Back when Volk was stripping down for bed, you mentioned something about a dream.”

“Ah, just being dumb. Gotta come up with a speech for when you inevitably rule the world.”

“John, not funny.” His Commander shoves him lightly. “Out with it.”

“I have a dream, that no matter where you go, people will be accepted for who they are and judged on the quality of the character, not who they love or what they do or how they look.” Bradford sits up, head bumping against the blanket ceiling. “I have a dream that Skirmishers will walk hand in hand with Templars, and that Reapers will find their homes. I know that I am just one dreamer, but with you, Commander, I think anything is possible. So yes. I believe there is a world waiting for us.”

His Commander blows out a breath. “Well, I feel shallow. My dream was to wake up next to you in the morning, fuck you gently, and drift right back to sleep.”

Bradford laughs. “We’ve reversed roles. Did you reset us into the wrong universe?”

His Commander looks at Volk’s form, happily snoozing away on a combination of Bradford’s slacks, the Commander’s sweater, a wadded up map of the Hunter’s strongholds, and a pillow.

“If it weren’t for all the death, I’d say we were in the right one.”

 


         CENTURIES / Original Chapter: Epilogue

  • Omitted because it made WHaM too sad.

It’s enough déjà vu to give him vertigo: the Commander sleeps away, ensconced on white sheets, pale enough to pass for one of the dead. The scar under the Commander’s chin, however, is fully healed, and Bradford isn’t worrying about possible brain damage. No, this time, the Central Officer fears that psionics will steal his Commander away.

The men know that before lights out, they can usually find Bradford in the AWC at the Commander’s bedside. They take care not to bother him. Bradford appreciates their efforts, even if he does have to wake up alone in the morning to fix whatever burnt down during the night.

“Hey, Commander.” Bradford swallows past the lump in his throat. “Made quite a legend for yourself. Some of it’s probably V-Day’s doing.”

He works his fingers into the Commander’s hand, and squeezes. His superior’s fingers flutter on his wrist. Bradford pinches his lover’s thumb. His Commander’s eyes remain shut, and the Commander makes no noise of pain or pleasure. The Central Officer sighs and brushes away the tears. Tygan’s no neuroscientist, but with XCOM taking over the city centers, the science team has more diagnostics available. The doctors say the Commander scores low on the Glasgow coma scale. Despite Geist’s assurances, Tygan is doubtful that his superior will ever wake up and even if the Commander should miraculously rise, Tygan warns of severe brain damage.

One of the actual doctors they had acquired suggested a visit to the gene therapy clinics. Bradford has never seen someone get booted off the Avenger that quickly.

“You should hear the stories floating around. Apparently you went mano à mano with the Elders, and threw them sixteen feet down into Hell in a Cell.” Bradford chuckles and tucks a lock of the Commander’s hair away from the straps of the oxygen mask. “If only they knew the truth, eh? If it weren’t for the dead soldiers part, we could release your fight as propaganda. We’d sure show humanity just how much we’re worth fighting for.”

His Commander sleeps on, as life continues on without XCOM’s leader.

“Wonder what stories they’ll tell about you, fifty years from now.” Bradford strokes the Commander’s hand. “Right now, the theme’s Chuck Norris jokes. Apparently you eat Berserkers for breakfast.” He smirks. “Is that what they’re calling me now?”

The grin quickly falls from his face. His Commander doesn’t fill the silence with an innuendo or a sly remark. In the silence between them lies loss and a hopeless wait – no, it is not hopeless, Bradford knows his Commander will wake up.

Bradford’s watch beeps.

He stands, sighing. Tygan doesn’t like it when Bradford sleeps in the AWC. Something about quality of rest. Shen doesn’t like it either, but she nags him about the Kahlua he dumps in his coffee.

“Legends are for dead people. Stories are for the living.” Bradford kisses his superior’s cheek. No blush rises to that dearly loved face.

“Come on, Commander," he murmurs. "Don’t leave me hanging.”

 

Chapter Text

2035

“THE NEXT PERSON TO PLAY CHRISTMAS CAROLS AT 3AM IS GETTING A BOOT UP THE ASS,” Lauro declares as he stomps into his bunk. “IT’S NOVEMBER.”

“Boo this man!” Hamidou declares. The rookie is fresh from a covert op, and covered in bandages, but he manages to give Lauro the thumbs down. “Where’s the ghost emojis? Wait, no, get out the wreathes and holly–”

“Stop pre-mature Christmas celebration,” Kholi grouses as he rouses himself.

Leong whines and tries to pull his boyfriend back into their shared bunk. “Nooo… it’s cold…”

“It’s November 1st.” Delela falls out of her bunk. “It was just Halloween! Get your peppermint dick outta my throat, it’s two fucking months until Christmas.”

“I’m being spit-roasted by holidays that I don’t even celebrate,” Kelly says. “I’ve got a pumpkin dick shoved up my ass–“

“Wouldn’t it be on its way out?” Rookie Zaitlin murmurs, his voice rough with sleep.

“–and a wintergreen dick in the other end, seriously guys, Halloween was yesterday. You just finished alerting ADVENT to our position with fireworks.” Kelly thumps down on her pillow. "Can we have a full month without getting ear-fucked by carols?"

“Y’all just a bunch of grinches,” Bešlagić says as he puts on a pair of pants.

Amanust sits up in bed. “WILL PEOPLE SHUT UP AND LET THE NIGHT SHIFT SLEEP?!”

 


 

“So, we’re actually approaching Christmas now,” Girac says as the Skyranger flies out towards Frankfurt for a mission, “can I get my Christmas carols back now? And my sketchbook?”

“Your Vipers in sexy Santa suits are crimes against humanity,” Kelly says flatly. “Even Melnick would agree.”

“I really didn’t need to know how a Viper would fit into a bikini,” Manuel agrees.

Suleiman hums under his breath, then breaks out into song. “On the first day of Christmas, Central gave to me–“

“Really?” Kholi rolls his eyes. “You don’t even celebrate Christmas!”

“A point blank shot at a tree,” Kelly warbles, and shrugs at Suleiman. “Hey, you started it.”

“And you, as a Ranger, probably missed,” Kholi says.

“On the second day of Christmas, Central gave to me,” Suleiman sings, his voice growing stronger, “Two bullshit crits, and a point blank shot at a tree!”

Firebrand sighs, and turns on her mike. “Can you not?”

On-board the Avenger, the Commander turns to Central. “Five spacebucks says they manage to carry the tune throughout the entire mission,” XCOM’s leader says.

Bradford winces as the Menace Team blows their concealment by landing very loudly. A nearby ADVENT Priest comes running over to investigate the noise and starts babbling at them.

“TOUCAN SAFARI,” Kholi yells back. He shrugs at his bewildered teammates. “What? That’s what it sounds like.”

The ADVENT Priest stops short. Almost indignantly, it summons two other priests to the fray. One of the new Priests shuts down Kholi by freezing the Specialist in a Stasis.

“This bodes well,” Kelly says as she draws her machete and charges towards the priest.

“On the third day of Christmas, Central gave to me,” Suleiman continues, “three ADVENT Priests,” his pistol barks as it kills one Priest with a single shot, “two bullshit crits,” Manuel brings up his shotgun to lay down overwatch fire, but yells in pain as a Trooper’s lucky shot nails him in the shoulder, “and a point blank shot at a tree!”

The last ADVENT Priest aims its rifle up at Suleiman to shoot, but ends up shredding a garbage can.

“Holy shit, the spirit of Christmas is looking after us,” a dazed Kholi says as he spills out onto the pavement.

 

“Five snek porn when!” the team declare as they unload overwatch shots into a pod of Vipers.

“Hey, hey, give me time,” Girac says, “it takes time to make art.

 

Kelly ducks behind her cover, as the Sectoid attempts to roast her with a beam of plasma. “Eight shooting Sectoids–“

“Seriously, when do those fuckers actually shoot anymore?” Girac asks, as he riddles the chest of the offending Sectoid with bullets. “You want a medal to commemorate this, Kelly?”

“Screw off,” the Ranger replies. “I want a trophy.”

 

“Ten Codices splitting,” Kholi says as he sights down his rifle. “Someone got a grenade?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Girac says, right before he uses Fuse on the ADVENT Captain in the midst of the Codice pack.

Bradford clears his throat. "Please exercise restraint when using explosives. You don't need twenty of them."

“RIP harem,” Suleiman mutters, as he finishes off the Captain. “Sorry, man.”

“No big deal, I’m a Vipers sort of guy,” Girac replies.

“Why do Codices have butts anyways?” Kelly asks. “It’s not like they need them.”

“Why do sneks have tits?” Suleiman retorts. “ADVENT’s full of perverts.”

 

“Twelve dodges grazed!” Manuel carols.

“Bullshit!” Kelly screams as she reloads her shotgun. “That was at point blank range! How do you fucking dodge fucking shards?! These are going supersonic, what fucking drugs are you fucking taking to go–”

“In ADVENT’s case? Probably all of them,” Suleiman says, and ducks to dodge a Stunlancer’s strike. The baton connects, and the Sharpshooter keels over in a panic and at death’s door. The two are probably related.

“Reloading,” the Commander mutters.

 

“And a point blank shot at a tree!” the Menace Team choruses.

“Merry Christmas, motherfuckers!” Manuel declares as he ascends to the Skyranger, carrying a sack filled with Codex brains over his back.

A civilian shouts, “It’s still November!”

Said civilian would have probably been dragged off for interrogation, were it not for the fact that XCOM had killed all the ADVENT troopers in a fifteen-mile radius.

“I need to check the sleeping meds Tygan gave me,” the Commander says. “Did I just hear all that?”

 


 

Bradford wishes Manuel had survived to see Christmas.

Still, Bradford’s done his best to provide some Christmas spirit for XCOM, even if he vehemently refuses to waste precious fabric on a Santa hat. The thing about being a Central Officer is that Bradford hears and sees things: whispered prayers, notes scribbled on scraps of stained paper, stifled whispers into the AWC pillows. He knows that Melnick screams less in his sleep, less tortured by the memories of the first war now that Bešlagić and Rosalez are at his side. He knows that Kokoren dreams of a loving husband and a small home by the sea. He knows that Girac is probably responsible for the three outbreaks of STIs, and should be kept far away from any drawing apparatus if possible. He knows that Ivanova wishes Girac would notice his senpai, whatever that is. The point is, Bradford has tailored his gifts to the soldiers. Nothing wrong with a little holiday cheer when the world is falling apart.

What he doesn’t mention is that he has no idea what to give the Commander.

“Happy holidays,” he tells Suleiman as he hands the Sharpshooter a box.

“This had better not be coal,” Suleiman grins. He turns on the bar stool and winks at his superior. “Yes Commander! I know! I’ve been a bad boy this year, and I’d probably deserve it. You can punish me in other ways!”

“You’re not getting any closer to my pants, Suleiman, except when it’s your turn on laundry detail,” Central’s superior chirps back, momentarily cutting the conversation with Mox. “I want a few more crits out of you this year. None of this losing your jelly nonsense.”

“The only thing he’s critting is my ears,” a salty Kholi says. “You weren’t the one sitting next to him on the Skyranger ride back.”

“It’s okay, babe. I’ll save you!” Leong says, nuzzling up against his boyfriend.

“Ew, emotionally stable relationships.” Bešlagić jokingly points at the door of the Bar and Memorial. “Go leave us sad fuckers alone, lovebirds.”

“Ignore him, sir,” Rosalez says, taking his box wrapped in bright red paper, “he’s an asshole who totally deserves coal. I would know.”

“Santa is the only one who can say whether I’ve been naughty or nice,” Bešlagić pitches his voice up to a childish register as he gets his gift. “Thanks, Central.”

Central rolls his eyes. “Kokoren, this is for you. Try not to terrify the rest of us when you’re through with it,” he says, giving the Specialist a flat, oblong package wrapped in faded newspaper.

“Oh! Thank you, Central!” Kokoren taps her mechanical eye. “Oooh… I see something metallic. It looks like a fancy pen! But that doesn’t explain why this is so wide… maybe a book?”

“That’s cheating,” Ivanova laughs, tapping her friend on the back. She takes her present from Bradford. “You’re like Superman. We’ll have to wrap your presents in lead foil.”

“Did you get us anything?” Hamidou asks the Commander.

“Be back in a bit,” the Commander tells Mox. Bradford’s superior marches over to the crates at the back of the Bar, and wrenches the lid of one open. XCOM’s leader holds up a dark brown bottle of beer. “It’s open season! Have as many as you like, just save some for your comrades.”

The cheer that goes up nearly rocks the Avenger.

Forsythe, one of the Covert Operatives, raises her hand. “Question: what about us who don’t drink?”

The Commander goes to the fridge and brings out a box of cupcakes. “These are for the non-drinkers only! You drinkers get your sugar in the form of alcohol.”

Bradford shakes his head fondly as the Commander hands him a bottle of lager. “Merry Christmas to you too, sir.”

“Don’t think ADVENT will attack today,” Shen says as she passes Dragunova a beer, “but I’m still not quite sure about this.”

“Sober crew on back up, reporting in,” Zaitlin says as he salutes the Chief Engineer with a cupcake. “We’ll be fine.”

“I believe Chief Shen was more concerned about our illustrious pilot,” Dr. Tygan says as he accepts a cupcake.

“Do we need a DD?” Shen asks. “I can fly, but I don’t like doing it.”

“Yeah, you could probably use a DD,” Evans quips.

Shen rolls her eyes at the short Psi Operative. “You could use a few more inches, Evans. You decide where.”

“Christmas cheer! No fighting!” Hamidou says, pulling the two into a hug. “Or else I’m gonna get the get-along shirt.”

“Isn’t that a Viper’s pelt?” Tygan asks, wrinkling his nose.

“You will struggle snuggle, or you will get along!” Hamidou declares.

“You know what? Suddenly, I’m up for this,” Evans says.

“Speak for yourself.” Shen extricates herself from the hug. “All right, peace offering – you want an IPA, a lager, a blonde, ooh, this looks good, it’s got citrus…”

“I should’ve checked the beer for hallucinogens,” the Commander muses, and cracks one open. “Ah well. No time like the present!”

 

Bradford finishes putting up the Christmas lights around the corridors, and grins at his work. The bare metal corridors are hollow and impersonal, but with the bright flashes of red, green, yellow and blue, they make the Avenger feel a little more like home.

“Central?”

His stomach drops out. “Hey, Kelly,” he says, dismounting from the stepladder. He notices the package under her arm with no small amount of trepidation.

“You’ve got the peacoat,” she says, handing him the package, “but I thought you might appreciate something else to keep you warm.”

“Oh. Uh, thanks Kelly, but I can’t accept this.” Bradford gently puts it back into her hands. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for a superior to accept favors from a subordinate.”

“Would that be true of the Commander?” Kelly says bitterly. She suddenly rights herself. “Of course, sir. Have a good Christmas.”

Bradford has a sneaking suspicion the package will find its way into his locker later. For now, he’ll busy himself setting up a tree in the Living Quarters.

 

The Avenger is settling in for the night. Tomorrow is Christmas day, and XCOM will meet up with the Reapers for a feast. The world is tired and heavy under its thick coverlet of snow. Shen has finished leading a team of sober Engineers on snow clearing duty, and is now curled up in Engineering with ROV-R and a recording of her father reading out his notes. Tygan has gone to sleep, after leading Suleiman and co. in carols out in the snow. Volk is somewhere on board, probably leading Volkova and Kelly in a race to see who can down shots the fastest. It almost feels like he’s back in 2015.

The Commander finds him down in the bowels of the ship, turning off his flashlight as he finishes one last security sweep.

“Heading to bed soon, sir,” Bradford says. “All’s quiet on the western front.”

“Until they open their presents tomorrow. What did you want for Christmas, Central?” The Commander offers him a tired smile, flushed with the warmth of alcohol, and leans against the doorway to cleared room B3. “Seems like Santa gave all the good little girls and boys experimental weapons, booze and rule 34. What about you?”

He clears his throat. “Bit old for presents, Commander.” Bradford looks up at the doorway to B3, which occasionally serves as a love hotel for the couples on board. “Huh. Mistletoe. Guess that’s why Jiang snuck down here without anyone in tow.”

The Commander stares.

“It’s… a long story,” he says, “but at least the noise complaints in the Living Quarters went down.”

“Of course. Don’t ask, don’t tell.” His superior nudges the gun propped up against the doorway. “Knowing the men, this is an extremely sophisticated way of telling me to go kill myself. Well, can’t say I don’t deserve it,” his Commander continues bitterly. “We have too many dead.”

Bradford lays a hand on his Commander’s shoulder, and squeezes. “I hope that was decontaminated,” he says, motioning at the mistletoe to break the silence.

The Commander looks at the gun lying in the doorway. “Well, I stepped in here first. Guess I have to kiss this.”

“Wait, wait, let me check if it’s unloaded!” Bradford slides the magazine out. “And safety on. Thank God. Our men still have some sense.”

The Commander takes the rifle and presses a kiss to the rifle’s barrel. Bradford swallows back a sudden surge of jealousy.

He clears his throat. “’Bout that present. Can I have a kiss?”

“What a gentleman,” the Commander says, setting the gun back down on the ground. His superior considers him. “Where do you want it?”

Bradford says something intelligent, articulate, and worthy of a US Marine Intelligence Officer: “Uh…”

“Lips? Cheek? Forehead? Hand?” the Commander offers. “I’d say the obvious, but that would be quite rude.”

“I don’t know, my ass doesn’t quite get kissed quite enough for my liking,” Bradford snarks. “Lips sound good.”

“That’s quite a small present,” the Commander says, leaning in, “but as you wish.”

The alcohol whispers yes in his ear. Bradford breathes in. This is not a dream; or if it is one, he will soak in the smell of mulled wine and the Commander’s soap. Bradford puts a finger below his leader’s chin, and tilts up. His Commander’s skin is hot on his own. His leader’s eyes are bright, and the lights of the hallway shine off the pupils like tiny stars.

“Pucker up, buttercup,” the Commander says with a teasing grin. “I swear, I’m not that bad a kisser. You just saw me with the gun.”

“I’ll have to investigate that.”

Bradford cups his superior’s face, and kisses his Commander.  His superior’s arms rest around his waist. The Commander lets out a small moan as Bradford runs his tongue along his superior’s lips. His superior’s head tilts back, letting Bradford deepen the kiss until they must break apart for breath.

“Fuck, Central,” his Commander mutters, “didn’t see this on your resume.”

“Maybe I’m just full of surprises.” Bradford sets a hand on the Commander’s waist. He trails the pad of his thumb along the Commander’s chin. “God, I–“

The Commander seizes him in another kiss, arms coming up to wrap around Bradford’s neck, and the words die on his lips. The Central Officer’s hands go down, tracing the curve of the Commander’s back, until Bradford can rub circles into the base of the Commander’s spine.

“I am pretty okay with ass-grabbing, if I can’t have ass-kissing,” the Commander says. “Anything else you want while we’re here?”

Bradford nips his Commander’s neck. “Please. I need more.”

“May I?” his Commander breathes, setting a hand on his inner thigh.

Bradford hoists his superior up onto his hip, pinning XCOM’s leader against the doorway. “Anything from you, sir.”

He kisses his Commander like it will bring him badly needed oxygen, but every kiss leaves him breathless. The Central Officer grabs his superior’s ass, hoisting his commanding officer closer to him – not close enough, not with these clothes in the way. His Commander slides a hand up his thigh, palming him through his slacks. Bradford groans out his approval, and captures the Commander’s bottom lip in a nibble. He reaches for his superior, as the Commander’s hand slips between his slacks and briefs. There is heat singing through his head that is not the sway of alcohol, heat that rises unbidden through his chest up to his cheeks.

His Commander feels him through his briefs, coaxing him up. Bradford is faintly aware of the pressure of the Commander’s thigh against his own, masking the movements of his friend’s hand. He hoists the Commander up, and his superior’s leg locks around him. Bradford braces himself against the doorway with one hand, and feels up the Commander with his right. The corridor is suddenly too crowded – he needs the Quarters, there’s room on the bed there – but something roots him to this hidden part of the Avenger, where a sprig of mistletoe dangles over two partners in crime. His Commander’s lips are hot on his own; he breathes in spiced wine and his Commander’s scent, intoxicating on their own, deadlier together; Bradford wants more, knows he should say more, but his Commander’s fingers are finally brushing against his cock, his Commander’s lips are parted for him and his hands are full of his superior’s ass. There is nothing more he should want right now, except a bed, and clothes discarded over the floor.

Somewhere in the distance, Amanust shrieks. The magic breaks, and the duo separate.

“Lewd!” Amanust covers her eyes. “Too lewd!”

“Give the lovebirds some space!” Delela says as she gets off the elevator. “C’mon, Kelly, let’s get more cookies from the store room.”

“I guess…” Kelly says.

The Command duo stare at each other as the trio of soldiers troops past.

“I should get to bed,” Bradford mutters. “Have a good shift, sir.”

 

He wakes in his bed, alone. Bradford reaches out to the other side of the bed, but it’s cold. He sighs. It was such a good dream, but dreams are made of air and fancy, not flesh and reality.

When he heads out for breakfast, Bradford catches sight of Kelly’s present, deposited at his door. Shame rolls over him in slow waves. It’s not appropriate for him to reciprocate the affection of a subordinate: there is too much of a power imbalance. As dulled as he is by the alcohol, Bradford knows that it must have killed Kelly to see him dry-fuck the Commander in the corridor. Had it been Shen and the Commander, or Tygan and the Commander, Bradford would have walked away with the same hollow feeling.

“I’m hung over,” the Commander groans, passing Bradford a mug of coffee. “Really hope the Warlock doesn’t bust in. I don’t wanna deal with lectures…”

“We should talk about yesterday,” Bradford says as he sits down at the Mess Hall table. “I don’t particularly want to… but we can’t risk XCOM’s operational security.”

“Yeah. Sorry, got a little enthusiastic.” The Commander looks soberly at him. “I’m not gonna lead you on, Central. Had a good time last night, but… I don’t think of you that way.”

Bradford swallows past the disappointment. “Asked for a present, sir, and you more than delivered.” He picks up a cookie from the basket on the table. “We’re good.”

“In a better life,” the Commander says, “or if I was a better person.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me, sir. I understand.”

“You want a drink?” the Commander asks, smiling at him. “Not alcoholic, I’ve had enough. Tygan made this great strawberry smoothie. There’s no milk in it. Shame about the cows.”

“What’s in it, then?” Bradford asks as he accepts a glass.

“Viper milk,” Volk says solemnly as he sits at the table.

 

2036:

Delela holds out her tablet. “How I Met Your Commander! It’s a new ADVENT show. We sometimes pick up broadcasts, if we’re fairly close to a city. Central’s pretty pissed about it, but I think it’s hilarious. ADVENT Officer Branford tries to date the ADVENT Commander. Ah, Branford. Sounds like a breakfast cereal. You know, Central is such a straitlaced vanilla good boy, I wouldn’t be surprised if we tried to market a cereal named after him.”

She swipes across the screen.

“This one’s pretty good!” Delela traces the outlines of the hooded Reaper. “Me: shoot the Lost. Inner me: shoot the explosive car conveniently located next to the Lost. Kelly had to stop Suleiman from strangling Dragunova. He was so pissed about the lost kill count.”

She sighs. “No? No messages from beyond the grave?”

Delela sits before Yamamoto’s grave marker. Poinsettias decorate the small patch of bare earth. This Resistance Haven where Yamamoto is buried is set up near the ruins of Marineland, in Toronto, Canada. Broken rollercoasters dot the skyline behind her. She wonders if Yamamoto remembered the world that once was. Delela can’t understand why someone would want to be scared for fun. Her life in the post-apocalypse is a waking nightmare, every minute filled with the fear of a painful death, and only Amanust keeps her from putting her pistol to her head and pulling the trigger.

“We really do miss you,” she says. “I don’t know why the Commander couldn’t save you. It’s just not fair.”

Another XCOM soldier wanders towards the little graveyard. Delela’s face falls. She doesn’t want company in this world of the dead.

“Hey, Amanust’s looking for you in the Haven. Better hurry, she’s got some mulled wine, and it’s best hot,” Suleiman says. He looks at the grave, and the smile falls off his face. “The flowers look nice.”

“I didn’t want her to be alone today,” Delela murmurs.

Suleiman rummages in his pockets, and brings out a small origami crane.

“She taught me how to fold,” he says as he lays it at the foot of the grave. “Helped me steady my hands.” He mutters something that sounds vaguely like an Arabic prayer. “Come back to the Avenger when you’re ready. We’ve got bandits circling around. Haven’t they heard it’s Christmas?”

“Sure. Thanks, Suleiman,” Delela says, repositioning the crane so that it rests on one of the poinsettia’s crimson bracts.

She sits by the headstone, as the sun dips in the sky, and keeps flipping through the results of XCOM’s propaganda center.

“Shen said this was a cute pose,” Delela says, pointing at a photo of a pouting Central, “but I think she said that to mess with Central.” She scrolls to a picture of the Lost, captioned with a horde of wild Redditors appeared! “What’s a Redditor? Doesn’t sound like a good thing. Oh, and this is the Codex teleporting! Or as we know it, activating the Goatse maneuver.” Delela sighs. “The Warlock is the worst. I’ll personally pay the terrible trio to duct-tape his mouth shut. How do the Elders put up with him? Or do they enjoy him jerking off their egos?”

“Evening, Delela,” the Commander says, setting the wreath down at the foot of Yamamoto’s grave. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

Delela feels the temperature drop. “Sir,” she says, and pops off a salute.

 

The Commander puts an offering of hot chocolate next to Delela. “That’s for you.” Her superior sets a crystal flute of steaming hot liquid next to the flowers. “And here’s for you, Yamamoto. If we had more supplies, I’d give you ramen.”

“How dare you stand here?” Delela says, the anger escaping her in a burst. “You let her die! She’s here, rotting in the ground, all cold and alone, while everyone else is partying back at the Haven! Did her life mean less than Kelly’s, or Mox’s? Why do they get to live? Why did you decide that they meant more?”

She shakes and quivers, as the chill sets into her skin.

The Commander shrugs off a thick woolen coat, and sets it over her shoulders. XCOM’s leader is wearing plated armor beneath the winter clothes.

“I do my best to save every one of you.” The Commander is silent for a few seconds. Hot breaths puff into the air, with sounds that faintly resemble repressed crying. “I’m not good enough. Sometimes, my best still lets people die. I’m sorry, Delela. I wish I knew how to save Yamamoto.”

“How can you stand it?” Delela whispers. “Looking at us, knowing that we have died over and over again, and that you will send us to a final death one day?”

“I will do my best to push back that final day, for as long as I can.” The Commander looks at her. “I promise you, Delela. I will get you as many days as I can.”

They look at each other, breaths steaming up like dragons soaring into the cold skies. At last, Delela nods.

“I wish she could’ve lived,” she murmurs, in a last fit of rebelliousness.

“Live for her, even if she cannot,” the Commander says, laying a hand on her shoulder. “When your day finally comes, I think Yamamoto will want to listen to all the stories you’ll have to tell.”

“I guess.” Delela inhales. The air hurts her lungs. “Thanks, Commander.”

“Anytime, Delela.” The Commander salutes her back, and trudges through the dirty snow back to the Avenger.

Delela's legs ache. She knows that soon, she’ll have to return to the Avenger to serve her shift. But she doesn’t want to leave Yamamoto, alone among the resting places of strangers. Gone, but not forgotten, she thinks as she traces the Japanese characters engraved into the stone.

Amanust approaches silently, unburdened by heavy winter clothes, as her psionics keep her warm. She whistles to tell her girlfriend of her presence.

“Wine’s getting cold,” Amanust says. “I tried heating it up on my gun’s plasma sink, but I just scorched the mug.”

Delela quietly accepts the mulled wine. She drinks. It warms her to the core.

“Hey, Binesi?” she asks, standing to join the living once more.

“Yeah, Kaytlynne?”

“I love you.”

Her girlfriend slings an arm around her waist. “Love you too, sweetie. Here’s to seeing the end of the war.”

 


 

“You wanna impress Dr. Solarin?” Bešlagić asks, wrinkling his nose. His boots clack against the wooden boardwalk. Lights shine down on them, from the carnies and game stalls that have sprouted in this XCOM-supported Haven. “Dunno, man, she’s kinda…”

“Out of your league?” Melnick suggests.

 “She’s damn gorgeous,” Rosalez says.

“For someone who isn’t scaley?” Bešlagić says slyly.

Rosalez rolls his eyes. “That’s Melnick’s thing.” He looks around, and spots a row of Sectoid plushies the size of a camper’s bag at a shooting stall. “Isn’t that a bit morbid? We shoot these things on a regular basis.”

“Target practice?” Bešlagić suggests. “They look like they were stolen from ADVENT.”

Rosalez motions to his GREMLIN, who scans the stall. “Nope. No tracking devices there.”

“Say, isn’t Solarin a conspiracy theorist?” Melnick says. “Guess she was right all along. There were Greys out there.”

Rosalez looks at the men sandwiching him. Bešlagić is a Grenadier, and Melnick is a Ranger – neither of them are suited to precision shooting.

“How much for a shot?” he asks the carnie.

 

As Rosalez takes the toy, he wonders if he’s used up all his luck on a bullshit crit. The popgun barely had enough power to shoot the damn cork.

“The Great Commandy One smiles upon you,” Bešlagić quips. “Let’s get that going on the next mission, okay?”

“More dakka isn’t an excuse to not aim,” Rosalez shoots back.

“Dad!” a child shrieks behind him. “Can I have a go?”

“We don’t have the money,” the dad replies. “Come on, kid. Let’s get back home.”

“But dad! It’s so cute!”

“No means no, Konnor,” the mom says. “We won’t be able to eat otherwise. Come on. We’re going home.”

The trio watch as the family troop past: the mother, cheeks hunger-carved; the father, burn scars wrapping around the arm visible through his ratty coat; the child, still plump and filled with life.

“Hey!” Melnick calls out. “XCOM’s in town. We’ve got supplies if you need them!”

The mom nods curtly, and ushers her son away.

Rosalez thinks briefly about giving the plushie to Dr. Solarin back at base.

“Hey! Hey! Kid!” Rosalez shouts, charging after the small family. The dad comes to a stop, hand going to his gun. Rosalez holds out the stuffed Grey like a shield. “Hey, have a good Christmas.”

The little boy looks up to him. “For me?”

“Konnor,” the mom says warningly.

“I won it at the fair,” Rosalez says, jerking his head back. “You can ask the guy manning the booth. It’s hard enough out here so… thought you might like something nice.”

After a long pause, the dad nods. Konnor squeals as he hugs the plushie tightly.

“What do you say?” the dad prompts.

“Thank you!”

The family disappears from the bustle of the fairgrounds, for the quiet of the woods.

 

“Thought you wanted to give it to Dr. Solarin?” Melnick asks, raising an eyebrow at the returning Specialist.

Rosalez shrugs. “Look, the kid needed it more. If Solarin turns me down, no big deal. But a good Christmas? That kid’s never had the opportunity.”

“C’mon, ya big lugs,” Bešlagić says, ruffling his partners’ hair. “Let’s go grab something to eat. Before Volikov brings out the Muton sausages.”

“I really thought those sausages were something else,” Rosalez says.

“Eat a dick, Rosalez,” Melnick says with a shudder, “I’ve completely lost my appetite.”

 

“Hey, doc,” Rosalez says as he comes into the labs, grunting as he pulls the distiller in its ton of packaging. “I got the equipment you needed. Where do you want it?”

“On the lab bench with the tubes on it,” she says. Rosalez tries not to stare, but she has nice hands. Steady and stable. “It needs to be clamped into place to decrease the risk of it breaking.”

“Sure thing, just tell me how.” Rosalez pops the crate’s top and surveys the mass of bubble wrap and paper within. “All right. I’ll hand whatever I unwrap to you.”

They work in comfortable silence.

“I heard what you did out in the Havens,” Solarin says. “Did you celebrate Christmas as a child? My family in Nigeria didn't, but some of my uncles did. The decorations around the Avenger are very pretty.”

Rosalez’s hands tighten on the packaged glassware. He takes a deep breath, and reminds himself not to crush the incredibly hard to find equipment.

“When dad wasn’t drunk. Or mom off the streets,” he says eventually. “Always a good time at my abuelita’s, if they wanted to remember me.”

“I’m sorry,” Solarin says, “it seems I brought up bad memories.”

“Not all of them bad.” Rosalez unravels a roll of bubble wrap, revealing a West condenser. “Just some of them.”

“I’m not sure I’m into you,” Solarin says, “but are you free tonight?”

“I’m on shift, actually,” Rosalez hands her the equipment, “but I’ll be free on Christmas morning.”

“Would you be interested in going out to the Haven?” Solarin helps him clamp the West condenser to the lab bench. “I haven’t had a chance to explore.”

“No problem. You like hot chocolate? I found this great place–“

 


Christmas was on the 7th of January, back when he was a child. After long services at church on the eve, with enough singing to make his childish throat sore, his family would return home for the Holy Supper. Melnick faintly remembers the twelve dishes that would grace the table, symbolizing the twelve apostles. Once he was an adult on leave from the Russian army, no longer did he attend church. His wife and child – who died when Yekaterinburg went up in nuclear flame – decorated the spruce that sat in a corner of their apartment. Ded Moroz, Old Man Frost, and Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, would bring presents for little Gleb. Christmas was spent with friends and family, gathered around the dinner table.

He has never told his friends of Natasha and Gleb. Melnick keeps them close to his heart, tucked away behind locks and latches, only to bring them out when the night is dark and cold and the Lost howl in dead cities. While Melnick was on a XCOM mission in Pretoria, a terror mission in Yekaterinburg infested the city with Chryssalids. One week after the attack, Yekaterinburg went dark. He remembers Central calling him to his office, the man – just as old as he – as somber and quiet as the grave.

Twenty years have passed. He grieves at times, but the pain has lessened. He has his friends and XCOM once again. His imprisonment under the Chosen nearly broke him – for days, the Assassin made him relieve the sight of his wife and son’s flesh vaporizing off their bones. He had played videogames that depicted nuclear annihilation – Stalker, Metro: Last Light, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – and those scenes played in his head as the Assassin drove metal instruments into his brain. He took to brewing spirits to keep the ghosts at bay.

Now he is Ded Moroz, carrying traditions from a dead time. Although he’s pretty sure Old Man Frost never had to barter for presents with distilled alcohol.

“Have a good Christmas,” he tells the parents of a child who dances away, a rabbit plush clutched to his chest.

“You too!” the mother says as she accepts a hamper of supplies.

I’m doing just fine, Natasha, Melnick thinks as he hands a package of chocolate to twin girls. I don’t know if I’m going to Heaven after all I’ve done. But I will see you and Gleb on the other side.


 

“Come on, why don't we go back to my place?” the man asks, leering over Kokoren. The eighteen year old does her best to not reach for the rifle tucked under the table. She wonders how mad Central will be if she shoots this man’s face off. “You look tired. I can show you a good time, take those cares off your back.”

“I’m not interested,” she says. Her metallic eye whines as it picks up metal at his belt. She swallows. He’s armed. Kokoren doesn’t carry a knife. If it comes to a gun fight, he has the speed advantage. She should’ve taken her GREMLIN. No, DR-MN is equipped for healing, not for capacitor discharge, though Kokoren should probably ask Shen for an upgrade. She wishes Kelly was here. People don’t mess with the hero of the Resistance. They pick on the smaller fish.

“Don’t be a bitch. It’s Christmas,” he continues, setting a firm hand on her arm.

“I said no.” Kokoren slowly works the butt of her rifle into her hand. “Go away.”

“Aw, where's your holiday cheer?” The man pulls her out of her seat. “You won’t regret it, I promise you.”

There’s a sudden blur of electricity washing over her skin. Kokoren yelps. The man curses and releases her.

“Back the fuck off,” Leong says, stepping in front of his partner. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re not hot shit.”

“Look, I’ve done nothing wrong,” the man protests, “this is police brutality!”

Kokoren whispers, “He’s got a pistol.”

Kholi rifles through the man’s belt, grabs the pistol, and takes out the clip. “Look, man, you don’t want to do this. You’re three seconds away from getting XCOM on your head. Trust me. This is a fight you won’t win.”

The bartender stands up from her place at the counter. “Well, I’ve had enough. Out! All of you!”

“What a creep,” Leong grumbles, keeping a keen eye on her aggressor as they exit the bar. “You got his mug, babe? Central should know about this.”

“I’m not much of a sketcher,” Kokoren agrees with a shaky laugh. “We’d be looking for the Jersey Devil if I tried to scratch something out.”

“Done and done. You want to join us?” Kholi says. “We’re on patrol, but I want to see the Haven.”

Kokoren shakes her head. “I’ll find my… friends…” she drifts off as she takes in the sight of Delela and Amanust, clearly in their own little world as they walk hand-in-hand. “And third wheel,” she mumbles.

Leong pats her on the back. “C’mon, partner. Let’s go.”

 


“Catch me if you can, little rabbit!” Ivanova calls over her shoulder. Behind her, Girac crashes through the young forest, boots stumbling over fallen logs and rounded remnants of cement as he attempts to keep up. “Or you will find me in the trees!”

“This is such bullshit,” Girac mutters, “the movement stat on Reapers in concealment is OP.”

“I can hear you flailing around!” she says, as she runs behind a small overhand of rock. “Are you trying to mimic the Niagara? There’s already one river running about!”

“Can’t I just use a speed PCS?” Girac complains.

“We do it the traditional way!” Ivanova vaults over a fallen log. “Take pride in the hunt!”

“Keep shouting!” Girac says, “Maybe I can finally find you!”

Ivanova’s longcoat whirls behind her as she scrambles up a tree. She cloaks herself in pine needles as Girac goes skidding past. He looks around wildly for her, listens for the whispering in the snow-covered forest, and goes darting off in the wrong direction. The Reaper sighs, her breath muffled by her gas mask. So much for her lessons.

She goes rigid, as a psionic cage freezes her. Girac appears at the foot of her tree and scales his way up. He unceremoniously pushes her trapped body off the branch. Ivanova falls on her feet, unharmed thanks to the psionic cage that shatters on impact with the ground.

“That’s cheating.” Ivanova scrabbles for the Temnotic Rifle on her back. “This is against the rules of the hunt!”

“I caught you, little rabbit,” Girac says, lowering his Psi Amp. “And I want my prize.”

 


“If one more person makes a joke about Santa coming down the chimney,” Bradford says over the top of his beer mug, “I’ll stuff my rifle up their ass.”

“Oh, Central, talk dirty to me,” Kelly giggles.

“That’s it?” Lauro asks. “No whips or chains? Boring.”

“I said Santa, not Krampus,” Bradford says.

“Sexy Krampus,” Girac muses. “Has science gone too far? Are we perverting the true spirit of Christmas?”

“You’re talking,” Dragunova says, “so yes.”

“I object to that,” Ivanova says. “Christmas has already been perverted by the extreme commercialization that has taken the goodness of–“

“Jesus, take a breath,” Girac says, massaging his partner’s back.

Ivanova inhales deeply, “–of love, and trust, and community from the holiday.”

“You’ve spent far too much time with Melnick,” Dragunova says.

“I joined the army because surprise, surprise, no jobs for an Arts major in Moscow.” Melnick raises his beer to salute the Reaper. “Listen to Dragunova. It wasn’t worth it.”

“Came down in the world, didn’t you?” Bradford says.

“Says the crayon eater,” Melnick snorts. “Marines. Muscles are required, intelligence not essential.”

“Melnick, you’ve run directly into Overwatch fire and actual fire,” Bradford tosses back. “Clearly, as an intelligence official, I’ve got more brains than you.”

The Commander staggers into the bar, white frost spiraling across the plated armor. “I had to explain the meaning of Christmas to Betos,” the Commander sighs, reaching for a cup of coffee. “And then I got into a religious debate with the Haven leaders and a few Skirmishers. Does anyone want to explain why Commanderism is a religion now?”

“I have had a pleasant chat,” Mox says as he stands, “but I have work to attend to.”

“Mox, you didn’t,” Dragunova says as she follows him out.

The Commander looks down at the coffee. “Actually, I’m going to take a nice long bath. I deserve it.”

“Santa’s been generous,” Hamidou says, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Yes, actually, the coal is a great way to warm my bath.” The Commander raises an eyebrow at Bradford. “Aren’t you coming along?”

 

“So it turns out, two adults don’t fit in one tub. Shame,” Bradford says as he shrugs on a sweater, “I think this is a sign that I need to lose weight.

The Commander laughs and pokes his belly. “How much of this is beer?”

“Not enough,” he deadpans. Music drifts up through the floor and into the Quarters. “We should really renickname Evans. I think iPod is appropriate.”

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away," Evans sings.

“Can’t just throw quarters at him. He’s too young to know what a jukebox is,” the Commander muses, catching Central’s hand, “well, now I feel old.”

Bradford places a hand on his Commander’s waist. “Come on. Give me a twirl.”

“Why are we dancing to bad karaoke?”

As if to prove the Commander’s point, Evans’s wailing goes up into a squeak.

“Because I want to see you move, and I’m a little beat up, so I don’t think I can get it up,” Bradford says, watching the sway of the Commander’s hips.

“I can take my shirt off if you want a strip tease.”

Bradford rolls his eyes. “Knowing our luck, you’d manage to knock me out with it.”

Once bitten, and twice shy,” Evans croons, “I kept my distance, but you still catch my eye–

“If this turns out to be our theme song, XCOM was a mistake.”

"Tell me, baby, do you recognize me? Well, it's been twenty years–"

"He's totally rubbing it in," the Commander says.

“Shut up,” Bradford sends the Commander into a twirl, “and dance with me.”

His superior laughs and comes back into his arms.

“I’m glad I have you,” the Commander murmurs into his neck. “Merry Christmas, John.”

 

2037:

“I’ve been assigned temporary quartermaster duty, while the Commander's recovering,” Kelly says, waving her tablet around. “The instructions say: don’t burn down the Avenger. Don’t worry about us, just having a lie-in. Have three on staff in case of emergencies. Have fun. Commander and Central.” She frowns at the tablet. “Really? They’re not going to show up for morning PT?”

Suleiman rolls out of bed. “Have mercy,” he begs, “that eggnog’s stronger than it looks.”

“Warned ya, dude.” Evans takes one step out of his bunk and promptly collapses on the floor. “Oh man… I’m just gonna lie here… Jesus, Melnick, what’s your liver made of?”

“Superior Russian engineering,” Melnick says, bouncing from foot to foot, “and maybe a ton of scar tissue.”

“Someone’s looking cheery,” Lauro groans as he untangles himself from Kokoren. "Come on, Suleiman… off the floor…"

“Off to see Natasha!” Melnick says. “You think I should bring her a bouquet?”

“No seeing your snek girlfriend until you finish PT,” Kelly says, rapping him on the forehead. “Then you should get holly or something. There’s not too many flowers about now.”

“Jesus, Kelly, you’re still gonna do PT when you’re pregnant?” Evans whistles. “Talk about supermom.”

“I’m going to supervise,” she says dryly, patting her belly.

Silence falls as the XCOM soldiers realize that Bešlagić and Kelly will no longer serve on board the Avenger once the new year arrives.

“I am not doing monkey fuckers out in the cold,” Dragunova says as she heads out of the Covert Operatives wing of the Avenger. “They’re fast asleep. No way we’re getting them up. Anyone got another idea?”

Delela tromps into the Living Quarters, still shivering. “Binesi!” she whines as she jumps into bed beside her wife. “I’m cold! There’s so much snow out there!”

“Aw, come on, you big baby,” Amanust murmurs sleepily. “I’ll teach you a psionic trick or two.”

A light goes on behind Ivanova’s grief-dulled eyes.

 

The rules are simple: no ice balls, no rocks, no bullets, no using psionics to build your fort, no using SPARK-001 as cover, and you get two hours to build your defensive emplacements. Kelly decides who’s still in the fight, safe in a fortress by SPARK’s side.

Bešlagić laughs and flexes as Rosalez’s GREMLIN pelts their opponents with snowballs from the high ground.

“I HAVE ACHIEVED THE ULTIMATE, FULLY AUTOMATED, LUXURY GAY SPACE COMMUNISM!” he declares.

“Sure, take credit for the bi man’s work,” Rosalez says, forming another snowball for his GREMLIN. “Historical revision already? Literally Stalin.”

“Don’t you have a date later?” Kokoren calls. “We can provide moral support!”

“No! You’re gonna scare him off!” Rosalez says, and chucks a snowball at the Sharpshooter. It falls in no man’s land. “Don’t scare off Dr. Park, I actually like him!”

“He likes,” Van Damme packs up another snowball and throws it at Rosalez. The Templar ends up showering Ivanova with a cloud of snow, “apple cider! Just so you know! Oh, and sugar cookies!”

“How do you know this?” Rosalez asks.

“Back when Delela and Amanust got married! You know, when we almost burnt down that bar!”

Melnick sighs and hands Kelly another blanket in their fort of soldiers knocked out of the fight. “I’m still rooting for Fort Asshole.”

“I don’t think Bešlagić and Rosalez need any rooting for,” Kelly replies, “but what did you expect when you ran around with a snow sword?”

 

“TRAITOR! TRAITOR!” Mox bellows, throwing snowballs like a humanoid trebuchet at his aggressor. “ELDER KRACSAD!”

Dax giggles and runs for the cover of the Hangar. Kokoren and Lauro cover his retreat with a flurry of snowballs.

“Jeez, someone nerf the DPS on Skirmishers,” Ivanova comments, safe in a tree.

“Says the person who’s constantly in stealth!” Evans yells back. Ivanova nails him with a snowball to the face.

“And he’s out! Team Loud Fucks is down to one member!” Kelly says as she runs to recover the Psi Operative. “Good luck, Amanust!”

“I’ve been abandoned!” the psi op wails. Her wife waves to her from the safety of dead man’s land.

“What’s this?” Kokoren asks as she watches Suleiman stumble about in Fort Thin Mint. “Having a little… problem there?”

Suleiman groans and throws another snowball. It lands in no man’s land. “This isn’t a gun. I can be excused for some misses.”

“Some misses?!” Kholi points at the pitiful puddle of Suleiman’s attempts. “If that’s some misses, I’m the ADVENT Speaker!”

“Oh no, our best shot’s got ED. He just can’t get it up,” Dragunova sighs.

Suleiman’s face contorts, as he tries to figure out which part of the sentence to respond to whilst in his hung-over brain. He settles for face-planting into the snow.

“And Suleiman’s out!” Kelly walks over, using SPARK-001 as cover. “Come on, Suleiman, frostbite’s not a good look on you.”

 

"That is so cheap!" Evans complains as Van Damme summons a clone to hurl snowballs and down Fort Disco Ball. "Wait, where did he even grab that clone from?"

"Van Damme, is Ivanova still alive?" Kelly yells in his direction.

"I'm still here," Ivanova mutters, "oof, who let him use Volt?"

"It still counts if it had snow!" yells Amanust, who has formed a temporary alliance with whom the rest of the surviving XCOM units have dubbed, snow Satan.

"Sure," Dax says, still running around the battlefield, "why don't you just let him shit out more clones? This is against the spirit of - argh!"

Mox rubs his shoulder. "Be free," he declares, shaking off the snow from his fur collar.

 

The fight slowly peters out. It ends when Mox and Dragunova finally team up and unleash a flurry of well aimed snowballs at the remaining teams.

“Sudden death! Sudden death!” the XCOM soldiers chant.

“There can only be one!” Kelly declares with a shrug. “Mox, Dragunova, when you’re ready.”

 "Mor balaten," Mox grins as he squares up against Dragunova. The two walk thirty paces away.

"Mox? Pratal Mox?" she replies. "His snowballs wiped out entire squads of my people in the first minutes of this war! You would dare do this?!"

"Well, I know you've wiped out his snowballs," Ivanova says, "seeing as you ended up in the AWC for it."

Dragunova gathers up snow as she walks and forms it into a ball. She nails Ivanova between the eyes with it.

"Places?" Kelly swings a branch down on the ground. "Start!"

 Mox runs at Dragunova, managing to dodge the shots despite his heavy armor. He seizes her in her arms and kisses her.

“Awwww…”

“Does this count as an elimination?” Lauro asks Kelly. “There’s no snow involved.”

“If there is,” Rosalez says with a grin, “I don’t want to check.”

“That is gross,” Kelly tells the Specialist, “and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Dragunova’s hand comes up, armed with a snowball. She stuffs it down Mox’s fur collar.

“Why!” the Skirmisher yelps. “Betrayed by the false goddess!”

“Get dunked on!” Ivanova cheers.

“Is violence the only thing you people understand?” Dax asks with a grin.

“No, but you have to admit, it’s the most fun,” Dragunova says, kissing Mox back.

 

"Uh, we haven't heard from the Command duo all day," Shen says, clinking her glass of wine against Tygan's. "Someone should check on them."

All lounging together in the Living Quarters, XCOM's soldiers warm up under piles of thick blankets (though nobody dares to question what Lauro, Suleiman and Kokoren are doing under theirs.)

Kelly rolls her eyes. "As the designated responsible person, I'll send them a message."

"They've turned off all electronics," Tygan says, "probably to avoid picking up Geist's calls."

Kelly walks up the Command wing, and listens. She doesn't want to intrude on the duo's privacy if she can. If she can hear at least voices, she knows the two are still alive.

“Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” Central says. “More so than Harry Potter, the entire movie takes place on Christmas!”

“When did Christmas started blowing up?” the Commander laughs.

“Have you seen XCOM? Blowing up is our middle name.” Central laughs. “Come on, this is the best part.”

“Let’s give them some time alone,” Kelly whispers as she creeps down the hallway. “They’ve earned it.”

Central yelps. “Do not touch my dick if you just touched the popcorn!”

“Kernel panic, gotcha.” There’s a pause. “What? I thought you said Netflix and Chill!”

 

Chapter Text

Bradford squeezes his lover’s hand. He hates the astronaut suit between them: he wants to burn it, but that will have to wait until ADVENT is scrubbed from the face of the planet. “Mission accomplished, Commander.”

His lover’s eyes open.

Shen wrestles the clasps of the helmet off. Bradford leans in and kisses his lover.

“…John?”

It worries him, that his superior’s voice is weary and worn, floating up to him like a soul drifting towards the heavens. It doesn’t fit the leader he has followed and will follow straight into the depths of Hell.

“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere,” Bradford says, tucking the Commander’s hair behind a chafed ear. “Come on. Get up. We have a future in front of us.”

“I love you.” His Commander struggles for breath. “No matter what happens.”

Bradford nods, and touches his forehead to his lover’s. “I’m here. Rest a bit. We’ll talk later.”

 


The Commander falls into a coma soon after. Geist suggests psionic strain, but the Templars’ leader is uncharacteristically worried.

Bradford begins a long wait.

 


Life goes on. Amanust and Delela get married. Kholi and Leong get married, since Bradford considers people yelling, “Sure! We’re married now!” across a battlefield to be a legitimate vow. Volk and his Reapers begin a campaign to take back the cities, starting with Moscow. Volk is never quite the same after Volkova’s death, and silence carves out distance between him and Bradford.

Bradford does not attempt to fill them.

 


“Hey, Central,” Lily says.

Bradford keeps his eyes closed. He feels the Commander’s weak pulse beneath his fingers as he rests his forehead against the AWC cot.

“Geist came by. He… he doesn’t think it looks good. We’re all running on empty,” Shen says. ROV-R beeps and nudges Shen closer to the bedside. “So… if the worst happens…”

“I know, Shen.”

The Engineer pauses. “It’s nice out today,” she offers. “We’ve got a wheelchair lying around. You could take the Commander outside… you know, just in case–”

“I’m good,” he mumbles. “Just let me hope.”

 


Shen and Tygan go on a date. The men try to rope him into arranging the dinner for the two Command staff, but Bradford stays at his Commander’s side.

Bradford does not ask why the Hangar is on fire the next morning. He picks up the fire extinguisher, spares the slightly bruised Command staff a glance, and starts putting out the flames.

He later finds the culprit: a broken bottle of vodka next to two broken and sparking wires. It looks like someone tried to weaponize the bottle.

“Jesus, Commander,” he whispers. He looks at the Hangar. The entire Avenger could have burned down, suffocating all within it. “Please, come back. I can’t handle the kids alone.”

 


Kelly announces her pregnancy at the start of December, glowing with fear and excitement as she cuddles her growing belly.

Bradford wishes her well, then retreats to the Quarters to drink alone.

Ivanova ends up in the AWC with alcohol poisoning after she manages to finish 3 bottles of rosé wine.

“It’s not fair,” the Reaper mutters, twisting a wooden ring around her finger as she lies on the cot. “Why does she get a happy ending?”

Bradford looks at the ring. The realization hits him like a bolt of lightning. He didn’t notice, not when he has spent most of his time at his Commander’s side.

“Girac had proposed.”

Ivanova bursts into tears, and collapses into Bradford’s arms. She manages to choke out, “I did.”

 


“Morning, Doctor, Shen.” Bradford takes the coffee and the cup of fruit salad on the tray. “What burnt down this time?”

Fear erupts into the center of his chest when Shen – gently, as if Bradford is made of sugar-spun glass – guides him to the sofa of the Quarters.

Tygan sets the tray on the coffee table and wrings his hands. Tears well up in his eyes. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it.

ROV-R beeps and nudges Shen.

Bradford swallows hard. There is only one reason for the Command team’s silence. It’s a sword that dangles over his head, the thread suspending it to the ceiling fraying with every second of desperate silence.

“The Commander…?”

Shen hugs ROV-R close, and brings the killing blow down.

 


The Commander left no will. Bradford shifts through the folders on the terminal’s desktop. No vision to guide XCOM, no plan for an uncertain future. It seems despite his lover’s fears, the Commander planned on seeing the new world with him.

He punches the wall.

“Was this all a game to you?” he growls. The hollow in his chest screams and screams, and all it says is the Commander’s name. “Was that your grand plan? Reset and reset, leave us dependent on you, and then fuck off into the Void. No wonder the Elders chose you, Commander, only a heartless son of a bitch could do this to XCOM.”

The tattered XCOM banner on the wall waves in the heated breeze.

“How could you do this to me? How could you toss me aside like this?” Bradford throws his hands into the air. “I bet you thought it was real funny. String me around, while you chased after Shen and Tygan. Keep me hanging, while I gave you my heart and soul. Hell, flirt with the Chosen, because in the end, it was all just a game to you. I was an idiot. I actually believed that there was a future for me of all people.” He chokes back tears. “Are you happy now?”

The Commander’s ghost is pressed into every nook and cranny of this room. From the organization of the books on the shelves, to the unused and folded sweatpants sitting in the closet, he can see his superior everywhere – not in flesh and bone, but dust and neglect.

A sudden urge to rip through the Quarters and destroy every last trace rushes through him. He knows the men would appreciate a good old-fashioned bonfire. Hell, maybe they can toss the Commander into the flames and be done with that liar’s reign. XCOM can leave the remains to the aliens still roaming the world. Let ADVENT have their precious Commander.

Bradford takes a deep breath. This is not behavior becoming of XCOM’s new leader.

“Fuck you, Commander, for putting me in these shoes.” He spits on the ground. “I never wanted this.”

Bradford fumbles the lock on his quarters, and grabs the crate holding two teacups, an assortment of glasses, a bottle of white wine and a half-finished bottle of whiskey. He doesn’t bother getting out any fancy accouterments; the Central Officer goes straight for the whiskey and chugs.

It’s easier to think, once alcohol has dulled his senses.

He sits on the bed. Terrible memories come rushing back: too many games of solitaire, as he waited for the Commander to wake from brain surgery on this very bed; the Commander’s scowl as the stench of vodka and vomit swirled into the Quarters on Bradford’s shirt; his Commander’s head in his lap and whispered promises that will remain forever unfulfilled; his Commander’s hand, wrapped around his cock, teasing him with maddening words and gentle fingers; his bare skin against the sweat-soaked sheets, the ache of his lover’s palms pressed into his chest, as his Commander fucked him; quiet moments spent on the sofas pouring over troop deployments and covert actions, quiet even as the world burnt down around them, because Bradford was safe in the Quarters as long as his Commander was by his side.

Bradford slips off the bed and onto his knees.

“I’m not mad at you,” he says weakly. “No. That’s a lie. I’m mad as hell that you decided to leave me with nothing but good and bittersweet memories. I wanted you here. Come on, Commander. You’ve got to make fun of me for being sappy now. You had no trouble doing that two months ago. Reset, won’t you? The men won’t be the same if you’re not snarking at them too. Please, if you’re not gonna reset for me, if I’m not worth saving, then do it for them.”

The groan of the radiator answers him.

“Please, Commander. I take everything back. I don’t think you’re a monster, I know you would never hurt XCOM like this.” Bradford heaves back the sob that rises to his gorge. “Please don’t do this to me. I know you’re in the AWC. Please do something. Reset. Give us that happily ever after.”

There is no inversion of light and dark, no pixels that rise up from the floor, no sensation of catapulting towards space and then the swoop of flying. Bradford is solidly in his own private hell.

“I didn’t mean it,” Bradford whispers. The metal floor bites into his knees. Hot tears fall down his cheeks. “Please, Commander. Come home. I want you back.”

 


Some part of him screams this is all a lie. The Commander has been through more than this. The war has ended, but that did not end Geist’s powers. Amanust and Evans are still accomplished psi troopers. The Commander had psionic powers to rival those of the Chosen. Death took the Elders, and it took the Chosen, and it took the Commander.

“Can’t pull a Houdini for me, Commander?” he asks the empty Quarters. Bradford wonders if he can throw his weight around as XCOM’s interim leader to get new housing. His rooms are haunted by the memory of a soldier who pinned him to the bed and kissed him until he burned. “Can’t you reset?”

Bradford fixes his collar and looks at the ghost that stares at him from the mirror. He thanks Tygan for his quick action: after the Commander died, the doctor had XCOM’s leader immediately removed to the cold room in the AWC. There was no time for soldiers to see their dead leader. It quashed rumors while Bradford fully stepped into his role as the de facto leader of XCOM. He doesn’t like how that burden feels on his shoulders.

Shen knocks on the door. It slides open to admit her.

“Good to see you’re presentable.” Shen eyes his face. “On second thought, not. You do realize that there’ll be a bunch of cameras on you.”

Bradford sighs. “If you’re talking about the puffy eyes, you’re lucky I’m not blackout drunk.”

ROV-R drops something square onto the bedside table. Shen opens up a makeup kit.

“Seriously, Shen?”

“You’re making a speech to over three hundred people,” she snaps. “We can’t let what the Commander built go to waste.”

The past tense washes over him in waves.

“I don’t look like a hobo, step off.”

“You’re a wreck!” Shen stares at the sad cakes of peach-colored makeup. “It’s just for this speech. Please, Central. The Resistance can’t think that XCOM is weak now.”

He lets her hide the dark bags under his eyes, and the blotchiness of his skin. He asks Shen to paint over the grief that is carved into his face, because he understands that though the war is over and the Commander is dead, there is a new equilibrium being established. The process will be rocky enough without XCOM’s current state of decapitation.

 

He stands before the united Resistance, now the rulers of their home world. XCOM soldiers, Reapers, Templars, Skirmishers, civilians – all of them have assembled for what should be a holiday.

The whispers among Bradford’s men are uneasy. No one has seen the Commander in three days. It is December 19th, and instead of celebrating the coming holidays, an aura of a funeral sinks into the gathered crowd’s lungs.

Bradford clears his throat, and turns on his mike.

“We took back our world.”

He speaks of strength, and of friendship, in the voice that made the Commander melt into his arms. He speaks of loss and of growth, as the Resistance loses their elders and welcomes a new generation who will live free of ADVENT’s shadows. As he approaches the dreaded point of his speech, Bradford’s heart races away in his chest. He thinks of a cold chest, and a still heart, frozen in the AWC morgue.

The crowd notices the absence. Bradford takes a deep breath.

“I suppose you’re wondering where is XCOM’s leader,” he says. “I have to say, it’s not the same without pumping out porn every three days.”

“We can start again if you like!” Lauro shouts.

Bradford smiles half-heartedly. It drops away as he steadies himself.

“The Commander passed away three days ago.”

Kelly grabs her partner’s arm, wobbling in place. Bešlagić wraps one arm around his girlfriend’s waist, and the other over Rosalez’s shoulders. Melnick swears in Russian until he’s breathless. Delela squeezes Kelly back, careful not to jostle the Ranger’s growing belly. Amanust clings to her wife. Dax looks around, as if he could pick the Commander out of the crowd. Mox pats him on the shoulder, then takes Dragunova’s hand. Dragunova lifts up her hood, and bows her head. Evans screams out his disbelief. The XCOM contingent crumples in on themselves, as a hard truth hits them solidly in the gut.

Ivanova looks back at Bradford, with knowing eyes. He nods. Though the nature of their partnerships was different, the loss is the same.

“But we cannot let our loss stop us. XCOM will go on. We will take back our world, inch by inch. Though it will be hard to rebuild, when we have our loved ones to bury…” Bradford swallows. “We owe it to them. Live, even when they cannot, because that is the greatest revenge. ADVENT tried to crush our humanity out of us by turning us into robotic slaves and genetic paste. We live, we love, and we learn.

“When Christmas comes, we will celebrate.” Bradford takes one last deep breath. He needs to end this speech on a good note. He can be strong, for a few minutes more. “I know that not all of you are Christian, and that some of you may not believe in a god. But I urge you, even in our grief, to celebrate the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. XCOM, that comes with exceptions, you can’t date Chryssalids even if you’re into that. Let’s keep it consensual, even if we can’t keep it safe and sane.”

Laughter ripples through the crowd, though it is hollowed by grief.

“Life is a gift. Our freedom is a gift. Our humanity is a gift. ADVENT, the Elders, whatever monsters lurk out there in space – they can’t take what makes us human away for long. So celebrate with me, and your fellow man. If the aliens ever return, there will be a reckoning. They will know that we have never, ever given up the fight, and that we have something that’s worth more than any cure or prize.” Bradford raises his fist, and punches the sky. “Vigilo confido!”

It’s a speech that would make his Commander proud.     

 

Volk detaches from the Reaper faction. For a moment, Bradford wonders if his friend will slug him across the face for abandoning him.

Volk hugs him. The arms of the Reaper’s leader are tight across Bradford’s back, and for once, he feels an equilibrium between his choking emotional pain and his physical pain. It hurts. There is living proof that he hurts.

“I got some good whiskey, John,” he says quietly. “More your thing than mine.”

Bradford laughs, though the sound is thick. “You’re the best pardner.”

Volk doesn’t ask if it’s a reference to XCOM soldier shenanigans. He guides them over to the withered shade of a leafless oak. While the Skirmishers, Reapers, Templars and XCOM celebrate and mourn, the duo drink.

 


“No, I think we should’ve mentioned the kill count.” Melnick’s voice drifts out of the AWC. “It’s only fair.”

Bradford approaches the bar. He averts his eyes from the Memorial. His Commander is the last XCOM soldier to die in the battle to take back Earth. He knows his lover’s picture has joined the dead’s soulless gazes on the wall.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Wrote the Commander’s eulogy,” Evans says simply.

“Not a big, fancy speech like yours, Central,” Kelly says with a salute. “It’s something for us men. The way we remember our leader.”

Kholi nods solemnly. “It’s what the Commander would’ve wanted.”

Bradford gets a good look at the Commander’s eulogy.

FUCKING D-E-D FOR NOW: GOT SICK OF ADVENT’S SHIT, MADE THE ELDERS XCOM’S BITCH. OFF TO BECOME THE EMPRAH OF MANKIND.

For a moment, Bradford considers throwing the eulogy’s writer out into the snow.

“That’s probably what the Commander would’ve wanted,” he grudgingly admits.

“I wanted to add, Central’s waifu, too bad they never had or adopted adorable babies, they’d probably take over the world with porn and massive guns,” Kokoren says, “but I decided that was in bad taste– sir?”

An emptiness opens up in Bradford. The absence somehow fills him up, until there is nothing left in him but loss.

“Stop shipping your superiors,” he manages to say, “I’ll have you know I could’ve taken over the world myself.”

Suleiman salutes the Memorial Wall. “Dicks out for the Commander. You kept Central from taking over the world.”

 


They bury the Commander not too far from the old XCOM base. It takes six flights of the Avenger to carry all the mourners and set up camp in Manhattan. Bradford knows the Commander would want to be with all the men they lost. Shen has her father relocated to a plot by the Commander’s side. Girac, Hamidou, Romanov and the rest are buried in a separate plot for felled Resistance soldiers.

He stands in Mission Control of the ruined base. The dust in Delta Section is disturbed, leaving behind the clear outlines of bones. It’s hard to tell who once lay here. A technician, probably – a base security officer, maybe. Bradford swallows. One day, his Commander will look the same.

The dead from the Invasion are finally buried with full honors.

 


On New Year’s Eve, Shen pins the Commander’s insignia to his shoulders.

She salutes him.

“I look forward to serving with you, Commander,” she says, barely managing to keep the tears from her voice.

Bradford salutes her back.

Gathered in the Hangar, the men watch in silence.

He feels like a fraud wearing a ghost’s honors.

 


Fireworks echo outside Bradford’s quarters. He closes his eyes, and leans back into the bed. It’s the side room attached to the Commander’s Quarters, the room he has occupied for so much of the Resistance’s lifespan. Funny, that he should end up here again.

He buries his face in the pillow. He can still smell the Commander’s soap, and good wine. It seems like an age ago, and it will seem longer once the last traces of his Commander fade away.

Bradford thought he would see the new year with his best friend.

He slides his fingers across his mouth, imagining it’s the Commander who teases his lips apart for a slow kiss. He pats his hips down, and imagines it’s the Commander’s weight pressing down against him. He doesn’t want sex, just his friend’s living and breathing body curled next to him. Lingering touches, his own hot breath reflected back on him through his fingers – Bradford attempts to conjure the Commander through illusions and trickery, but his hand is not his Commander’s, and the shallow sobs belong to him alone.

The howl and crackle of fireworks slows. Bradford stays awake well into the night.

 


Kelly and Bešlagić settle down in the city of Moscow, within a thirty minutes walk of Volk’s apartment block. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Bradford that Kelly – anxious from the death of the Commander – is a poor choice for diplomacy. As the Hero of the Resistance, everyone wants a piece of Kelly, even as she and her husband build the nursery for their baby girl.

Bradford flies into the city in early February, to talk with his wayward soldier, currently on house arrest for whaling on a guest at a conference.

“I could listen to that fucker talk shit about XCOM, the people who died, every person who was worth a billion times more than him,” Kelly hiccups. “I hated every minute of it, but I’m the hero of the Resistance, I’m supposed to be better than them. But then he called Tygan a… I can’t believe he said it, I know how much that word means to the Americans–“

Bradford nods soberly. “So you punched him.”

“He couldn’t believe that XCOM would let a nig– I can’t say it, it makes me want to punch someone!” Kelly snarls and slams her fists into the sofa pillow. “I can’t believe that because I’m white, that cunt thought that I would just nod and smile and agree with his fucking bullshit! Tygan has every right to call himself part of XCOM!”

“Kelly, I know you’re angry. Take a breath, then tell me more.”

“How dare they say that about our doctor?” Kelly cries. “How dare he say that, after everything XCOM has done for people like him? It was probably a bad idea. But I punched him, because he was a cunt!”

Bradford sits on the sofa, and pours her another mug of strawberry milkshake. XCOM is a close-knit group. Nobody would accept a stranger talking shit about XCOM’s doctor, not when Tygan is personally responsible for sewing soldiers up.

“It’s probably bad for my kid,” Kelly says, and inhales. “Calm. Calm. Whoo. Nope. I’m still fucking pissed. Remind me to set a meeting with the OB-GYN. I should probably get a medical exemption from all these conferences.”

“Okay, let’s try not to meet your kid too early,” Bradford says dryly, taking up her calendar of planned events to pencil it in. He tries not to laugh at the big red ‘DON’T CAESAR THESE FUCKERS’ scrawled over a week chock full of meetings. “That’s a reasonable goal for now.”

“I hate this,” Kelly mutters. “I miss the Avenger. I want my friends here. There are so many sharks around, Central. It’s not like this on the Avenger.”

The smile drops off his face. “We’ll get the coms station in your office set up,” he says. “Whenever you need us, XCOM will be there.”

“I know.” Kelly covers her face. “I just want everything back to normal, Central. It’s not the same with the Commander gone.”

“I know,” Central repeats. “Oh, Kelly, I know.”

 


“You abandoned them,” the Commander says, and the cold disappointment drops the ambient temperature of the Bridge until Bradford’s breath puffs out in white clouds. “I was near dead. They were injured, but still alive. Why weren’t you there for our men?”

Bradford looks around the void. Is this Heaven, or Hell?

“You needed me more.”

“I was near dead!” the Commander shouts. Icicles sprout from the ground and trap Bradford in place. The Bridge suddenly transforms into Vahlen’s abandoned lair. “You had a duty, John, and you failed it! Your duty was to XCOM, not me! How could you let Ivanova get alcohol poisoning? Why did you let Shen and Tygan take on XCOM’s management? What could be more important than the world I died to build?”

Bradford shakes his head. “You have to understand!” he pleads. “XCOM was nothing without you! We scrabbled in the dirt for scraps until you united us!”

“And then you squandered it!” his Commander shouts, in rage that has never before been leveled at Bradford. “You wasted this second chance!”

“I needed you back!”

“You didn't. Goodbye, John.”

The Commander’s face rots away.

Bradford watches as his lover’s body collapses into bone and dirt.

 

“Uh, nice underwear, Central.”

Bradford looks down, and massages his temples. He’s become used to sleeping in his boxers, from having a particularly clingy space heater in his bed. If Bradford wanted to wake up moderately dry, he had to strip down to his underwear. It hasn’t quite sunk in that the other side of the bed will be forever empty.

“It was hot,” he offers. His heart sinks as he looks at the AWC. There are no soldiers recuperating there, sparing him the embarrassment of being half-naked and raving at 3 AM in the morning.

“You know the Commander isn’t there anymore,” Shen says quietly. She closes the door to the AWC.

“I know, Shen! I know.” Bradford rubs his eyes. “I just… nightmare.”

Shen takes off her vest and offers it to him. Bradford shakes his head – his shoulders are far broader than his. Shen glares at him until he ties it off around his waist like the world’s worst loincloth.

She guides him back to his Quarters in silence.

They pass Mox on the way through the Bridge. Mox opens his mouth to say something, but the soldier takes one look at Bradford and stays silent.

“Night, sir,” he says.

 

When Bradford wakes up the next morning, there is a tray holding a bowl of soup, a plate of scrambled eggs, and a glass of orange juice waiting on his bedside.

 


Valentine’s Day is always a day for celebration on board in the Avenger, in a very “let’s have glad-to-be-alive-for-now-until-you-miss-a-point-blank-shot-and-I-get-killed sex!” way. For the singles on board, it is an uncomfortable reminder of their solitude – though, Bradford’s pretty sure that Forsythe prefers it that way.

“We could ask Geist if he wants company,” Tygan suggests, his arm curled around Shen’s waist.

“I’ll go man the comms,” Bradford says with a shrug. “Have a good night, you two.”

 

He heads first for his quarters. He needs a fucking drink. Ever since the men went on their pair-the-spares spree, almost everyone on board the Avenger who wants a relationship – whether it be platonic or romantic – has someone guarding their back. Bradford knows that if he asked, the men would welcome him in. But he does not want their pitying looks, and he does not want their silence as they discuss what they will do now that the world is theirs once more.

Bradford uncorks the bottle of white wine, and gags. It’s vinegar now. One final slap in the face. Maybe he can give it to the kitchens, and they can throw together something fancy.

For the first time since the Invasion started, the Avenger has steak and fries for dinner. At least the wine made an excellent addition to the ketchup.

 


Volk doesn’t stay at his Moscow apartment very often, preferring the Avenger or the Reapers’ encampments across the globe. “These city folk are such prudes,” he had grumbled when he first arrived. “You eat one alien to survive the long winter and suddenly you’re a cannibalistic monster.”

Bradford doesn’t comment on the muffled screaming that sometimes comes from Volk’s room when he’s onboard.

“Is there any reason why you ran into my room?” Volk yawns as he gets out of his bunk.

Bradford tosses the plastic glasses at him. “Knew you had trouble sleeping. I’ve had nightmares. I stored some brandy under your bunk there, let’s drink.”

For a while, they drink in silence. Then Volk makes the mistake of mentioning the Commander, and everything comes flooding out.

“Is it my fault? Should’ve stepped out of the way, let Tygan and Shen do their thing.” Bradford gulps down the last of the brandy. “Maybe they would’ve caught something. Maybe I was in the way, and they missed something, and that’s why my Commander is dead.”

“Still missing your Commander?” Volk muses as he cracks the top off the handle of vodka.

“Yeah. My best friend isn’t missing anymore, my best friend is dead.” Bradford throws back the shotglass of vodka. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without the Commander.”

“Volikova rots away under Niagara Falls,” Volk snaps. “I will never see her again, John, except for the propaganda pics your men took. Believe me. I know. I look at Dragunova, Volikova’s spitting image, and it burns all over again.”

Bradford pours another shotglass. “What a sad pair of remnants we are.”

Volk shrugs. “I miss her at night the most. It’s not the same waking up alone.”

“Almost sounds like an invitation,” Bradford says lightly. “Maybe you need a cat.”

Volk considers him. “Fuck it, why not? I’m tired of using my hand. Let’s screw. It can’t possibly get any worse.”

“I’m drunk enough to think that’s a good idea.” Bradford slaps a hand on the bed. “I’m on top.”

 

It’s an extremely bad idea.

“You fuck worse than you fly,” Volk groans as he rolls off the bed.

“You threw up on me!” Bradford mops up the mess. “Fuck, this is disgusting! You’re an animal.”

“Maybe if there wasn’t all that bouncing–“

“All you had to do was lie there!” Bradford bites back the retort. Damn it, Commander, how did you make it look so easy?

“Never had this problem with Volikova,” Volk grumbles. He stops short, reaches underneath the bed, and pours out two generous glasses of wine. He holds them out to the Central Officer, a clear peace offering.

“Here’s to us,” Bradford says, “the lost and the abandoned.”

“May this never happen again,” Volk says, and they clink glasses.

 


The end of the war does not mean the end of the fighting. Pockets of resistance – alien or human collaborators – still threaten the tenuous stability Bradford has built. The Menace Team drops down in the war zone that has consumed Ankara City Center: a black blast crater swallows up what used to be a skyscraper, thanks to an ADVENT supporter smuggling a plasma bomb into the building. There’s an untold amount of dead scattered across the streets, and XCOM must protect the first responders as the medics attempt to bring the injured to safety.

“I’ve got them pinned down,” Kokoren says as she uses her mechanical eye to scan within the building. “Tangoes in sight! But we need an entrance!”

“Wait, wait, there are Mutons in there!” Kholi yelps as he dives into cover, just in time to avoid a flash of green plasma. “I think they’re the meat shields!”

Rosalez pulls out a grenade. “Welp! Commander, you got my back? I’m going in!”

“Stop that shit!” Bradford roars from his place at the Hologlobe. “The Commander is dead! I can’t bring you back!”

Rosalez flings the grenade into the Mutons’ midst, and slowly retreats back into cover.

Once the dust clears, the air stills.

“You know, I forgot how it feels to be mortal,” Rosalez whispers.

 


Kelly’s daughter is born two months premature on March 15th, the day the Commander woke up.

XCOM flocks to her aid. Bradford’s not sure what Moscow’s residents think of the alien ship parked in a particularly ruined part of the city, but he hardly cares as he does his best to comfort Kelly.

“They’ve got the best doctors in all of Russia here,” he tells her, handing the hot water bottle to Bešlagić. The Grenadier nods his thanks and helps Kelly put it under her hips. “I can arrange for a video feed to be sent to your room–“

Kelly quivers. “I don’t know… what if she-?”

“You’ve got the best doctors in the world,” Bešlagić repeats, almost frenetically. “They have to save her. They have to help her.”

“Have you decided on a name?” Bradford asks, hoping to distract the weakened mother.

“Aw man, I don’t know,” Bešlagić admits. “Do you want her to have my last name, or yours?”

“Why not your last name, but an Irish first name?” Kelly asks.

“We going with Bridget then?” Bešlagić asks. “I liked that name the best.”

“Bridget Bešlagić,” Kelly murmurs. “BB. Little BB gun. We should start her off with something small. If she…” The Ranger’s face falls.

Bradford opens his mouth, but before he can speak, Delela and Amanust race into the room. “I’m so sorry, Jane,” Amanust pants, handing her a box of chocolates and a silky alpaca blanket while Delela shoves a sandwich and a coffee into Bešlagić’s hands, “Kaytlynne said we should get you something nice, and the shopkeeper heard our Russian and started–“

The nurse at the door coughs, to remind the group of visiting rules. Kelly’s guards stand beside her, silent as they keep one hand on their weapons.

Bradford nods to his soldiers. “I’ll inform you once the videofeed is up,” he says. “Congratulations, Kelly and Bešlagić.”

 

XCOM's new Commander sets the tablet on the bedside. Bešlagić has fallen asleep in the chair by Kelly’s bed. He’s not supposed to be there, now that visiting hours are over. There aren’t supposed to be cameras in the neonatal ICU either, but some rules have been bent for the hero of the Resistance when it comes to her safety. There are still many pro-ADVENT fighters who would go after a helpless baby.

“There’s curtains around each child,” he says, “to protect their identity. She’s sleeping right now,” Bradford points out the slow rise and fall of Bridget’s chest, “see? And there’s the nurse looking after her.”

Kelly exhales as she looks at the feed of her daughter. “Thank you, sir.” Her voice shakes. “It means a lot to me.”

Bradford nods. “Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?”

“I can’t really sleep,” Kelly admits, “not when I know Bridget’s in that incubator. She should be fine, but I want her with me.”

XCOM’s Commander nods yet once again. This, he understands. His soldiers have a need. He needs to find a way to fulfill it. The answers are more complicated when they come in flesh and blood, but science has its ways.

“Can I put this in your lap?” Bradford asks.

The Ranger wipes away tears, and accepts the tablet.

Bradford sets the tablet to project. A hologram of Bridget nestles in Kelly’s arms. The Ranger tries to touch her daughter with shaking hands, but her fingers pass through the shimmering light.

“Just until she gets better,” Bradford says.

Kelly manages a shaking, “thank you” as she holds the hologram close. As Bradford leaves her room, he hears her singing lullabies to her child.

 


 

Bradford looks around at the fluffy white plain. It looks similar to the Void between resets. “Commander?” he calls, hope rising in his voice. “Are you there?”

“Uh, only the Commander on stream,” a man says as he walks out of the fog. “More of a designer, if you catch my drift.”

“This is not the Commander I’m looking for.” Bradford’s shoulders slump. “So who the hell are you?”

“Call me Solomon.” The man laughs. “Teardrinker also works. Oh man, the tears I see.”

Bradford rolls his eyes. “Are you RNJesus?”

“Nah, he screws me over too. Let’s put it this way. I’m a storyteller. A creative director of fates. The Commander’s story is over,” Solomon says. “Yours goes on. It just doesn’t have the Commander in it.”

Bradford wipes away the angry tears that leak down his cheeks. This is his worst nightmare, a solid confirmation of his lover's permanent death.

“So there’s nothing I can do. That’s it. My Commander is gone for good.”

Solomon hums. “Well, I wouldn’t say that.”

Bradford points at him. “I am this close to losing my shit. Please. Talk.”

“You can start over from the very beginning.”

“From the invasion?” Bradford asks.

“Well… yes and no. Yes, if you won the invasion, but you clearly messed up and are stuck in the resistance timeline.” Solomon shrugs sympathetically. “Sorry, bud. One hell of a fumble during Operation Ashes and Temples is screwing you over right now. It happens. Most ironmen lost the invasion.”

“Just tell me what will happen!”

“You’d have the reset powers. The Commander? Not too sure. The Commander’s choice, if you’re dragging your leader out of the grave.”

Bradford pauses. “There’s got to be a catch.”

“Well, you’d get a completely new slot. Gotta restart all those relationships. Reform all those bonds and alliances with the Factions. See who survives this time. You get the reset powers, you control what happens.” Solomon frowns. “Well, except for poor Ramirez and Osei. Shen just keeps putting them into bad situations like half-cover, and that’s when death happens. Full cover all the way.”

“Will the Commander live?”

“Maybe. Depends on how you'd play. You’d have to do quite a few loops around the track to get more time. The reset ends when you win or lose the war.”

Bradford thinks of Kelly, cuddling the hologram of her daughter in her hospital room. He thinks of Lauro and Kokoren mixing up progressively more disgusting concoctions for Suleiman on Valentine’s Day. Suleiman finally put his foot down and used the vinegar wine for ketchup. There’s Rosalez patching up Delela, now that the Commander isn’t there to save them from their mistakes. He remembers Dragunova teaching Dax how to behave in public, and rewarding the Skirmisher with a carton of ice cream after he successfully ordered a burger. There’s Geist, teaching Evans how to focus his power into a single clone that can move and think on his own. There’s Betos, armor glinting in the moonlight as she wrestled with Volk. If he accepts, everything XCOM has accomplished will be washed away.

“No. The…” Bradford swallows. “It’s not worth – I’m so sorry, Commander. No. I can’t do it.”

Solomon shrugs. “Ah, don’t worry about it. Maybe you’ll get a sequel. Catch you later, Central Officer Bradford.”

Bradford offers the other man a salute. He’s not quite sure why, but it seems appropriate for this creator.

“Someday we’ll find it… the rainbow connection,” Solomon warbles in a voice eerily like Kermit the Frog as he disappears into the mist. “Lovers, dreamers and me…”

 

“It’s 8 AM, Central!” Lily says with a yawn. She drags the lab coat over her shoulders to ward off the chill in the Bar. “It’s not even brunch yet!”

“It’s brunch somewhere in the world. Probably Moscow. Ask Volk.”

“Straight vodka for brunch?!”

Locking eyes with her, Bradford reaches for a tin of tomato juice. He punctures the lid with his knife, then dumps the contents into his glass.

“There. It’s a Bloody Mary. I’ve transformed it into slightly more acceptable alcoholism, will you get off my back?”

Shen sighs and sits down at the bar counter. Her hair smells of the scientists’ formulated shampoo: XCOM’s science team have a special one, to get rid of all the assorted stenches the aliens create.

“Talk to me, Central,” she says, and in her voice is years of loss. “We’re the ones left behind. Maybe I can understand.”

“Just a dream,” Bradford mutters, and throws back the vodka-tomato juice mix. He gags. “God, that’s rank.”

Shen reaches below the bar to grab a box of orange juice for him.

“Had a dream,” Bradford says, “where I had the chance to reset everything. Get the Commander back. But everything – back to the Avenger being buried in the sand.”

“And you said no?” Shen pauses. “Would Dad be alive?”

“No. The set time point was Operation Gatecrasher.”

Shen’s shoulders droop.

“I did the right thing.” Bradford slumps over the bar. “I did the right thing. But I had a chance to bring my Commander back. And I didn’t.”

It’s fast approaching half a year since his Commander died. He can’t help the frustration and grief welling up within him.

Bradford cries. Shen loops her arms around his shoulders, and cries with him.

 


It’s been a while since the Avenger set down in Manhattan, Kansas, but Bradford wants to scout out the old base. See if it’s possible to rebuild XCOM HQ in the ruins of old dreams and hopes. Well, that’s looking at it pessimistically, but XCOM will require forward operating bases to prepare for Geist’s terror from the deep.

It also gives him a chance to visit the Commander.

Melnick stops him near the mouth of the Avenger’s hold, and thrusts a bouquet of flowers into Bradford’s arms. “White tulips, for lost love,” he says, reeling it off. “Forget-me-nots, for the obvious. Orchids, for lust.”

“Really, Colonel?”

Melnick stares at him. In the distance, his Viper girlfriend slithers uncomfortably.

“Okay, fair,” Bradford admits. “I appreciate the thought.”

“It’s not so bad to move on,” the Ranger says softly. “Took me twenty years to figure that one out. But when I did… it's gonna be okay. You have us.”

 

Shen wanders over to her father’s grave, Tygan’s hand clutched in her own. “Hi, Dad,” she says. “It’s been a while. Um… I’d like you to meet my boyfriend. Well, you’ve met him before. His name is Richard.”

Bradford walks away from the duo. The Commander is buried about fifteen meters away from everyone else, a simple granite tombstone marking the resting place. There’s evidence of spray paint recently erased from the grave. Bradford sighs and kneels before the stone. There’s a lot of anger that he’s working to quell, of families whom XCOM killed whether by accident or on purpose. He’s got a lot of work to do, and the Commander isn’t there to advise him on the best course of action.

“Commander. I’ve done my best to lead XCOM,” he states, laying down the flowers. “I hope you’ll find my work satisfactory. We’ve set up a preserve for the Mutons to live on. The Gatekeepers unfortunately had to be subjugated, as they kept on opening portals to god knows where and letting monsters out into the world. Tygan’s grateful that some of Vahlen’s students are handling those dissections. And… well, you’re probably looking after our men. You know that Bridget’s with her mom. Evans is on medical leave, and he might not come back to the Avenger. He’s got a good job teaching the orphans from the Havens. Kokoren’s thinking about becoming a surrogate for Kholi and Leong. Poor Dragunova and Mox… they probably can’t have kids. They’re not genetically compatible enough. But they’ve adopted a whole horde of Skirmishers. God help us if they ever decide they’re sick of XCOM’s rule 34. I know I’d rebel if I saw one more ADVENT Captain entering the bone zone.”

Bradford lets out a weak laugh.

“I’m… not doing so well,” he admits to the grave. “I miss you every day. At least, back in those twenty years, I could pretend you were still alive. But I saw your body. I know you’re gone for good this time.” Bradford strokes the white petals of the tulips. His fingers trail down to trace the forget-me-nots. “Still, I pray for another miracle. I know you had another plan. If only I knew what plan… then I could help you carry it out.”

Bradford’s watch beeps. He sighs. His ten allotted minutes are up now. It’s time to be the Commander once again.

“Come back to me,” he whispers, caressing the warm granite, “if only in dreams.”

 


Bradford looks around the white void. His heart jumps into his mouth as the mist clears. The Commander sits at an old XCOM tracking terminal, but the forms and maps that swirl around his superior are more like the holograms on the Avenger’s Hologlobe. Except–

“Are you really using our tracking terminal to play Civilization?!” Bradford shakes his head. “At least I hope you’re planning for a military victory.”

His dead lover gives him a cheeky grin. “Thought I’d do a Vahlen and go for science with Bismarck.” The Commander pulls up the game screen, just as Gandhi pops up and denounces Germany.

“What did you do?” Bradford asks.

“Nothing! For once, I’m innocent!” The Commander sighs and looks at the available units. Bradford notes that there is a squad of XCOM Invasion-era soldiers sitting on a tile. “Gandhi has nukes and they’re aimed squarely at my ass. I should’ve gone for military.”

Bradford touches the grids on the ground. The floor is soft, as if he’s walking on freshly fallen snow.

“This is a dream.”

“A fan of Assassin’s Creed, aren’t you?” His lover grins and wiggles in the chair. “Well, I can attest to the ass part…”

“A very realistic dream,” Bradford amends. “Sure sounds like you.”

His Commander laughs. “Maybe in three years, a new Civ game will be out. After all, RNJesus has blessed XCOM.” His lover pats the unoccupied swivel chair. “Well? Aren’t you going to join me? Gandhi’s going to dominate Bismarck, and it feels bad man. I need your help.”

Bradford sits. It’s all so surreal. Here is the Commander, hale and hearty, playing videogames while Bradford’s heart breaks over and over again.

“Are you real?”

“Real enough for you,” the Commander counters. “Touch me, John. Find out for yourself.”

He reaches out with trembling fingers, anticipating the second this all becomes a nightmare and he will touch cold bone and mud.

Bradford brushes against the Commander’s cheek. It’s warm. A rosy blush rises to his Commander’s face, and his superior unconsciously leans into his touch. He breathes in, and in the air is the XCOM-issue soap.

“Save your game,” he says.

“Aww, one more turn? Don’t you want to see XCOM kick Gandhi’s ass?”

“Last warning.”

The Commander saves, and turns to face him.

Bradford lunges at his lover, knocking them both to the floor. For a second, he worries that his Commander will turn to dust and bone beneath him, but his lover only laughs and throws strong legs over his back.

“No matter what happens,” his Commander says, “I love you.”

 

“How could you do this to me?” he asks, shaking the Commander’s shoulders. He puts a hand beneath his lover’s head to protect it from the floor. “You left me!”

The grin fades. “I never wanted to leave,” his lover says, stroking his hair. “During Operation Leviathan, I over-extended. It was like I had to rebuild the world. To make an apple pie from scratch,” the Commander quotes, “you must first invent the universe.

“No RNJesus to help you?”

“It was like the entire universe just bricked, and I was piecing back the parts of the corrupted save together,” the Commander says. “Afterwards, it was so hard to hold onto life, and look after the soldiers… I didn’t mean to, but one night I lost hold and slipped away. So I found myself here.”

Bradford closes his eyes. “Because I wasn’t looking after them.”

“I wasn’t going to let the damn Avenger burn down with all of you inside,” his Commander says, tapping him on the nose. “I happen to like your hot ass the way it is, not charbroiled.”

The Central Officer swallows as he remembers his Commander’s physical body is returning to the Earth. Bile rises up in his throat.

“Speaking of which. Eulogies. I am very disappointed in your choice of eulogy.”

Bradford raises a hand to his head. “Sorry, Commander, the men got there first–“

“And you didn’t edit it to be more accurate?” His superior pouts. “Not the ultimate save scummer, with cummer underlined? I remember I spent a lot of time trying to get you to do that. Oh! Or what about And the Commander’s name is– wonder if Van Damme can engrave trumpets into my eulogy with his psionics. Also spent a lot of time floating around in here during resets. Honestly, Bradford, the whole wide world of memes and you just went for WH40K. I deserved at least one bad joke.”

The Central Officer laughs and squishes his Commander’s cheeks between his hands. “I’d almost forgotten how trashy you were.”

“I’m the king and queen of Trashlandia,” his lover says, voice muffled. “It runs at 30 fps and crashes at mysterious times that aren’t judicious resetting, I swear.”

Bradford smiles, although grief lurks close by. “So, you ended up in the Void. None of our soldiers’ ghosts around?”

“Nope,” his Commander says. “It’s pretty much my own personal domain.”

His Commander flicks a hand. The tracking terminal splits in two and parts, revealing a carbon-copy of the Commander’s Quarters on board the Avenger.

“The nice thing about my own personal domain,” his lover says, leading him into the reconstructed Quarters, “is that I call all the shots.” His Commander sits on the bed and gestures. A bottle of 90-year-old whiskey pops into existence on the dresser. “I always wanted to find one for you, but I never had the time. Oh! Or what about faces? I can be anybody you want!”

“What.”

“For example.” The Commander suddenly blurs out, and the Assassin sits where Bradford’s lover once was. “I’m sugar tits! It’s my duty to get that Bradford booty!”

Bradford covers his face. “Oh my god, sir.”

The Assassin morphs into Betos. “I come to make you come! Cocks Tala for Men!”

“Commander, please stop.”

Betos turns into Volk. “I give out the orders here,” Volk leans in, until his hood falls off his head to frame sly lips, “and the order’s in to love you until you’re unconscious.”

“Stop, stop, stop!”

The mirage disappears. His Commander sits before him once again.

“John?”

“I never wanted anybody but you,” Bradford says, keeping the tears at bay as he sits on the bed. The cotton covers even glide past his hands with the same squeak that he remembers from the days where his lover lived. “I want you, Commander. I want to see your face again.”

His superior wipes away Bradford’s tears with the pad of a thumb.

“I’m sorry. I got a little overexcited. I haven’t seen you in ages, and I’m so lonely here.”

“It’s okay,” Bradford hiccups, “I can never stay mad at you.” He cocks his head. “Why haven’t you gone crazy from the solitude here?”

“We’re all mad here,” the Commander says, and hesitates. “This… does involve some shapeshifting.”

Bradford inhales deeply. “I’m prepared this time. Show me, Commander.”

His lover shimmers. With a pop, a male version of the Commander and a female version sandwich Bradford between their bodies. They share the same face, though slightly modified for their chosen gender.

“Twin threesome,” one copy of the Commander says, “for all your Central pleasuring needs.”

 

“I got bored on my own,” the male Commander says, as if that explains it all. He sets a hand on Bradford’s thigh. “Didn’t have you to bounce all that madness off of.”

“Why have one when you can have both?” The female Commander nods with evident self-satisfaction. “F!Commander and M!Commander, for all your fantasy needs.”

“F exclamation mark Commander.” Bradford rolls his eyes. “Gonna be fun yelling that name out.”

“FCOM and MCOM.” The male Commander shakes his head and shoves FCOM. “Should’ve tried this during the invasion. Maybe we would’ve gotten some damn funding when we needed it.”

“Commanders gone wild! There you go, Brazzers, this is the untapped market you never knew you needed to fuel.” FCOM winks at him. “Starring John Bradford, of course.”

“We’ve just crossed the line from crack to full-on porn,” MCOM muses. “Complete with cheesy one-liners and cheesing timers.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely you, Commander.” Bradford prods FCOM’s sizable rack. “Ever tried running around with these? Looks like you’d give yourself a black eye.”

“Look, if you give me free run with character sliders, I’m going to put them up to max!” MCOM says.

“I had purple hair for a while,” FCOM confirms as she tugs her male equivalent’s shirt off. “Every time I tried to change it back, he’d turn it some other crazy color.”

“I had a chance to go full anime,” MCOM says, kissing her on the cheek, “you bet I took it. Also, you gave me white hair. White! I already have trauma from being stuck in the damn Avatar.”

“Did you do that for your other half?” Bradford asks the other Commander as he undoes her shirt.

“Eh, decided to keep it reasonable,” FCOM says. “Let Kokoren keep her kiełbasa wiejska fantasies. Also, didn’t want to make you jealous.”

“Can I throw out a quick suggestion?”

“All ears – no, don’t do the shitty physical comedy, Mr. Potato Head,” FCOM says, shoving her male counterpart. “Don’t freak out John, it’s rude.”

“Tone it down.” Bradford squeezes one of FCOM’s breasts. “Yes, it’s a bit… much, when they’re the size of my head.”

“Someone in Japan would pay good money for this,” FCOM says, as she loses a few cup sizes. Bradford notes with amusement that her clothes also change size. A blue lacy bra, that's definitely not XCOM regulation wear. “For shame, John, the whole wide world of fetishes is before you and you go and be vanilla.”

“Don’t kinkshame him,” MCOM says, shedding his pants.

This is reasonable?” Bradford asks, looking up at MCOM. “Is this a dick, or a Coke can?”

“He wanted to see your face. See, that’s why I don’t play with the character sliders,” FCOM says to MCOM. “We all end up looking like anarchy’s children.”

“Or bad dragons,” MCOM smirks. He gains a more reasonable girth. “All right, I swore I wouldn’t do the shitty physical comedy.”

“I see we’re going the Commander Shepard route,” Bradford says as his clothes disappear under the Commanders’ touch.

FCOM laughs and smothers his dick between her breasts. “See, I couldn’t do this before, but with the magic of character selection–”

“Note to self: don’t let the Commander play the Sims,” Bradford snarks and leans back on the bed. “I’d hate to see what monstrosities you pump out.”

“Never have I ever put a Sim in fishnets stolen from the Lost in Amsterdam,” MCOM offers, playing with Bradford’s balls.

“Yeah? Well, never have I ever condoned Warlock knotting porn,” FCOM says. “Because I have standards!”

“You thought it up!” MCOM accuses.

“You wrote it!”

“Seeing as you’re the same person,” Bradford shudders as FCOM sucks lightly on the head of his cock, “do you agree on anything?”

“For about five seconds,” MCOM says, “and then we regret all our bad decisions. That’s why we need you here!”

“To rein us in a little,” FCOM says, “if that’s what you’re into.”

Bradford sighs in sheer contentment as he stares up at the Quarters’ ceiling. He wants to focus on the duo, but it’s harder when they switch places and MCOM’s mouth is hot around his cock.

“Little narcissistic, ain’t it?” he asks, reaching down to stroke MCOM’s cock. FCOM makes a noise of protest and begins to leave small bites down Bradford’s chest. “Oh, come on. Get up here, you don't usually like receiving and I’m not passing up the chance,” Bradford says, pulling FCOM up towards his mouth. “Then again, I don’t blame you,” he tells FCOM, “your other half is damn gorgeous.”

“The age old question, Bradford,” MCOM says, lips popping off Bradford’s cock with a lewd fwip, “if I would bang my gender bent clone is fuck yes. Add you to the mix? I’m in heaven.” He grimaces. “Bad jokes aside.”

“But now we have you all to ourselves,” FCOM says, straddling the barrel of Bradford’s chest despite the Central Officer’s protest. He can feels the oval of wet heat between her thighs. “And we intend to make up all the pain of twenty years we caused for you.”

Bradford grins. “Please tell me you’ve got actual cuffs somewhere.”

“And padded too!” MCOM chirps. “What? She likes the cuffs more than the whip.”

 

“Am I forgiven?” the two chorus as Bradford – bruised, battered, but very content – cuddles between them.

“I am still pretty fucking pissed that you went off and died,” Bradford says. He pinches MCOM’s cheek, inverting the man’s pout into a semi-smile. “But I think I’m starting to come to terms with it.”

“Good,” FCOM states as she nuzzles at the crook of his neck and shoulder. “It was no picnic waking up and realizing you’re dead.”

“I’d like you to reconsider what you said,” MCOM smacks her over the head, “with your half-living/half-dead limbo privilege.”

“You have the exact same thing!” FCOM protests. “Really, you should be nagging me about the logistics of having two copies of the same person existing at the same time.”

MCOM rolls his eyes. “Like I’m gonna get anywhere.”

Bradford smiles, but something bittersweet rises in his chest.

MCOM kisses him on the forehead. FCOM presses a kiss to the spot between his shoulder blades.

“Penny for your thoughts, John?” FCOM asks.

“It’s not you. Well, it is you, and that fulfills the twin-threesome fantasy you had, but it’s not the Commander I fell in love with.” He squeezes both of their hands. “I want to see you again.”

The two copies merge together into one familiar form, sans messing around with the character slides.

“Hi,” the Commander says.

Bradford bops his lover on the nose. “Hi yourself.”

“Riveting dialogue.” His Commander settles into his lap. “Cuddle like usual?”

“For a little bit,” Bradford murmurs, as he wraps his arms around his lover.

They talk for a while: of Bridget, finally gaining weight after a lengthy stay in the ICU; of Natasha, and the mysterious clutch of eggs that were definitely from a chicken which she hoarded in Melnick’s bunk to make Rosalez a cake; of Ivanova, who went out for a movie with Van Damme, but has no intention of getting into another relationship; of Dr. Park, who had a small breakdown as he realized that no, he did not have to pull a 24-hour shift to tend to XCOM’s injured now that they had City Center staff onboard.

Motions he remembered from the Commander in life stir heat within him: a bemused smile here, a whisper of a hand against his thigh, the nip of teeth against his bottom lip. He wants to keep talking, but the promise of having his lover all to himself is more pressing.

“Why do we always end up having sex?” his Commander laughs, before taking Bradford’s cock down the throat.

Bradford fists his hands in the Commander’s hair. “It’s better with you,” he murmurs.

His Commander rides him, hard and steady, and for precious minutes, Bradford believes his partner is forever right by his side.

“I want to see you again,” he whispers as the heat recedes.

His Commander kisses him. “And you will,” his lover murmurs into his skin, “I know you’ll find me again.”

“I promise,” Bradford murmurs, as he drifts into a comfortable sleep, “I’ll find you.”

The world darkens around him.

“Love you too, John.”

 

Bradford wakes up alone in his bed, cum plastering the sheets to his belly. Despite the radiator working over time, the Quarters are cold. The linen sheets drag against his sweaty skin. Worst of all is the absence on the other side of the bed. Bradford presses shaking fingers to his chest. He can feel ghostly warmth radiating into the empty air. His Commander, for a moment, was warm against his skin and alive.

He reaches under his bunk, grabs the handle of vodka, and chugs.

He chases dreams, but the Commander is nowhere to be found.

 

“Why are you doing laundry at 3 AM?” Shen asks.

Bradford doesn’t raise his head from the washing machine. The rumbling bites into his headache.

“Threw up,” he says eventually. Better than the truth.

 


“Well, it’s time to come to a decision – and don’t you dare make the innuendo,” Bradford tells Suleiman. The Sharpshooter pouts and nestles in his girlfriend’s protective embrace. The remaining XCOM soldiers, both field and Covert Operatives, are gathered on the Bridge. “We’ve secured control over most of the planet. The governments aren’t happy about our mobile flying machine, and our ability to suppress insurrections anywhere we go. That means XCOM will have to split up.”

“Fuck no. I don’t want to split up.” Melnick pounds a fist against the banister. “Bad enough that Kelly and Bešlagić are off in Moscow, because there’s not enough room on the Avenger for a baby.”

“Look at the Reapers,” Ivanova adds. “Most of them are having a hard time integrating into the city centers because they’re all alone, with only one or two people who’ve gone through the shit they have. We’ve been through literal hell. I don’t think I can go it alone.”

Delela nods. “Suleiman, I hate how you throw your dirty cheesy boxers everywhere, but I don’t think I could live without you.”

Suleiman blows his fellow sniper a kiss. “Who would I compete with, if you weren’t around?”

Amanust winds her arms around her wife’s waist. “But we can’t live on the Avenger forever. We gotta get off so Shen can do some massive repairs.”

“We’ll probably need a ground HQ sometime,” Bradford admits.

Shen clears her throat. “I’ve been looking at strategically defendable positions around the world, for when we finally meet Cthulhu…”

 


“That looks like shit."

Ivanova waves a hammer in Shen’s direction. “Hey! Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, not Extreme Home Makeover Unit,” the Reaper says.

Bradford eyes the roof of the growing XCOM Forward Operating Base with no small sense of trepidation. “Is that blastproof?”

“Look, even my exterminatus can’t get past that,” Shen says. “It’s the doors I don’t like. Seriously? French windows and brutalist doors?”

“I think it’s cute,” Kholi says.

“You have shit taste,” his husband says. “Which is why I’m furnishing our room, and you get to approve decorations only.”

“Is the place baby-proofed?” Tygan asks, finally off the Avenger for once. Bradford thinks the only time the doctor leaves the ship is to visit restaurants with Shen.

“When dealing with soldiers who have the mental maturity of toddlers,” Betos says as she comes around the corner, “that has been accounted for.”

“So Bešlagić and Kelly can come live with us!” Rosalez’s eyes light up. “I missed my goddaughter!”

“You did this on purpose,” Natasha says through her translator, as she slithers past hauling a stack of rebar, “didn’t you, Central?”

“They have Blacksite deniers now,” Bradford says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I need to get those three out of there before they actually murder someone.”

“So that’s why Bešlagić was in the news.” Van Damme cocks his head. The ghosts following him do the same. “Nope! She had it coming. What was she thinking, coming up behind him to accuse him of that shit?”

“He could at least have refrained from breaking her jaw,” Bradford says with a sigh. He looks at his tablet. Bešlagić is being transferred over from the city jail into XCOM incarceration. He had talked with the Grenadier earlier, and is glad that Bešlagić did not go with his original plan of kidnapping the woman, shutting her into a transport pod, then dropping her into the still-standing Blacksite’s ruins to think about her life for a few hours. Needless to say, the Grenadier does not think very highly of those who would ignore ADVENT’s atrocities.

His life as the Commander is a never-ending race to put out fires around the globe. But when he wants to curl up and drown himself in alcohol, one of XCOM’s soldiers will find their way at his side.

He’s never alone, as long as there is a XCOM soldier still fighting the good fight out there.

“At least babies are cute,” Melnick says. “It’d be good to have an actual toddler around.”

“FUCK!” Mox screams, hopping around clutching his grout-covered foot. A wheelbarrow lays on its side, grout spilling onto the ground.

“We’re bad influences,” Dr. Golini comments from the lunch table. “I think that’s the first time he’s ever sworn.”

“Actual toddlers,” Shen grumbles as she pulls the first aid kit off his belt. “Mox! Did you forget to put the brake on?! Stop hopping around, I need to check your foot and write up the accident report!”

 


“Come with us,” Bradford says, holding out his hand.

A thoroughly sloshed Volk stares back at up him.

“I can’t stand by and watch you rot away. Come with XCOM, your Reapers, all these lost people,” Bradford continues, looking around the squalid Moscow apartment. “You have a home with us.”

“What changed?” Volk asks bitterly, as he throws back another shot. “Volikova’s still dead. The Reapers are still scattered. These fucking civilians are already beginning to forget what ADVENT did.”

“We gotta look out for our own.” Bradford gently maneuvers the other man in a sitting position. “And I’m not leaving you behind in the past.”

“You should go,” Volk mumbles, half-asleep. “Let me rest.”

“I don’t leave my men behind,” Bradford says as he grabs a trashcan for Volk. Volk heaves, and spits out clear fluid that stinks of alcohol. “My Commander’s dead. But I can’t stay in the past. You shouldn’t either. Come on, Volk. We’ll get out of this together.”

After a long silence, Volk takes his hand.

 


“I take it back,” Melnick grumbles, holding a pillow over his ears, “I don’t like having a baby around."

“But she’s so cute!” Rosalez coos as he rocks Bridget in the newly built Living Quarters. XCOM’s new HQ is far more spacious than the Avenger. “Aww, come on, Bridget. Smile for me!”

Bridget’s wails slowly turn into happy giggles.

“There we go! That’s the Bridget I like to see! You’re a good girl, the best girl!”

“She’s a girl, Rosalez, not a dog,” Kelly says from her position, passed out over the sofa.

“Shit, Kelly, you look like hell. You okay there?” Melnick asks. “Need me to grab a hot water pad, a coffee, anything?”

“I will be after a nap.” Kelly conks out.

“Didn’t ask where Bešlagić was,” Rosalez says as he tickles Bridget's belly.

“I know for a fact that he’s out buying diapers, because I asked him to grab some steak for Natasha.” Melnick rolls his eyes. “He’s celebrating his freedom from time-out.”

“That’s an odd way to refer to jail,” Amanust says as she passes by in full combat gear. “See you guys later! Gotta go put down an insurrection before it gets crazy.”

“Break a leg!” Rosalez says, raising Bridget’s arm to wave good-bye at her aunt. “She’s cheering for you too.”

Delela makes kissy faces at her niece as she passes the trio. “Be good, kiddo! And Melnick, your laundry’s in your room. Lauro mixed up the hampers.”

 

Melnick and Rosalez settle in on the couches, as Kelly snores away. Volk drops by with Van Damme, and puts a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches on the coffee table.

“We’re going on a hunt,” Volk says, “if you can keep up, you’re free to follow.”

“Baby-sitting duty,” Melnick says solemnly. “Love to, but duty calls.”

“I’ve seen your method of hunting, Van Damme,” Rosalez tells the Templar, “and I’m freaking terrified.

Volk nods. “Suit yourself. Natasha volunteered to bring anything we shoot back home. Don’t worry, I won’t shoot your girlfriend.”

Melnick rolls his eyes. “I’m not worried about her. I’m worried about you.”

“He does have a habit of shooting my psionic ghosts,” Van Damme says in exasperation. “Later!”

Rosalez hands Bridget over to Melnick so the other man can change Bridget’s diapers. He shakes Kelly. “Hey. Food’s here,” the Specialist says, “and it’s not take-out for once.”

Kelly makes sleepy grabby hand-gestures.

“What did I miss?” she mumbles, hair plastered to her cheek as she takes a bite of a sandwich. “Ooh, pork. It’s been a while since I saw a pig that wasn’t in a suit.”

“One diaper change, a mission,” Melnick says, depositing the dirty diaper in a trashbag. He makes sure Bridget won’t roll off the couch, then ties the bag off. “And Volk and Van Damme are going on a hunt. It’s a pretty quiet day.”

“You can talk,” Bradford grumbles as he walks into the living quarters, six slightly singed soldiers in his wake. “Hope Kholi made enough food for everyone, because I’m starving.”

Bridget giggles and reaches for her mother. She makes a sound oddly like, mama!

“Come on, Bridget,” Kelly coos. “Come on. Say it again!”

“Mama!” Bridget lifts her arms, demanding to be picked up.

“Oh, I wish I had a camera,” Kelly cuddles her daughter, “look at you, you’re getting so big now! And you’re saying your first words!”

“Bullshit,” Bešlagić says, dropping the shopping bags over in the corner. “I get arrested, go out to the stores for the first time in forever, and I miss my daughter’s first words?”

Bridget laughs and flails her arms to get to her father. “Booshee!”

The Ranger and Grenadier stare at each other.

Bradford unsuccessfully restrains a laugh. “Language, Bešlagić.”

“I’m starting to think I’m not a good role model,” Bešlagić says as he takes his daughter into his arms. “No, no, papa,” he says, enunciating each syllable. “Papa, okay Bridget?”

“Booshee!”

 


It’s been five years since Operation Leviathan. General John Bradford sits at his desk in the heart of New York. He couldn’t stand the silence of the countryside, not when it made his thoughts scream, and so he has spent the years preparing Earth’s armies. A great psionic void has formed over the Pacific Ocean. Something is coming out, and it threatens to consume the world. Geist and his Templars grow stronger with every month, but they can only hold the gates closed.

Fire Axis is no longer a coalition of scientists on the run. They’ve merged their name into Iceallies, which is hardly better, and an arm has developed into a game company. There’s a game about XCOM coming out in February in time for the Invasion’s anniversary. To avoid copyright issues, it’s called X-COM: Fight of the Selected. Bradford considers it weird and a bit too soon, but he understands that to many, the Invasion is ancient history. Call of Duty was shitting out games about Iraq and the Gulf War – at least, he thinks it was CoD, maybe it was Modern Warfare or CSGO, they’re all the same to him now – the point is, there was barely enough time for soldiers to come home before they saw all their exaggerated exploits in glorious glitchy pixels packaged on discs.

Also, he’s a little offended by their depiction of his 55-year old self. The Iceallies team brought him on to verify that no harm to XCOM’s operational security would occur. The Avenger’s main frame is similar, but the arrangements of the room is completely different; Shen and Tygan are not packed together, he doesn’t think they would survive the initial war if they had been so. Also, Bradford did not send heart-eyes to the Commander that often.

Something flicks on in his brain. Wasn’t a XCOM soldier one of the consultants?

Bradford opens up the game guide on his terminal, and looks for the credits. Sure enough, Evans is listed as a graphical artist… and Tygan is one of the consultants?!

Bradford quietly prays that the Propaganda Center does not have a rule 34 component. He thinks there’s a copy of Girac’s work still circulating around museums.

He looks over his desk. There’s a picture that Shen snapped with ROV-R, of Bradford standing by the Hologlobe, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes. The Commander is at his side, whole and alight with fire as XCOM’s leader scolds the men for… god, he can’t remember anymore.

There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t miss the Commander. But things are getting better. He has the factions. He has XCOM. He’s got the memory of a very good friend, whom he would follow to the ends of the Earth.

 

Alarms shriek around the base. Dread wells up in Bradford’s chest: this particular cadence is dedicated to an apocalyptic event. The Psionic void has opened up. Earth is under attack once more.

“Battle stations!” Bradford barks over the intercom. “Get me every image you can get!”

“On it, sir!” Kholi says from the Hologlobe.

Bradford stands and clips his assault rifle to his back. He heads towards the door. War is on Earth’s shores once again.

His terminal rings with a long-unused signature. This particular security code hasn’t been used since the days of the Avenger and the Resistance.

It can’t be.

The terminal rings once more.

Bradford turns around.

He must be dreaming.

“Welcome back, Central.”

 

Chapter Text

                AS I LIE SLEEPING / Original chapter: Chosen

“You look like hell,” Bradford says, sitting next to his superior at the Resistance Ring table. “Jesus, sir, when’s the last time you slept?”

“I can sleep when I’m dead,” the Commander mutters, and yawns into an empty mug. The Commander eyes the cup. “Oh. Empty.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions.” Bradford grabs the cup before it drops from the Commander’s hand. “Go to bed. I can read your notes for the morning debrief.”

“Yeah… wanted to talk to you about that. Tygan says I should try out some sleeping pills. They won’t give true sleep, just knock me out.” The Commander shifts from booted foot to foot. “Was wondering if you’d be willing to supervise me. Tygan’s not sure how the chip will affect how I respond to the pills.”

Bradford raises an eyebrow.

“If I stop breathing, do me a favor and run for help before you run for the eau de vie.”

“Priorities, Commander, I know what they are.” Bradford nods slowly. “Why wouldn’t you be in the infirmary?”

“Because I’m a shitty leader and the AWC is packed because of my shitty decisions,” the Commander snaps. His superior’s face falls into deep lines of misery. “I’m sorry. I’m very tired, but I shouldn’t take out my frustration on you.”

“Whatever you need, sir.” Bradford takes the cup and rinses it out at the sink. “Except for coffee.”

 

Bradford enters the Commander’s Quarters with no small sense of trepidation. He dreads seeing his superior sleepless, but the little voice in the back of his head whispers of all the possible disasters. The Commander’s chest, failing to rise in a breath. His Commander, lying cold and lifeless on the bed.

“Are you going to read me a bedtime story?” the Commander asks, settling on the bed. “Do I also get milk and cookies?”

“Don’t push your luck,” Bradford says, relieved at the resurgence of his Commander. He sits on the bed. “Once upon the time, the aliens invaded and everything sucked. Almost everyone died. I drank a lot. The end.”

“Boo, this ending sucks.”

“XCOM came to the rescue, and kicked all the aliens off the planet. Then everyone lived happily ever after.” Bradford pokes his Commander in the chest. “The end, now go the fuck to sleep.”

“Yes, dad.”

“Don’t you start. If this awakens anything in me, I blame you.”

“Oh yes, awakening your long suppressed paternal instincts.” The Commander yawns again. “What a nightmare. Welp. Off to dreamland I go.”

For the first fifteen minutes, Bradford doesn’t take his eyes off the Commander as he paces around the bed. The life sign monitors around the Commander’s wrist aren’t beeping, probably because that would keep XCOM’s leader from sleeping. Slowly, his superior’s eyelids stop fluttering, and his Commander’s chest rises and falls in even patterns as steady as the tide.

Bradford looks at the warnings on the bottle’s side. He closes his eyes. The pills can only cause drowsiness. They cannot refresh the brain, make it shut down and restart in dreams. If that is enough to maintain sleep, he’ll be thankful. He tries to use alcohol to sleep. It doesn’t work. Bradford will wake up feeling like crap, as if he ran a marathon in his sleep. Tygan makes noises about GABA potentiation and excessive glutamate concentrations. Bradford doesn’t know enough science, but he does know whatever he’s doing isn’t good for his body.

He wonders how much time he’ll have left. Less, surely, with the Chosen and worry eating away at him.

“Undoubtedly,” his superior says.

Bradford does a double-take. Who says four syllable words while sleep-talking? The Commander, apparently.

His Commander’s face quickly falls into hard lines of misery. XCOM’s leader begins to struggle against the sheets.

“Run,” the Commander mutters, “Kelly, leave him, just run. Kelly!”

Bradford sits on the bed. Even sleep can’t free XCOM’s leader from the demons that chase the Avenger. Sweat beads on the forehead of Bradford’s superior, plastering strands of hair to the Commander’s skin.

He reaches out to touch his superior’s face, then freezes. The Commander can’t see what he’s doing, and can’t tell him to stop or keep going. The last thing his Commander needs is to wake up in a panic because Bradford’s hands feel like a Thin Man’s claws.

Bradford gets a towel instead, and wipes the Commander’s face dry.

“Shen, wake up, don’t be dead, don’t–“

“I kept looking for you, after the base fell,” he says to fill the room, as if his voice could somehow push out the nightmares.

“My fault,” the Commander says, “please, let him live…”

“You always had a plan. Couldn’t believe you’d die like that. Some part of me knew that shit happens,” Bradford says. “And maybe you were rotting away in an ADVENT cell with nothing that I could do. But if I knew where you were, then I would bust you out the second I got a chance.”

“I’m sorry,” his Commander whispers.

Bradford wraps the towel around his Commander’s hands to dry the sweaty palms. “For what? I could never blame you.”

The Commander’s chest begins to rise in even breaths. Bradford waits for another twenty minutes, just listening to the Commander breathe without begging for someone’s life. His tablet beeps, warning him he will have to leave soon.

“Night, Commander,” he says softly. “Sweet dreams.”

 

Three hours later, the Commander appears at his side bearing a mug of coffee and dark shadows under the eyes.

“Pills did shit all,” his superior says soberly.

“Coffee won’t either.”

“It’s for you,” the Commander says, putting the mug before him. “You tried. Thanks, Central.”

Bradford opens his mouth. Thoughts swirl around his head, half-formed and filled with the blush of a crush; look, come into my bunk, I’ll try to get you some sleep; I’ve got your back, you can have my ass; just get some sleep.

“Not impressed with me, Central?” the Commander asks, eyes blurring out as the messages from the Resistance flash by on the screen.

“If you fall into the mud because you stopped paying attention during PT,” Bradford says, “you’re getting hosed down.”

 

Two hours before the end of his shift, Bradford looks for the Commander to start the hand-over meeting.

His superior is sprawled across the floor of the Armory, Bradford’s coat grabbed from the rack and haphazardly stuffed between the Commander’s head and the cold metal ground. By the looks of it, the Commander gave up and decided the Armory was a good place for a nap.

Bradford sighs and picks up his superior. The Commander is steadily regaining weight; no ghost could be solid and warm in his arms.

Shen walks out of Engineering and stops short. She makes to hit the emergency button, but Central waves her off.

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it,” Shen says sadly.

“I don’t know,” Bradford admits, as he carries his Commander away, “and I don’t know how to fix it.”

He brings the Commander up the stairs, sneaks past the Living Quarters – he does not want pictures of this plastered over his bunk – tiptoes past the Hologlobe, and makes it to the Command wing without alarming the men.

“You get two hours,” he says, laying the Commander down in the quiet of the Quarters. “And then you owe me a dozen coffees for not attending meetings.”

 

                HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS / Original chapter: Chosen

Welp, Bradford thinks, as his bones crack beneath the Viper’s coils, this is it. Didn’t get ADVENT to fuck off. Never got to see humanity free. Never got to tell the Commander I’m in love.

“Did… what I could…” he murmurs, trying to comfort himself as he slips into the darkness.

Save.reload(“Nest”)

Bradford has faint memories of dying as he puts a round of shotgun slugs into the Viper’s head, but he banishes them from his mind. XCOM has bigger problems: namely, one asshole Chosen who can’t stop blabbing.

“-Have you heard of the tragedy of Doctor Vahlen the ambitious?” the Hunter asks, as he aims at Delela. It’s moments like these that make Bradford think that the Hunter used to be human. “It’s not a story XCOM would tell you. Not when it ends in a Viper King. Good hunting, that thing.”

“Fuck off, nobody wants you here!” Rosalez tells the Hunter.

“We are trying to have a serious moment!” Delela says, equally annoyed. “We’re trying to find our long-lost scientist who went full Jurassic Park! No Chosen allowed.”

The Hunter takes one look at the skulls impaled on spikes. “You’re right, it’s not my style. See you next mission!”

He does manage to one-shot kill Bradford.

As he falls to the ground, Bradford thinks, Really? He was aiming at Delela!

 

“Where’s the fun in killing the mourning?” the Hunter says. “There’s no fun in a hunt where your prey is screaming and crying and it’s not because of you.”

The Commander punches him. The fist goes through the Hunter’s smirking mug.

“You are such an asshole.”

Save.reload(“Nest”)

He’s dying. He can feel it in the fluid leaking into his lungs and the blood gushing out of his leg. Delela is dying too, from a shot to the gut. Bradford is bleeding out too fast to be saved. Delela is dying slower.

“John!” the Commander shrieks, high and shrill over his radio.

His name shocks him out of the fog.

He crawls over to Delela. Though grey fog swirls around his vision, pulling him towards the void, he sees Delela’s hot breath rising above her mouth and knows that even if he dies, he can save his soldier.

A Viper’s tail slams into his chest, tossing him across the cavern. Dull pain radiates through his chest. He looks down – a stalagmite has cleanly penetrated his midsection. He’s no doctor, but Bradford doesn’t think he can squirm his way out of this one.

The Viper curls around Delela. The sniper screams as bones crack and fluid gushes into lungs.

“No…” Bradford fumbles for his gun – he can save his soldier, he won’t fail his men, but his fingers are bloodless and the fog is impatient. “Wait… no…”

Save.reload(“Nest”)

He looks at the ruined laboratory. Seems pretty sturdy, like the pillar of ice that’s sprouting through his midsection. Vahlen had a good architect on her side.

“I was… building a… house…”

Really? These are my last words?

Save.reload(“Nest”)

“Hey, Commander.” Bradford grins at his superior and waves from his AWC cot. He mimes flexing his arms, despite the groaning of his badly abused ribs. “Check it out, I still got it.”

“You were building a house?” the Commander asks with a frown. “Was that why you took so long to find me?”

Bradford loses his grin. “I… don’t remember telling you that.”

The Commander sits on his cot. “Call it a soldier’s intuition.” Bradford raises an eyebrow at his superior, forcing a sigh out of XCOM’s leader. “Things changed… time and time again.”

Good thing Bradford is out of it with the dose of ibuprofen running through his system, because he’s pretty sure his Commander just said Bradford was in a game of Dark Souls. Bradford imagines bright red YOU HAVE DIED painting the Hologlobe. He shakes his head. Maybe it wasn’t ibuprofen that Tygan prescribed. It definitely wasn’t morphine, because Tygan does not want to accidentally kill Bradford. Who else would put up with the soldiers’ shit?

“You look tired,” he says, to break the silence.

Despite his injuries, the Commander suddenly hugs him.

“Don’t think there’s a XCOM without you,” his superior mutters. “House or no house.”

“Well, I helped build the damn thing,” Bradford offers as he rests his forehead against the Commander’s shoulder. “Besides you, I’m the one who knows it best.”

 

                COFFEE / Original chapter: Chosen

  • Sometime after the Commander proposes Operation: Rule 34.

“So, Leong!” Kholi shouts over the whizz and bang of traded gunfire. He raises his voice to be heard over the cascading monsoon rain, that thunders down like a tan curtain of pure water. “If we survive this – tea on me?”

“Sorry!” the gunslinger shouts back. “Didn’t catch that!”

“Tea, coffee, café at the next Haven?”

Leong considers it as he reloads his pistols. “It’s a date!”

“Stop fucking double wielding, you’re wasting ammo!” Central growls.

“I can barely see anything!” Leong protests. “It’s statistics! More ammo, more chance of hitting something!”

“I’m glad we didn’t field a sniper,” Yamamoto says pointedly, as she launches a grenade in the vague direction of the gunfire.

Leong looks down as a grenade rolls into frame. “Hey, what the fu–“

Save.reload(“Indonesia”)

“You know what? Fuck the coffee,” Leong says after exiting the debriefing room. “I want a hot shower.”

Kholi picks up two towels from the bin waiting in the mud-streaked corridor and tosses him one. “You and me both.”

“Race you.”

 

Thirty minutes and two broken legs later, Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do we need to pad the Avenger’s hallways?” he asks, squinting at the groaning Leong and Kholi through narrowed eyes. “Congratulations. You’re the first to get injured without being on a mission or a Haven aid operation.”

The Commander’s head shakes. “You wouldn’t run at the pool side. Why would you do it on the Avenger? It’s slippery when wet. Reloading.”

 

                FOOTFALL OF A KITTEN / Original chapter: Chosen

Clang. Clang. Clang.

“Why Thor, God of Thunder, is attempting to break into this building,” Bešlagić mutters as he scales the air duct.

Unfortunately, the office building’s security system is a Sectopod. It agrees with the Grenadier.

 

“…I think we need to separate XCOM into the Covert Ops team, and the As-Much-Destruction-As-You-Like team,” Bradford says, looking at the smoking wreck that was once an office tower in downtown Djibouti. He closes the AAR screen. “This was not covert by any stretch.”

“The Sectopod started it!” Bešlagić protests.

       


 

                TWO OF A KIND / original chapter: Assassin

“There is no shame in admitting my admiration for your resolve in the face of insurmountable odds,” the Assassin says as Bradford scans the Hologlobe for activity. “I was born of battle, of the desire to face my enemies in combat and surrender to no one! In you, I see a shadow of my own creation.”

“We are nothing alike,” the Commander says, “and you’d do well to remember that upon delivery of your subscription to XXXCOM.”

“Got a thing for sugar tits, Commander?” Kelly asks, holding up the latest compiled package. “We’ve been sending a lot more to her recently.”

“We should send her maps as well,” the Commander says, “so she knows where she can go shove it.”

“Well, that’s what the porn is for!” Kokoren chirps.

Bradford stares. He picks up a certain drawing. “Kokoren, you do know where the va–“

“I’m a writer, not an artist,” Kokoren says, “so I claim artistic license.”

“Talk about vagina dentata,” Manuel says with a shudder. “It’s at her belly button! How can you be this bad at drawing? You have one!”

“I can’t exactly look at mine in the shower, Manuel.”

“In his defense,” Rosalez says, “we’ve taken so many crotch shots, we gotta check we still have all our bits. Stop fucking missing, Yamamoto!”

“Hey, I’m a grenadier. I blow things up, I’m not here to shoot,” the chastened Grenadier says.

 

                THE NOTED PHILOSOPHERS OF THE LONELY ISLAND / Original chapter: Assassin

“We’re getting fucked hard!” Kelly yells, as she dives for cover. “Damn it, the Lost are everywhere!”

“This is the worst three way,” Kholi mutters as he reloads his rifle. “Why won’t the Lost pick on ADVENT?”

“Not gay, if it’s in a threeway?” Rosalez provides.

Yamamoto rolls her eyes and lays down suppressing fire. One bullet pierces the Purifier’s gas tank. The Purifier bursts into flames, claiming some of the Lost in the crossfire.

“I ain’t into stiffs,” she says.

 

 

                OPERATION: CHOKING CHICKEN / Original chapter: Assassin

Kholi almost cries as Leong finally stops fucking around with his fingers – as nice as they are, he’s grateful when his boyfriend cuts the bullshit and thrusts in.

Leong’s communicator rings.

“Fuck me,” Leong says. “Now?!”

“Report to the Hangar in your gear, High Noon,” Central says.

“Come the fuck on!” Kholi whines as Leong slides back out. “Really? It’s 3 AM!”

Leong frowns and hugs him. “I know. But I gotta go, babe.”

Kholi rests his head in the crook of Leong’s neck and shoulder. “Don’t die. I’m gonna be so pissed if you die. I’m already pissed you’re using babe unironically.”

“You started it.” Leong kisses his boyfriend on the forehead. “Keep the bed warm for me? I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

“I will bring you back into the fold!” the Warlock bellows as he summons warriors from the Void. “You will be blessed by the Elders’ grace!”

“Oh my god, it is too early for a lecture,” Melnick yawns.

His head rings from the Warlock's ceaseless prattling. “I am going to fucking murder you,” Leong hisses as he sights down the scope.

The Warlock proceeds to lecture the team for half an hour as they attempt to stop a transmitter from sending data to the rest of ADVENT. Why the Warlock doesn’t just slap a tablet to the transmitter’s side, download the data, then bring it to ADVENT himself, Leong isn’t quite sure. Then again, the tech stuff is Kholi’s domain. Leong’s forte is shooting down the constructs, of which the Warlock appears to have an endless supply up his ass.

“Menace 1-5, the data relay is down,” Central reports. “Clear out the Chosen and you can come home.”

“The only righteous place is at the Elders’ feet!” the Warlock proclaims. He does not notice the Ranger racing up behind him, too occupied with dodging Leong’s shots. “What is home, when it is among infidels and the Lost–“

“No! Shut the fuck up! Enough with the fucking lectures!” Kelly repeatedly stabs the Warlock as she shouts. “Stop! Fucking! Talking!”

With the last of her strength, she decapitates the Warlock.

“Well, that was bloody and vicious and probably going to give me nightmares on top of the PTSD from the Assassin.” Melnick wipes the Viper blood from his blade on the grass. He yawns, and ends up smearing more orange-yellow blood made pink by the rising sun over his face. “Can I go back to bed now?”

 

“No casualties, no injuries besides slight cuts and burns… I think this is our best mission yet,” Central says. “All right. Melnick, as Menace 1-5, I want a report–“

Leong squirms throughout the mission debrief. His teammates would probably give him shit, if they weren’t as tired, frustrated, and horny as he is.

“Maybe we should do this more often,” Central suggests to the Commander as Leong storms off.

“And face a mutiny? I don’t know about you, Central, but I don’t want to walk the plank.” The Commander laughs. “I wouldn’t be a very good pirate. I’ve got no clue where the booty is.”

“And that’s why I handle the supply drops,” Central quips back.

 

When Leong gets up the next shift, pleasantly sore and leaving a snoring Kholi in his bunk, he finds a bunch of socks thrown over his pillow. There’s also a note in Kelly’s sideways scrawl: For fuck’s sake, stick a sock in it. Hugs and kisses, everyone who sleeps near you guys.

 


 

                XCOM NEEDS TO UNIONIZE / Original chapter: Warlock

“Hey, how come I’m still not promoted?” Hamidou complains. “I’ve done six Covert Actions!”

“We’re trying to keep you on the down low, so you don’t trigger every ADVENT alarm when you walk into a City Center,” the Commander says absent-mindedly. “That, and you haven’t killed a single alien.”

“I’ve killed plenty of them in Kokoren’s propaganda fics!”

Bradford rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t count.”

Hamidou flails. “And I’ve shot dozens of Lost!”

“Fish in a barrel,” Suleiman scoffs. “Real men go for aliens… stop laughing, Melnick.”

 

                FOLEY / Original chapter: Warlock

“ARE YOU FUCKING A WHALE WITH A LAWNMOWER IN THERE?” Evans bellows, rapping his fists against the wall. “KEEP IT DOWN! NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO HEAR YOU FREE WILLY!”

There’s a pause.

“Sorry!” Girac yells back.

There’s a very loud squeak from the other side of the wall. It’s probably Romanov.

Bradford pinches the bridge of his nose. He does a lot of that nowadays. Maybe he should invest in making the walls of the living quarters thicker.

 

                WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS RNG? / Original chapter: Warlock

“You’re sulking again.”

Bradford doesn’t look up from the map of abandoned Casablanca. He suspects the Warlock will attempt to ambush the current covert ops as they run through the city. Betos has her Skirmishers watching over XCOM’s men, but the former ADVENT soldiers do have a slight weakness to psionics. He needs an extraction route, and fast.

“Are you going to help?” Bradford traces a path through the streets. No, that looks like murder alley, not that way.

“I’m your friend! That means I need to be a pain in the ass!”

“Is that right?” Bradford decides on a path that cuts through several apartments, but should provide sufficient cover. “Bend over, Volk, it’s time for me to give you a lesson.”

“…is this a bad time?” the Commander asks, walking into the room as Bradford submits the plan to the covert operatives. “Or can I join in?”

“You love me, Commander,” Volk says, “you wouldn’t hurt me.”

The Commander’s tongue clicks. “Not when you’re into the things I’m into.”

Volk grins. “Well, Commander, meet John,” Volk says, “he’s a good friend of mine. He might be more up your alley.”

“I didn’t agree to this, just so you know,” Bradford says, throwing Volk to the wolves.

Unfortunately, the Commander doesn’t bite. Well, not in the way Bradford would prefer.

“Hello, John,” his Commander says, laying the tablet down.

Who did I piss off during the Invasion, and why have the past 20 years of my life been utter Hell? Bradford wonders as Volk stifles a laugh.

“See, you’re both XCOM, so at least you have that much in common. Thought you guys could get along.”

“In the same way that you and the Hunter are both dicks, and therefore should hook up,” Bradford says.

“I am the good sort of dick,” Volk declares, “can’t say the same about that ADVENT puppet.”

“Really, Volk, I haven’t seen any evidence to support that,” the Commander says. “I’d need more proof.”

“I’d be happy to show you,” Volk says smoothly, “but this isn’t about me. Look at John. He’s a good provider.”

Bradford rolls his eyes and silently counts to four.

The Commander coughs. “I’m aware.”

Volk persists. “It’s a hard job at times. Man like him needs a helping hand to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“I’m sure, Central will be fine,” the Commander says, hand curling into a loose fist, “he just needs a firm hand at times.”

Bradford looks at the rocking motion of his superior’s hand. There is no way his Commander is doing that innocently.

“Why don’t you help him with that? I’ll leave you to it.” Volk leaves the room.

“You don’t mind if I tie him up and dump him in a City Center, do you?” Bradford takes a swig off his flask. “Volikova can lead the Reapers just as well.”

The Commander’s head shakes. “He does try. Anyways, Central, I’d like whatever intel on ADVENT troop movements through East Asia we have.”

Bradford brings out his tablet, grateful for the change in subject.

 

Fucking seriously?” Volk mouths as he walks back in.

“Thank you for your time, Central. I will see you after your shift,” the Commander says, and leaves the room.

Volk throws his arms into the air. “John, do you need airport traffic signalers?”

“You are the worst.” Bradford rolls his eyes. “There is no way in Hell I’d attempt that.”

“I tried,” Volk says, “so, nobody should criticize me.”

 

                HOT FOR TEACHER / Original chapter: Warlock

“Why are Ivanova and Tasciotti out for six days?” The Commander flips through the missions available in the Resistance Ring. “They haven’t been on any missions recently. I wanted to send Tasciotti out to work with the Templars.”

Bradford passes the medical report to the Commander.

For a few seconds, Bradford can see his superior’s brain rebooting.

“For fuck’s sake,” the Commander says.

 

“All right, it’s not like I was going to sleep or anything,” Kokoren says with a massive sigh. She seats herself with difficulty, as every off-duty soldier and technician is crammed into this room. “Sorry, Leong. Why are we here, sir?”

“S’all right,” the Sharpshooter huffs out, rubbing his ribs.

“Central’s given you the sex talk,” the Commander says, getting out a laser pointer, “now you’re getting the safe, sane, and consensual talk.”

Girac groans. “Who’s the idiot who fucked up this time?”

“After this,” the Commander turns the projector on, “it better not be you.”

Bradford smiles to himself and plops onto a chair. This is going to be good.

 

“And if I catch you attempting breathplay while drunk, you’re going straight to the drunk tank!” The Commander turns off the projector. “Right, get consent, stay safe, and have fun. Dismissed.”

“Well. I’ve learned things that I never knew,” Kelly says as she files out of the room, “and honestly, I’m kind of glad I know.”

“Yeah…” Rosalez shudders. “I like having my dick unbroken.”

“Aw, what life without a little risk?” Suleiman coos.

“Nah, I’m with him. I do not want extra holes there,” Amanust says.

“Now that you’ve terrified most of the men into being sane, which is an achievement in its own,” Bradford picks up the opened condom and tosses it in the trash, “how long do you bet it’ll be before the next incident?”

“Everyone will get the talk again,” the Commander says, washing up at the basin, “or God help me, they will at least stop screwing in the shower and ripping parts open when they slip.”

Bradford nods. “By the way, I confiscated a… an aid made of duct tape and wadded up cardboard.”

The Commander mouths, why.

“We might need to look into dedicating some silicone into suitable replacements.”

“You know one will show up in your bunk with a note that asks you to loosen up.”

Bradford chuckles. “I’m aware. But if it keeps monstrosities like that from spawning…”

“I want all our resources on that,” the Commander says. “Fuck the Chosen. Screw the aliens. XCOM is its own biggest threat.”

 

                FUCK UP / Original chapter: Warlock

When the Earth fell, Ivanova was twenty, and had been rejected from what felt like every medical school in Ukraine. Though she had been an extraordinary student in university, it had not been enough. When the world fell, she took up a life in the wilds, though she was soft and unpracticed from her cozy life in Odessa. When the Reapers needed medical aid, someone would McGuyver a cure or a remedy out of what they harvested or found. More often than not, it only hastened the injured patient’s decline.

The Avenger is always short on trained medical staff. When not practicing with her rifle, Ivanova joins the technicians and engineers in the AWC to learn first aid.

“Why don’t we make the scientists do this?” Weber whines as Dr. Park makes him undo the bandages a third time. “I’m an engineer! I’m good with metal, not people!”

“Because they have the bedside manner of a turtle, and the turtle would be more useful,” Park says as he demonstrates the correct way to pack a wound with gauze. “They may have specialized in science, but that in no way makes them specialists in physically fixing things. If you continue to give that attitude, you will leave my AWC, and you will report to Central on why you are not aiding XCOM.”

But Ivanova listens, and she learns. She learns of the nerves that thread the body, and where the blood vessels are closest to the surface. She learns how to triage and when to perform CPR. All the things she wished she could learn back in 2015 spool out before her, guided by Park’s careful instruction.

She listens, and she wishes that she could have done more.

“Ivanova,” Park says, looking up from the sink after one particularly grueling lesson on wound care. “Good tension while sewing the sutures. Don’t use the cotton pads to clean the wound; it could get trapped. Use the gauze.”

“Thank you, Dr. Park,” Ivanova musters a smile. “Next time a Reaper cuts themselves up, I’ll be able to fix them. It’s all thanks to your lessons.”

“You would have made an excellent doctor.” Park turns the water off and dries his hands.

“I wanted to become a doctor,” Ivanova admits. “But the world fell apart.”

“Never too late to learn, Olga.” Dr. Park’s face falls. Though he is ten years younger, Ivanova can see the weight of his duties aging him in seconds. “I am responsible for a great many deaths,” he says quietly. “In the cities, we often recommended people to gene therapy clinics to fix even the slightest cold. I wish I had stuck to the old ways… would they still be alive?”

Ivanova mulls his words over. “But you came back,” she says finally, as if that will absolve him. “And you’re here now.”

“I hope that is enough,” he says, snapping on a fresh pair of gloves. “I’ll need another set of hands, if you’re free. I have to reset Suleiman’s leg.”

 

After a Haven Assault that came perilously close to ending in disaster, Ivanova finds herself putting aside her rifle and taking up a first aid kit. Dr. Park is occupied with saving the most grievously wounded, so Ivanova has volunteered to help out with the moderately injured.

“You’re an idiot,” she says as she wraps Girac’s knuckles, the skin newly regrown by a heavy dose of medkit. “Will the psionics set these on fire?”

Girac offers her a grin. “I know I set something in you on fire.”

“My patience,” Ivanova says, resisting the urge to flick his forehead. She tapes the gauze in place. “There. Go see the docs for a tetanus shot. What were you doing up on those trucks anyways?”

“I wish you would pay attention,” Girac says suddenly.

“…what was that?”

“Talk to me later, lloba,” he says. “The doctor is in the house, and they look busy.”

Ivanova shakes her head. Girac isn’t one to switch into his native language, unlike the rest on board the Avenger. She puts the thought away – there are people who need her help now.

Dragunova walks up to Ivanova once the rest of the wounded have been stabilized. Dragunova’s Plasma Lance is slung neatly over her back. “You should have been with us,” she calls, “we needed another hand clearing out the last of the stragglers.”

Ivanova packs away her gauze. “I was needed more here.”

“You are a Reaper,” Dragunova says. “You are a hunter, not a healer. Are you not proud of your skill with a rifle?”

She thinks of Girac, the psionic that she would have once distrusted, and Kelly, who is always ready for battle, and Kokoren, a friend she would have never have found had the world not fallen.

“My pride and place is with XCOM,” Ivanova says. “I've found home, Elena. I’m finally home.”

 

         WE’RE BEYOND “Y’ALL NEED JESUS.” WE NEED TO GO BACK TO ASKING FOR THE INDIVIDUAL GODS TO FIND SOMEONE TO HELP YOU / Original chapter: Warlock

“Gimme those cummies, daddy!” Kokoren shouts at the Warlock.

The entire battlefield freezes.

“…what the fuck,” her partner Leong says.

Amanust stares. “Not one to kinkshame, but Jesus!”

Mox reloads his rifle. “I do not know what cummies are, and I do not want to know.”

The Warlock is stunned long enough that Bešlagić manages to finish him off with a well placed barrage of grenades.

“I’m not sure I should get ability points for this,” the Grenadier says, blowing smoke away from his gun. “This feels like cheating.”

 

“What are cummies, anyways?” Kholi asks, once the smoke has settled on the battlefield.

“Uh…” Kokoren looks around. “They’re a nickname for the spectral zombies he pulls outta his ass. Yes. That’s it.”

“You are so full of shit,” Kholi says. “I’m twenty! I’m a big boy, you know.”

Leong claps his boyfriend on the shoulder. “I’ll tell you later. But you'll never look at Kokoren the same way again.”

 

                MUSICALIS INTERRUPTUS / original chapter: Warlock               

“Never gonna dance again,” Tasciotti wails, “these guilty feet of mine–“

“All right, they kinda deserve to celebrate. Didn’t think they’d all make it home.” Bradford sighs. “But of all the things that could have survived the apocalypse, karaoke CDs made it?”

“Your problem, not mine, unless it continues to 8 AM,” the Commander chirps. “I’m off to bed.”

Bradford looks at the bar with dread. His safe haven has been violated.

The boombox begins to play one syllable. “Some–“

“Fuck, it’s in my head!” Girac wails.

Forsythe clamps her hands over her ears. “Change the song!”

“–the world was gonna roll me!” Amanust sings, way off-key.

Delela boos. “Get Amanust something better!”

“Three judges have spoken,” Leong says, skipping ahead. “Ah… let’s see… oh, this is gonna be good! Next song for you, Amanust: We Are Number One!”

Amanust flails in place. “I don’t even know this one!”

“So you’re not number one,” Bešlagić says as the tune starts up, “is what you’re saying.”

The alcohol-fuelled hijinks continue long into the night, to Bradford’s displeasure.

“LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR!” Kelly chants sometime around 2 AM. “LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR!”

“Something will definitely be wrong with you if you don’t shut up!” Shen yells from Engineering. “We’re trying to work here!”

 

                WOULDN’T BE THE SAME WITHOUT YOU, PARDNER / Original chapter: Warlock

“Yo, Rosalez.” Melnick drops onto the log beside his partner. “You looking down all of a sudden. Got turned down?”

“Not everything has to be about sex, Melnick,” Rosalez says, looking out into the horizon. Birds sing in the forest, birds he has never heard before. The world ADVENT has created is a silent one.

“Sorry, man. Saw you chatting up Kokoren earlier, knew you like her, jumped to conclusions,” Melnick says. “Made an ass outta myself. What’s up?”

“Not a lot of Bosnians in Mérida.” Rosalez ruffles his curly rust-brown locks as he scratches his head. “Not too many Russians, either, unless they’re chasing the local whores.”

Melnick nods.

“So… I dunno, man. If it weren’t for the aliens, I would’ve never met you guys.” Rosalez puts his head between his hands. “I shouldn’t be happy about, you know, the fucking end of the world. But I met you guys. I’m doing some good in the world. If the aliens hadn’t attacked, I’d be in a dead end job, or maybe I’d be in a gang, and I wouldn’t have any friends, and– should I be happy about this? Am I a bad person for – there was no place for me back home, but–”

“You’re overthinking it, man.” Melnick shakes the younger Specialist’s shoulders. “If you think about all the could-bes and should-bes, you’re going to drown. Don’t look back. Concentrate on what you have now.” He frowns. “Wouldn’t have any friends, though? You’re a good guy. I know you would’ve found your way.”

“No place in the world for the son of a drunk and a whore,” Rosalez says.

“Wouldn’t say that.” Melnick points at the looming hull of the Avenger. “That’s your home.”

“Wouldn’t have the Avenger if it weren’t for the aliens.”

“Hey man. I know it blows.” Melnick puts a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I… wish I did a lot of other things. Spend more time with my family back in the day. But they’re not here. I am. And I’m halfway to the grave… so all I can really do is keep moving. I can’t look back,” he says soberly, “because there are graves waiting for me. All I can do is make the best of the time I have right now. And that means spending time with you, and Roman, and Jane, and all the other bastards onboard.” Melnick’s hand drops into his lap, as he stares off into the horizon. “I tell myself that it’s gonna be okay, as long as I have my friends. You know why?” Rosalez’s friend stares intently at him. “Every time I thought about ending it all, you were there for me. I didn’t have anything to offer, but you still saw the good in me.”

Rosalez closes his eyes. “I hate this,” he manages to say. “I hate not knowing if my friends will still be alive tomorrow.”

“Focus on things you can control,” Melnick says. “If you need me, I’ll be there. That, I can promise. That is something certain that you can rely on.”

Rosalez blows out a breath. It hurts, but he knows the older man is right.

“Well. Thanks for precipitating me into a mid-life crisis,” he says, punching the other man’s shoulder. “What sort of pep-talk is that?”

“Ah, you’ve got time,” Melnick laughs. “Stop making me feel like a dedushka.”

“I’m eighteen years younger than you.” Rosalez shakes his head. “Back in Mérida, all my friends were my age. This wouldn’t have happened.”

“And age is a barrier to friendship?” Melnick slings an arm around the younger man. “I had two more decades to get my shit in order. That’s all that means.” He frowns. “Of course, as you can clearly see, my shit is not in order.”

“You inspire so much confidence in me, Aloysha.”

Melnick shudders. “I shouldn’t have started that lit circle. I should not have found that copy of the Brothers Karamazov.”

Rosalez manages a half smile. “Finally putting that literature major into practice! Don’t worry, you’re a good teacher.”

Alexei will be fine.” Melnick ruffles Rosalez’s hair. “Ready to get back to the ship?”

Rosalez accepts the other’s hand. Together, they stand.

 


 

         OPERATION: HEART BREAK / Original chapter: Hunter

  • The moments before the Commander and Kelly have a heart-to-heart chat.

“Commander, I appreciate your attention,” Tygan says, “but I am not interested.”

The Commander pauses. “Pardon? I don’t quite follow.”

“I understand that you have a romantic interest of sorts in me,” Tygan says, “or so the men say.” He grimaces. “They have an… overblown imagination of certain… components, but–“

“Richard, I swear, that was not on my mind. I wouldn’t reduce you to a stereotype. You are worth so much more than that.”

“I know, Commander. For that, I have always respected you despite the… atrocities against common decency that you have authorized.” The doctor smiles fondly at his superior. “But I cannot reciprocate. You desire something that I cannot give and do not feel. It would be unfair to both of us if I were to let you believe otherwise.”

“I… see.”

The doctor raises an eyebrow. “Would you like me to lend you my glasses?”

The Commander laughs. “I’m not that blind, Richard. I was not expecting to be let down this gently.”

“I am deeply grateful for our friendship, Commander, and for the respect you have always given me despite my past,” Tygan says. “You deserve nothing less.”

“Thank you.” The Commander looks around the labs. “Would you like me to leave? I understand this may be awkward.”

Tygan waves a hand. “I do not mind your presence. However, I do mind the lack of a project. The science is eager to begin, Commander.”

“All right. Let’s start… hmm, the Specter autopsy.” The Commander smiles. “We’re allying with Reapers to fight Specters. Mass Effect, eat your heart out.”

“I’m not quite sure I understand, but I agree this research is a worthy avenue of pursuit. I will have a report in five days, Commander.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I hear the team from the supply raid got some… ah, sandwiches. They’ll be placed in the usual dead drop.”

“I see we live in an espionage novel now, Commander.” Tygan laughs. “Send my thanks to the perpetrators. Let’s try not to get caught by Central this time.”

“You said it, I didn’t.” The Commander mimes zipping lips shut. “All right, off to see Shen. Watch my innocent self get shot down for something I didn’t do.”

“You? Innocent?” Tygan breaks out into loud laughter. The Commander mimes flipping him off and then leaves the labs.

 

Shen crosses her arms. “Yeah… sorry, Commander. I’m just not into you,” she says in a rush.

“Oof. What a way to greet your superior. That’s sure a blow to my ego, could’ve sworn all the Chosen wanted me at some point.” The Commander’s smile fades. “You look worried, Lily. What’s on your mind?”

“You’re not going to cut my funding, right?” Shen gestures at the Bolter, and the prototypes for cyclonic torpedoes, and then at her modified SPARK. “I mean… I know I get a lot of favoritism, compared to Tygan–“

“–Tygan needs specialized equipment,” the Commander says gently. “We are far more likely to find something that you need during a smash and grab op. I saw fit to give Engineering a little more funding because we needed your upgrades to stay in the fight.”

“So… you’re not angry, right? You won’t take it out on me?”

“Absolutely not,” the Commander says. “I respect your decisions and your choices, and value your work as a professional above all. If you’re uncomfortable at any point, just let me know.”

Shen smiles. “Thanks, Commander. I knew you’d understand.”

“Of course. What are friends for?” The Commander coughs. “Of course, moving into a more professional context, I need an update on when we can expect the upgraded magazines. I want to start parsing the Codex information.”

“Two more days, and our men will head out into the field with more bullets destined for ADVENT.” Shen runs through the briefing, as efficient as always, heedless of the way the Commander tries to remain emotionless.

 

The rounds completed, the Commander wants to talk, or at least, find Central’s constant chatter somewhere in the Avenger. But Central has fallen silent, and the bar is occupied by a single soldier who isn’t the central officer.

“Hey, Kelly.” The Commander sits on a stool next to the Ranger.

“Commander.” The Ranger toasts her superior with a beer. “You look down.”

“I got shot down, I can tell you that much,” the Commander jokes.

Kelly groans. “Join the club.”

“Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts?” The Commander grabs one of Bradford’s bottles of whiskey. Bradford will understand. “Out with it, Kelly. Who’s the heartbreaker around here? Do I have to initiate some justice?”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Kelly looks into her bottle. “It would be easier if it was.”

 

                NO MATTER WHATCHA SAY / Original chapter: Hunter

“Hey, Olga,” Girac says, dropping down from the tree. “Caught a squirrel. Hope we’ll find more stuff. Don’t look forward to going hungry this winter.”

“Are you a bird?” Ivanova asks, rolling her eyes. “No wonder I have to constantly fix you up. Where are your wings?”

“In your hands, lloba.”

Ivanova takes a deep breath. She has survived the coldest winters and the summers of famine. She has faced down hordes of Lost and slim chances of survival.

She summons her bravery, drops to one knee, and pulls out a box.

“Will you marry me, Kenji?” she asks.

Girac just stares at her. For a sickening moment, she wonders if she should have offered something better than a hand-carved ring.

“Stand,” he says, “and face me as an equal.”

He kisses her like he’s dying.

 


 

         PAGING DR. PASTEUR / Original chapter: Avatar

“I wanna take a ride on your disco stick,” the radio in the AWC proclaims.

“Ah, dance as a subtle metaphor for sex,” Amanust murmurs through a painkiller-induced haze. “But marketed as a song! How… I had a point to this. Where was I going again?”

Delela kisses her girlfriend. “Shush. You need your rest. And then we can get to disco sticking.”

“What combo of STDs do you need to make your dick a discothèque?” Van Damme ponders.

“Do not try,” Dr. Park sighs, as he finishes writing a prescription for the wounded Templar. “You are a gaggle of heavily armed teenagers.”

On her cot across the room, Kelly flexes her mechanical arm. “Not me! I’m ‘armless!”

Laughter breaks out in the AWC, quickly followed by moans of pain. Ivanova swoops around, to place morphine-laden lollipops in hands and change dressings. The rest of his staff is busy calibrating equipment and sterilizing tools in case a soldier takes a turn for the worse, which leaves Dr. Park on his own.

Park restrains a groan as he approaches his next patient: Rosalez. It’s not that Park doesn’t like the man, it’s just that Rosalez is both very attractive and an absolute nightmare when under the influence. As a professional, Park would never do anything that would endanger the sacred trust of the doctor-patient relationship… now, if Rosalez could respect his end of the deal when under the influence…

“My favorite doctor!” Rosalez slurs, heavily doped up on painkillers while nanomachines fix his broken ribcage. There’s also a mild sedative coursing through his veins, so the typically combative soldier can’t pull out his catheter. “Hi, Dr. Park! Gimme the news! I’ve gotta bad case of loving you!”

“I’m going to check your chest, so I’ll have to push this gown away,” Dr. Park says before doing so. Severe bruising, he thinks, but no lung punctures detected, considering how chatty he is. Two weeks of rest should clear this up. He makes note of that on his tablet: Central needs the information for the roster.

“Doctor, doctor,” Rosalez mumbles, as Park palpates his abdomen, “gimme the… don’t know the rest of the words… PhD…?”

“Have you done your thesis defense?” Dr. Park, an actual medical doctor, gently tugs on the straps to tighten Rosalez’s restraints. “I will cite you for being unruly.”

“I am the very model of a picture perfect patient,” Rosalez says, starting on a patter song. Although his ribs and limbs are broken, the soldier’s voicebox clearly isn’t. “I’ve studied systems broken bones and blah blah blah–“

“Hey, doc,” Melnick says as he heads into the AWC. The Ranger holds out a bag containing a sandwich scavenged from the Mess and a can of coffee. “You need a hand wrangling him?”

Park is a professional. That is why he does not fall and prostrate himself at Melnick’s feet.

“That would be helpful. Thank you, Melnick,” he says.

“Ah, the food? Nah, Rosalez asked me to get them once he saw the painkillers,” Melnick says, plopping down at the Specialist’s bedside. He looks fondly at the younger man. “He knows he’s a PITA on the good stuff.”

 

The AWC is too quiet once Rosalez leaves its confines.

Park finds a bouquet of flowers on his desk in the AWC, with a small card attached.

Sorry! - the PITA patient, Rosalez.

 

         IF THE AVENGER’S A-ROCKING… / Original chapter: Avatar

“Getting some last minute work in?” Bradford asks, closing the door of the Briefing Room behind him.

The Commander’s back is turned, as XCOM’s leader scrolls through the current roster of available soldiers. “Planning for the next month. I want to send out some of the rookies on covert ops. Zaitlin and the rest of our Covert Ops specialists can take care of them. It’ll harden them up for ground missions.” His lover sighs. “Or Haven ops. We can’t have the veterans out all the time."

Bradford sets his hands on his Commander’s shoulders. He begins to knead the tense muscles. “You have to head to bed at some point.”

“I know, Central. Just one more hour…”

“Don’t make me drag you up there.” Bradford rolls his eyes. “You’d probably enjoy that.”

“I’m busy making our soldiers play dress up,” the Commander says, thumbing through armory upgrades. “I’ll be done in an hour.”

An idea sparks in Bradford’s head. He places his hand on the Commander’s knee, and slowly inches his superior’s knees apart.

The Commander begins typing on the console.

Bradford works his right hand up his lover’s thigh. “Still concentrating? I can see it’s getting harder.” He nips at the Commander’s neck, just below the curve of an earlobe. His lover lets out a moan. “We could do more, back in our bed,” he says, parting the Commander’s legs. “If you’re still up for chores, wouldn’t mind you cleaning my gun.”

The Commander laughs, the sound breathless and strained as Bradford urges his hands higher. “That all? I just need to clean the barrel?”

“My gun’s a trusted friend,” Bradford says with mock indignation. “Stood by my side all this time. It deserves better than that.”

Suleiman’s roster pic stutters on the screen, quickly followed by Forsythe’s mug. “So you’re saying your gun needs some TLC.”

The Central Officer rests a hand just between the Commander’s shirt and belted pants. He brushes his fingers against soft skin, and soaks in his lover’s sharp inhale. “Some delicate care. None of that spit and shine nonsense. We need to rub that polish in, then oil up the barrel. Wouldn’t want something getting stuck in the chamber.”

His Commander nods. “Is that why you need such a big gun? You had to practice all that.”

“Size doesn’t matter. But it also doesn’t hurt,” Bradford says, scraping his nails down the curve of the Commander’s hip. His lover bucks up in the chair. “Give a man twenty years and he’ll be driven to distraction.”

“Have you considered a career in writing smut?” the Commander asks. “It would give you more time to run your mouth. Not that – not that I’m complaining!” his partner almost yells, after Bradford bites down over the Commander’s jugular.

Bradford can almost feel the tension drain out of his lover as he draws his fingers over slick skin. He works his Commander over with small circles rubbed into heated flesh, watching with a grin as the Commander’s eyes flutter and nonsense appears across the terminal screen.

 

The Central Officer knows he has won once the Commander’s hands start shaking. His superior grabs the ledge of the console for support as Bradford brings his lover up, up–

The Commander whines as he withdraws his hand. “Please, John, I’m so close!”

“Bed first,” he says.

“You can bed me here.”

Bradford flicks his Commander’s forehead. “I want you naked, on our bed, and I want you snoring away afterwards.” His lover whines. “Trust me. It’ll be worth the wait.”

Someone coughs outside the War Room.

“Look, all I’m saying is that Eldar,” Shen inhales deeply, “are a bunch of glorified, sanctimonious assholes–“

“Shhhh!” Bradford can almost hear Evans looking around the corridor. “We’re supposed to be asleep!”

The Commander groans. “Damn it, I want… John, did you lock the door?”

Bradford nudges the console. The door cracks open.

There’s a slamming noise outside, as a few bodies hit the floor.

“That’ll teach’em to get to bed on time.” Bradford grins and closes the door. “Still got it.”

His Commander hooks a finger into his shirt collar and pulls him in. “I’ve heard a lot of talk. Why don’t you show me?”

“I’m not banging over the table,” Bradford says, “my back won’t forgive me in the morning.”

Bradford wins. He looks at the snoring Commander sprawled over the bed in the Quarters with no small sense of pride. He might not be getting off, but at least his partner is satisfied.

And in the end, that’s all he needs. They’re partners. The Commander pushes, and he pulls. He waxes, and the Commander wanes. Steady as the tide, this is something Bradford can depend on.

 


 

                MAKING TIME / Original chapter: Commander

“Plan for next week: probable supply raid on Tuesday, so we won’t have time in between clean up and organization, and you need to meet with the Templars on Wednesday, so that’s a no go–“

“Friday night then?” the Commander asks.

“I suspect a guerilla ops might pop up.” Bradford circles the note on his calendar. “I’ve asked the Resistance to get back to me by then. Thursday morning?”

The Commander grimaces. “Won’t have time to clean out. Unless you’re okay with a blowjob?”

“Might have time for some light bondage, if you’re okay with not getting off.”

“Sure. Trade off for the next day we’re both free?”

Bradford jots that down on his tablet. “That would be… Wednesday, two weeks from now. Well, that’s definitely date night, and Shen and Tygan will be handling the Hologlobe. I’m not letting you go without a break for three weeks. You do stupid things if I let you, like turning XCOM into XCUM.”

“What do we have planned for that week?”

“We could scout the Shanghai haven again, got a signal that we could investigate, and make sure they’re equipped to handle the Lost.” Bradford grins. “And I can get you those buns you like.”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll be between my buns, yes.”

Bradford slaps his Commander’s ass. “Ah, shouldn’t’ve done that. Don’t want to encourage misbehavior.”

 

“That is the least sexy thing I’ve ever heard,” Leong says from his place guarding the Commander’s Quarters, “and also, way too much information.”

Bradford waves his tablet at the soldier. “When you’re old and responsible, you’re gonna have to make plans.”

“Since we’re soldiers, we won’t have to worry about getting old,” Kholi says.

 

                YOU SCREAM, BRADFORD SCREAMS, WE ALL SCREAM BECAUSE WHEN’S THE LAST TIME ANYBODY SAW A COW? WHOSE MILK IS THIS? / Original chapter: Commander

  • Omitted because it didn’t advance the story, and was just gratuitous shipping.
  • Also, Tygan performed brain surgery without gloves, so he has no reason to be disgusted at a lack of hygiene.

 “If we win the war, am I going to be charged with grand larceny?” Dragunova asks, looking at the mountain of cartons in the fridge.

“I will stab the judge,” Melnick declares as he sticks his spoon into a carton of Rocky Road, “and if you’re still convicted, we four will bust you out.”

“Hey, can I have a bite?” Kelly asks. Melnick offers her his spoon. She licks it off. “Huh. Nah, I like this pistachio better. You want some?”

Melnick shudders. “Keep your nasty nuts to yourself. Rosalez? Bešlagić?”

Rosalez looks mournfully at his raspberry gelato. “It’s just not the same when it’s lactose-free…”

Bešlagić waves his box of Phish Food at his Ranger partner. “I object to that. Keep it up and I won’t share.”

“Sorry, pardner,” Melnick says, and is rewarded with a spoonful laden with fish-shaped chocolates.

Tygan faintly looks ill. “All these germs… passed around, like–“

“Like the cuddlebug around the Avenger,” the Commander says dryly.

“Or a STD!” Kokoren chirps.

“Speak for yourself,” Ivanova says, “I paid attention to the safety briefs.”

“Good to know at least someone listened to me,” the Commander sighs.

The oven chimes. “It’s done!” Shen says, hopping over the assorted men sprawled over the kitchen floor. “Okay, who wanted Hawaiian?”

Tygan rolls his eyes before taking his share of ice cream: a small cylinder of stracciatella. “Commander, if you need me, I will be in my quarters.”

“I can’t believe we passed up on all those corpses to grab ice cream and pizza,” Bradford grumbles.

Dragunova points at her stomach. “They all go in here anyways.”

 

“Oh, god. This is good. It’s so thick.”

Bradford stares. He feels a little violated, that an ADVENT food product has broached the alien-free zone of the Commander’s quarters. Also, the Commander is paying far more attention than necessary to the bowl of ice cream.

“And creamy.” The Commander does what Bradford can only describe as deep-throating the spoon.

“Bad Commander.” Once the spoon has left the Commander’s lips, Bradford whaps his superior on the shoulder. “Eat like a normal person.”

“Look, we don’t get ice cream that much. I need to savor it while I can.”

“You can savor it without making love to the fucking spoon.”

The Commander licks the spoon. “But it’s so much fun watching you squirm.”

“What flavor is it, anyways?” Bradford asks.

His lover holds out the spoon. Snowy cream drips off into the bowl. “Try it.”

“As if I’d eat anything that came out of an ADVENT vat. No thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” His Commander licks the rim of the bowl. Bradford swallows. “I think it’s based on a sundae. Some vanilla, a little banana, that looks but doesn’t taste like a strawberry, and there’s chocolate flecks. A bit salty, so there could be some caramel in there. Wait. Didn’t I come out of an ADVENT vat?”

“You’re 100 percent human.” Bradford wets his mouth as the Commander dips the spoon back into the ice cream. “I don’t have any complaints with you. The ice cream, on the other hand, could be 3D printed out of humans.”

“3D printed ice cream,” the Commander muses. “I’ve eaten it all.”

Bradford watches, with barely contained frustration, as his superior finishes the bowl of ice cream.

“Oh, that was a bad idea. Brain freeze, brain freeze,” his Commander murmurs.

“Fine, the things I do for love,” Bradford sighs.

His Commander looks at him. “The usual way?”

Bradford points in the direction of the washroom. “Rinse your mouth first. Knowing my luck, I’ll get Faceless yeast or something.”

 

                HIT ME ONE MORE TIME / Original chapter: Commander

  • Passed up to include the trials and tribulations of Bradford and whiskey dick instead

“I have never met someone so up for anal,” Bradford tells his lover, as he throws yet another barely used condom into the trash, “and I’m starting to think it’s wasted on me.”

The Commander laughs. “I’m a masochist. I have to be, as the head of this project.”

“Are you saying that XCOM is a pain in the ass?” Bradford slides in beside his lover and pulls the covers up around them. “Not that it isn’t true. Have you seen the latest requisition forms?”

“I’m saying that it fucks me in the ass,” his Commander says with a sigh, “and that’s just XCOM, baby.”

“But you enjoy anal. You don't enjoy leading XCOM?”

“They’re quite similar. You need to clean up, stretch out,” his Commander lays back on the bed, “lube up, do all the prep work and load out. Then you start taking it, and realize that you bit off more than you can chew, and it’s starting to burn but you’re in for a hell of a ride.” His Commander smirks. “Since you’re basically the heart and soul of XCOM, are you–“

“No, XCOM is not a metaphor for my dick. Stop smirking.”

 

*********DUBIOUS CONSENT AHEAD************

 

 

 

         GOING LOUD / Original chapter: Commander

  • This is rather hardcore, and I’m aware that not everyone enjoys dubcon. Skip to the next ficlet if you’re not a fan.

 

 

 

The gun in his hand is pressed to the Commander’s temples: sure, Bradford knows it cannot fire without a firing pin or a magazine or even a bullet chambered inside, but he does not like the feeling. When he first agreed to the Commander's request, he did not imagine it would feel so wrong.

“Please,” his Commander manages through shuddering breaths. His lover can’t move, too tightly bound in ropes and darkness enforced by black cloth. “Please–“

He thrusts in, and digs the muzzle of the pistol into the Commander’s head. The Commander screams and bucks out against him. Tears stream down the Commander’s cheeks, darkening the blindfold.

“H-harder,” his lover gasps. “I deserve–“

Bradford understands the unspoken wish, and slaps the Commander’s ass as he fucks his lover. Red dots of blood burst out across the already reddened and abused skin. Bradford had his orders: continue, even when there was blood. Bile rises up in his throat as he brings his hand down over and over again.

His lover cries out, incoherent babbling intermingling with the strangled tears. Bradford doesn’t understand why his partner enjoys this. The more he watches, the more the sense of wrongness weighs down his gut.

“Newfoundland.” Bradford tosses the gun aside. “I’m out. Sorry, Commander.”

 

The Commander can’t answer him through the sobs, so Bradford begins the process of untying the knots. He would take pride in his work. There was no way the Commander could have escaped from the bonds. But there’s none to be found when his lover is having a mini breakdown in his lap.

The Central Officer doesn’t know what to do. So he takes his Commander into his lap, and cards his lover’s hair until the sobs die down.

"Hey. It's okay," Bradford says, smoothing down ruffled locks of hair. "It's me. It's your Central. I'm sorry. Hey, it's okay, it's gonna be okay…"

“Sorry,” the Commander says in between rasping breaths. “You don't need… to be sorry. It’s… it’s an intense high…”

Bradford pauses, feeling for the words. “It doesn’t feel… rapey to you?”

“Lemme come down a little more,” his Commander murmurs, butting against his chest. “Need to… cuddle a bit…”

"Absolutely," Bradford says. This much, he is happy to do.

Bradford waits. He knows his Commander is back when his leader sits up straight, but keeps one hand laying across Bradford’s thigh, and brilliant eyes blink with clarity and purpose once again. This was the person he fell in love with. It burns him to see his lover reduced to a sobbing shell.

“I don’t understand why you like this,” Bradford says. “I can’t stand it.”

“To me, it’s the ultimate demonstration of your trust.” His Commander kisses him. “I am helpless. You could do anything you wanted to me. But you don’t. You trust me, and respect my wishes. I am in no danger with you.”

“No danger?! There’s a gun to your head!”

“That’s unloaded.” The Commander’s fingers steeple. “The appearance of danger, with none of the risk.” His partner nests against him. “I’m in charge of many things, John. Sometimes, I like losing control, and doing it in a way that endangers no one. Whereas if our men, and I quote, lose their jelly out in the field…”

“I’m sorry, Commander. I can’t do this for you.” Bradford blows out a breath. “This isn’t something I enjoy at all. If this is really what you want, I hear Geist i–”

“No. It’s fine. I only want you,” his Commander soothes, petting his cheek. “This requires both partners. I’m not offended. It’s not for everyone, and I’m honored that you trusted me enough to try this with me.”

“You want me to get you off?” Bradford asks, hoping his Commander will take him up on the offer. He sees the disappointment in his friend’s eyes, and the tension returning to taut shoulders. His superior was looking forward to this.

“I think that’s enough for tonight.” Bradford winces. It was going so well for his partner. “Chin up, John,” his partner says, stroking his cheek. “We’ll find something we both enjoy.”

 *********DUBIOUS CONSENT END************

 

         HOLD / Original chapter: Commander

“Hold,” Bradford says.

The Commander sobs as he withdraws his fingers. “Please, John, I–“

He shushes his lover. “That’s sir to you.”

“Please, sir, I want to–“

“Wait.” He presses a kiss to his Commander’s forehead. “It will be worth it.”

Bradford builds his Commander up again: fingers stretching here, a rake of nails against a muscled thigh, slow thrusts that quicken into echoing the pulse pounding through his own chest. Again and again, he can see how his actions affect the Commander: toes pointed, legs taut, face flushed, wordless pleas. He brings the Commander down again through denial, trading slaps for kisses and angry words for soft breaths pressed into the hollow of the Commander’s neck.

The Commander surfaces, body tight with electricity, struggling for air like a drowning animal. The black fabric restraining the Commander’s arms against the headboards strains and threatens to rip.

“Hold,” Bradford orders.

The Commander whimpers, and sinks back again.

He loves the power that comes behind this: for so long, he could do nothing but wait and be patient. XCOM’s time will come, Bradford had told himself, I just need to fit all the pieces together, and the Commander will come back, and we will retake our world.

For once, he is telling someone else to wait. More than just the feeling of being in control is the knowledge that someone wants to wait – and for him, of all people.

Bradford works his lips around a nipple, then bites a small trail down the Commander’s pectoral.

“You’ll be the death of me, sir.” His lover’s chest heaves with strained breaths. “I can’t take much more.”

That’s not the safe word, but Bradford keeps the warning in mind.

“You can do better.” He raises an eyebrow. Bradford’s Commander can see that much, when there is no blindfold to enforce darkness. “Or are you not giving me your best?”

He pushes a pillow below the Commander’s hips, then spreads his lover’s legs. His Commander’s thighs beat out a hummingbird rhythm against his own.

“Hold,” Bradford says.

The jitters stop.

The Central Officer glances at the terminal near the bedside. His partner deserves a reward for being patient.

His Commander has already warmed up from an hour of foreplay, so the Central Officer feels no regrets about slamming in. The Commander shouts – whether it is joy, or pain, or ecstasy mingled with agony, he cannot tell, but it is the kind of shout that signals completion.

Bradford fucks his Commander hard and deep. He watches the tight line of muscle along the Commander’s arms stretch and flex as his lover tries to grab for something. Bradford obliges, pushing the Commander’s hands against the headboard.

“You’re too good to me,” his lover mumbles, eyes shut against the bone-rattling force. “Thank you, sir–“

“I didn’t give you permission to mouth off,” Bradford says. He softens his words with a slap across the Commander’s thigh.

“Yes, sir.”

Bradford stops thrusting to make a point. He waits until the Commander squirms, then starts up the rhythm again. He doesn’t dare close his eyes – he does not want the Commander to come yet, and Bradford is treading a dangerous line where just a little too much stimulation will push the Commander over the edge.

He hooks the Commander’s legs over his shoulders and presses deeper in. The Commander hisses and tries to match the rhythm, but Bradford is in control and loathe to give it up. He begins the process again: one hand slowly coaxing the Commander, the other pinning the Commander’s hands in place, nips and slaps to break through his superior’s façade and let the moans flow out…

The Commander quivers. He feels his superior clenching around his cock.

“Hold.”

“Flashlight,” his lover mumbles, going slack on the bed. That is Bradford’s second warning: his Commander is now oversensitized, and more stimulation is painful without pleasure. He keeps a catalogue of the actions that generate these reactions tucked away in his heart. These are for Bradford to see, and for Bradford alone.

He kisses up and down the Commander’s neck. Hot breath condenses against Bradford’s forehead, mingling with sweat.

“Good?”

His Commander nods, and Bradford begins fucking his superior raw. He doesn’t let his superior pause for breath: Bradford has a purpose, and he will see the Commander to this goal. So when the Commander’s feet dig into his back, and his lover’s spine arches until he think his superior will snap, Bradford feels like things have finally aligned.

“Go loud,” he says.

The Commander shakes as Bradford pushes, and his lover falls.

The quiet surprises him. Usually, his Commander is loud, but as Bradford undoes the restraints, the only sound in the Quarters is the whisper of linen sheets against his skin and harsh breaths ending in panting.

He’s careful to lower his Commander’s arms to the bed, then rub color back into them. Still, his superior does not come back to life, content to lie back as the galloping pattern of breaths eases into silence.

“You okay, Commander?” Bradford asks.

“It’s too good.” His lover kisses him. “I want to return the favor. Can I suck you off?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

His superior’s eyes roll. “I want to suck your dick, sir. May I?”

Bradford beckons the Commander forward. “Come here.”

The Commander nearly trips in the haste to reach him. His Commander is careful to remove the condom without the nitrile snapping back on Bradford’s dick, before tossing it into the trash. Bradford hides a smile at the clearly appreciative look on his Commander’s face, but his control wavers as the Commander takes him down the throat.

“Jesus, that makes for a great party trick, doesn’t it?” Bradford pets the Commander’s hair.

His dick slides past the Commander’s lips with a pop. His Commander makes no move to snark back at him, preferring instead to lick a wet swath down his shaft.

Bradford sits back on the bed, threading his fingers through his Commander’s hair. The Commander is gorgeous like this: knees digging into the bed, legs splayed, half-lidded eyes curtained by long lashes, crooked fingers cupping Bradford’s balls and curling around his shaft – it’s too good, too good to last. But there’s something wrong, churning in his abdomen like rapids below the river.

“Hold.”

The Commander stops. Bradford sighs as he feels himself softening.

His Commander tries, and Bradford appreciates the effort, but none of his lover’s tricks can coax his cock back into hardening.

“You didn’t get to come,” the Commander says with clear disappointment, as they lie in each other’s arms.

“No,” he admits, “but I still enjoyed every last bit.” If he had the energy, he would say the thoughts running through his head as he pushed and pulled the Commander towards climax, but there is warmth running through his chest. The speeches can wait until tomorrow.

The Commander makes to protest.

“Hold.” Bradford presses a kiss to his superior’s forehead. “It’s okay.”

 

 


            IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? / Original chapter: Epilogue

  • Omitted for gratuitous shipping trash

The Commander jerks upright, knocking Bradford out of a sound sleep.

He blinks and looks around the Quarters, already reaching for his gun. But there’s no Chosen appearing out of the shadows, or specter staggering out of the Void: just the Commander, leaning against the backboard for strength, pressing a hand to a chest heaving with ragged breaths.

“Nightmare?” Bradford settles on the pillows and reaches for his Commander.

His lover pants for breath, but still manages to push Bradford’s hand away. Bradford’s heart sinks. Due to the Commander’s habit of waking up confused and disoriented, Tygan has permitted Bradford’ lover to return to the Quarters, on the condition XCOM’s leader wear a supplemental oxygen mask. The act of sitting up has already exhausted the superior he knows and loves. His Commander can only stay awake for so long before lapsing back into sleep. Sometimes Bradford’s lover wakes up, and remembers that it is almost 2038. Sometimes Bradford’s lover wakes up in a cold sweat, shouting foreign names and crying for a long-dead mom.

Bradford runs through his mental script. He lays a hand near the Commander’s thigh. It’s almost alien to have his lover’s warm body next to him in bed.

“Hey. Lean on me.”

The Commander rips off the oxygen mask. “Where the fuck am I?”

“The Avenger.” Bradford prepares the spiel he knows too well. “It’s December 19th–“

“Jesus, I missed my physics final! Fuck!” The Commander quivers. “Okay. I gotta study Taylor’s series. Missed the fucking physics exam, but integral calc’s on the 20th–”

Bradford sighs. It really does seem like his lover lived an entire life in that coma.

His Commander falls silent, except for the coarse breaths. The Commander takes Bradford’s free hand and studies the calluses and scars lacing his palm.

“You’re not a student,” his Commander says. “Not with scars like these.”

Bradford runs his free hand through his superior’s hair. “Thinking about applying to university once we’ve got one set up?”

“Hang on, I should have graduated by now.” The Commander looks around the Quarters. “This isn’t my bedroom. At least, I don’t remember my pad looking like that. You’re… not my sugar daddy, are you? I’m not good-looking enough for one.”

“It’s December 19, 2037,” Bradford says, petting the Commander’s thigh. “You are the Commander of the XCOM project. We won a war against ADVENT. You lead a crew of thirty soldiers and twenty-eight non-combatant personnel, half of which are covert operatives.”

The Commander slumps against the backboard. “I… that was a dream… but it felt so real…”

“I’m Central Officer John Bradford,” Bradford rehearses a script he’s memorized by heart, “my role in this project is twofold - providing tactical support for our field operations, and keeping you briefed on the current situation.”

His lover wraps shaking fingers around Bradford’s free hand. “But you’re more, aren’t you? I remember that much. Yes… I… John.” The Commander stills. “I’m sorry. Just a nightmare.”

“Seems like a pretty bad one.”

His lover laughs, though the sound quivers in the air. “I was really upset about my 3.33 GPA, okay? It was 3.7, and then I took that fucking calculus class and oh my god, I’m upset about it again.”

Bradford strokes his Commander’s cheek. “If you do go to college again, you can bet that I will nag you non-stop about exam deadlines.” He pitches his voice down. “Commander, time continues to make progress towards your physics final. If you want to pass it, we’ll have to study, fast.”

His Commander laughs again, the sound stronger. “Any incentives for getting good grades? Seems like I’ve already got a career lined up in front of me.”

Bradford falls silent. The words are heavy on his tongue. He’s closer to sixty than he is to fifty. He’s lived a long and rough life. One day, he will have to tell the Commander about his recent liver replacement surgery. Tygan’s making noises about brain damage, and permanent nerve damage, and all the things that will make Bradford into a shell of the man he once was. After Tygan gets a clinic set up, Bradford will go under the needle again. Lined up makes it sound like they have all the time in the world. But they don’t. Bradford’s getting old and worn down. He spent two months and a half without his Commander, and he feels robbed by fate.

“John?”

“Spent a while waiting for you,” he says finally. “Glad you’re worth the wait.”

“You know, I never had a boyfriend or a girlfriend while I was dreaming,” the Commander says. His partner sets a hand over his chest. “Ten years went by and I was still a kiss-less virgin. I think I knew you were waiting for me.”

Bradford hears the invitation. He helps the Commander remove the hospital shirt, undoing the ties along the neck. “Want to make up for lost time?”

“I’m not yet up to scratch,” the Commander admits. The hand exploring his chest stills. “We might have to take breaks.”

Bradford closes his hands over the Commander’s. “I can wait for you. Don’t push yourself.”

“I want to know you’re real,” his lover says, clasping his hands. “Can I have this?”

Bradford looks at his superior. The Commander’s eyes are clear and clever, the mix that he craved while the Commander lay comatose. “What’s the safeword?”

“Newfoundland.” His lover hesitates. “We chose it because it was a disaster for some reason. I remember why… it’s in my head somewhere…”

“Close enough.” Bradford lays his hands on the bed. “But if you start feeling woozy, tap me, and we’ll get you on oxygen again.”

“Good to go,” his partner says. “Let’s get started.”

Bradford helps the Commander sit up. His lover’s hand works its way down the flat planes of his abs. His superior frowns as rough skin changes to newly healed scar tissue.

“I don’t remember this.”

“I was going to tell you when you were better.”

Though the Quarters are dark, Bradford can feel his lover’s stare.

“Surgery. Had to stick around to see you wake up.”

The Commander sighs. “I was hoping to ride you, but… it might not be a good idea right now.” His lover coughs and reaches for the oxygen. “Sorry. It’s weird sitting up.”

“You could jerk me off,” Bradford suggests.

“There’s an idea. Go clean out,” his Commander says, accepting Bradford’s help in fixing the oxygen mask straps. “I might fall asleep. But I’ll be here.”

 

He washes up. Bradford has a good idea of his Commander’s plans. It’s odd being on this side of the equation: the Commander prefers to receive, rather than give.

Bradford wraps a towel around his waist and heads out of the washroom. The Commander dozes off, chest rising in easy breaths, but wakes as he sits on the bed. The Central Officer does his best not to smile as he watches the Commander check him out.

“Still to your tastes?”

The Commander lays the oxygen mask on the tank. “Well… I could say you take my breath away–“

Bradford groans. “Mood gone.”

Long fingers, made delicate by injury and a soundless sleep, caress his thighs. “Never thought I’d be bringing sexy back, of all things.”

The Central Officer rolls his eyes, but lets the Commander work. His partner parts his legs, laying kisses up and down his thighs, before sliding a lubed finger into Bradford’s ass. The Central Officer hisses. He’s not used to receiving.

“Hold?” the Commander asks.

“One sec.” Bradford closes his eyes and wills his heartbeat back down. “Go hot.”

Bradford squeezes his eyes shut as the Commander’s finger turns and curves upward. He fists his hands in the sheets, straining not to make a sound as the Commander works his prostate with those damnable fingers.

“Good?”

“I will murder you if you stop,” Bradford manages to say.

His Commander chuckles. “A second one?”

“Please.”

Bradford braces himself, but it’s easier the second time. He lets the pattern of stars dance before his vision, as his Commander coaxes heat from low in his belly. His cock is hot and heavy, lying against his lower abdomen, almost close enough to brush against his lover’s cheek. His head is getting fuzzy; his mouth is cotton-filled. The lust welling up in his belly is good, but he wants more – wants the Commander’s clever fingers around his cock, the wet suck and pop of lips against the sensitive head instead of along Bradford’s sides…

“Please,” he says, the sound rushing out of his lungs, “please, touch me.”

The Commander’s head rests against his side. He can feel his lover’s head shake, and locks of hair rustle against his hips.

“So cruel.”

“Trust me,” his Commander says.

He does.

His Commander draws him up, dizzyingly high, with only the steady flex of fingers stretching and widening him. At some point, there’s a third finger, and Bradford nearly screams as the Commander touches him just right and electricity arcs through his spine and up his head.

“Good?” his lover asks, with a terrifying grin. “Or do you need a break?”

“Keep going,” Bradford begs.

The Commander begins to nip at his sides, leaving tiny bite marks up and down the planes of Bradford’s abdominal muscles. The Central Officer curses and groans, but to no avail – the Commander will not touch him, except for the steady caress against his prostate.

Bradford notices the Commander is breathing harder. Even though there is a pulling inside him, something that is drawn tight and about to snap, he stops.

“Flashlight,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

“Tired,” his lover says. “Need a minute.” The Commander kisses his belly. “Here, you do the work. I want to see you cut loose for once.”

When has Bradford ever disobeyed an order? Bradford fucks himself on his superior’s hand, groaning every time the heat radiates from the spot within him. His Commander’s head is a soft weight on his belly, rising and falling with his thrusts. He feels the Commander’s lips brush against the head of his cock, and the urge for more – for his Commander astride him, for strong thighs straddling his own – is overwhelming.

But Bradford knows the Commander is still healing.

“I missed you,” he gasps out.

His lover nods. Fingers twitch inside him with renewed strength.

Stars dance in Bradford’s vision. It’s better, when the Commander is in control, stroking and pressing in on all the right places. Bradford scrabbles for purchase on the bedsheets.

“Commander.” Bradford strains against his lover’s weight, leveraged against his side. “Not gonna last.”

“Come for me, John.”

The dam breaks.

Cum splatters over his chest. Bradford groans, as his Commander manages to get two lips around his cock and suck hard. His vision goes white from the aftershocks crashing through him.

“Sensitive,” he gasps, as the lights behind his eyes flare again, “too much!”

The Commander lays a hand on his thigh. He twitches, but it’s not overstimulating. He rides out the rest of his climax, letting the heat wash over him as his partner kisses his neck and cheeks.

“Give me a second.” The Commander groans and reaches under the bed for a towel. His lover licks off the cum, before drying Bradford’s chest off with the towel. “I’m really sorry we couldn’t do more, John.”

“S’okay,” Bradford says, as he slowly regains feeling in his feet. “Got all the time in the world for you.”

“I missed you,” his lover says into his neck.

He wraps an arm around his partner’s shoulders, drawing the steady beat of a heart closer to his own.

“It’s good to have you back, Commander.”