They’re out in a jungle on the Yucatan peninsula, carrying out a mission that’s dubiously legal and probably infringing on Mexico’s sovereign rights. The sniper fight feels somehow inevitable, the storm breaking out even more so. Soon it’s pouring rain, turning the ground to mud and making the already-impenetrable jungle even harder to navigate. It shouldn’t be a surprise when Jack gets injured—they’re in unfamiliar territory, with a target who clearly knows the area and how to use it—but watching him keel over in a spray of blood is still a shock.
“Fuck,” Gabriel gasps out, hauling Jack upright and to cover. His shoulder is an ugly mess, his blue eyes glazed with pain, and Gabriel makes the executive decision to abandon this fight.
The rain sluices down harder, trickling down the back of their necks. Gabriel drags Jack along, hoping the silvery inside of the emergency blanket he's wrapped in won't give them away, hoping Jack will hold on long enough for his enhanced system to heal the damage, hoping shock isn't setting in. The jungle seems like it’s watching. He hates it.
They end up almost falling into the mouth of the cenote. The ground gapes open under their feet, and Gabe stumbles and curses and then notices the almost-gone path winding down into the darkness. The footing is slippery, but a little ways in the path widens, and there's a dry-enough spot to let Jack rest. The sound of water running down the walls mixes with the rain outside, and it's almost as if the place is whispering. Once out of sight of the mouth, the darkness reaches up and swallows up the light, and even Gabriel’s enhanced eyes can't make anything out. He shudders, and returns to the surface to set up tripwires.
When he returns, Jack is—to use the technical term—not doing so hot.
Gabriel waits and worries and feels useless. He finds himself babbling old bedtime stories to Jack, trying to keep him grounded in the here and now--first the Grimm's fairy tales every American kid knows, then the Thousand and One Nights his dad used to read, then the legends his abuela used to tell, a litany of words all hoping to keep Jack tethered to the living world. The rain's coming down harder now. The little streams coming in from outside soak Gabriel's boots through, thunder rumbling in the distance.
He talks faster as Jack loses blood in front of him, feeling frantic. This is before the miracle of biofields, of Mercy, before the certainty of holding death at bay. This is Jack slipping away, eyes glazing over no matter what Gabriel says. And finally going cold. Going still.
Gabriel wants to scream.
Instead, he picks up his gun, and goes hunting.
He's never quite sure, afterwards, how he finds the man. Never quite sure how he finds his way back to the cenote, dragging his captive behind him by the scruff of the neck, ignoring the screaming through the improvised gag. He knows he drags the man down into the darkness, knows the flashlight bounces off a high ceiling and long falls and then far below, still, deep water waiting at the bottom. The noises echo and are swallowed up.
Gabriel splashes out to his knees, the icy water soaking his fatigues. It sends shivers up his spine, the only warmth his own center and the man's neck under his fingers. He excuses the way his fingers crack open the sniper’s ribs with the memory of Jack’s empty eyes.
A heart is stronger than you think, beating not with a dull throb but a jumping, urgent rhythm. Gabriel almost flinches back when he finds one under his finger. But he's a soldier, and more than that, he's scared, he's angry, he wants Jack to live, and that’s always driven him to move heaven and earth.
Sticky-wet warmth over his fingers, cold dragging at his legs, Gabriel takes a few more steps out and holds the heart over the water. The moment it splashes down, something wraps boney fingers around his ankles and drags him under
He'll remember the grinning skull, the water turning ruddy with blood, the skeletal fingers running through his hair. "It's been a long time," something whispers, "since we had a sacrifice like that.”
He’ll remember breaking out of the water, gasping, dragging himself to the shore and stumbling to his feet and sprinting to the surface, something behind him laughing, laughing, laughing—
but when he sees sunlight, there's Jack, blinking awake just like he does in the barracks. He rubs his eyes and squints at Gabriel in confusion.
"Why're you all wet?"
"Rain," Gabriel chokes out, and thanks God (it's not God who brought Jack back), and resolves to never think of the feeling of a heart in his hands again.
Then comes the Crisis.
He gets through the first half of the war without thinking of that still, deep water and the secrets at its bottom. Months pass and more of their program fall, until he and Jack are the only of the SEP left, and their team has gone from being one of many to being the Strike Team. He stares into the abyss of his world’s destruction, and thinks of Jack blinking away death.
In the end, Gabriel manages to wrangles three days of leave. It’s just enough to fly to the Yucatan peninsula, just enough to walk into the jungle and hope to find another cenote. There are some cenotes easily found, of course--some with water parks built over them, through them, even--but the one that Gabriel falls into is overgrown and quiet.
He'll remember more, this time. Skeletons on thrones, massive headdresses on their skulls, the way one laughs and says, "You carry our childrens' blood, but you wear their invaders' names.”
He remembers not to look at the doubles of each Lord of the Underworld, to see past illusions to the true faces, to bargain --because in his abuela's stories, these are not the ones who're known for performing favors out of the goodness of their souls. He remembers telling them that he knows they were cheated out of beating hearts, that he could give them more, that he's a soldier, a warrior, that he deals in death every day. He does not tell them it’s robots doing the dying.
"Keep my people alive," Gabriel says, "and I will give you your sacrifices."
"Very well, little king," and then he's coughing out water, clawing his way up into the sunlight again.
The lords of the underworld keep their end of the bargain--not one of Gabriel's Strike Team ever dies, even when they should. Gabriel... well, he sticks to the letter of the law, not the intent.
Omnic hearts are probably not what they were thinking of.
The Crisis, one day, is startlingly over--Gabriel goes to parties, drinks his brains out, kisses Jack absolutely silly.
For a while, things are peaceful.
The formation of Overwatch doesn't ring any alarm bells in Gabriel's head, though maybe it should have when Jack's named Strike Commander and he's given Blackwatch instead. But at this point, neither organization has members or equipment or plans beyond a nebulous "keep the world safe.”
So perhaps Gabriel is forgiven for not realizing what he's being set up to do until the day he stumbles into his bathroom to brush his teeth, and finds jade jaguar fangs in place of his canines.
"Time to start hunting, little king," something whispers, and Gabriel's heart drops.
No one sees the fangs until Jesse McCree. In the interrogation room, he stares long enough that Gabriel snaps, “What?”
The kid swallows. “You’re gonna think ‘m crazy.”
Gabriel laughs, thinks of skulls and deep, dark water. “Try me.”
The kid shifts in his seat, and finally blurts, “I c’n see things. Two weeks ago, I talked th’ gang outta raiding a bruja’s place. She told me that she was gonna give me a gift, an’ I wake up ’n’ everythin’s—different. An’ y’don’t—“ He swallows again. “Y’don’t look right.”
Gabriel smiles, slow and dangerous. “Smart kid. You wanna live forever? ‘Cause I got an offer for you.”
Jesse eventually stops flinching when he looks at Gabriel and settles into Blackwatch, but Gabriel never manages to shake the unease that comes with holding a heart in his hands. At least it never lasts long--once he gets his fingers on it, the heart wisps away, and the part of him he's barely aware of sighs in satisfaction and feels just a little bit less hungry.
At first, one or two times in half a year is enough, but as time stretches on--
--as he realizes that he never specified an end date of this deal--
--as that hidden part of him gets hungrier, and hungrier, and he starts to doubt that it's even him--
well. the war crimes are accidents. or needed. or ordered, quietly, on behalf of the UN. Five civilians, though, aren't.
Dying is almost a relief, after that.
"We never said we were letting you stop, little king," the skulls laugh.
Angela Ziegler does get her hands on Gabriel Reyes' body. She does pump it full of nanites. She does try to defy death.
She thinks, when it crumbles to black dust, that she's failed--and well, she's right. She's not the reason Gabriel comes coughing out of the still waters of a cenote a week later, his mouth a mess of jade fangs and his fingers crooked with obsidian claws.
(Jack Morrison survives the explosion. Jesse McCree never gets a bullet through his skull. Ana Amari keeps her remaining eye. Torbjorn Lindholm goes home to his many children and loving wife. Wilhelm Reinhardt continues his adventures. Genji Shimada stumbles through a blizzard into the Shambali monastery. That part of the deal, at least, still stands.)
The Reaper offers its services to Talon. Here, it’s always satisfied. Here, Gabriel never feels guilty for stabbing his coworkers in the back. He tries not to feel anything. He’s always been bad at that. Just as well.
It ends up being his salvation.
Sombra will always deny it, but she's the reason a few translated excerpts from the Popul Vuh and some very pointed highlighting end up on Soldier 76's personal datapad.
Self-preservation? A deep-buried fondness for the man who puts up with her teasing? Who knows? She's not telling. And to ass to how she guessed it? Well, let's put it this way--Gabriel's not the only one who had an abuela telling them stories. Sombra’s family may be long gone, but she remembers enough to try and save her new friend.
Jack Morrison doesn't stumble lightly into cenotes, but there's something to be said about tallying up all the times he and other people Gabe loves should've died--there was the time he thought he got shot in the forehead—and realizing something is up. The waters are waiting.
It takes thirteen different cenotes before something finally drags him under. At that point Jack's exasperated enough with the whole thing that he's almost happy about it. He’d been thinking it was all just a fairytale at that point, the familiar sense of failure dragging at his chest. The boney hand around his ankle is almost a relief.
What Jack will remember: the ball game. Bruises on his hips, on his elbows, on his thighs, wondering how one little rubber ball could hurt so much.
What Jack will remember: The night sky glittering above the cenote. Two voices from the stars murmuring, "Good job."
What Jack will always remember: Rolling over, and finding Gabriel right there besides him--Gabriel, blinking away death, Gabriel, warm and real.
"You're never going to be safe again," Gabriel chokes out.
Jack grins, full of hope, and rolls over to kiss away Gabe’s panic. "Safe enough."
"No, you don't understand, now you can die," Gabriel says against Jack's lips.
"Everyone else manages," Jack says. "For you? I think we can, too.”