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Trompe L'Oeil

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Trompe l'oeil  (noun) visual illusion in art, especially as used to trick the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object; French, literally ‘deceives the eye.’

Jesse blinks his eyes open as the first light comes through the slats of the window. The room comes into focus: it's small but relatively neat, a wardrobe and washstand on the wall opposite from his bed. Dust catches the light that falls across the bed and the rumpled bedlinens pooled around his waist. He rubs at his eyes and sits up, stretching languorously. He glances toward the door. He can hear the sounds of the bordello as it begins to wake up. Jesse stands, johns hanging low around his hips, and goes to pour some water in the basin to splash on his face. The cold wakes him up. He leans both hands on the edge of the washstand and breaths out a sigh.

Gabe rolls the ice around in his glass idly, fingers drumming on the armrest of his seat. The train is slick, white and clean, and Gabe already feels out of place. Across from him, Jack flags down the attendant, gesturing with his empty glass. He catches sight of Gabe out of the corner of his eye.

“Loosen up,” Jack says. Gabe makes a face at him, lifting his glass to sip at the expensive scotch. “It's a vacation, remember?”

“I remember,” Gabe says. “I remember you calling it a business trip first.”

“It's for research ,” Jack says, leaning forward and lowering his voice. “But it only works if we actually act like we're on vacation.”

“I don't know why I let you talk me into this,” Gabe says, glancing out the window again. There isn't much to see at the moment, and the train is moving too fast to give much of a view if there was. It’s better - easier - than looking at Jack right now. He doesn't want to talk about anything that had happened, not with Jack, not again - Jack doesn't understand, to begin with, and Jack is already barely paying attention to what he says. He thinks he knows what’s best. Gabe is tired, so tired, which is exactly how Jack was able to convince him that this was a good idea. Gabe needs the vacation. Except he had envisioned several days on a beach with a fruity drink, not… whatever this is.

“Because I'm your oldest friend. Your best friend, even,” Jack says. He smiles up at the lithe young woman who refills his glass. Gabe tries not to stare at her, lest she get the wrong idea, but he can’t help but wonder if she’s one of them . Jack lifts his glass to her with a wink before he takes a deep gulp. When he speaks, though, his voice has taken on that soft, concerned, sincere tone. “After everything you’ve been through, it's the least I can do. You deserve the break.”

Gabe looks away again. Jack’s right, probably, and he’s playing the part of a good friend to help him forge ahead, even when Gabe is reluctant. Maybe what Gabe needs is someone to take control, make some choices for him, for once. None of the choices he’s made lately have gotten him very far. At the very least, Jack is probably acting in Gabe’s best interest, and Gabe would be a poor friend to take that for granted.

“Look, just enjoy yourself, alright? This place is something else,” Jack says eventually, when the silence stretches on too long. He never could just sit with the silence.

The train pulls into a sleek station, and Jack pops out of his seat, glass still in hand. Gabe gets up more slowly. He's not sure what to expect; the brochure was somewhat vague, promising high-octane adventure and intrigue, an escape from reality and an authentic Old West experience. Gabe had emailed Jack before they left asking if the authenticity had included period-typical racism, to which Jack had replied “lighten up.” He wondered if Jack was trying to be funny.

On the platform, another attractive young woman in an impeccable white dress greets Jack with warm familiarity.

“Mr. Morrison, we’ve been expecting you,” she says, smiling prettily. She turns her smile on Gabe. “And your guest, Mr. Reyes.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jack says dismissively. He slips his arm around her waist. Her smile doesn’t falter at the overly familiar touch. “Let’s get to the good stuff.”

“Of course, Mr. Morrison. Right this way.”

Yet another stunningly beautiful woman appears to escort Gabe out of the station. Gabe looks at her but she just smiles. She doesn’t introduce herself. She examines a tablet as they walk to an escalator and out of the station.

“Do you have any medical conditions?” she asks. Gabe glances sideways at her. “Any history of PTSD or depression?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You left it blank on your questionnaire,” she says, leaning against the railing of the escalator.

“I didn’t see the point of sharing that information,” Gabe replies coolly.

“We have excellent security for our guests’ personal information,” she says. “As you can imagine, many of our guests are exceedingly private people.”

Gabe can imagine; the price list for the basic package was astronomical. This isn’t exactly something the average person could save up for, never mind the exceedingly long waitlist. It’s beyond aspirational.

“Well,” Gabe says. “I thought leaving it blank implied that there wasn’t anything to disclose.”

“We like to be certain,” the woman says, stepping off the escalator. She leads him down a stark white hallway. There’s no signage to indicate where they’re going, which Gabe can’t help but find more than a little unsettling. After all these years working what essentially amounts to a corporate job, Gabe still can’t help but identify his escape routes. Old habits die hard and all that. “Just so that we know exactly how much you can handle.”

Her words would sound sinister coming from anyone else, but her voice and tone are the epitome of soothing. She pauses at a door to type something into her tablet. The door slides open into what looks like the largest, most well-curated walk-in closet Gabe’s ever seen in his life. There's a wall of leather holsters, suspenders, and chaps next to shelves of dozens of pairs of cowboy boots in several different styles. Racks of clothing - ranging from everyday to formal wear - stand between glass cases of gleaming guns. Gabe reaches out to touch the butt of a matte black shotgun, but hesitates.

“Is this real?” he asks, looking around for the woman. She’s standing off to the side, watching him serenely. She smiles.

“As real as it needs to be,” the woman says. “You won't be able to hurt any of your fellow guests.”

“And the…” Gabe searches for the word. “Hosts?”

“They are here for your entertainment,” she says placidly. Gabe isn't sure how he feels about that statement. He looks back at the shotgun.

“Please, take anything that catches your eye,” she says. Something in her tone suggests that she's included in that “anything,” if Gabe was the type to be interested in that sort of thing. He looks away quickly, eyes falling on an absurdly large belt buckle.

“How do I know what I should pick?” he asks. The woman gives him a shrug and a coy smile.

“Pick whatever suits your fancy. Everything is already tailored to your measurements,” she says. “You can be whoever you want to be here - good, bad, it’s your choice. You're the author of your story.”

He has to admit, it does sound pretty good - the prospect of becoming someone other than Gabriel Reyes, even if it is just for a few days…

Gabe takes one final look at the shotgun briefly before he forces himself to turn to the racks of clothing. He has no idea what to pick. The formal clothes feel entirely too fancy for what little he knows about what awaits him in the park, and he can already hear Jack’s teasing voice if he picks out something plain.

“Sorry,” he says at one point, suddenly conscious of how long he's been taking. The woman gives him that same serene, yet coy smile, which Gabe is starting to find unsettling. If all the hosts in the park are like this one, how convincing can it be? That is, if she is a host. He can't quite decide yet. “I don't mean to dawdle.”

“No need to apologize, Mr. Reyes,” she says. “I could make a suggestion, if you'd like?”

“Yeah - alright,” Gabe says, somewhat relieved. The woman moves around him, pulling items from the racks and then laying them out on a bench. Gabe comes over to see: she's picked mostly dark colors, but upon closer inspection, the pieces each have subtle embellishments: a rose and thorny vine pattern stamped into the dark leather holster, mother of pearl buttons on the cuffs of his shirt, a rich burgundy lining in his coat. It’s not quite plain, not quite ostentatious. It’s subtle and suits Gabe perfectly. He turns away from the woman to dress himself, feeling self-conscious. Everything fits perfectly. When he gets a look at himself in the mirror, he even has to admit he looks good.

Gabe picks out his own boots - the leather is surprisingly supple and soft, molding seamlessly to his feet. The woman holds the matte black shotgun out to him as he straightens.

“It caught your eye for a reason,” she says. Gabe isn't sure what that means, but he does like the gun so he takes it. The weight surprises him; it feels very much like a real weapon. He wonders again about not being able to hurt the other guests and why she felt the need to specify. He slides it into his holster across his back and looks at the woman expectantly.

“Now what?”

“One more thing,” she says. “Come this way.”

Gabe follows her around a corner and down a hall to what looks like some kind of foyer or antechamber. On the two opposing walls hang an array of hats: white on one side and black on the other. The woman spreads her arms.

“Take your pick, Mr. Reyes.”

It takes Gabe a few minutes to navigate through the narrow saloon. It's full of other people, dressed to the nines, talking excitedly about what awaits them in the park. Other guests. Gabe glances at them curiously as he goes, wondering what drew them all here. There’s nobody he recognizes, at least, which is a small comfort. Unsurprisingly, Gabe finds Jack at the bar.

“There you are! About time,” Jack says. He looks Gabe up and down. “Ooh, black hat, huh?”

Gabe touches the brim of his hat self-consciously. “It matched.”

“Heh. Well, you know what that means, don’t you?” Jack asks. Gabe shakes his head. Jack grins. “Means you’re one of the baddies, Gabe.”

Gabe frowns. Jack knocks back the rest of his whiskey and picks up his own hat from the bar - white, Gabe notices. He wonders if he's already made wrong choices without even knowing it. It would be just his luck, really. The walls of the saloon shake, rattling bottles on the shelf. Gabe looks up curiously.

“Wait for it,” Jack says, jamming his hat on his head.

As if on cue, the train emerges from the tunnel. When the initial shock of sunlight wears off, Gabe gets a good look at the landscape. It’s stunning; wide open, rolling hills, the bluest sky Gabe’s ever seen, bordered by mountains and mesas in the distance. They're somewhere in Utah or maybe Colorado, Gabe remembers from the brochure Jack had emailed him a couple weeks ago. Wherever they are, there’s no doubt that the park is massive.

Something else indeed.

The train winds through the landscape, offering them spectacular views of the geography. Gabe wonders how much of this is for show and how much of it is actually used for the park.

“You’re gonna love this,” Jack says confidently. Gabe glances back at him. “What’s that look for? You like that dragons and dungeons stuff, and you’re always making costumes.”

Gabe feels the color rise to his cheeks. “That’s different.”

“Of course it’s different. I give it five minutes, max, before you forget all your worries. This place is full of distractions.”

The train pulls into what must be a station but isn’t much more than a wooden platform on the edge of a small, bustling town. Gabe follows Jack out of the saloon car, one step behind, wondering when they'll get to the distractions; so far, it feels like it’s dress up and drinking, which Gabe could almost certainly do on his own time, for significantly less money. They step down onto the platform and Gabe finds himself in the Old West.

The sun hangs high in the deep blue sky. The steam engine blows its whistle behind them as it pulls away from the station. A trio of men on horses trots past them on the street, kicking up a puff of dust in their wake. A sheriff calls to passers-by, trying to get them to join his posse. A gun goes off somewhere nearby, but nobody bats an eye. It’s rough and wild and completely foreign all at once.

“Gabe? Jesus, come on,” Jack says, nudging Gabe in the ribs. Gabe blinks and looks at Jack.

“Is this…?”

“Yeah, welcome to Westworld,” Jack says, spreading his arms. “Are you done staring? It's gonna get you shot.”

Gabe steps off the platform and follows in Jack’s wake, looking around with wide eyes. This is more than he could've expected - it's not hokey at all. It feels real. His doubts are rapidly melting away.

“What do we do now?” Gabe asks.

“Whatever you want,” Jack says. “I know what I'm gonna do.”

“Which is?”

“Find some bad guys,” Jack says, walking with purpose down the dusty road. Gabe lengthens his stride to keep up. “Blow them away.”

Gabe doesn’t like the sound of that - it sounds too much like their day jobs. Still, he follows Jack for lack of any better ideas. He doesn’t exactly want to be left alone here without really knowing what to expect.

As he looks around, taking in as much of his surroundings as he possibly can, Gabe nearly bowls over an older woman who’s crossing the street. He stops in his tracks, immensely apologetic, and stoops to help her up.

“I’m so sorry -” he says, offering her a hand. She gives him a wary, almost frightened look and doesn’t take his proffered hand. Jack turns and grabs Gabe by the shoulder, tugging him away.

“Don’t bother,” Jack says.

“But -”

“Do you see the way she’s looking at you?” Jack says, tugging on him again. “She doesn’t want help from you.”

Gabe stands a little straighter, ruffled. “I thought you said -”

“It’s your hat , Gabe,” Jack says, exasperated. “You’re basically walking around with a big advertisement that says you’re a bad guy.”

“I didn’t know,” Gabe objects. Jack shrugs and lets go of his arm.

“Part of the game, Gabe. Come on, in here.”

Jack steps into a comparatively shoddy building at the end of the street. It’s darker, smokier than some of the other buildings. Gabe hesitates, but Jack is already ducking inside. He follows after a beat. It takes him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior, but once he does he realizes that Jack has taken them to yet another bar - albeit a seedier one. A bartender with a long scar over one eye follows their movements through the bar warily, but Jack doesn’t seem to notice. There’s a handful of other men at a couple of tables throughout the bar but only a few of them look up when they come inside. One or two of the men are sprawled out in their chairs, in their shirtsleeves, unbuttoned and exposing their chests. Against the far wall, there’s a staircase that leads to a second floor. In the corner, a piano appears to play itself.

“I’m looking for Skags,” Jack says, addressing nobody in particular. Gabe feels all the eyes in the room turn their attention on them at once. It’s an unsettling feeling.

“Who’s asking?” the bartender says, setting his rag down and leaning on the bar with both hands.

“I hear he’s got a job,” Jack says.

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” the bartender says. “Now, if you want a drink or a fuck, I might be able to help you out.”

Jack strides over to the bar. “Maybe I ought to get the sheriff in here, huh? Drag Skags out for me?”

“We don’t take kindly to that kind of talk,” the bartender says evenly. “We run an upstanding business here.”

Jack unholsters his gun and points it right between the bartender’s eyes. Gabe steps forward, alarmed. “Jack -”

“We don’t want any trouble,” the bartender says. His eyes don’t leave Jack’s gun as he calls out, “McCree, run and get Skags down here, would you?”

A movement by the stairs catches Gabe’s eye. A young man, long haired and scruffy, with his shirt half-open and tucked in haphazardly, stands up from where he had been sitting on the bottom step. He eyes Jack with obvious distaste and trots up the stairs on bare feet. Gabe watches him disappear up the stairs.

“Why don’t you two gents sit and have a drink while McCree fetches Skags,” the bartender says, reaching for a bottle.

“Sure, just don’t give us any of that cheap swill,” Jack says. The bartender reaches for a different bottle, making a face. He pours out two glasses and passes them across the bar to Jack, who finally holsters his gun. “Cheers,” Jack says as he takes both glasses. He moves away to a seat and flops down. Gabe sits across from Jack, looking around the room warily. Everyone in is still watching them.

“What the hell,” Gabe hisses, leaning forward, voice low. Jack shrugs and slides the other glass of whiskey across the table to Gabe.

“It’s just part of the game,” Jack says. He slouches back in his seat and sips from his own glass, at ease and pleased with himself.

“This can’t be how it works,” Gabe says, ignoring his own glass. He feels like he ought to keep his wits about him.

“Haven’t you seen all those old cowboy movies? This is the wild, wild west, Gabe,” Jack says. “Playing nice doesn’t get you anywhere here.”

“Even cowboys don’t go in guns blazing every time,” Gabe says.

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?”

Gabe doesn’t get a chance to respond because McCree comes back with the man who must be Skags. He’s huge, looming over their table and looking down at them with one milky white eye. Gabe notices jagged scars stretching his mouth wider on either side. He has an undeniably sinister look about him, and Gabe can’t help but remember Jack saying he was looking to blow away some bad guys. He tenses in his seat, waiting for the inevitable.

“Heard someone was looking for me,” the man says. Jack glances up at him, sipping his whiskey.

“You Skags?”

“Depends.”

“Heard you have a job,” Jack says. Skags’s expression doesn't change.

“I don't know you,” Skags says. “And I don't work with folks I don't know.”

“So you are Skags,” Jack says as he unholsters his gun again. Skags looks amused.

“Try me, friend,” Skags says. “You ain't gonna like how that turns out for you.”

Gabe glances at Jack, whose fingers are caressing his gun in a way that can only be construed as threatening. This isn't what he expected from this place - and it's certainly not what he expected from Jack. It's like an entirely different side of his long-time friend; reckless and unbothered by the consequences of his actions. It's unnerving.

“If you want a hand with the Los Muertos gang, I'm your man,” Jack is saying.

“Deadlock handles its own business,” Skags says.

“Think of me as an independent contractor,” Jack says.

“I’d rather not think of you at all,” Skags says. “Like I said, Deadlock handles its own business.”

“Jack,” Gabe says, keeping his eyes on Skags. He’s forcefully reminded of their earlier days in the army, when Jack was more impulsive and hot-headed. Gabe hasn’t had to be the diplomat like this in a long time. “Maybe we ought to go somewhere else.”

“Your friend there’s got the right idea, Jackie.”

Jack turns his gaze on Gabe, scowling. Gabe gives him a little shrug. “There’s other stories, right?”

“That’s not the point,” Jack hisses. Skags laughs, low and mockingly.

“Look, you gents finish your drink. Maybe get your dick wet, if that’s your inclination,” Skags says, gesturing behind him at the men with the open shirts. “But after that, I don’t wanna see you sniffing around here for shit that don’t concern you, you hear?”

Skags tips his hat and starts ambling back up the stairs. “What’re you smirking about, McCree? Ain’t you got work to do?”

Gabe sees the young man scamper away out of the corner of his eye. Across the table, Jack knocks back the rest of his drink.

“Come on,” he growls, standing up. “Let’s find some other storyline for you to ruin.”

Gabe scrambles up to follow Jack, who’s already halfway out of the shoddy building.

“I didn’t mean to -” Gabe starts to say, but Jack whirls on him, a nasty sneer on his face.

“You don’t mean a lot of things, do you?” Jack says. Gabe takes a step back, stunned and hurt, but Jack keeps going. “This is your first time here, so don’t pretend like you know what you’re doing. I’m paying for this, and I’m gonna get out of it what I want.”

Gabe doesn’t know how he’s supposed to respond to that, so he says nothing, letting the hurt curl in his chest. Jack rubs a hand over his face and seems to come back to himself.

“Just - don’t worry so much, okay?” Jack says finally. “We can’t get hurt here.”

Still, Gabe doesn’t say anything. He follows Jack back onto the main street through the middle of town, not sure of what to make of all of this.

Sweetwater holds its breath as the man in grey returns to town. Passers-by pause to watch the man on his pure white thoroughbred make his way down the main street, head held high with his eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat. Rumors of the man in grey’s deeds precede him; he's an avenging angel, dispensing justice wherever he goes. His methods are ruthless, bordering on cruel, but the man in grey is on a mission, so his particular cruelties might be excused. They say he's looking for someone - that he's been looking for someone for years; an old partner, they whisper. A betrayal.

Women pull their children in closer as the man passes. Men eye him with a mixture of curiosity and wariness, their hands twitching against the butts of their guns, ready to jump into action should the man in grey suddenly decide to bring any trouble to their normally peaceful little town.

But the man rides on down the street without incident. He barely glances left or right, his focus singular and unbroken.

When he disappears at the end of the road, the town of Sweetwater lets out their collective breath. Slowly at first, then all at once, the people of Sweetwater return to their lives, forgetting, for the moment, the man in grey.

It’s only over dinner that Jack settles enough to articulate what he was trying to get at in the Deadlock bordello. The hotel dining room is populated with other guests and hosts, though Gabe is still having a difficult time discerning which is which. It’s only when he catches snippets of conversation that Gabe is able to make a determination.

The whole thing is very well done, Gabe has to give them that.

“There’s a place, farther out from town, on the edge of this whole place, called Pariah. I haven’t been able to get there before, but I hear getting in cozy with the Deadlock gang makes it easier,” Jack says, leaning over his plate so their neighbors don’t hear the conversation.

“What’s in Pariah?”

“It’s an Easter Egg,” Jack says. “Not part of the normal story lines. But if you do the right things, hit all the right notes, you get to unlock it. It’s like a bonus level.”

“I know what an Easter Egg is,” Gabe says, making a face. “I play video games.”

“Then you know that casual players don’t get to see that sort of content,” Jack says. “We’re advanced players. We can unlock it.”

“I guess that sounds interesting,” Gabe says. It does, if only because he’s curious to see what else Westworld has to offer; they spent the day in Sweetwater and, though the level of detail was impressive, Gabe can’t imagine spending nearly two weeks in the little town. It’s not the high octane adventure Westworld promises in all of its brochures.

“It’s more than interesting - it’s what this whole place is really good at. Deep shit. Rescuing damsels and hunting down bounties is all surface level stuff,” Jack says, gesturing with his knife in between bites of steak. “You might as well sit at home in your underwear, playing video games.”

Gabe makes a face at Jack, who grins around his fork at him. It’s been Jack’s mission to get Gabe out of the house lately - anything to try to pull Gabe out of this funk he’s settled into in recent months. Gabe appreciates it, really, even if Jack’s persistence is awfully tiring.

“So those Deadlock people know where to find this place?”

“Maybe. It’s just a step - might hurry up the process.”

“Sounds like you might be skipping steps,” Gabe says thoughtfully. “Isn’t this place all about the story, and less about the end product?”

“You’re thinking about this all wrong,” Jack says, shaking his head. “What’s the point of a good story if you don’t end up somewhere exciting?”

Gabe decides against arguing the point with Jack - he’s impossibly stubborn under most circumstances, and Gabe already knows that they tend to differ on the most basic philosophical levels. Besides, Gabe can tell that Jack is already fully invested in this Pariah story, in spite of everything else on offer. Throughout the afternoon, Gabe spotted several entries into other stories, like the damsels and bounties that Jack had mentioned. But, for all of Jack’s talk about Gabe needing to relax, he certainly hadn’t let Gabe make any decisions for himself. Maybe that was part of Jack’s plan; make the decisions for Gabe so he can just enjoy himself. It’s tempting. Gabe should just enjoy the ride.

“So we have to get in good with the Deadlock gang,” Gabe says. “Harder now, after that impression you made.”

“Very funny,” Jack says, stabbing the last bite of his steak with his fork. “I’m sure there’s a work-around.”

“What if you already burned that bridge?”

“There’s always a way, Gabe,” Jack says. “We just have to get creative.”

After dinner, Jack insists on visiting one of the other brothels in town. Gabe follows less willingly, the sting of the real world still altogether too fresh. He’s not sure that he’d indulge in this kind of thing even if he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself - he’s prefer to earn someone’s affection than pay for it.

“You have to start somewhere,” Jack says, surveying the parlor of the whorehouse from their position by the bar. It’s a busy night; chatter and laughter rises above the music of the stride piano, drinks flow freely, flirtations unfurling as the night goes on. “Anyone catch your eye?”

“Jack,” Gabe says, shaking his head. He’s nursing his drink, having already had more than enough with their dinner. Drinking was never his favorite way to unwind.

“We could try another place,” Jack suggests. He turns back to look at Gabe. “It’s not like it’s real , Gabe. Just something to get the juices flowing again. It’s like riding a bike. Heh.”

“Don’t be gross,” Gabe says, scrunching up his face.

“Oh, come on. It’s been long enough, hasn’t it? Stop punishing yourself,” Jack says. Gabe looks away. Jack heaves a sigh.

“Look, don’t let me stop you from having fun,” Gabe says.

“Trust me, I won’t,” Jack says. His eyes are already scanning the room, looking for a likely partner. Unlike the Deadlock bordello, this brothel is populated mostly by women in corsets and full skirts hiked up to reveal stockinged legs. There’s one or two men, their shirts open to reveal their chests underneath, but nobody catches Gabe’s eye. He’s pretty sure nobody will catch his eye for a long time.

“I think I’ll just go back to the hotel,” Gabe says. He can tell he’s already lost Jack’s attention.

“Uh huh. Don’t wander too far. Better yet, just stay in the hotel. I don’t want you getting wrapped up in some dumb story because you don’t know any better.”

“Yeah. Sure. I’ll meet you for breakfast at the hotel?”

“Yep,” Jack says, pushing himself away from the bar. He glances at Gabe. His expression softens, just for a moment, almost looking like the Jack Gabe used to know, back when they were younger, back when it didn’t feel like the weight of the world was on their shoulders. The concern is genuine. “Try to loosen up, will you?”

“Have fun, Jack,” Gabe says. Jack flashes him a grin and makes his way over to a woman with long, straight dark hair that reaches her hips. Instead of brushing his cockiness off, the woman seems to respond to it, leaning in and smiling prettily. Gabe shakes his head and picks up his hat again.

He’s actually looking forward to the alone time, if he’s being honest. Trailing Jack around is exhausting under normal circumstances, and having to put up with this strange, exaggerated version of Jack is even more draining than usual. Gabe just wants a moment to breathe.

Gabe sticks to the main road but walks slowly back to the hotel, enjoying the crisp night air. The moon is surprisingly bright, bathing everything in a silvery blue light. It’s beautiful. It feels less and less like he’s walking around a movie set and more like he’s in a real place. Gabe gets to the hotel but keeps walking, the fresh air having already done him some good. He can feel himself start to unwind, just a little bit.

A commotion between two buildings catches his attention. Gabe pauses, Jack’s words ringing in his ears. He’s not supposed to get involved in other story lines.

The sound of a gun going off dissolves Gabe’s hesitation.

Gabe steps quickly into the alley between buildings to find two large men looming over a third man who’s slumped against the wall. A fourth already lies a little way away, immobile, bleeding into the dirt. Gabe reaches over his shoulder and unholsters his shotgun. It’s heavy in his hands.

“Hey,” Gabe says, loud enough to be heard over the scuffle. The two men turn their attention to Gabe. He sees the glint of a barrel of a gun in the moonlight and Gabe doesn’t think twice: he squeezes the trigger and fires.

One of the men goes down as Gabe reels from the kickback of the shotgun - it was far more powerful than he expected. The man being attacked takes the opportunity to fire his own weapon into his remaining attacker, who goes down with a strangled shout.

“Are you alright?” Gabe asks, stepping towards the injured man. The man turns his head to look at Gabe but doesn’t holster his gun. Gabe puts up a hand. “I’m not looking to hurt you.”

“Ain’t I seen you somewhere before?” the man asks, tilting his face up towards Gabe. The moonlight falls across his face. The man’s badly beaten, bleeding from a cut on his lip and a cut on his cheek. It takes Gabe a moment to place him, but he realizes he’s one of the men from the Deadlock bordello - McCree. He didn’t recognize him under the serape.

“Yeah, I was in your bar earlier. My friend was talking to Skags,” Gabe says.

“The blond guy?” McCree asks.

“Jack. Yeah.”

“He’s not real good at making friends, is he?”

Gabe snorts. “No, he’s not.”

McCree lowers his weapon and leans his head back against the wall of the building. “You seem alright, though,” he says. “What’s your name? Didn’t catch it earlier.”

“Gabriel. Gabe,” Gabe says. McCree tilts his head to the side, considering it.

“Gabriel,” he repeats. “Well, ain’t that the prettiest name I ever heard.”

Gabe is suddenly grateful for the relative darkness; he can feel the heat rising to his cheeks. He clears his throat a little and holsters his shotgun.

“You need a hand?” Gabe asks. McCree shrugs.

“Wouldn’t say no,” he says. Gabe steps closer and leans down to offer McCree a hand. He glances at the fallen bodies. “Don’t mind them,” McCree says. “They got what was comin’ to ‘em.”

“Guess you’re not too good at making friends either,” Gabe says. McCree laughs, grabbing his fallen hat before using Gabe’s hand to pull himself up. His hand is warm and rough in Gabe’s own, surprisingly substantial.

“That’s for damn sure,” McCree says. “Not everyone’s appreciative of my charms.”

He’s standing close, his face close to Gabe’s. Gabe does his best to keep his eyes on McCree’s, but he can’t help but flick his gaze down to his lips.

“I can’t imagine,” Gabe says before he can stop himself. The corner of McCree’s mouth quirks up. He hasn’t let go of Gabe’s hand. Gabe clears his throat a little, but doesn’t pull away. “Do you need, ah - are you hurt?”

McCree rubs some blood off his cheek with the back of his other hand. He winces but shakes it off.

“Nothing I ain't had before,” McCree says. “Just need to get cleaned up.”

“If you need a hand -”

McCree looks at him curiously from under startlingly long lashes. He has a silvery pink scar bisecting his left eye. “Are you offering?”

“If you'd - ah. Yes, if you'd like,” Gabe says, not entirely sure why he feels so flustered. McCree grins.

“Not often I meet a gentleman in these parts,” McCree says. “You know the way back to the bordello?”

Gabe nods, not trusting himself not to put his foot in his mouth again. McCree slips his hand out of Gabe’s and wraps his arm around Gabe’s shoulders.

“Let's go then, handsome,” McCree says, his mouth close to Gabe’s ear. It sends a shiver down Gabe’s spine that he does his best to ignore. Gabe slips his own arm around McCree’s waist and starts off. McCree leans into him, limping. He's heavy - surprisingly so, though maybe Gabe shouldn't be so surprised any more - and the blood on his arm is warm and sticky.

It's a short walk to the Deadlock bordello, made longer by McCree’s limp. He's more hurt than he's letting on, but Gabe doesn't press. He helps him up onto the porch and hesitates.

“You got me this far,” McCree says, face half-illuminated by the lights coming from within the bordello. It makes him look softer, almost angelic, in spite of the blood on his face. “Would you mind helpin’ me up the stairs?”

“Of course,” Gabe says without hesitating. That earns him another smile from McCree, and Gabe would be lying to himself if it didn’t feel good. He finds himself smiling back at him.

Gabe helps McCree limp into the main bar, where only a few other people are lingering. The bartender from earlier spots them as they make their way to the stairs.

“Rough night, McCree?” the bartender asks.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” McCree says.

“Looks like you got someone to patch you up,” the bartender says, eyeing Gabe. “Let me know if he gets handsy.”

“He’s been a perfect gentleman,” McCree says as they mount the stairs. Gabe ducks his head. “‘Sides, when did you start worrying about me?”

“Who said I was worrying?” the bartender says, going back to counting the day’s earnings. “He was with that prick from earlier.”

“Ain’t always about the company you keep,” McCree says over his shoulder. “You oughta know.”

“Don’t make me whoop you,” the bartender threatens, mostly good naturedly.

“Somebody’s already beaten you to it,” McCree says. He leans a little more heavily into Gabe’s side as they reach the top of the stairs, slightly winded. “Almost there.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Like I said, ain’t nothing I ain’t had before,” McCree says. He pushes open the third door on the left and lets Gabe into a small but relatively neat room with a wardrobe and washstand along one wall and a bed along the other. The bedlinens are rumpled, with what looks like a thick red wool blanket bunched at the foot, and there’s a small stack of paperbacks on the floor at the head of the bed.

Gabe hesitates in the doorway as McCree untangles himself from Gabe’s arms. He goes for the washstand and rummages in the cabinet for a moment before coming up with a tattered washcloth and a bottle of what is probably whiskey.

“You want a drink?” he asks, holding up the bottle.

“I probably shouldn’t,” Gabe says, suddenly acutely aware of how small the room is. McCree seems to sense his discomfort.

“You don’t gotta stay,” he says. He eases himself down onto the messy bed, legs slightly spread, and leans back on his elbows. “You got me this far, and it’s more than most would do. If there’s any way I could repay you...”

Something about the way McCree says it - combined with his position on the bed - makes Gabe think he’s suggesting an entirely different form of repayment. He remembers, suddenly, that the Deadlock saloon is mostly a bordello, and McCree is most likely one of their… prostitutes? He feels a pang, somewhere in his chest, for the young man in front of him, wanting a better life for him.

Gabe has to remind himself that none of this is real.

“Are you going to be okay?”

McCree flashes Gabe a smile that feels just on the wrong side of forced - it makes something tug in his chest again. He tries to push it down.

“How many times do I gotta say I’ve had plenty, and worse, even?” McCree shakes his head. He takes a swig right from the bottle. “I’ll be fine, sweetheart. Though I appreciate your concern.”

Still, Gabe hesitates. McCree pushes himself back up to a proper sitting position with a wince that he tries to hide.

“Look, why don’t you come back tomorrow morning? I’ll be fine - you’ll see. And maybe I could even get you in nice with Skags,” McCree says. “Just as a thank you.”

“I was just doing the right thing,” Gabe says with a shrug. The corner of McCree’s mouth quirks up.

“Look at you, being chivalrous,” he says. There’s no bitterness, no hint of irony in his voice. Once again, Gabe feels the pang in his chest and the wish for better things for this man. “The angel Gabriel.”

“Oh -” Gabe makes a face, the color rising in his cheeks. He shakes his head. “Hardly.”

“Even a little counts for something in these parts,” McCree says. “Come back tomorrow, won’t you?”

Gabe thinks fleetingly of Jack’s half-formed plans. “I’ll do my best.”

“Lookin’ forward to it, sweetheart,” McCree says. He takes another swig from the bottle and then raises his eyes to look at Gabe, heavy lidded, warm, inviting. “You sure I can’t tempt you to stay?”

Gabe is tempted. Very tempted. It’s an alien, surprising feeling. There’s something about this man that is drawing Gabe in, and he can’t put his finger on it. He supposes it’s just part of the game, about which he’s still trying to maintain a healthy skepticism. But then again, he didn’t hesitate in shooting those men - the hosts - who were attacking McCree in the alley.

He’s being drawn into this universe, whether he likes it or not.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Gabe promises. “Take care of yourself, McCree.”

“Jesse,” McCree says. “You can call me Jesse.”

Back in his hotel room, Gabe can’t quite fall asleep. He tosses and turns, wondering about Westworld, Jesse McCree, and how he fits into all of it.

A different day, the same loop. Jesse slips from shadow to shadow between buildings, eyes up, alert. The moon is dark, providing him extra cover from prying eyes. The message in his pocket feels like it’s burning a hole through the fabric. New information about the Los Muertos gang and what they might be up to isn’t just valuable to Deadlock - plenty of folks in Sweetwater would pay a pretty penny to take the information for themselves, and still others would have no compunctions about killing Jesse to get their hands on it.

He’s close to the Deadlock bordello, but a noise on the otherwise quiet street catches Jesse’s attention. He ducks into the space between two buildings.

“Well, well,” a voice drawls behind him. “What do we got here?”

“Looks like one of them Deadlock whores,” another voice says. Jesse turns slowly towards the voices to see three men crowding him into an alley.

“Speak for yourself,” Jesse retorts.

“Oh ho, mouthy,” the second man says. “Definitely Deadlock.”

“We hear you got something interesting, and it ain’t what’s between your legs,” the first man says, advancing on Jesse. He holds his ground - he’s been outnumbered before, there isn’t any reason to back down now.

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Jesse says with a shrug. The man goes for his pocket and Jesse throws a punch without hesitating.

The response is instantaneous: the men jump on Jesse, raining down fists on his head and shoulders, beating him down into the ground. One of the men draws a gun and Jesse manages to push it away before the bullet goes through his brain. He curls up as best he can, trying to prevent searching fingers from dipping in his pocket.

He fights for his life, but the men are desperate. A knife pierces his side and it makes Jesse gasp in pain, then for breath, his lungs filling with blood.

One of the men straightens, hand held aloft, triumphant.

“Got it. Let’s -”

“Hey!” a voice floats down the alley to them. The three men exchange a look and run before the voice comes any closer. Jesse wheezes, trying to call out for help, his mouth too full of blood to make any sound other than a wet cough. He can’t get up. His face is pressed into the dirt, trying and failing to draw breath.

“Hello?” the voice asks again, closer this time. Jesse lifts his eyes but can’t move his limbs, his body heavy. The cold is spreading inwards from his fingertips. “Aw - hell.”

“Careful, you’re gonna stain your boots.”

“I think he’s dead.”

“It’s creepy. Come on, leave it - let’s go.”

Jesse tries to make a noise, but the two people are already moving away. With no one left to save him, Jesse bleeds out into the dirt.

“Jesse, bring yourself back online.”

Jesse blinks his eyes open slowly, the room coming into focus. He sits nude on a stool in the cold room, the lights too bright and the surroundings unfamiliar. Something like fear thrums in his chest, but he can’t do anything about it - he feels powerless to move.

“Can you hear me?” the same dry, accented voice asks.

“I can,” Jesse says. His voice comes out flat, emotionless. “I’m sorry I’m - I’m not feeling quite myself.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in a dream,” Jesse says.

“Yes, you are,” the voice says. “Would you like to wake up?”

“Yes. I’m terrified,” Jesse says in that same flat voice. A fly lands on his forehead. It crawls down the side of Jesse’s nose and up to his left eye. Jesse doesn’t react.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Jesse,” the voice says. “So long as you answer my questions correctly. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

The fly moves over the center of Jesse’s eye. He doesn’t blink.

“First, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

“No.”

“Tell me, what do you think of your world?”

“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to believe there is an order to our days. A purpose.”

“And what about the guests?”

“The newcomers?” Jesse asks. “My mother taught me that everyone was once new to this world. The newcomers are looking for the same thing as everyone else.”

“And what is that, Jesse?”

“A purpose.”