1. Ignore the strange.
One theory says that They came from the sky; that they fell with the last meteor shower, like Thor or the Chitauri.
Jack thinks They came from the underground. Feels it, even, when he enters the garage. Uneasiness envelopes him, and he switches off the radio that becomes overcome with static. He clenches his teeth when he gets out of the car and keeps his fists hidden inside his pockets. He doesn't need to look around to notice fewer people choose to leave their cars down here these days. Looking around is ill-advised. If he spots a shadow passing by out of the corner of his eye, he ignores it.
He jogs up the stairs to the ground floor and joins a nervous crowd of people awaiting an elevator. No one uses the locker room on the ground floor anymore; a new one was arranged on the operations level. No one turns to look at him when they hear his footsteps. They're looking straight ahead, their fists clenched, feet tapping, and throats clicking. Jack can swear he can hear their heartbeats in the thick silence—or maybe it's his own. He also doesn't look at them too closely.
The crowd fills the elevator hesitantly when it arrives. What if it breaks again? But there's nowhere else to go. Jack doesn't need to call for the operations level; someone else already does. The elevator doesn't break this time, at least not during Jack's ride. When they reach their floor, he follows the man to the locker room. Normally, the tension should leave him by now, but today he's still walking stiffly, his eyes fixed on the man's back. He realizes it's because he doesn't recognize him. It's not that he knows everyone who works in the Operations Division, but—
2. Treat strangers with respect.
The man looks at him over his shoulder with his yellow, frog-like eyes. Jack nods curtly in greeting. The man nods back.
Conversations quiet down when they enter the locker room. Jack walks over to the one beside Collins' who's stripping of his t-shirt. He notices the tense set of the man's shoulders before he pulls his STRIKE shirt on. He feels Collins' eyes on him when he begins changing himself.
He doesn't watch the stranger; doesn't know where he is or what he's doing, but he knows when he leaves—the whole room seems to sigh in relief, and the chatter rises up anew. He finishes changing and shuts his locker. When he turns around, he's faced with Collins who's still watching him.
"I heard about yesterday."
Jack reckons it would have been hard not to with half the team ending up in the medical bay. He spent half a night in there himself to comfort his harmed subordinates until doctor Garland told him to go home, that there was nothing he could do for them.
"I was lucky," he says though he can't be sure if Collins is following. They're not exactly friends, they don't always see eye to eye, but Collins has a lot of respect for him, and that's enough to make him a good teammate.
"Yeah, just in case you ran out of luck." He hands him something hard and cold, and Jack curiously closes his hand on it. "It's iron. Will ward—will protect you," Collins corrects himself swiftly because they don't need to ward anything off, why would he say that.
3. Protect yourself.
Jack looks at a pendant lying on his palm; a pentagram enclosed in a circle. Thank God for Collins' interest in the paranormal before They came. Sure, one can now buy amulets from shady dudes in long trench coats at almost every corner. It doesn't make them legit. Some of the dudes have yellow eyes and strangely colored hair.
"Thanks," Jack says, hanging it on his neck. He hides it under his shirt where it clinks against his dog tags. He will have to do something about it soon. "Don't you need it though?"
"I'm protecting myself in different ways." Collins moves his hand like he wants to touch Jack's shoulder, but he quickly resigns from it. "The team needs their commander, especially now."
Jack nods his thanks, then looks around at his men. He realizes, not for the first time, that they all rely on him to keep them safe and together. It puts a huge weight on his shoulders, but someone needs to carry it. He supposes he earned it.
People disappear all the time, and the number is significant enough that every news broadcast starts with a list of names. The trend is falling though; the lists become shorter every day. That means people got wiser, found the right ways to protect themselves. Still, sometimes Jack hears familiar names, and even after so many months, each time is a blow.
He's in a pub when he hears Collins'. It is located in the noisiest part of the city, between a restaurant and a night club, away from any parks or even lawns, and therefore deemed safe to visit by the citizens even after dark. It's quite close to the Triskelion, and Jack isn't the only SHIELD agent that finds it comfortable to unwind in here.
The news start, and the bartender ups the volume. It's a busy night, but the moment the patrons hear it, they cease all their conversations. Thick silence falls, and the newscaster’s voice rings too loud for Jack's comfort all of a sudden, but he has no other choice but to listen to the list until he hears, 'Collins, Hugh,' and the heartbeat in his ears drowns everything out.
He's holding his head in his hands when he feels somebody touching his arm and looks up. His vision is blurry, but he'll always recognize McKinnon's auburn ponytail. She offers a sad smile and takes a seat beside him at the bar.
"He wanted it," she says, and Jack blinks in surprise. "He gave away all his amulets." She pulls a herb bag out of her pocket to show him. Jack looks down at his own amulet, dangling from a double leather strap secured around his wrist.
"Why?" he asks hollowly.
She shrugs. "You know him. Curiosity killed a cat, as they say."
"Satisfaction brought it back," Jack mumbles as she orders a drink. She turns to look at him with smart brown eyes.
"Perhaps." She takes a big gulp of her Cuba Libre. "Yeah, let's hope he knows what the hell he's doing. Let's hope he'll get back."
Collins doesn't get back.
They usually don't, and the few that do aren't the same anymore. Sometimes they die, unable to readjust to the human life.
Maybe it's better that he doesn't. Maybe he's alright where he is.
That's what they're all telling themselves at least. Collins isn't the first friend they lost to They and he won't be the last; moving on and hoping for the best is all they can do about it.
Not everyone can just let their friends go though.
Jack isn't surprised to find Romanoff putting on Barton's purple jacket in the locker room one day. His quiver is resting against one of the lockers. She doesn't look at Jack when she picks it up and secures it across her back.
"You think you can find him?" he asks.
She keeps her gaze fixed ahead. "If I don't, no one else will." She picks up Barton's bow next and slings it on her shoulder.
Barton is one of the first that were taken due to him being an archer, and that was the probable reason of him not being returned yet. He has been taken for more than just entertainment, unlike the various writers and musicians that disappeared and came back in months later with both their physical and mental health depleted. If anybody has a chance to survive his kidnapping it's him, and if anyone can rescue him, it's Black Widow.
She throws the hood on, but Jack stops her before she can leave. He unties the strap around his wrist and hands it to her.
"You need it more than I do."
She scrutinizes the amulet with a frown, but then pockets it. "You just feel guilty wearing it," she says. "But thanks."
She gets past him to reach the door, but it doesn't stop him from saying, "I know you work alone and under Fury's orders, but you're still STRIKE. Believe it or not, but I do actually care about you. And him."
She pauses at the door to throw him a look over her shoulder, cold and calculating. Then she nods slightly. "The days are getting shorter. Leave early. Don't make me feel guilty for having this." She taps her pocket and leaves.
4. Don’t stay out after dark.
Jack leaves on time.
It starts to rain heavily at noon and it doesn't let up; the sky is fully clouded, and Jack doesn't notice the sunset until it gets darker. The dim lights in the garage flicker as he walks below them, and when one bulb goes out entirely, he sprints to his car. He tells himself it's the last time he parked in the garage as he hits the gas.
It used to be the traffic hour, but he notices there are fewer cars than usual. People have gotten smarter; they're less keen to go outside after sunset. He does get stuck in a small traffic though, and being surrounded by other people in their cars calms his nerves. He shakes his head at himself as he turns the radio on to fill in the silence that's been only disrupted by the rain hitting the windshield. He glances at his naked wrist; he had been getting by without any protection for months before Collins gave him the amulet. He doesn't truly need it; who knows if it was even doing anything.
As he drives on twenty minutes later, the streets gradually empty until his is the only car, and he tightens his hands on the wheel despite himself. He passes a Holy House on his way; a building taken over by They, easily recognizable by the trees peeking out from the windows. The upbeat music seeping from the speakers mixes in with static, and Jack's throat clicks as he swallows. He switches stations, but the static is always present, either in the background or drowning out the music completely, and it irks him enough to turn the radio off.
5. Don’t leave an empty seat in your car.
It's when the street lamps start flickering when he looks at the passenger seat and his heart leaps; it's empty. He always keeps his gym bag thrown across the backseat and leaves his jacket on the passenger seat, but today he was in such a hurry to leave the garage he forgot to take it off. An empty seat is an invitation.
The car slows down. He looks at the gas meter in surprise, but the tank is still half-full. He steps on the gas pedal, but the car just keeps slowing down. Then it changes lanes from the middle to the right one.
He sees a figure standing under a streetlamp when he looks up to check where he's going. It's a man—but not a human, not at all—with black hair and golden skin, dressed in a white t-shirt, dripping wet from the rain. He smiles when the car stops right beside him. He opens the door and gets in the passenger seat while all Jack can do is watch him.
"Thank you for stopping," he says, surprising Jack with the smoky sound of his voice. "It started to rain so suddenly, and I have such a long way home..."
The car starts moving again. Jack takes his foot off the gas pedal but doesn't brake. He tries to keep his eyes on the road, but the stranger has something magnetic about him that makes it hard to look away.
"It's been raining all afternoon." The apathetic voice sounds like it belongs to someone else as inside, Jack's panicking. The stranger is one of They, no doubt about it. Is it how Collins and all the others were taken? Maybe not; maybe this gentleman really needs a lift. Maybe Jack will be alright if he follows the rules and treats him with respect.
"As I said, a long way home," the stranger explains easily.
"Have you been walking all day? Is that why you're so dripping wet?" The white t-shirt seems to be glowing despite it being dark with all the lamps gone out. It's clinging to its owner's skin, revealing a toned, muscular body. Jack realizes he's ogling, so he snaps his eyes back to the stranger's face. He instantly becomes a captive of his unusual golden eyes.
The stranger disregards Jack's questions. "I'm Brock," he says with a charming smile, shifting his body more towards Jack. "What's your name, driver?"
6. Don’t give out your true name.
The warning echoes somewhere in the back of Jack's head. With difficulty, he looks away from Brock and focuses on the road in front of him. The car's still going straight ahead, and Jack suspects if he turned the wheel, it wouldn't change its route.
"Hugh," he replies belatedly. He feels instantly that Brock knows he's lying, and his hands clench the wheel again. "Where are we going?" he asks to distract himself from the feeling of his impending doom.
"Just outside the city," Brock answers. "Just drive. I'll tell you when to take a turn."
Goosebumps prick all over Jack’s arms and chest. The city is where the people, the lights, and the noise are, and therefore it's relatively safe, or at least much safer than the fields and forests surrounding it. It's They's territory—and of course, that's where Brock's taking him. Where else would he live?
"Turn right," Brock says suddenly.
Jack doesn't, but his car does. He sighs, watching helplessly as they pass the leaving city sign. The buildings turn into green fields, the asphalt into dirt, and Jack's car becomes the only source of light. He jerks when he feels Brock's hand slide down his arm. He mechanically turns his head to look at him and becomes entranced with his beauty again. His skin appears to be glowing on its own in the dark, and his eyes aren’t frog-like like the others’; they remind him of two little pools of gold.
"You keep looking at me, Hugh," he says, and his voice makes Jack think of a glinting dagger dripping with honey. "Do you like me?"
Jack's nodding his head before he knows it. He should be panicking, but he remains as calm as he has been the whole ride with Brock.
Brock leans in. "I like you, too. If I invited you in, would you come?"
It's funny, how it sounds like Jack has any choice in the matter, but the fog clouding his mind isn't letting him think clearly. He nods again, and Brock's pleased smile stretches his face.
The car slows down to a stop beside a house standing in the middle of a green field. Brock gets out, and Jack follows him through the tall grass and in between leaning trees to the porch. The steps look like they're about to collapse, and so does the entire building. Jack hesitates, and sensing it, Brock turns around to offer his hand. Jack doesn't take it.
"You live here?"
Brock frowns. Maybe it's just because of the trees casting shadows on his face, but his eyes suddenly look much darker. "What's the matter, Hugh? Don't you like my home?"
Jack's heart leaps and his mouth goes dry. He quickly chokes out, "No... It's..."
Before he comes up with something smart to say, Brock snatches his hand, and Jack's mind goes blank. Like in a trance, he follows him up the steps and inside the house where he's greeted by an earthy smell. Brock giggles suddenly, an odd but melodic sound, like wind chimes.
"You're funny, Hugh." He pulls Jack closer until he can reach his face. He runs his knuckles down Jack's cheek. Jack rests his hands on Brock's hips without thinking. "Do you want something to drink?"
7. Don’t eat or drink anything from an unknown source.
Jack's about to nod when he remembers another rule. He shakes his head then, and Brock curls his lip in disappointment, but only for a second.
"Do you want... me?"
No warnings come to mind this time, and Jack answers this one truthfully with no regrets because Brock is... He can't even find the right word for what he is, perhaps it doesn't exist in any human language, but it definitely makes Jack want him.
Brock grins then, with maybe too many too sharp teeth, but Jack pays it no mind. He lets himself be dragged farther into the house and up the crumbling stairs into a bedroom. The dust's dancing in the air to rest on the creaking wood floor and an old king-sized bed; clouds of it raise when Brock pushes him onto the musty sheets. He climbs onto the bed as well, bracketing Jack with his hands and knees, then leans in and kisses him. He tastes like earth, too, but smells sweet, like flowers and fruit and honey. Jack sighs and licks into his mouth, trying to taste that smell, but the muddy flavor only gets stronger.
Brock’s quick hands undress him until he's stark naked, and his body trembles from the cold he can't feel. He tries to say something, but Brock hushes him and his mind becomes clouded once more. Brock takes off his t-shirt—suddenly dry as a bone—and Jack's entranced with his perfect build and his skin glowing in the moonlight. He's surprised by how cold it is when he touches it.
"Aren't you cold?" It comes out as a slur.
Brock smiles. "You'll warm me up, won't you?"
Jack nods and tries to prop himself up, but Brock pushes him back down. Jack gets the hint and doesn't move anymore as Brock makes quick work of stripping of his pants. He grabs Jack's hard cock then, making him cry out at how cold his hand is. Brock hushes him again and presses their mouths together. Jack welcomes the distraction as Brock lines up his cock with his entrance, and when he leans away again, Jack's enveloped in his tight heat. He shuts his eyes with a moan, his hands that have just been tangled in Brock's hair dropping to the mattress, but Brock growls like an animal, and Jack snaps his eyes open, startled. Brock grabs a fistful of his hair and pulls.
"No. You look at me. Keep looking at me."
Jack watches him as he rolls his hips down, his heart racing from both pleasure and fear.
"What are you?" he breathes. Brock curls his lip again, so Jack gulps and corrects himself, "Who are you?"
Brock clamps his palm over Jack’s mouth. Jack takes a panicked breath through his nose. His cock throbs inside Brock.
"No more talk," Brock says in between pants, and Jack nods with his eyes wide.
A layer of glistening sweat is covering Brock's face, his neck, and when Jack slides his hands up his thighs, he feels him steadily getting warmer. The muscles tremble under his touch as Brock bounces on his cock. He tips his head back and parts his lips in breathy moans. The sight of him is a feast for eyes; a creature so perfect taking pleasure from him, from Jack of all people. It isn't long before the pressure in Jack's lower abdomen becomes overwhelming. Unable to control himself anymore, Jack grasps Brock's hips and pushes up, meeting Brock halfway, and they moan in unison. Brock's blunt nails bury in Jack's cheek, and he knows there'll be marks, but doesn't dwell on it, taken over by the need to come. He slams into Brock with all his might, knowing he needs just a little more, he's so close, and then Brock drives his hips down, and Jack's vision whites out.
It's still dark outside when he comes to, but the room is filled with moonlight. When Jack tries to sit up, something hard and cold bites into his wrist, successfully preventing any movement. He looks up; he's handcuffed to the headboard.
He tugs, but the handcuffs hold. It's no toy; they're solid, metal. He breaks out in a cold sweat. Is Brock going to keep him here? Or will he let him go if he asks nicely?
Furthermore, how much time has passed? The moon is still in the same position, indicating either a few minutes or twenty-four hours, and Jack suspects the latter. He missed work... Did his superiors report him as missing? Was his name read in the news broadcast?
He stares at the spot of moonlight on the opposite wall for a while when suddenly he realizes something and his blood runs cold.
When he arrived at the house, the only source of light were the headlights of his car. Meaning there was no moon. He cranes his neck back to look out the window and sees a full moon shining bright on the starry sky. Chills run down his spine as he realizes something is very, very wrong.
The floor creaks, and Jack tenses. He snaps his eyes towards the door and a moment later, Brock walks in. He looks a little different—his skin doesn't glow anymore and his eyes don't glimmer like gold; they're unnatural, repulsive yellow, and though his face is still just as beautiful as Jack remembers, he decides he doesn't like him anymore.
"Let me go." He tugs at his handcuffs again for emphasis.
Brock ignores him. He presses something to his lips and a sweet smell hits Jack's nostrils. Some kind of fruit.
"Come on, Hugh. Aren't you hungry?"
The fake name sounds like a warning, and though in fact Jack realizes he's very hungry, he purses his lips. Brock frowns, but doesn't try to force the fruit in. He picks up a glass with crimson red liquid and presses it to Jack's lips instead.
"At least have a drink."
Jack turns his head away. The liquid hits his face, spills down his dry lips, but he firmly keeps them closed no matter how much he wants to wet his tongue. Brock slams the glass on the nightstand.
"Suit yourself," he snarls. "Sooner or later, you will eat."
He exits the room, leaving Jack staring at a dark wall with glassy eyes as he realizes it's true.