He could see it. The cracks trembling and threads fraying apart. Owen watched him closely, leaning over the table as Zarek talked to to Jak.
His friend was nodding stiffly, eyes wide and blank. Hands clenched into fists. He was so rigid that Owen figured he could bend him over and use him as a table instead.
Zarek said something, mouth moving slowly. Jak frowned slightly but smiled last second. One that showed tentative understanding and knowing. Something that Owen didn't know.
It made him scowl slightly and he glanced away. He couldn't help that he didn't know. The job of a Lancer seemed so far away and it left a burning hole in his throat. A rough swallow didn't get rid of the sensation either.
"Wanna grab a drink?"
The question startled him and he looked back to the source. Zarek stood there, glancing back at Jak as the man talked to some other Alliance member. Owen laughed.
"Sure, mate. You know I'm always down for a good time."
Zarek looked back to him. For the first time since the Freelancer had been back, a soft smile stretched up on the young man's face. Blue eyes were still sad but Owen matched the happy expression as he stood upright. He gestured Zarek towards the door dramatically. The man laughed and walked ahead without another prompt.
It was clear that Zarek wasn't going to address what was bothering him. Which was fine with Owen. For a while. As they both downed alcohol and smoked, he couldn't help but study the man.
They were close in age. Zarek maybe only a few years older than him. The same height; Owen thin and Zarek athletic. His hair was a bland brown, always short. Zarek's a chesnut colour that was messy and shaved along the sides. Ears sticking out awkwardly whereas Owen's didn't.
Both had blue eyes that someone could swim in. Owen's darker and Zarek's more alive. The man's more sunken in than his too. As if he never slept and Owen knew this to be true.
He couldn't count the times he had been leaving the bar or someone's apartment and found the Lancer wandering around. Once, just one time, Zarek had been sleep-walking.
The man had thought they were in Heliost and was so confused that Owen had gone along with it. It had worked at the time and Zarek seemed not to remember at all. There was much the man didn't seem to remember. Or at least stuff he simply didn't want to remember.
Owen drank his drink, watching as Zarek absently swirled his.
"All good, Zar?"
It made the man jump slightly and a sheepish expression was given to him.
"All good. You been sleeping alright?"
Owen didn't really care but Zarek seemed to flounder at the question. It ignited curiosity in him. Blue eyes looked away in nervousness.
"Course. Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know. You tell me."
Zarek's fingers tensed around his cup and he took a long drink. Owen followed as his adams apple bobbed. As Zarek pulled the cup away, the man spoke.
"It's almost the anniversary of the Heart of Rage."
This did interest him and he made a sound of acknowledgement. Zarek seemed to crumple in on himself. The Lancer leaned back with a short sigh and Owen sat up.
He rested his chin in his hand, looking at Zarek. Owen wondered if things would bother him like it did Zarek. If he would wake up at night lost in places he barely remembered.
There was a certain amount of discontent at watching him. Owen respected him greatly and didn't like to see him so down. It was rare too. Zarek normally was joking and smiling. Stuffing down any normal reactions and putting on a mask. Owen at least understood that.
"Wanna talk about it?"
"Nothing to talk about."
"You sure? Seems like there's something you wanna get off your chest."
The man took another drink and again, Owen watched him. This man could crush the life from someone even without his Javelin. It wasn't that Zarek was overly large or scary. He just was… Resilient.
"No. Just want to hang out with my friend."
The words made him smile. They did nothing to quench the envy stinging in him though. Zarek got to fly all over. Burn up everything in his path. See beautiful sights that he could only dream of. Hear the Anthem and not even understand it.
Owen just sat here and repeated the same messages for days on end. More envy burnt up his throat and he smirked.
"Oh? And who would that be tonight?"
His friend snorted in mock amusement and Owen grinned. He never once had seen Zarek take anyone home. Granted, most people disappeared as soon as they figured out who he was. No one wanted a Freelancer. Especially not the one that had survived the Heart of Rage.
It only made Zarek more interesting to him. Wanting to pry him apart for information and valiant tales. Owen usually loved seeing through his eyes but it was losing its allure. He wanted to see and feel it for himself.
The question confused him and the look must have showed. Zarek had been staring back at him but at his lack of reaction, he sat up. Lips pursed in regret and Owen realized what they had been talking about.
Eyes widened as he laughed.
"Me? You want to take me home?"
Zarek was quiet and Owen laughed even more. His friend flushed heavily and went to stand. He caught his wrist easily, tugging him back down.
"What brought this on? I'm not complaining for the record. Just curious."
Zarek chewed his lip for a moment, still not looking at him. The man took another long drink from his cup. When he finally drew it away, strained words came out.
"I… We've known each other a while."
It was prompted, teasing as he nudged Zarek. The Freelancer sighed.
"And I thought maybe that… I don't know. That it wouldn't be bad."
Owen laughed in surprise.
"Are you saying what I think you are, mate?"
"I-Yeah. I guess? I mean, I've thought about it and it wouldn't be upsetting to me and I-"
"Spill your heart out."
Zarek groaned, slapping his leg in annoyance. It was the signal that his friend was mostly out of his stupor but this was inciting.
"You don't have to embarrass me. If you aren't interested-"
"Oh! I'm very interested. Just wondering why now."
Zarek's flush intensified and Owen rather liked the shade. Pink against tan skin. Darkening it just slightly in an attractive way. He had never once seen Zarek anything more than either sad or composed.
"I just don't want to be alone."
It was said so quietly that Owen thought he had nearly made it up. And when the Freelancer turned to him, any thought of denying it was washed away.
"And I'd rather it be you."
A smugness came up at this. He stood immediately, extending a hand as he wobbled slightly.
"Then, tonight I'm yours."
Zarek stared at his hand for just a second before clasping it and allowing Owen to haul him up. As the Lancer walked out, Owen winked at the girl that had been eyeing them both up. She flushed.
That had been the beginning of it. And Owen wouldn't deny he wasn't pleasantly surprised. Zarek was… Giving. That would be the best word, he thought.
Owen enjoyed having the older man underneath him. Enjoying being the one to lead for once. Zarek let Owen wander. Let him do whatever he wanted.
Bend him this way and that. Leave burning marks along his shoulders and throat. Hand prints on his hips and soreness in his step. And he relished in it. Abused it in all the ways he could.
The Cypher had been with a good number of people; Zarek though, well, he was special. No one got to see him so undone. So plain and normal. It only made Owen tease him more. Poke and prode him now that he knew what he really liked.
As he pressed the man to a wall in the alley, Zarek twisted his fingers into his shirt. He laughed softly and went back to sucking a bruise along olive skin.
Zarek trembled against him and Owen leaned back up to kiss him. Lips opened to allow him in without any hesitation. Owen wasn't sure if it was stress relief or just plain enjoyment but he liked it irregardless.
His friend leaned away, breathing harshly.
"That's what makes it fun, isn't it?"
Zarek might have complained but his hand was already inside the man's pants. Blue eyes widened and that intense look came over them. Just like he wanted.
"You're such an ass."
Owen's eyes widened as he laughed and Zarek made a sound when he squeezed at him.
"But I'm fun."
The man rolled his eyes but a look of pleasure pinched his face. Hands were tightening in his shirt and Zarek brought their mouths back together.
He really didn't have any shame over it. Not while Zarek was moaning into his mouth and he was rocking against the man's thigh.
It got to the point where they were just grinding together and panting. Holding onto one another in the shadowed lane. Zarek was awkwardly thrusting into his grip and Owen couldn't help it. He whispered filthy things into the man's ear, just to watch him squirm and Zarek was growing louder by each second.
At this rate, someone most certainly would come look and Owen laughed roughly.
"Gonna bring the whole Fort down on us, mate."
Owen stroked him a bit quicker.
"I know it is."
"Get-Ah, Owen. Don't-"
The man didn't get to finish his statement. Zarek's head went back and a drawn out moan coming out instead. It sent heat through his body, tingling his limbs as he snickered. The Lancer went slack, putty in his hands and Zarek groaned in annoyance.
"Get glitched. Seriously."
Owen laughed, kissing him sweetly. He went to pull away but the hands in his shirt didn't release him. Half lidded eyes were even more focused than before and Owen grinned.
"Feeling generous, are we?"
It was asked playfully and Zarek pushed at him slightly. Owen moved back enough to let the man slide down the wall. His grin wasn't lost as Zarek knelt down and he carded his fingers into soft hair. This wasn't bad at all.
The door slammed open and Owen jumped. Stupidly, he spun around with a loud shout.
The excitement was cut short as he took in the sight of the man. Water dripped off him and he was shivering harshly. An expression of anger was so palpable that it seemed to suck out all the happiness in the room.
In seconds, the small group was up and disappearing out the door. Zarek didn't even look at the cards on the table or at the empty bottles laying around. Owen swallowed awkwardly and stood as well.
"You-You look mad."
It was snapped out and he winced sharply. Zarek was bleeding from along his jaw, crimson running down his throat. Owen was about to ask but the Freelancer spoke first.
"Just-Get out. I'm tired."
Owen wilted slightly, his fun buzz drying up. His shoulders dropped and Zarek looked away from him. The man said nothing else as Owen walked past him. One last look was thrown over his shoulder and Zarek shut the door.
He looked up as Zarek sat down beside him. The man was back to brooding and Owen tapped his pipe.
"For being an ass and throwing you out last night. Mission didn't go good."
"You seemed alright on your way back."
"I swear, if I had known, I would have come and got you myself."
It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Eyes widened harshly and Zarek clutched at his arm. Owen jumped at the frightened look.
"No! Don't you dare think of going outside without proper guards. You aren't ready to pilot a Javelin."
Owen scowled, looking down at Zarek's hand. The man retracted it just as quickly.
"Sorry. I just-Keep studying. You'll get there."
At this, Zarek stood and was gone. Owen didn't watch him go either. Simply re-packed his pipe and lit it quickly. Hot smoke stung at his lungs. It still didn't burn as much as the punishing anger he felt at the scolding.
They both stayed away from each other for a few days. And Owen stewed in his own venom over the incident. Did Zarek think he couldn't do it? It was true that he hadn't had many opportunities to show off his abilities. Not even his Cypher ones but still. He knew he could do it.
The books were boring. The lessons were boring. Owen was sure if he could only learn in the field, he would get it in no time. He wanted to help. Wanted to go down like the heroes of legend. And he wanted Zarek beside him for it.
It would be amazing! Both of them teaming up to bring back all the glory and praise! Owen could picture it so clearly that it seemed like it was just a step away. He had to make Zarek see it too though.
However, the man clearly had his doubts. This left him with a furious indigination he couldn't let go of either. Owen reread the same page over and over before sighing harshly.
He pushed it away just as said Freelancer walked in. Owen looked up, ready to argue but a warm box was pushed into his hands instead.
"A peace offering. I got you some of those tacos you like from the market. Fresh and everything."
"You didn't have to do that."
"You've been reading those books for days. I know how boring they are. Take a break, recharge and get back to it. I know you can do it."
Owen stared at him. Baffled by the sharp demand with the kind gesture. His mouth opened but no venom came out.
Zarek smiled in relief.
"I guess I owe you dinner, eh?"
The man laughed and looked over at him.
"Nope. We're good."
Owen sighed, taking a spot next to Zarek as the man looked back down at the Forge. They were fixing his Javelin. Metal had been peeled back and dented by an Ursix but Zarek seemed in good spirits.
"What's it like?"
It was asked quickly, a rush of thought and Zarek hummed.
"Like being unstoppable. You see the world fly by around you in splashes of colour and water. Feel the power of the elements at your fingertips. It's great."
That envy returned to pull harshly at his heart and he looked down too. Watching as Zoe and the others smoothed bronzed metal and welded it back into place.
"You can't be nervous at all. Have to always know what's going on so you don't glitch up and botch what you're doing. But once you get used to it, there's nothing you can't do."
"It…" Owen laughed. "That sounds awesome."
Zarek hummed and Owen glanced at him. The man was smiling softly, back to watching him. Owen flashed a smile.
"The tacos hit the spot, by the way."
"Maybe I'll give you the suit and take over as a delivery boy."
Owen laughed again, knocking their shoulders together.
"Then you'd know what it feels like to be a Cypher."
"Ah, I could never be as good as you."
The praise was said easily and Owen gave the man a curious look. He wasn't unhappy about it but Zarek seemed in an overly fond mood. Rare.
"I'll take that compliment."
Zarek just laughed, shrugging with that tired smile. Sunlight hit his face though and Owen near melted at the sight. He nudged Zarek again.
"Flattery will get you everywhere."
"Oh yeah? Thanks for telling me how to win you over."
"Oh no, you'll have to try harder than that, mate."
"I never could say no to a challenge."
Owen rolled his eyes and Zarek fell quiet but his smile remained. Both of them sat there, watching as his Javelin was turned in place.
"Should change the colour sometime. I think you look better in yellow."
At this, he stood up and Zarek called after him in surprise.
"Hey! Is that a dig at my bed sheets?"
Owen simply flashed him a coy smile.
It was the Freelancer that came looking for him this time. Owen awoke with a start, sitting upright as a soft laugh sounded beside him. He turned over to look and Zarek leaned his hip against the table.
He wasn't. His back and neck were killing him from the awkward position he had been slouched in. Owen winced as he rubbed at his neck.
"Couldn't have woken me up earlier?"
"You look so cute when you're asleep though."
Owen laughed, surprised at the brashness of it. He stood and bones cracked when he stretched. Zarek looked anywhere but him which only made him more smug.
"Here for a nightcap, Zar?"
He dropped his arms again, still sore from leaning over the table. All the books were scattered about but Owen didn't care about them right now. A yawn came up.
"Thought I would come and put you to bed."
He raised his brows and Zarek's cheeks tinted pink. Owen gestured for him to go.
"By all means."
Waking up the second time was far better. Zarek's bed was soft and warm, empty aside from him. Still though, the pillows were plump and clean. Blankets swaddled around him. Owen stretched just as he heard a kettle being set down on the stove.
As he came out of the bedroom, he peered over the railing. Zarek was in the kitchen and Owen nealy laughed at the sight. He really had done a number on him this time.
Bite marks and harsh bruises stained from his jaw down to his shoulder. Random ones along his back as well. His hair was a total mess, sticking up in odd angles and he shifted from foot to foot awkwardly.
"What a good wife you will make one day."
The Freelancer jumped, looking up at him immediately. One lip was swollen but a happy smile came up. It made Owen swallow harshly as Zarek laughed.
"Not me, mate. Bachelor's life for me."
Zarek rolled his eyes and went back to making breakfast. He cracked a few eggs in a pan before leaning over to grab the kettle. Owen was thankful for it because he hated the shrill whistle they made.
He quickly walked down the stairs and a wicked chuckle came up as he smacked the other man's ass. Zarek jumped again, turning to swat him away.
"Yeah, yeah. I know. Get glitched."
Zarek stuck his tongue out at him and Owen's eyes widened as he laughed. He sunk into a chair, moving to tinker with the radio. Soft music crackled over it and Zarek stirred at the food absently.
It was domestic. Strangely so and Owen leaned forward to rest his chin in his hand.
"Not many people make me breakfast, you know."
"Count me one of the crazy ones then."
"Oh, you're certainly crazy."
Zarek chuckled, leaning to pour them both a cup of tea. As the man walked his over, Owen smiled. He felt like a king today. The enjoyment wasn't lost because Zarek gave him a strange look.
"Just feels good is all. I could get used to this."
"It will be your turn next time."
He waved a hand.
"You know I'm shit at cooking."
"Is that why you primarily live off sandwiches?"
"Hey! Sandwiches are the perfect meal."
Zarek snorted and went back to the oven. Owen moved to grab his mug, inhaling the soft floral scent. Lavender. He sipped it before pulling away to blow on it.
"Still though," He continued. "It's rather nice, isn't? Cypher and Freelancer, living their lives."
"It's definitely a change of pace."
"One day, it will be Freelancer and Freelancer! We'll be quite the duo! Taking down monsters and silencing Relics! It will be glorious."
The man came over with the plate of food, toast wobbling slightly as he set it down. Owen smiled up at him. Zarek sent him one too but the expression didn't meet his eyes. Owen ignored it.
The year went by quick. Between Owen studying and Zarek scraping contracts together, the days flickered by. Sometimes… Sometimes he was content with things. Zarek encouraged him but Owen got the feeling it wasn't heartfelt. At least not all the time.
He still wanted it though. Craved the man's praise and his attention. Owen wouldn't admit it but the more they continued to work together, the more he desired it. They would be brilliant. He was sure of it.
Zarek seemed to be getting his confidence back too. More jokes. More laughter and smiles. It made it easier for Owen to harass him and drag him along into all sorts of nonsense. Currently though, this was a new thing.
The Freelancer was curled up, head on his lap. Owen had been reading but there was a simple peace that he didn't want to ignore. He set down the book carefully, watching Zarek to make sure he didn't jostle him.
Warm breath soaked into his side, half of Zarek's face pressed in near his hip. And Owen couldn't help but tug on a wild piece of hair. The man still didn't awaken and Owen tried again.
Zarek hummed, nuzzling closer to him and Owen laughed softly. He carded his fingers into thick hair, tugging again and Zarek sighed.
"Five more minutes."
It was mumbled out and again he laughed.
Zarek hummed in agreement. The man lifted a hand though and Owen was surprised when fingers curled around his wrist. Zarek pulled at his hand before setting it back down. Prompting him to keep going.
Owen grinned and began to smooth back his hair. Zarek yawned. Again, a quiet fell over them and Owen leaned back again. One blue eye cracked open to look up at him.
A wide smile was given, sleepy and happy. It made heat flicker in Owen's chest and he continued to touch the man slowly.
"Five more minutes."
He agreed quietly and Zarek pressed his face back to his stomach. Owen smiled, leaning his own head back as his eyes closed.
Like usual, he would dream of flying and of the Anthem. Of a million different flowers and waterfalls. Of all the things he wanted so desperately. And they were so close now. Especially with Tassyn hiring them.
His smile didn't fade and the warmth against him was a good thing. This was a good thing. Excitement bubbled up and Owen felt things were starting to fall into place. It was a new dawn for him and he could rest easy.
Jealously. Plain and simple. Zarek looked so happy to see Faye and even Haluk. Owen watched him carefully, knowing all his little mannerisms and methods.
He had felt envy plenty of times. Especially over the Freelancer but this wasn't that. This was a total possessiveness that came out of nowhere. Zarek had long abandoned his previous team. In fact, the man had barely spoke of them at all.
But right now? It seemed like that was all he had truly wanted. Wanted to be back with Haluk and Faye, riding around in that rusty Strider.
When he had taken that Javelin, it had been to help them. And of course, Zarek had come and stole all his thunder. Granted… Owen might have actually died but that was neither here not there.
He had been so excited to share the story but Zarek had cut him down so quickly. It hurt and Owen was agitated at the feeling. Who was Zarek to lecture him? Owen couldn't count the times he had caught Zarek glitched in his own suit. Barely able to move as old memories surfaced and the man was driven to panic.
How was that any different? How was that more helpful than he had been? Did Zarek think he was better than him? Any time they had spent together was beginning to seem like a lie. As if Zarek had purposely tried to make him feel better by offering himself instead.
It was a distraction entirely. He had gotten to comfortable with the Freelancer and now Owen was conflicted. He wanted Zarek to know him. To appreciate him properly. And he wanted Faye and Haluk to disappear.
This was supposed to be his story. His growth and glory. Owen was willing to share it with Zarek but watching him now seemed to showed it wasn't mutual.
Owen looked away quickly, emotion burning in his throat as he swallowed. Zarek laughed at something Faye said and he stood. The man didn't say anything to him as he walked past and Owen was beginning to take the silence as a sign.
He slammed down into the seat, squeezing harshly at the controls of the Strider. Getting yelled at again was one thing but it was the look. As Haluk had scolded him, Owen had looked to Zarek. The man had been totally silent, lips pursed. His face had shown all Owen needed to see. Complacency over his restriction.
It was obvious now that this was never going to happen. That Zarek would never truly see the value of what they could accomplish. Of what he could accomplish. The man continuously pushed him into studies but it was only to get him to step back.
And the betrayal of it burnt inside him like a vicious Wyvern trying to crawl out. Zarek was so willing to go back to Faye and Haluk like he meant nothing at all. Like everything they had was worthless. Just a placeholder in the man's life!
Owen pushed everything into action quickly. Hands shaking with anger. The jealously of all of it was consuming. He took a large breath, trying to calm himself but it only added to it.
It was clear now what he had to do. To truly make them all see what he could be. That other Javelin hadn't worked because he hadn't had the time! He hadn't had the moment to really grow into it! He had tried to explain it but not one of them had wanted to hear it.
Owen needed something… Better. Something bigger. Something powerful enough to prove he really could handle it. He looked out the windows of the Strider, watching as the jungle slipped past them. The idea was there but it would not be an easy choice.
The Dominion... They were murderer's plain and simple. But the Monitor. He would understand what Owen wanted. He had to. That's what the Monitor was too, after all. Both a Cypher and a Lancer. If anyone could show him, could really teach him, it was him.
And Owen wanted to hear it. He wanted to understand it all. Too long had he been pushed aside. Too long had Zarek and the others ignored what he could be. It seemed all they wanted was glory for themselves.
No, it wasn't an easy decision at all. But it had been Zarek to draw the line and Owen didn't walk on egg shells for anyone. If he had to give up on his friend, then he would.
"Did it mean anything?"
The audio scared him and Owen stilled entirely. He glanced around but his blurred sight gave no clues. Still… His Javelin picked nothing up on its radar and he spoke.
"How did you find this channel?"
"I'm friends with a Corvus agent and my Cypher has heard the Anthem twice. I bet I could pinpoint exactly where you are right now."
"I'd be gone before you got here!"
Zarek grew quiet and Owen swallowed at the choking sensation. He hadn't reached out since the last time. Since they had both longed for something that would never happen again.
Of course he had heard that they had killed the Monitor. Owen had even felt the Heart of Rage crumble as the Anthem went silent. But he hadn't reached out.
"You didn't answer me."
The statement brought him from his thoughts and he released a breath.
"Did what mean anything?"
"All the stuff that happened. Before Corvus hired us."
"Why are you asking now?"
It came out harsher than he thought it would. Nearly snarled out even though there was no anger anymore.
"I'm sick of not sleeping. Of not knowing. I never asked you before so I want to ask now."
"A little too late, don't you think?"
His old friend fell quiet again and Owen was afraid he had just dropped the signal. There was a tension at the open question and finally, Zarek sighed.
"Right. Well, it did mean something to me. And… Thanks for giving me the right shields. Maybe things could have been easier but you still helped. I'll make sure everyone knows it too."
"Because you might think I didn't want… That I didn't want to stick with you anymore but that isn't true at all. I was just scared."
Their last call surfaced in his mind. Zarek telling him of that dream that had frightened him. Owen made a sound of realization. Zarek cut him off before he could speak too, silencing his scathing remark with a softer one.
"I've never thought you were weak. I actually looked up to you. I still kind of do."
Zarek paused, taking a short breath before continuing.
"But I thought maybe if I could talk you out of the Freelancer thing that you would stop wanting to leave all the time. That I would have been enough. That what we had built could have been enough."
"I'm just trying to say sorry. For… I don't know. For not telling you, I guess."
His friend went quiet once more. The silence stretching on as he chewed on his thoughts. Owen's voice cracked when he spoke.
"You looked up to me?"
A weak laugh burst out.
"But you're you. The famous Freelancer. The man that will go down in history."
"And that man wasn't anything without his Cypher. His friend."
"I don't deserve forgiveness."
It was said honestly and Zarek laughed softly. Static clipping in their call.
"Neither do I. I don't know. Maybe one day, things will be different."
"Would you want that?"
The static popped loudly and it began to rain. Owen looked up but all he could see was smears of grey.
"Spill your heart out, Zarek."
"You don't have to embarrass me."
Owen laughed as water landed on his face. The air smelt fresh, the plants reacting to the coming storm. Warm wind rustled the lush surroundings and he blinked like it would clear his vision.
"What are you wearing?"