There is no warning the first time it happens. That comes later— nuance. Foreshadowing. The creeping sort of dread Jesse learns to recognize as impending agony.
Jesse is six years old when he sits up in bed screaming, the back of his head throbbing as though he’s fallen and slammed it on asphalt, his left arm a riot of pain. It’s crippling like nothing Jesse has ever felt before, and with it comes a bone-deep sense of absolute terror. His mother comes running, eyes wide, shaking off sleep with the rush of adrenaline that comes so often with a child like Jesse; always getting into things, sneaking into places he didn’t belong.
She puts cold, steady hands to his face, looking him over for some kind of wound, Jesse what happened, where do you hurt, baby?
Jesse can’t speak through the fear that’s taken up residence in him, through the sharp fire of hurt that’s living in his bones.
The clinic is thirty miles away, ramshackle and makeshift like everything back then. Tears track wet down Jesse’s cheeks the whole way there, the anti-grav units on their car shuddering in protest as his mother pushes it faster than it’s meant to go. The road is rough, and she apologizes with every bump and pothole, but the jostling of the unforgiving terrain doesn’t make the pain any worse. The terror has faded back but there’s something else left in its wake that’s hard for Jesse to place.
It’s unfamiliar then, but Jesse and hopelessness will be good friends in time, borrowed or otherwise.
The local hospital had been mostly gutted ten years back or so when the omnics swept through, but the clinic had salvaged what it could from the rubble. Rebuilding was steady but mercilessly slow out in the desert. They have the equipment they need to run tests, if not always the electricity.
It’s on right then, though, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead; Jesse puts on a threadbare hospital gown three sizes too big and lays down on a table so they can take x-rays and run him through an MRI machine. Jesse listens to the machine thump and whir and ping, eyes darting around at nothing, a vicious headache pulsing at the base of his skull.
There are no broken bones to set, no neurological issues to address. Nothing they can give him that will help with his pain, or the loneliness that has clenched its fist around his heart, and squeezed.
Pseudosomatic pain responses, the doctor says with an unhappy frown, like he’s giving some terminal diagnosis. Jesse and his mother just stare blankly, and so he continues, gesturing vaguely towards Jesse’s arm.
Empathic feedback, Jesse parrots, words sounding misplaced coming out of his mouth.
Jesse has a soulmate somewhere— an empath partner, except only doctors and scientists and teachers call them that. They’re hurting, and so Jesse is hurting. Most empathic links don’t form until a lot further on in life; late teens, early twenties. Jesse doesn’t know anyone his age with a soulmate link already.
When there is significant physical or emotional trauma, the doctor says, looking between Jesse and his mother with dark eyes, the link can form early, as a defense mechanism. It’s involuntary. Someone gets injured in an accident, or suffers some sort of significant loss or abuse, and they reach out instinctively.
Jesse’s soulmate is in pain, and alone.
His mother runs her fingers through his hair all the way home, Jesse still crying on and off, they don’t mean to hurt you, baby. They just need you right now.
Think warm thoughts. Reach for that place where you feel all lonely, and push all that softness you got there, instead.
You might be all they have.
Jesse watches the desert slip by outside their windows, stars bright and crystalline, and feels achingly small. He doesn’t have any warm thoughts that night. Just hurt that isn’t his own, and a sadness that makes it feel like he’s drowning.
Makes him feel like dying might not be all bad, if it meant this was over.
He sleeps in his mother’s bed with her, dawn creeping through the blankets they have tacked over the windows, listening to her hum softly.
He doesn’t have any warm thoughts, but he has this; Jesse doesn’t know if any of it gets through. He tries, though.
Jesse’s soulmate is always sore, always fighting, always scared.
Jesse is young, but he’s learned what it is to want vengeance for something. To want justice.
Jesse wants to find whoever is hurting his soulmate and hurt them right back.
There are times in the early hours of the morning when Jesse is getting ready for school when something softer comes through. Something safe. It’s how Jesse feels when he’s tired and tucked in bed with his mother, or an echo of it, at least.
Jesse closes his eyes and reaches for it. It’s the only comfort he ever feels from them.
It isn’t their fault, but Jesse clings to what he can get.
Mostly it comes at night, when everything is dark and quiet and there’s no one around to see. Broken bones and fists in his hair. Busted lips, and hands around his throat, and fear, fear, fear.
Jesse didn’t know being scared could feel like suffocating.
He knows about it, now. Knows about pain. Knows about sadness that wants to eat him alive.
He wonders about his soulmate— where they are, what they look like. Wishes he could hold their hand and tell them it’s gonna be okay.
Wishes he knew if he’d be lying. Jesse can’t reach the cookies his mother keeps on the top shelf, but he lies in bed watching the sun come up and thinks about the world going black forever with a fondness that’s both familiar and foreign.
Who’s hurtin’ them like this? Jesse asks, palm over his ribs where it feels like they’re shoved through his lungs. Hands shaking, eyes wet.
I wish I knew, sweetheart, his mother says, pouring out some medicine, thick purple syrup in a worn out plastic dosing cup. The chemical scent of grape, cheap and gritty where the powder isn’t dissolved right. Jesse doesn’t have a cough, but it helps him rest, sometimes. When the pain isn’t so bad he can feel it in his teeth, and his jaw, and his fingernails.
When his soulmate has gone quiet. Finally, finally.
Jesse thinks he loves them, but he wishes they would sleep.
Why’s it always at night?
Almost always, anyway. It wakes Jesse up, white hot agony crawling through him until he can’t think, can’t move, can’t breathe.
It might not be night where they are, baby. They’re probably somewhere far away, his mother says, then goes somewhere even farther and leaves Jesse behind.
Jesse sits at her graveside as they shovel dirt over her urn, a social worker lingering nearby, unsure how long they’re supposed to wait before carrying him off. Jesse has her hat pulled down over his eyes, knees hugged against his chest, no more tears to cry.
He’s gotten better at pushing warmth and softness and affection into the place where his soulmate feels hollow and alone. Better at finding someplace calm in himself, and letting it radiate until they can’t help but feel it, too.
Tracing the letters on his mother’s tombstone, it’s the first time he feels anything push back. Tentative, hesitant. They aren’t as good at it as Jesse. All he gets are the barest traces of uncertain comfort; a flash of something sorrowful that feels like an apology.
Jesse doesn’t know what for. There’s no way they know what Jesse has lost, but they can feel the ache. Even so, it helps.
Jesse is lonely, but he’s not alone. Will never be alone.
He pushes back with his grief, lets them both wallow in it.
If his soulmate knows anything, it how to breathe through the hurt.
Jesse is fourteen when he catches fire.
There’s been anxiety humming through him all day from somewhere across the world. They’re usually not awake this time of day, let alone this keyed up. He’s distracted all morning trying to push calm into them, give them an anchor in their turmoil. They can feel him doing it— they can always feel it— even if it doesn’t always help much. Still, they take comfort in it, when they can. Jesse edges into them and the despair slips back, if only for a while.
Jesse is a lot better at gritting his teeth and bearing the pain, but the past few days have been quiet. Whatever training or exercise they put themselves through has only intensified as they got older, but all week long there’s been no soreness, no blows, no ghostly punches landing heavy in Jesse’s gut.
Jesse thought he knew pain, but this is something else entirely.
His whole left arm feels like it’s been dipped in acid, then there are knives digging into his shoulder blade, scraping slowly across his skin. He’s got a little medical alert bracelet, the only one like it in his high school— silver with a bright red inscription. ‘Unknown Empathic Partner, High Feedback Incidence’. It had always been something his social worker made him wear even if he insisted it was useless, why do I need it, I only get feedback at night!
He falls out of his chair screaming in seventh period, clawing at his arm like he can get the skin off if only he tries hard enough. It intensifies until Jesse is shaking, until he’s seizing on the ground, eyes rolled back in his head and body so full of power and wrath and desperation that everything goes black.
Jesse wakes himself up once, shouting so loud his throat is sore, staring at the ceiling of the nurse’s office as a handful of teachers look on with wide eyes.
Wakes himself up again in the hospital west of the gorge, IV in his arm and monitors beeping. There’s a nurse in his face, holding Jesse down as he shakes, sedate him, he’s hurting himself.
Shit, he’s seizing again, I need some help over here!
The ache is still there when he is released, a constant throbbing soreness painted over his arm, heat resonating under his skin.
His soulmate is distant, the way they get sometimes when their pain is intense, or prolonged. They’re present but faraway, like they’ve floated out of themselves to leave Jesse numb. To leave him hazy, and Jesse doesn’t reach, doesn’t press.
Numbness is better than any alternative. Jesse leaves them to it, and goes to sleep.
He’s fifteen. He’s sixteen. He’s seventeen.
He wonders what they think about the cigarette burns on his forearm. About the occasional backhanded slaps, or fingers squeezing Jesse’s jaw. It’s easier to slip through the cracks in the system than it probably should be; Jesse leaves school and doesn’t go back. Leaves home and doesn’t go back.
Deadlock isn’t ideal, but it’s the first time he’s had a family since he watched them put his mother ground. Ashe is vicious and angry and hates the world even more than Jesse. It’s easy to fall in line beside her— Jesse has always been good with his mother’s revolver, always felt better with the grip in his hand. Bigger. Safer.
They run drugs and guns through the desert, get drunk and fight in bars. They stay up late getting high and talk about taking over the gorge. Taking over New Mexico. Owning the whole damn world.
Jesse is eighteen, and he feels ten feet tall with gunpowder on his hands, wild-eyed. Something feral, baring its teeth and willing to bite.
Sometimes he pulls the trigger, and there’s an instantaneous regret. The look on their faces, the sounds that they make. He wonders what his soulmate thinks, but there is only gentle concern.
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
They are always sorry, and none of it’s their fault.
Ashe has a soulmate too, but they’re soft and quiet and live what feels like a charmed life. Sore feet, sometimes. Broken toes. Jesse doesn’t wear his bracelet anymore but Ashe has seen him hissing through some particularly heinous feedback more times than he could count.
Jesus fuck, Jesse, they tryin’ to kill ‘em?
Some days, Jesse thinks so.
When he has some time alone and things are going better for his soulmate— gentler, without the insistent disquiet that is so often Jesse’s companion— he goes into his room. Locks his door, and slips his hand in his clothes. Jesse closes his eyes and works himself slow, sinking into the feeling, making it last. Sometimes they simply bear it; Jesse doesn’t hold it against them. He doesn’t know where they are, what they’re doing.
Other times the bliss becomes an echo. They never get off unless Jesse does, never initiate. But sometimes Jesse reaches, all want and heat and please, I need you, and they reach right back. Longing, and hunger, and yes, yes, yes.
Jesse would give them anything.
All he has is this.
Jesse wakes up dawn with his stomach in knots and anguish like an open wound in his chest. Sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s louder than usual, all that Jesse can feel.
Then there’s pain like a knife on his wrist, cutting down the length of it, and terror flows over Jesse in a wave. He staggers to his feet as though there is something he can do, somewhere he can go. Some way he can stop this, no, please please please. The pain comes again on the other arm, shallower than the first— Jesse thinks of shaking fingers, bloody hands.
He doesn’t have to push, doesn’t have to try. His grief pours through their bond until it overflows, and it comes back at him with an edge of anger he doesn’t understand.
All this time it felt like someone was doing their best to kill them, and they bore it all, only to try and do it themselves.
Jesse goes down to hands and knees and cries like he hasn’t in years. Curls in on himself, and his soulmate is drifting again, except this time it feels different.
This, this is what dying feels like.
Jesse knows he loves them, and there’s nothing he can do but let them drift away.
They come back sullen and sore and Jesse has never been happier to bear the pain of it all. He’s been putting off his Deadlock tattoo, but he gets it out of spite then— if they can take the things they’ve put him through, they can handle a stick and poke. It’s quick, mostly painless.
Jesse should have waited.
He’s so distracted trying to ease some of their misery he doesn’t notice Ashe acting strange, being distant. Months pass before things fall back to normal, sorry, sorry, sorry.
Blackwatch comes like a storm, and Ashe leaves him behind. A sacrificial lamb.
Something to occupy the dogs while the rest of them disappeared into the underbrush. There’s blood on Jesse’s hand. Bullet casings at Jesse’s feet. They put Jesse in a cell, and the walls close in, and he can’t breathe. This is it, the rest of his life, and he did it to himself, he deserves it, and he’s never gonna see the sun again, and—
There’s something hushed and gentle seeping through his bond. Something soothing, it’s okay, we’re okay.
Jesse laughs, a humorless sound, and wipes at his nose with the back of his knuckles.
Jesse is lonely, but he’s not alone, even if it’s not for their lack of trying.
He pushes back, okay, okay.
Blackwatch swallows him whole.
One of the doctors in the med-bay has a bracelet just like Jesse’s. Military issued, ‘Unknown EP, High Frequency Incidence’. They become the kind of friends that only pain can forge. They find each other when the agony is at its worst; sometimes they are both hurting, sometimes not. They massage each other’s shoulders to ease soreness that isn’t theirs. It doesn’t work— the pain is far away, nothing they can touch— but it’s the thought that counts.
Gabriel Reyes wears his soulmate bond like armor. There is no one and nothing that can touch him in the field, Morrison by his side, the two of them using their bond as a weapon. It’s beautiful to watch, and Jesse wonders what that’s like; a bond that makes someone feel strong, instead of small.
Instead of helpless.
Jesse is Gabriel’s right hand. He follows his orders, and executes them flawlessly. He grits his teeth through shattered bones and shallow cuts.
He grabs his face and hisses in the middle of a late night mission briefing, every eye in the room on him, you’ll hafta excuse me, sir.
Someone broke their jaw.
Sometimes Jesse feels them hunting. There is no other way to describe it— hungry anticipation, an undercurrent of tension. There is a power that lives in them that Jesse doesn’t understand, but he can feel it explode. Like fire, and fury, and Jesse’s arm tingles in a pale imitation of the agony he’d felt all those years ago as satisfaction hums alive in their veins.
He doesn’t know what they’re hunting, but it’s the best thing he’s ever felt from them, and Jesse doesn’t mind.
Jesse is twenty-eight.
Jesse is dying.
Jesse is dead.
Jesse is screaming like everything he’s ever loved is burning in front of him.
Jesse thought he knew pain, but this is something else. It’s not a physical sensation, not a knife wound or a broken bone. Jesse feels like his heart has been ripped out of his chest. There is no way to live through this, to live with this— there is only desolation and endless yawning despair. He crawls on his hands and knees to find Angela, but she is no better off. Both of them sobbing. Both of them shaking.
Genji comes to her in pieces. They put him to sleep with morphine, and she gets to work.
It’s him, she says, eyes glassy with lingering agony and a scalpel in hand.
There is an inkling of familiarity when Jesse looks at him, but it’s drowned in the sharp well of misery that swells over his head and buries him.
Then the pain fades, and Jesse is so far away that nothing will bring him back. He stares at the wall stone-faced, tears tracking warm down his cheeks. There is nothing from his soulmate— nothing, nothing.
It feels like they’re dead, except they still hurt sometimes, in vivid flashes of red.
Jesse expects it to stop, but it never really does. It ebbs, and eases, but doesn’t relent.
Blackwatch comes like a storm, and swallows itself whole.
Jesse is stupid.
He’s so stupid.
He’s clutching what’s left of his arm and trying to stop the bleeding and he’s never missed Blackwatch like he does in this moment. It’s his own fault for getting sloppy, letting what’s left of Deadlock catch up with him and take back what’s theirs.
Jesse wasn’t attached to the ink, but he isn’t all that pleased about being rid of it like this. He’s lost a lot of blood. The dizziness is setting in, which isn’t a good sign.
He feels it like a campfire on a cold winter’s night— only warming him in places, flaring and fading again.
It’s okay, we’re okay, and they aren’t, really, but it’s enough to get Jesse breathing again. They’re both more of a mess than they’ve ever been, but all their hurt comes from the inside, nowadays. Not necessarily better, but definitely not worse.
Someone swims up on the edge of Jesse’s periphery, red and white and blue and black.
Jesse’s never been happier to see Jack fucking Morrison, and he must say as much out loud, because Jack is shaking his head, you never did learn when to shut up.
Everything fades out for a while, but it’s okay.
Overwatch comes together again in fits and starts. The new agents are bright eyed and hopeful in way that Jesse can only remember in snatches of dreams. The old guard is dedicated but wary— they’ve done all this before.
They remember it falling apart.
Jack looms like a shadow, quiet and brooding and digging his thumb into old wounds when he thinks no one is looking. Angela is in the medbay trying to put it together into some semblance of functionality; she’s strained and distant until she isn’t anymore.
Genji is coming.
Genji is bringing his brother.
Genji is bringing Hanzo, who cut him to pieces.
Jesse isn’t sure how he feels about it, but he knows it isn’t anything good. Genji has spent hours with Angela and Jesse, please, you have to understand.
He’s been through enough.
He hasn’t been breathing through tubes and bleeding and stitched together with metal and silicone until he is more machine than man. He didn’t have to learn how to walk again on brand new limbs, or talk with a synthetic tongue, or breathe with an artificial lung.
Jesse doesn’t think he’s been through enough. Jesse doesn’t think he knows anything.
His soulmate has been tense with nerves and ready to shake out of their skin lately, emotions roiling wild in directions Jesse can’t anticipate. Disbelief, and hope, and ragged, untamed joy. Depression again, uncertainty. It’s keyed up even higher than usual today; Jesse closes his eyes and whistles and easy, it’s alright, just settle, baby.
They don’t settle.
He’s sitting with Angela in the medbay when they come through the doors, Genji in front, Hanzo in tow behind him. Jesse’s whistling cuts off, and Genji starts making introductions, but Jesse isn’t listening. Hanzo isn’t listening.
Jesse can feel Hanzo in him, vital and alive. His eyes take in the twisting blue of his tattoos. The scars he only sees because he knows where to look.
Hanzo is staring at Jesse’s prosthetic. He lifts his left hand and lays his right thumb in the center of his palm. Rubs at it, slow circles, like he always does.
Jesse feels it.
Like he always does.
Genji has trailed off, giving the two of them strange looks, but Jesse can’t be bothered to explain. Hanzo makes a noise, something wounded in the back of his throat. Then Jesse is on his feet, and Hanzo is in his arms. He tucks his face into Hanzo’s throat, feels Hanzo shaking. Genji had been right.
Hanzo has been through enough.
There is a lifetime of pain and comfort and loneliness and warmth between them.
Jesse loves Hanzo with every last inch of himself.
Knows Hanzo loves him, too.
He pulls back and kisses him— feels it, and feels it, the sensation echoing back at him with new layers of need. Want, and heat, and need you, please, yes, yes, yes. Hanzo presses into him, lifted up on his toes with his hands in Jesse’s hair. Tongues spilling together and his arms around his waist and Hanzo isn’t close enough.
He’s been so far away. Jesse can’t abide it anymore. He picks him up, and Hanzo’s legs go around his waist— they were made to fit there.
Hanzo was made for him.
Jesse carries Hanzo to his room, and pulls the blankets over them both, and holds him.
Sorry I wasn’t there, sorry I couldn’t help you, sorry, sorry, sorry. They don’t speak for a while. He doesn’t know what to say.
Jesse is thirty-eight, and he is not lonely, and not alone.