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The Great Sealand Takeover

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Michael did not sign up for this shit.

It was all Geoff's fault. Geoff “it'll be so fucking easy” Ramsey, who had led him to believe that they would waltz into the hideout of this mysterious 'Edgar', put the fear of God into him with some well-timed explosions and the murder of a few of his henchmen, kill him if he still refused to back off Geoff's territory, and be out of there without a scratch.

“He's not nearly big as he thinks he is,” Geoff had informed them. “He'll have like half a dozen guys there, you and Ray can take them out easy. We'll have the element of surprise, too.”

The element of fucking surprise, yeah right – because the plan looked great on paper but somehow, somewhere along the line, something had gone wrong because Edgar was most definitely expecting them.

Half a dozen men? More like an entire God damn army, loaded up with SMGs and just waiting for them to arrive.

And now, here Michael was – crouched behind a wall near the abandoned warehouse, bullets peppering overhead and Ray bleeding all over his new shoes – waiting for Jack to come and get them the hell out of there.

He was not fucking impressed.

 


 

It began, Geoff had told Michael shortly after hiring him, on a Tuesday morning.

Geoff had planned a gentle little heist, the target a grocery store run by a man who owed him some money. Nothing big or fancy, just something to make sure the residents of Achievement City still knew who was their large and in charge criminal overlord.

Except when he got there – with Jack, of course, to back him up – the police were already there. The store had already been robbed.

Someone had fucking gone and hit his target before him.

“So I thought it was a coincidence,” Geoff had informed Michael, “But then it went and fucking happened again.”

This time it was a rather more serious business; a heist in a neighbouring city that Geoff had been planning for a while. Himself, Jack, and half a dozen hired guns hitting a bank in the inner city.

Yet again, they arrived just in time to see the police milling around, leading traumatised hostages out of the building. On the news that night it was reported that a man wearing a rubber cow head mask had robbed the bank at gunpoint along with a number of others. He had gotten away with millions and the police could find no trace.

Geoff was pissed, to say the least.

And then it happened a third time, this time back in Achievement City, his home turf.

The target: a rare painting being transported through the city as it was moved between museums. It was worth a pretty penny and Geoff had kept his plans a meticulous secret.

This time the target wasn't robbed before he could get there.

Instead, someone had tipped off the police, and the painting was under such a heavy guard that even Geoff wouldn't risk going after it.

“Sounds like someone's fucking with you,” Ray said, when Ramsey reached that point in his story.

Geoff nodded, taking a swig of whiskey, his pale eyes burning with irritation.

“That's what I thought,” he replied. “But the asshole wasn't done there.”

Indeed not, because the next thing 'the asshole' targeted was Jack.

It began with a mugger – nothing Jack couldn't deal with on his own, of course, and not even that rare of an occurrence in Achievement City. But when people started attempting to rob him literally every day of the week – and then, after a while, multiple times each day – well, that was fishy.

It didn't end with mugging, though. The next few people who tried to jump Jack weren't just after his money, they were after his life – and they were no common hooligans either. It wasn't long before Geoff caught wind of the fact that someone had put a hefty price on his boyfriend's head – and it was only with a lot of threatening, shows of power and a few bribes that he managed to clear the water enough for him to feel safe again.

“The last guy we caught,” he said, tugging agitatedly at the end of his moustache, “The one who tried to stab Jack – after I shot him in the dick but before I shot him in the head, he told me who'd put out the hit.”

“Who?” Michael demanded, quite caught up in the story by now. There weren't many people who'd dare to go up against Geoff Ramsey.

“Edgar,” Geoff intoned darkly.

Ray and Michael exchanged glances.

“Edgar,” Michael replied. “Who the fuck is Edgar?”

“I have no idea, but he's a dick and – oh, I forgot to mention, he also keyed my audi.” This last had Geoff's facial hair practically bristling in wrath. “Didn't just key it, either, he scratched a fucking picture of a cow into the paintwork. I'm going to kill this wanker and I will pay you to help me.”

“First name isn't much to go on,” Ray pointed out. Always the strategic one, that one, whereas Michael's main area of expertise was blowing shit up.

“I've asked around,” Geoff replied. “Word is he's holing out in an empty warehouse in the outskirts of the city. Hardly anyone's heard of this guy; he can't be all that big. With all four of us in, it'll be easy as dicks.”

Michael glanced at Ray again, who shrugged. It certainly sounded like an ideal job; they had worked with and for Geoff in the past and things had always gone without a hitch – with quite the reward in the end for them as well.

“Sounds good to me,” Michael said. “We'll wreak havoc on this prick for you, don't worry.”

Except he should have worried – they all should have – because despite their meticulous planning, despite their carefully selecting a random night and walking the last few miles to the warehouse so as not to attract attention – despite everyone playing their assigned roles to perfection (Michael blowing the warehouse door with charges, Ray and Geoff coming in guns blazing, Jack sniping from a distance) –

Edgar was waiting for them with his little army of machine-gun-wielding, assorted masked farm animals, and Michael was fucking certain he was smirking behind his stupid cow mask.

“Hello Geoffrey,” he had intoned, voice slightly muffled under layers of rubber, “How nice to finally see you in person.”

And then they opened fire, and somewhere along the line Ray ended up shot, and they bid a hasty retreat – which led to them here, crouching behind the stupid brick wall, Michael hardly daring to peek up over it to try and get a shot off because the machine guns were still going strong.

Geoff was somewhere to their left, Michael could hear him swearing, and his heart was pounding too fast because Ray just wouldn't stop bleeding and Jack really, really had to get a move on because he wasn't sure how much longer they'd last here-

With a screech of brakes, the black, armoured car pulled into the warehouse drive, bulletproof panelling causing their attackers' shots to bounce harmlessly away.

“Get in!” Jack hollered, sticking his head out the driver's side window.

Michael scrambled to his feet, ducking as another shot rang out by his head. Grabbing Ray under the arms, he hauled him up and half dragged, half carried him into the back of the van.

“Geoff,” Jack called, peering out – Geoff was still trying to get a shot off on Edgar. “Geoff, get inside!”

“We don't have the asshole yet,” Geoff spat back.

“We'll all be fucking dead if we don't leave now!” Michael shouted, and reluctantly climbed back out again. He grabbed Geoff's arm and the man jerked around so violently that for a moment Michael thought he was going to get punched.

But the barrage of machine gun fire still wasn't letting up, and even the bullet resistant glass of the van wouldn't hold up forever. Geoff hesitated a second longer before climbing up into the back of the van, and Michael quickly followed. They were barely inside before Jack took off down the road, back towards the city.

For a few hair raising moments he thought Edgar would pursue them, but he didn't – the roads behind them remained clear, and as they pulled around the hill, the warehouse vanishing behind them, all was silent except for their laboured breathing.

Fucking hell,” Michael gasped, finally, and then, “Ray!”

Ray waved him off. “'m fine. Hit my head when I fell, that's all – it just grazed me.”

Michael crouched by him anyway, batting his hands away as he inspected the wound. Ray was right; the shot had grazed the side of his brow, but head wounds always bled a lot anyway – he was more worried that Ray was concussed after slamming his skull against the ground when he fell.

Angrily, he rounded on Geoff.

“What the fuck, you told us he wouldn't be expecting us!”

“I didn't think he'd be!” Geoff shot back, fists clenching. He looked more pissed off than Michael had ever seen him. Any lesser man would be intimidated, but Michael had plenty of rage of his own and holy God was he annoyed right now. It had been a long, long time since he actually feared for his life, and if there was one thing he hated it was being taken by surprise on a job.

“Well, he was, so how do you explain that then?!”

“Michael,” Ray spoke up, putting a hand on his arm. “He was smarter than we thought. Happens.”

“It shouldn't happen,” Michael growled, but sat down slowly.

Geoff was still scowling, and Jack was casting him worried glances in the rear-view mirror.

“I'm going to kill him,” Geoff declared. “Fucking smug son of a bitch. Did you see him standing there fucking smirking at us like he thought he was so much better-”

“He was wearing a mask,” Ray pointed out, helpfully. “Couldn't really see his facial expression.”

“I could sense it,” Geoff insisted. He slammed a fist against the window. “How the fuck did he know?”

A tense, angry silence fell, during which it took the rest of the drive back to Geoff's apartment for the man to figure out why, exactly, Edgar might have known.

You,” he bellowed, coming to this moment of realisation as he sat in his living room downing a beer, turning towards the kitchen counter where Michael was dabbing at the wound on Ray's head and snapping at him not to complain when it stung.

“What about us?” Michael asked, turning to him.

“We were the only four people who knew about the plan,” Geoff growled, his gaze darting between them. “It wasn't me and it wasn't Jack so it must have been you two.” His hand was going to his gun and Michael reacted with alarm, grabbing for his own weapon.

Ray swung himself off the counter and raised his hands.

“Calm down, Geoff,” he said, “Michael and I didn't say shit. We don't even know who this Edgar is, why would we be working with him?”

“You say you don't know who he is,” Geoff snarled. His gun was still trained squarely at Michael's forehead. “How am I meant to trust you?”

“Geoff.” Jack's voice was quiet but stern. He had a hand on Geoff's shoulder, but Michael wasn't very reassured since Jack was starting to look suspicious as well. “No need to start shooting at people just yet.”

“He shot Ray, as if we're fucking working with him-”

“So who was it then, huh?” Geoff demanded. “Who else could it have been-”

Things were going to get ugly, Michael could tell – he was angry, and Geoff was angry, and two bad tempers with weapons drawn didn't exactly have a favourable outcome.

But before anything could happen, there was a sudden, loud knock at the apartment door.

They all froze.

Geoff glanced over his shoulder at the hallway leading to the door. Then he looked at Jack, who shook his head slowly, obviously having no idea who it was.

“Don't fucking move,” Geoff said quietly to Michael, before lowering his gun and heading off down the hall.

Michael put his weapon down as well, letting out a huff of breath. With Geoff out of the room, the adrenaline and tension of recent events drained away, leaving him nothing but exhausted.

“We didn't do shit,” he said to Jack, who nodded, though his face was still guarded.

“Geoff's on edge,” Jack said. “Edgar's been getting a rise out of him and targeting me really didn't help. Be that as it may... someone ratted on us, and only the four of us knew about the plan.”

“Nearly got us killed as well,” Michael grumbled. He turned back to Ray, who gave a small smile, obviously seeing his worry.

“I'm fine,” Ray insisted, reaching up to stick a plaster over the graze on his head. The sticky parts caught in his hair and Michael reached forward to help him out, taking the chance to study his expression. Ray was a chill bastard most of the time but this had him rattled; Michael could see how tense his shoulders were.

“Been a while since someone got the jump on us though,” Ray continued, and huffed out a laugh. “Not the best feeling.”

“You can damn well say that again,” Michael began, but trailed off as Geoff re-entered the room.

And that's when he froze, hand instantly going to his gun again. Ray straightened up, letting out a low curse as he drew his own weapon, and even Jack stepped forward with pistol raised.

Because walking in behind Geoff, face hidden behind a mask that was spoken of with infamy on the streets of Achievement City –

Right there in the room with them was the man who had killed more people than all of them combined.

Ryan fucking Haywood.

 


 

To say Geoff was stressed was the understatement of the century.

Fucking Edgar. Who was he? Why had he suddenly made it his life's mission to completely ruin Geoff's existence?

It was easy to act angry, to go on and on about teaching the bastard a lesson and getting him back for all the misery he'd caused – but when it came down to it, Geoff was worried. And things didn't worry him often.

Edgar was just so totally unafraid of him, and Geoff had spent a good decade building up his reputation.

“This better not be a fucking salesperson,” he called out as he approached the door, absolutely not in the mood for being interrupted.

He looked out the peep hole, but whoever was there was standing to the side, and he could only see a shoulder and some light brown hair.

When he swung it open, however, his breath stopped.

Ryan Haywood.

He'd recognise that mask anywhere – anyone would. It had been on the news a hundred times. Ryan Haywood the killer, the murderer, the mad mercenary who took jobs and bounties seemingly at random and never came close to being caught. One hundred percent success rate. When Edgar first put that hit out on Jack, it had been Ryan who Geoff had nightmares about – your average bounty hunter he could take on, but this guy – this guy was the assassin from hell. Last Geoff heard, though, he'd been on the other side of the country. Not here in Achievement City.

“Fuck,” he breathed – had Edgar sent Ryan after him? Would he seriously just show up at his front door if he had? – he reached for his gun but to his surprise, Ryan raised his (thankfully, empty) hands.

“I come in peace.”

It took a moment for the cogs in Geoff's head to process this.

What?” he ground out, finally.

Ryan pulled his gun and Geoff flinched back – but next thing he knew, Ryan was handing it over to him. He snatched it quickly, though he didn't doubt there were a hundred other weapons hidden on the man.

“Heard you had a run in with Edgar today,” Ryan said, surprisingly conversational. “I'm here to help out.”

Help out?”

“Yes,” Ryan said slowly. “That's what I said. I've got beef with Edgar, and I'm guessing you do too – I'm also guessing that today you learned the unpleasant lesson that he's smarter than we give him credit for.”

Geoff frowned, unsure what the hell to think – but before he knew it, Ryan was stepping into the apartment.

“So I'm here to help take him down,” he said, and gestured vaguely towards the living room. “I take it your crew's in there?”

“Yes, but- why the hell should I trust you?” Geoff demanded.

Ryan turned towards him and he got the feeling that there was a raised eyebrow behind that mask.

“Because,” Ryan said slowly, “I could have killed you before you even opened the door. I could have killed your boyfriend a few weeks ago, when every hitman in the city was out for him. The price on his head wasn't cheap. But I didn't, because I fucking hateEdgar and I intend to put him in a hole in the ground. And you're going to help me do it. We both know each other, Geoff, we've heard the stories – this could be the alliance of the century.”

Geoff bit his lip. On the one hand, it was Ryan. On the other...

Edgar had him very concerned, and if the best mercenary in the city wanted to help him out – who was he to refuse? And it wasn't as though Ryan had ever targeted him before. People in his city, yes, but the two of them had never come up at odds.

“Fine,” he said. “Let's see what we can do to help each other.”

Naturally, as soon as they re-entered the living room, the other three reacted with the expected alarm. Geoff quickly stepped in front of Ryan, who he could swear was amused by the fact that everyone was pointing guns at him.

“Chill out, guys, he's here to help us.”

“Help?” Michael spat. “Geoff, do you even fucking know who that is?”

“Of course I know,” Geoff said. “We all do.”

“Hi,” Ryan said, and waved.

Michael's mouth dropped open. He didn't lower his gun.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Jack asked quietly.

“As I told Geoff,” Ryan said pleasantly, “Edgar and I have some... unfinished business. I've been meaning to go after him for a while but the guy is cunning, to say the least. I never had the manpower. But with your help...”

“I think you mean with Geoff's help,” Michael cut in, and Geoff glanced at him in confusion. Michael was putting his gun down now, reaching out to grab his bag from the counter, and then Ray's arm. “We've done what you asked us to do,” he continued, turning to Geoff, “So pay us and let us get out of here before someone else gets shot.”

“I'm afraid you can't do that,” Ryan said.

Michael stared at him challengingly. The kid had balls, Geoff had to give him that; standing up to Geoff was one thing, Ryan Haywood quite another.

“Why the fuck not?”

“Did Edgar see your faces?” Ryan asked. “It doesn't matter, he's probably had eyes on you for a while now. He knows you were working with Geoff which means now you're targets of his as well.”

“Targets?” Ray asked. “What does that mean?”

“It means by now he knows who you are, where you live, and the locations of all your contacts,” Ryan said. “He'll be out to get you – all of you.” The mask swivelled to stare at each of them, and Geoff began to feel even more uneasy.

“I've seen him do this before,” Ryan said. “The guy's a fucking psychopath. He sets his eyes on something he wants – in this case, Achievement City – and he'll take down anyone in the way. It's only going to get worse, and not just for Geoff. We need to stop the bastard.”

“Ray and I have nothing to do with this,” Michael insisted. “We'll get out. We'll run.”

“Or we could kill him,” Ray suggested, and Michael turned to him.

“He just shot you in the fucking head, let's get out while we can.”

“Already too late,” Ryan spoke up. “But with my help, it's doable. We can take him down.”

“What's your plan?” Geoff asked.

Ryan gestured for them to sit down, but none of them did. There was a slightly awkward silence. Then he shrugged.

“Like I said,” he continued. “He's clever. So we've got to be smarter than him. First things first, he's got surveillance on you – so we need to move.”

“Move where?” Jack asked.

“Your oldest hideout, the one you haven't used in the longest time,” Ryan said. “Something far back enough that it's something he hasn't seen since he started watching you.”

“Can do,” Geoff ground out, “but what's the actual plan to get rid of him?”

The cold, blank stare of the mask fixed on him again.

“Geoff,” Ryan said patiently, “How do you normally take someone down? Someone powerful, someone who you don't quite know the reach and capability of? What's the first thing you do?”

Geoff stared at him, but it was Ray who answered.

“You take down their network,” he said, and Ryan gave an approving nod.

“Clever boy. We need a hacker, a specialist – someone who can help us track him down, tap in and get a good look at who his inner circle are. Then we take down his people first. No one is a threat on their own. Except me, of course,” he added. “But really. What's a king – or in this case, a cow – without his army?”

Things were starting to fit together. Geoff had to admit it was a better plan than rushing in blindly with nothing but bombs and bullets. He had always preferred the heads first, hands-on approach – but for Edgar he was willing to take things slowly.

“I know where to get such a person,” he said.

Ryan nodded approvingly. “Then we're all in agreement? We work together to bring down this son of a bitch?”

“No,” Michael spoke up, and Geoff fought not to roll his eyes.

“Michael,” Ray started, and pulled his friend over to the corner where they began a hushed conversation. To be honest, Geoff couldn't blame them – they were the hired muscle, after all, he'd pulled them into this when normally Edgar wouldn't have the faintest interest in them.

“You're sure about this?” Jack asked softly, and Geoff turned to him.

“What else can we do?” he said. “The guy has it out for us and from what Ryan's said, he's not gonna stop.”

“Since when did you decide you could trust Ryan?” Jack asked.

Geoff glanced over at the man, who was now wandering over to Geoff's minibar and inspecting its contents. It was still a little disconcerting seeing him right there in his apartment, his home.

“In all honesty, it was the moment he made a beef pun,” he mumbled, and Jack's lips twitched.

“We just can't be too careful,” he said, and Geoff reached out and pressed his arm.

“Don't worry, I've got my eye on him."

Ryan wandered back over to them and they both glanced up. Ryan's eyes, the only visible part of his face behind the mask, flickered to where Geoff's hand was still on Jack's wrist before he turned his head back towards Michael and Ray, still in hushed argument.

“Didi and Gogo over there better make their minds up quickly,” he commented. “Edgar will move fast and we should get moving as soon as we can.”

“They'll help us,” Geoff said dismissively. “Michael's one to fight, not flee. He's just rattled.”

As if on cue, Michael and Ray stopped talking. Ray reached out and squeezed Michael's shoulder before the two of them wandered back over, seemingly having come to a decision.

“We'll need to get some stuff first,” Ray began, and Ryan nodded.

“Me too. Geoff, send us the location of your safehouse and we'll all meet back there tonight. You and Jack can go and find us that specialist.”

 


 

 

Geoff had known Burnie Burns for a very long time. While the man appeared to be running an IT company, in actual fact he was renowned for his ability to put people in touch with other people. He had more contacts in a diverse range of places than anyone else Geoff had ever met, all with skill sets that came in handy in less than legal operations.

It was through him that Geoff had heard about Michael and Ray a few years ago, and since then he'd worked with the little duo of hired guns a number of times.

“You're not gonna tell me what this is about?” Burnie asked, as he sat Jack and Geoff down in his office and handed them both a beer.

Geoff shook his head. “Trust me, you don't want to get involved in this shit or people will start coming after you.”

Burnie pulled a face. “Well, from what you did tell me it sounds like you need a data analyst. Someone who can hack into footage for you, keep an eye on the streets – but also track down this guy's electronic footprints. I think I have just the person for you.”

“Good,” Geoff said. “So call him in.”

Burnie hesitated. “The thing is...”

“Oh great, there's a fucking thing.”

“It's not a big thing,” Burnie said. “I mean, I'm telling you, this guy's good. He's got an eye for detail like I've never seen before. He finds shit on security cameras that I wouldn't even notice. Slows it down or some crap, I don't know. But he's on holiday at the moment.”

“So take him off holiday,” Geoff replied.

“He, uh... he hasn't been taking jobs for the last few months,” Burnie continued. “The last one he went on went kind of wrong and... I don't know. He's just a kid, it shook him up and I don't know if he'll want to get involved in something so dangerous so soon.”

“Burnie,” Geoff said patiently, “I will pay this guy enough money for him to holiday his little ass off in Tahiti or Fiji or wherever the fuck else he wants. Besides, he won't be in the firing line. He just has to find the guy, we'll do all the heavy lifting.”

“I can get you in touch with him, but I can't promise he'll take the job. He doesn't live too far from here, I'll ask him to come over.” Burnie pulled his phone out and walked out of the office, leaving Geoff and Jack sitting in silence.

Geoff took a sip of his beer and stifled a sigh. He could feel Jack's eyes on him and knew the other man was concerned. He had been wound up for the last few weeks, Edgar getting to him – but it felt good to have a solid plan now.

“You alright?” Jack asked after a moment.

Geoff nodded, having expected the question, but after a second Jack reached out and squeezed his hand anyway. Geoff turned towards him, but at that moment Burnie noisily re-entered the office and his eyes darted straight to their intertwined hands.

“Ew, guys, no making out in my office.”

“We were literally just holding hands,” Jack scoffed, and Burnie shook a finger at them.

“I know you guys. One thing leads to another. I called him over, he'll be here in ten.”

Indeed, almost exactly ten minutes later, a scrawny, floppy-haired young man tripped into Burnie's office. He looked like he'd just rolled out of bed; hoodie half hanging off his shoulders and with a bed head reminiscent of a piece of roadkill, speaking before he even got through the door.

“I told you, Burns, I'm not bloody taking jobs anymore-”

As soon as he caught sight of Geoff his blue-green eyes widened and he straightened up. “Is that...?”

Burnie came up next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Did I neglect to mention it on the phone? Gavin, this is Geoff Ramsey and Jack Pattillo. Geoff, Jack, this is Gavin Free.”

“'sup,” Geoff said, with a half-wave.

Gavin made some rather high pitched spluttering sounds. “You don't have to introduce me to... you two practically run Achievement City! And you want my help?”

“Burnie assures me you're the best,” Geoff replied. “Why? That not the case?”

“I don't... I'm not...” Gavin looked a little lost, and Geoff suddenly found it almost endearing. “I wasn't taking jobs but...”

“But we're talking the most notorious – and richest – man in the city,” Burnie said happily. “Besides, he says you won't have to do any fieldwork. You'll be perfectly fine.”

“And well rewarded,” Geoff added. “Like Burnie said. We'll do all the dangerous stuff. You've just got to sit in front of a computer and get us some info.”

Gavin's eyes widened. He looked a little shellshocked for a moment, then considering. Geoff waited patiently.

“How long will it take?” Gavin asked after a moment.

“That I don't know. Could be two weeks, could be two months. It'll depend on what you find. We're hunting down some guy who has it out for me.”

“And I won't have to do fieldwork,” Gavin said.

Geoff nodded. “Yep. I promise. I'll fucking pinky swear if you want.”

A small smile twitched at Gavin's lips. “That won't be necessary. I'm in.”

 


 

 

Geoff could tell Jack was itching to talk to him, but they didn't have a chance to be alone. With Gavin in the back of the car, they were now making their way out towards one of Geoff's oldest hideouts – a large house in the outskirts of Achievement City, where suburbs began to stretch out into highways and farmland. It was a property investment from many years ago, on the border where urban turned into rural, and he hadn't been there in so long that he almost couldn't remember where it was. He hadn't had to hide out there for a while – but as with all his safehouses, it was well stocked with food and weapons, and he was pretty sure there was a computer setup in the basement for Gavin to work from.

Speaking of Gavin; he had babbled very nervously for a while about the weather before falling into an awkward silence. After a while Geoff switched on the radio, but the only channel he could find that wasn't staticky was some very fast, exciting banjo music that really wasn't helping the atmosphere.

“Loosen up a bit,” Geoff said finally. Gavin jumped at the sudden sound of his voice, and their eyes met in the rear view mirror. Geoff gave a reassuring smile.

“Seriously, you're tense as dicks and I can see it from here. You're making my neck hurt just looking at you.”

“I- sorry, it's just been a while and you guys are famous, so. And not good famous,” he added, and then winced as he realised how that sounded. “I didn't mean-”

Jack rolled his eyes, looking annoyed, but Geoff couldn't help but give a snort of amusement.

“Don't worry about it. Besides, you're on our side now. You will see us in our natural habitat.” To punctuate this, he let out a loud and tremendously long fart that he had been holding in for some time, thinking this a marvellous way to show the kid that they were all as human as each other.

“Fucking hell, Geoff,” Jack muttered, turning away and covering his nose. Geoff burst into loud guffaws and was pleased to see that even Gavin cracked a smile and laughed a bit. And then fell about gagging.

“Christ,” Gavin gasped, “That's – that's bloody rank, I'm gonna vom.”

Geoff just continued to laugh at him, his particular high laugh that Jack had always described as contagious. Gavin frantically wound down the window, and then complained that the wind was messing up his hair, but he seemed more at ease than he had been the last few hours, which Geoff took as a minor victory at least.

 


 

“Stop sulking,” Ray said, as they drove.

Michael was not sulking.

True, he had been sitting in a sullen silence since they left Geoff's flat to go back to their apartment and pick up their stuff, but it wasn't a sulk. It was a... a... a mature, calculating, contemplative thought bubble.

And he certainly had a lot to think about, because truth be told, he was worried, and worry wasn't really something Michael did. He got angry a lot, sure, but long ago he had mastered the art of Not Giving A Fuck, and getting stressed out over stuff – getting scared of things – that was a bit of a novelty.

But that moment, back at the warehouse – the moment that Ray gave a shout and dropped to the ground next to him and the moment that Michael, briefly, thought he had been shot in the head – thought he was dead

His heart had actually stopped beating for a moment, a wave of pure panic had overtaken him, he had felt cold – frozen – and for the first time in his life, sort of... lost.

He wasn't sure what he'd do if Ray died.

And that was why he'd freaked out – mostly internally, of course – when Geoff suddenly wanted them to help him hunt down his cow-headed tormentor. Why even now, an uncharacteristic unease was spreading through the pit of his stomach at the thought that Edgar might be after the two of them as well.

It wasn't fear for himself.

It was fear for Ray, and the stupidest part was, he had no idea why – it wasn't like they hadn't been involved in dangerous shit before. He knew Ray could take care of himself. He knew that.

So why was he suddenly so concerned for him?

“'m not fucking sulking,” Michael said, grumpily. He was driving, as they made their way out of the city towards the location Geoff had given them.

Ray glanced at him sidelong with something like amusement, and suddenly Michael felt almost embarrassed, a hot flush spreading its way up his cheeks. The thought of Ray finding out that he'd suddenly developed some sort of, what, fucking motherly instinct or something.... it was beyond humiliating.

“I'm just pissed Geoff dragged us into this crap,” Michael ground out.

Ray seemed satisfied with that.

“Could be fun,” he replied instead, only half joking, and Michael rolled his eyes.

“Could be fatal,” he pointed out.

Ray just shrugged. “Aren't they always?” he replied. “Besides, we're not doing it for free, so. Let's get it over with and get paid and then you and me can take a long holiday somewhere.”

“A holiday for you is just sitting indoors playing video games,” Michael grouched, but the thought did bring a smile to his face.

That smile vanished about two seconds after meeting Gavin.

They arrived at the safehouse with little further trouble. Michael couldn't argue with the fact that it would be a hard place to track down; an unobtrusive large country house on the outskirts of town surrounded by expansive empty land. There were dozens more of them along this highway and from the house it would be easy to see anything approaching. He could see Geoff's car already parked out front, and they were greeted by Jack, who was on door duty.

It was as they were beginning to unload their things that Michael, carrying an armful of weapons, turned into a corridor inside the large house and walked smack-bang into someone.

“Oof,” said the someone, falling back on their ass in a highly undignified manner.

Michael stumbled and everything he was holding dropped to the ground with a noisy clatter. He couldn't help but flinch – none of the weapons were loaded and they all had the safety on, but still. It was the principle of the matter.

“Watch where you're fucking going, geez,” he spat, glowering down at the guy – he reminded him of a flamingo, all giant nose and skinny, gangly limbs that he didn't seem to quite know what to do with. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“Sorry,” and to top things off, he was British too, “I wasn't – sorry. I'm Gavin. Data analyst, I'm helping Geoff – Burnie got me.”

Michael would have written him off as clumsy and left things at that – if Gavin hadn't chosen that moment to try and help out, picking up one of the guns and attempting to hand it to Michael by pointing it right at him.

In that moment Michael underwent the revelation that this guy wasn't just a klutz.

He was a fucking idiot.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you fucking moron-” He grabbed Gavin's wrist, hard, and quickly snatched the weapon back. “Didn't anyone ever teach you not to point a fucking gun at someone else?!”

“I- is it loaded?”

“No, it's not loaded, but it's the number one rule of gun safety. Don't point it at anything you don't want to shoot!”

“Oh. Sorry. That does sound familiar.” And then he laughed, nervously, and rage began boiling up inside Michael again as he gathered the rest of the weapons up.

“Of course it sounds familiar, it's fucking common sense. Stop laughing, you idiot. You won't be laughing when you shoot someone. Or when my foot takes a trip so far up your asshole it's navigating through your small intestine.”

The raw anger in his tone made Gavin snap his mouth shut, eyes wide and suddenly uncertain. By that point the shouting had brought Ray and Geoff over.

“Everything okay here?” Geoff asked, glancing between the two of them with raised eyebrows.

“Everything's peachy,” Michael snapped. “I've just met the guy who knows fuck all about weapons and will get us killed through his own stupidity after ten seconds.”

“He doesn't need to know about weapons,” Geoff pointed out, “He just needs to know how to track down Edgar. And he won't get us killed because he'll be staying here, in the house. Gav, that's Ray,” he added, pointing at Ray who waved, looking far more amused than was pleasing to Michael. “And the shouty asshole is Michael.”

“Hello,” said Gavin, a bit sheepishly.

Geoff clapped him on the shoulder. “I got the power up in the basement so you can set up your computers or whatever there. You two,” he added, turning to Ray and Michael, “Get settled in. There's plenty of room for everyone. We'll meet back in the living room tonight, start planning.”

Michael nodded and strode off. He expected Ray to follow, but when he was halfway down the corridor he turned back to find the other in conversation with Gavin. A deep annoyance settled in him for reasons he couldn't quite explain, and he stalked off to claim a bedroom.

 


 

The house was nice. Large and expansive, with two upper storeys and one basement down below. There were enough bedrooms for everyone to have one each, and Michael claimed a room at the end of the second storey hallway. He didn't unpack, leaving his belongings in bags stashed under the bed, in the hope that they wouldn't have to be here all that long.

After storing all his ordnance both in his room and in the common area for easy access, he went in search of Ray, who had not returned to the room. Not finding him anywhere around the house, it was with gritted teeth that he headed down to Gavin's lair: the basement.

Despite how long it had been since Geoff stayed here, the house was in good order. The basement was sturdy, warm and dry with dull yellow lighting that gave it an almost cosy feel. It was a large room with a low roof, and at least half a dozen computers were set up. Gavin was down under the table fiddling with one of them as Ray hung over his shoulder.

“'sup Michael,” Ray said, noticing his approach.

Gavin bumped his skull on the underside of the desk as he sat up too fast. Ray, to Michael's great annoyance, reached out and touched the other's head softly.

“Shit, you okay?”

“Fine,” Gavin said, scrambling out from the tangle of wires and such. He rubbed the sore spot vigorously, making his hair stand up every which way. A smile tugged at the side of Ray's mouth.

“What're all these screens for?” Michael asked, looking around – they were all blank, but there were a crapload of them.

“Surveillance,” Gavin replied. “I'm gonna be tracking Edgar's movements once I have a hold of him. You'd be surprised how much you can pick up from just public security cameras. We pass by them all the time and don't even realise that people can piece together our movements. Once we have a handle on him I can find out who he hangs out with.”

“Where are you gonna even start?” Michael scoffed. “We only have his name and I doubt it's even his real one.”

To his surprise, Gavin answered with confidence. “The warehouse. Geoff said he wasn't there in an off-road vehicle, which means he drove there on a normal route. It's far enough out that there's a tollgate you have to pass through, not to mention speed cameras at the entrance to every major highway. I've done this before, Michael.”

Michael didn't like the way his name sounded in the other's voice. He grit his teeth together.

“Yeah, well, get onto it. I don't want to hang around here any longer than we have to.”

“Pretty fucking clever, though,” Ray commented. “We could have done with someone like you a couple times.”

“No, we really couldn't,” Michael snapped, and Ray shot him a raised eyebrow.

“Really Michael? 'cause I'm having war flashbacks to hours spent trying to track down targets.”

“We did fine just the two of us,” Michael replied.

“Maybe, but when it comes down to it we're really just brawn,” Ray said. “You can't explode your way to Edgar.”

“Watch me,” Michael muttered petulantly.

Unfortunately Gavin had caught the word 'explode'.

“That's pretty cool, Michael,” he said brightly. “I've always found explosions intriguing. I reckon it would be top to film one in slow motion.”

“What would be the point of that?” Michael demanded.

Gavin blinked. “To see how it looks all slowed down of course. They happen so fast you don't see the process.”

“I don't need to see the process, I just need the end result.”

“What's the biggest thing you've ever blown up?”

“You'll be the next thing I blow up if you don't get back to work,” Michael said, and made his way back to the stairs. Ray followed.

“God he's annoying,” Michael said, and glanced at Ray to find him smiling. “What. What's so fucking funny?”

“Nothing. I just like how Geoff has managed to root out the one person in the world who is going to push all your buttons.”

“Don't you find him irritating?” Michael said, and Ray shook his head.

“Nah, man, he's fucking adorable. He asked me what the rest of the 'gun rules' were as soon as you went storming off.”

Adorable,” Michael muttered darkly, and tried not to think about why that should suddenly make a cold feeling spread through his stomach. Ray wasn't hostile – not the way Michael could be – but it was rare for him to get close to people. In fact, Michael could say with confidence that he was the only person Ray called a friend – and even then there were things they didn't tell each other, things they didn't do together – secrets and touches that they still weren't close enough to share.

“Whatever,” he said. “As long as he gets us Edgar.”

 


 

The sun was just starting to set when Ryan returned. Michael had headed down to the kitchen to see what their food stocks were like when he happened upon the strange sight of Ryan methodically making coffee while Jack sat at the kitchen table eating a muesli bar and staring at him in silence.

Michael still wasn't sure about the whole Haywood-helping-them thing; he didn't trust the other man as far as he could throw him, but when it came down to it they were both mercenaries on the job and as long as he didn't turn on them, they were all on the same side here.

He wasn't scared of Ryan, per say, so much as he wasn't confident he could kill him without being killed or mortally wounded himself first, but that wasn't a fight he intended to start.

“No one follow you here?” Ryan asked, without turning to look at him, and Michael blinked and exchanged a glance with Jack before working out that he was the one being spoken to.

“No. We were careful.”

“Good.” Ryan poured water into his coffee and turned around, leaning against the kitchen counter. “Wouldn't put it past Edgar to already be trying to get eyes on us.”

At that moment Gavin walked past the kitchen door. He paused, walked back, and did a double take, eyes fixed on Ryan. Michael knew that Geoff had already warned him the infamous mercenary would be there, but it was something else entirely to see him in person for the first time.

Ryan noticed him and turned towards him, straightening up. “You must be the specialist,” he said. “I'm Ryan.”

“I know who you are,” Gavin replied. “I've seen you.”

Michael got the feeling Ryan's eyebrows were rising behind his mask. “Seen me?” he questioned, and Gavin nodded.

“Yes – on security tapes.”

“Oh?”

“Never enough to catch you though,” Gavin added quickly. “You're a lot more careful than most people. But I've caught glimpses of you. Pretty impressive.”

“He has a one hundred percent success rate,” Jack cut in. “That's a little more than pretty impressive.”

“Do I get to know your name, then?” Ryan asked, and Gavin blinked.

“Gavin,” he replied.

Ryan nodded. There was a long, awkward silence in which Gavin lingered in the doorway and stared at the mercenary.

“You need something?” Michael demanded after a second.

Gavin bit his lip. “I'm waiting for Ryan to drink his coffee.”

They all looked at Ryan's coffee mug, sitting on the counter next to him.

“Um... why?” Michael asked.

“Because!” Gavin flapped his hands about. “I thought he'd take his mask off and... I was curious? Unless you're planning to drink it through a straw.”

Michael and Jack both tensed. Perhaps Gavin hadn't heard them, not being one for fieldwork, but there were rumours that anyone who had ever laid eyes on Ryan's naked face had died horrible deaths only moments later.

Ryan stared at Gavin for a long moment until the man began to squirm. Then he let out a deep chuckle.

“I was going to take it up to my room and drink it there,” he said. “But I think Geoff's gonna head down here soon, so I might as well dump it. Unless you want it,” he said, holding it out to Gavin, who shook his head, venturing further into the room and sitting himself down at the table beside Jack.

“No, ta, I don't drink coffee.”

“You don't drink coffee?” Jack asked, surprised. “You seem like the sort of guy who'd need to pull all-nighters often though.”

“That's what Red Bull's for,” Gavin said brightly. “But nah, I don't like coffee since it makes me poo-”

“Thanks for sharing,” Michael muttered.

“-and also I don't like anything that alters my body.”

“What the fuck does that mean,” Jack asked, sounding very confused. “Alters your body?”

“Like, it makes me feel all wired and awake."

Michael was actually in disbelief at the levels of idiocy coming out of this guy's mouth.

“What the fuck do you think Red Bull does?” he asked, and Gavin shook his head.

“I don't... no... energy drinks are different-”

“They fucking keep you awake like coffee does, what's the fucking difference?” Michael asked. “What about alcohol, do you drink alcohol?”

“Yes, but that's different, that's bevs!”

There's no fucking difference!” Michael practically screeched.

“There is, there is,” Gavin insisted. Michael wanted to reach over and shake him. He had a low tolerance for stupidity and this was some of the stupidest, most inane shit he'd ever heard in his life.

“I have to agree with Michael,” Jack said.

Ryan laughed, and Michael glanced over at him. He had to admit, Ryan was a lot... friendlier than he'd expected. From what he'd heard of the guy, he'd thought he'd be dead-silent with a lingering aura of menace. And... well, he felt dangerous, there was no doubt about that, but he wasn't hostile.

That didn't still mean Michael wasn't going to be wary as shit around him.

Gavin, it seemed, had no such qualms.

“Ryan,” he said, leaning forward on the table. “Ryan, how many people have you killed?”

“Too many to keep track of,” Ryan replied easily, as Michael and Jack exchanged alarmed glances and mutual thoughts of what the fuck is this guy doing and why is he questioning the dangerous assassin on all his past murders.

“Have you ever killed a guy while he's on the bog like in Unforgiven?

“Jesus Christ,” Michael muttered.

“No,” Ryan said patiently, “I have never 'killed a guy on the bog like in Unforgiven'.”

“Do you always work alone?” Gavin asked – and for some reason, that was the question that made Ryan tense. Michael and Jack stiffened, both ready to step in if Ryan got mad – but the mercenary just shook his head.

“No,” he said, voice now cold. Gavin's face fell a little at his shift in tone. “I have worked with others before. As I am now.”

“What about you, Gavin?” Jack said, in a valiant attempt to change the subject. “How many jobs like this have you worked on?”

To Michael's surprise, Gavin's face shuttered down. He suddenly looked almost nervous.

“Quite a few,” he said, vaguely.

“Details?” Ryan pressed, but Gavin shook his head.

At this point Michael realised he was not just a klutz, or an idiot with a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of caffeinated beverages. He was also a dick.

“You can't ask people nosy-ass questions and then refuse to answer them yourself,” he said, annoyed.

Gavin just shook his head again, and Jack rolled his eyes.

“I mean it,” Michael said, incensed, “That's hypocritical.”

“That's not what hypocritical means,” Gavin began, but Ryan pushed off the counter and they all turned towards him.

“He doesn't want to talk about it, he doesn't have to,” Ryan said, and walked out of the room. Gavin blinked a few times, seeming a little surprised at the mercenary defending him, before he quickly scuttled out of the room, seemingly retreating back to his basement.

Michael sighed. The stress and anger was pent up in him and he'd almost wanted to start a screaming match, if only to let it out. Usually boxing or video games did that for him – or blowing things up – but sitting around in this house with nothing to do but wait... it was starting to get to him.

“I hate him,” he informed Jack. “He's an annoying prick.”

“I'm inclined to agree,” Jack murmured. “He doesn't seem as professional as the ones Burnie usually gives us. I'm a little worried. But who knows, maybe he's great at what he does. We'll see.”

 


 

As darkness fell, Geoff began to feel edgy. He knew the chances that Edgar had found them here already were slim, but still. It was too quiet out here, in the country – he was used to the noise and vigour of the inner city. There was something ominous about the lack of traffic noises, about the scuttle of wildlife and the rustling of leaves replacing the sound of people bustling by on the streets outside.

They were gathered around the dining room table, the room lit by dim lamplight.

“So Gavin's all set up,” Geoff said. “How soon do you think you'll have something for us?”

“Can't say,” Gavin replied. In the shadowy lighting and the quiet of the evening he seemed older, more serious. “It'll depend what I find. Could be tomorrow, could be a few days, could be a week. He sounds like a careful guy, though, I reckon he'll have buried his tracks pretty well.”

“In the meantime, then,” Geoff said, “We keep a rotating watch. Nothing sneaks up on us without warning.”

They all nodded. The meeting devolved into them giving Gavin any information that could remotely help him track down Edgar – all the incidents they'd met him, all the things they knew he'd done – anything that could help him dig something out.

Ryan volunteered to stay up first that night and keep an eye out on the road, Ray opting to take the second half of the shift. The group separated and headed off to their rooms.

Geoff couldn't help but feel strange; it was one thing moving into a foreign house (even if he did own it), another entirely to be surrounded by people he barely knew. Jack was oddly quiet as they headed into the room they'd claimed, locking the door behind them. By the time they finally collapsed into bed Geoff expected to drop off instantly – he was exhausted – but sleep evaded him.

“What's biting at you?” Jack asked, his hand moving across the bed to wrap around Geoff's shoulders.

Geoff sighed. “People have messed with us before,” he admitted. “But something Ryan said when he showed up. 'I've seen him do this before'.”

He rolled over. In the glimmer of moonlight snaking through the shutters over the window, he saw Jack frown.

“Doesn't mean he'll succeed this time,” Jack said, and Geoff nodded.

“I know. It's just getting to me. What's biting at you?” he shot back, and Jack lifted his gaze to the ceiling.

“I don't trust them.”

“Who?”

“All of them,” Jack said. “We've worked with people before but- not like this, not on something this important.”

“Jack,” Geoff said, chiding. “We know Michael and Ray. They're professional, they'll get the job done. Ryan... even if I don't trust him, something about the way he talks about Edgar – I trust him to stay on our side as long as we have a common enemy.”

“And Gavin?” Jack pressed. “You can't tell me he's like any other specialist we've worked with.”

“We were young too once,” Geoff pointed out. “He hasn't given me any cause for concern yet.”

Jack snorted. “Shoulda seen him in the kitchen. Pestering Ryan with questions and refusing to answer any himself.”

“I'd rather he's comfortable enough to ask us questions than hiding away in the basement intimidated,” Geoff said.

There was a moment of silence.

“Nah,” Geoff said finally. “I'm fine with the other guys. If anyone can take this guy down it's us in combination, right?”

“Right,” said Jack. Geoff fancied he didn't sound fully convinced, but he was tired, and with Jack's arm warm around him he felt his body begin to relax and unwind. Slowly, he drifted off and let sleep claim him.

Chapter Text

Ray sat on the living room couch in the meagre light of a single desk lamp, Nintendo DS in hand. He wasn't even sure what he was playing – a Star Wars game of some sort that mostly involved mindless shooting – but with the volume turned down, every creak and groan of the old house settling seemed eerie.

Every few minutes he methodically looked up, scanning the windows outside for any danger, but all was silent and still. He didn't think Edgar would find them tonight.

He turned back to his game, keeping his ears open for any disturbance – when the creak of a door on the second level made him stiffen. He heard the pad of footsteps on the stairs and relaxed a little, figuring it was one of the others having woken up.

It was Gavin who emerged from the stairwell and headed into the kitchen, unaware of Ray watching him from the couch. Closing his DS, Ray got up and hovered in the kitchen doorway, watching as he moved to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water.

“'sup Gavin,” Ray said, and the other jumped a mile. He dropped the bottle but Ray lunged forward and caught it before it could hit the floor and spill everywhere.

Christ,” Gavin said, clapping a hand to his chest. “Don't do that – you nearly gave me a bleedin' heart attack!”

“Sorry,” Ray said, but not with particular remorse – at least until he tried to hand back the bottle and realised that Gavin was shaking like a leaf. “Shit – did I really scare you that badly?”

“Yes,” Gavin said, a bit too quickly.

Ray eyed him for a moment. He looked exhausted – not like someone who just woke up in the middle of the night but like someone who hadn't been sleeping properly for days if not weeks. It hadn't been noticeable in the daylight, when his face and voice were alight and animated – but here, in the night and the quiet, it was like there was something heavy weighing down on his shoulders.

“Couldn't sleep?” Ray asked after a second, and Gavin shook his head.

“Nah. Figured I'd go down to the basement and try get started on tracking Edgar down.”

“Good idea. Well, I'm up here if you... need anything.” There was an awkward pause.

Ray would not describe himself as a discompassionate man, but neither did he have any particular vested interest in the problems of anyone other than himself and Michael. He did, after all, commit other people's crimes for a living.

But watching Gavin slowly sip his water with trembling hands raised something like concern in him.

“You okay, man?” he asked after a second, and Gavin's eyes flickered to his. He gave a weak smile.

“Fine,” he replied. Then, after a moment, “Thanks.”

Ray shrugged. The lie was obvious but Gavin was entitled to his secrets. After all, they barely knew each other.

 


 

Morning came around with no further disturbances. Ray was used to spending half the night up and a strong coffee took care of any lingering tiredness he might have felt. He made one for Michael out of habit, and had it ready on the counter when he came down.

“Thanks dude,” Michael said. He didn't look like he'd gotten much sleep either. “Where're the others?”

“Ryan went outside. Geoff and Jack are still locked in their room, I figure they're banging.”

“Thanks,” Michael drawled, “Just the mental image I wanted this early in the morning.”

“Gavin's down in the basement, I'm about to head down and check on him.”

“He's off to an early start,” Michael mused, following him out of the room towards the stairs.

“He got up last night and went down to work since he couldn't sleep,” Ray replied vaguely. Michael frowned a bit, but made no comment.

Gavin was typing industriously away when they arrived. There were already two cans of red bull crumpled on the computer desk beside him, and Ray winced.

“You're gonna crash later today,” he commented, and Gavin looked up with a grin and a half-shrug.

“Maybe, but I made some solid progress! Want to see?” he asked, and turned one of the monitors towards them. Ray and Michael leaned forward.

“I see a fuckload of numbers I don't understand,” Michael replied, and took another swig of coffee.

“Yep, that's me tracking down Edgar's digital footprints.” He stretched his arms out, cracking the knuckles of his fingers methodically. “I started with two main things that Geoff told me – the warehouse, which I told you about yesterday, remember? Trying to get a read on Edgar's vehicle.”

“Yep,” Ray said. “The other thing?”

“Remember how Geoff said he was gonna steal a painting and someone tipped him off to the police? I got into their records and I've sort of hunted down where that could have come from. Combine that with the person who put the hit out on Jack – Edgar might have ordered it, but someone else did the legwork – and I've got a bunch of people who all seem to be associated with Edgar in one way or another.”

Michael perked up next to Ray. “Really? How many?”

“It looks like there's six main ones,” Gavin mused, turning back to his screen. “But I'll dig deeper and make sure.”

“You got any details on them?” Ray asked, and Gavin shook his head.

“Well, there's one who I'm certain exists and works for Edgar, and he's the one I'm honing in on now. Trying to get a name and a face. And once I've got him it'll be easier to pull out the rest.”

There was an approving grunt from behind them, and they turned to see Geoff hovering at the base of the stairs, seemingly having been listening in.

“That was fast as dicks, dude,” he said, and gave a thumbs up. “How long 'till you've got a name?”

Gavin shrugged, turning back to his screen. “I'm working on it.”

“Well, it's good progress,” Geoff said. He wandered closer and rested a hand on Gavin's shoulder. “Six of them, you said?”

He nodded.

Geoff 'hmmmed'. “Well,” he said then, “Come and eat something, you can't just run on energy drinks. Ryan just came back in and I'm sure he'd appreciate an update.”

As they made their way back upstairs, Ray fell back beside Michael.

“Sleep alright?” Ray asked carefully, and Michael glanced at him sidelong.

“Fine,” he replied. “You know me, I fucking hate waiting. At least we have a number now.”

 


 

 

Michael was right about the waiting; it sucked. Despite the threat from Edgar, Geoff still had to make sure all his affairs in Achievement City were in order, and he and Jack retreated to deal with that while Michael returned to tinkering with his explosives.

Gavin having gone back downstairs, it left Ray and Ryan sitting in a somewhat awkward silence, and after a while they decided to drive around the area for the sake of reconnaissance.

Ray wasn't quite sure how to feel, sitting in the passenger's seat beside a man he had heard hundreds of terrible stories about. He wasn't intimidated – that wasn't something he generally did – but he had to admit to feeling just the slightest bit uneasy. That damn mask didn't help. It just made Ryan seem even less like a real person and more like some horrible spectre of death.

“I've heard about you,” Ryan said abruptly, as they took a circuit of the grounds surrounding the house.

“What?” Ray asked.

Ryan turned towards him. “I've heard about you,” he said then. “You and Michael. No details, but I followed a couple of your hits. You're efficient.”

“Uhh, thanks. That coming from Mr One Hundred Percent Success Rate.”

Ryan snorted. “You're quite the up-and-comers yourselves, especially given the number of times you've worked with Ramsey. What do you make of him?”

“Geoff?” A little confused by this switch in topic, Ray took a moment to think. “He's fine I guess. Doesn't take shit from anyone. I trust him, if that's what you're asking. I think this Edgar is really shitting him and he's stressed about it, but he's not going to try and skip out on us or anything. Why would he?”

“Hmmm,” was all Ryan said. “And your Michael? Didn't exactly come running forth to help.”

“'My' Michael is fine,” Ray said curtly, uneasy at Ryan's tone. “You're the one we're all worried about.”

Ryan snorted and turned away. Ray glared at him for a second before turning back towards the window.

He had to admit, though, that Michael had been... off for the last few days. Twitchy, ants in his pants – Ray wasn't sure what was going on. He'd put it down to the moods the other sometimes got into. Stress or some shit. But if even Ryan, who had known them a solid 24 hours, was picking up on it...

Before he could dwell on it further, however, Ryan had turned the car back towards the house. Barely had they pulled into the drive than Jack came pacing out, waving to them.

“Get in here,” he called. “Gavin's got a name for us.”

 


 

 

Jack really was not sure what to make of Gavin. He seemed bearable, in the way small children and Taco Bell were bearable in small doses, but beyond that – there was something erratic about the guy, a twitchiness that Jack didn't appreciate. He had a sneaking suspicion that Gavin didn't completely want to be here. And that wasn't something that exactly fostered the team spirit.

Still, he had found a name, and that's what counted.

They were gathered around the computers in the basement, grainy security footage playing slowly on the screen as Gavin lectured.

“Okay,” he said, “So I had some footage of the guys driving to the warehouse, and there was footage of them robbing that bank you were gonna hit, Geoff – and then I noticed that one of the guys was there both times. So I checked that against a few other heists Ryan mentioned Edgar might've been involved in, and he's there as well, so I checked that against footage from some mercenary hang outs and now I know who he is.”

“Wait, how the fuck d'you know it's the same guy?” Michael questioned. “He's wearing a...” he leaned forward and squinted at the security tape from the bank. “A sheep mask.”

“I slowed it right down, y'see,” Gavin said, “His walk is the same, his shoes are the same in these two clips, see the way his right shoulder swings forward when he takes a step? He's using the same gun both times-”

“Jesus, okay, you've convinced me,” Geoff muttered. Jack had to agree – Burnie hadn't been kidding when he said this guy was observant. 

“Anyway,” Gavin said. “It looks like he's been working for Edgar the last few years at least. Seems to be his main muscle when he pulls jobs. He's a bounty hunter,” he tapped a key and a photograph of the man's face – slightly blurry, a caught-in-action candid – appeared on the screen. “Known as Thaddeus the Red.”

Ray and Michael glanced at each other.

“We ran into that guy once,” Ray commented. “Nasty piece of work.”

Jack nodded. “Yeah, I've heard about him.”

Ryan snorted. “He's careless. Overrated, in my opinion. It's the name, Thaddeus the Red. Fucking pretentious. It makes him sound a lot worse than he is.”

Geoff glanced back at Ryan in amusement. “Well, okay. But he's working for Edgar so we gotta take him down. Gavin, can you get a read on his location?”

“Already on it,” Gavin said. “He seems to be back in Achievement City now, I've traced him down. I...” he trailed off, hesitantly. 

“Yes?” Geoff asked, with more patience than Jack personally would have had.

“We're a bit far from Achievement City,” Gavin admitted. “Normally when I'm tracking someone, the closer I get to them, the more accurately I can pinpoint their location. From this far out here I can work out a general area though.”

“Well, that's not a problem,” Jack said. “We'll take you in with us and you can get us something more solid.”

“No!” Gavin snapped, instantly, and Jack blinked at the sudden almost hostility in his tone. “You said,” he continued, turning to Geoff, “That I wouldn't have to go into the field.”

Geoff raised his eyebrows. “Well, I did, but that was before I knew that going into the field was a requirement for you doing your job!”

“I'm not going in,” Gavin said, folding his arms, “I can get you a read from here.”

Michael stepped forward, already glaring in the way that Jack knew meant he was about to fly into one of his rages.

“You said yourself, it won't be fucking accurate,” he snapped, and jabbed a finger at Gavin's chest.

Gavin took a step back, but stared at Michael defiantly. “I can give you a general read,” he repeated. “I can work out the probability of his being in any given area. The super high accuracy is more for high profile targets anyway.”

Geoff looked considering, and Jack's lips pressed tightly together. A sort of unease was building in his stomach. 

Geoff wasn't a careless man, nor was he stupid – but he did have a tendency to wing plans on the fly. Jack preferred strategy, careful methodology and precision. When their job involved being shot at, it was better for things to go according to a delicately crafted plan rather than something made up on the spot. 

And given how dangerous they knew Edgar could be – taking any sort of risk, however small, was foolhardy.

“What's the problem?” he asked. Gavin's eyes flicked over to him. “We'll just bring you in in one of the cars. You won't have to confront Thaddeus. Probably won't even get that close to him.”

Gavin just shook his head again.

“What, are you scared?” Michael sneered then. “Jesus Christ, I thought you were a professional.”

“Michael,” Geoff said warningly. “Look, Gav, if you can do it from here I don't have a problem as long as you find him for us.” He grinned. “I did nearly pinky-swear to you, after all.”

Gavin smiled back, a smile full of nervous relief. “I can do it from here,” he assured them.

“Geoff,” Jack started, but Geoff turned and strode back upstairs, ignoring him. He shoved down a pang of hurt and scowled at Gavin as he turned to follow his boyfriend.

“Geoff,” he repeated, catching him by the arm. “Are you serious about this? Because this is Edgar we're talking about, he's surprised us before – we shouldn't be taking any sort of chance.”

“What the fuck do you want me to do, Jack?” Geoff demanded. “Tie the kid up and throw him in the car with us? He'll just refuse to work. Look, he's obviously adamant about this so-”

“So we put it off until Thaddeus is closer or we can convince him!” Jack said. “Don't get us all killed because you're rushing into this.”

Geoff glared at him. “I'm not rushing into anything,” he said, and yanked his arm away.

A throat cleared behind him and they turned to see Ryan, mask as blank and unreadable as always.

“Hate to interrupt your lovers' spat,” he said drily, “But we have some planning to do.”

“You want to go now as well,” Jack said, and Ryan shrugged.

“I've worked with less intel before,” he replied. “We can track people down ourselves. Gavin's information is a luxury. So let's get going.”

He walked past them into the common room and Geoff followed, leaving Jack standing alone. The man gave a frustrated sigh, running a hand over his face.

This better fucking work, Gavin.

 


 

 

Gavin had tracked Thaddeus to a metropolitan area of Achievement City, a small pocket of office buildings and shopping centres where the population was mostly Asian. They were unsure what business Edgar might have in the area, but Thaddeus had been caught by a street camera entering one of the plazas, so there they were headed.

“Michael, Jack, you're our drivers,” Geoff ordered. “It's too densely populated for Michael to blow anything up. Ray, Ryan and I will head in on foot and you guys stay in touch in case we need you to swing the vehicles around and pen them in.”

“If he has any electronics on him, grab them,” Gavin spoke up from where he was hovering by the edge of the table. “Could help me track down the rest of these guys.”

Geoff nodded, then pointed a finger at him. “You make sure you stay on the line,” he said. “Keep us as updated as possible.”

They were all staying connected through earpieces, and Gavin nodded.

The drive out was incredibly awkward. Jack and Geoff sat in a strained silence, their fight from earlier hanging over their heads. They were unable to continue it, though – or even talk it out – because everyone else was listening in through the comms. 

When the awkwardness finally became too much, Gavin, back at the house, broke into a nervous rant about a stomach virus he had supposedly contracted the previous month, and by the time they reached the city Jack was more irritated than ever and far more intimately acquainted than he had ever wanted to be with the bowel habits of anyone other than himself.

It didn't help that Gavin possessed the strange ability to nearly make himself throw up and constantly interrupted his own story with gagging noises.

“You're closing in,” he said finally, as they reached the area of the city they needed. “Oh – he's left the plaza. He's heading for the train station.”

“Nothing like catching public transport away from your illegal business operations,” Ray muttered.

“There's two entrances to the station,” Gavin advised. “Cover them both and you can catch him going in.”

Heavy traffic forced them to pull to a halt, but the train station was only a few blocks away, so those moving on foot opted to get out and walk. Jack reached out and caught Geoff's sleeve as he made to open the car door.

“Be careful,” he said, and Geoff gave a half-smile before getting out.

 


 

 

Ray was of the personal opinion that if you were going to have an epic code name, it should reflect some aspect of your physical appearance. Thaddeus the Red really ought to have red hair, or red contact lens, or at least wear red, otherwise what was the point?

It supposedly symbolised the blood of his targets, or some shit like that – far too metaphorical for his taste.

“I'm coming in from the plaza side,” Geoff said in his ear.

Ray moved to stand near the ticket machines. He leaned back against the wall, pulled out his phone and looked casual, glancing up now and then to keep an eye on the people entering. It was the middle of the day so the rush to get to work was over and the station was marginally less crowded than usual.

“Got eyes on him,” Ryan said finally. He was on the other side of the station, at the shopping mall entrance. “Geoff, stay where you are, he might make a break for it that way. He's heading up to the platform near where you are, Ray.”

“On it.” Ray turned away, realised he needed a ticket to get to the platform without drawing attention, and cursed, fumbling through a handful of change before he finally got through the ticket barrier.

There was a train coming in about three minutes, and the platform was crowded as a bunch of school kids seemed to have just emerged, ready for their commute home.

“Ryan?” Ray asked, looking around.

“I'm coming up from the other entrance,” Ryan replied. “He's headed for platform two.”

Trains could approach from both sides, and Ray pushed his way through the crowds, looking around. Finally he got eyes on Thaddeus, standing to the side of a group of people. He was a tall, muscular fellow, round faced with curly hair and dark glasses perched on the end of his nose. 

Ray's hand moved to the knife under his jacket. In such a public place it would be best to time it right, to stab him as everyone was occupied with boarding the train – but suddenly, Thaddeus turned and disappeared into the crowd.

“Uhh, I lost him,” Ray spoke up. “Gav? Where is he? You got footage?”

“I- no, hang on.”

He heard furious typing in his ear. And then, in his immediate surroundings, the rumble of the train approaching.

“I'm on the platform,” Ryan said. Ray caught sight of him on the other side, furiously scanning the crowds. “I can't see him.”

“Gavin, the train's coming in,” Ray warned, as the rumbling got louder.

“He hasn't come by me,” Geoff spoke up.

“Hang on, hang on,” Gavin said frantically.

With a screech of brakes the train pulled in to the platform and there was a flurry of movement as the crowds flooded on. Ray stepped back, watching to see if Thaddeus was boarding, but there were too many people and he couldn't find him.

“Gavin, is he getting on the fucking train or what?!” he demanded.

“I don't know!” Gavin cried. “I can't tell – the bloody CCTV is moving too fast, I don't have time to slow it down. I was tracking his phone signals but they're being blocked by something, maybe since you're underground-”

“God damn it,” Ryan snapped. “I didn't see him get on-”

“Wait,” Gavin said suddenly. “I think – was that him?"

“Did he get on or not?” Ray said – but it was too late, the guards were whistling for the doors to shut.

“I think he might have,” Gavin began, and the words were barely out of his mouth than Ryan sprinted across the platform and leaped through the train doors. Ray made to follow but he wasn't quick enough, the doors slamming shut as the train pulled away.

“God damn it Gavin,” Michael said, sounding frustrated. “Where's everyone at?”

“I'm on the train,” Ryan said.

“And I'm fucking not.” Ray's shoulders slumped, adrenaline fading away to be replaced by annoyance. “Geoff isn't either. It's just you and him, Ry-”

He broke off with a shout as someone shoved him, hard, off the platform and down into the railway. He landed heavily, turning his ankle painfully under him, knees grazing against the rusted metal of the train tracks.

“Ray?” Michael cried, sounding alarmed.

Ray stumbled to his feet, wincing as his ankle throbbed painfully – sprained, most likely, he registered vaguely. Standing on the platform up above him was Thaddeus, and as he watched the guy pulled a gun.

Fuck,” Ray hissed, “Gav, you fucked up, he's not on the train-” He dived sideways as Thaddeus fired at him. There was a distant scream from further along the platform as the few people left standing up there ran for cover. Ray pulled his own gun, but Thaddeus had jumped down onto the tracks as well and was advancing on him.

“Hang in there Ray, I'm coming,” Geoff said, followed by the sound of running feet. And then, moments later, “Shit, I need to buy a ticket – oh fuck it, I'll jump the barrier.”

Ray tuned out everyone shouting in his ear, instead pulling his knife as Thaddeus lunged at him. He managed to knock the gun from Thaddeus' hand, but the other man quickly pulled a blade as well. He was taller and stronger than Ray, and combined with his injured ankle, he knew this wouldn't be an easy kill.

He managed to get a punch in to his opponent's stomach, but as he stepped forward to follow up his injured ankle made him stumble and Thaddeus took the chance to land a solid blow to his jaw, knocking him sideways. Ray caught a flash of metal and rolled sideways, but not quite fast enough to avoid the knife slashing him across the arm. It was a shallow wound but it flared with pain nonetheless, and he let out a curse.

Thaddeus bore down on him again and, still on the ground, Ray grabbed his ankle and yanked him to the floor. There followed a mad scramble as they wrestled, both trying to get in a position to stab or slice. Ray finally managed to grab the man by the throat, but his hand was slippery with the blood dripping from his wounded arm, and his grip faltered. 

Thaddeus took the opportunity to flip them over, pinning him to the ground as he raised his knife.

Up on the platform Ray saw Geoff, sprinting towards them. He raised his gun, then seemed to realise that he was just as likely to hit Ray with them right on top of each other, and instead leaped down into the tracks and tackled Thaddeus to the ground.

Ray scrambled up in time to see Thaddeus grab Geoff by the throat and slam his head into the platform wall. Their target fell back a moment later, however, gasping – in the collision Geoff's knife had slid up between his ribs. Before he could pull it out, Ray crawled over to him and slit his throat.

“Now you are truly fucking red,” he said, as blood spurted out, and Geoff gave a half hysterical laugh behind him.

“Jesus, Ray, that was lame as fuck,” he said, moving over and searching Thaddeus quickly for his phone.

“What's going on?” Jack asked quietly, over the intercom.

“He's dead,” Ray said. “We got him.”

“Still on the fucking train,” Ryan grouched.

Train, Ray thought dimly – and it was then that he registered that holy crap they were still on the tracks, and the distant rumbling that the panic and adrenaline of battle had drowned out reached his ears. Turning, he saw lights distant in the tunnel, and grabbed Geoff's arm.

“Fuck, fuck, there's a train coming, get out.”

“What?” Geoff turned and caught sight of the lights approaching at increasing speed. “Oh, shit.”

Ray stumbled to the wall and tried to hoist himself up, but his ankle protested and collapsed under him. He could hear the scream of brakes starting and for a moment he could barely breathe, flooded with panic-

Then Geoff grabbed him around the waist, and lifted him up and onto the platform before pulling himself out just as the train pulled up behind them with a frantic screech.

For a moment they sat, catching their breath. 

“Let's get out of here,” Geoff said – security were already approaching from the other end of the platform, the startled crowd inside the train staring at them with wide eyes through the greasy windows.

Ray got up and Geoff grabbed his arm, supporting him as they sprinted out towards the back exit.

“We're waiting out back,” Jack said. And then, after a beat, “Jesus. That was close.”

“Come pick me up at the next stop.” Ryan's voice was decidedly unimpressed. “Where I am waiting. Because I was told he was on the train.”

There was a splutter from Gavin's end.

“I'm sorry, I didn't-”

Fucking hell, Gavin,” Michael exploded, loudly enough that Ray winced as his earpiece struggled to cope with the sheer volume of the man's voice. “Wrong fucking intel, Ryan gets on the God damn train, Geoff and Ray nearly end up dead – when we get back there I am going to fucking kill you!

Gavin gave a miserable sort of squawk and cut off the line on his end.

 


 

 

Jack had half expected Gavin to be packed up and gone by the time they arrived, fleeing their vindictive wrath. But in a feat of either extreme loyalty or extreme stupidity, he was waiting for them in the dining room when they returned in a stony silence – albeit with eyes trained on the floor and arms wrapped around himself as though they could provide some semblance of protection.

Not against Michael.

The moment he got out of the car Jack could tell he had flown into one of his rages. He'd seen them a couple of times before and they didn't usually subside until someone or something had been blown to smithereens.

“Come here, you little prick,” he snarled, advancing. “I'm going to beat the shit out of you-”

Gavin retreated around the table with a variety of panicked, bird-like noises, but Michael was faster. He grabbed Gavin's wrist and yanked him violently forward, fist drawing back to punch. Gavin flinched back, struggling to get away, but Ray stepped in, grabbing Michael's arm and tugging it down.

“Give it a rest, Michael,” he said.

“Give it a rest?!” Michael demanded. He turned to Ray and the sight of the blood dripping from his arm, the dirt and bruises marking his face from the scuffle, only seemed to incense him further. “You nearly died, Ray, because of this idiot!”

“I'm sorry,” Gavin began. “I thought-”

“You thought what?” Michael snapped. “That your fucking life was worth more than ours? Is that why you chickened out of going into the field? If you'd just manned up and gone maybe we'd have been able to get Thaddeus before he nearly took down Geoff and Ray with him!”

“That's not-” Gavin broke off with a noise of frustration. “I didn't-”

“You didn't what?!” Michael had let go of him now, in favour of gesticulating wilding. “You trying to tell me you're not a little bitch who cares about his own safety before everyone else's?! Huh? Is that what you're trying to fucking tell me?!”

There followed a ten minute verbal onslaught, 90 percent of which was profanity. By the end of it Jack had a headache and Gavin had his shoulders hunched up, backed up against the table, his gaze now permanently fixed to the ground.

“You done?” Geoff asked wearily, as Michael stomped over to the kitchen to get a drink. His voice had grown hoarse by the end.

“I'll be fucking done when he makes it up to us!” Michael hollered from the next room, voice cracking mid-way.

Ray rolled his eyes, but said nothing.

“Is it my turn yet?” Jack asked, only half jokingly – a cold fury had been burning in him since he heard the train approaching over the intercom, since that flash of fear as he heard Geoff scrambling to get out of there in time. He didn't get angry the way Michael got angry, though – yelling and screaming wouldn't help matters. Slapping Gavin would probably make him feel better, but he had a feeling that Ray would step in if he tried.

Geoff glanced at him. “Gav,” he said quietly, “Go get back to work. One might be down but there's still five to go.”

Gavin nearly tripped over his own feet trying to get out of the room. Ray hesitated, then walked out after him. Jack wondered why, but no one moved to stop him, and as soon as the two of them were gone he let out a heavy sigh, running his hands over his face.

“Geoff, cut him loose right now. He nearly got you killed.”

“Fuckin' ay,” Michael said, reappearing with a beer in hand. He looked a little startled at Ray's disappearance, and then frowned.

Geoff shook his head. “Look, we're all pissed off. I get it. I am too. But you know how these people work, Jack. Burnie's given them to us before. Hackers, specialists, consultants – most of them will refuse to go out where it's dangerous.”

“Most of them don't need to go out to do their jobs,” Jack pointed out, and Geoff shook his head again.

“That might be, but you can't force them into shit and I did promise him. Look, we're all tired, we're all sore, let's just leave it be. We killed Thaddeus and we're all still alive.”

Annoyance rose up again – he wished Geoff would stop brushing off the fact that he nearly died – would think about how that affected Jack, not just himself – but Geoff was already walking out, muttering something about going to take a shower.

“What do you think?” Jack asked, turning to Ryan. He had been watching the proceedings in silence.

Ryan shrugged. “Cut him some slack,” he said.

Michael gave a tremendous snort. “Cut him some slack? That's not how these things fucking work. You want to be on a team like this, you pull your weight. Or people end up dead.”

Ryan's head snapped around to fix Michael with his mask's blank stare. There was a sudden fury about him that made Jack nervous, that reminded him just why people were so afraid of this man.

“I know exactly how these things work,” he said coldly. “Gavin wasn't the only one at fault. We all should have waited, we all should have been more on guard. Pinning blame and accusations is just one other thing that makes teams fall apart.”

He stalked out of the room, leaving the two of them in a strained silence.

“Is it just me,” Michael said, turning to Jack, “Or is no one but us registering that what happened back there was, in fact, a catastrophe that could have ended really fucking badly?!”

Jack nodded furiously. “I need a drink,” he snapped, stalking over to the kitchen. “Because apparently my damn boyfriend doesn't take his own life at all seriously.”

I know right!” Michael cried, throwing his hands up. “I mean my – Ray too. Jesus. What's with them going head over heels for Gavin suddenly. He's a moron who nearly fucked us all over.”

“I'll drink to that,” Jack said, and did. 

The silence was now companionable, filled with alcohol and shared irritation.

“I'm glad I'm not the only one who realises this,” Michael said after a moment. “Or I'd go fucking insane.”

Jack glanced at him and gave a small smile. “Yeah, well. The next one better go according to plan.”

“It better,” Michael agreed darkly. “Or I'll have to blow something up.”

 


 

Ray limped down the basement stairs. Every step made his ankle protest, but he'd had worse. 

Gavin was sitting in front of his computers, but wasn't doing any work – just swinging idly back and forth in his chair, one knee drawn up to his chest, staring off into the distance. He didn't notice Ray had come up behind him until the other cleared his throat. Then he jumped a mile, nearly toppling back off the computer chair. Ray reached out to steady it.

“Shit,” Gavin gasped. “Stop doing that!”

“Sorry,” Ray said. He cleared a spot on the desk and sat down on it. “Are you okay?” he asked after a moment.

“You're the one bloody bleeding all over the floor, Jesus!” Gavin reached out and grabbed a handful of tissues, but Ray shook his head.

“Not those. They'll stick to the wound. I'll let it air a bit then get Jack to sew it up or something. I'm fine, don't worry about it.”

Gavin bit his lip, looking down at the floor. “I actually am sorry,” he said. “I didn't... I wasn't sure if he was on the train but I didn't mean for Ryan to jump on and leave you-”

“Gav,” Ray interrupted. “Don't worry about it.”

“Aren't you mad, though?” Gavin asked, glancing up at him.

Ray shook his head. “Nah. I mean, if I'd been hit by that train, yeah I'd be mad. But I let my guard down too. Schoolboy error.”

“Michael's mad.”

“Michael's always mad,” Ray chuckled. “You'll get used to it. Seriously, he screams a lot but he doesn't mean half of it.”

Gavin laughed bitterly. “I kinda think he did. I didn't... you know, it wasn't like he said.”

“I don't get you.”

“I mean, that's not why I didn't want to go out. It wasn't 'cause I didn't care about you guys' lives, I didn't... that's not how it was. I just...” 

He was tripping over his words by this point and Ray reached out, jostling his shoulder.

“Dude, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. You're not like the rest of us, you don't belong out there, I don't give a fuck if you don't want to go out. We just need to plan better next time, coordinate better. Maybe have more people on the ground and fewer driving, I don't know. This wasn't just on you.”

“Okay,” Gavin said. And then gave a small smile. “Thanks, Ray.”

“No worries.” He grinned. “Like I said. You're fucking clever, you tracked down that guy in less than a day. We should be like a superhero team. You do the computer stuff and I do the shooting stuff. X-Ray and Vav.”

“I like that,” Gavin decided, and Ray smiled at him before pushing off the desk.

“Good. It is official. Now I'mma go clean my arm before it gets all infected and I have to amputate it or some shit. Dude, google image gangrene.”

“What? No,” Gavin said, and then promptly did it anyway and fell about gagging. “Jesus Christ no I'm going to be sick.” He flailed an arm about. “Pass me the bloody dustbin Ray.”

“We call it a trashcan here,” Ray said, cheerfully doing so.

“Wastebasket,” Gavin intoned, deliberately posh, and then leaned over it and retched violently. “Get out of here before I actually throw up,” he said, voice muffled. “And please close the google window before you do.”

Because he delighted in being an asshole, Ray instead searched for chlamydia and left the image window on the screen before departing with a smile on his face.

He wasn't quite sure why he liked Gavin so much. He wasn't an unfriendly person, per say, but he had previously found very little need for reaching out and making friends. Michael's company was more than enough for him. But Gavin was different – Ray had spent so much time surrounded by mercenaries, criminals and bounty hunters, that someone from such a vastly different walk of life was refreshing.

It didn't hurt that Ray also found him incredibly amusing. 

He made his way back to the kitchen where he found Michael and Jack sitting, drinking and talking in low voices. They stopped their conversation when he arrived, and he made his way over to the sink, rolling his sleeve up to wash the dried crust of blood from his skin.

Jack caught on quickly. “I'll grab the first aid kit,” he said, getting up and heading out.

Michael came up next to Ray, who eyed him with concern. His earlier anger having mostly faded away by now, he looked nothing but tired.

“That okay?” Michael asked, nodding towards his arm.

Ray nodded, turning off the tap. The cut stung, but it wasn't deep.

“'tis but a flesh wound,” he said, and Michael managed something like a smile. Then he reached out and touched Ray's shoulder, and Ray sort of – froze, because they weren't really like that, they weren't particularly tactile with each other, at least not in quiet moments like this – and then after a second Michael drew back and there was a very, very awkward pause.

“Uh, you okay?” Ray asked after a second.

Michael gave a jerky nod, looking away. “Yeah – yeah, dude, I'm fucking fine, just – hell, Ray, this is the second time in as many days you've nearly been killed.”

“Yeah, well, I'm fucking indestructible-”

“You're not,” Michael snapped, so angry that Ray's mouth snapped shut in surprise. Michael looked a little taken aback by his own reaction, then sheepish suddenly.

“Just... you're not, okay, you're flesh and blood like the rest of us so – so don't get yourself fucking killed, alright?” 

“Um... alright, man,” Ray said, and Michael turned away, mouth twisting with something like embarrassment.

Okaay, thought Ray, rather confused. At that moment Jack returned, and he sat down on a chair at the table, holding his arm out for the man to clean and dress the wound.

He had been a little irritated before at how Jack and Michael ganged up on Gavin. But Jack's hands were very gentle as he patched him up, and this close to the other man he could see that he looked just as tired and worn down as the rest of them. And then, he remembered, Geoff had nearly been killed too – they were just worried. Worried, and stressed, and Gavin was an easy target and partly to blame to boot.

“That feel okay now?” Jack asked. “I don't think you need stitches.”

“Nah, I'm good. Thanks,” Ray added, and Jack nodded, turning to pack everything away.

 


 

 

Six of them in one house and no one had bothered to do the damn dishes.

Jack ended up doing them, just because everyone else had drifted off and he had nothing else to do. And maybe – truth be told – because he was avoiding going upstairs and the inevitable conflict with Geoff.

As it was, he washed up. And then put everything away. And then, when he could put it off no longer, picked up the first aid kit from where he'd left it on the table, and headed for the bedrooms in resignation.

He bumped into Gavin on the way. The man was emerging from the bathroom and when he saw Jack he looked away nervously. Probably because Jack had scowled, his annoyance from earlier flaring up again.

Still, the house was oddly quiet, even Gavin managing to make his way back down to the basement with barely a sound. It was disconcerting and only added to the feeling of something horrible brewing on the horizon. Ray was back in his room, the door shut, Michael on watch outside. Ryan hadn't been seen since he walked out of the kitchen earlier and Jack didn't know if he was in his room, or had headed out, or what. There's a serious lack of communication going on around here, he thought, a touch bitterly.

The door to his room was shut, and he rapped gently before opening it. Geoff was sitting on the bed, shirtless, drying his hair with a towel. He glanced up as Jack entered.

“Hey,” Jack said quietly.

Geoff gave a small wave, turning towards the mirror opposite the bed and fiddling with the ends of his moustache, which were drooping slightly in the humidity of the steam coming from the ensuite bathroom.

Glancing over, Jack caught sight of a scrape on his boyfriend's head, and with a muttered curse moved to sit next to him.

“What?” Geoff asked, noticing his stare.

“Your head.” He reached out and turned Geoff's face towards him, inspecting the wound. “What happened?”

“Fucking Thaddeus hit my head on the wall. It's fine, I'm not concussed.”

“I'll put some ointment on it.”

Geoff chuckled as he turned to the first aid kit, and Jack glanced back at him with a raised eyebrow. “What?”

“Nothing.” Another laugh. “You're just like a fucking mother bear is all.”

“Oh shut up.” He threw a bandaid into Geoff's lap. “Fix it yourself if that's how you're gonna be about it.”

“Sorry,” Geoff said, still far too amused. Jack smiled faintly, but couldn't help wishing he was apologising for something else entirely.

Geoff wasn't stupid, and caught onto his mood quickly.

“You're still pissed,” he said.

Jack let out a huff of breath. “Of course I am,” he said. “You almost died, Geoff, don't brush it off like it's nothing. One second more and you'd have been flattened by that train.”

“I'll be sure to stay behind the yellow line next time.”

“I'm serious.”

“I know you are,” Geoff said, all humour dropping away from his voice. “But damn, look at me, Jack.” He glanced down at his torso, at the myriad of scars. Slashes from knives, bullet wounds, the works. “It's not the first time. It won't be the last.”

“That doesn't mean we get reckless about it,” Jack said.

“Are you just trying to say you told me so?” Geoff asked, one eyebrow rising.

Jack remained stonily silent.

“Go ahead,” Geoff said, rolling his eyes. “Go on, I give you permission.”

Jack glared at him and got off the bed, slamming open the cupboard door to put the med kit away. “I did fucking tell you so,” he grouched after a moment, and Geoff laughed.

“I know.”

“We'll be more careful next time,” Jack said, seriously. “I mean it – I don't give a fuck what Gavin wants. We convince him to come out with us or we wait. Alright?”

“Alright. You're in charge,” Geoff teased, and Jack scowled again. But Geoff's laugh was contagious as always, and he had to concede a smile eventually.

Things were okay for about two seconds.

Then Geoff's phone vibrated, on the bedside table, and he reached over to grab it.

“What does he want,” he muttered, and answered the call. “Kdin? Sup.”

Jack watched Geoff's face as he listened to whatever Kdin had to say. A frown slowly descended over his features, as he nodded and 'hmmm'd' before finally saying, “Okay. Fine.” And hanging up.

“What's up?” Jack asked, cautiously.

Geoff ran a hand over his face before turning to him with a sigh.

“I have to go back to Achievement City.”

Chapter Text

Jack and Geoff were fighting.

Ryan knew this because their door had been locked for four hours, and locked doors meant secrets. At night in the safety of his own room, behind bolt and key, was the only time he ever took his mask off – and the fight had been brewing a while now. He had heard (or rather, not-heard) the strained silence in the car on the way there and back from killing Thaddeus the Red. He had seen the tension between them when they confronted Gavin after the mission.

And this, Ryan thought, as he stood outside the locked door, behind which hushed argument could be heard, Geoff's voice occasionally rising into something near a shout – this is why you don't start banging the second in command of your criminal empire. Because any disagreements about things turn personal.

As soon as he heard a pause in the argument, he knocked. There was a beat of silence before Geoff opened the door a crack.

“What?!” he demanded. His eyes were red rimmed with exhaustion, his brows furrowed.

“It's almost dark,” Ryan said calmly. “I'm on first watch. One of you guys needs to take second because Ray and Michael already took their shift and I don't think any of us would feel safe with Gavin on look out.”

“Fine,” Geoff said, and slammed the door in his face.

Ryan turned away with a sigh, trying not to feel too annoyed. The amount of ridiculous drama this group seemed capable of conjuring up was starting to tire him. But he needed them. He'd been after Edgar so long, and now – now he finally had the manpower to bring him down.

 


 

 

Insomnia had been the bane of Ryan's existence for a while now (second to Edgar, of course). By this point he was used to spending half the night awake, and had little trouble with settling on the couch, where he had a good view of all the windows, and cleaning his gun. Eventually the rest of the house fell still and silent, even Jack and Geoff.

It was an hour past midnight when he realised there was still light coming from the basement stairs, and crept down to look.

Gavin's eyes were fixed, almost as though hypnotised, on the screen of numbers before him. Every few moments he would slump forward and then snap back upright, as though drifting off to sleep but trying desperately to remain awake.

“Go to sleep,” Ryan ordered, and Gavin spun around, instantly alert.

“Ryan – what time is it?”

“Like fucking one in the morning. Go to bed, you're no use to us dead of exhaustion.”

“But I'm close to finding another one.” It was an empty protest – not the real reason he didn't want to go – and Ryan raised an eyebrow, though it was little use with the mask.

“You can continue tomorrow.”

“I'm almost done.” Gavin lifted his chin, some thing like petulance in his tone, and Ryan realised with a terrible sinking feeling that he himself was behaving like a chastising father trying to send his kid off to bed.

“Fine,” he said, “Do what you want, don't blame me when you go mad.”

“Aren't you the one who's mad?”

It had slipped out unintentionally, Ryan could tell – Gavin possessed few filters at the best of times but it seemed exhaustion disposed of any remaining ones he may have had – and he gritted his teeth, shoulders tensing. The mad mercenary. The name had always irked him.

“Sure,” he said, with forced patience. “You know why? Because I barely sleep. You don't want the same thing to happen to you, right?”

“I read a story once,” Gavin said. “About this experiment these, like, Russians or someone did where they stopped all these people from sleeping for ages and they all went mental and like started shitting everywhere and then they started eating each other. And then I think they ate the scientists or... something.”

This was not a conversation Ryan had ever expected to have at one in the morning.

“I read the same thing,” he replied.

“Really?” Gavin asked, and Ryan turned back to him and nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “And you know what? It was a fucking creepypasta.”

Gavin stared at him for a moment. His eyes were slightly bloodshot from staring at a screen so long.

“Oh,” he said, after a second. “I remember now. It was. Fancy that,” he said, and laughed.

Ryan rolled his eyes. He started to make his way back up the stairs, but turned halfway. Gavin was still in the chair, spinning idly now, but making no move to head off to the bedroom. Ryan frowned.

Not insomnia, otherwise he wouldn't look as sleepy as he did. Not a strong work ethic either, because he was making no move to go back to the computer. What else would drive someone to deliberately not want to sleep?

There was one glaringly obvious answer, of course, and it gave Ryan pause.

Why the fuck would a data analyst be having nightmares bad enough to make him want to stay awake all night?

For a moment his mind wandered, flicking over possibilities – but he caught himself quickly.

Stop it, Haywood, he told himself. Why do you give a fuck? These people aren't your friends – they're barely even a team. They're just people you're working with on a job, and getting close to them... don't. You know how that turns out . Pull yourself together.

So, steadfastly ignoring the light from the basement, he turned back to the couch to sit out the rest of his watch.

 


 

 

“The fuck are Geoff and Jack?” Michael demanded, as he poured cereal.

Morning had dawned with no sign of either of them.

“Fighting over something,” Ryan replied drily. He had eaten already, in his room. God it was a trial dealing with this mask sometimes.

“Fighting?” Michael asked. “Why the fuck are they fighting?”

Ryan shrugged. Ray, who had been eating in silence, looked speculative. But before anything else could happen, Gavin dragged himself up from the basement and shuffled, zombie-like, into the kitchen where he stared sort of awkwardly at the table, obviously unsure where to sit.

“Vav,” Ray called, patting the seat next to him. Ryan took note of the way Michael's eyes flickered over and narrowed.

“You look like shit,” Michael commented.

“Thanks Michael,” Gavin replied. He stared at the milk carton as though he couldn't remember what it was for. Ryan knew in that moment that he had not gotten a wink of sleep.

Ray caught on too, and set about pouring cereal for him. “You didn't stay up all night did you?” he asked.

“Um,” Gavin said.

“Jesus, Gav, go take a nap or something.” Ray handed him a spoon, concern written across his features.

“M'fine. Running on Red Bull.”

Ray snorted. “You're going to have a heart attack.”

There followed a few moments in which Gavin methodically shovelled Lucky Charms into his mouth, Ray watched Gavin, and Michael watched Ray.

It's like being at the zoo , Ryan thought, observing from the head of the table.

“I got something, anyway,” Gavin spoke up after a bit. “With Thaddeus' phone. I'm tracking down another one. From what I've gathered he's responsible for scoping out Edgar's hideouts. If we get him we might be able to track down Edgar himself.”

“Sounds good,” Ryan said.

Ray held up his hand for a high-five. Gavin complied, and Michael's eye twitched.

“I'll come down with you after breakfast,” Ray said with a grin.

“Why?” Michael snapped. “What possible help could you be to him?”

“Ehh, I can poke him if he starts falling asleep,” Ray said. “And monitor the energy drink consumption. We're a team, right? X-Ray and Vav?”

Gavin hummed a mediocre attempt at a theme tune, and Michael looked on the edge of having a stroke.

X-Ray and Vav?!” he exploded. “The flying fuck is X-Ray and Vav?!”

“Gavin's my technologically savvy sidekick now,” Ray informed them. “We're like a superhero team except we commit the crimes.”

“So like a supervillain team then,” Ryan pointed out.

“Ryan,” Gavin said, seeming marginally more awake after eating. “Ryan, you're like a comic book character with your mask. Like the masked avenger. Or the Scarlet Pimpernel.”

“If we're going based on colours I'm pretty sure Thaddeus the Red was the Scarlet Pimpernel,” Ray pointed out.

“I'm going to take that as a compliment,” Ryan decided. He glanced at Michael, who was still fuming. Ryan had to admit to being a bit impressed; it was truly a talent to be able to muster up such intense levels of anger this early in the morning.

It was also glaringly obvious to any outside observer that Michael was jealous. Having your best – and only – friend whisked away by someone you considered the height of irritation? Even Ryan would be pissed.

This was why he did not have a best friend, and endeavoured to remained unattached. So much less drama.

“You done?” Ray asked. Gavin nodded, and Ray stood up. “Let's go then.”

X-Ray and Vav,” Michael cried, as soon as they were gone. “They've got fucking cutesy nicknames for each other now, what the fuck.”

“Beware, Mr Jones, of jealousy,” Ryan intoned deeply. “'tis the green eye monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Michael's scowl fixed on him. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I thought it was pretty straightforward.”

“I'm not jealous .” And then, when Ryan just looked at him, mask impassive, his face turned bright red. “Fuck you, Haywood, I'm not . I'm just annoyed that Ray can't see what a total moron Gavin is.”

“Right,” Ryan said.

His sarcasm only incensed Michael further.

I'm surprised you're not more fucking annoyed, the way he pesters you all the time. Ryan this, Ryan that, he's not scared of you at all. It's fucking weird is what it is. I mean it.”

“None of the rest of you are scared of me,” Ryan pointed out. It was true. Wary, perhaps, but none of them had the flustered nervousness that others he'd worked with in the past had.

Yeah, but we're talking about Gavin,” Michael pointed out. “He's terrified of going into the field – he was scared of Thaddeus, for God's sake. Shouldn't he be quaking in his boots at the sight of you, the most notorious killer around? I don't care if we're on the same fucking side, there's something strange about it.”

He slammed his bowl in the sink and strode out, leaving Ryan to consider his words.

It was a bit strange, now that he thought about it. He hadn't been unfriendly towards any of them, but by all rights Gavin – who undoubtedly had seen him in action on security tapes and such – should have been at least a little intimidated.

And shit, now his curiosity was piqued.

Before he could dwell on it further, however, Geoff and Jack entered the kitchen in a frosty silence. It quickly became apparent that they were trying as hard as they could to ignore each other.

Jesus fucking Christ, thought Ryan. He really, really did not want to play marriage counsellor, but someone had to intervene and he knew if he didn't, no one else would.

He opened his mouth to ask what the big fight was all about, when Geoff turned to him and announced, “I'm going back to Achievement City today.”

Ryan blinked. Then said, “Well that's stupid.”

Thank you,” Jack exploded. “That's what I've been telling him all fucking night!”

“Edgar's out there waiting,” Ryan said. “And now that we've brought down one of his men, he'll know we're going after him.”

“Well, that's too fucking bad because I have urgent business to attend to.”

“Send one of your men,” Ryan replied. “That's what you have them for, isn't it? To attend to your business for you?”

“They already tried,” Geoff said flatly. “Some asshole who's been pestering me a while now tried moving in on my territory. Kdin took some guys to deal with it but he still wouldn't back off and Caleb ended up with a broken leg, again . If I don't deal with this shit now I'll look weak – and worse, it'll give Edgar an opening to move in on my turf as well. So I'm going, and that's final.”

“We can take back anything you lose after we've brought down Edgar,” Ryan pointed out. Jack shot him a grateful look, obviously glad someone was on his side. “There's no shame in playing the slow game.”

“I wouldn't expect either of you to understand,” Geoff replied flatly. “Considering neither of you knows what it's like trying to run an empire like mine.”

Jack scowled, but didn't reply, which Ryan took to mean that they'd had this argument already last night, possibly – probably – more than once.

He also knew enough about Geoff to know that he was, as the man himself would put it, “stubborn as dicks”. Which meant it'd be little use trying to stop him.

“Fine,” he said then. “In that case, I'll come with you.”

Both Geoff and Jack turned to stare at him.

“What?” Geoff asked.

Ryan raised and lowered one shoulder. “Until Gavin finds something we've nothing to do around here. Ray and Michael can take care of him just fine. I'm sure you showing up with the mad mercenary on your side would shake things up for this guy, whoever he is. Better than you trying to go alone.”

“Why the fuck would you want to help me? This has nothing to do with you.”

“I'm depending on your survival to keep this crew together,” Ryan replied, flatly. “Don't mistake this as me caring for you. You're keeping Jack here, you're paying the other three, and if you get yourself killed Gavin will run right back to Burnie. I need you alive to help me take Edgar down.”

“Fine,” Geoff said then. “Be ready to leave in an hour.”

He took his breakfast and left the room. Jack frowned.

“And here I thought you'd convince him not to go,” he said.

Ryan turned towards him. “There was no convincing him. Better if we both just go with him.”

Jack pressed his lips together, but made no further comment.

 


 

 

The drive to the city was awkward.

Awkward and quiet, and Ryan was reminded exactly why he avoided things like personal relationships. Start caring about people when you work in a dangerous field and the next thing you know, the stakes on everything are two hundred percent higher.

Jack was still ignoring Geoff, obviously irritated that he was putting himself in the line of fire again . And Geoff was ignoring Jack, annoyed at his seeming lack of understanding. Ryan wondered how many times they'd had this argument before, if it was routine for them by now.

“His name's Felix,” Geoff said, finally breaking the silence. “He's an untalented bigshot who thinks he's a lot better than he really is. Unfortunately he's mustered up a crapton of equally annoying minions from somewhere and they've been fringing AC for a while now. Probably pounced on the chance as soon as he realised I'd left town. We don't need to kill him, just knock him back in line before he does anything too stupid.”

“Doesn't sound too urgent,” Ryan pointed out.

“That's because it's not ,” Jack snapped. “It could have waited until we've dealt with Edgar.”

“No,” Geoff retorted, “It couldn't. Let Felix get ideas and everyone else starts getting ideas. Don't play dumb, Jack, you know I can't let stuff like this slide. How do you think I fucking got where I am? Not by being soft on people, that's for sure.”

Jack glared, and Geoff glared, and Ryan, sitting in the backseat, realised with dawning horror that this was not going to end with them just taking down Felix. If they didn't solve this now, it would fester and the thing was – there wasn't time for this, not with Edgar on the loose.

They had to work cohesively, and Ryan had seen enough to know that these two fighting would put everyone else on edge, Michael and Ray and Gavin most of all.

There was no faster way to bring two people together than to unite them against a common enemy, and in this case, he realised with resignation, it would have to be himself.

“Honestly surprised you got where you are now, considering Jack,” he commented blithely.

“Excuse me?” Jack said immediately, but it was Geoff whose gaze snapped to glare at Ryan in the rear view mirror.

“The fuck did you say?” he demanded. He may be annoyed at his boyfriend, but as Ryan had expected, he wasn't about to let someone shit all over him.

“The two of you,” Ryan said. “Together. And open about it. I mean, it's an obvious weak point. Why the fuck do you think I've never been caught? Because I have no weak point, nothing people can use to get at me. Hell, it's why you finally got so mad at Edgar, wasn't it? 'Cause he targeted Jack?”

“I don't see where you're going with this,” Geoff said, angrily, and Ryan leaned back against the headrest of his seat.

“Where I'm going with this? I'm just pointing out that relationships like yours are a liability. Fuck, look at the two of you now, squabbling like children because your personal life is all caught up in your professional. If you weren't fucking each other you wouldn't be so invested in each others' safety, at least to the point of getting so mad about it.”

Fuck you,” Geoff snapped, rising to the bait just as Ryan had expected he would. “Just because we're not all miserable loners like you doesn't mean we're weak.”

“Prove it to me then and stop fucking sulking,” Ryan said.

“I'm not sulking,” Geoff replied, sulkily.

Jack made no reply, but he was looking at Ryan with a measuring look, as though he knew what he was trying to do. After a moment he let out a little huff of breath and turned to stare out the window, ignoring both of them now. When Geoff glanced at him, though, Ryan noticed that it was with much less annoyance and much more concern.

Mission accomplished , he thought, and gave a bitter smile behind his mask.

 

 


 

 

Michael hated the countryside.

He was sat out on the front porch, gun across his lap, keeping watch. Nothing had happened for the last two hours, and nothing was likely to happen, but fucking Geoff had to go out to the city and take Jack and Ryan off with him, which meant he was stuck back here keeping an eye out.

There were tiny little insects that kept fucking with him. They were like flies, but much smaller, too small for him to kill, and no matter how much he swatted at them they just kept coming back to swarm around his face, annoying the shit out of him.

The bugs were the least of his problems.

Jealous , he thought. He had been thinking about it a lot since breakfast. Fucking Ryan, I'm not jealous at all. Where the fuck did he get that idea .

Just because he didn't like the fact that Gavin had gone and stolen his best friend –

And okay, maybe he was a bit jealous after all.

It didn't mean anything, he realised frantically. It didn't – it meant fuck all because why wouldn't he be pissed that Ray had suddenly abandoned him and gone and formed a fucking superhero team with some guy he'd known a grand total of one day and who was a complete moron to boot? Who wouldn't be annoyed? No one, that's who, yeah that's fucking right.

He was well within his rights to be jealous.

But if he was honest with himself – if he was completely, totally honest with himself – if this had happened a few months ago, even a few weeks ago, he wasn't sure his feelings of annoyance would be quite so intense.

For whatever reason, his affection for Ray had skyrocketed over the last few days, and he had no fucking idea why. It wasn't like he hadn't liked him before – they were best friends after all – but for some reason, maybe due to the multiple near death experiences, it was like he suddenly wanted to be around him a lot more.

Jesus Christ I'm going mad, he thought, a touch frantically. It's Edgar, it must be Edgar. It's just getting to me.

The bugs were also, by this point, getting to him, and confident that they weren't about to be ambushed by anything other than the local insect life, he retreated inside and, after a moment's hesitation, headed down to the basement.

Ray was not there. Gavin, however, was – and he had a pair of massive headphones over his ears, gaze fixed intently at the screen before him.

Seized by a fit of mischief – and if he was being totally honest, a little vindictiveness as well – Michael crept up behind him before slamming his hands down on his shoulders.

“Surprise, bitch!” he yelled, and Gavin shrieked, a shrill noise that resembled nothing quite so much as a strangled cockatoo. He spun around so fast that he actually toppled from his chair, ripping his headphones off.

“Haaa, fucking got you,” Michael crowed.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Gavin spat. He made no move to get up off the floor, and Michael noticed that his eyes were very red. Not enough sleep and too much staring at monitors were undoubtedly to blame.

“You scream like a girl,” Michael sniggered.

“That wasn't bloody funny,” Gavin said. He was actually gasping for breath, almost hyperventilating, and Michael felt kind of bad. Only for about two seconds though, because Gavin then threw the headphones at him and somehow managed to hit him right in the face.

“Ow! Shit. You asshole.”

“You're the one that scared me,” Gavin said, hauling himself back up into his chair. His hands were shaking. “Seriously, don't – don't do that.”

“I'll do what I fucking want,” Michael replied, and looked around the room. “Where's Ray? Thought he was down here.”

“Went to the loo.”

“You made much progress?” Michael asked.

Gavin nodded. “Like I said. It's the guy who scouts out hideouts and locations for Edgar. Can't pull up much on who he actually is, but he goes by Clarence G.” He tapped a key and a photo of the guy popped up; a little, birdlike man. “I'm trying to track him down, he's been all over the place the last few weeks.”

“Not a bounty hunter, then? Or any sort of fighter?”

Gavin shook his head. “Nah – but he has a body guard, from what I can tell, someone who goes around with him and pushes his deals.”

“Nothing we haven't dealt with before,” Michael replied. He grabbed another chair from nearby and pulled it up to the desk, figuring he might as well wait for Ray.

Gavin glanced at him. “Have you known Ray long?” he asked then.

All Michael's previous annoyance rose back up. Longer than you, he thought petulantly.

“Yes,” he replied. “Like, five or six years now. Basically since we first started getting into this business.”

“How do you end up becoming a mercenary?” Gavin asked.

“How do you end up becoming a... a whatever the fuck you are, hacker or whatever?” Michael shot back.

Gavin just shrugged. And then continued to prod – seeming, to Michael's great confusion, intent on becoming friends. Or at least finding out more about him.

“How did you learn explosives?”

“With great care,” Michael replied flatly.

“When you blow stuff up do you go for maximum boom or maximum fire? Because I feel like having a big fire afterwards would add extra damage.”

“What the fuck would you know about it,” Michael said. “You don't go for either, the explosive you use depends on the job. If I'm blowing a door I don't want to blow up everything else around it.”

“Why not?”

“Because! It depends on the job and what you want, how quick you need to get in. The bigger your explosion the farther away you have to be to avoid getting hurt, that should be pretty fucking obvious.”

“So it's a situational thing.”

Obviously.” Michael rolled his eyes. “You're fucking thick, you are.”

“I was just curious!”

There was a moment of silence.

“Oh my God,” Gavin said. “I actually think I'm going to have a heart attack. It's all your fault, Michael, you gave me a bloody bad shock. My heart's going too fast now. Feel it.”

He thrust his chest in Michael's direction. Michael recoiled.

“I don't want to fucking feel your heart beat.”

“I'm gonna die and you're gonna be charged with murder.”

At this, Michael burst into peals of uproarious laughter. He doubled over, because his stomach actually hurt.

“Charged with... murder... I'm gonna fucking piss myself... I fucking kill people for a living and... you think... I'd be charged with murder... over killing your useless ass... oh my God I think I peed a little bit just then.”

Mi-chael!” Gavin cried, unimpressed.

Ray re-entered the room at that point. He looked confused, and then amused.

“Uh, what's going on?” he asked, sitting down on the edge of the desk.

“Ray, check my heart, it's too fast,” Gavin said. “It's actually making me feel kinda sick.”

Michael stopped laughing instantly, because Ray took Gavin by the wrist and actually started feeling his pulse. And then, because that apparently wasn't accurate enough, reached out and checked it again at his throat.

“Fuck, it actually is going abnormally fast,” Ray said, sounding somewhat concerned.

“Michael gave me a scare,” Gavin replied.

Ray frowned at Michael, who felt all remaining amusement drain away.

“Jesus Christ, it was a joke,” he said.

“I think it's all the Red Bull, man,” Ray said, turning back to Gavin. “I think you should eat something and, like, lie down for a bit. Seriously. The others won't be back for hours, you have time.”

“Oh come on,” Michael scoffed. “He's fine.”

“If he feels sick, he's not fine.” Ray pushed Gavin gently towards the stairs. “Seriously, go, before you faint or something.”

At which point Gavin actually left, and there was a bit of awkward silence.

“If he just slept at night like a normal person we wouldn't have this problem,” Michael commented.

He didn't mean it too seriously, but Ray turned to him with a glare.

“Fuck, Michael, why'd you have to be such an asshole to him?”

What?” Michael demanded.

“I mean it. You've done nothing but shit on him since we got here, and blowing up at him yesterday – no pun intended – that was uncalled for.”

“Wow, okay,” Michael said, and felt the beginnings of rage stirring, “It's like you've suddenly forgotten every incident of fucking incompetencehe's pulled since we started.”

“Like everything you do works out all the time.”

“I wasn't aware you had a problem with it.” Michael scowled. “What are you, Ray, fucking protector of the small or some shit? You know I have a low tolerance for crap like this.”

“You're not normally such a blatant bully.”

“Bully?!” Michael shouted. “You want to see bullying, Ray, I'll show you fucking bullying. If Gavin can't stand the heat he needs to get out of the fucking kitchen because I'm not going to fucking mollycoddle him like you are if he can't do his fucking job. You think I'm the only one who's sick of it? Jack's as pissed at him as I am, and I don't even know about Ryan, but just because you're blinded by his British charms or whatever doesn't change the fact that he is a moron who needs to man up and do his job like the rest of us.”

Ray stared at him for a long moment. Then he shook his head. When he smiled, there was no humour in it. Ray didn't get properly angry often, but Michael could tell now that he was pissed off, and it was so unfamiliar to him that for a moment he felt disconcerted.

“You've been acting weird all week, Michael,” Ray said. “I don't know what's got into you. But you need to stop taking it out on Gavin. Because I'm sick of it and it won't be long before Geoff's sick of it as well. You think Gav's the one breaking up our little team here? It's not. It's you.”

“Oh right, a team,” Michael snapped. “We're not a fucking team, Ray. It's you and me and then the rest of them. We're working together but we're not about to become a damn family or circle jerk or whatever the fuck you're thinking.”

“Well right now,” Ray said, quietly, “I'm feeling like I'd rather work with Gavin a hell of a lot more than I want to work with you. Maybe think about that for a bit.”

Michael's mouth dropped open as Ray turned and headed back upstairs. A wave of hurt washed over him, and he turned away, clenching his fists, nails digging painfully into the palms of his hands. He tried to muster up anger, that familiar burning rage that he was so used to – but it refused to come. He just felt – upset.

Turning, he let out a loud shout, kicking the computer chair clean across the room until it slammed into the opposite wall.

“Fine, Ray, fuck you,” he muttered under his breath. “Fuck you, Gavin. Fuck all of you.”

But try as he might, he couldn't bring himself to feel angry at Ray. Annoyed at Gavin, yes, but Ray – if anything, the urge to make up with him was stronger than anything else. The desire to be friends again – not just friends, something stronger and closer than that-

And whoa, shit, where was this coming from?

Slow the fuck down , Michael thought. And then, you won't be God damn anything if this thing with Gavin keeps up.

Scowling, he marched up the stairs and back outside, his stomach twisting painfully. He could deal with the insects if he had to, he just needed to get out of this fucking house – away from Gavin, away from Ray.

 


 

 

It was late afternoon by the time the others returned. Michael had been outside the entire time. In fact, his desire to avoid going inside extended to the point where he'd gone and pissed behind a bush rather than go back into the house.

The first thing he noticed when they got out of the car was that Jack and Geoff weren't ignoring each other any more. In fact, they were even laughing about something together, and Michael felt a stir of annoyance. It really wasn't fair that he should be fucking miserable while everyone around him made up and went back to being friends.

“Anything exciting happen while we were gone?” Geoff asked, as they walked up to the porch.

“Apart from Gavin being a pissy bitch and Ray being an asshole? No,” Michael growled, and Ryan paused in front of him and let out a long groan.

“Fucking Christ, now you guys are fighting? I can't catch a damn break, can I.”

“Shut up and mind your own business, Ryan,” Michael snapped, and marched in after the others.

Ray was sitting in the kitchen, and stood up when the others came back in. “How'd it go?”

“Totally fine,” Geoff replied, moving to pour himself a drink. “We dealt with it. Felix freaked when he realised Ryan was with us. Absolutely no sign of Edgar.”

“He may have been watching,” Ryan cut in. “I wouldn't put it past him. But he didn't follow us back here, so we're alright for now.”

“Told you it'd be fine,” Geoff said, glancing at Jack with a grin. Jack rolled his eyes, but didn't seem overly angry.

“Where's Gavin?” Ryan asked.

“Crashed a couple of hours ago,” Ray said. It was his turn to roll his eyes. “As I expected. He tracked down another guy, though, he's just trying to pinpoint him. I can wake him up if you want.”

Geoff shook his head. “Let him sleep. If he's gonna stay awake all night again he should nap now. If you know what he found out before, you can tell us what he's got so far.”

“Can do,” Ray said. “Come meet me in the basement when you're ready.”

He walked out without even glancing at Michael, who bit his lip and stared resolutely out the window. Geoff left the room, then, after a moment, Ryan. It was Jack who remained, fiddling about getting a glass of water from the sink.

“Glad to see you guys made up,” Michael said sourly, and Jack turned to him with raised eyebrows.

“What's with you?” he asked. “You're pissed at Ray?”

He's pissed at me,” Michael replied. Jack raised his eyebrows and gestured for him to sit at the table.

“Why?”

“Because he thinks I'm bullying Gavin.” He snorted loudly. “Jesus, you'd think he'd have realised after six years that I'm a hardass. He knows I find him annoying. I just – I just don't understand?”

It came out more confused – almost vulnerable – than he had intended, and he instantly scowled. Jack didn't laugh, though – just frowned a little.

“Oh, Michael,” he said, and shook his head. “He'll get over it. We're all stressed, we're all not acting like ourselves.”

“Why the fuck were you guys fighting anyway?”

“Geoff is an idiot who only hears what he wants to hear,” Jack replied. “Things turned out fine, but they might not have. We got lucky.”

“But you're not mad at him.”

“Not now I'm not. Ryan's a clever son of a bitch, he has a way of making you see that no matter how fucked up things seem, at least you're not alone like he is. I can't even imagine what it would be like, working by yourself all the time.” He fixed Michael with a measuring look. “And no matter what Ray says, you're the one he's picked to stick with for six years. Five minutes with Gavin won't change that.”

Michael's lips twitched, just slightly, at that. It was some happy-sappy shit but whatever. Jack had a point, but it only marginally made him feel better.

 


 

 

That night, Michael was reminded of exactly why he hated fighting with Ray.

The thing was, they hadn't actually fought all that often before – certainly never as badly as this. There had been arguments, sure – often when Michael was drunk or angry and Ray got fed up with him. They'd never laster longer than a few hours, though.

So far meals had mostly been a get-your-own sort of thing, which mean Ryan always headed off and ate in his room so that none of them would see his face. Michael didn't see Gavin leave his room, but at some point he'd woken up and gone back down to the basement, and Jack and Geoff went to bring something down to him, presumably intending to hang around in case he made some major development.

Which left Ray and Michael, who the night before had eaten together but now rather awkwardly gathered up their own food without talking to each other before Ray wandered off to sit on the couch and Michael, after hesitating, sat at the table.

God, he hated it.

He hated the fact that they sat in silence, ten metres away from each other, when usually they'd have plenty to talk about. He hated how Ray walked right past him to dump his dishes in the sink before going down to join Gavin and the others.

And he hated how, when the watch was organised (Ryan first, as usual, Jack second) and people began drifting back to their rooms – lights being turned out, save for Gavin in the basement – Ray left without even saying goodnight, and the last thing Michael himself did was glare, just on principle.

 


 

 

“So Clarence G,” Gavin said. “He's been all over the place. He scouted out that warehouse before Edgar chose it as a hiding spot. There's a few other locations he's frequented and I've been monitoring the surveillance to see if I can catch out any of the others they're working with, but for now we're focused on just taking down Clarence.”

They were all gathered in the basement. Gavin had made steady progress overnight – nocturnalism, it seemed, suited him – and they were set to go out and find their next target.

Michael was glad for the distraction, as Ray was still ignoring him. Or at least, he thought Ray was ignoring him. They hadn't had the chance to talk yet that morning, and when he followed everyone else down to the basement, Ray had gone and stood right next to Gavin, so Michael had taken his place beside Jack instead.

“So where's Clarence now?” Geoff asked.

“That's the thing,” Gavin said. “He went north and disappeared.”

They all glanced at each other.

“What do you mean, disappeared?” Jack asked.

“Not deliberately,” Gavin said. “Not, like, tried to disappear for the purposes of disappearing. I mean he went off into the countryside and I lost track of him because there're no cams out there.”

“So how the fuck do we find him then?” Michael asked. It came out annoyed – as most of his unfiltered speech did – and Ray shot him a glance that he very pointedly did not return.

“Um,” Gavin said.

“What does 'um' mean?” Geoff asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“If we went out there,” Gavin said slowly. “I could feasibly track him down. I mean, I've marked out some places he could be and once we're out there I might be able to narrow it down through his phone and stuff.”

There was a moment of silence.

“You realise that requires you to go out in the field,” Geoff pointed out.

“Yeah, that's what the 'um' was about,” Gavin said, and ran a hand through his hair. He looked agitated, exhausted too, and the grin he gave next was quite forced. “So, uh, we could wait for him to come back to the city I guess.”

“Or you could man the fuck up and come out there with us,” Michael said harshly. A lot of things got on his nerves but at the top of his list were two things: idiocy and cowardice.

Ray could call it 'bullying' all he wanted, but for fuck's sake, what was Gavin's problem? Michael had honestly never met such a ninny in his life. Why should he respect him if he quite clearly didn't give a damn about any of them?

“What would it take to convince you to go out there?” Geoff asked patiently. Jack was frowning again, and who the fuck knew what was going through Ryan's head.

Gavin bit his lip. “I won't go after him once we find him,” he said.

Geoff nodded. “Well, no one expected that anyway.”

“I need to know what precautions you'll take,” Gavin continued. “If something happens.”

“Precautions?” Michael demanded. “You need fucking special precautions taken just for you?! Because your life is just so fucking important-”

“Michael,” Geoff snapped, starting to get annoyed now.

“It does seem kind of excessive,” Jack started, but before a fight could break out, Ryan stepped forward.

“Gavin,” he said. “I am your special precautions.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Michael asked.

Ryan continued to look down at Gavin, ignoring the rest of them. “We'll be travelling light, so as to make a quick move or getaway if need be. That means we'll be sharing tents. Jack and Geoff will be together, obviously, same for Ray and Michael.”

Michael very carefully did not look over at Ray.

“Which means,” Ryan continued, “You and I will be sharing a tent. We both know I barely sleep. Nothing gets past me. As long as you're near me nothing will happen to you, I can guarantee it. One hundred percent success rate, remember?”

Gavin bit his lip.

“What's more,” Ryan said, “We – I – need you to track down the rest of these guys. That means if things go to shit, getting you to safety is my number one priority. Convinced yet?”

After a moment, Gavin gave a hesitant nod.

Michael turned away, feeling sick. One of the best parts of working just him and Ray was that neither of them was in charge. Their lack of disagreements meant there was no need for one of them to be the boss of the other. They worked together seamlessly. There was no hierarchy – and no one got any 'special treatment'.

Seeing everyone pandering to Gavin's every whim – especially Ryan, who he had thought would be above that – it was irritating, to say the least.

“Great!” Geoff said. “Well, that's all settled then. Gavin, go help Jack out with a map. The rest of us can start packing, work out what we need to take.”

As they trooped for the stairs, Michael found himself next to Ray.

“So,” Ray said, in his ear, voice quiet and a bit awkward. “Tent buddies.”

Michael wanted to turn and look at him. But he was concerned about what he might see in Ray's eyes – anger? Disgust? – and, perhaps, even more concerned about what might show in his own. So he stared resolutely ahead, and replied, through his teeth, “Looks like it.”

Well. This was going to be fucking fun.

 


 

Ryan actually could not care less about Gavin's issues regarding leaving the safety of the house.

But playing babysitter for a few days was a small price to pay in return for getting him out there so they could hunt down Edgar quicker, and it wasn't as though he disliked the guy. In fact, he actually found him quite amusing.

On the drive out to the countryside, in which he was obliged to share a vehicle with Gavin, he learned that the other man could not drive himself, had a staple somewhere inside his ballsack, and, before he got involved with Burnie, had spent a lot of time being hired by people to digitally stalk their spouses and find out whether they were being cheated on.

As much as he talked about himself, he also seemed incessantly curious about Ryan – and not even just about his work as a mercenary. He wanted to know whether he thought dogs were better than cats (“Yes.”), whether he believed in the moon landing, (“I don't know, never really thought about it, but it is a bit suss they never went back up.”) and all manner of other things ranging from which board game the skills needed for his job had made him the best at, to a long and passionate argument about the probability involved in flipping three coins.

They were still fighting about this when they finally arrived in the countryside a few hours north of Achievement City, by a lake equidistant from three towns that Gavin had marked out on the map as their best place to determine Clarence's location from.

It was afternoon when they arrived, and while it wasn't overcast outside, it was cold in the way that inland rural places are always cold.

As soon as he got out of the heated interior of the truck, Gavin leaned over, bracing his hands against his knees, and made some truly terrible noises as though he was about to throw up.

“Ummm,” Ryan said, and hesitated for a second before reaching over to rub his back. “Carsick?”

Gavin shook his head. He seemed to recover just as suddenly as he'd been afflicted, standing up and straightening his hoodie. “Nah. I always get gaggy when the temperature changes.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “That's... not normal, but I'm going to assume since it hasn't killed you yet you'll be fine.”

Gavin shot him a thumbs up and turned around to the others.

“This the place?” Geoff asked, striding over, and Gavin nodded.

“Yep! I can start setting up my stuff and I'll see if I can get a read on Clarence. I highly doubt in the time since he went off the radar he's managed to get farther north than this.”

“Excellent.” Geoff rubbed his hands together. “Let's scout out a perimeter then get these tents set up.”

It was a lovely area, to be honest, and probably rather popular with campers in the spring and summer. Right now, however, they were quite alone, and they set up a campsite some distance from the water's edge, fenced in on three sides by the parked vehicles.

As he always did when forced to spend a night in an exposed, outdoor area like this, Ryan took some wire and tin cans to set up a perimeter line. Any intruders would make enough noise to alert them all before they could even get near the campsite.

“Ray, come help me with this,” he called.

As the younger man headed over, he noticed a look of the most acute displeasure on his face.

“What's wrong?” Ryan asked, handing him some of the wire as they headed for the nearby treeline. “Not a fan of the great outdoors?”

“An active enemy, actually,” Ray replied, mouth twisting bitterly. “Don't have a problem being out here for jobs, but sleeping overnight...” He shuddered. “Nature and I don't really get along.”

“I think some fresh air would do you good,” Ryan informed him, and Ray pulled a face.

“I was good inside, thanks, where there weren't bugs and leaves and shit.”

“Speaking of shit, someone better dig a latrine,” Ryan muttered. “I guess I'll do it.”

“A fucking latrine.” Ray shook his head in disgust. “See! See! This is why I prefer the indoors, you don't need to take your dumps in a fucking hole in the ground.”

Ryan laughed. “With any luck we won't be out here long.”

 


 

 

As it turned out, they would be.

It didn't take long to get the tents set up, but then Gavin had to set up a bunch of equipment – a good deal of it stuff Ryan didn't even know the names of. Most of it worked through his laptop but setting up even the slowest of internet way out here was a trial, and when he finally got it working he said it would take some time to connect, so they found themselves building a campfire and then sitting around it, unlit, in a rather awkward silence, with hours to kill.

“I'm going fishing,” Geoff announced.

“You brought fucking fishing gear?” Michael asked, from where he was absently scratching at the ground with a stick.

Geoff shrugged. “Why not? It didn't take up too much room. Besides, if some random comes along we have a cover story. We're on a group fishing trip. Come on,” he said, standing up and grabbing Jack by the hand. “Let's go. Nothing else to do while we wait.”

“I'm coming, I'm coming,” Jack said, letting himself be tugged over to the truck.

“Feel free to join us or whatever,” Geoff added, glancing back over his shoulder.

“I don't know how,” Gavin spoke up, and Geoff froze in his tracks.

“You don't know how to fish?” he demanded, and Gavin shook his head. Geoff's gaze swivelled over to Michael and Ray questioningly, and both of them shook their heads as well.

“Dude,” Michael said. “I blow shit up for a living, I don't need to know how to fish.”

“Un be-fucking-lievable,” Geoff said. “Kids these days, Jesus. Come on, you're all learning.”

Ryan settled back by the campsite, watching as the three younger men followed them somewhat hesitantly to the lake. He caught sight of a nearby branch and tugged it over towards him, pulling his knife from his belt and settling down to whittle it. He was not especially talented when it came to carving, but it passed the time – and until Gavin could get his stuff set up, they really did not have anything else to do.

He wasn't particularly offended by not being invited to join them. As it was, he was content to watch, because it was certainly quite entertaining to see Geoff attempting to explain the mechanics of fishing. Jack was a far more patient teacher – though Ray was the only one who seemed any good at following instructions.

“Want to join us, Ryan?” It was Gavin who hollered it out, about twenty minutes in.

Ryan flapped a hand at him, though he couldn't help but smile a little at actually being asked. He wondered how they'd react if he did join them.

Not that he wanted to. There was no need, after all, to bother trying to bond with these people when after this job he'd just be moving on anyway.

Fiiiiiish!” Gavin screeched suddenly, having spied, it seemed, something under the water.

“Fucking scare them all away why don't you,” Michael snapped.

When Ryan next looked up, it seemed that Ray and Gavin had lost interest and were trudging instead along the lake bed, poking in the mud with several long sticks. Michael was still resolutely attempting to fish, though no one had caught anything yet. Ryan frowned a bit as he noticed Michael's continual glances up at Ray, whenever he was sure the other man wasn't looking.

Not even subtle, Jones, he thought.

That was one fight he couldn't fix so easily, though. Better to wait and see how things played out.

“Hey Vav, check this out,” he heard Ray say, and looked over to see him bend down and hook something from the lake bed on the end of his stick. He lifted it up – something black and dripping – and swung it towards Gavin, who turned away and retched so loudly that everyone over by the water looked up.

“That's bloody mingin' Ray, put it down!” Gavin shouted.

With a wicked grin Ray brandished the stick, moving it closer towards him, and with a screech Gavin ran, nearly slipping in the mud. Ray chased after him, and they played cat and mouse for a while before Gavin, cornered between the water and whatever disgusting object Ray had discovered, ran up to Geoff and proceeded to attempt to climb onto his shoulders.

“Whoa!” Geoff stumbled, off balance, but Gavin clung like a limpet and in an extraordinary feat of agility, actually managed to pull himself up onto Geoff's back and balance himself there.

“You're gonna fall in the fucking water,” Michael commented, and Jack stood back with a slight frown and hands on his hips.

“I'm gonna vom if that gets near me,” Gavin warned. “Ray, put it down, you rinsy little spaf.”

“Don't you dare throw up on my head,” Geoff cried, trying to reach up and grab him, though he was laughing.

Rinsy little spaf?” Ray questioned. “Speak English, Gavin.”

“I am speaking English, you smegpot,” Gavin shot back. “I am speaking the Queen's English and I should know.”

“Get down off there before you all fall in and get wet,” Jack called. He looked a little unimpressed that another guy was hanging all over his boyfriend.

Geoff spun around and managed to dislodge Gavin, who fell towards the water with a shriek. Fortunately they were in the shallows and he managed to land on his feet, though his jeans were quickly soaked to the knees.

Ryan couldn't help but snort. It was certainly a sight, the criminal overlord of Achievement City being climbed like a set of monkey bars by a hyperactive twenty-something.

“The fuck is that anyway?” Geoff asked, turning towards Ray's stick with a wrinkled nose.

Ray shrugged. He flicked it away and it landed in the water with a splash. “I dunno, a dead bird or some shit. Too decomposed to tell.”

“Maybe it was a human body part,” Michael spoke up, wickedly, and Gavin doubled over, gagging again.

“Shut up Michael, you bloody prick,” he said. “It wasn't.”

“Oh, I don't know.” Geoff tilted his head. “I've disposed of people in lakes before. Wouldn't be surprised.”

Jack nodded sagely, stroking his beard, and Gavin gave them all the finger before stumbling out of the water and back towards Ryan.

“Now my bloody trousers are all wet,” he complained, plopping down by the unlit fire and stretching his legs out. His eyes fell on the stick Ryan was whittling. “What are you making?”

“Nothing,” Ryan replied – he'd been carving absently, not particularly thinking about it – but Gavin reached out and snatched it, nearly losing a finger to Ryan's knife.

“It looks like a nob,” he declared. And then hollered out, “Ryan carved a nob!”

“Like a door knob?” Ray called back.

“No, like a penis nob!”

“Come on, I didn't,” Ryan said, taking it back – although on closer inspection, there was something a bit accidentally phallic about it. He tossed it into the campfire bed with the rest of the wood they'd gathered and hoped that it didn't say something about his underlying mental state.

“Do you have dicks on the mind, Ryan?” Gavin asked, because he apparently didn't know when to drop something.

“Yes,” Ryan replied darkly, just to shut him up – because everything sounded menacing when you accompanied it with a stare from The Mask. Gavin seemed lost for words for a minute before he turned away, looking almost embarrassed. Ryan could swear he was blushing slightly, but then he got up and headed off into the tent, muttering about changing into something dry.

The sun was just beginning to set by now, the first streaks of pink and gold rippling across the sky. The others came in from the lake, Geoff moving to pack away his fishing gear. Ryan got to his feet and stretched.

“I'm gonna take a quick look around the perimeter,” he said, and Jack turned to him.

“Good idea. I'll take that side, it'll be quicker if we go halves.”

Ryan nodded. He went over to his tent, intending to grab his gun, but no sooner had he pulled open the flap than there was a loud shriek from inside and a flurry of motion as Gavin dived under his blanket.

“Ryan!” he squawked. “Knock first! I'm getting changed!”

Ryan paused, bemused. “Okay, firstly it's a tent, I can't knock. Secondly, why the fuck would I care? I promise you I've seen worse than some other guy's business.”

And then, when Gavin made no response, “Dude. I was joking about the dicks on the mind thing.”

“I know,” Gavin replied, poking the top of his head out from under the blankets. He seemed unusually rattled – less embarrassed and more almost frightened. Ryan frowned.

“Just – call out next time, okay?” Gavin asked, “Let's not make this awkward.”

No one's making it awkward but you, Ryan thought. He shrugged, though.

“Fine.”

 


 

 

That night, as they all sat gathered around the crackling campfire, Ryan could not help but feel as though he was on a glorified camping trip.

Gavin had finally gotten things up and running, some time earlier, but Clarence wouldn't be going anywhere in the middle of the night – hopefully, anyway – so they still had plenty of time.

Which led to them sitting out here, under the stars. There was a brisk chill in the night air, but the fire itself was warming and for a moment Ryan felt almost peaceful. He quickly shoved that feeling down, though.

Stay on your guard. This is a mission. These people are a means to an end, not your camp buddies.

That being said, it was impossible not to realise that something was off. Michael and Ray were sitting on opposite sides of the fire; Michael beside Jack, Ray beside Gavin. They'd barely spoken a word to each other all evening.

“You don't get stars like this in Achievement City,” Geoff said, breaking the silence that had nearly been lulling them to sleep.

Ryan looked up. It was pretty spectacular; he hadn't been out of cities much in the last few months and it was a nice change to see something other than smog in the sky.

“Blame global warming,” Ray said, automatically, and Geoff snorted.

“Geoff,” Gavin piped up. “How'd you and Jack end up together?”

There was a moment of silence as Geoff processed this unexpected question. Jack sat up a little straighter. Ryan couldn't help but be curious himself; as far as he knew it wasn't a story that had ever been told before, or certainly not one he'd heard. And he'd never been particularly interested in knowing the details but here, now, with the two men themselves – he started to wonder.

“Uh,” Geoff said. “It's actually the most boring fucking thing ever.”

“Still want to know,” Gavin replied instantly.

Ray and Michael had both leaned forward, seemingly curious as well.

“Suit yourself,” Geoff said. “We met ages ago, when we were both working for some other guy, and when I decided to break off and make it for myself he came with me. By that point we'd been friends for like five years. And then we worked together for another six years and then one day we, I don't know. Things just changed and we were all hey, we're not just friends anymore!”

“And then you got yourself kidnapped,” Jack cut in, drily.

Geoff nodded. “Yep, and then I got kidnapped and Jack rescued me and we kissed and then we banged and lah de fucking dah we ended up together and then stayed together for the next, like, five years and shit.”

“What do you mean,” Michael asked, “things 'just changed'?” He sounded almost worried, though Ryan doubted any of the others had picked up on it.

Geoff shrugged. “I don't know. Hard to explain. We were really close friends and then we just realised we both wanted more.”

“You're the worst bloody story teller,” Gavin cried.

“Fuck you, I'm the best story teller,” Geoff replied. “Like I said, that one's just boring.”

He then proceeded to regale them with an epic tale of a previous encounter with Felix, which, to be fair, was rather more exciting. But Ryan was far more intrigued by Michael, who had developed a sudden interest in pulling out all the grass on the ground around him and steadfastly looking anywhere but at Ray.

Finally they fell silent. Ryan checked his watch; it was almost midnight. It was strange being out here; the house had been quieter than the city but the actual outdoors seemed far more exposed. He'd worked overnight jobs before, and had spent his fair share of time camping out – never with a group though. It felt far less vulnerable knowing there were others around if something went wrong.

“I'll take first watch,” Ray spoke up suddenly.

“I've got second,” Michael added, and they glanced at each other for half a second before turning away.

Clever , thought Ryan – they'd avoid both being in the tent at the same time. Wouldn't have to speak to each other.

Still, it left him in the position of having to actually go to bed at a reasonable hour for once. With mumbled goodnights, they left for their tents, Ray moving to sit a little closer to the fire where he had a better vantage point of the entire site.

“Are you going to sleep with your mask on?” Gavin asked, ducking under Ryan's arm as he held the tent flap open for him. His tone was unabashedly curious, almost hopeful – and Ryan couldn't help but grin.

“Sorry, Gavin, you won't be seeing my face this time,” he replied. He normally did take it off to sleep, but only when he was somewhere he was certain was safe – and behind a locked door. It was uncomfortable keeping it on for too long, of course, but he was used to it by now.

“What if I wait until you fall asleep and then have a cheeky peek underneath?” Gavin asked.

“I would break your wrist in my sleep,” Ryan replied, brightly, and Gavin started laughing before realising Ryan was not laughing himself. And then blanched.

“You're bloody creepy, Ryan,” he informed him, and Ryan smirked.

 


 

 

“Ryan,” said Gavin.

It was very dark, the fire outside having burnt down to coals a while ago, and silent save for the occasional trill of cicadas. Ryan was lying awake, absently running his fingers over the seams of his sleeping bag and tugging out stray threads.

Gavin had sat awake for a long time, engaged with his machines. They'd spoken on and off for some time before Gavin fell silent, absorbed by typing.

Ryan had already realised that this would be one of the nights where he got little sleep; he didn't feel tired at all and Gavin, avoiding sleep himself, hadn't questioned it.

“What?” Ryan replied.

“I have a question for you.” Gavin leaned forward and Ryan twisted around to see him. He was lit up by his laptop screen, a dim blue glow in the confined space of the tent.

“Do you reckon,” Gavin continued, “That if two people swapped bodies their sleeping habits would be the same? Like you have insomnia, right?”

Ryan blinked. He didn't recall mentioning it, but Gavin must have worked it out somehow – he was, it seemed, far more astute than they all gave him credit for. Then again, he made a living noticing things.

“Yes,” he replied slowly.

“So if you swapped bodies with, say, Jack,” Gavin said. “Would you still have insomnia, do you think? Is it something in your brain or is it to do with your experiences and memories?”

“I... honestly don't know,” Ryan replied after a moment's thought. “I don't know the mechanics or the biology behind sleep disorders. It's possible it's something in the brain that would stick with the meat, not the mind.”

“The meat not the mind ,” Gavin scoffed, and chuckled about that for a little while.

Silence fell again. Michael's words from yesterday abruptly drifted back into Ryan's head. He's not scared of you. Now was as good a time as any to bring it up.

“I've got a question for you now,” he said.

“Fire at will,” Gavin replied, shifting across the tent to flop down on his own sleeping bag.

“Why aren't you scared of me?” Ryan asked.

A moment of slightly strained silence.

“Uhh, should I be?” Gavin replied, cautiously.

“Yes,” Ryan said. “Michael brought it up – that it's strange you were scared about Thaddeus when I'm far more dangerous than he is. It's can't just be because we're on the same side. For all you know I could be planning to kill you all once I have what I want.”

“That would be very mean, Ryan,” Gavin informed him, and sighed. “No, you're right, I... I guess you just remind me of someone I used to know. That's why I don't find you so intimidating.”

Ryan fell silent, thinking about this. It was... odd, to say the least. No one knew him half well enough for him to even begin reminding them of someone, surely.

“What do you mean?” he asked. “How do I remind you of him. Him? Her?”

“Him,” Gavin confirmed. “And – I don't know, I guess. Well, the mercenary thing for one, he was a merc too.”

There's a lot of mercs out there.”

“I know, I wasn't done. Umm, you said you would keep me safe – he did too. And he just... well, you answer all my stupid questions,” Gavin said, almost babbling. “You don't yell or laugh at me for them. Well, you laugh sometimes but you actually give them thought and answer them.”

That was... true. Ryan wasn't sure why, he supposed because he'd never been one to pass up a conversation that interested him. And Gavin's questions might be nonsensical and idiotic half the time, but they were always interesting.

“That's the main one I guess,” Gavin said, almost thoughtfully. “You don't make me feel stupid like a lot of people sometimes do. That's very Him.”

“Is he dead?” Ryan couldn't help asking.

“What?” He heard a rustle as Gavin rolled over to stare at him. “No! No, he's still alive. Went overseas I think, we haven’t spoken in a while. Anyway. That's my answer, you remind me of a guy I know – a friend. A friend I know. Does it annoy you? That I'm not scared?”

“Nah,” Ryan replied.

“Good,” Gavin said.

There was a moment of silence.

Gavin cleared his throat. “So if you toss three coins-”


“Oh Jesus don't start that again.”

 


 

 

Even when Ryan did manage to fall asleep, it was painfully light and disturbed by the faintest sound. He woke up as soon as Michael got out of his tent to swap watch shifts with Ray, and again when Michael walked off to take a piss. And then, of course, there was Gavin – Gavin who sporadically tossed and turned, thrashed about and moaned – and, a couple of times, woke up completely and sat upright in bed, almost gasping for breath, obviously plagued by something.

Ryan couldn't bring himself to let the other man know he was awake – he could hear him trying to be quiet, trying to slow his breathing and not make a sound to disturb him – and he appreciated the effort enough to pretend it was working.

When dawn finally crept around, he sat up. Gavin had fallen back asleep, slumped half-out of his sleeping bag with his head resting on his laptop. Ryan moved quietly so as not to wake him up, pulling on his jacket and shoes before grabbing his gun and slipping outside.

He waved at Michael as he passed before heading off to do a perimeter check. It was habitual by now to never assume that just because the night was quiet, things hadn't happened in it unseen. But all around the campsite was as it should be.

It took him about half an hour to look around, but everyone was still in their tents when he got back.

Unthinkingly, he flung open the flap of his to go inside, and Gavin let out a loud yelp.

He had forgotten about the rule.

He had completely forgotten about it – had assumed Gavin was still sleeping, that he wouldn't need to call out a warning before entering – only Gavin, it seemed, had woken up and decided to change his t-shirt for something warmer. He was just pulling it off when Ryan entered.

And that's when he saw the scars.

Long, roping scars that criss-crossed Gavin's back and chest with a methodical precision that made Ryan's stomach drop. These were the sort of wounds intended to hurt, not kill.

Gavin was staring at him, eyes wide as a deer in the headlights. He made to pull his shirt back on but Ryan stepped forward quickly. Crouched next to him and grabbed his wrist, tugging his arm away from his body to get a better look.

Though they were healed enough that he couldn't tell what had made them, these wounds were nowhere near fading. They weren't years old, they were months old. He heard Gavin swallow, audibly.

“What the fuck happened to you?” Ryan asked, low and angry, the words slipping out almost without him willing them to. “Who did this?”

Gavin pulled feebly at his wrist, but Ryan gripped tighter, refusing to let go. And he'd seen worse – God, he'd seen so much worse over the years – so why couldn't he look away?

Gavin swallowed again. He was breathing too fast, Ryan noticed absently.

“Why do you care?” he croaked out, finally.

And those were the words that made Ryan freeze.

Because he didn't – he didn't – I don't care, I don't care at all – caring was a weakness, and these people weren't his friends – they weren't a team, not the way he'd had a team before – he couldn't let them be.

His moment's pause was all Gavin needed to pull away, to tug a shirt and jacket on and practically flee from the tent, tripping over his own feet on the way out.

Ryan let him go. He remained kneeling where he was, thoughts whirling. He felt sick, and uneasy, and it wasn't just from what he'd seen – it was from what it had made him feel.

 

Chapter Text

Gavin was shaking as he stumbled from the tent, his shoelaces untied, his jacket only half zipped up. He balled his hands into fists and shoved them in his pockets, trying to calm down.

Get a grip. Get a grip. Get a bloody grip.

“The hell's wrong with you?”

Michael's voice made him jump. His head snapped up to find the other man staring at him from where he was sitting, stoking the fire.

“Nothing,” Gavin replied. His voice shook more than he liked, and he swallowed a few times, running a hand through his hair nervously. “Nothing. Everything's fine.”

Michael's eyebrows rose in disbelief. But there was no sympathy in his expression, just a bland sort of curiosity, and Gavin turned and strode off towards the tree line.

“Hey, where the fuck are you going?” he heard Michael call, but ignored him.

The lake was situated in a clear patch of ground, but sparse forestry surrounded it, and it was here that Gavin headed – needing to get away, needing some distance. He walked until he reached the makeshift fence that Ryan had set up – tin cans and bottles strung along a piece of wire – and considered ducking under it.

I could walk away right now.

Maybe he ought to. Maybe he had been a fool to accept this job in the first place – just because it was Geoff Ramsey didn't mean things would turn out alright. This was dangerous, and half of the people he was working with hated him, and even the ones who didn't hate him he couldn't trust. The same thing might happen all over again, and –

And –

And Ryan might very well remind him of Dan but when it came down to it, he wasn't.

He wasn't Dan, and he quite obviously didn't care, and for him Gavin was just a means to an end. And once that end was reached – well, he was disposable, wasn't he? Just like he'd been last time.

“Gavin!”

It was Ray who had come to find him, hair sleep-tousled and glasses crooked. It seemed he'd heard Michael shouting and made after Gavin instantly.

“What happened?” Ray asked. He glanced between Gavin and the wire. “You running away?”

“No,” Gavin replied, and forced a grin, but he could tell Ray wasn't fooled. He let it drop, wondering just how bad of a mess he must look.

“What happened?” Ray repeated. “Did Ryan do something?”

“No.”

“You can tell me, Gav – if he did something, I'll have at him for you.”

“Ryan didn't do anything.” And Ray's tone was genuine, but everything was flooding back now. Damn it all, if only Ryan hadn't seen. Because other people seeing meant other people knowing, and other people knowing made it all too real – something that had actually happened, not just an event that haunted Gavin and Gavin alone, something he could pretend existed only in his thoughts and nightmares.

He had been friendly with Ray – Geoff too, and Ryan – but now his doubts from before were rising back up. They got along, sure, but when it came down to it, Ray didn't know him. Gavin couldn't trust that if something went to shit right now Ray would help him instead of running off to save himself, or Michael.

“Okay, now you're looking at me weird,” Ray said, and Gavin jerked back to attention. “You don't have to talk about it-”

“Good,” Gavin snapped. It came out harsher than he'd intended, but it was too late to do anything about that now. “Because I'm not going to.”

Ray blinked at him. “Jesus, okay, just trying to help out. Well, if you're not leaving, then come back to camp before everyone else starts freaking out.”

Gavin nodded, and followed him, and forced a smile when Ray kept shooting him concerned glances. He would have believed them, once – but people, he had learned, were very good at caring as long as you were useful to them, and forgetting about you once you were not.

 


 

 

Ryan had joined Michael by the fire when they got back, and was boiling a pot of water. He looked up at Gavin and gave him a long, long stare, but with the mask covering his whole face, Gavin couldn't tell what he was thinking.

Considering it was a main part of his job to clean up footage, to read cues in slowed down body movements and facial expressions, having that barrier was disconcerting. Especially now, when he knew Ryan knew, and just looking at him made him start thinking about it again.

He quickly retreated to his tent.

“The fuck's his problem?” He heard Michael say loudly from outside.

“Leave it,” Ryan replied shortly. “He didn't sleep well, that's all.”

Hm. So Ryan was going to keep what he'd found to himself. In that case...

For the last few months Gavin's motto had been that if you just didn't think about something, you could pretend it had never happened, and live in a blissful state of denial fuelled by alcohol and sleep deprivation. It was probably not the healthiest coping mechanism, but it worked for him.

Truth be told, much as getting this job had plunged him back into danger or whatever, it had actually been a relief to get back to work – especially around people who would engage in banter with him. The more he acted normally, the more he could convince himself that things were normal, and fine, and the bad dreams that plagued him nightly were just that. Dreams.

With this in mind, he took a deep breath. Closed his eyes. And proceeded to try and wipe every trace of Ryan discovering his secret from his mind. They could just ignore it and carry on as normal, initial freak-out be damned.

And then, once this was done, he opened up his laptop and got back to work.

 


 

 

Ray hated camping out for a great many reasons, one of which was the sheer level of extra maintenance you needed to do to keep your weapons in top order. Still, it passed the time as they sat about waiting for Gavin to finish doing his thing.

Gavin. Ray couldn't help but frown at the thought of him.

They had only known each other for three days, true, but in those three days Ray had thought he had a pretty good read on the other man. He'd seemed quite simple – laid back, good sense of humour, a bit twitchy, but that was to be expected given the level of danger associated with their jobs.

But his angry outburst back at the tree line – that was something Ray hadn't seen coming. Whatever was going on here, it was obviously eating at Gavin something bad.

Mind your own fucking business, Narvaez, he told himself, shaking his head. Why do you give a shit, anyway? You barely know him.

“'sup guys,” Geoff said, moving over to the fire. “How's Gav going in there?”

Ray was sitting a little way away from the others, Ryan and Jack over by the fire where Geoff joined them.

“He's fine,” Ryan replied. “Don't disturb him. He'll tell us when he gets something.”

“Hey Ray.”

Ray's head snapped up as he caught sight of Michael, moving towards him from the other side of the camp. He couldn't help but stiffen a little. The silent treatment they'd been giving each other was getting to him more than he liked to admit, and it seemed Michael had had enough. 

“'sup Michael,” he replied, shifting over a little. Michael came and sat next to him. He opened his mouth to speak, but then Ray heard Ryan start to talk again and held up a hand to shush him.

“Ray-”

“Shh,” Ray hissed. “One sec.”

Michael looked confused, but Ray didn't have time to explain right now. Whatever had happened with Gavin, Ryan was the last person to see him acting normally, and if he had to eavesdrop to find out what was going on, well, that's what he'd do.

“Hey Geoff,” Ryan was saying. “Do you know who Gavin was working for before you hired him?”

There was a pause, and Ray resisted the urge to turn his head around fully to look at them and give away that he was listening in. After a moment, Geoff replied:

“He wasn't working for anyone. He was taking a break.”

“Before that, though. The last job he took before he came with us.”

“Fuck, I dunno – uhhh, Burnie said he hadn't been taking jobs for a couple months because the last one went wrong. I don't know the details. Why the sudden interest?” 

“No reason,” Ryan replied smoothly. “We were just talking last night. I was curious.”

“Hm. Well, you're better off asking Gavin himself, since no one told me.”

Ray turned back to the ground in front of him, a small frown playing at his lips. It was obvious that Ryan knew something – was trying to find some answers as well – but for whatever reason, didn't want to ask Gavin directly.

“Ray?” Michael questioned, quietly, and Ray jerked back around to look at him, having half forgotten he was there. 

“What? Sorry, got distracted.”

“Eavesdropping on Ryan?” Michael asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Ray replied. “Something's up with Gav. Why'd he run off this morning? Did he say anything to you before he left?”

For whatever reason, the mention of Gavin's name made Michael's mouth twist. He didn't look angry, though, not the way he normally did. In fact, he seemed almost hesitant and unsure of himself, and it was such a foreign look on him that Ray had no idea what to think. 

“No,” Michael replied. “I'm sure he's fine. Maybe he does this all the time. We wouldn't know, would we? He's practically a stranger.”

“Yeah, but... I don't know. It worried me a bit.”

“Since when do you worry about other people?” Michael asked, and Ray frowned at him.

“Dude, don't start this shit again. I get it, you don't like him – but that doesn't mean I can't.”

And it was frustrating him – he hadn't minded Michael's attitude earlier, had put it down to stress and his being concerned about Ray's welfare (he had nearly died under that train, after all). But then, when it continued needlessly, when he started casually putting Gavin down when the other man wasn't even around... 

It was uncharacteristically mean of him, and it was this more than anything that was upsetting Ray. Michael could be a dick, he knew that, but for some reason Ray had quickly become very fond of Gavin. It was one thing for Michael to be acting strangely, another entirely to take it out on people who didn't deserve it. That wasn't all that was getting to him – it was the fact that Michael's odd behaviour had persisted to the point where they were both ignoring each other. 

The awkwardness that had hung between them since yesterday was making Ray's skin crawl. Especially given how much he was hating this camping trip so far – having Michael to laugh and complain with about them having to go all Man vs Wild for this mission would have made things far more bearable, instead of him spending half the night lying alone in a tent that seemed to have been set up over the lumpiest, rockiest part of the ground possible.

At Ray's harsh tone, Michael swallowed, looking away. He still seemed oddly subdued, and for a moment Ray felt a little guilty at having snapped.

“Whatever, man,” Michael ground out finally. “I just wanted to ask how your arm was.” 

Ray blinked a few times.

“Oh, right,” he said, and rolled up his sleeve. “It's fine, I think. Healing.” He picked at the edge of the bandage – Jack had changed it for him earlier that morning. The knife wound from the fight with Thaddeus wasn't too serious, though it would probably leave some sort of scar. 

“Good,” Michael said, a little awkwardly. “That's... good.”

They sat in a very uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Neither of them apologised, neither of them made a move to reconcile.

“Gotta go take a leak,” Michael muttered finally, and then got up and left.

Ray deflated a little. He realised his shoulders were very tense and forced himself to relax.

This is fucked up. He and Michael had never fought like this before – this was unfamiliar territory and he had no idea what to do.

“Ray,” Jack called out. Ray glanced up and found the older man beckoning him. After a moment he got up and moved over to join them.

“Everything alright with Michael?” Jack asked, and Ray started to nod, then hesitated.

“Hell, I don't know any more.” He paused, casting Ryan a suspicious glance, as the comments the other had made some days before – when they went for the drive together – returned to him. The last thing he wanted was Ryan thinking Michael couldn't pull his weight, or wasn't trustworthy – but Ryan just looked at him with a speculative little frown, as though he were a puzzle he couldn't quite work out.

Jack was frowning too. “You two want to sort that out any time soon?”

“We're fine,” Ray replied, stiffly. “It's nothing that concerns you guys.”

“If you say so,” Jack said, not sounding very convinced. He also didn't look very sympathetic – at least not towards Ray, who abruptly recalled that Jack was not exactly Gavin Free's number one fan either.

God, what had he gotten himself into? This was why he'd always preferred working just him and Michael. Nothing getting between them and none of this domestic shit.

Got it!”

The holler came from inside Gavin's tent, and a moment later he stuck his head out the flap. His hair was slightly dishevelled where he'd been wearing headphones, and his grin was back on his face. In fact, he seemed completely recovered from whatever incident had happened this morning – on the surface, at least.

“I've got it,” he repeated. “I've found him.”

 


 

 

It had taken a while to locate Clarence because there was very little to go on up here in the rural areas. However, Gavin had managed to get a hold of his cellphone signal – a temporary phone, as were commonly used in this sort of business, but one that he'd recognised from a previous transaction made back when Clarence was in Achievement City.

“I don't have eyes on him,” Gavin said, “But he's here.” He pointed to a little town on the map, east of the lake and perhaps an hour's drive away. “It's a little hole of a place, but I guess Edgar wants a base out here. He's either meeting somebody or looking to obtain a property, but either way he's in this town, so...”

“Good job,” Geoff said, clapping him on the shoulder.

Ray shot Gavin a thumbs up, and the man smiled back – Ray was surprised (but not unpleased) to find that whatever slight awkwardness there might have been between them from earlier had vanished. Now if only he could say the same for Michael.

“So what's the plan?” Michael asked, observing these proceedings with crossed arms. “We surround the town, head in and-”

“You're not going,” Ryan cut in.

There was a moment of silence in which they all looked at him, aghast.

“What,” Michael said, slowly.

“You're not going,” Ryan repeated. “Or you, Geoff,” he added, when the other opened his mouth to protest. “Or Jack. Just Ray and I.”

Michael darted a quick, confused glance at Ray, who shrugged. What the fuck is Ryan playing at?

“I'm a little confused,” Jack began. “Why, exactly, are only two of us going in? Surely we-”

“Surely we don't want to lose the element of surprise,” Ryan said. “Which we will, if six of us trundle into a tiny town like that, guns blazing – yes, six, because we can't leave Gavin here on his own. If something happens he won't be able to drive himself. And since we've given our word that he doesn't have to come into town with us, that means someone would be staying back anyway to keep an eye on him.”

“Great,” Michael said, throwing his hands up. “Free's need for a damn babysitter getting all up in our plans again.”

“Why can't he just stay here by himself?” Jack asked. “What could possibly happen?” 

Ray looked over at Gavin, who was remaining silent but seemed very, very uncomfortable; his arms were wrapped around himself again and his gaze was fixed on Ryan intently. 

“You should know by now that it pays to prepare for every possibility,” Ryan spoke up. “And as I said; that town is tiny. We'll be hard pressed to get two people in unnoticed, let alone all of us. Moreover, Clarence isn't like Thaddeus – he only has one bodyguard with him and he isn't a trained fighter himself. It won't take all five of us to bring him down. We don't want to draw Edgar's attention too suddenly; he's probably already suss from what happened to Thaddeus. No need to go for overkill. Two of us will suffice.”

“Why Ray?” Michael snapped.

“Because nothing needs blowing up,” Ryan replied patiently. “And Ray and I are the best shots here. Now, does anyone have a legitimate complaint, or shall we get on with things?”

“Hell yeah I have a complaint,” Michael growled, “When the fuck did we all decide Ryan was in charge? Aren't you the boss here?” he added, turning to Geoff, who very helpfully stroked his moustache. 

“Ehh, I think he might have a point.”

Michael scowled. He turned to Ray next. “Don't you have a problem with this?!”

“Not really, no,” Ray replied – but his stomach dropped when he saw Michael's face fall a little before he quickly pasted on a glare instead. It took a lot to get to his friend, he knew that – and despite their fighting earlier he hadn't meant to imply that he didn't want Michael to come along, that he thought he'd work better alone or with Ryan – but Michael didn't know that, of course, and dear God things were just getting more and more fucked up.

“We're in agreement, then,” Ryan said.

Geoff nodded. “You and Ray go in, the rest of us stay here and you call us if anything changes or you need back up.”

“Should we go now or wait for dark?” Ray asked.

“Go now,” Gavin piped up. “Since I can't maintain a constant eye on him we need to get there before he moves out of town. The longer we wait, the more likely it is that he'll change location. I can update you periodically if he uses his phone or I catch a glimpse of him, but that may not happen, so. Best to move quickly.”

“Right then,” Ryan said. “We'll take one vehicle but split up once we're in-town, scout him out and then meet back up to form a plan.” He waved a hand and Gavin handed him a map of the town itself, a rather grainy thing that was probably just a printout from google maps. “We'll head in from this entrance, that will make us look touristy rather than anything else.”

“Won't your mask draw attention?” Jack pointed out. “How do you get around with that thing, anyway?”

“I'm good at moving unseen,” Ryan replied. “Which is why Ray can check the people-heavy locations first – post office, town centre, that sort of thing.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ray replied.

Geoff clapped his hands together. “Then let's get going before he moves.”

Ryan remained in the tent with Gavin as they all trooped out, gathering up his belongings. Barely had they left, though, than Geoff grabbed Ray's arm and propelled him a few metres away, out of the tent's hearing distance. Jack and Michael followed.

“Uhh, what?” Ray asked.

Geoff released his arm in favour of grabbing his shoulders. “Alright, Ray, you're gonna be alone out there so you need to keep a careful eye out.”

“I always keep a careful eye out,” Ray replied, “But I'm a little confused.”

“He means Ryan,” Michael said. He locked eyes with Ray and they stared at each other intently for a moment. “Keep a careful eye out on Ryan.” 

Ray frowned a little. “You don't trust him.”

“Do you?” Geoff demanded.

Ray shook his head. “Well, no, but I also didn't think he was going to turn on us.”

“What Geoff means,” Jack spoke up, “Is that we know you and Michael, and we hired Gavin, but Ryan – Ryan just showed up out of nowhere and volunteered. Sure, he never gave us trouble before, but his reputation... I don't like that he's getting us out of the way and only taking you on this job, it seems suss, no matter what he says. So just keep a careful look out and let us know if he does anything fishy.”

“Alright,” Ray replied, though he was starting to feel a little uneasy. They'd planted doubt in his mind now, and he couldn't help but start to wonder exactly what Ryan's motivations were here. Sure, he wanted to kill Edgar – but why?

Geoff nodded, approvingly, and stepped back.

“I'll go get one of the cars ready for you,” he said, and wandered off with Jack, leaving Michael and Ray standing in a slightly awkward silence.

“Been a while since we went on a solo mission,” Michael said quietly.

“It's not solo, I'm with Ryan,” Ray replied.

Michael shook his head. “Y'know what I mean.”

It was true – now and then they'd gone off to do jobs on their own, but not for the last few years. They'd always done things the two of them, or with a couple of other people along.

“Well,” Michael said, when Ray didn't reply. “Uh. Be careful then.”

“I will,” Ray replied, and there was another awkward pause – but then Ryan emerged from the tent, and Michael turned away, and Ray could not bring himself to reach out after him.

 


 

 

“I know you want to ask me something,” Ryan said.

Ray frowned. They were about halfway to the town and had thus far driven in silence, but it was a little hard to ignore each other when there was nothing out the window except grass and the occasional cow. Ray had quickly discovered that cows were not very interesting.

“Why?” Ray asked, turning to him.

“Why what?”

“Why me?” 

Ryan was silent a moment, fingers drumming at the steering wheel. “Is it really that hard to work out?” he asked finally.

Ray raised his eyebrows. “I dunno if you're deliberately trying to be mysterious or if you just don't realise how hard it is to work out what the guy in the full face mask is thinking.” 

Ryan let out a low chuckle. “I thought I explained myself fairly well back there,” he said. “Too many of us will draw attention and-”

“Bullshit,” Ray cut in. “You're not the only one who's done jobs like this before. We could have made it work – and with Edgar about, there's safety in numbers. We agreed to this plan because it wasn't worth the argument and you might be right. I don't doubt you and I can handle this just fine on our own, but it still begs the question – why?”

 Ryan was silent again. Then he turned towards Ray, who shifted uneasily in his seat, suddenly recalling Geoff's warning from earlier. Ryan might have been friendly so far, but they couldn't let their guard down – couldn't forget that he was one of the most dangerous men in the country.

 “Fine,” Ryan said. “I didn't want to take Michael with us because you two are fighting.”

“We're not,” Ray denied, rather uselessly, and mostly just on principle.

“Don't bullshit me, kid, we can all see it a mile away.”

“You didn't need to worry about that. We're both professional, we'd have made it work-”

“I can't take my chances on that, not with what's at stake here,” Ryan snapped. “Is it professional to ignore each other twenty-four seven? Is it professional for all of you – Jack and Geoff, too, Michael and Gavin – to get in little bitch fights over the time? It's not fucking professional at all, and I've put up with it so far because I need you all, but if I've learned anything in my many, many years of experience, it's that personal attachments to people you work with always end up like this. Bitching and fighting. So that's why, for this mission, I needed to go solo, with you for back up.”

Ray sat silent, frowning. A large part of him was insulted by the insinuation that he and Michael would not have been able to keep their minds on the job had they both gone; he was fairly sure they would have.

But all in all, Ryan's words only reinforced just how distant he and Michael had become over the last twenty four hours. Suddenly he missed the other man, wished he was sitting in the backseat to talk back to Ryan and give him a piece of his mind, fly into one of his famous rants that would probably have shut the mercenary right up if only due to sheer volume.

“Why not Geoff then?” he asked quietly.

“That was for Gavin's sake,” Ryan replied tersely. “I wanted you with me and I didn't want to leave him alone back there with Jack and Michael. Geoff likes him, he'll take care of him.”

“That is remarkably and suspiciously considerate of you,” Ray said, fixing him with a measuring look. 

“Don't mistake it for consideration,” Ryan said coldly, “I need Gavin alive and on our side to bring down Edgar.”

“So let me get this straight,” Ray said, “You're not really a team player at all, are you?” He folded his arms, watched Ryan's jaw clench and a muscle jump in the side of his neck. As before, the mention of anything team related had made him tense. “You're just in this for yourself.”

“If I ever made you believe otherwise, then it was unintentional on my part,” Ryan intoned. “And you are sorely mistaken.”

They bumped over a pot hole in the road. A sudden chill seemed to have descended over the inside of the vehicle, and Ray rested his hand on his gun for reassurance. He had goaded Ryan, he knew, but he'd been unprepared for just how terrifying the man could be when he got all quiet and cold.

“Why?” Ray asked then. “Why do you need to take Edgar down so badly? What did he ever do to you?”

“Ray,” Ryan said, with patronising patience but a cutting edge to his tone that was immediately unsettling, “You must have learned by this point that asking questions about things that don't concern you will only get you into trouble. People have been killed for less than a secret – and I'm sure you've been the one to take them out before.”

It was a threat that wasn't even thinly veiled, and Ray was smart enough to know when to stop prying. He let out a huff of breath and turned back to the window, watching the grass and livestock roll by.

 


 

They split up as soon as they reached the entrance to the town; a sleepy, sparsely populated little place. It was going on dusk by now and the streets were quiet as Ray took the car and Ryan slipped out and away with a single, brusque command for Ray to keep his phone on.

He set off.

This was the part of the process he hated the most – part of why he'd been so taken by Gavin's abilities; tracking down targets was tedious and boring and Ray wasn't bad at it, he just didn't enjoy it. Once they found whoever they were looking for – that's when he hit his element, precise marksmanship and on-the-spot strategical thinking taking over to make him one of the most efficient killers in the business.

But for now, he was stuck trawling through the town, checking any of the places that a visitor of Clarence's stead might be; the town hall, the realtor, the post office, anywhere Edgar's little bird might have gone to assess the town's suitability as a location for a hideout or base.

Nothing.

The residents of the town were dull and sleepy-eyed; curious at the presence of a new stranger but very unhelpful, and Ray had been wandering around for a good forty minutes when his phone vibrated with a text from Ryan.

Got him. Meet me where we came in.

He drove back over, and Ryan motioned for him to park the car and follow him.

Ryan hadn't been joking about his abilities before. The streets of this little country hamlet were wide and open, anyone would be hard pressed to move along them unseen. But Ryan seemed practiced at seeking out almost invisible nooks and crannies, passing from shadowy corner to shadowy corner before he finally reached a fire escape leading up to a flat-roofed building; a warehouse that functioned as a store selling Equestrian goods. It was named, rather creatively, 'Horseland'.

Ray followed Ryan across the roof of this shop, where, it seemed, quite a lot of birds had made nests. On the other side was a car park, where several lorries were parked as well as one large SUV. Ryan pressed a finger to the lips of his mask and motioned for Ray to crouch and look over the edge – down in the parking lot, by the SUV, were Clarence and his bodyguard. Clarence was pacing and speaking loudly into his phone. 

“I'll text the others,” Ray whispered, and did so, letting them know that they'd found their target. He turned back to the scene, hand going to his gun, but Ryan grabbed his wrist.

“Wait. Listen in first. He might mention something that we can bring back for Gavin to use.”

Ray nodded in agreement, settling back on the edge of the roof and straining to hear.

“-is a good spot for us to bring them in,” Clarence was saying. “Not too far from the city, but remote. Quiet. There's a warehouse out here we can store the weapons once they're in.” A pause, as whoever was on the other end of the line continued speaking.

“Yes, they're arriving next week. The pirate's gonna in town, so he'll be checking in too. I'm here now. But listen, some of the others are driving up and they're going to stay here until the weapons arrive, make sure the deal goes down alright and guard them too. I'm meeting them down by the water and then I'll take them to the warehouse.”

Another pause.

“Okay,” Clarence said. “See you then.”

He hung up and turned to his guard, a wide beam splitting his beaky face. “Edgar's pleased. Thinks this is a good place to make the deal, then we'll have our new weapons in.” 

The guard just nodded. Ryan let go of Ray and moved to pull out his own weapon, then paused as a door opened on the other end of the parking lot.

It was a restroom, and from it emerged four rough looking men with guns, who moved to flank Clarence.

Ray turned to Ryan in confusion. “Gavin said he'd only have one security guard,” he hissed. The sound of the birds inhabiting the rooftop, maintaining a constant stream of trilling chatter, was loud enough that he didn't particularly worry about being heard.

It was hard to tell what Ryan was thinking with his face covered, but Ray could tell his shoulders had tensed. “Did you hear Clarence on the phone? It sounds like he's trading for some guns. Guess Edgar wants more of his men here to make sure the deal goes down okay. It sounds like he's about to head out to meet some more of them coming in – we should take him out now before he leaves.”

“There's literally four times as many as we were expecting,” Ray replied. “We should call the others in.”

Ryan shook his head. “It'll take too long. We can handle it.”

It wasn't the first time Ray had been surprised unexpectedly on the job; he hated it when it happened, but it was a fact of life and Murphy's Law that things in this business never quite ran smoothly. So he nodded.

“Take out Clarence first,” he whispered, and Ryan nodded, pulling out his rifle and taking aim.

Unfortunately, this motion sent a nearby bunch of birds fluttering away noisily, and Clarence – a twitchy little fellow himself – glanced up at the commotion, caught sight of the two men aiming guns at him from the rooftop, and let out a loud yell, scurrying for cover as Ryan took the shot. It hit the car instead, shattering the glass, and instantly the five guards were aiming their weapons.

“Shit,” Ryan snapped, ducking back quickly as shots rang out around them. “Clarence is making a run for it, I'll take him out – you deal with these guys here.”

Before Ray could respond Ryan was bounding back, leaping off the roof, and he was forced to take cover behind a raised roof hatch.

Gritting his teeth, he readied his gun. This was nothing he hadn't done before, but he'd always had Michael for back up, reading to throw a grenade – if there was the appropriate space – or otherwise cover his back in order to let him get a clean shot.

Waiting for a break in the enemy fire, he popped out from behind the hatch and took out two of the men on the ground before darting across the roof to instead crouch behind a large statue of a horse that was beside the rooftop sign.

There was silence from down below, but he could hear muffled talking. After a moment he peered cautiously out from behind the statue, only to flinch back when another shot rang out, narrowly missing his head. Remaining calm, he ducked back under cover only to pause as he heard the ringing clang of footsteps on metal.

One of them was climbing the ladder to the roof.

Shit, Ray thought. Thinking fast, he fumbled in his pocket, grabbed the first thing he could find – his phone – and threw it at the birds nesting on the opposite side of the roof. With a series of shrieks they scattered, launching into the air, and he heard the man down below fire his gun in that direction, turning towards the disturbance.

Taking his chance while the guy was distracted, he ducked out from behind the statue and took him out with a single shot to the head.

By this time the last remaining crony had reached the top of the ladder and was already firing, but now that there was no one down below, Ray was free to turn from the edge of the roof and take him out as well. The man went down quickly, obviously little more than hired muscle doing some of Edgar's dirty business from him.

As the gunshots faded away, he took a few deep breaths, checking the clip of his gun before pulling off his glasses and giving them a vigorous polish.

Well. That had gone well, considering.

The sound of sirens started up in the distance. Someone had undoubtedly heard the commotion and called the police.

Ray quickly climbed down off the roof and headed down the road in the direction he thought Ryan had taken, moving quickly – the town was small enough that they'd have to get out fast to avoid being caught.

It wasn't long before he heard another shot in the distance, coming from down a small side street; he made his way there to find Ryan standing over the bodies of Clarence and his bodyguard, searching them quickly.

“I see you dealt with those others then,” Ryan said, straightening up and shoving Clarence's effects into his pocket.

Ray nodded. “Same to you.”

“They ran a good way before I could catch them. Anyway, told you we'd handle it on our own,” Ryan replied. He sounded almost amused. Then he tilted his head. “Shit, are those sirens?”

“Someone called the popo,” Ray muttered. “Come on, we can get back around to the car before they come down this way. They'll probably be checking out the warehouse for a while. With any luck they'll think those guys were the ones having a shootout; no one saw me in particular so we can still get away.” 

“That's a lot to bet on,” Ryan muttered, as he started to turn out of the alley and they began walking back towards the car.

“Yeah, well, this is normally the part where Michael blows something up to cause a distraction,” Ray replied, and felt a sudden pang of annoyance – the stress of what had just happened, maybe, or adrenaline rising back up, but suddenly he was nothing but irritated. “He should have fucking come along. If he didn't insist on being an ass to Gavin all the time we wouldn't even be fighting. I really don't get why he has to be such a dick. Gav's not even that annoying if you don't take him seriously.”

Ryan kept glancing at him and Ray suddenly got the uncomfortable feeling that he knew something he didn't.

“What?” he asked. “Something you want to share?” 

“You really don't realise it, do you?” Ryan asked.

Ray frowned, confused. “Realise what?”

Ryan just shook his head. “I can't fucking believe it.”

“Believe what?”

“Nothing,” Ryan replied. “It's none of my business.” 

“Well, it's my business if it's to do with me, so spill it. You know why Michael's acting so weird?” Annoyance was quickly replaced by concern – Ryan had picked up on something being wrong with Gavin, after all. If there was something up with Michael too, something making him behave so strangely, well, Ray needed to know what it was so that he could fix it.

“You really don't see why Michael hates Gavin so much?”

“No! Should I?” 

Ryan actually hesitated then, as though he wasn't sure he should say what he was about to say, and a horrible, vague feeling of dread started up in Ray. Suddenly he felt like he was missing something big, something important – something that would change everything.

“He's jealous,” Ryan said flatly.

Ray stopped walking, but Ryan continued, not even glancing back until Ray skipped to catch up with him.

What the fuck, was his first thought – unable to wrap his head around it.

“Bullshit,” he said aloud, “Why the fuck would Michael be jealous of Gavin?”

“Because he likes you, idiot,” Ryan snapped. “Maybe he doesn't realise it himself yet but it's fucking obvious to me. Why do you think he's been so protective of you all of a sudden? And then, of course, in waltzes Gavin and suddenly you two start acting like BFFs – of course Michael would be annoyed. He's confused about his own feelings and-” 

And that was where Ray stopped listening, because this new information crashed over him like a tidal wave and suddenly everything was coming back – Michael sulking in the car on the drive out to the house, worried and pensive and Ray not understanding why – Michael frantic over the earpiece when he thought Ray had been hit by the train – Michael's touch, gently helping Ray with his bandages – that awkward shoulder pat in the kitchen after they took out Thaddeus – all of it suddenly undercut by the strange almost nervousness that Michael had so uncharacteristically adopted over the last few days. 

It all made a horrible, horrible kind of sense, and suddenly Ray felt sick because okay and what the fuck and how do I even begin to react to this – it was like all systems came to a sudden grinding halt.

He likes you.

But... but you're just best friends?

Ryan was watching him intently, waiting for a reaction, but Ray barely noticed him, lost in catatonic thought.

Then Ryan abruptly stopped walking and Ray bumped into his back. Ryan reached out to steady him, but he seemed to have been seized by a sudden panic.

“Oh shit,” he said, and Ray blinked, jerked out of his thoughts.

“What?” he demanded.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Ryan said. “Back there – Clarence said more mercs were coming in, some of Edgar's hired guns to help with the weapons deal.”

“Yeah, so? We took out Clarence, he won't be there to meet them-”

“Where'd he say he was gonna meet them though?” Ryan asked. Ray couldn't remember, and stared at him blankly. 

“The water,” Ryan said. “He said he was meeting them by the water and there's only one big body of water around here-”

Fuck,” Ray breathed. “They're going to the fucking lake.”

“Exactly.”

“Where the others are.”

Ryan nodded. He scrabbled in his pockets for his phone and then cursed as he pulled it out. “Damn it. I think I landed on it jumping down from the roof, it's broken. Fucking cheap disposable cell phones. You call them.”

Ray reached for his own phone. And then realised he had thrown it off the roof when he was distracting the birds. “Shit, mine's gone too.”

“Damn it. We need to get back there fast as we can then, or the others will be in for a nasty surprise. He didn't mention when they were coming, did he?” Ryan broke into a jog, Ray moving to keep pace alongside him.

“He didn't, but if he was on his way to meet them they can't be much more than an hour away. Shit, we won't get there in time.”

“Geoff will deal with it,” Ryan said grimly. “But let's move quickly.”

 


 

 

It had been almost two hours since Ryan and Ray left for the town. They would have arrived by now, were probably looking around – and Gavin sat, hunched over his laptop, waiting for any movements from Clarence that he could use to help out.

He reached out and took a swig of the Red Bull next to him. He had spent the last few months in a state of near constant exhaustion and it had become normal to feel tired, to have a constant sort of dull headache behind the eyes and a vague lethargy wearing down on his limbs.

His phone buzzed suddenly with a text and he jumped, nearly spilling his drink as he hastened to pick it up.

It was Ray – it seemed they'd found Clarence, which meant his role in this job was over.

Smiling, he got up and headed out of the tent where he quickly spied Geoff standing out looking over the water, and jogged over to him.

“Geoff!”

“What's up buddy?” Geoff asked, turning instantly; he'd been skipping stones.

“Ray just called in, they found Clarence,” Gavin said.

“Sweet,” Geoff replied, breaking into a grin. “They'll take him down no problem. That means we're, what, a third of the way done? Nice work Gavvers,” he added, “You tracked both of them down in no time.”

“Yeah, well, I am the best,” Gavin replied, and Geoff snorted loudly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. Gavin ducked away but nearly slipped in the slippery mud near the lakebed. Geoff reached out to steady him, grabbing him around the waist and setting him upright. 

“You're like a fucking deerling, always tripping over your own limbs,” Geoff muttered.

“Baby deer aren't called deerlings, you mong,” Gavin snorted. “They're called fawns, like bloody Mr Tumnus or whatever.”

“Don't call me a mong,” Geoff replied. “You can't call the criminal overlord of Achievement City a mong.”

“I will call you what you are, you silly panini.”

 Geoff burst into surprised guffaws. “Silly panini – what the fuck does that even mean? You're fucking stupid.”

 Geoff had a particularly contagious laugh and Gavin couldn't help but break into giggles himself. He bent to pick up one of Geoff's rocks and made an attempt at skipping it that failed epically; it landed with a great splash and sank immediately. 

“Not like that, dumbass,” Geoff said, taking up another stone and demonstrating. “Like this. See? Come here.” He grabbed Gavin's wrist and tugged him towards him, guiding his arm. “You want it to skim the surface of the water.”

For a few moments they continued chucking rocks. Gavin still could not get it to work and he quickly gave up.

Then Geoff spoke up again.

“Hey, I got a question for you.”

“Yep?”

“What job were you working on before you came with us?”

Gavin froze, his whole body tensing as the panic from before rose up again, lapping over him in waves – why does he want to know? Has Ryan been talking? Why would he suddenly bring that up, oh God what does he know-

“Gav? Jesus, you look like you just saw a ghost. Are you okay?” Geoff asked with a stern sort of worry, as he grabbed Gavin's shoulders, turning him to face him. 

Gavin shrugged him off and pasted on a practiced smile. “I'm fine, just – why'd you wanna know?”

“I dunno, Ryan was asking earlier and I was wondering.”

Ryan was asking?” Gavin demanded, and Geoff nodded, one eyebrow rising.

“Yeah – why? He said you guys were talking last night and he was curious.”

“Right,” Gavin replied. And then forced a laugh. “Well – it's boring really, it was just another job, you know? Like what I'm doing with you. Some guys wanted revenge on a bunch of other people so they hired me to help track them down.” 

“Burnie said something went wrong?”

Gavin's mouth felt suddenly dry, like all the moisture in it had spontaneously evaporated. When he spoke it was like trying to swallow a mouthful of dead moths.

“The – the guys we were tracking down, they were friends with this other big guy and he came after us.” His voice had begun to shake a little and he clenched his fists. Control yourself. You're fine. “But we all got out,” he added, and forced another smile.

A moment of silence as Geoff watched him carefully. 

“We all got out,” Gavin repeated, almost to himself.

Geoff was looking at him with something approaching concern, and Gavin glanced away.

“I hope Ryan gets back soon,” he said, trying to change the subject. 

“Ah yes, Ryan who is now apparently your personal bodyguard,” Geoff teased.

Gavin half-heartedly scowled at him. “Shut up. You were the one who promised I wouldn't have to come out here.”

“I know, I'm sorry,” Geoff said, not sounding apologetic in the slightest. “Hey, that's an idea – come over to my tent and I'm gonna show you how to use a gun.” 

Gavin shook his head instantly. “Nahh, that's not necessary.”

“It is the best idea I've ever had,” Geoff informed him, and grabbed his arm, trying to pull him along. Gavin dug his heels in. “Come on, man, then you won't be as scared and defenceless as you are now, you big baby.”

“No, Geoff, I fight with information,” Gavin protested.

“Will information protect you from this?” Geoff asked, and punched him in the shoulder. Gavin yelped, though it didn't really hurt all that much, but the surprise was enough for Geoff to haul him away from the lake and towards his tent. “At least let me teach you how to stab someone, c'mon.”

“Noo, a friend of mine tried to teach me guns and stuff once and I was rubbish at it,” Gavin said. “I don't want to stab people. If their guts came out I'd throw up.” 

Geoff burst into laughter again. “Their guts wouldn't come out,” he howled. “Now who's the silly panini-”

“Geoff,” Jack called out, approaching from the tents. Geoff was still in fits of laughter, but when Gavin turned towards Jack he noticed very quickly that the other man was not happy to find his boyfriend hanging out with Gavin – especially since he still had his arms wrapped around him trying to pull him over to the campsite.

Gavin attempted a smile at Jack, but it faded quickly when the other man glared at him. He deflated a little; he was very used to people finding him annoying, even actively disliking him, but that didn't mean it didn't suck. 

“'sup Jack,” Geoff replied, letting go of Gavin in favour of waving at his boyfriend. “Hey, you should help me out, I'm about to teach Gavin some self defence.”

Jack looked mightily unimpressed by this. “Before you do that,” he said, ignoring Geoff's offer, “Kdin just called and he wants to talk to you, you should probably call him back.” 

“Oh, not fucking Felix again,” Geoff groaned, already moving off towards his tent.

Jack shook his head. “Nah, I think he just wants to run some things by you, it's nothing too big.”

Gavin was left standing alone as the two of them walked off. He shivered as a cold wind blew down his spine. It was already beginning to move into evening. The day had gone by quicker than he'd realised, and suddenly, as he noticed it was starting to get dark, he began to feel very exposed standing out here alone. 

Glancing about, he caught sight of Michael walking off into the trees, and ran after him.

“Michael! Michael! Where are you going?”

Michael glanced around, saw him approaching, and adopted a look of the utmost horror.

“Fucking hell, don't come with me,” he groaned.

Too late. Gavin had already skidded to a halt next to him.

“Where are you going?” he asked, glad to at least have someone else around. Truth be told, Ryan leaving had made him nervous. It had been fine with Geoff, but now Geoff was off in his tent and the lakeside suddenly seemed very empty and ominous with no one around.

“Where the fuck do you think I'm going,” Michael snapped, folding his arms. “I'm going to take a shit in the woods.”

“I haven't taken a dump out here yet,” Gavin informed him. “I'm holding it in 'till we get back.”

“That is fucking lovely Gavin, now can I have some fucking privacy?”

“Nahh, I'll come along and guard you.”

“Like fuck you will,” Michael snapped.

“Can't I just come with you until Geoff finishes whatever he's doing?” Gavin asked. He played up the whining, despite knowing it would annoy Michael – he'd rather come off as pathetic if it meant covering up the fact that standing alone out here was starting to make him genuinely nervous. It was one thing to be teased about being so skittish, another entirely for people to start to realise that he had his reasons for being so jumpy and afraid.

Though truth be told, Michael's earlier accusations of his cowardice had gotten to him a little. He could see why the other man felt that way – with his demanding precautions and special measures all the time – but it wasn't that he cared about his life more than theirs, it wasn't, it wasn't that at all – he just couldn't trust them, just needed to know he'd be safe and that it wouldn't happen all over again –

But telling them that would mean telling them everything, about Dan and Barry and what had happened on the last job.

And that was not about to happen, thank you very bloody much.

“Jesus Christ, you are an infant,” Michael sighed, glaring at the sky and rubbing his temples. “Fine, we'll do a perimeter check before I do my business. Come on.”

“Really?” Truth be told he was a little surprised Michael had agreed, he'd expected otherwise given that the man had made his dislike for him markedly clear. “Awesome. Let's go.”

The sun set quickly this time of year and as they progressed further into the woods it quickly grew darker and darker; not enough for them to be unable to see, but enough to make Gavin a little uncomfortable.

Michael, unfortunately, quickly picked up on his nervousness and exploited it mercilessly.

“Shh, Gavin,” he whispered, “Don't walk so loudly.”

“Why?”

“Because something might hear us.”

“Something? What's something, Michael?”

“I don't know, something scary, you never know what's out here dude.” He glanced about theatrically. “When the sun goes down anything could come out.”

Gavin started to laugh off his unease but Michael shushed him again.

“I mean it, man, these country towns can be fucking weird. All ghosts and shit out here. Just imagine if we looked behind us and saw something.”

Michael, stop,” Gavin whined. “Quit messin' about, there's nothing there.” 

“We think there's nothing there. Look around and make sure.”

“I don't want to look around.”

“Why not?"

“Just in case I see something horrid.”

“Exactly.” Michael broke into devious chortles and Gavin half-heartedly glared at him. He spooked easily at the best of times but nowadays more than ever it didn't take much to unsettle him.

“Ooooh,” Michael began intoning in a low voice as they continued on. “Ooooooh – what was that?” He suddenly snapped to attention and Gavin glared at him.

“Stop it, Michael-”

“Shut up.” There was no teasing in Michael's tone now, and Gavin's mouth snapped shut as he fell silent. All was quiet save for their breathing. His heart began to beat faster, faster, too fast – the wind was rustling the leaves about them and he couldn't hear anything, he couldn't-

There! A rattle of cans on wire.

“Someone's at the fence,” Michael whispered.

Gavin's eyes widened.

And that's when they heard voices, muffled in the distance, then the heavy thud of boots – and then a pair of headlights turned on, bright beams of light filtering through the foliage around them.

“Fuck,” Michael hissed. “Get down, get down, get down!”

Gavin froze, unable to move. A great cold had come over him and his limbs felt frozen and-

Not again, not again-

With a grunt of frustration Michael grabbed his arm and roughly pulled him back, dragging him into a nearby copse of bushes.

“Stay down,” he ordered. He shoved Gavin to the ground, pushing him down flat, and then, after a moment's thought, he yanked Gavin's hood up over his hair. In the dark the black fabric would help conceal him; it was better than nothing, in any case. 

Gavin realised, with a detached sort of awareness, that he was breathing too fast, on the verge of hyperventilating. Michael seemed to notice at the same time; he leaned across and clapped a hand over Gavin's mouth, crouching over him and making sure they were both hidden behind the bushes.

“Do not make a sound,” he whispered, so close Gavin could feel his breath against his ear. “You get it? Not a fucking noise.” 

Gavin nodded, jerkily. Michael took his hand from his mouth and put it on his back instead, holding him down as they both stayed stock-still.

 The footsteps and voices grew louder, beams of torchlight visible through the leaves as the men entered the forest.

Chapter Text

“Okay. Yeah, I don't know how long I'll be gone for. Not too much longer I hope. Need to take down this dickhead though or he'll just keep causing problems for us. Alright, bye Kdin.”

Geoff sighed as he hung up, throwing his phone down as he ran his hands through his hair.

Jack, sitting on the other side of the tent, watched him in concern. “Everything alright back at Achievement City?”

“Yeah, but Kdin doesn't like me being gone this long,” Geoff replied. “Can't blame him.”

The thing was, a lot went into running a criminal empire. You couldn't just run off without warning, there was shit to get done – whether it was ordering and maintaining weapon and ammunition supplies, taking care of your allies, taking care of your enemies, pulling heists – a ton of stuff that Geoff was not at all happy to have to up and leave in order to deal with this Edgar business.

And, to be honest, he had a constant nagging fear that Edgar would take advantage of his absence to do something drastic. So far he hadn't, but it was only a matter of time. Hopefully, their continuing to take down his network would cripple him enough to make it hard for him to pull anything big.

“At the rate Gav's finding these people, though, we should be fine,” Geoff continued, and forced a smile.

Jack didn't look impressed, and Geoff wasn't blind. He'd noticed his boyfriend's reactions to everyone they were working with.

“Oh, come on, Jack, you still don't trust him?”

Jack frowned. “He's somewhat capable, I'll give him that, but I keep feeling like he's going to do something to mess everything up, the same way he did with Thaddeus. He might be smart at what he does, but he's not reliable.”

“I think he's fine,” Geoff declared, “and you're making a big fuss over nothing.”

“And I think you're biased,” Jack shot back, sounding more genuinely annoyed than Geoff was comfortable with.

Geoff turned to him, surprised and a bit confused. “Why would I be biased?”

“Because you like him,” Jack said, voice quiet and intent. “I don't know, because you find him entertaining or funny or, or cute. It's stopping you seeing what a moron he can be. Same as Ray,” he added, tagging it on quickly like it would somehow stop Geoff realising what else he had said.

“What the fuck are you talking about,” Geoff snapped. “You think I find him- Jesus Christ, Jack, you're not jealous are you? Because it's bad enough with fucking Michael-”

“I'm not jealous,” Jack growled. He got to his feet, crossed his arms. “I'm just saying. You're too soft on him.”

“I'm not soft,” Geoff replied, tersely. “Trust me. He fucks up big time and I'll come down on him like a ton of bricks. But he hasn't, so I haven't, so I don't know what the big fuss is.”

He didn't want to fight – had had more than enough of that these past few days – so he turned away quickly before Jack could reply, pulling open the tent flaps and looking out.

Gavin?” he called, looking about – the campsite seemed empty. He stepped out of the tent and glanced around. “Hey Gav, where'd you go – Michael?”

“Michael went for a walk I think,” Jack said, coming up over his shoulder. He still sounded annoyed, but he didn't seem about to start another argument, and Geoff glanced at him.

“Did Gavin go with him? I don't think he'd-”

He broke off as a sound caught his attention. The revving of an engine, footfalls and voices – it was getting dark, and when he turned towards the nearby forestry he thought he caught a flash of light between the trees.

Geoff froze, reaching out to grab Jack's arm. Jack glanced at him in confusion, and Geoff jerked his head towards the woods.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

Jack felt silent, focusing intently.

It came again. There was definitely someone there – several someones, by the sound of it. Someone was driving up the road to the lake, but several other people were already in the trees. This wasn't a family of campers or a park ranger – there were a lot of them, and more and more lights were coming on.

“Fuck, fuck, get back in the tent,” Jack hissed, shoving at Geoff until he moved back inside.

They quickly turned out the lantern that had been burning, everything falling into darkness. It was dusk by now, only the faintest twilight lighting up the area. Geoff reached for his gun, made sure it was at his belt before he grabbed his phone.

“Ray and Ryan haven't checked in,” he whispered. “I thought they'd be done by now.”

“Maybe something went wrong,” Jack replied, worry lacing his tone.

Geoff grimaced. “Who the fuck are these people?” he muttered. He peered out of the tent again. Even more lights were appearing in the forest, and they were getting closer. He crawled back inside. “Damn it, I'm pretty sure this is bad. Even if it's not Edgar...”

They were alone, and outnumbered, and there were any number of people in these parts who would jump at the chance to take him down.

“What's the plan?” Jack asked.

“Well, it would be really fucking helpful if we knew where Michael and Gavin had got off to,” Geoff muttered.

“We might just have to trust they'll be fine and make a break for it,” Jack replied. “We're too exposed here. Let's get to one of the vehicles and drive out a ways, wait it out and see what happens.”

Geoff hesitated. Michael would be fine – probably – he could at least take care of himself. But Gavin – wherever he'd wandered off to, Geoff didn't like the thought of leaving him on his own out there. But there was little else he could do, except hope that he and Michael were together, wherever they were. In the mean time, he and Jack were sitting ducks here. They had to move.

“Okay,” he said. “Let's get to the car-”

Hey, there's someone out here,” a voice called from outside, and they both froze, crouching down and remaining as still and quiet as possible.

“What do you mean?” another voice replied.

“There's, like, tents and cars and shit, someone's already here.”

“Is it Clarence?"

Shit, Geoff thought, exchanging glances with Jack. So Clarence had been planning to meet what sounded like a bunch of mercenaries by the lake. The fact that he hadn't shown up meant that Ray and Ryan must have at least slowed him down if not killed him.

“No, there's too many tents.” The clang of metal on metal, like someone hitting or kicking at the support poles of one of the other tents.

“Who the fuck is it then?”

Jack grabbed Geoff's arm. 'Out the back,' he mouthed, and Geoff nodded.

They crawled through the back flap of the tent. The campsite was awash now with light from the headlights of several vehicles and the torches of the people who had arrived. Peering out from behind the tent, Geoff did a quick headcount – at least two dozen men and women, armed to the teeth.

If he hadn't already known they were Edgar's cronies, this would have solidified it – everyone had their signatures, and Edgar's, it seemed, was farmyard animals. What appeared to be the leader of the band – a tall figure who he could not tell the gender of – wore quite possibly the most terrifying duck-head mask Geoff had ever seen, all bulging eyes and gaping beak.

He was pretty sure ducks weren't supposed to have teeth. Fucking anatomically incorrect on top of everything else.

There were far too many for them to take out, and it wouldn't be long before they were spotted. The people were already beginning to search the camp roughly.

“Hey, there's a bunch of tech stuff in here,” one of the men hollered out, having, it seemed, found Gavin and Ryan's tent.

“No one brings fucking computers on a camping trip,” another replied. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Geoff thought it was the duck. The duck certainly seemed to be in charge. “Not unless...” they trailed off. “Not unless you're out here looking for something.”

“Fuck. Do you think it's Ramsey?” the man replied.

Jack poked Geoff's arm and jerked his head towards the forest. They couldn't cross the camp to get to the vehicles, but they could make a break for the trees.

Geoff nodded. 'Go', he mouthed, and they ran for it, half crouching over, moving as quietly as possible-

But not quietly enough.

One of the group caught the flash of movement, and shouted, drawing the attention of the others.

“There! Get them!”

Shots rang out and Geoff swore. They had reached the tree line and crashed through shrubbery and prickly undergrowth. One thing that movies always got wrong was that it was fucking hard to run in woodland; there were sticks and rocks and uneven ground and shit tripping you up at every turn. It was also dark in here, any semblance of moonlight blocked out by the trees.

“Geoff,” Jack said, steering him right, away from the road. “Come on, our best bet is to stop and hide.”

He could still hear gunshots behind them, feet too – they were definitely being pursued.

They jogged a little while longer, pulling away from their assailants until the sounds faded a little and the lights in the trees behind them weren't quite close enough for concern.

Geoff ducked behind a large tree, tugging Jack with him, and paused to catch his breath and check the clip of his gun.

Jack was panting heavily, and when they glanced at each other, Geoff couldn't help but grin, wide and a little manic. Jack rolled his eyes, but smiled back – yes, they were in a spot of danger, but it was exhilarating as shit and brought him back to the missions they'd been on when they'd first broken away and tried to make it on their own, just the two of them – messy and full of close calls and lots of running in the dark, just like now.

“We could climb a tree,” Geoff whispered.

Jack shoved him, scoffing out a laugh. “You're mad if you can see me trying to get up one of these things.”

“Just a suggestion,” Geoff replied. He glanced out from behind the tree again. “They coming after us yet?”

“Looks like they've split up to search,” Jack said. “We should stay on the move.”

“We need to try find Michael and Gavin.”

“They could be anywhere. What we need to do is hole up or get out of here.”

“Fine.”

Opting for stealth rather than speed now, they continued through the forest. Geoff had a vague idea where he was going – following the road back around to the highway – but it wasn't long before they heard footsteps and voices very close to them.

“Shit, hide,” he hissed, but too late – a man and a woman emerged from the bushes, caught sight of them and began firing.

Geoff dived sideways, rolling against ground that was sharp and painful with pine cones and rocks. He was already lifting his gun to fire, taking out several shrubs before he managed to get a lock on the man. He dropped like a stone, and Geoff didn't have to look to know that Jack was covering him as he straightened up to bring down the female mercenary.

Barely had she fallen than Jack yelled, “Geoff!” and dived at him, knocking him to the ground as a shot rang out overhead.

Geoff landed heavily on the ground, winded as Jack landed right on top of him, knocking the breath out of him. For a moment he gasped, dazed, dimly aware that another one of Edgar's men had crept up on them and was approaching-

Then another gunshot rang out, and the man crumpled to the floor.

“You okay?” Jack asked, sitting up. Geoff nodded, hunching over and rubbing his ribs for a moment as he struggled to get his breath back.

“Who shot that guy?” he demanded – it hadn't been Jack, he'd been down for the count as well.

Jack twisted around, just in time to see Ray and Ryan emerge from the trees. Geoff huffed out a laugh.

“Never been so glad to see two people in my life,” he said. “Why the fuck didn't you call us, tell us where you were at?”

“We both lost our phones,” Ray replied. He moved over to Geoff's side and offered him a hand up, pulling him to his feet and steadying him.

Ryan made a deep, low noise of disapproval. “Turns out Clarence was arranging a meeting by the lake,” he explained. “Edgar was sending some people up to guard some weapons deal. We couldn't call to warn you but by the time we got back down here we saw the campsite had been overrun and everyone was fucking around in the forest.”

“There's too many of them for us to take out,” Jack said. “I think we'll have to skip out on them.”

“How many?” Ryan demanded. “If we can get rid of some of Edgar's men, we should-”

“Where's Michael?” Ray cut in suddenly, glancing around.

“Um,” Geoff said.

Ray rounded on him. “What the hell does um mean?” He sounded genuinely stressed for the first time Geoff had ever heard him. “Where the fuck is he?”

Ryan seemed to notice the absence of two of their crew at the same time.

“Where's Gavin?” he asked.

“Calm down,” Jack said. “They weren't at the camp when Edgar's guys attacked. We don't know where they are. Probably somewhere here in the forest.”

Ray flung his hands up. “Oh, nothing to fucking worry about then, they're just somewhere in here with all the guys with guns.”

“Calm your tits,” Geoff said, though he was starting to feel a little uneasy as well. “Michael will be fine. He's a big boy, he can take care of himself.”

“It's not Michael I'm worried about,” Ryan said grimly.

Ray shot him a glance. “Either way, we need to find them,” he said.

Geoff nodded. “Now there's four of us we can try to stay on the move and make sure we don't get outnumbered. We'll move quietly and search thoroughly.”

Ray nodded, but Geoff fancied that Jack and Ryan didn't look entirely happy. Though Ryan didn't argue, he seemed hesitant, as though he'd rather go on a killing rampage and try take down as many of Edgar's cronies as possible rather than go looking for Michael and Gavin. And Jack – he didn't argue either, but Geoff knew he'd prefer to be careful about it. Would rather find a way out of the forest and sit tight instead of heading blindly off on a rescue mission when they had no idea where the other two even were.

But as it was, he was in charge, and when he started walking, they all followed him.

 


 

 

Gavin was actually going to throw up.

His heart was pounding so fast that it hurt, his breath coming in quick, ragged gasps that he struggled to stifle. Stay quiet, stay quiet, stay quiet, he told himself – but it was hard when every second he spent crouched behind the bushes was bringing him back to that terrible night, going on six months ago now. Things had gone to shit then, as well – Barry's men had found them and everyone had split and Gavin – Gavin had been alone, then, alone and abandoned by the people he was meant to be working with –

But he wasn't alone now. Michael's hand was warm on his back, pressing insistently to keep him down and hidden, and as they watched, the people with guns trooped by, deeper into the forest, drawing away and taking their light and noise with them until the forest was quiet and still once more.

Michael sat back, letting out a huff of breath. Gavin collapsed, bonelessly, feeling the tension drain from his body in a rush as he let himself have a moment to just shake before he pulled himself together and sat up.

'Are they gone?' he mouthed, and Michael nodded.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “Looks like it.” He peered up from behind the bushes and nodded again. “Yep, they headed off down the road. Shit, who are they? They're definitely headed for the campsite.”

Gavin bit his lip. “Edgar's people?”

“Who the fuck knows.” Michael rose, abruptly, and Gavin startled at the sudden movement before scrambling to his feet as well. Before he could move, though, Michael grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back down.

“Stay there,” Michael ordered. “I need to follow them to the lake, see what's going on with Geoff and Jack.”

Panic rose like nausea in Gavin's throat.

“You can't leave me here.” His voice came out small and weak, and Michael glared at him.

“Yes I fucking can. Jesus, Gavin, it's safer here, isn't that what you wanted? Sit the fuck down and wait for me to get back, and whatever you do don't go running off or making noise.” He turned to leave and Gavin jumped up again, seized his arm and spun him back around roughly.

“No, I'm going with you-”

Gavin!” Michael snapped. “Get your fucking hands off me.” He grabbed Gavin's wrists and pushed him back a few steps. “You're not fucking coming, okay?! You'll slow me down; you're noisy and clumsy and you can't fucking take care of yourself. This forest is full of people with guns and you're useless to me right now, okay?! The most helpful thing you can do right now is just sit here and not move-”

Michael please don't leave me alone here.

The words burst out like they were being torn from his throat, loud and high and desperate, and the next thing he knew Michael had him in a headlock, one hand clamped over his mouth, pressing so hard he had to struggle to breathe.

“Shut. The fuck. Up,” Michael hissed in his ear. “They're gonna fucking hear us if you keep shouting like that.”

Gavin pulled weakly at his arm, but his hands were shaking and his heart hurt again and all he could do was try to breathe, in, out, in out – and bloody fucking hell he was actually going to have – have a panic attack, or something, because everything he'd been trying to squash down for months was rising back up and he just. Needed to not be left.

To his credit, Michael seemed to realise pretty quickly that something was very, very wrong. He let go of Gavin and took a few steps back, raising his hands.

“Okay. Okay, just calm the fuck down, Gavin, okay? We're not... we're gonna be fine.” The words came out somewhat awkwardly, like reassurance wasn't something that sat comfortably in his mouth. “Don't freak out. Fine, you can come with me, okay? Just – just stay fucking quiet, will you? Gavin?”

Gavin turned away from him. He clasped his hands together, tightly so that they would stop trembling, and hunched over a little, trying to control his breathing. He focused on where he was, the forest, the crunch of drying dead leaves under his shoes, the faint smell of rain hanging in the air. The here and the now and the thudding of his heart letting him know that he was still alive.

It worked – his breathing slowed and he could force himself into motion, turning to Michael and giving a sharp, jerking nod. Something between worry and confusion flashed across the other man's face, so quickly Gavin wasn't even sure he'd seen it in the dark.

“Okay then,” Michael said. “Stay close and don't talk.”

“Thanks Michael,” he said quietly, and Michael flapped a hand at him.

“Don't make me regret letting you come along,” he hissed.

They set off, making sure to trail some distance behind the people. When they were a little way from the lake, however, gunshots and shouting started up, and Michael dodged back behind a nearby tree, Gavin hurrying after him.

“Fuck,” Michael hissed. “Fuck, fuck, they must be after Jack and Geoff.”

“You think they're dead?” Gavin began, but Michael was already shaking his head.

“Dude, no, it takes more than a bunch of guys with guns to take down Geoff or he'd've been dead a long time ago. But we need to find them.” He peered out from behind the tree again. “Shit, it sounds like they're all heading back into the forest. They must be in here somewhere.”

There was a pause in which Michael thought very hard and Gavin shifted from foot to foot nervously. The lights were coming back towards them now, it seemed, and it wouldn't be long before they started searching the forest in earnest.

“Shit, okay, let's climb this tree,” Michael said. “It'll be too hard running around here trying to hide on foot.”

Gavin nodded. He liked this plan. When it came to most physical activities his skills were somewhat lacking; he wasn't exactly coordinated or particularly strong. But climbing – climbing was something he could do.

It was a good tree – lots of low hanging branches and a wide, rough trunk that he pulled himself up with ease, swinging deftly into some of the higher branches before he reached down to help Michael up. The other man waved him off at first, but after slipping a couple of times he grudgingly gave in and let Gavin grab his hand and haul him up.

Barely were they settled on the branches than the noise in the forest got louder. Whatever was going on, it seemed they were definitely hunting for someone – most likely Geoff and Jack – and soon there were people moving past below, beams of torchlight sweeping across the ground.

They came and went, Gavin holding his breath every time, pressing back against the trunk of the tree as far as he could and hoping none of them thought to look up. He couldn't tell what Michael was thinking; the other man was settled on the boughs a little way below him and all he could see was the top of his head.

They must have waited there for at least twenty minutes, people coming and going down below. It had been silent for a little while when Michael twisted around and looked up at Gavin.

“It looks like they've moved on,” he began. “I'm thinking we climb down and start-”

He broke off as there came the snap of twigs underfoot from down below.

Three more men emerged from the shrubbery, and stopped right underneath the tree.

“They're fuckin' around here somewhere,” one of them growled. “They just took down two of ours. Edgar's gonna be shittin' when he hears about this.”

“Not to mention they must have got Clarence,” another grunted. “There's been no word from him.”

“Fuck,” the third – and seemingly the most aggressive – snapped. He kicked the tree, and Gavin flinched. “Come out, you bitches, we're gonna find you anyways!” he hollered, and promptly fired his gun randomly at the sky.

This would not have caused a problem, were it not for the fact that the loud shot startled something in the tree just behind Gavin. With a wild screech, some sort of animal – a bird? Bat? He couldn't tell in the dark – flapped its way past his head and took off into the night sky. It gave him such a tremendous shock that he couldn't help letting out a yell, slipping sideways on the branch and flailing desperately to avoid falling.

It was too late; he'd lost his grip and he crashed through the branches to land heavily on the ground. Michael, who had instinctively grabbed for him, lost his balance as well and came toppling down to land next to him.

For a moment they lay, stunned and winded, as the three men stared down at them in shock.

Michael came to his senses first.

Fuck,” he cried, and pulled his gun, already scrambling upright. “Gavin, run!”

Gavin had no time to think. He just set off, tripping over his own feet as he stumbled into the bushland, already hearing shots ring out behind him. Bloody hell bloody hell Michael is going to die, he thought, and half-turned to look back over his shoulder and see if the other was okay.

Big mistake.

Not looking where was going, his foot caught in a root, and he hit the ground hard, banging his elbow and his knee and knocking the breath out of himself. Gasping, he heard the thud of footsteps behind him and rolled over to see one of the three men advancing, gun raised. Desperately scrambling backwards, Gavin flung his hands up as though they'd afford him some semblance of protection –

Bang!

The man's gun fired off to the side, then dropped to the ground as Michael tackled him from behind, elbow hooking around his throat as he struggled to pull him down.

“Gavin, for the love of fucking God pass me that gun,” Michael snarled, viciously tightening his grip as the man coughed and wheezed, dropping to his knees.

Gavin froze, and Michael swung his head around to glare at him.

Gavin!”

Rousing himself to action, he scrambled forward and snatched up the gun, shoving it into Michael's outstretched hand. Instantly Michael put it to the man's head and fired, and he crumpled neatly to the ground.

Silence fell, both of them panting heavily.

Michael checked the clip of the gun before throwing it down in disgust.

“Fucking fantastic," he said. “I took out those other two but ran out of bullets. This one's empty too.”

Gavin looked at the body on the ground for about two seconds before his stomach rebelled, the sight combined with recent stress sending his gut lurching. He turned and retched into the bushes. Not much came up and he just felt even sicker by the time he was finished, coughing and gasping with his hands braced against his knees.

“You done?” Michael asked after a second. He sounded impatient, but there was again that odd undercurrent of something almost resembling concern.

Gavin turned, wiping his mouth, but before he could say anything there was a rustle in the bushes nearby. He backed up, Michael instinctively moving closer to him, but it was Geoff who burst from the bushes, holding up his cell phone light as a makeshift torch. He gaped at them for a moment, then grinned widely.

“Oh, thank God, there you guys are, we've been looking for fucking ages!”

Jack, Ray, and Ryan quickly followed, Ray shoving his way past the others to stand in front of them. For a moment he stared at Michael with naked relief in his expression, half-reaching out to him. Michael started to step forward, but then the oddest look crossed Ray's face and he turned away very abruptly, moving over to clap Gavin on the shoulder instead and pull him into a hug.

“Hey, man, glad you're okay,” Ray said, speaking just a little too quickly to sound normal. “You too, Michael – knew you'd be fine.”

Gavin glanced at Michael, who looked stricken for a moment before his expression shuttered down into something blank and grim.

“Course I was fine,” he sneered, folding his arms. “It was fucking Clumsy McGee over there who nearly got us both killed.”

“Alright, Vav?” Ray asked. “You're shaking like fuck.”

“I'm fine,” Gavin replied. It was true – the fact that they were all here – that the others had come looking, had come to find them and save them – he felt dizzy with relief, and a lot less anxious than he'd been earlier.

Michael was still scowling at he and Ray, and Gavin blinked, a bit confused – but before anything else could happen, Geoff clapped his hands together.

“Okay, now we're all together let's get the fuck out of dodge. We've taken down, what, a quarter of them? There's still a fuckton of people running around here with guns. Not to mention that damn duck.”

“Duck?” Gavin asked.

Geoff shook his head. “Tell you later. Let's go.”

“Wait,” Ryan cut in. “These are Edgar's cronies. Kill them now and we'll set him back a few paces.”

“Jesus, Ryan, we barely got out of this balls intact,” Jack snapped. “You can't seriously want to-”

“I don't work for you,” Ryan said coldly.

Gavin couldn't help but frown a little. Ryan had not been this aloof, this intimidating yesterday. He hadn't spoken to him all day, admittedly – not since... not since he saw, back in the tent. Now he was acting all cold and strange, more like the terrifying mercenary that Gavin had expected when they first met. It was off-putting, and he felt strangely hurt, wondering if he had something to do with it.

“I don't take orders from you,” Ryan continued. “And you lot can go and do whatever you want, but I'm going on the hunt. I've killed more people in more dangerous conditions than these.”

“I'll come with you,” Michael spoke up. “I feel like slotting a few. Just get me a gun and I'm set.”

“Michael,” Ray started, but Michael ignored him.

“Suit yourself,” Geoff replied. “But I'm getting out of here. We'll circle back around and get to a vehicle, meet you out at the first highway exit. If you're not back by twelve we're going back to the house without you.”

“It won't take that long,” Ryan said, grimly, pulling a second gun from his belt and handing it to Michael.

Ray looked torn between getting out of there and going with Michael, but after a moment he turned to follow Geoff. Gavin glanced at Michael and saw that same hurt look cross his face before he left with Ryan.

“You don't want to go with him?” he whispered to Ray.

Ray hesitated, then shook his head. “Nah. He'll be fine,” he said.

There was still something odd about his voice – but Gavin barely knew these people, had been rather confused about what was going on the last few days between them, and so he shook it off, and turned away to follow Geoff into the dark.

 


 

It was half past eleven when Michael and Ryan finally returned to join them where they were waiting in the cars. The camp site had been abandoned when they got back there to get the vehicles, and Gavin had managed to salvage most of his tech, to his great relief. That shit was expensive and some of it very hard to get.

“All done?” Geoff asked, glancing at the forest in the rear view mirror as though he expected to see armed men emerging at any moment.

Ryan nodded. There was blood splattered across the front of his mask, staining his jacket dark. “Took out most of them, actually, and when the rest realised they were being picked off a lot of them fled.”

“You get the duck?"

“No.”

“Hm. Well then. Gavin's picked up his stuff so let's get back to the house, and make sure no one follows us there.”

Ryan nodded, turning to get into his own car with Michael. Jack and Ray were in another vehicle, Geoff and Gavin in the third. Gavin, sitting in the passenger seat, drew his knees up, wrapping his arms around them as Geoff put the car in gear and started to drive.

Geoff glanced at him. “Alright, kiddo?”

“M'fine.” It came out shaky, but he forced a smile, and after a moment Geoff grinned back.

“Sorry, I know that had to be tense as shit for you. Didn't really expect we'd get attacked out there. I guess you were right about needing your special precautions. Still, Michael took care of you.”

“Yeah,” Gavin said, quietly, and leaned his head against the cool glass of the window. “I guess he well did, didn't he.”

He felt a sudden surge of warmth for Michael – for not abandoning him, that first time in the woods, or after he fell from the tree – he'd honestly half expected him to just leave him there.

But he hadn't.

Maybe the circle of people he could trust was a little bigger than he'd expected-

No. Don't get ahead of yourself, Gavin, he chastised himself. You're still useful to them. That's why they care so much. Once this is over – once this job is over, if Edgar comes after you, or... or anyone else. Then you'll see whether you're just a tool, something to be used and discarded once you become expendable.

Still. He wanted to thank Michael, so when they reached the house with no further dramas and without being followed, he hung around to wait for the other.

There wasn't much debriefing to do. They'd taken down Clarence, and it was late – better to rest now and get sorted in the morning. Ryan instantly bagged first watch and went out to sit on the porch, Jack volunteering for second before retreating to bed with Geoff.

This left the three youngest sitting awkwardly in the living room.

“Are you going to bed, Ray?” Gavin asked quietly, and Ray nodded.

“Yeah, I'm beat. I'll see you tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay,” Gavin replied.

Ray darted a glance at Michael, but the other man wasn't looking – was occupied in taking apart his gun – and he left quickly after that.

Michael still didn't look up, and Gavin felt suddenly very nervous as he sat perched on the arm of the couch, trying to muster up something to say. Michael had been quiet since he returned with Ryan – quiet and annoyed. Gavin hadn't known him long but the other's short temper had become quickly apparent, and it was very obvious right now that there was something eating at him.

Had Gavin any sense of timing, he would have waited for a more opportune moment.

But, as it was, he did not have any sense of timing, so he rather unwisely walked up to Michael and hovered at his shoulder.

“What?” Michael barked out after a bit. “You fucking need something?”

“No,” Gavin replied. “I – kinda just wanted to say thanks. For helping me back there and not leaving me-”

“Put a fucking sock in it, Free, I didn't do it for you,” Michael snapped.

Gavin blinked, startled and a bit hurt. “I-”

“We fucking need you, that's the only reason. Plus Ray seems to have taken a shine to you.” Michael laughed, bitterly. “If it hadn't been for that, well, I'd have left your ass. So you can take your precious gratitude elsewhere.”

Gavin gaped at him. It took a lot to make him properly angry – but irritated and hurt, that was another thing, and Michael was pushing a lot of buttons without even realising it.

“Wow, okay,” he said. And then added, “asshole.”

Michael jumped up suddenly enough that Gavin flinched back.

“Fuck you, Gavin,” he hissed. “You're a grown ass man, so grow some balls and learn to take care of yourself because one day there's not gonna be anyone around to do it for you-”

Gavin stared at him in horror, the words striking at all his worst fears.

“Whatever, you Jersey bitch,” he cried, this being, in the heat of the moment, the worst insult he could think of. And then he reached out and pushed at Michael, intending to get past him to the stairs.

The next thing he knew, Michael was retaliating with a violent shove to his chest that sent him stumbling back. He knocked the small of his back into the corner of the table, hard enough to send a burst of pain through his spine, before he fell flat on his ass.

Michael snatched up his gun from the table, and for a moment Gavin was struck with the hysterical, paranoid thought, fuck I've pushed him to his limit he's going to bloody murder me – but he just strode by, marching off to his room and leaving Gavin sitting sprawled on the floor.

After a moment he stood up, then gasped and rubbed at his back – there was already a bruise from where he'd fallen out of the tree and that had only made it worse. He started for the basement, then turned back towards the kitchen, instead.

Alcohol. He needed a lot of alcohol. He could already tell that the events of this evening would trigger the worst nightmares he'd ever had – getting blackout drunk was probably the only way to avoid waking up screaming.

 


 

 

Geoff woke in a panic, his heart slamming in his chest, stomach lurching. He couldn't remember what he'd been dreaming about, except that it had been bad and probably involved Edgar.

“Geoff?” Jack was by his side in an instant, hand warm on his shoulder and rubbing in soothing circles. “Shh, you alright?”

Geoff nodded, and dropped his head into his hands for a moment. “Fuck. Been a while since I had bad dreams. The amount of shit we'd done, I kinda thought I was past it.”

“Don't think you ever really get past being almost killed every second week,” Jack huffed, and Geoff forced a smile.

“Weren't you on watch?”

“I literally just came to wake you up,” Jack replied. “Gavin needs you to take him into town. He wants to set security cameras up around the house. Just to make sure nothing sneaks up on us.”

“Oh. Okay. Shit, what time is it?” He suddenly realised the sunlight streaming through the windows was far too bright and warm for early morning.

“It's almost twelve,” Jack replied. Then ducked when Geoff swore and threw a pillow at him. “Hey! I wanted to let you sleep, we weren't exactly doing anything urgent. Until Gavin finds our next person we have nothing to do so-”

“Jesus, Jack, we don't have time to lie around now, not with Edgar out there.”

“Hey, come on, what would you have been doing anyway? Hovering over Gavin's shoulder waiting?” Jack snorted. “Normally you're, like, the worst morning person. I did you a favour.”

“Here's what I think of your favour,” Geoff said, and flipped him off before rolling out of bed and hunting around for some pants.

 


 

He went downstairs to find the entire household engaged in some sort of cold war.

Ryan was still out on the porch. His hostility levels had risen exponentially over the last twenty-four hours, for reasons unknown, and he now seemed to be finding it necessary to remind them at every turn that no, he was not their friend and they were not a team and he was only in this for his own gain, thank you very much. Geoff couldn't give less of a fuck, but it was kind of depressing having him around when he was being like that.

He had no idea what had happened last night, but Michael was holed up in his room, ignoring both Ray and Gavin. And Ray was sitting on the couch in a sullen silence, wrapped up in his own thoughts.

As for Gavin? Gavin was hungover as all hell.

“Jesus, kid, what did you do to yourself last night?” Geoff asked, opening the kitchen bin and grimacing at the empty liquor bottles inside.

“Uhhh,” Gavin replied, head down on the kitchen table.

As much as he was amused, Geoff was equal parts concerned. “Seriously, you weigh like thirty pounds, you must have been smashed. I'm surprised you didn't wake us all up. Quiet drunk, huh?”

“I did a lot of things on my computer that made no sense to me this morning,” Gavin groaned, opening one eye to squint at him. “I woke up to find I had tapped into the stream of every security camera in the nearest Walmart.”

“Anything interesting?”

“No.”

“Jack said you wanted to set up cameras here,” Geoff said, sitting opposite him and sliding a glass of orange juice across the table. Gavin took it gratefully, and Geoff winced when he lifted his head – he looked like shit, pale as fuck with deep dark circles under his eyes – but despite the rest he'd gotten, Geoff knew he himself probably didn't look much better. They were all wrung out.

“Yeah,” Gavin replied, a bit nervously. “I mean, we keep watch every night but Edgar's got to be noticing by now that we're taking out his people. I'd like the extra security.”

“It's fine with me, but you don't need to come into town to get them. Just focus on finding the next person we need, alright?”

Gavin hesitated. He glanced towards the stairs, then the porch, and Geoff raised an eyebrow. Maybe he did want the extra security, but he also seemed to want to get the hell out of the house.

“Okay,” he said finally, and got up, dragging himself down to the basement before Geoff could say anything further.

Jack poked his head around the door. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Geoff said, distractedly. With a frown, Jack came to his side, following his gaze.

“You're worried about him,” Jack said.

Geoff shrugged, forcing a smile. “Nah. He'll be fine.”

He was worried about all of them, that was the problem – and before it had been Jack who the majority of his protective instincts were aimed towards, and occasionally Caleb or Lindsay or any of his other hirelings. But there was something about Gavin that made him want to take care of him – and he'd worked with Ray and Michael enough times that he had a healthy level of professional concern for their wellbeing – everyone fighting like this was getting under his skin a little.

 


 

 

It ended up taking Gavin three days to get his next lead.

They were the most awkward three days of Geoff's life.

Ryan was ignoring everyone. Ray was ignoring everyone. Michael was ignoring everyone.

Gavin spent the entire time down in the basement. He, at least, seemed marginally back to his usual self, insofar as he made stupid conversation with Geoff and asked him a great many 'would you rather' questions to pass the time while he hunted the depths of the internet for anything that might lead them to Edgar.

It turned out that something Ray and Ryan had overheard – Clarence's mention of “the pirate” coming into town – led him to track down their next hit. By the time they were all gathered in the basement together to be briefed, it felt like it had been an age since they all saw each other.

There was a terrible icy tension hanging in the room, and Geoff felt it his duty to break it with a loud: “So who are we murdering next?”

Gavin cracked a smile at that. “The guy who's been funding most of Edgar's projects. Helping manage and launder his money for the more legal transactions he might need to make, and helping him pull in extra than what he makes in heists. He has about five hundred different names he goes by – don't know which is his real one – but among the sort of circles we run in, he's known as 'The Corpirate'.” He broke into chuckles. “Corpirate! What a tool.”

Geoff stiffened at the mention of the name.

“Great,” he said. “The fucking Corpirate. Well this is a dream come true. Of course he's working for Edgar.”

Gavin stopped laughing. “You... you know him?”

“Of course I fucking know him, he's been a pain in my ass for a while. I've run into him a couple of times while I was trying to pull scams and he caused a lot of trouble for me, every time.” He gave a loud snort. “Tried to kill the asshole a few times as well, but he's a wily son of a bitch. Remember when he shot you, Jack?”

“An incident like that is rather hard to forget,” Jack replied, grimly.

“Well that's just fucking great,” Michael growled. “Against all six of us, though? We can probably get him.”

“Where is he, Gavin?” Ryan demanded, leaning over Gavin's shoulder as though he could possibly make sense of the numbers and figures on the computer screens.

“Uhh, not sure yet,” Gavin replied. “I just managed to find out who he is. I'll see if I can trace him down now.”

“Good, you do that,” Geoff said. They dispersed, moving off to their own spaces again. “The fucking Corpirate,” he muttered under his breath, as he headed up to his room to grab his phone.

Jack moved up after him. “We'll get him this time,” he said, and Geoff gave a grim nod.

“At the very least, if Gavin can get a lock on him, we can track him,” he said. “That was our problem last time. The guy moves around all the damn time.”

Jack nodded, but he seemed distracted, and Geoff frowned a little. Jack's words back in the forest – their fight over Gavin – had been bothering him over the last few days. They hadn't brought it back up again, but it was still unsettling him, knowing that Jack might be mulling over it as much as he was.

“Hey,” he said, thinking it better to nip this in the bud. “Back in the tent, what you said...”

Jack's head snapped up, only confirming all of Geoff's suspicions that he remembered it clear as day.

“You don't have to worry, you know,” Geoff said. “That's not... I like Gav, but I don't-”

Jack huffed out a snort. “I told you already, Geoff, I'm not jealous. I just don't like him, that's all.”

“Would you tell me if you were jealous?” Geoff asked, teasingly, and Jack scoffed out a laugh.

“Not until years later when we can laugh about it. Speaking of the Corpirate, you know when we went up against him that last time?”

“The time you got shot?”

“Yes, the time I got shot. Remember Griffon? That hacker helping us track down those bank transactions?”

“Of course I remember Griffon.” She had been smart and funny and hot as fuck. That tended to stick in the mind.

“Yeah.” Jack's lips quirked. “That's an example of me being jealous. You were so into her it wasn't even subtle.”

“Oh.” He hadn't thought it had been that obvious at the time. “I... you know, Jack, I was into her, but I never... I never wanted to be with her. Not without you, in any case.”

“What does that mean, not without me?” Jack demanded. And then, a second later, caught on. “Wait – fuck – you mean you... what?”

Geoff shrugged. A lesser man may have been embarrassed, but he had long stopped giving a fuck about what other people thought of his sexual preferences; when you owned an entire criminal empire it was other people's turn to be bothered by you.

“If something had happened with Griffon,” he said, “It wouldn't have been just me and her. It would have been you and me and her. All three of us. Comprende?”

“I... wow.” Jack looked very thoughtful for a second.

Geoff laughed. “I'm not asking you to start thinking up options for a threesome. I'm just saying that you never need to be jealous because even if I do start thinking about someone else, you're always in the picture.”

“That's... very strange, Geoff, but oddly reassuring,” Jack laughed, and Geoff grinned at him.

“As it should be.”

 


 

Gavin called them back later that night, having worked all day, it seemed. As soon as Geoff laid eyes on him, he frowned – Gavin had a pinched, worried look about him that didn't bode well.

“What is it?” he demanded. “What's wrong?”

“We, ah, have a slight problem."

“What sort of slight problem?”

Gavin bit his lip. “Okay, so the Corpirate is actually out of the country right now, but he's flying in for one night – tomorrow night – and then he's moving on to Singapore. So we have a very narrow window of opportunity and not much time to plan.”

“That's inconvenient,” Ryan spoke up, “But not disastrous.”

“Yeah, no, the problem is he's landing on his own private airstrip at his big fancy house,” he tapped a key and the aforementioned big fancy house popped up on google maps. “And spending the night at a big function being held there for the annual Gworb shareholder's meeting.”

“What the actual fuck is Gworb,” Michael asked.

“Big multinational deforestation company,” Ryan explained. “Involved in some rather shady dealings, probably breaking hundreds of environmental laws all over the planet. Most of the people who invest in that thing are in the crime industry themselves, or at least willing to consort with those who are.”

“The problem is,” Gavin said, “There's a crapload of important people there and security will be tight – the only way to get in there would be to infiltrate. Sneak in as guests. And I can get invitations and stuff, but – Edgar will have people there. And they'll recognise you guys right away,” he said, glancing from Geoff, to Jack, to Michael and Ray. “So. We're a bit stuck.”

Geoff pondered this for about two seconds before coming to a marvellous solution.

“I have an answer that you are not going to like,” he declared.

Gavin swallowed, nervously.

“What?”

“He knows our faces,” Geoff said, slowly. Gavin's eyes widened as he realised where this was going.

“But,” Geoff continued, “He doesn't know yours.”

“Oh Jesus Christ not this again,” Michael groaned, throwing his head back. “He'll fucking refuse to go into the field and there'll be a whole tantrum and we'll have to find some clever way to convince him to-”

“I can't go in there and murder someone,” Gavin squawked, looking a little shellshocked. “No, I – I bloody refuse, I can't-”

“I never said you'd do the murdering,” Geoff said, and gave a wicked little grin. “There's someone else here who Edgar has never seen the face of, and that's because he has, very conveniently, been wearing a full face mask this whole time.”

If Ryan had not been wearing said full face mask, the look on his face would likely have been priceless; he went very, very stiff for a moment. Then he let out a long, low growl.

“You are not. Fucking. Serious,” he said.

“Hey, Geoff has a point,” Ray piped up. “That's why you wear that, right? For moments like this when your real face is actually the best mask you could ask for?”

“I'm not taking my damn mask off to go undercover to some fancy party,” Ryan said.

“You don't have much of a choice, not if you want to get this guy,” Geoff pointed out. “Even I wouldn't dare break in there.”

“I mean, we could always just blow the whole place up,” Michael spoke up.

Gavin shook his head. “Where will we get that many explosives in time? How will we sneak them in?”

“You're sure there's no other way?” Ray asked, quietly. “If you got him outside... I could snipe him?”

“The house is in a big open area, there's nowhere to snipe from,” Geoff pointed out. “No, our best bet is to have Ryan go in and Gavin in there for back up.”

“Why do I have to go in at all?” Gavin groaned.

“You tell me, buddy, if you can guide Ryan through it on his own it's fine,” Geoff began, but Gavin was already shaking his head.

“We need at least two people in there. There's a camera system set up in the house I can hack into, but there are some blind spots. If... if I did go in, someone else would have to keep an eye on it, let us know where people are at.” He bit his lip. “I don't... couldn't we, like, poison him or something? That might be safer.”

“You can never be certain with poison,” Ryan said quietly. He looked considering, now, and Geoff had to admit to being curious as to whether he'd agree to unveil his face for them. “I suppose... it might work. If Gavin agrees to come in too. Then you lot can watch from the cams and come in for back up if we need it.”

“I don't...” Gavin trailed off, hesitantly.

“Gav, I will double your pay if you do this,” Geoff suggested, but Gavin was barely listening to him. After a moment, he glanced at Michael – who was sneering at him challengingly, seeming convinced he was going to chicken out – and Gavin's back straightened, then, as though accepting a challenge.

“I'll just be your look out,” he said, turning to address Ryan. “And if things go to shit you have to get me out of there.”

“Sure,” Ryan replied. “Like I said last time. I need you alive.”

“In that case... I guess I should start arranging things,” Gavin said, and turned back to his computer – not without shooting Ryan a long, curious glance, obviously wondering what exactly he was going to look like when he finally took his mask off.

The rest of them were staring at Ryan as well, and after a moment he threw up his hands, said, “For God's sake, you're all a bunch of nosy old parkers,” and strode off back upstairs.

 


 

Gavin had no idea what he was doing.

Why, oh why had he agreed to go through with this? When he took this job it had been under the assurance that he'd do nothing but sit safely behind a monitor all day, relaying information. And now he'd been chased and shot at already and was about to head right back into danger again.

It was all that damn Michael's fault. Why he had to be such a pissy little bitch about things was beyond Gavin. But somehow – looking at him standing there smirking, obviously just waiting for Gavin to prove his cowardice – something had flared up in him. Not just a desire to prove Michael wrong, but to show himself that he wasn't as pathetic as all that. That he still had the capacity to be brave, and strong – that that hadn't been beaten out of him, not yet.

On the plus side, at least I'll get to see what Ryan looks like. He couldn't quite help the thrill of excitement that gave him. So sue him, he was curious – anyone in the circle of the criminal underground would be. A hundred police officers would be wetting themselves with excitement at the chance to see what the most infamous killer in the country actually looked like.

And then, quite by accident – he found another of Edgar's men.

All he'd been trying to do was get himself and Ryan onto the guest list – under alibis, of course – when he somehow managed to tap into some emails. And there it was – another of Edgar's higher-ups who'd been planning on going to the function but had to cancel to travel elsewhere – quite out of nowhere, there they were.

And then, upon digging deeper – Gavin realised they had a few more problems than he'd originally thought.

 


 

“I don't know this guy's name,” Gavin said, having called everyone back in. “But look at that impressive facial hair. I'm going to call him Beardo the Magnificent.”

“Okay,” Geoff replied, folding his arms. “Uh, who exactly is he?”

“He is causing us some problems,” Gavin replied. “It seems like he's part of Edgar's inner-inner-circle. The third or fourth in command, even – he runs some of the smaller operations, sends messages down the chain of command. Thing is, he's leaving the country in a couple of days as well, so if we want to get him we'll have to be quick.”

“Wait, wait,” Jack cut in with a frown. “You're saying we're gonna have to run two operations at once if we want to get both Beardo and the Corpirate.”

“Yeah,” Gavin said, and bit his lip. “It's, um, not ideal.”

“We only need three people,” Ryan spoke up. “You and I, Gavin, to go in. And then one other person to monitor the cameras. The other three can go after Beardo. Where is he?”

“Interstate, actually,” Gavin replied. “From what I could tell he's planning a heist of some sort for Edgar in this city here. You can make it there in time to intercept him, and tonight I can pull up as much info as possible to make it easier for you, but otherwise you're gonna have to work it out yourself because I'll be busy with this Gworb thing.”

“I can do it,” Ray spoke up, quietly. “I have a couple of contacts over there.”

“Me too,” Geoff mused. “That means Jack, you come with us, and Michael, you stay with Gav and Ryan on camera duty.” He glanced between Michael and Ray. “Hope you two don't mind being split up.”

“Not at all,” Michael said, coldly.

Ray just shrugged, not looking at his friend, and Gavin again felt very, very confused. He didn't know why Ray had been acting so strangely lately; he had thought he was very close to Michael but suddenly both of them seemed at odds with each other. If anything, it was understandable on Michael's part – Ray had been pushing Michael away the last few days and even Gavin could tell that he was hurt, even if he wasn't happy about Michael taking that out on him.

“In that case we need to leave right away if we want to get to that city in time,” Geoff said. “Gavin, send me everything you have on him, we'll figure out the rest. Then you guys focus on the Pirate. And no one lose their fucking phones this time, I want you all checking in every step of the way, you got that?”

They all nodded.

“Cool. We're close as dicks now, once this is done Edgar will be down an arm and a leg.” Grinning widely, he clapped Gavin on the shoulder before turning to leave.

 


 

It was going on nightfall by the time Gavin had scrounged up all he could on Beardo, and headed blearily upstairs to see the others off.

Everyone, it seemed, was scattered about and rather disorganised. Geoff and Ray were already out front but Jack was in the kitchen, packing bottles of water into his backpack. Michael was standing by him and they were talking – Gavin paused by the door. He didn't mean to eavesdrop but couldn't help but catch part of their conversation as he debated whether he should pop in to say goodbye.

“-seriously, he was worried as fuck about you when he realised you weren't with us,” Jack was saying. “The whole time we were looking for you two he was scared sick. It wasn't about Gavin, it was about you.”

“Yeah, well why the fuck did he brush me right off as soon as he found us then?” Michael demanded.

Jack shook his head slowly. “That I don't know. But he... he does care about you.”

“Well he has a God damn interesting way of showing it,” Michael grunted. And then, because the world was against Gavin, he looked out the door and caught him hovering.

“Do you fucking want something, Gavin?” Michael demanded. Jack was glaring at him too now, obviously annoyed that he'd been listening in.

Gavin shook his head and quickly scurried away, but walked smack-bang into Ryan, who grabbed his shoulders to steady him.

“Alright?” Ryan drawled, and Gavin nodded, squirming away.

Ryan made him nervous nowadays; any trust he'd thought he'd felt for the other man had dissipated quickly when he started acting like the bloody Terminator.

“You sure?” Ryan asked then.

As he had no filters at the best of times, Gavin blurted out, “Are you annoyed with me?”

Ryan actually seemed taken aback by that. “I... no, Gavin, I'm not annoyed with you. Why would you think that?”

“I dunno, you've just been full of vinegar lately and...” He trailed off, not wanting to bring up anything to do with that moment in the tent when Ryan had... had seen. Best not to let that come up as a topic of conversation.

“Full of vinegar?” Ryan questioned.

“Like. Irritable and antsy. You were friendly before and now you're not.”

He could swear Ryan was amused by that.

“Okay,” Ryan said. “That's not your fault, alright? I've had a lot on my mind and I want to bring Edgar down, so yes, I have been “full of vinegar” as you so metaphorically put it. But,” and here he paused, carefully, and Gavin saw his eyes behind the mask dart quickly, almost involuntarily down to Gavin's chest – to what he knew lay behind the layers of clothing – before they moved back up to his face. “That wasn't about you.”

Gavin nodded. His arms had come up to fold over his chest protectively. He felt awkward suddenly, ungainly in Ryan's presence, and turned away quickly to leave.

 


 

 

The house had been quiet before, everyone absorbed in their own business – but with half of their party gone, it felt even emptier somehow.

Gavin couldn't sleep that night, suddenly nervous at the prospect of what was to come the next evening. He felt sick to his stomach but tried to ignore it, focusing on throwing himself into his work, sorting out their invitations for the event and setting up all his information feeds to tap into the security cameras in the Corpirate's huge mansion.

The blind spots were dreadfully inconvenient; all of them were indoor places – the bedroom, a few bathrooms – the places they were most likely to be able to get him on his own and unguarded to carry out the assassination.

By the time the next day dawned he had returned to his usual coping mechanism of just steadfastly trying not to think about what was coming up. If he didn't think about it, it couldn't stress him out. Patented Gavin Free logic right there.

Michael was still annoyed with him, but they didn't see each other that morning as the other man went out to get suits for them, since formal dress wasn't exactly something they carried around or used regularly enough to have brought here to Geoff's house.

When he returned, Gavin summoned both of the others to the basement to explain how things would go.

“Michael,” Gavin explained, “See here?” He pointed to the screens. “These are the camera feeds to all the rooms, and here's a blueprint of the building. So if you're guiding Ryan somewhere, you need to tell him who and what is in the rooms around him so we know.”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm not fucking stupid.”

“You click on one to zoom in then you can tap out to get back to all of them or switch between them. We'll all have little earpieces so we can keep in touch.” He turned to the printer and snatched up the invitations he'd made out for them, having gone in and edited the guest list then found the invitation template.

“Ryan, you and I are now James and David Freewood, respectively. You're a minor shareholder in Gworb and I'm your plus one.”

Ryan and Michael both stared at him for a very long time. Gavin shifted uncomfortably, unsure exactly what was the problem.

“Ummm... have I bollocksed something horribly or is there something on my face?”

“James and David Freewood,” Michael repeated slowly. “James. And David. Freewood.”

“Yeeees....?”

“Oh, I don't know, Gavin, what about the fact that you have the same fucking last name?!” Michael practically screeched.

“Oh,” Gavin said. “I. Didn't think of that?” He'd done it in a rush, at three in the morning, brain addled with sleep deprivation and no small amount of nerves. “I guess we're brothers then!”

“Brothers?!” Michael looked ready to have an aneurysm. He turned to Ryan. “Ryan, under that mask do you look anything at all like Gavin?”

“Not really,” Ryan said. He sounded amused rather than annoyed, to Gavin's eternal relief.

“Not to mention no one takes their fucking brother as their plus one!” Michael yelled.

“Well, I can't change it now!” Gavin cried. “I've already messed with the list once, they'll notice!”

“That's alright,” Ryan said, very calmly. “We'll just have to be married instead.”

Silence followed this declaration. Then Michael burst into wild, raucous laughter. Laughter so intense that he actually fell to the floor and clutched at his stomach.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” he gasped. “I'll have to go find you fucking wedding rings now.”

Gavin stared at Ryan, a little shellshocked. Before he could react, Ryan got down on one knee and grabbed his hand.

“David,” Ryan intoned deeply, “Will you take me, James Freewood, to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

Michael screeched, and then fell into such silent, gasping convulsions that Gavin half feared he was having a stroke.

“I,” Gavin began, and then, for one of the few times in his life, actually could not find anything to say.

“Don't leave me hanging,” Ryan prompted, and Gavin snatched his hand back. His cheeks were flaming and he didn't know why. This was all just pretend, after all, they were going undercover like bloody James Bond or whatever.

“Stop it,” he said, far more shyly than he liked, and Ryan just snorted before getting up and turning back towards the stairs. Gavin vaguely registered that the older man was, at least, back to having a sense of humour.

“Fuck,” Michael said from the floor, voice wrung out with laughter. “I think I actually pissed myself.”

 


 

It had been a long, long time since Gavin prepared for any sort of formal event. Especially considering he had spent the last six months doing little more than lying about in bed in his pyjamas. The suit sat uncomfortably on his shoulders; it fit well enough but it was stiff in the way all new clothes are, and for someone who perpetually wore t-shirts and hoodies it was unfamiliar, to say the least.

Still. It was a nice cut – Michael had good taste in something, at least – plain black over a white shirt. He vaguely registered that his hands were shaking as he fumbled to tie his tie, and it took a couple of attempts before it would lie flat. A green silk scarf finished off the outfit, and when Gavin looked in the mirror after fixing his hair, he was a little startled by the fact that he actually seemed pretty put together. To look at him you wouldn't think that there were ghosts or scars or a hundred sleepless nights hiding inside.

It was almost a relief to at least look normal. He straightened his cuffs before heading out to find the others.

They were both sitting in the living room, already waiting, though they still had a good deal of time before they had to be at the event. It was a significant drive, all the way on the other side of Achievement City.

Ryan stood up when Gavin entered. He was in a slim cut black suit with an emerald tie, and Gavin couldn't help but stare.

“Wow, you're well fit, Ryan,” he said, before he could stop himself. “I mean, um-”

“Thank you,” Ryan replied drily. His eyes dragged slowly over Gavin in turn, and he squirmed a little, suddenly feeling very self conscious, being somewhat shorter and a good deal scrawnier. He turned to Michael to distract himself, only to find the other man staring at him as well, though his eyes flicked away quickly when he realised he'd been noticed.

“Here,” Ryan said, holding out a ring. Gavin noticed he was already wearing one on his own finger, a simple gold band, and he took it with a mumbled thanks, glad that Ryan wasn't making a big fuss out of it.

“Mr Freewood,” Ryan added then, with a laugh in his voice, and Gavin flipped him the bird as he slid the ring on.

“Oh stop.”

“I like how you just fucking mashed your last names together,” Michael cut in. “Real creative, Gavin.”

“I've done this before, Michael,” Gavin shot back. “Well, not the going undercover part, but the making up fake documents part. You should use something reasonably familiar so if someone calls it, you know to turn around and you don't get caught out.”

“That's actually quite clever,” Ryan said, and Gavin glanced at him, surprised by the sincerity in his tone. He noticed then that Ryan was still wearing his mask.

“Are you taking that off now?” he asked.

Ryan hesitated. “I suppose,” he said – and though he seemed as composed as usual, Gavin had made a life's work of picking up on people's tells.

Ryan was nervous.

Ryan was nervous about taking his mask off, about other people seeing his face in God knows how many years – and there was something oddly endearing about that.

Ryan reached up, then paused.

“Fuck, I can't believe I'm doing this,” he said. “This is seven years of fucking work right here. My insurance in case I need to disappear one day. And I'm blowing it on Edgar.”

“Is taking him down really worth that much to you?” Gavin asked, quietly, and Ryan gave a decisive nod.

“Yeah,” he said – and didn't elaborate. Just pulled the mask off.

Gavin stared. And then stared some more. He was – alarmingly normal looking? As in, he didn't look like a serial killer, and he wasn't scarred horribly. He was square jawed, a bit beardy, and had blue eyes.

Actually, the longer Gavin looked at him, the more he started to look sort of very attractive – which, okay, abort, abort, totally not what he needed to be thinking about right now, even if they were about to go off and be pretend husbands.

He glanced at Michael, who was also staring, and wondered what the other man was thinking.

“Not what you were expecting?” Ryan asked, only half jokingly.

“Uh,” Gavin said. “Not. Not really, but then again I was sort of expecting you to look really evil.”

“Really evil? What does that even mean?” Ryan asked.

“I don't know, like bloody Red Skull or something,” Gavin said, flustered. “But you're fine.”

“Oh. I'm fine. Okay. I'll keep that one close to my heart.”

“Let's get on with things,” Michael cut in, and Ryan snapped to attention with a nod. And God, Gavin was picking up so much now just from being able to see his facial expressions – he was alert and determined and very, very in control – any doubts Gavin might have had about this going wrong were starting to be abated by just how professional Ryan seemed.

“Test the earpiece,” Michael said, tapping at his. “One two three, one two three, you getting that?”

They both nodded.

“Well then,” Michael said, and moved to open the door for them. “Enjoy your evening, Mr and Mrs Freewood.”

No,” said Gavin, insistently. “We're both Mr Freewood. No one's the wife here.”

“Whatever you say, Gavvy,” Michael sneered, but before Gavin could argue more, Ryan put a hand on his back, steering him out. Gavin jumped a little at the contact, and tensed even more when Ryan leaned in closer to him.

“Come on, sweetheart, we don't want to be late,” he said, voice low and teasing, and Gavin had to fight not to shiver.

Jesus Christ, he thought. Just – chill, okay, this is. Going to be fine. He's taking the piss but you can too.

And then, when Ryan insisted on opening the car door for him – an impish smile at his lips the whole time – shit, this is going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Ray was the third wheel.

This unpleasant realisation was reached after about the third or the fourth awkward silence. In between said silences they had backbit a lot of vague, mutual mercenary acquaintances, failed miserably at a quiz being aired on a talk back radio channel (the prizes were lame as fuck anyway), and listened to more Garth Brooks than was really reasonable for this hour of the night.

But between each activity there was always a long, uncomfortable pause in which Ray became acutely aware of the fact that while he'd worked with these two before, it had always been with Michael there next to him to balance things out.

It wasn't even subtle; now and then Geoff would start a conversation with Jack that would inevitably drift into something that just the two of them knew – Achievement City business or people they knew who Ray didn't – and sometimes they'd lean back and sort of awkwardly try to include him, but it was painfully obvious who the odd one out was here.

And normally – normally Ray would have given exactly zero fucks.

But not right now. Not when he and Michael had parted on such terrible terms and he knew the other man was upset at him – knew that it was all completely his fault because he had been the one to push him away and act all cold back in the forest, but even if time was rolled back around he probably would do the same thing all over again, because for the first time in his life he had no fucking idea what to do.

He'd been angsting over it for three days and was still no closer to coming up with some sort of solid... reaction, or response. What was he meant to do? Should he talk to Michael about it?

Back in the forest, he'd been scared, when he thought the other might be in danger. But then when they found each other again he had been overtaken with such awkwardness that he hadn't known what to do and it had been easier to just turn to Gavin instead, to brush off Michael until he could think of something to say to him. Of course, Michael didn't know that, and now he was pissed – with good reason – and Ray couldn't apologise or explain because then he'd have to tell Michael what Ryan had told him.

And what was it Ryan had said? Maybe he doesn't realise it himself yet.

No – there was no way he could just bring it up.

But in the meantime, he was left with a great many uncomfortable questions.

Why couldn't fucking Ryan have just kept this to himself? Ray thought, studiously ignoring the fact that he had been the one who insisted on being told.

“Penny for your thoughts.”

Geoff's voice broke through his reverie, and Ray blinked. He forced a smile, shaking his head a little.

“Nothing all that interesting.”

Geoff and Jack exchanged a glance, and Ray knew they knew exactly who he was thinking about. Geoff opened his mouth as though he was about to say something, but Jack reached out, pressing his arm lightly, and he ended up not saying a word. Ray turned to lean his head against the window, pretending he hadn't seen.

They drove mostly in silence after that.

 


 

 

They made good time, and ended up stopping at a motel a few hours after midnight to rest up a little. It was a rather dingy little place; a motor inn at the side of the highway with moths trapped in every flickering fluorescent light tube and a single, sleepy-eyed attendant. They booked one room with a single and a double, in the interests of all being together on the off chance that someone came to attack them (unlikely, but better safe than sorry).

At least out on the road they'd been on the move, but in the still and quiet of the motel room Ray felt more out of place than ever. There was something oddly domestic about the way Jack and Geoff shuffled around each other in the small space – checking windows and locks, taking turns at the bathroom and tossing a coin to see who'd take first watch – while Ray sat there like an unsightly, out-of-place piece of modern art that people aren't quite sure what to make of.

The way the two other men moved about reminded him of how he and Michael used to do things, when they stayed in hotel rooms on jobs; comfortable in the routine of each other's company.

“Ray.”

It wasn't until Jack's voice broke the silence that he realised he'd been sitting still for some time and the other two had fallen quiet. He looked around – Geoff was in the bedroom, seeming about to get some sleep, and Jack had come out to the main room where Ray was sitting on the couch. There was an odd look on his face, something soft and concerned that Ray had only seem him display towards Geoff before.

“I'll go to sleep in a bit,” Ray said, “If you're taking first watch.”

“Sure,” Jack replied, and came to sit next to him. Ray stiffened a little awkwardly, wondering if he was about to pry further about what was going on with Michael – everyone was dying for them to make up, he knew – but Jack just reached out and took hold of his wrist.

“Let me check that arm of yours,” he said.

Ray blinked a few times, then nodded. “Healing up,” he said, rolling his sleeve back. “I've been changing the bandages and shit, it's pretty much starting to scar by now.”

Jack nodded, and set about checking it anyway, his hands very gentle, while Ray sat in a jittery silence for a few moments. His mind drifted back to Geoff and the two's interactions, and – maybe because he was tired, or stressed, or wrung out – the question slipped out before he could stop it.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

Ray bit his lip, glancing towards the bedroom door. “You and Geoff...”

“We're not gonna bang here, don't worry. We'll spare you the trauma of hearing us,” Jack huffed, and Ray cracked a small grin for the first time in a couple of days. Jack smiled a bit.

“Nah, that's not what I wanted to ask. Back when Vav was asking how you got together, you said you both just sort of... realised one day.”

“That's right.” Jack sat back, looking at him curiously, but didn't ask why he was asking, which was the only reason Ray really went on.

“How... how did that even work, exactly? I mean, one of you must have known first and you must have, like, discussed it or some shit. I don't know. I'm just trying to get my head around how that would even happen.”

“The same way it happens to hundreds of people every day,” Jack replied, rolling his eyes. “Except, you know, we're high profile criminals and not teenaged school kids. We were really close friends and then... well, for me, it happened slowly. I already knew I cared about him a lot but with every mission or hit or heist we did I just – started noticing how much I admired him and how much it would shatter me if something happened. Him being kidnapped brought things to a head but they were well in motion before that.”

“And there was never a moment where... where you weren’t sure how you felt, or you thought fuck it, this might ruin our friendship?”

Jack chuckled. “Of course there were moments. We were, like, your age, Ray, we weren't always as old and wise as we are now.” He looked speculative, now, but still didn't ask what this was about, and Ray had a sudden sneaking suspicion that the only reason he wasn't asking was because he already knew, which, well, fuck.

“Right,” He said, and got up abruptly, snatching his arm back. “Thanks. Well, I'm off to bed.”

“Goodnight then.” Jack sounded amused and Ray wasn't sure why he was suddenly flushing warm with embarrassment. He retreated quickly to his room and flopped down on the hard, lumpy mattress, letting out a long stream of breath.

Jesus Christ . He felt nervous; stressed and out of sorts, and it wasn't exactly the ideal temperament to go walking into a mission with. But the thing was – if Michael liked him, if he did end up sorting out his feelings and he... ended up wanting more, then. Then Ray would have to start thinking, in turn, of how he felt about Michael .

And right now, lying in the uncomfortable motel bed, staring up at the dark ceiling, he tried to envision it. Wondered at how Michael's hand might fit in his, or how it would feel to press their lips together.

Thinking about that was starting to freak him out, but somehow – it was easier if he instead imagined the two of them as Jack and Geoff; that easy camaraderie, the ability to tease each other or otherwise act just like best friends except with an added level of... something . He wondered how much things had changed after Jack and Geoff started dating; if there was any sort of marked shift. Or if things had stayed like before, just... more .

Fuck my life what am I doing, he thought, and pulled out his phone to check the time – not long till dawn, which was fucking fantastic, now he'd be tired and confused. He absently checked his text messages, though he already could see there was nothing new, and his finger hovered over Michael's name, wondering if he should send him something – he'd probably be asleep; since Gavin installed the cameras they didn't need to take watches quite so often – but maybe it would be easier to write something than say it out loud. Not even an apology, but a simple 'goodnight' – something to show that he wasn't angry , that he still cared.

But when he started to type his heart rate picked up and his stomach started to churn and he ended up deleting the few letters he'd managed to get out and throwing his phone back into his jacket pocket, unable to go through with it.

He drifted into an uneasy sleep after that.

 


 

 

They left the motel at six and drove for another seven hours. Ray fell asleep in the car, to his great chagrin, and woke up with somebody's jacket over him, which was a surprise, to say the least. He wasn't quite sure where he considered himself in Jack and Geoff's standing; friends seemed a little overly familiar.

Then again, they were all stuck together trying to bring down some psychopath in a cow mask who was trying to kill them; he supposed that was enough to force anybody into friendship.

Beardo the Magnificent was due to arrive today in a middling sized city mostly known in their circle for its predominant meth trade. And as Beardo's plans had changed so abruptly at the last minute to bring him there, Gavin had figured it must have been because of some sort of recent development – all they needed to find out now was what.

Ray had a couple of contacts there, but Geoff had more, and so he took charge. They visited at least half a dozen people who all had varying degrees of knowledge, but one thing that kept popping up was that word had recently leaked out that a certain Flynt Coal, a private investigator notorious for messing in things that didn't concern him, was in town.

“Maybe Edgar wants him for some reason,” Geoff mused. “If he's got something on him – on his identity or one of his contacts – it's probably a good idea to take him out while his head's above water.”

“That does seem like the most likely possibility,” Jack replied.

“Well, I'll ask a couple more people and if there's nothing else really new here, we'll just have to go with that,” Geoff said.

They got back in the car and started driving.

“You seem to have an endless supply of contacts,” Ray spoke up, and Geoff glanced at him in the rear view mirror with a grin.

“Damn right I do. Ryan has the right idea, taking down Edgar's people – you don't get anywhere on your own. Jack's my must trusted confidant, of course,” he said, and Jack snorted.

“That's one way of putting it.”

“But if you're going to run an empire you need people everywhere. High and low and in all sorts of professions – Burnie was good at putting me in touch with a lot of them. Hell, Ray, you're one of my main guys back in Achievement City.”

“I am?” Ray asked, a little surprised.

“Fuck yeah you are. Why do you think I've asked for your help so many times? I have my pick of mercenaries, I can certainly afford any one I want. You're smart, reliable, strategic, and combined with Michael you have a varied skill set. If something was going down back in AC and I needed information you'd probably be on my list of people to check out.”

“Wow. Okay,” Ray said, honestly a little flabbergasted.

Truth be told, when they first worked with Geoff he'd been a little in awe; he wasn't one to get star struck and certainly not one to show it, but Geoff had made a big, big name for himself and on the very small list of people who Ray genuinely admired, he was close to if not at the top. Living with him for the past week had been an interesting experience; seeing him in an entirely different habitat, but the care he and Jack had shown to them – and especially, Ray realised thoughtfully, the concern Geoff showed Gavin – had, if anything, only made him like the man more.

They asked a couple more people and got the same answer – Flynt Coal's sudden arrival had been the only new development – and thus they had their lead.

They'd gotten enough information from the various people they'd spoken to to piece together where he was; he'd supposedly been holed up in a nondescript little hotel and would be leaving that night. They went and booked rooms at the same place, so that they could keep an eye on when he left as well as having a chance to rest up, eat and prepare in the few hours they had until sundown.

“We'll tail him until Beardo shows up,” Geoff announced, as they sat around in the common area of their room.

“Is that the whole plan?” Ray asked.

Geoff nodded. “Yeah. It's a one-line plan. Short and simple.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “It's only one-line if you leave out all the unspoken elements. We'll tail him in two different vehicles. You and Ray take one and I'll take the other; if something goes down I'll snipe from afar while you two stay up close. If Beardo tries to run you guys follow and let me know where he's headed so I can come around and cut him off if need be.”

“Right,” Ray said, relieved at this added layer of detail.

They were taking turns at the window, where they had a vantage point of both main exits (it being a very small hotel), when Jack's phone buzzed. It was getting dark by now.

“It's Michael,” he said, and Ray fought not to stiffen.

“Oh right,” Geoff said. “I nearly forgot to check in with them. How's everything going back there?”

“He says that Ryan and Gavin just left to drive out to the Corpirate's place,” Jack said. And then huffed out a laugh, delighted amusement in his tone. “'Turns out Ryan's been secretly handsome as fuck this whole time. Thought you'd like to know.'”

Geoff burst out laughing and even Ray managed a smile at that.

“Oh God,” Geoff said. “It figureswe'd be the ones to miss out. He'd better have taken a damn photo in case Ryan puts the mask back on after he's finished.”

Ray nodded – feeling a little bummed out now that he was missing the chance to see Ryan's face. Like everyone else he was burning with curiosity to know what the other man actually looked like.

Michael thinks he's handsome. It hit him with a sort of twinge, and out of nowhere the sudden, absurd possibility struck him that Michael might go off him and start being into Ryan instead. Which on the one hand would make life a lot less complicated for Ray personally, but-

But it also made him annoyed, for reasons he couldn't explain, and wasn't about to start analysing half an hour before a hit.

“You think everything will go as planned for them?” Geoff asked. Ray turned around, but he was addressing Jack, who shook his head.

“I don't know. I hope so – I trust Ryan to get the job done – but Gavin...” he pressed his lips together. “I dunno, he's a bit of a wild card in the field.”

“He'll be fine,” Ray spoke up, shortly, and the other two turned, raising their eyebrows at his brusque tone.

Ray ignored them, taking out his phone and fiddling with it. Again he wondered if he should text Michael – it might build the bridge between them a little, since silence was getting them nowhere – but, again, he chickened out. And this more than anything made him uncomfortable, because Ray was no coward; he feared very little and had never really had qualms about saying anything to his friends, so the fact that he was nervous about Michael's reaction to even a simple ' good luck ' was pretty telling.

Again: don't think about it. Not right now, anyway.

Instead he pulled up Gavin's number, and fired off a quick, “ Good luck, you'll be fine '.” He still didn't know why the other man was so jumpy about not wanting to go into the field, but it sucked that this, his first real assignment, was dangerous as fuck and he only had Ryan for backup.

He settled back against the window to wait, and when Gavin sent back a “ thanks ” and a smiley face, it – for reasons unknown – made him smile too.

That lasted about ten seconds. Then Jack straightened up, abruptly, and pointed out the window.

“There. He's leaving, let's go.”

 


 

 

Gavin kept staring at him.

He thought he was being very discreet; darting quick little looks over at Ryan every few minutes and mostly when he was distracted by traffic lights or speed bumps or turning a corner. But Ryan missed nothing.

He couldn't bring himself to be annoyed, though. Gavin was curious – it was only natural – even if it made Ryan feel self conscious for the first time in many, many years, and he wasn't quite sure why.

Stop it, you fool, he told himself. It was bad enough he'd felt nervous when taking his mask off, but this was on a whole other level. Who the fuck cares what they all think of your face. After this job they'll never be seeing it again, so.

A rustle sounded through his earpiece as Michael shifted about back at the house.

“How're you guys going?” he asked, voice a little tinny given how far our Ryan and Gavin were by now. “People are starting to arrive at the house. No sign of the Corpirate yet, though.”

“We're about half an hour away,” Ryan replied. “Any word from the others yet?”

“Yeah, Jack says they think they've found Beardo's lead and they're waiting for him to show up.”

“Good. Everyone's on track then,” Ryan said.

Another pause. Michael sighed, again, for the fifth or sixth time in the last hour. He was evidently bored at waiting around.

“So what's the story?” he asked. “You know, in case anyone asks. James and David Freewood. When'd you meet? How long have you been married for?” And then, after a pause and with a sly chuckle, “Who tops in bed?”

Gavin's ears turned very red, but he was the one who replied, something like relief in his tone – there had been a somewhat tense silence in the car previously, and the banter was welcome for all of them - “We keep it close to the truth. I work in IT, Ryan's a... a bodyguard.”

Interesting,  Ryan thought, how protection was the first thing Gavin's mind went to when supplying Ryan with a 'realistic' job for his personality and skill set.

“It's a green card marriage,” Gavin continued, and there was an explosion of splutters on Michael's end.

“Fucking what ,” he said, and even Ryan glanced at Gavin in amusement.

Gavin shrugged. “Why not? I wanted to come to the states but I couldn't get a visa so Ryan and I came to a mutual agreement that he'd marry me.”

“And what do I get out of this agreement?” Ryan asked.

“Sex,” Michael supplied instantly.

Gavin laughed, but he looked flustered agin, and Ryan noticed that his hands were twitchy and shaking in his lap. He was obviously nervous about going out in the field, and for a moment Ryan wondered if this had been a good idea after all – he didn't mind working alone, or in a group if the occasion called for it, but he'd never had someone who could be a genuine liability on his side before. But it was too late to do anything about that now.

“Nah, it can't be a green card marriage,” Michael decided. “That's not romantic at all.”

“Well, Ryan doesn't seem like a very romantic sort of person,” Gavin replied – and Ryan turned to him then, eyebrows rising.

“How would you know?” he asked, staring at Gavin intently. Gavin made eye contact for about two seconds before looking away, embarrassed. “I could be very romantic,” Ryan continued.

There was a moment of odd silence.

Both the younger men seemed almost surprised that he was playing along with their conversation, especially given how aloof he'd been the last few days. Ryan supposed he couldn't blame them. He had been distant, sure – but like he'd told Gavin, he'd been working things out. It had... alarmed him, how concerned he'd been for Gavin upon seeing the scars. How much he'd cared . And for a while, for a little while, he'd pulled away, thinking it best to keep his distance lest he get – oh horror of horrors – attached .

But he'd felt uncharacteristically bad when Gavin had thought he was mad at him, and, being a rational man, had decided that:

a) he had enough self control to interact with them in a friendly manner without letting himself slip up, and

b) people getting annoyed at him would only make all of them more unproductive.

Not to mention Gavin trusting him again – as he seemed to when Ryan was in the spirit of good humour – would make things run a lot more smoothly.

“Gavin was working at a vault,” he declared then. “And I was security. That's a job where we'd spend a lot of time in close proximity. One day there was a fire so we had to lock ourselves in the safe room and we were trapped in there for hours with no one else, so we got talking. After that we started dating and we've been married for about a year.”

A moment of silence.

“That's weird as fuck but it's marginally cuter than the green card thing,” Michael mused.

“But why was there a fire?” Gavin asked.

Ryan shrugged. “I don't know, I made that up off the top of my head.”

“But you must know, Ryan,” Gavin insisted. “Who lit it? Was it an accident or was it deliberate?”

“I... there was a fire down the street and the whole block caught alight.”

“Okay. Good. Now we know the details,” Gavin said, and settled back into his seat.

“You're stupid,” Michael supplied, for no apparent reason other than to provoke Gavin.

Gavin frowned. “Why am I stupid?”

“Because who the fuck cares who lit the fire? You're like a fucking child, you need to know everything. Why, why, why?”

“You're the one asking a bloody lot of questions and not coming up with anything yourself,” Gavin shot back.

“Fuck you, I'm ten times more prepared than you and you're the one going undercover-”

Settle down, girls,” Ryan sing-songed, in his deepest voice.

“What the actual fuck, Ryan,” Michael replied, but he did fall silent. Gavin turned away to look out the window, pouting, but any good will that that permeated their team had disappeared completely.

Ryan sighed, his fingers tightening on the steering wheel. He couldn't really bring himself to be annoyed by Michael, even if his attempts to rile up Gavin were obvious and somewhat mean.

God, he had fucked everything up by telling Ray. He had thought – wrongly, it seemed – that they'd sort it out between them. That they'd talk it out and maybe get together, or that Ray would ignore it, not suddenly give Michael the cold shoulder.

It had been a stupid, stupid mistake on his part, and he knew he should never have interfered – he'd just gotten frustrated by seeing them dance obliviously around each other.

Now he'd messed everything up, and it was obvious that Ray was confused and struggling to work out how he felt, and Michael was all that and upset that his best friend was suddenly ignoring him.

Even if Michael was lashing out at Gavin, though, he was at least somewhat productive in his anger – Ryan had been surprised just how good he was to work with when they'd gone to take out Edgar's men in the forest together. Ryan had something of a reputation for being bloodthirsty himself, and that night he and Michael had worked together seamlessly; they'd barely spoken to each other but the sheer amount of destruction they'd wrought on Edgar's cronies was impressive.

But still. He wasn't about to start messing about even more by trying to talk to Michael about it, by prompting him to do anything that might just ruin things with Ray further, so he was forced to sit back and let things play out.

 


 

 

The Corpirate's fancy mansion was all lit up, abustle with noise and light and people, a little beacon of activity in the middle of acres of empty land. There were already lots of cars parked out in the back drive, and they were the only new arrivals at this moment, alone in the car park when Ryan pulled up and got out of the car.

“He here yet, Michael?” he asked.

“No,” Michael replied. “No sign of him yet. Don't think his plane has even come in, I don't see it anywhere.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. He turned to Gavin, who was leaning against the car, staring at the ground and breathing heavily. Now that they had actually arrived, it seemed he'd been struck by nerves again, although he looked up at Ryan and gave him a small smile when he realised he was being watched.

“I'm fine,” he began, hand going up to run through his hair. Ryan caught his wrist before it could make contact.

“Don't mess your hair up,” he ordered, and Gavin blinked.

Ryan let him go after a rather awkward second.

“Jesus, chill the fuck out,” Michael said, so very helpfully.

Gavin bit his lip. “I'm trying. Sorry I'm not bloody Vin Diesel like you guys.”

“Nah, you're like that little fuck who follows him around in Die Hard 4 being all nerdy and then gets shot in the leg,” Michael said. “Don't get shot in the leg, okay, that would fuck things up.”

“No one's getting shot,” Ryan replied, “And that was Bruce Willis, not Vin Diesel. Gavin,” he added, and put his hands on his shoulders. And Jesus, he really was nervous, he was shaking like a leaf. “Gavin, look at me.”

It took a moment for Gavin to lift his gaze and maintain eye contact.

“Calm. Down,” Ryan said. “Now listen. It's okay to be nervous, but the first rule of going undercover is confidence. If you think everyone is going to catch you out, then they will. Don't worry about people looking at you and realising you're not who you're meant to be. Assume that they're all fooled and they will be. Okay?”

“Okay,” Gavin replied.

“If I need you to do something, I'll tell you exactly what it is,” Ryan said. “So you don't need to worry about the plan. Just pretend you're at a normal function. If anything goes wrong, Michael will warn us and we'll have time to prepare. Okay?”

“Okay,” Gavin said again.

To Ryan's great relief, Michael remained silent, and after a moment Gavin's breathing slowed and the smile he gave was somewhat more genuine this time.

“Good,” Ryan said. He released his shoulders, then, after a moment's thought, reached out and took his hand instead. Gavin startled a bit, but the contact seemed to reassure him as they began to walk up to the house together.

Ryan tried very hard not to think of how long it had been since he even held someone else's hand. It's not caring, he assured himself. If he freaks out this whole plan goes to bust. It's a necessity, that's all.

They got in without a hassle, their invitations being checked and their names being crossed off against the guest list.

And then they were in.

The front doors of the mansion opened into an entrance hall. One side had been set up as a presentation space, an MC setting up a projector and screen where they would no doubt be treated to a self-eulogising Gworb powerpoint presentation. The rest of the area was open and empty, reasonably filled with men and women in formal dress, talking and drinking. A few waiters drifted back and forth carrying plates of refreshments on the tips of their fingers.

But most striking was the security. At every door was an armed guard, and there were stair cases at the back of the room leading to the upper storeys and personal areas of the house; every few minutes Ryan caught sight of another guard patrolling along the upper hallway. He had no doubt that they were being watched constantly.

“Now what?” Gavin whispered.

“Go get the free food,” Michael drawled in their ears.

Ryan scoffed. “Now we wait. The Corpirate's not here yet so we just have to blend in until he arrives. How many guards are on the upper levels, Michael?”

“One in each hallway, a rotating patrol. I'm not sure about the bedrooms and such, though, since there're no cams up on the third floor.”

“Our best bet is to get him alone if he goes upstairs to do something.” A plan was already forming in Ryan's mind. “If we spill something on him he'll have to go up and get changed. But we need to scout out the room first, see what the area's like.”

“Are we doing that now?” Gavin asked.

Ryan shook his head. “It isn't crowded enough here yet, we'll be spotted if we try and leave the hall. Better to wait until some more people arrive.”

Ryan realised that they were standing like fools in the middle of an empty space, seemingly talking to thin air. He tugged at Gavin's hand and led him over to the side of the room. With a wall at their back he felt a bit better, less exposed.

“What are we doing?” Gavin asked, a touch frantically.

“We're just two husbands talking together,” Ryan assured him, letting go of his hand. “No one will interrupt us if they think we're having our own conversation. And it will look better than just lingering around like we're waiting.”

Gavin nodded, nervously.

“Wait here,” Ryan said, and went to get them some drinks.

“Jesus Christ, Gav,” he heard Michael say as he beelined a waiter. “Even through the cameras you look awkward as fuck. Relax your shoulders or people will think you're about to have a stroke.” And then, after a moment. “Dude, don't put your hands in your pockets. This is like, a fucking formal function, people don't do pocket hands.”

Ryan returned with two flutes of champagne and handed one to Gavin. “We're going to play a game,” he announced.

“Um,” Gavin replied.

Ryan gestured at the people around them. “Do your thing. Tell me who's a real criminal and who's mostly just an investor.”

Gavin's eyes widened a bit. Then he shrugged, turning to gaze at the crowds around them, looking at various people intently.

“Lady in the green dress has something fishy in her purse,” he said.

“How can you tell?”

“She's not professional. If she is a proper crim she isn't a very good one. She keeps putting her hand over it like she's worried someone will look in or steal it. No one worries about getting their purse stolen at something like this.”

“Good. Who else?”

“The big guy over there. His shirt's too loose because he's let out the seams so he can normally wear it over a bulletproof vest. I see it on cams a lot; people usually want to know what sort of protection their marks have on before they go to hit them.”

“Ryan, you're smart as fuck,” Michael murmured, quietly enough that Gavin, now scanning the crowds, didn't quite pick it up.

Ryan smiled a little. Their 'game' had gotten Gavin to relax; he was now standing more at ease and their conversation was flowing naturally, ensuring that the two of them no longer stood out like a sore thumb.

A new cluster of people had just entered, and Gavin's gaze fell on one of them before his eyes suddenly widened in horror. “Oh, Jesus.”

“What?” Ryan asked, head whipping about in alarm.

“I know that guy,” Gavin said, pointing. “That guy with the blue tie. I... I worked for him once, a couple years ago. Oh my God he'll recognise me, he'll know I have no reason to be here-”

“Calm down,” Ryan said. Gavin was practically hiding behind him now, and Ryan grabbed his arms. “Don't do that, you'll just draw attention to yourself. If it was a few years ago I doubt he'll recognise you.”

“I think anyone who's ever worked with Gavin would recognise him on the spot,” Michael muttered.

“Ryan, he'll see me and know we're not supposed to be here and blow our cover,” Gavin said, a little frantically.

“No, he won't. You're just paranoid; you think we stand out a lot more than we actually do. Michael, how are those guards looking?” Ryan asked.

“Still patrolling but it's getting crowded outside, I think a lot more people are about to come in,” Michael replied. “Still no sign of the Corpirate.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “Gavin, we're going to go upstairs and have a look around. Stop worrying about that guy, there's a hundred men in suits here and he's not going to suddenly pick you out of the crowd.”

“He might, given the size of your nose,” Michael added.

“Shut up Michael,” Gavin replied, but nodded.

Ryan put a hand on his back and guided him towards the staircase. “Stick close behind me and stay quiet.”

With Michael guiding them via the security cameras, it was relatively easy to avoid the guards; he could tell them when they were at the end of the hall and it was clear to move. Ryan was practised in getting about without being seen, and did so with little trouble. Gavin was another story, he seemed incapable of moving all that quietly and in his efforts to stay close to Ryan, kept bumping into his back. But they somehow managed to get up the stairs into the personal living area of the house.

“The guards are only on this second floor,” Michael said. “On the third floor there's only one camera, in the stair well – so that's a blind spot.”

“That's where the bedrooms are,” Ryan said. He nudged Gavin towards the stairs. “Let's go and look.”

They crept up the stairs. The top floor was dark and quiet, the faint sounds of the function down below drifting up muted and unintelligible.

“Stay here,” Ryan ordered. “Keep an eye on the stairs and tell me if anyone's coming up. It's up to you to let me know because Michael can't see us up here.”

Gavin nodded, pressing himself back against the wall where he had a clear view of the stairs, and Ryan moved off to check the bedrooms.

Several of them were obviously guest rooms, and once he did find the Corpirate's expansive suite he had a quick look around. There was a balcony and an ensuite bathroom leading off the room, but the minimalist furniture scheme meant there were not that many places for him to hide if he wanted to get the jump on him. He opened the closet door and frowned, wondering if he'd fit inside.

“Ryan, the Corpirate's just arrived.” Michael's voice in his ear startled him a little. He slammed the closet door shut.

“Is he coming up here?”

“I don't think so. Not yet, anyway.”

There was a roar from downstairs, a great cheer rising up as, it seemed, people welcomed his entrance into the hall.

“Yeah, he's not going up there yet. He's launching right into a speech,” Michael said.

“Alright,” Ryan replied. He turned for the door only to find Gavin standing there.

“Ryan, there's people coming upstairs,” Gavin said. “I think. Security was coming down the hall.”

“Shit.” Ryan glanced out into the hallway. Sure enough, he could hear the dull thud of boots against the thin carpet of the stairs, the snap and crackle of static on the security guards' walkie talkies. It was too late to leave; they were obviously here to do a sweep and there was no way they wouldn't get caught.

Climb down the balcony , was Ryan's first, rather dramatic idea, that he discarded instantly.

“Ryan, what do we do,” Gavin whispered frantically.

A glorious, impulsive thought came to Ryan – and it was obvious, really, now he thought about it – and he grabbed Gavin's arm, tugging him towards one of the guest rooms.

“Follow my lead,” he hissed. He pushed Gavin up against the wall and the other man squirmed, hands coming up to shove ineffectually at Ryan's chest.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?” Gavin whispered. “Are we hiding? At least shut the damn door, we'll be caught-”

“We're going to be caught anyway,” Ryan replied. The footsteps coming down the corridor were getting louder. “So we don't need an escape. We need an excuse.” And then, when Gavin still stared up at him uncomprehendingly: “I'm going to make out with you now.”

“What the fuck,” said Michael, sounding a little strained.

Gavin goggled at him for a moment. But the guards were getting ever closer, and Ryan didn't have time to wait for him to react – leaning forward, he pressed their lips together.

For a moment Gavin stood frozen, stiff and unresponsive. Ryan adjusted his grip, holding him less roughly, one hand rising to gently angle his face better. After a few seconds, Gavin tentatively kissed back; stopped trying to push Ryan away in favour of loosely gripping the front of his shirt.

And then, a few moments in, Ryan realised to his horror that his heart rate was picking up, and there was a stirring of something like nervous jitters building in the pit of his stomach – which, crap, because he had kissed people before for missions – before the mask – and since then there had been the occasional man or woman taken to bed in his downtime, fake names in fake places between jobs when no one had to know who he really was, but none of them -

None of them had even begun to excite him, at least not like this – but he couldn't pull back now, and before he could dwell on it any further, the guards entered the room, interrupting them noisily as they shoved the door open with a crash.

“No one is supposed to be up here!” one of them shouted. “What are you – oh.” He paused, as Ryan had expected he would, realising what they were doing. “Jesus fucking Christ, okay, keep it in your fucking pants why don't you. This area is off limits.”

“Sorry,” Ryan replied, pulling back – and it was easy for him to snap back into composure, even if his heart was still beating faster than he liked. Gavin stayed slumped back against the wall, breathless, not looking at any of them. His cheeks were flushed red, his breath coming too quickly, and for some God awful reason Ryan couldn't help feeling a little smug.

“Get out of here and don't let me see you up here again,” the guard ordered, grabbing Ryan's arm and roughly shoving him back towards the stairs.

Ryan nodded. “Right. Sorry,” he said, and the guard waved him off. As he had expected, the sheer awkwardness of the situation had saved their skins. He grabbed Gavin's hand and led him back down to the second level.

“You guys clear?” Michael asked, quietly. Ryan wondered how much he'd heard.

“Yeah,” he replied, as they descended back into the main hall. It was packed with people, even more crowded than before, but he paused before heading back into the fray, under the dark and quiet of the stairwell, adjusting his shirt and smoothing back his hair.

Gavin yanked his hand away and Ryan glanced down at him.

“Ryan...” Gavin started, still not looking at him.

“Fake husbands, remember?” Ryan asked. “It's a tried and tested practice. Sorry if I startled you, I did warn you I was going to do it.”

“I know,” Gavin replied, and opened his mouth as though to say more before stopping.

Ryan frowned a bit. Now that they were clear his heart rate was settling, his breathing slowing – and it had been a coincidence, he told himself. There was no way that Gavin – scrawny, nervous Gavin with his big nose and his stupid questions – could inspire any sort of effect in him. It had been the adrenaline and the nerves and the scale of the job – Edgar – and the fact that it had been a while. That was all.

Gavin stared at him for a long moment and Ryan suddenly felt very exposed, vulnerable and naked without the barrier of his mask. He worried at what Gavin might be seeing in his face.

“I'm going to the bathroom,” Gavin said abruptly, and turned away, marching off towards the rest room and leaving Ryan standing in silence.

 


 

 

Flynt Coal was heading out of the city, Geoff and Ray tailing him in the car. Or, at least, they had been tailing him, but there had been an accident on one of the roads and now literally everyone was stuck in traffic.

“This is fun,” Geoff commented, and Ray glanced over at him. Geoff grinned back.

“Beardo won't attack here. If Flynt runs he won't be able to chase, not with this traffic.”

“He could just blow the whole line of cars up,” Ray pointed out. “Wouldn't put it past Edgar.”

Geoff frowned. “Thanks for putting that thought in my head. Now I'm scared.”

“Geoff Ramsey is capable of fear?” Ray feigned shock, clapping a hand to his heart. “Oh my God. I'm going to tell everyone and your reputation will be ruined.”

“Shut up. I'd slot you first,” Geoff said, but there was a teasing note in his tone. Ray stuck his tongue out at him and Geoff stuck his out back before turning away to check his phone.

“The others haven't checked in in a bit.”

“Probably busy,” Ray said.

Geoff 'hmmm'ed.

There was a silence.

“What's stopping you?” Geoff asked.

Ray blinked a few times. “Um, what?”

“What's stopping you? From making up with Michael?” Geoff turned to him, something very earnest in his face, and suddenly Ray found it hard to look at him, taken aback by the level of genuine concern in the question.

“Did he do something I don't know about?” Geoff asked.

Ray shook his head. “No.”

“Then what is it? Come on, both of you are fucking miserable as dicks. Just kiss and make up already.”

The thought of kissing Michael was absolutely not what Ray needed in his head at the moment. Suddenly the urge to tell Geoff everything struck him, and he wasn't sure why – but before he could make up his mind either way, the traffic began to move again, and Flynt Coal's little car abruptly sprang away down a side street and they were hard pressed to make after him.

“There he goes,” Geoff said, revving the engine. They sped through several alleyways before, all of a sudden, a large black car swung out in front of Flynt Coal's path, forcing him to brake to a stop.

“There he is,” Geoff hissed, quickly pulling the car to a halt. “Come on, get out, get out,.”

They slid out of the car, guns at the ready, and ducked back behind the alley wall, watching as Beardo got out of the car.

The single head-and-shoulders photograph that Gavin had showed them really did not do the man justice. He was perhaps one of the most horrifying specimens of humanity that Ray had ever encountered, a mountain of a man who somehow managed to be very muscular and very overweight at the same time. His round face was fringed by an absolute monster of a beard.

Wouldn't want to meet that in a dark alley in the middle of the night, Ray thought. And then promptly realised that was exactly what he was doing.

Beardo was not alone. Three other men got out of the car; inconspicuous little figures in black balaclavas. There was nowhere for Flynt Coal to run – and as they watched, Beardo waved his arm and the men all raised their guns. Flynt's car was peppered with shots, the windscreen shattering instantly.

“Jack,” Geoff whispered, into his earpiece. “Come around the other side of the alley and cut Beardo off. We'll pen him in. There's four with him.”

“Got it,” Jack replied.

“Ray, I'll provide cover fire, you take down Beardo,” Geoff ordered.

Ray nodded, and Geoff counted down on his fingers before waving a hand.

Things went wrong almost instantly.

By some miracle, it seemed Flynt Coal had not been killed in the initial onslaught of fire, and managed to rev his car forward, slamming into Beardo and knocking him to the ground. This meant that Ray's shot, which had been perfectly aimed, misfired, throwing him off for a second.

“Fuck,” Geoff shouted, and managed to take down two of the men only to grab Ray and yank him back against the wall as a hail of bullets suddenly rained down from above.

Ray twisted his head up to see where the shots were coming from. His heart dropped as he realised that there were a good number of men up on the buildings lining the alley, shooting down at them.

And there were too many men – far too many for just taking out Flynt Coal, a single target. That only meant one thing.

It was a trap.

“Hello, Geoff,” Beardo shouted, getting to his feet. He looked none the worse for wear for having just been hit by a car, and Ray fancied that the layers of blubber and muscle had likely caused him to rebound without injury. It was a somewhat horrifying thought.

“Edgar sends his regards,” Beardo continued, and Ray glanced at Geoff. His jaw was clenched tightly, gun still raised to point at the man – but they were being aimed at from all directions and there was little doubt that if they tried anything they'd be shot on the spot by the men up above.

“We figured you'd come after me if I popped up here,” Beardo continued. “You've done a fucking good job taking us down so far, haven't you? But not any more. You might have been on our tail but we've been on yours too. Lead you right here, just as planned.”

“Tell your bitch ass boss that he can come out here and confront me in person, then,” Geoff snarled, and Beardo laughed, his great gut wobbling at the motion.

“Oh, I'm afraid he's a little busy at the moment. You'll see him soon enough, though – you're right, he does want to kill you himself.” His eyes flickered to Ray. “Your cute little friend, on the other hand...”

Geoff's eyes darted to Ray in alarm as Beardo opened his mouth, undoubtedly about to give the order to shoot.

But before he could, his head exploded.

Just burst apart like a rotten tomato.

Ray flinched at the sudden, loud crack of the gunshot. Beardo's body crumpled to the floor, revealing Jack behind him, leaning out the window of his car, rifle in hand.

There was a moment of silence as everyone stood, stunned.

Then the gunshots rang out again, and Ray started to duck back behind the remains of Flynt's car, when suddenly Geoff was tackling him to the ground. His head hit the pavement hard, the breath knocked out of him, his first thought what the fuck is he doing.

Then there was an explosion.

A sudden burst of heat and a deafening bang that made Ray's ears ring. He flinched, pressing back against the pavement, Geoff's weight bearing down on him and shielding him from most of the blast.

A hand grenade, he registered dimly – Michael used them all the time when he could – and it was to his great relief that he realised the blast had been small, and the thrower's aim bad enough that the force of Geoff's tackle had taken them almost entirely out of rage.

Ray's head hurt from the impact, but he was fine. When he tried to sit up, however, he realised Geoff was a dead weight on top of him – and then, with dawning horror, he noticed the blood.

“Get in!” Jack had pulled the car alongside them, leaning out the window, ducking from the hail of gunfire – but when his eyes landed on Geoff, they widened in horror. “Oh fuck-”

“He's alive,” Ray blurted out, desperately. He scrambled to his feet, flinching as a shot whistled by his ear, and yanked open the car door. Jack got out to help him, and they managed to haul Geoff out into the back seat.

“Get in,” Jack snapped, shoving Ray into the back after Geoff. They were barely in the car than he took off, reversing out of the alley before doing a three point turn and heading off down the street. But the men were after them still – there had to be about a dozen of them, already jumping into their own vehicles, cars and motorcycles or just manoeuvring the roofs on foot – and there was a popping screech as two of the car's tires were shot out, sending them skidding sideways.

“Fuck,” Jack spat – Ray reached out to steady the unconscious Geoff as they skidded a corner, nearly spinning out of control. He wasn't one to panic easily but Geoff was bleeding all over his hands as he tried to find the actual source of the wounds – there was too much blood and he couldn't tell if they were serious or superficial – an uncharacteristic fear was settling in him.

“We need to get out,” Ray spoke up. “We need to hide and wait for them to leave.”

“We need to get Geoff to a fucking hospital,” Jack replied, hands tightening on the wheel.

“We'll all be killed if we don't stop somewhere now,” Ray said, forcing calm into his tone.

Jack glared at him in the rear view mirror. They had pulled away from their pursuers a little by now, through the force of their head start, and this area of town was somewhat desolate, factories and warehouses making up the main portion of its infrastructure. After a few moments he pulled the car to the side of the road.

Jack got out and opened the back door. He lifted Geoff into his arms with a grunt. Ray made as though to help but Jack shook him off.

“Let's go quickly before they catch up,” he said brusquely, and Ray nodded, hurrying after him as they made their way along the street.

After a few moments Ray ran ahead, checking out the buildings around them - and found, to his relief, an empty and mostly derelict storage shed that he could easily kick in the door of.

“In here,” he called. Jack entered quickly and laid Geoff down, while Ray busied himself with stacking crates and dragging shelves against the broken door. There were no windows, and only the barest sliver of light leaked in through the crack of the door, leaving them mostly in shadow.

Thus holed up, he took a moment to breathe, to take in their situation.

They were stuck. Edgar was after them, his men outside, Geoff bleeding out on the floor next to them – and all they could do was wait.

 


 

 

“Gavin just took out his fucking earpiece,” Michael said.

Ryan stirred from where he'd been leaning against the wall, trying to plan out their next move. “What?”

“Yeah, I can't hear him any more,” Michael said. “Maybe he popped a boner when you kissed him and he doesn't want us to hear him jerking off.”

Ryan gave a wry smile at the thought. It was much more likely that that Gavin was freaking out, trying to compose himself after what had happened and probably embarrassed to have Michael right there in his ear.

“There's nowhere he can go from the bathroom,” Ryan replied. “He has to come out.”

“Hmm,” Michael replied, and there was a pause.

“So was he a good kisser?” Michael asked then. “Nose didn't get in the way?”

“Why do you want to know?” Ryan replied.

He heard Michael huff on the other end of the line. “Just fucking curious.”

“I startled him. No one's a good kisser when they're startled.”

“So he was a bad kisser then.”

“Not saying that,” Ryan said. “Kiss him yourself and you can find out.”

That shut Michael up. For a little while, at least, then he was back with the questions – honest curiosity lacing his tone.

“Are you with someone, Ryan?”

“What does that mean?” Ryan replied, though he knew perfectly well. Questions hitting this close to his personal life were not something he'd had to deal with in a while, and it was honestly making him a touch uncomfortable.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Do you honestly think I have the time, the motivation or the lifestyle for a girlfriend right now?” Ryan asked, drily. “You know what it's like in this business, Michael. You can't date people outside of it or they get dragged into crap. And you can't date people inside of it, not unless you trust them with your life.”

“A boyfriend, then?” Michael prompted.

“No, for the same reason.”

“So in the whole seven years you've had that mask on you've never found anyone you can trust?” Michael asked. “That's kinda fucking sad.”

Except it came out a little too earnest, a little too surprised – like it was sad in the sense of loneliness rather than lameness, and Ryan grit his teeth – a wave of annoyance rising up because it wasn't like that – it hadn't been a lonely seven years, not the whole time anyway – there had been the team, once, until Edgar and everything that happened after that. He'd still never shown them his face, though. Had been close to it. Probably would have, if things hadn't gone down the way they did.

When in doubt, go for the creep factor. Dropping into his coldest, most dangerous voice, he said, “You know nothing about me, and you should know better than to pry.”

Michael snorted, but fell silent, so Ryan figured he must be at least a little intimidated.

Ryan should have dropped it there. He should have damn well dropped it there, but for some reason – for some terrible, niggling, anxious reason that he refused to believe had anything to do with how his heart rate had picked up when he kissed Gavin – he felt the need to assure Michael, and himself, that his views on this sort of thing had very much remained unchanged.

“As I've mentioned countless times, that sort of relationship with someone you work with is ill advised,” he said. “It becomes a liability. They can be used against you – or if something happens, if you break up – then you've got an enemy in a dangerous business who knows all your weak points.”

“That's a load of bullshit,” Michael replied. “And you know it. Look at Jack and Geoff. He's lorded over Achievement City for how long? With Jack beside him the whole time.”

“And one day that might bite him in the ass.”

“Bullshit,” Michael repeated. “Jack's part of what makes him so powerful.”

“Do you really believe that or do you just want to prove me wrong?”

“I'm saying you can have your own fucking opinion but don't shit on everyone else. They're a partnership that works. Really well. It's about trust, man, it... it makes you stronger, not weaker. That sounded sappy as shit but you know what I mean.”

“It's one thing to work with someone but another to take it to the next level when you need to keep working by them, side by side every day with your life on the line. Are you saying you'd date Ray? You'd legitimately trust yourself to take it up a notch with him when you need to work together?”

The horrified silence on the other end of the line made Ryan's stomach drop. Why, why, fucking why had he said that, it was bad enough he'd messed around in their relationships already. He'd been angry, that's all, he should have kept his fucking mouth shut.

Fortunately, Michael's desire to prove him wrong proved to be stronger than any confusion over his feelings for Ray.

“Sure,” he said, though his voice was very stiff. “Who the fuck cares. I'd date him. And we'd be, like, ten times more awesome for it.”

And then, when Ryan didn't respond, a rather more nervous sounding, “Uhh, I was joking, by the way, I don't actually want to date him.”

Oh my God, Ryan thought. I'm actually dealing with a bunch of teenagers.

He was spared from carrying on the awkward conversation as Gavin returned, at that moment, from the bathroom, reaching up to put his earpiece back in.

“Fucking finally. Were you constipated or something?” Michael demanded.

Gavin shook his head. He glanced at Ryan, then looked away very quickly, and Ryan noticed that his lips were very red, as though he'd been scrubbing or wiping at them. Part of him felt a little offended at that, but he shoved it away.


“If you're quite done,” he said, “Let's get out there and see what's happening.”

 


 

 

The Corpirate looked like a total douche, bald as an egg with a handlebar moustache. He dressed like one, too. Ryan had no idea why anyone would be compelled to wear an eyepatch over one eye and a monocle over the other. Maybe he had bad eyesight but had lost the other in a fight? But that's what fucking contact lens were for.

He had just finished some sort of speech, complete with keynote, when they slipped back into the hall, and everyone was applauding the impending destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

“He's gonna mingle,” Michael said. “If you wanna dump something on him, here's your chance.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “Gavin, I need you to spill a drink on him.”

Gavin squeaked. “Why me?”

“Because I need to go up and hide in his room to get him when he comes in,” Ryan explained, patiently. “Just wait until a waiter goes up to him and then subtly bump into them.”

“You're always fucking tripping over your own feet anyway, it should hardly be a challenge,” Michael pointed out.

Gavin looked very, very concerned. But he nodded, tentatively. “Okay.”

“Good,” Ryan said, and reached out to press his shoulder. Gavin flinched at his touch and Ryan drew back a bit awkwardly before turning and heading back to the stairs.

“You've messed with his head, man,” Michael murmured. “He thinks you're gonna turn and plant another one on him at any minute.”

“Shut up, I do not,” Gavin replied. “I'm just nervous is all, I bloody well didn't think I'd have to go up to the tosser.”

“You'll be fine, just apologise and head off quickly,” Ryan said. “Now shh, I need Michael to navigate me back upstairs.”

He got up without a problem. The guards had left the top floor by now, having done their routine sweep, and he slipped into the bedroom and hid in the closet.

It was cramped in there, dark and stuffy and low enough that he had to hunch his back painfully, but he'd waited in worse positions for longer. He could hear Gavin breathing in his ear, Michael humming impatiently now and then, and for some reason it was almost comforting – knowing that he had a crew out there instead of waiting in silence and alone like he had so many times before.

Stop it, he chided himself, stop thinking like that.

They're all dead meat in the end anyway, if Edgar has his way.

The thought struck him out of nowhere – a possibility he hadn't considered. That they might fail, that Edgar might get them – and the mental image of Gavin dead and crumpled on the floor, of Ray beside him, of Michael silenced forever – it made a sudden cold feeling spread through his stomach and-

Fuck, fuck, no, you're in too deep, who the fuck cares – there'll be casualties, there's always casualties, they're a means to an end and you don't care, you shouldn't care-

“Waiter coming right up to him, Gavin, here's your chance,” Michael muttered.

“Bloody hell,” Gavin huffed out. Moments later there was a crash, a curse, a babbled apology from his end, followed by hurried footsteps and heavy breathing.

“You get him?” Ryan asked, quietly.

“Yes,” Gavin replied, his voice shaking a little. “I'm off to hide in the bathroom now.”

“It worked,” Michael crowed. “He's storming upstairs to get changed. It's all up to you Ryan.”

And this – this was what he was good at. This he could do. A routine kill, just as he'd done a hundred times before. He waited until he heard the creak of the bedroom door, some huffed mutterings and the rustle of clothing-

He opened the closet door a crack. Saw the back of the Corpirate's bald pate, and fired.

It missed.

The hinges of the closet door were loose and at the last minute it swung back, trying to close, knocking him in the arm and throwing his aim off. The Corpirate ducked away as the – thankfully, silenced – shot cracked by his head to break a mirror on the far side of the room.

“What the fuck,” he roared, and whirled around. Ryan leaped out of the closet, gun rising to shoot again, but the Corpirate moved surprisingly fast for such a large man with only one, nearsighted eye, kicking the gun clean out of his hand before punching him in the stomach.

Ryan doubled over, coughing, but reached out and tackled the Corpirate to the ground as he made to move for the gun.

And okay, the guy was strong as fuck for someone whose name implied a desk job; he had apparently been a wrestler of some sort in a past life because Ryan was hard pressed to pin him down – and suddenly, with a roar, the Corpirate grabbed him and lifted him, rolling over and slamming him against the ground hard enough to daze him.

“Ryan, what's going on?” Michael demanded.

Ryan ignored him. The Corpirate was going for the gun again and Ryan swung a leg out, tripping him. He ripped off his tie and lunged forward to garrotte him, noosing it around the large man's neck and pulling it taut as hard as he could, twisting.

With a gurgling gasp the Corpirate stumbled backwards, trying to slam Ryan against the wall. Ryan continued to pull, but the man was large and strong and he found himself being forced backwards.

They crashed through the flimsy balcony door and out onto the balcony itself, as the Corpirate backed Ryan against the rail. The metal hit his spine painfully but he pulled tighter, gritting his teeth with the strain. The large man's eyes were beginning to bulge as he let out choking little whines-

And then he jerked his body forward, elbow moving back to knee Ryan in the stomach again.

Ryan's grip on the tie slackened momentarily as he gasped – but it was enough for the Corpirate to pull free. To whirl around and punch Ryan hard, aiming for the face – Ryan turned at the last second and the blow hit him in the side of the head instead, square on the ear.

There was a large, high-pitched scream of white noise from the earpiece that sent a burst of pain through his eardrums, ringing dizzy-painful in his head before it faded into nothing but static and he had to scramble to get it out before it could hurt him further. The Corpirate drew a leg back to kick and Ryan grabbed it, tripping him up and sending him crashing to the floor of the balcony.

Ryan rolled on top of him and punched him in the face, once, twice, three times – his monocle smashed and broken now – before getting his hands around his throat and squeezing. The Corpirate thrashed, hands coming up to grip and pull at Ryan's wrists – but adrenaline leant him strength and he dug his thumbs in, pressing deeper and harder-

And that red rage filled him, the same way it had when he killed Clarence, when he saw Thaddeus the Red – the rage he knew would overtake him if he ever came face to face with Edgar again – he hated the term mad mercenary because it implied a lack of control, but this feeling – the horrible bloodlust that rose up in him at the thought of Edgar or any of his cronies – that was madness of a sort, he knew, and he hated what it was doing to him but he couldn't stop. Edgar had to go down, so the Corpirate had to go down – and when he finally fell still, head falling back, eyes blank and empty and tongue lolling out as the breath and the life were choked from his body-

Ryan felt odd. Dirty almost, and vaguely numb.

But the desire for vengeance burned low and hot in his gut, and he kicked the body before rising.

He half expected Michael's voice in his ear, but then recalled that his earpiece was broken. He would just have to be extra careful about leaving then, he reasoned.

Except, when he shut the door carefully, creeping out onto the landing, he was surprised to find that all the guards were gone. And something was happening downstairs, he could hear raised voices and shouting and then a terrible, abrupt silence.

A sudden unease filled him, a feeling that something was very wrong. He lingered on the second floor, straining to hear.

Someone bumped into his back and he whirled around, grabbing at them, but it was Gavin who his hands closed around.

Ryan,” Gavin gasped – and something was definitely wrong if he'd managed to slip out, if he'd risked running up here and the guards seeing him – he looked like he was about to be sick.

“What's going on?” Ryan demanded. “I just killed him but-”

“Edgar's here.”

Ryan froze. He actually froze – his limbs grew cold and stiff and so did his heart and mind; everything seemed to still and slow to a stop. He had not expected this. He had not expected to confront Edgar so soon – not here, not now, and he hadn't prepared himself -

But as suddenly as he had frozen, that hot rage returned.

Gavin looked scared, but Ryan had neither the time nor patience to coddle him now. Edgar was here, so Ryan would have to kill him. Had sworn to, the next time they shared the same space. It was as simple as that.

“Stay here,” he ordered. “I need to check things out.”

He crept to the base of the stairs and peered out into the hall. Sure enough, there was Edgar, standing in front of the crowds, who were now surrounded by the guards, all pointing guns at them. There he was, the monster, trademark cow mask covering his face. He had several others with him – the duck that Geoff had mentioned before, as well as a massive, portly man in a pig mask.

“-have heard from a source that somewhere here among us is a traitor,” Edgar was saying. “And I will not rest until that person has been rooted out. Everyone here tonight will be interrogated. And when I find the one I am looking for, well, we'll have to make a show of it, won't we?”

A murmur of unease from the crowd.

Ryan slipped back upstairs. Gavin was standing exactly where he'd left him.

“Literally everyone at this function works for Edgar,” Ryan said.

“What?!"

“Maybe not directly,” Ryan replied. “But they're part of his rule. The way Geoff owns most of Achievement City. He must have the whole of Gworb or something.”

“We need to get out of here,” Gavin started, but Ryan cut him off.

“We're not leaving until Edgar is dead.”

What?!” Gavin stared at him, aghast. “That's not – damn it, Ryan, that's not the plan, it's too dangerous – he has like fifty guards here-”

“I'm killing him. Here and now.”

“You're mad. You're going to get us both killed-”

He broke off with a squeak as Ryan grabbed the front of his shirt, propelling him back a few steps.

“If you want to get out of this alive, do exactly as I tell you,” he hissed. And he could hear it now – that dangerous, killer tone creeping into his voice – the one that he was infamous for, the one that struck fear into anyone who heard it.

Gavin stared up at him. Whatever he saw in Ryan's eyes made him startle back, afraid. Then he gave a jerking nod.

Ryan grabbed his arm, hard, and dragged him down the corridor to the cloakroom. He opened the door and shoved him inside.

“Give me your scarf,” he snapped, and after a second's hesitation Gavin took it off and handed it to him. Ryan pulled it around his own neck and then wrapped it around his face, tugging it up to cover his nose and mouth. On the off chance that something went wrong, and if no one here had put a name to his face yet – he could, maybe, still preserve some scraps of anonymity.

“Stay here,” he barked. “I'll come back for you when I'm done. Stay quiet.”

“Ryan-”

Ryan ignored him, heading for the door. He felt a tug on his arm and whirled around, pushing Gavin back so hard that he stumbled into the wall.

“I said stay here,” Ryan repeated, and turned away again. This time Gavin didn't follow him, and he shut the door behind him before pausing and taking a few deep breaths.

Edgar was crazy, and dangerous, and killing him would not be easy. There were no words to describe what the man was capable of, the things Ryan had seen him do in the past. It would not be as simple as hiding and shooting him.

But by God, he was going to do it, somehow, by some means – tonight.

 

Chapter Text

Michael had no idea what was going on.

Ryan's earpiece had cut out unexpectedly when the Corpirate punched him, and since then Michael had only been able to catch snatches of his conversation through Gavin's. When Edgar suddenly showed up, driving in with his posse seemingly out of nowhere, Michael had spilled his coffee, sworn a great deal, and ordered Gavin to go find Ryan right the fuck now. He'd assumed the two of them would coordinate with him to get out of the house.

But instead fucking Ryan had gone and shoved Gavin in a fucking broom closet or something, and then run off on his own, and now Michael had no fucking idea what he was doing because he couldn't fucking communicate with him.

“Gavin, where's he going?” he snapped – frantically trying to track Ryan on the screens in front of him, and keep tabs on Edgar at the same time – there was a bunch of movement going on in the main hall, the guards starting to separate people off into groups and lead them into different rooms.

Gavin didn't reply, his heavy, panicked breathing the only sound coming through the earpiece – and Michael flicked his gaze back to the cloakroom.

Gavin still hadn't moved from where Ryan had shoved him, his back pressed to the wall, but his hands had gone up to cover his face and he was hunched over slightly. Even through the low-definition, grainy feed of the security cams Michael could see his shoulders heaving.

“Gavin, tell me where the fuck Ryan is going. Why is he going back towards the hall? Gavin? Gavin?”

The volume of his shout made Gavin flinch.

“H-he's going to kill Edgar.” His voice was strained, almost choking out the words, and Michael frowned.

“He's fucking what? The idiot's going to get himself killed-”

He broke off as Gavin abruptly slid down the wall, crumpling to the ground and folding in on himself, knees drawn up to his chest, head down and buried in his arms, visibly shaking. He looked for all the world like he'd broken down crying, but he wasn't – Michael couldn't hear him sobbing – all he could hear was his breathing, faster and faster and gasping like he was suffocating and for all the noise he was making, no air was actually going into his lungs.

“Jesus Christ, Gav, chill out, this is really, really not the fucking time for-”

“Fuck,” Gavin croaked out. He tilted his head back against the wall, one trembling hand coming up to yank at his tie, pulling it loose and open before popping the first two buttons of his shirt and clutching at his chest. “I can't – I can't breathe, I-”

“Gavin?” Jesus fucking Christ, he looked like he was having a heart attack, and Michael realised with a terrible sinking feeling that this was not just the nervous jitters.

“Gav, what's going on?”

“I can't... I can't...”

He was still gulping for breath, working himself into a frenzy – and a horrid panic started to rise up in Michael's stomach as he suddenly recalled what had happened back in the forest. How his attempting to leave Gavin behind on his own had triggered some sort of freak out. He hadn't payed it much heed at the time – had figured he was just scared.

But this was something else entirely.

And the thing was – the thing was, Michael wasn't heartless, and he could be an asshole but he wasn't cruel. Gavin's cowardice and reluctance had gotten to him because simply being scared was no reason for someone in their line of work to refuse to go into the field at the expense of others.

But it was quickly becoming apparent that something was very, very wrong here, because Michael had seen cowards in his time – and they bailed, or hid, but they didn't panic. Not like this. They didn't break down so systematically.

No one had panic attacks like this for no reason.

Whatever was wrong, if Michael's suspicions were correct it had been set off by Ryan ditching him. And something like worry was growing in him now – because it was one thing to be annoyed by Gavin's idiocy or nerves or complaining, but another entirely to see him so genuinely vulnerable. And fuck, fuck, this was like Ray all over again – it was not particularly in Michael's nature to go all mother-hen on people, but damn if he didn't feel concerned.

For a moment he froze, watching Gavin on the screen, wondering what the fuck he was supposed to do now.

Okay. Okay. There's nothing I can do for Ryan, I can't talk to him or help him. So I have to get Gavin out of there. Okay. I can do that.

He opened his mouth and then paused, unsure what to say – and hell, he'd never been good at this sort of thing, at comforting people or whatever. It really didn't help that since he'd put damn little effort into befriending Gavin, he now had no idea what would be the best thing to do or say to calm him down.

“Okay. Gavin, just... breathe? Fuck, that's really not helpful, is it. Okay listen just... stop freaking out, you're gonna be fine.”

Gavin gave no indication that he'd even heard him. His eyes were squeezed shut, still struggling for breath.

Michael bit his lip. He felt useless. Useless and awkward and like the worst fucking person in the world.

Okay, Jones, just think about it. What's he scared of?

The words came to him then, almost without thinking about it.

“Gavin,” he said, keeping his voice firm, controlled. “I'm not gonna leave you, okay? I'm not gonna leave you, I'm right here, we can talk through the earpiece. I'm gonna guide you out of there, alright?”

“Ryan... Ryan left-”

“Ryan is a fucking douchenozzle, we don't need him,” Michael said. “You and Ray have your team, X-Ray and Vav or whatever, right? Well you and I are a team as well now. Team.... team.... uh....” Fuck, he wasn't good at this. “Team Dynamite. Get it? Because I blow shit up.”

Gavin huffed out a laugh. A strained, somewhat hysterical laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

“Too violent,” he said.

“Fine. Team Nice Dynamite, is that fucking better?”

“That sounds bloody stupid.”

“Good, it's fucking fitting then. Okay, Team Nice Dynamite is in effect and I'd be as much of a prick as Ryan if I ditched my teammate, wouldn't I? So we have to like, work together and shit now.” He huffed. “I know, I'm as pleased about it as you are.”

Gavin was silent, and Michael frowned a bit.

“Gavin? Okay?”

“Okay Michael,” he replied, but his voice was oddly flat and Michael realised with a terrible sinking feeling that he had fucked things up more than he thought, because he could utter all the platitudes that he wanted but it was becoming glaringly obvious that Gavin didn't trust him.

His outburst after they returned from the camping trip was undoubtedly to blame. But he'd been angry, and hurt by Ray giving him the cold shoulder all of a sudden. He'd been an asshole, sure, but he hadn't seriously meant that he'd abandon Gavin if given the chance.

Well. Wasn't this coming back to bite him in the ass now.

Gavin was still making little choking noises, like he was drowning or in pain. Michael glanced at the rest of the screens. The guards were still cordoning people off, Edgar was still in the main hall talking to his animals, and Michael couldn't find Ryan, but didn't have the time or inclination to search him out right now.

“Gavin, they're nowhere near you yet,” he said. “We have time, okay, they're not about to bust in there and get you. So just... breathe, okay? Like, follow my breathing or something. Let's both pretend to be Darth Vader for a bit.”

He started doing some deep, exaggerated breaths, and felt like a complete idiot for a few minutes. But he kept it up, and eventually Gavin caught on and started copying him.

“That's right,” Michael said. “In, out, just like that.”

He didn't realise his own heart had been racing until it started to calm down. All of a sudden he felt embarrassed, sheepish almost, even though he knew he was alone in the house and no one had been around to see him.

“Gavin, what's something you like? Something like peaceful and nice and shit.”

“Cats,” Gavin forced out, after a moment's thought.

For whatever reason, that almost made Michael smile. “Okay. Think about cats then. Don't worry about Edgar outside, or all the rest of them.”

A few silent moments passed as Gavin's breathing slowed and stilled.

“He's bloody ruined cows for me,” Gavin said finally, a hint of laughter in his tone. “Ducks and pigs too. If there's a damn cat out there I'll scream.”

“There's no cats,” Michael replied, checking the hall camera to make sure. “Your great animal love is safe.”

“Good,” Gavin said. He let out a shaky breath and then looked to where he knew the security camera was – eyes meeting Michael's through the screen – and forced something like a smile.

Michael found himself smiling back – a terrible, wide, goofy smile that was mostly relief but also, to his great chagrin, just a little bit fond.

Stop it, he thought, just get him the fuck out of there.

“Okay, Gav,” he said. “I'm afraid we have to move now.”

The smile vanished. “I can't wait here for Ryan? You can just warn me if someone starts coming-”

“No. They're starting to move around and... oh, fuck, it looks like they're starting to search rooms to make sure they've got everyone. You need to get out of there now, dude.” He heard Gavin's breathing start to pick up again and quickly added, “Hey, hey – cats, remember? Cats and Team Nice Dynamite. I'll get you out of there.”

“Okay,” Gavin said.

Michael looked at all the screens. Ryan was back in his vision, now – it looked like he'd climbed out a window and was now scaling the side of the building, working his way around to one of the balconies. Michael couldn't tell what he was planning to do, so he left him to it.

Jesus Christ there were a lot of screens. It was hard as fuck trying to work out who was where, which guards were approaching where Gavin was and which exits were safe and clear for him to use.

He hadn't realised that it took this much work trying to guide people through the cams, and had to grudgingly admit to himself that Gavin's job was a lot harder than he'd initially thought.

“Okay. The corridor outside the cloakroom is clear. I'm gonna try and get you out a window and down the, uh, down the fire escape.”

Gavin mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “Fuck my life.” But he nodded, and got to his feet, then paused, bracing himself against the wall.

“You okay?” Michael asked.

“Kind of dizzy,” Gavin replied.

“It's just adrenaline. Come on, move quickly before the guards start heading up to the next floor. Get out of that room and head to the second door on the left, it opens into a library.”

Gavin nodded, and cautiously moved to the door, peeking out, before he exited. Michael had to fumble to switch the screen he was looking at as Gavin crossed from one camera's range to another.

“Michael, where are the guards?” Gavin asked, as he hurried towards the library.

“They're, uh – oh, crap.” He hadn't kept an eye on the rest of the screens, and shit, shit he was bad at this. “Hurry the fuck up they're on their way upstairs-”

Too late. Michael had messed up, and the guards ascended the staircase right in time to see Gavin cross into the corridor.

“Freeze!” one of them hollered, gun rising to point at him. He was shouting loudly enough that Michael could hear him through Gavin's earpiece. “What the fuck are you doing out here?”

Gavin let out an alarmed squeak, putting his hands in the air right away.

“Lie, lie,” Michael whispered furiously. “Say you were in the bathroom when Edgar arrived and you were confused and didn't know what was going on.”

“I- I was in the loo and then I didn't know what was happening and I wasn't sure where I was meant to be or-”

“What a fucking idiot.” The guard stepped forward and grabbed Gavin's arm roughly. “Come with us.”

Michael leaned back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face as he watched Gavin get escorted to one of the rooms. The guests had been split off into little groups and were being interrogated by the people Edgar had brought with him; showing ID, showing their invitations, getting cross-examined about who they were.

Gavin was a shit liar, that much was obvious, and Michael didn't know how he was going to get him out of this.

A horrible sense of guilt was building in the pit of his stomach. Because now that Ryan had pissed off to do his own thing, suddenly all the responsibility was on Michael to keep Gavin safe, to get him out – and those damn protective instincts were rising up again.

“Stay calm,” he whispered, “if they ask you anything I'll tell you what to say.”

Gavin made no response for fear of the guards overhearing, and all Michael could do was watch as he was taken to one of the rooms on the second floor; a drawing room where a dozen other guests sat in silence. They were being overseen by the figure in the duck mask, and four guards had guns trained on them.

“Got another one for you,” the guard holding Gavin said, shoving him in with the rest before leaving. The duck glanced at him before continuing to, from what Michael could tell, aggressively question one of the other attendees.

Gavin sat down with the others and made himself as small as possible, hands folded in his lap, head down and not looking at anyone. Michael frantically tried to work out what he could do. Maybe Ryan would do something, cause a distraction somehow. Or maybe there was some way they could, he didn't know, light the whole house on fire or something.

Before anything could happen, he realised that one of the other guests was staring at Gavin intently. And then, with dawning horror, he recognised it as the man in the blue tie that Gavin had pointed out to them before; the man he had worked for in the past who knew he was a data analyst and nothing to do with Gworb.

“Oh fuck, Gavin-”

Michael's warning broke off as the man jumped to his feet suddenly, jabbing a finger in Gavin's direction.

“That's him! That's him! That's the guy you're looking for, you can let the rest of us go – it's him!”

Michael saw Gavin snap upright. Saw his eyes widen in terror as everyone in the room turned to stare at him.

The duck stepped forward, saying something that Michael couldn't make out – and the man continued screeching.

“I know that guy, he shouldn't be here – his name's Gavin Free, he's like, a hacker or some shit – he spies on people and stuff, he must be the one you're looking for, there's no other reason he'd be here-”

It was then that Michael noticed it; the fire extinguisher on the wall behind Gavin. And it was a terrible plan, he knew, but they had fuck all else at their disposal.

“Gavin, grab that fire extinguisher and set it off; there's only one guard at the door, if you're fast you can get out of there. Do it now!”

To his credit, Gavin obeyed instantly. He yanked the extinguisher out of the wall, fumbling slightly, and for a moment Michael feared he wouldn't know how to use it, would set it off in his own face – but he appeared to know what he was doing (it seemed, for whatever insane reason, he had used one before) – and soon a stream of compressed CO2 was shooting out in the direction of the guard at the door. Surprised, he stumbled back, the others in the room lurching back in surprise, and Gavin bolted for it, shouldering the guard aside and running out into the corridor.

Michael's heart pounded as he realised that Gavin's life was literally in his hands here and he had to get his shit together and guide him out. Frantically, his eyes scanned the screens, trying to make sense of where there were no guards.

“Run down the stairs, run down the stairs,” he ordered, and Gavin obeyed, still clutching the extinguisher as he pelted for the ground storey.

“Michael, Michael, are they after me?” he demanded.

“I can't see, the room's full of fucking white mist and shit,” Michael replied. “Yes – the guards are after you. The duck is calling someone else in.”

Gavin had reached the bottom floor. “Should I hide? Michael?”

“Fucking – hide for a minute,” Michael said. “Look – just leading off the hall there's a projector room. There's no one in there. But watch out, there's still a guard in the hall.”

Gavin's breathing was heavy in his ear as he crept across the room.

“He's looking out the window,” Michael said, “You can get behind him.”

He could barely breathe as he watched Gavin sneak across the hall behind the guard's back. When he finally entered the projector room, shutting the door quietly behind him, Michael slumped back in his chair, heart pounding.

“Hide under the table,” he said. “While I see where everyone else is at.”

Gavin obeyed, Michael watching on the screen as he climbed under the desk in the room and disappeared from sight.

“Oh my God,” Gavin gasped. “Oh my bloody bollocking God-”

“You're fine, dude, you're fine.” Michael wasn't sure if he was reassuring Gavin or himself. He heard Gavin let out a soft sigh.

“Where's Ryan?” he asked.

Shit. Michael had completely forgotten about him. He turned to look at the rest of the screens.

The duck, it seemed, had called in the rest of Edgar's posse to let them know that they had their traitor and he was on the loose. There were now guards and assorted animals striding the halls, kicking in the door of every room they came across. Luckily most of them were still on the second storey.

As for Edgar – he was nowhere to be seen. Michael wished he'd kept a damn eye on him, but it was too late for that now. He figured he was up on the third floor, where there were no cameras, and thus out of his range of sight. Since he couldn't find Ryan either, he assumed he was up there as well.

“Can't see him, he must be up on the top storey,” he replied.

“Michael,” Gavin said after a minute. “That duck had teeth.”

“I know.”

“Ducks aren't supposed to have teeth."

“That is true. “

“It was weird, Michael.”

“I know. Don't worry about it. We're almost out now.”

A few more moments of silence.

“I'm sorry,” Gavin stuttered out, finally.

Michael frowned, confused as to what he was going on about. “What're you sorry for?”

“Well, I buggered it all, didn't I? Didn't look into it closely enough or I might have realised that Edgar was coming tonight and we wouldn't have-”

“Dude,” Michael cut in. “I'm pretty sure he'd have covered his tracks completely. There was no way we could have known about this. You didn't fuck it up.”

“You're not mad at me?”

There was honest confusion in Gavin's tone, and Michael opened his mouth, then hesitated.

Of course, he realised. Of course Gavin would think he was being blamed for this after Michael had gotten mad at him both times before for the mission stuff ups. And, truth be told, at any other time he probably would have freaked out at him now as well.

But being responsible for someone’s life – seeing them so open and scared and starting to realise that maybe – and he barely wanted to think about it, but it was becoming a more and more likely possibility – maybe something was seriously wrong, maybe there was a very good reason for him to flip out when it came to going into the field – it was becoming clear to him that Gavin wasn't just an incompetent wimp. He was a skilled worker with a job that Michael was barely managing to do himself, and even then badly, who for whatever reason had easily triggered abandonment issues.

It would be a dick move to pin the blame for this one on him.

“Dude,” Michael repeated. “It's not your fault. If I blame anyone it's Ryan for running off and fucking over our whole team thing. You're fine, don't worry about it.”

Another disbelieving pause.

“I was...” Michael paused. He had never been good with apologies of this sort. “I might have been a bit of an asshole to you before,” he continued. “But I'm not mad at you right now and I'm not going to abandon you. Okay?”

“Got it,” Gavin replied, and sounded a tiny bit calmer. “Team Nice Dynamite!”

“Christ, it sounds so fucking stupid,” Michael replied, and Gavin gave a small giggle. Michael realised he was smiling again and quickly wiped it off his face.

Then he glanced at the screens again. “Oh, fuck. They're starting to come downstairs.”

“What do I do?”

There were two guards at the front door, and another in the car park. There would be no getting out that way. Michael scanned the layout of the house and realised that there was a back door leading out of the kitchens into a delivery area.

“You need to get to the kitchen,” he said. The guard in the hall was still there, staring out the window, and he would see any attempt to get past.

“Okay, Gav,” Michael said, “You need to knock the guy at the window the fuck out.”

“I don't think I can.”

“You absolutely can. You've still got that fire extinguisher, right?” Michael asked. “Big heavy metal thing like that, you wallop him in the back of the head and he'll go down like a bitch. He's got his back turned, just sneak up on him and you can do it.”

“I can't just creep past him?”

“No, Gav, he'll see you. Just fucking do it, come on. I promise it won't be that hard.”

“Bloody hell,” Gavin muttered, but crawled out from under the desk and made his way cautiously out of the room.

The guard was still staring out the window. It seemed as though it would be easy to just sneak up behind him, and Gavin did so.

Now, had Michael a greater knowledge of physics, he might have realised that as it was nighttime it was very dark outside, and very bright inside, and that this meant that the guard, though looking out the window, could actually see very little of the gardens and courtyard. What he did get was a very nice view of everything behind him, reflected against the dark glass.

Gavin was about a metre away from him when the guard took his chance and turned, swinging his gun around to smash Gavin across the jaw, knocking him to the floor.

“Fuck!” Michael cried, jumping up in his seat. “Get up, get up-”

He could hear Gavin whimpering, and a thud as the guard kicked him hard in the ribs. Gavin didn't get up, but somehow, scrambling about, he managed to turn on the fire extinguisher again and blast it right into the guard's face. The man reeled back under the onslaught of CO2, coughing and choking, effectively blinded, and Gavin clambered to his feet.

“Hit him!” Michael cried.

With a wild yell Gavin struck the guard in the side of the head with the extinguisher. He dropped like a stone and Gavin turned and ran, nearly tripping over his own feet. He stopped halfway down the hall, doubling over, and spat out a mouthful of what looked like blood.

“Fuck, are you okay?” Michael asked.

No!” Gavin choked out. “M'not bloody okay. Bit my tongue.”

He scrubbed at his eyes, which, it seemed, were irritated from the cloud of gas.

“You need to keep moving, the sound's brought a lot of them and they're coming your way,” Michael warned. “That duck is getting real fucking close, get in the kitchen right now.”

Gavin complied, and Michael was struggling to track the movements of the guards when a commotion on one of the other screens caught his attention.

A fight was going on on the stairs leading up to the third storey. As he watched, a body flew down the staircase to land hard on the floor. It was Ryan, Michael realised, with three guards in pursuit, one of them the pig. Edgar appeared at the top of the stairs, watching impassively as Ryan got to his feet and began to fight. It seemed whatever plan he'd attempted had failed and he was now stuck fighting Edgar's security.

And, as it were, getting his ass royally handed to him; he was outnumbered and from what Michael could tell, already injured, and as he watched the man went down under a hail of blows.

Michael hesitated. He could just leave Ryan the way Ryan had left Gavin; alone and to fend for himself.

The thought of doing that made him feel guilty, though, for no reason he could explain – he hadn't exactly become close to Ryan over the last week or so – and he shook his head, kicking himself.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Gavin, Ryan's in trouble, we've got to help him.”

Gavin had by now reached the kitchens, which were empty, the staff all having been escorted out with the other guests.

“How can I be of any possible bloody help to him?” he cried.

For a moment Michael had absolutely no ideas. Coming up with plans of this sort, clever strategies and fixings – that was Ray, or Jack, or Ryan's forte. All Michael was good at was explosions.

Explosions.

“Gav, Gav, are those gas ovens?” he demanded.

Gavin hurried over to check. “Yeah.”

“Fucking fantastic. Turn on all the gas, all of it, full blast.”

“Umm, what are we doing?"

“Just fucking do it, you'll see. We need to create a distraction, get Ryan out of there.”

Gavin obeyed, and Michael glanced at the rest of the screens and did a double take.

“Oh man, you'll have to hurry the fuck up because that duck is heading straight for the kitchen.”

Gavin squeaked, hurrying across the kitchen workbenches to turn on all the gas. Michael watched in trepidation. That terrible, terrible duck was striding down the corridor, pausing to glance impassively at the felled guard.

“It's on! It's on!” Gavin cried. “It's giving me a bloody bad headache too.”

“Dude, don't breathe it in, you'll fucking kill your lungs. Now find a match, quickly.”

Gavin scrambled about, searching, but seemed to be coming up short.

“Where's that duck at Michael?” he asked, but before Michael could answer the kitchen doors swung open and the duck entered. For a moment Gavin looked up and froze, both of them standing stock still and staring at each other.

Then, as Michael watched, Gavin's hand closed around a box of matches.

“Gavin, go, go, run out that door and throw the match. Do not fucking light it until you're outside,” he snapped.

Gavin turned and pelted, the duck jerking into motion as well. Barely was he out of the room than he lit the match – it took a few tries, his hands shaking – and tossed it back into the gas filled kitchen.

Michael literally saw the air in the room ignite, a massive cloud of fire building up and up before the camera in the room shut off. The last thing he saw was the duck, stumbling back from the force of the blaze, surrounded by those hellish flames.

Then nothing, as the camera screen cut to black.

Michael promptly switched to another viewpoint; the outdoor camera. Two guards were patrolling but they had turned at the sudden burst of flame, and as Michael watched Gavin ran off into the car park and hid himself between the tightly packed vehicles. He was coughing and gasping but he wasn't, you know, screaming in agony like someone with third degree burns would be, so Michael figured he hadn't been got by the fire.

“I can't believe that worked,” Gavin choked out.

“Fucking science, man,” Michael replied, but couldn't help the wide grin of relief he gave. “That house is lighting up like a bitch.”

“I can see that,” Gavin said drily.

Sure enough, the fire was quickly spreading to other rooms, and as Michael watched everyone else seemed to realise what was going on. The guests chose that moment to make a break for it, and most of the guards too – and soon people were scrambling to evacuate.

He cut back to the screen Ryan had been on just in time to see the pig usher Edgar by the arm and start escorting him away. Ryan had taken advantage of the commotion to kick the feet out from under one of the men he was fighting, snatching their gun and belting them across the face. For a moment Ryan hesitated, as though to go after Edgar, but then he – thank God – seemed to think better of it. He turned towards the stairs only to realise the fire was cutting him off from that side, and climbed out the window instead.

Halfway through climbing down the drainpipe, it snapped and he fell to the ground hard. Michael winced, but Ryan got up and brushed himself down. Though he was favouring his left arm, he seemed mostly none the worse for wear, and he began to make his way back around to the cars.

“Thank fucking Christ that's over with,” Michael muttered. “Gavin, Ryan's coming your way.”

“A lot of people are coming my way,” Gavin said, nervously – indeed, most of the guests were flooding back to their cars.

“Go meet him then, he's just around the side of the house.”

The outdoor cams were starting to get grainy, most of the indoor ones useless now as the rooms were engulfed by smoke and flame.

Michael watched as Gavin jogged to meet Ryan – who, Michael noticed now, had his left arm hanging limp and useless by his side.

Barely had Gavin got within Ryan's reach than the mercenary lunged forward and grabbed his arm, shaking him violently.

“What the fuck was that all about?!” Michael heard him demand. “Did you light that fire? Did you light that fucking fire?!”

“What?” Gavin screeched. “I – yes, you were in trouble and-”

“What the flying fuck were you thinking?! Edgar's split now, I fucking had him-”

Well that was a fine fucking sentiment!

“You were getting the shit kicked out of you!” Michael roared, resentment building up quickly now only to realise that Ryan couldn't hear him. “Gavin, give Ryan the earpiece.”

Gavin attempted to, but Ryan still had him in a vicelike grip. He tried to pull away and yelped.

“Ryan, you're hurting me!” he cried. And then, when he was ignored, “Michael wants to talk to you.”

Ryan finally let him go in favour of snatching the earpiece from him and jamming it into his own ear. “Was this your damn idea, Jones?” he asked.

“I have two words for you, Haywood. Fuck and you. What the hell were you thinking abandoning Gavin like that?! If we hadn't lit that fire you would both be dead because there was no way you were killing Edgar tonight, not surrounded by a hundred of his men. You were getting your ass handed to you on a fucking silver platter. Now get Gavin the fuck back home before both of you get got. We can discuss this later.”

For a moment Ryan just breathed heavily into the earpiece, speechless, it seemed, with ire. Michael glared at him on the screen. But a moment later, Ryan turned and strode off towards the car, Gavin trailing hesitantly after him, and soon enough they were on the road along with the rest of the vehicles fleeing the burning scene.

Michael searched half heartedly for Edgar on the cams, but he had taken off. He ripped off his headset, and slumped back in his chair, running his hands through his hair. As the adrenaline and stress drained away, he felt nothing but exhausted.

What a fucking night.

 


 

Geoff was not going to die.

Jack established this quickly, sitting there in the dark, waiting with trepidation as they heard the shouts and footfalls of Edgar's men outside.

Geoff was not going to die. He was bleeding from several superficial wounds – a small piece of shrapnel was stuck in his side, but it had hit nothing major and wasn't even embedded that deeply. He was concussed for sure from the explosion, but he wasn't in a critical condition.

The rush of relief that came with this realisation was heady and exhausting, and Jack slumped back against the wall of the little shack, keeping one arm out and resting lightly on Geoff's shoulder. They'd made him as comfortable as possible, rolling their jackets up to place under his head, bandaging his wounds with strips of cloth as well as they could.

“He's..?” Ray trailed off, nervously, and Jack looked up, meeting his eyes in the dim light. He forced a smile.

“He'll be fine."

“Thank God.” Ray leaned back against the wall, looking down. “I don't... it happened so fast I didn't realise what was going on. I didn't know he'd jump on me and-”

“Ray, it's fine,” Jack reassured him. “I'm not about to blame you for Geoff attempting to save your life.”

Ray held his gaze a moment longer before looking away, and Jack could practically see the cogs turning in his head, trying to make sense of things.

“Why'd he do it?” Ray asked after a second. “That explosion could have been way bigger. He could have died. Why do that to save me? I mean we... we barely know each other-”

“Geoff's not an asshole,” Jack replied. “We do a lot of crap but neither of us... we take care of our own. And you've proven yourself an ally, Ray. I'd have done the same, probably.”

“Really?” Ray glanced up at him, eyes wide with honest surprise, and Jack huffed out a laugh.

“Yeah, probably. Might've crushed you under my weight but-”

“Shut up,” Ray said, with something like a laugh. “You're not...”

They trailed off into a somewhat awkward silence.

“I can still hear 'em out there,” Ray said. He checked the clip of his gun for about the tenth time, a nervous habit, it seemed. “Doesn't sound like they'll let up any time soon. Even if it is just a concussion it doesn't pay to wait.”

Jack considered this. There was no way they could sneak out of there. Which meant they'd need outside help.

The idea struck him suddenly and he wondered why he'd not thought of it earlier.

“We have friends in this city,” he said. “I'll call one in, see if he can't get them off our back. We'll owe him one but if I ask nicely he'll probably even let us go over to his place, at least until Geoff wakes up.”

“Sounds good,” Ray said with a nod.

It took only a few minutes to make the call, and, as Jack had expected, Gus was annoyed at their disturbing him but more than willing to help out when he realised how serious the situation was. When Jack hung up and turned to Ray to let him know, it was to find him still staring speculatively at Geoff.

“How do you do it?” he asked quietly. “This can't be the first close call you've had. Doesn't it kill you – both of you – knowing you're in so much danger all the time?”

Jack shook his head. “We've been doing it so long now. I guess it just becomes a part of it. In any case, surely it's the same for you and Michael?”

“Well, yeah,” Ray said. “But we aren't...”

He trailed off a bit awkwardly and Jack couldn't help but smile.

Ray and Michael weren’t even that much younger than him, but damn if they didn't make him feel old as fuck. Watching their oblivious struggles, the tangle of their feelings play out in such a confused manner, was simultaneously frustrating and endearing.

It was quite obvious to Jack what was going on. He'd been speaking to Michael enough over the last few days to get the gist of it – but what Jack had noticed, that Michael couldn't see, was his somewhat glaring – and growing – crush on Ray. It reminded Jack enough of himself when he'd first started falling for Geoff that he was compelled to help; especially since he wasn't sure how he'd have reacted if Geoff had given him the cold shoulder back then the way Ray was doing to Michael now.

“I've been talking to Michael a bit,” he said, and Ray's head snapped up, staring at him questioningly.

“He's hurt and confused,” Jack continued. “And I imagine you are too.”

The look in Ray's eyes made Jack realise, abruptly, that Ray knew – knew about Michael's feelings for him even if Michael himself didn't quite understand it yet. And shit, so that was why things had gotten so awkward – how did this even happen?

“You know how he feels for you,” he said slowly, and Ray nodded.

“I don't know what to do,” he admitted.

“Oh Jesus Christ, how'd you find out?”

“Ryan told me, actually-”

“Fucking Ryan.” Jack actually buried his face in his hands at that. “What the fuck does he think he's playing at.”

“I asked him."

“He bangs on all the time about how much he hates personal relationships and getting close to people he works with – then he goes and stirs all this up? What in the world did he think would happen if he pointed it out to you before you were ready to accept it? What a fucking moron.”

Ray chuckled a little at that and Jack looked up with a slight grin.

“Well, I'm glad you can at least laugh about it."

“It's laugh or cry at this point,” Ray said. “I...” and he looked up at Jack with something unexpectedly vulnerable in his eyes. “Help me?”

Jack bit his lip. He could have at Geoff all he wanted for going unexpectedly soft on Gavin, but he couldn't deny that he himself cared about Michael and Ray. Perhaps more than he should have. He had always liked them, sure – they were hard workers and fit well on the team to the point where, even before all this jazz with Edgar, he and Geoff had discussed the possibility of offering to employ them full time, though they'd never gotten around to giving it serious thought. But now he was becoming far more invested in their personal relationships than he had ever envisioned.

“Are you completely opposed to the idea of a relationship with him?” he asked. “You love him – don't deny it – but are you sure if it's completely, totally platonic?”

“I don't know,” Ray said.

“Well that's your starting point then,” Jack said. “There's no need to get worked up about it the way you have been. Michael's not going to push for anything yet when he barely even knows himself what he's feeling. Which means it's on you to test the waters. Get close to him again. See how you feel. Try things out and you'll see soon enough where you both stand. It really is as simple as that. You don't need to jump into anything.”

“I'm worried that everything will change.”

“Only if you let it,” Jack replied. “Trust me. Pushing him away, though – that's not doing either of you any favours.”

Ray looked considering for a moment. Then he nodded.

“I guess you're right. Thanks, Jack,” he added. “I don't normally... this isn't my field of expertise,” he said, with such a painfully unsure smile that it made Jack's heart ache. “But... it helps to talk.”

“Any time,” Jack replied.

Gunshots and shouting from outside made them both jump abruptly. Jack instinctively moved closer to Geoff, shielding him as Ray tried to peer through the crack of the door.

“Someone’s taking out Edgar's men,” he said. “What's left of them, anyway, it seems a lot of them have gone off to search elsewhere.”

Jack smiled, relief washing over him in waves.

“That'll be Gus,” he said.

 


 

Gus Sorola was an ex-cop turned mercenary who now mostly ran information through the city. He didn't do hired kills anymore, but back when he had – still living in Achievement City at the time – he'd been close to Geoff and Jack, working with them back when they were just setting out on their own.

His small, modest apartment in an unremarkable part of the city was probably the safest place for all of them right now, and it was here that they ended up holing up – Geoff on the guest bed, sleeping now but checked over for any glaring medical issues and coming up fine, wounds now clean and bandaged.

“Thank you,” Jack said, for about the hundredth time that day, as they finally wound up sat around Gus' dining room table, cracking open beers. It had been discovered that Ray, for whatever reason, did not drink, so he was nursing a glass of coke.

Gus flapped a hand at him. “I said don't worry about it,” he replied. “Owed you a favour anyway I think. But don't,” he added, as Jack opened his mouth again, “tell me what the fuck you lot are involved in now. I don't want to know. If it's dangerous enough that someone managed to take Geoff down this badly, I want no part in it.”

Jack nodded. “Sure.”

After a moment Gus' face softened a little.

“He'll be fine,” he said. “Don't let him sleep too long in case that head wound's worse than we thought. But he got lucky.” He looked over at Ray, who had been quiet, shy almost. “You all did,” he added. “I'll go look around outside, make sure none of them followed us back.”

He exited the room, leaving the two of them sitting in silence.

“We ought to check in with the others,” Jack said.

Ray nodded. Jack deliberately made no move to go for his phone, and after a moment Ray stirred and looked up at him.

“You gonna call them?” he asked, and Jack shook his head.

“No,” he said. “You've ignored Michael long enough. Time for you to get back in touch with him.”

Ray rolled his eyes, but gave a wry smile as he pulled his phone out. He still seemed uncharacteristically nervous as he took longer than necessary to scroll through his contacts before he began to type.

“What time should I tell them to expect us back?” he asked.

Jack considered this. “I'd rather not stay here any longer than necessary with Edgar's guys out there,” he said. “If we leave here in about an hour and drive without stopping... some time tomorrow morning.”

Ray nodded, typing industriously away. When he was finished they both sat, drinking in silence, a strange tension hanging over them that was only broken when Ray's phone vibrated again and they both jumped.

Ray read it, pulled a face, and tossed the phone over to Jack, who caught it deftly.

'Hey. Things went to shit, Geoff's injured, but we killed Beardo. Back tomorrow morning,' was what Ray had typed – Jack wasn't sure what he'd expected, something rather friendlier maybe. Then again it was probably better to save the apologies for when they met again in person.

'Stuff got fucked up here too,' was Michael's reply, which made Jack frown. As he held the phone, two more texts came in – 'Edgar showed up but we're all okay.' and 'Ryan and Gavin on way back now, see you tomorrow'.

“Edgar showed up,” Jack said, and Ray jolted in his seat.

“What?”

“Look,” Jack handed him the phone back. “Apparently they're all fine. Why the fuck didn't Gavin realise he'd be there?”

“Hey, he's not fucking psychic and Edgar's clever,” Ray snapped – jumping, as Jack had expected, to his Vav's defence. “Beardo said something weird. That we were on his trail but they were on ours too.”

“What does that mean?”

“Fuck if I know, but I don't like the sound of it. This was all a trap and I have a bad feeling the Corpirate's party was too. At least we all got out of it alive.” Ray's thumbs dithered over the phone screen for a moment as though he was contemplating typing more, but he ended up thinking better of it.

 


 

Geoff woke up about half an hour later. Jack was sitting by the bed when he did, rousing with an “oh fuck” and hand clapped to his head.

“Careful,” Jack said, reaching out to help him sit up.

“What happened?” Geoff asked, peered around. “Where the fuck are we?”

“We're at Gus'. You jumped on Ray when some guy chucked a grenade.”

“Is he okay?” Geoff asked, and Jack nodded.

“Fine. You, on the other hand...” He shook his head with a huff of breath. “Gave us a fucking scare for a bit.”

Geoff squinted at him as though waiting for something, and after a moment Jack laughed.

“I'm too relieved to be mad, dude,” he said. “Just glad you're both alright.” He leaned forward to pull the other man into a hug, then drawing back, moved to press a quick kiss to his lips.

Someone cleared their throat in the doorway and they turned to see Ray, hovering awkwardly.

“Uh, sorry to interrupt,” he began, but Geoff flapped a hand at him.

“Don't worry about it. Come in. You alright?”

“I'm fine,” Ray said, venturing in a few steps. “Um, thanks for saving my life.”

“It's fine,” Geoff replied. “Did you tell Jack what Beardo said before he shot him?”

Jack nodded. “He did.”

“It sounds like they've got eyes on us somehow,” Geoff said with a frown. “Or somehow they knew we would be there.”

“Yeah, about that,” Ray said. “Edgar showed up at the Corpirate's place. The others got out okay but it's worrying. So we're heading back as soon as possible.”

Geoff started in alarm. “Jesus, we'd better get moving right away.”

“I'll let Gus know,” Ray said, hurrying out.

“What put ants in his pants?” Geoff asked, as he clambered out of the bed and winced slightly, hand going to his wounded side. Jack stood to straighten the sheets after him.

“We talked a bit about Michael,” he replied, with a wry smile. “I convinced him to try and make up with him.”

“You reckon they'll end up... you know?”

“I hope so,” Jack replied, with a half-smile. “Either way I'll just be glad if they stop fighting.”

They paused in the room, not quite ready to exit yet.

“I told Ray you and I take care of our own,” Jack said after a minute. “But Geoff... it's not just anyone you'd jump on a bullet for. That could have been much worse.”

Geoff bit his lip, glancing away slightly. “You wouldn't have done the same?”

“I might've,” Jack said, running a hand through his hair. “And that's what worries me.”

“Ray's a good kid. I like him.”

“You'd literally give your life for him,” Jack said, slowly. “You've just proven that.” And then, a moment later and mostly out of curiosity, “If it was Ryan would you have done the same thing?”

“I... fuck, I don't know, probably not? It was the heat of the moment, man, I can't answer that.” And Geoff narrowed his eyes at him now. “If it was Gavin and you out there, would you have done it for him?”

Jack honestly had no answer to that either, and Geoff raised his eyebrows at him.

“What's done is done,” Geoff said. “And we have more important things to worry about right now.”

Jack nodded agreement and they left the room.

 


 

It was a few hours later when Ryan and Gavin returned home. There'd been radio silence from them the entire way, and Michael had quickly given up watching. He'd sat about, high-strung and exhausted – it was well into the small hours of the morning by now.

When he heard the car door slam outside he moved to wait for them – and, when they entered the house, he froze, suddenly unsure how to act around them – Gavin in particular.

Back when he'd been guiding them out of the mansion, he'd felt close to the other man – the sort of closeness born from being stuck in a sucky situation with someone else. But now that they were back on their usual footing – face-to-face in the environment of the house – he had no idea where he stood.

The usual annoyance he used to feel at the sight of the man never popped up, though. Gavin looked wrecked; exhausted, suit dishevelled, one hand hugging his side and a massive bruise blooming on his jaw where the guard had hit him. It was hard to feel anything but sorry for him at the moment.

And Ryan – Ryan was emanating a cold fury that Michael had no idea what to make of; it was the sort of hostility he'd initially expected given Ryan's reputation, but it had never shown up until now.

He was angry enough himself, though.

“You okay, Gavin?” Michael asked.

Gavin glanced at him – and up close and in person now Michael could see how drained he looked, eyes tired and haunted. His lack of a reply was more worrying than anything he could have said.

“I think you need a drink,” Michael said. “Go sit in the kitchen.”

Gavin obeyed, dragging his feet, and leaving Michael and Ryan facing off.

“I had things under control,” Ryan said finally, voice tight and dark.

Michael clenched his fists. Normally he wouldn't hesitate to blow up at anyone who pissed him off, but he was wary of Ryan and managed to keep his voice low and quiet.

“You left him,” Michael spat. “You left him and he had a fucking panic attack. You know he can't take care of himself. He nearly got got by that duck because you abandoned him to take off on some sort of vigilante mission. We had a fucking plan and you just threw it out the window without warning.”

“I had the chance to kill Edgar,” Ryan snapped. “So I took it.”

“We're going to kill Edgar. Once we've taken down all his people first. That's the fucking plan and you fucked it up. I didn't think you were that stupid.” He reached out to jab a finger at Ryan's chest, but gasped when Ryan caught his wrist, twisting it painfully.

“You know nothing,” Ryan hissed, leaning in close. “Like I've said a hundred times, I don't work for you. I knew what I was doing. If you hadn't decided to set the whole fucking house on fire I might have got him.”

“You weren't getting anything except the crap kicked out of you,” Michael replied through gritted teeth. “Let go of me or I'll kick you in the fucking dick.”

Ryan released his wrist and Michael snatched it back, rubbing it with his opposite hand. After a minute Ryan turned and stalked off towards the stairs. Michael noticed absently that one of his arms was still hanging by his side, painfully limp.

“Prick,” Michael muttered at his retreating back. “Fine, be like that, go off to suck your own dick you fucking loner.”

To be honest he was a little disappointed under his anger; he hadn't disliked Ryan before – in fact, he'd been pleasantly surprised by the other man's good humour (and though he'd never admit it, his not-unattractive looks). But now Ryan was off being a grade A asshole and Michael had no idea what had set it off.

Edgar. There must be a reason Ryan was so hellbent on killing him.

Still. There was no reason for him to be such a dick. Mulling over this, Michael wandered into the kitchen where Gavin was sitting at the table – jacket slung over the back of his chair, tie strewn beside him – nursing a glass of some sort of liquor.

“Ryan's mad at us,” Gavin said, before Michael could say a word.

“Fuck Ryan,” Michael replied instantly. “I don't know what's got into him.”

Moving over to the fridge, he quickly located and took out a bag of frozen beans. He tossed it at Gavin, who completely failed to catch it, scrambling for a moment before it landed on the floor next to him with a wet splat. When he bent over to pick it up he winced, hand going to his side.

“What happened there?” Michael asked, moving over with a frown.

Gavin pressed the frozen bag against the bruise on his jaw and shook his head. “Guard kicked me in the ribs. It's just bruised.”

“Let me see,” Michael said, crouching next to him. He reached out to lift up Gavin's shirt but Gavin grabbed his arm, something like panic in his eyes.

“Don't,” he said – almost desperately, and Michael looked up at him. His frown deepened.

“Why not?”

“Just – don't. Please?” Gavin pushed him away and Michael shrugged, getting up and getting himself a drink before slumping down into a chair.

They sat in silence. Michael didn't know what to say. It was obvious Gavin was upset, still shaken over his narrow escape from the mansion. A huge part of Michael wanted to ask what was wrong. What had happened to make him so jumpy and terrified of being abandoned out in the field.

But they weren't nearly close enough for him to pry, and while he'd normally have had few qualms about asking nosey questions, he felt like Gavin was going to up and bolt any second even without his pushing.

So he sat, and they drank in silence, and when Michael started to get up to go to bed he noticed Gavin shoot him a look of alarm, obviously not wanting to be left alone, and Michael just sighed before going to pour himself another drink.

 


 

He woke face-down on the table with a crick in his neck to the sound of a car pulling up in the drive. For a moment he thought fuck, no one kept a watch last night, someone might have come to attack us – but a glance out the window revealed it was the others returning.

“Fuck, what time is it?” he groaned, pulling his phone out to check – and sat bolt upright as he realised it was going on noon.

Gavin was nowhere to be seen, but when Michael walked out to the main room to get the door he saw him sitting up from where he'd been sprawled on the couch, also sleeping. His face looked terrible today, dark purple mottled across his jawline and deep bags under his eyes.

“Who is it?” he mumbled.

“The others are back,” Michael replied, moving to open the door.

He had honestly never been so relieved to see other people in his life. Truth be told, Edgar showing up out of the blue had freaked him out a little bit – not to mention being stuck in the house last night with nothing but a moping Gavin and a livid Ryan had been uncomfortable, to say the least.

When he saw Ray all the awkwardness of their parting slammed back into him, and for a moment he couldn't breathe.

But Ray stepped forward and gave him a small smile.

“Hey,” he said, almost shyly.

Michael blinked a few times. “Um, hi?”

“It's... good to see you,” Ray said. Sounding incredibly awkward.

Michael nodded slowly, but something like relief was blossoming in his stomach, and he slowly smiled back.

“You too,” he replied, and Ray grinned a little and reached out to press his arm. There were tiny cuts and bruises all over his arms and neck, and Michael frowned a bit – but Geoff, when he came up next to them, looked even worse.

“Jesus Christ, what happened to you guys?”

“We had a nasty encounter with some dudes who were expecting us,” Geoff replied. “And it sounds like you lot did too.”

“That's one way of putting it,” Michael said grimly, nodding at Jack as he turned to head back into the house.

He heard Ray give a sharp intake of breath behind him. “Jesus, what happened to Vav?”

“Hi Ray,” Gavin spoke up from the couch.

Geoff was by his side in an instant, grabbing his face and tilting it up to get a look at the bruise. Gavin squawked, flapping at him.

“Ow, ow, don't touch it!”

“How'd this happen?” Geoff demanded.

“Yeah, about that,” Michael spoke up. He glanced at the stairs but there was no sign of Ryan. “So Haywood went fucking insane and decided it would be a good idea to try and take down Edgar on his own. So he just ditched Gav and I had to get him out of there, except then his plan failed and Edgar's guys were beating on him so Gavin and I decided to set the house on fire as a distraction and now he's pissed at us because apparently he 'had things under control' – yeah fucking right – and we supposedly ruined everything. So he's like fucking sulking upstairs or something now, I don't even know.”

“Sounds messy as dicks,” Geoff said, finally letting go of Gavin, who curled in on himself on the couch and wrapped his arms around his chest.

“I think we need to hold a group meeting,” Jack spoke up. “Sort some things out. Work out how Edgar managed to trap us and what our next move should be.”

Geoff nodded. He ushered all of them in closer, leaning in to whisper: “If things turn sour we might have to cut Ryan loose. It's not that I don't trust him, just... well, I don't trust him. He's hot and cold and I don't know what he wants, so... everyone be on your guard, okay?”

They all nodded – and Gavin in particular did so with vehemence. When Michael glanced over at him he saw anger and betrayal flash across his face before he turned away. It seemed that now the shock and fear were wearing off, he wasn't going to take Ryan's abandonment lying down.

“In that case,” Geoff said, “Let's all rest up a bit. No one followed us here, I hope, so as long as we keep an eye out we can rest and regroup, and then get together for a team meeting in a little bit. Sound good?”

“Sounds great,” Michael said.

Geoff and Jack drifted out, leaving the three lads standing about.

“I'm heading downstairs,” Gavin murmured, getting up off the couch.

Ray reached out and caught at his arm. “Hey,” he began – but when Gavin turned to look at him, he didn't seem to know what to say.

“You okay?” he settled on, and Gavin nodded, pulling his arm away before walking down to the basement.

“He's not okay,” Michael said, and Ray turned to him with raised eyebrows.

“Something's wrong,” Michael continued. “He freaked out when Ryan left him. Like, it wasn't just that he was scared and shit, he really fucking freaked out. Like he was having flashbacks or a panic attack or something, I don't know.”

Ray frowned.

“You care now,” he said – not accusingly, more questioningly, and Michael sighed, turning away.

“I know, I know, I was kind of being a dick before, but how was I meant to know he had some sort of inner trauma?” He glanced at Ray suspiciously, but when he found the other wasn't teasing or mocking him for it, he relaxed a little.

“He's not so bad,” Michael admitted, grudgingly. “You know. When one is forced to work with him to save his life and avoid Edgar's fucking Duck of Doom. You'd better watch out Ray, because Team Nice Dynamite might just take over X-Ray and Vav.”

“Team Nice Dynamite, what the fuck is that?” Ray laughed.

“It's our team name. Don't judge. We burned down a house, what have X-Ray and Vav done?”

Ray shook his head, but he was grinning widely, seeming pleased beyond belief that Michael and Gavin had at least gotten over their differences – and his joy was contagious; Michael found himself smiling back. And that more than anything – the returned camaraderie with his best friend – had him finally relaxing, feeling like everything had fallen back into place and despite all the shit that was going on, things here and now felt okay.

“I need to eat,” he said, gesturing back towards the kitchen. “Did you, uh, want to...?”

“Sure, I'll join you,” Ray said. “Need to tell you all about what happened back with Beardo.”

Michael grinned, and turned to leave the room. As Ray moved up next to him he felt a hand rest on his back, gently, just for a moment – an awkward, brief sort of touch before Ray snatched his hand back almost abruptly. Michael turned to him, bemused, but Ray was staring straight ahead and after a moment Michael shrugged and looked away.

He wondered what had happened on the trip for Ray to suddenly go back to acting normally. Either way, he wasn't going to complain about it.

 


 

 

Jack stood outside of Ryan's door for about ten minutes before knocking.

He had no idea why he was doing this. No idea why he was even fucking bothering. But everyone else had gone off to eat, or sleep, or in Gavin's case, keep an eye on the security cameras they'd set up about the house. And he figured someone should check in just to make sure Ryan hadn't run off in the night while they weren't looking, or was secretly plotting against them or anything.

“Is it an emergency?” Ryan's voice called out – artificially flat and just a little too bored sounding to be natural.

“We're back,” Jack replied, just in case he hadn't noticed their arrival. “Can I come in?”

There was silence for a moment, and Jack was considering turning and leaving when the door swung open a crack.

“Do you need something?” Ryan demanded, his voice low and gruff – but Jack caught the underlying pain and before Ryan could stop him, he pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

Ryan had put his mask back on, but Jack could practically smell the exhaustion hanging off him. He was hunched over slightly, one arm awkwardly dangling by his side, and when he moved to close the door behind him he only used one hand and practically limped back towards the bed.

“Okay, you're injured,” Jack said. “What fucked up your arm?”

“I jumped from a drainpipe and landed on it,” Ryan replied, almost hesitantly. “I think it's dislocated.”

“You didn't pop it back in yourself?” Jack asked, aghast. “Dude, has it been like that since last night? It must be killing you.”

“I would have but I've fucked my rib up too and I can't move my arm to push it back in.” Still Ryan stood, staring at him impassively, not asking for help, and after a moment Jack sighed.

“Let me grab the first aid kit and I'll see if I can't patch you up.”

He half expected Ryan to shut the door on him as soon as he left, but to his surprise once he'd grabbed the kit the other man let him back in right away.

“Take your shirt off,” Jack ordered, and after a moment's hesitation Ryan did so. Jack winced in sympathy – there were horrible dark bruises blooming over his chest and back, the sort of bruises that he knew struck deep and painful. He had scars to rival Geoff's, some older, some more recent.

“Wow, Edgar's guys really messed you up.”

“I had it under control,” Ryan uttered, darkly. He sat on the edge of the bed but when Jack reached towards him he tensed involuntarily.

“Sorry, this is gonna hurt,” Jack said, as he took hold of his arm. He kept up the conversation, in a bid to distract him. “If you haven't already heard, we got jumped too. Beardo was expecting us.”

“Edgar knew someone at the mansion was a traitor. He must have known we were coming somehow,” Ryan said grimly. “We'll need to move fast and strike hard to take out the rest before he finds us-” he broke off with a grunt of pain as Jack rotated his arm. When it finally slid into the socket he relaxed visibly.

“There,” Jack said.

“Thank you.” Ryan ground it out through gritted teeth, and Jack frowned at him a little as he pulled some swabs from the kit and tossed them into Ryan's lap, figuring he'd probably rather do the rest himself.

He hadn't realised how much it bothered him having Ryan all angry and annoyed. Not for the first time, he wondered just why he hated Edgar so much.

“I get that you wanted to kill him,” he said finally. “But Michael and Gavin thought they were helping. Don't take it out on them. We'll get him in the end.”

“Mind your own business,” Ryan said, but very carefully did not look at him.

Jack sighed. Maybe Geoff didn't trust Ryan now, but Jack considered himself a good judge of character and – despite his initial misgivings – he wasn't getting a bad vibe from him. In the progress of their interactions so far he had come to see the other man as... well, not as the sort of person who'd double-cross them or leave them for dead simply out of spite. But more as the sort of man who'd worked alone long enough that trusting people was hard – and he didn't doubt Ryan trusted them as little as they trusted him.

And seeing him sitting there on the bed, exhausted and stressed and obviously in pain – it was hard to be angry.

“For the record,” he said, “I get it, sort of. You might have heard me mention that a guy kidnapped Geoff a while ago – back when we first got together. When that happened I... I got really intense about it. I hunted him down non-stop until I found him. I went after the guy with no regard for the rest of our crew that I was working with, for what danger I might be putting them in. I don't know what the hell Edgar did to you, but I get that revenge on him is more important to you than our lives, especially since you don't know us that well. I don't like it. I don't approve of it. But I get it.”

Ryan stared at him intently. Then he gave a curt nod.

“If it's any consolation,” he said, “You needn't worry about me putting Geoff in danger. He can take care of himself.”

Jack nodded. He'd figured as much – it was sheer bad luck that Gavin, the helpless runt of the team, happened to be the only one around when Ryan went all Moby Dick on them.

“Good,” he said. “We understand each other then.”

Ryan nodded. Jack handed him the medkit and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

 

Chapter Text

“How could Edgar have known we were coming?” Geoff asked.

They were all sat around the dining room table, ready for their team meeting – and Geoff glanced at each of them in turn. Michael and Ray had managed to make up, it seemed, they were seated beside each other, shoulders almost touching, looking more relaxed than either of them had in a long time. Gavin was hunched over alone on the other side of Ray – as far as he could get from Ryan – and Geoff frowned a little. He'd been quiet and jumpy since they got back.

As for Ryan – he was closed off too. Closed off and menacing and more aloof than ever, eyes dark and cold behind his mask.

Jesus Christ, it seemed like every time some of them made up, the others would just pull apart again.

“He probably noticed we were taking out his men,” Gavin said, dully, “And sent out Beardo and the Corpirate as a trap.”

“He knew for certain we were at the mansion, though,” Ryan pointed out. Gavin's eyes flickered up to meet his before darting away again. “He knew. Maybe he noticed you messing about with the guest list.”

“Either way, he's onto us,” Geoff cut in quickly. “So we need to take down the rest of his people before anything else can happen. Gavin, how many are left? Two?”

Gavin nodded. “We know them as the pig and the duck, his second and third in command,” he said. “I haven't been able to pull any thing up on either of them so far, apart from footage of them on several heists with Edgar. But Geoff...” he trailed off, hesitantly.

“What is it, buddy?”

Gavin swallowed a few times and Geoff realised then that whatever he was about to say was making him nervous as fuck, his hands were fisting in the ends of his sleeves, strung tight as piano wire.

“I don't want to do this any more,” Gavin said quietly – and the whole room fell silent as they all turned to stare at him.

Gavin took a deep breath. “I'm out. You don't have to pay me in full, I just-”

“You're out?” Jack demanded. “You're pulling out? Now?”

Gavin straightened up and nodded, looking a little more confident now. “Of course I'm bloody out! You hired me and said I'd just have to sit behind a computer all day but... but twice now I've been chased and nearly shot at and you,” and here he directed such a poisonous look at Ryan that Geoff was actually taken aback; proper, genuine anger wasn’t something that sat comfortably on Gavin's usually friendly face. Ryan sat, rigid and unaffected, watching him with a mild sort of disinterest.

“You promised you'd take care of me,” Gavin said. “You promised and then you – then you just abandoned me the first chance you got!”

“Things changed,” Ryan said coldly, “Don't be a child about it.”

“You can't pull out now,” Jack said. Geoff glanced at him warningly, but was ignored. “Jesus Christ, Gavin, things are just heating up and you're going to turn and run? If anyone's doing the abandoning here it's you.”

Gavin flinched, and did not reply to that.

Geoff frowned. He could see exactly where Gavin was coming from – and truth be told, was somewhat worried about him; he was obviously very much not okay after what had gone down and that made him unstable. And they couldn't afford to have anything or anyone unstable around in such a critical time as this.

But on the other hand – so far Gavin had tracked down the four men so quickly that he was pretty much vital to them getting the last two as well.

“You can't hold on for just a bit longer?” he asked. “We're almost there now and I swear for these last ones you won't have to do anything.”

Gavin just stared at him with wide, hurt doe-eyes, looking far more like Bambi than any grown man had a right to, and Geoff felt a pang of guilt as he realised that the other man didn't trust his word anymore.

“You don't have a choice,” Ryan said, and they turned to look at him. His eyes were fixed on Gavin. “Edgar knows your name and your face now,” he continued. “You won't get ten metres from here before he hunts you down.”

“Same boat as us, Vav,” Ray said quietly.

Gavin took in this information. He looked very, very upset for a minute, and Geoff felt stricken as he realised that there was literally nothing they could say to reassure him, no promises they could make that he would believe.

“And whose fault is that?” Gavin said, and glared at Ryan. “Well, I suppose you're right. I guess I just have no choice then.” He slammed his chair back from the table and got up, marching down towards the basement.

“Nice fucking going Ryan,” Michael spat, and Ryan turned his passive, bored stare to him.

Geoff spoke up then, knowing if someone didn't take charge right away they'd all break out fighting.

“Ryan,” he ordered, “Stop being a dickhole. I don't know what you were thinking back there but what's done is done. These last two sound dangerous so we're gonna have to pull together if we want to get them. Then we can part ways and never see each other again.”

For a moment Ryan just stared at him, and Geoff stared coolly back. Even if he had been the one to initially agree to trust the mercenary, it was... troubling, how quickly he'd thrown their plans aside for his own agenda. He was disappointed, yes, but Geoff also wasn't Ryan's boss, and reprimanding him for it would likely only annoy him further – all he could do for now was keep an eye on Gavin himself and try to avoid any future situations where one of the rest of them had to rely on Haywood.

After a moment Ryan gave a curt nod, and Ray reached out and put a hand on Michael's shoulder until he settled down with a sullen glare.

“My biggest concern right now,” Geoff continued, “Is that while we wait for Gav to track down these last two, Edgar might bring the fight to us.”

“No one uses the roads leading out here but us,” Michael said. “I'll rig some of them with explosive traps. That should give Edgar a nasty surprise. Just make sure you warn your people, Geoff, in case any of them come to visit.”

Geoff nodded. “That sounds good. Keep me updated.”

“We're running low on ammo,” Jack said. “Not to mention it might take more than just pistols and rifles to get these last two. I'll see if I can't get us some more weapons.”

“Good,” Geoff said.

“I'll get on the same,” Ryan added.

“We're all set then,” Geoff replied. “Home stretch now boys, let's not fall apart now.”

 


 

 

The weather took a surprising turn for the better overnight, and the next morning the sun shone brightly down on Geoff, Michael and Ray as they headed out a little way down the road. It was quiet, remote, but this was the route people were most likely to take if they were trying to sneak up on the house, so it was here that they needed to place the explosives.

“Ray knows what he's doing,” Michael said, waving his friend off. “We've done this before. Geoff, since you don't know how to set the charges I need you to dig some holes here for me.” He gestured at various places in the dirt and grass along the side of the road.

“I have become the manual labour,” Geoff murmured, but moved to comply.

It was hard work, but it was actually quite a relief to be doing something so menial and low-pressure after the stress of everything else. He dug for a little while and then looked over to see Michael and Ray working studiously away at setting the charges. They were sat on the ground, surrounded by mechanical parts, heads bent close together and murmuring quietly amongst themselves as they worked.

Geoff paused to get a drink of water, and when he looked back over at them, Michael had his head down, intently tinkering at the inner workings of a bomb with deft fingers. And Ray – Ray wasn't focused on his own work. He was staring at Michael as though seeing him for the first time, something like a small smile playing at the edges of his lips, obviously reconsidering their relationship in his mind and coming up with nothing but sunshine and roses.

It was so sickly sweet that Geoff actually thought he might throw up.

He got back to work, and a little while later Michael came to check on his progress.

“Oh, that's fine,” he said, “Actually we didn't need that many holes.”

“Wow, thanks for telling me before I fucking dug them all,” Geoff said. He threw down his shovel and arched his arms back behind his head, stretching – then winced as the motion pulled at the shrapnel wound he'd sustained two days previous.

Michael noticed, and frowned a little.

“I'm getting old,” Geoff joked. “But don't worry, there's no arthritis in the ol' trigger finger. Yet.”

“Actually...” Michael glanced at Ray, who was occupied elsewhere, before stepping closer to Geoff and lowering his voice. “I wanted to say thanks.”

“What for?”

“Ray told me what you did out there. That you saved his life.” Michael bit his lip, seeming somewhat embarrassed. “You... you didn't have to do that.”

Geoff couldn't help but smile. “Don't worry about it, man. I'm sure you'd do the same for my boyfriend.”

Michael started to nod, then did a double take. “Wait – what?”

Geoff snickered to himself. “Nothing,” he said, deliberately vague – except Michael was frowning now, seeming uncomfortable as he looked back over at Ray. He wandered off but Geoff now caught both of them sneaking thoughtful glances at each other whenever they thought the other wasn't looking.

It took a couple more hours until they were done, everything buried or set up along the road. The last thing Michael put up was a camera.

“Now Gav can keep an eye on this road too,” he said. “The charges around here aren't automatic; I can set them off from the house if we see something on the cams. The ones further down here though will be triggered by anyone driving along the road, so they're the ones we have to be careful to avoid ourselves.”

“Nice work,” Geoff said, folding his arms.

Michael shrugged. “It's a pretty basic setup but since we're not under siege or certain when he's coming it's probably better than putting up something elaborate that we might end up accidentally triggering ourselves.”

“Still clever as dicks,” Geoff said, then added, “You know Jack and I have talked before about hiring you two full-time.”

Michael and Ray glanced at each other.

“I mean it,” Geoff said, “We work well together and we need more frontmen in the crew. If there's anyone I trust after all this it's the two guys who were in it alongside me. If you're sick of my face by this point, though, that's understandable. Just think about it.”

“I... we will,” Ray said after a minute, looking honestly a bit stunned. Geoff couldn’t blame him; it was one thing to casually throw out the offer, but when it came down to it, Geoff's crew was one of the most powerful – and most feared – in the business. Getting in wasn't easy, and a genuine offer like this one was rare and only extended to those deemed most worthy.

Geoff smiled, and clapped his hands together. “Well then,” he said. “Let's take down Edgar first and then we'll talk.”

 


 

 

It took two days – two quiet days, with no Edgar in sight – for Geoff to come to the definite conclusion that something was up with Gavin.

Not just that he was upset – although even that, it seemed, he was making something of an effort to hide; whenever Geoff went down to the basement to check on him he was all smiles and quips and working diligently away.

That was what first raised Geoff's suspicions. He was behaving entirely too normally for someone who had been so mopey and pissed at them earlier.

And at first, Geoff was inclined to put that down to Michael.

Jack and Ryan had kept out of Gavin's way for the most part, but it seemed that their little ordeal back at the Corpirate's mansion had set Michael and Gavin on the track to something approaching friendship. Now that he wasn't trying his hardest to take offence at everything Gavin did or said, Geoff could practically see the moment Michael realised that when you stopped taking his – stupid and occasionally dickish – antics seriously, Gavin was actually pretty fun.

There was no room for bad humour in Geoff's team – it was one of the things that had drawn him to Ray and Michael before any of the other guns for hire he'd had at his disposal; they were easygoing and quick to laugh at themselves – if you were going to pick people to lay your life on the line with, they had to be ones you enjoyed spending time with. And Gavin was like that too – he didn't take himself too seriously and Geoff was growing fonder of him by the day.

And Ray and Michael, it seemed, were too – being of the closest age to each other in the house, an easy camaraderie had opened between them.

But something was still wrong.

Gavin hadn't brought up the idea of his leaving again since the first time, which Geoff had assumed meant he was buckling down and working as hard as possible to get Edgar's last two men so they could all be free to go their own ways. But whenever Geoff went to check on his progress – well, he seemed to have made none. And normally he would have just thought it was a hard job, that Edgar had covered his tracks well and it was taking a while to dig them out – but Gavin seemed just a little too desperate to prove to Geoff he'd been working on it, regaling him with strings of technobabble that sounded somewhat artificial and, occasionally, like he was just quoting Doctor Who.

He had no one to bring his suspicions to, though – Jack would jump at the chance to blame Gavin for slacking off, he knew – Ray would take offence at the perceived slight to his friend – Ryan was still avoiding them all – and Michael... Michael was a bit of a wild card; previously Geoff would have lumped him in with Jack in the anti-Gavin-Free squad, but now they were on the verge of getting along better, Michael was likely to side with Ray (probably more out of principle than anything else).

And what was Geoff even going to say? Oh, he hasn't found them yet, he must be deliberately not trying? Because why the actual fuck would Gavin even do that? Especially since he was the one who jumped whenever someone entered a room or slammed a door unexpectedly, who watched the security cameras night and day to make sure no one was sneaking up on the house – the one who was still barely sleeping, showing up at breakfast every morning looking ready to drop down dead and claiming he'd worked through the night -

Geoff just didn't know what to make of things.

It was on the afternoon of the third day that things came to a head; he walked into the kitchen to find Gavin standing there staring off into space. He had a mug of tea in one hand but was literally just standing there, gazing intently at the sink as though it held the secrets of the universe.

Geoff waved a hand in front of his eyes and Gavin flinched back, startled.

“Wha – oh. Hi Geoff.”

“You really had your head in the clouds there, buddy,” Geoff said, a little more worry leaking into his tone than he'd intended.

Gavin forced a smile. “Bit tired, I guess.”

“You look it,” Geoff replied. And maybe that was it – maybe he was just too exhausted to be any sort of productive. “You want to get some sleep before you get back to work? It doesn't seem like you've been making much progress lately.”

For a moment Gavin looked very, very alarmed, like Geoff had figured out some sort of secret – then a look of the utmost offence crossed his face.

“I have!” he squawked. “I'm on that duck's trail as we speak.”

“Really?” Geoff folded his arms. “What have you got?”

Again, that momentary flash of alarm.

“It's a woman,” Gavin said finally.

“The duck's a woman,” Geoff replied.

“Yeah,” Gavin said. “And the pig's a guy."

“I could have told you that,” Geoff replied.

“Well, you didn't, did you? If you want to go track them down yourself, be my guest-”

“Come on, man, that's not what I was saying.” Geoff reached out and took the mug from Gavin before he could spill its contents everywhere with his angry gesticulating. “I'm just worried about you.”

Gavin opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment the door leading from the yard to the kitchen opened and he squeaked in surprise, jumping visibly. It was Michael who entered, eyebrows rising as he took in what had just happened.

“Just me, Gavvers,” he said. “You alright?”

“Geoff's being a mingey little mingepot,” Gavin said, folding his arms.

Michael glanced at Geoff, who raised his hands defensively.

“Jesus, all I did was ask how he was coming along.”

“I'm coming along just fine,” Gavin said, and departed a little too hurriedly.

“Um,” Michael said.

Geoff ran a hand through his hair. “All I did,” he repeated, “Was ask how he was coming along. He talks a good deal lately but there's been no solid progress.”

“You think he's stuck?” Michael asked.

“I think something's up with him.”

Michael caught on quickly, and stared at him in horror. “Why the fuck would you think he's deliberately not working? You're not.... oh Jesus Christ you're not seriously suggesting he works for Edgar? That he's the one who ratted us out and that's why he knew we were coming?”

“Fuck no! That's not what I meant at all!” Geoff exclaimed. “I meant more like... like he's taking his time because he's scared that when we do find the duck he'll end up in the firing line again. Something like that.”

“Hmm.” Michael scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I see what you mean. I don't know. Maybe. I mean, it makes sense. He's freaked out and he doesn't trust us anymore but...” He shook his head. “Yeah, I don't know.”

“Ask Ray to go down and keep an eye on him, will you?” Geoff asked. “If he'll tell anyone what's up it's Ray.”

“Will do,” Michael replied – and Geoff couldn't quite help but smile at his heel-face change in attitude.

 


 

 

Having Gavin mad at you was somewhat like having a small, angry kitten mad at you; it wasn't threatening at all, but damn if it didn't make you feel guilty as hell.

Ryan had, for the most part, been avoiding confrontation with any of the others. This was very easy when most of them were avoiding him in turn.

And for the first two days after the Corpirate incident, he was wrapped in his own thoughts anyway.

Edgar . He'd been right there in Ryan's grasp – and he'd fucked it up. Just the thought of how close he'd been made him shake with anger, trepidation – guilt.

He hadn't thought twice about leaving Gavin in that cloakroom; if he had the chance he'd do it again – he had to – there was no way he could just stand by with Edgar in reach and not do something about it. And things had been going reasonably well; he'd managed to climb out the window and scale the building to the top storey where Edgar had gone to inspect the Corpirate's dead body. He'd taken out two of the guards before the others – including the pig – had overpowered him.

And sure, maybe he hadn't been faring superbly in the fight that followed, but he would have done it. He would have risen back up and killed the guards and killed the pig and killed Edgar ; squeezed the life out of him with his bare hands, ripped that fucking mask off his face to see the scars he'd put there at their last encounter.

Just the thought of it made rage rise burning hot in his stomach.

He'd had to do it. He'd do it again given the chance. He would.

But Gavin – Gavin was mad at him, because Gavin didn't understand just why this was so important to him. Didn't understand the all-consuming anger that had taken Ryan over – didn't understand the urgency the sight of the cow aroused in him.

Ryan had been angry, too, afterwards, at Gavin and Michael alike for starting that fire, for ruining his plans. But Jack's simple words had struck something in him.

They were young. They didn't know. They didn't understand. Ryan couldn't blame them for it.

And Gavin thought he'd abandoned him.

That more than anything was playing at Ryan's nerves, because the one thing that sat uncomfortably on his shoulders was the thought that things could have gone awry, that Gavin could have died back in that house and it would have been on Ryan as much as Edgar – and he was nothing, collateral damage, but for some reason the thought of it made a sick guilt rise up in Ryan.

It was playing with his head, a confused tangle of feelings that he didn't want , didn't know what to do with. Gavin – the kiss – the scars – the sudden urge Ryan had to protect him, the anger at the thought that anyone had hurt him in the past – things he didn't want to feel because emotions compromised him, emotions were dangerous – anything that would make him hesitate before going after Edgar was a liability he didn't need.

So he'd closed himself off from the others, but that didn't make things any better – just made it harder for him to sleep, plagued by a feeling of something left undone.

 


 

 

“Haven't seen you in a while,” Ray said.

Ryan looked up from where he was standing at the table, looking over a map of the surrounding area.

“Haven't had reason to come out and speak to you guys,” Ryan replied, in an even tone.

Ray shrugged, pulling out a chair and sitting at the table. Ryan watched him speculatively. He'd gauged the others' reactions pretty well – Michael was angry with him, Geoff was wary, and Jack was unexpectedly understanding – but he had no idea where he stood with Ray.

“You put your mask back on.”'

It wasn't what he'd expected to come out of the other's mouth, and Ryan felt himself reaching up and touching his mask before he could think about it.

“Well, yes,” he replied. “The job's over. Edgar didn't see my face – I covered it while I was around him, and Gavin deleted all the footage from the security cameras. Most of them were destroyed in the fire anyway. I don't believe anyone took a photo of me while we were there, so I'm going to operate under the assumption that my anonymity is still intact.”

“Except for Michael and Gavin,” Ray replied. “You're not gonna kill them, are you? To keep your secret?”

His tone was teasing rather than anything else, and Ryan felt confused for a moment, then unexpectedly grateful to have at least one person not treating him like he was either the scum of the earth or a ticking time bomb.

“No, I shan't kill them,” he said with a scoff.

“I'm kinda annoyed to be honest,” Ray said. “I wanted to see what you look like but Michael didn't even take a sneaky snapshot.”

Then I would have to kill him,” Ryan muttered, and Ray laughed.

“If we survive all this,” he said, “You have to show me. Come on. It's not fair that Gavin got to see and I didn't.”

“If we survive all this,” Ryan replied, “I'll think about it.”

Ray grinned at him, and before he could stop himself, Ryan felt a small smile tugging at his lips for the first time in the last few days.

At that moment, Michael entered the room from the kitchen. He stopped and did a double take when he saw Ryan, then glared. Still pissed at him then.

“Ray,” he said, crossing over to him. “Can we talk?”

“Sure,” Ray said, but didn't move, and after a moment Michael glanced pointedly at Ryan. But whatever he had to say, he seemed to decide it wasn't super confidential, though he still turned his back on Ryan, hoisting himself up to sit on the edge of the table in front of Ray.

“Geoff's worried about Gav,” he said. “He hasn't made much progress and he thinks he might be deliberately working slowly because he's scared of what might happen when we do find 'em.”

Ryan stiffened at this. Son of a bitch. The last thing they needed were people dragging their feet on this.

Ray was frowning now as well. “I don't think Gavin would do that.”

“I dunno, that's what Geoff told me,” Michael said. “Anyway, he wants you to go down and talk to him, keep an eye on him, that sorta thing.”

“I can do that,” Ray replied. “You know, he's been getting on better with you lately as well – if I can't figure out what's wrong with him, he might actually talk to you about it.”

Michael snorted. “He likes me 'cause I took care of him when a certain someone left him in the fucking lurch.” He scowled over his shoulder at Ryan, who ignored him. “Anyway, just see what you can do about it.”

Ray nodded, and Michael strode off. Ray glanced after him, then turned to Ryan.

“You gonna fix things with him?” he asked.

Ryan frowned. It wasn't exactly pleasant being at odds with the others in the house, but at the same time he felt offering Michael any sort of apology now would come across as insipid and insincere.

“I'll see how things play out,” he replied, and Ray nodded, though Ryan thought he looked almost disappointed with him. For some reason that made him feel even worse, but he shook it off.

“Welp,” Ray said, and got up. “Better go talk to Vav then.”

“I'll come with you,” Ryan said, and Ray raised his eyebrows.

“No offence, man, but he won't say shit if you're there.”

“I won't hang around. I just want to check on him. See if he really isn't doing his work.”

Ray shrugged, and the two of them headed down to the basement. Ray was unexpectedly noisy for someone that Ryan knew could move as quietly as a mouse; he seemed to be taking deliberate, heavy footsteps on the stairs – but Ryan quickly realised it was so that Gavin would hear them coming and not be startled.

Considerate, he thought, and then felt unexpectedly bad for not having come up with it himself.

“Hey X-Ray,” Gavin began, turning around – but froze as he saw Ryan.

Being genuinely angry with someone was so obviously foreign to him that Ryan wasn't sure if he should feel accomplished or terrible for managing to make him feel like that. He could practically see the cogs turning in Gavin's head as he realised that yes, Ryan had come to visit him, and yes, he was still mad as fuck with him.

Then he glared.

“What do you want?” he asked, in a much more annoyed tone.

Ray glanced at Ryan before moving over to pull up a chair beside Gavin's. “Just came to hang out with you, see how you were going.”

Gavin rolled his eyes. “More like Geoff sent you to check on me because he thinks I'm being too slow.”

“Maybe,” Ray said, guiltily.

“Well it's not my bloody fault that I can't get a read on these guys. I'm trying my hardest but they're too good at covering their tracks.”

Ray nodded, but Ryan continued to stare at the screens in front of Gavin. He was no expert, but they didn't look much like the processes he'd followed when tracking down the previous four.

Gavin noticed his stare, and added, “And as I told Geoff already, if one of you thinks you can do a better job then you're bloody well welcome to try!”

Methinks the lady doth protest too much, Ryan thought with a small frown – but his presence was obviously off-putting, so he headed back upstairs.

 

 


 

 

Except, he realised, half an hour later, Geoff Ramsey was not a stupid man – you didn't get where he was without being observant as fuck.

So he waited, and when Ray eventually came back upstairs, he crept halfway down the basement stairs, pressed back into the shadows where he could watch Gavin unnoticed.

He wasn't working.

Now and then he'd tap at the keyboard, or click about on the screen in a facade of productivity. But otherwise he sat in his chair, swivelling idly, looking down at something on his phone or just staring off into space. He seemed plagued by something – kept shaking his head, or pressing a hand to his mouth as though he was struggling with some terrible problem.

Ryan's first reaction was anger – he is slacking off, what the fuck, doesn't he realise how important this is?! But it was quickly overtaken with what he rather miserably realised was concern.

He headed back upstairs only to bump straight into Jack, who, it seemed, had been about to go down.

“Hey!” Jack said – and quickly seemed to notice Ryan was preoccupied. “What's up? You just check on Gavin?”

“I just spied on Gavin,” Ryan replied. “He's just sitting there doing nothing.”

“What?!”

“Hasn't Geoff told you yet?” Ryan asked – and saw Jack frown, mightily. Obviously not then. “Geoff thinks he's deliberately slacking off and from what I can tell, he's right.”

“Son of a bitch,” Jack said, angrily, and began to march down, but Ryan grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back.

“Don't go down there and have a go at him,” he said, sternly. “That won't help. I'm going to try and talk to him later.”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “You seriously think he'll listen to you?”

“I know,” Ryan said patiently. “He's angry with me. So it falls on me to fix this.”

Jack still looked skeptical, but he nodded. “I trust you to deal with it,” he said.

“Well that makes you the only damn person in this house to trust me about anything,” Ryan replied, and it came out a little more gruffly than he'd intended, because Jack frowned.

“You fucked up, you had your reasons, we all do it sometimes,” he said. “Well, let me know how it goes. I suppose I'll get my updates from you since apparently Geoff doesn't want to tell me anything anymore.”

Thankfully his tone was mostly joking, or Ryan would have been seriously worried they were about to have another domestic spat on their hands. It was already annoying that they were now split into a bunch of different groups with varying levels of information and ideas about Gavin.

“Will do,” he said.

 


 

 

A few weeks ago, Ryan's plan of attack would have been to corner Gavin. To drop into that low, dangerous voice of his, use his height and weight advantage and reputation to intimidate the younger man into working. To threaten some sense into him and make it perfectly clear that either he would do his job like he was meant to or Ryan would find someone else to do it for him. Permanently.

But now – now he found himself trying to work out if there was a better way.

If Geoff was right and his procrastination was bred from fear, then Ryan would have to show that he wasn't in any danger. And since Ryan was the one who'd broken his trust by abandoning him, the only way he could possibly reassure Gavin now was to make him understand why he'd done it.

Fuck. He was going soft. He was going fucking soft over some stupid, scarred-up hacker kid.

This is all just to get Edgar , he reassured himself. And much as they call you mad and bloodthirsty... you've always favoured being smart over being brutal.

He chose his time wisely.

Geoff and Jack were off discussing some Achievement City business, and Michael and Ray were taking a turn watching the cams while Gavin went to get food. Ryan waited in the living room, watching as he moved about the kitchen – but he only made a cup of tea, and then drank half before pouring the rest of it down the sink and walking out onto the back deck.

Ryan waited a few moments and then followed him, pausing in the doorway. It was cold outside; dusk had fallen and out here in the country the temperature tended to drop with the sun. Gavin stood by the porch rail, turning his phone over and over in his hands.

“Bloody hell,” Ryan heard him whisper, before he shoved his phone in his pocket and ran his hands through his hair. Still troubled by whatever he'd been mulling over earlier then. “Bloody hell, bloody hell-”

“Gavin,” Ryan said, stepping forward – and Gavin jumped a mile, whirling around.

“Ry- Ryan,” he croaked, sounding very alarmed. “Christ, don't sneak up on me.”

“I'm sorry,” Ryan said – and was surprised by how genuinely it came out. “We need to talk.”

He stepped forward again and Gavin pressed as far back into the rail as possible.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Gavin snapped.

“Well, I have some things to say to you.”

“I don't bloody care what you want to talk about.” And Gavin straightened up, eyes flashing – getting properly angry now. “So you can locate the direction off and fuck quickly towards it, thanks.”

He moved towards Ryan, trying to get back inside – making a passing attempt to shove him out of the way.

For a moment Ryan was tempted to let him go, to try another time – but he quickly realised that if he didn't say what he was going to say now, he never would, and grabbed Gavin's arms, pushing him back and stepping between him and the door.

“We're talking,” Ryan said firmly. “Now.”

He didn't miss the momentary flash of fear that crossed Gavin's face before he lifted his chin.

“Let go of me,” he said.

Ryan shook his head. “Let me explain-”

I don't want your bloody explanations!” Gavin tried to shove him off again and Ryan adjusted his grip, grabbing his shoulders and pushing him back against the veranda rail. He tried to be gentle, not wanting to hurt him, but it was hard when he kept thrashing about, fighting as hard as possible to get free.

“Get off, get off!” Gavin cried. He was being noisy enough that Ryan feared Ray and Michael would hear, and come to investigate – so he clapped a hand over Gavin's mouth.

“Shut the fuck up, I'm trying to apologise here- fuck!”

He jerked back as Gavin bit at the palm of his hand.

If he'd thought Gavin a kitten before, now he looked like a feral cat; bristling and tense, hissing and seething – and staring up at Ryan with pure loathing in his eyes.

“I don't,” he spat, “fucking. Care. Nothing you possibly say can make up for it. Jesus Christ, Ryan, I trusted you because you reminded me of the one person in the world who never abandoned me, but it looks like I was a right fool. Haha, stupid little Gavin thought he actually meant something to the mad mercenary. Well, the joke's on me. You can save your damn apologies, I don't want them.”

“Gavin,” Ryan said – and it came perilously close to pleading. He felt like shit, like the worst person in the world, and his moniker had never made him flinch before so he wasn't sure why it did now. “I'm... I'm trying to explain to you why, I – this is shit I've never told anyone before so if you'll just listen-”

He felt nervous. Nervous and sick just like he had when he took off his mask – vulnerable was not something Ryan Haywood did – ever – and when he started to speak the words came spilling out of him, trying and trying to get across even though he knew Gavin wasn't listening. The other man had begun struggling again and Ryan caught his wrists, pinning him back against the rail as he frantically spoke.

“Edgar is... I have to kill him, okay, I have to get my revenge on him. We met once before, and he... he wronged me terribly, he took everything I care about – listen, Gavin – I need to destroy him, when I saw him back there I had to take my chance. I could never forgive myself if – stop moving, I don't want to hurt you – if he was within reach and I did nothing about it. I've spent the last few years wanting nothing more than to slit that fucker's throat and when I saw him I just – I had to do it, I had to at least try to go after him. My intention was never to abandon you-”

I don't care,” Gavin cut in. He stopped struggling, staring up at Ryan with burning eyes, “You can save your excuses and your bloody tragic backstory or whatever, it doesn't change what you did. Shitty things happened to you, well they happened to me too.” With a sudden yank he jerked his wrists out of Ryan's grasp, but he made no move to escape. Instead he grabbed the hem of his shirt and half-lifted it, just enough to reveal the ends of the scars.

“Take a good damn look at what happened the last time I thought I could trust someone,” Gavin said – his breath hitching now, so angry he was shaking. “And I – I thought you would be different. But I guess I should have known, right? After all you've made it perfectly bloody clear what you think of us. We're just a means to an end for you, right?”

Ryan stared at him for a moment. He felt hurt, for the first time in a long time, by the other's dismissive rejection of his attempt at sharing-and-caring. It was not pleasant – made him feel weak, shaky and embarrassed – and, defensively, he let a coldness descend over his features and into his voice.

“That's exactly what I was trying to explain to you,” he said. “You're not my friends. You can't have friends in this business because it only ends in pain. They betray you or they get killed or people use them against you, and that cynicism? It's born from experience, experience that Edgar gave me, so – don't you get it, don't you see why...”

He trailed off, hoping Gavin would understand what he was trying to say – what he couldn't quite bring himself to say out loud – what had happened last time, what Edgar had done – but Gavin just stared up at him, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Then maybe,” he said quietly, “You should have just been this cold from the start instead of... instead of pretending to be friendly and kind. You can't... Ryan, you can't just tell people you'll protect them, you can't just – you can't just kiss people and act like... and then... then turn around and leave them in the dust. So if you think I'm going to trust you again, you're mistaken. And if you think I'm going to forgive you, you're damn wrong.”

There was a moment of tense silence. Then Gavin stepped forward, shouldering past Ryan, and Ryan let him go – too drained to try and stop him.

He heard the door shut behind him and turned, slamming his fists against the railing.

“Damn it,” he hissed, “Damn it – damn it-!”

And it wouldn't even be so bad if he felt angry, if he could bring himself to be mad at Gavin for making no effort to listen, to understand – but he couldn't, all he felt was disappointed and sort of hollow. It was hard to be pissed at someone who'd obviously had something so horrible happen to them that they now had trust issues the size of Mount Everest, which Ryan had gone and royally triggered.

If he was angry with anyone it was himself – for thinking it would be a good idea to try and explain, to say things he'd never said to anyone – for allowing himself to somehow get invested enough that it hurt for Gavin to push him away. Somewhere along the line he'd started – oh good lord why – caring.

He clenched his fists hard enough that his fingers ached. And then, not at all inclined to go back inside, he abruptly decided it would be a tremendously good idea to sit on the roof, and climbed up the porch. There was a small overhang where the first storey jutted out beyond the second, and it was here that he perched, breathing heavily the cool, crisp night air as he tried to calm himself down.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed as he sat, wrapped in his own thoughts, when the door opened on the veranda down below and he saw Michael and Ray emerge. They stood by the rail, staring out at the grounds for a few moments.

“You give it any thought yet?” Ray asked finally.

“What, Geoff's offer? Yeah, but... I don't know.” Michael scuffed his foot along the wood of the deck. “I mean, I wouldn't mind working with him, but it's a pretty big change, y'know? Joining a crew full time when we're used to it being just the two of us. Wouldn't be able to fucking pick jobs as we please, right?”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. “But I was thinking. Maybe it's time for a change.”

A pause.

“You weren't happy before?” Michael asked.

Ray shook his head. “It's not that. Being here, doing this – I mean, the whole Edgar situation sucks, but it's been kind of... nice? Having Gavin here doing his thing, which takes a bunch of research work off our hands. And it's not just Geoff's reputation that makes it a good offer. He's a good guy – he saved my life – and having someone else in charge might be nice. And we'd be working with Jack too – I like him.” He paused, hesitant, then added, “While we were out there he... he kinda helped me work through some stuff. I wouldn't mind having him around.”

“I get what you mean,” Michael said. “Thing is, if he'd offered it to just me or just you I'd be like fuck no. But I don't really care where we end up working as long as you and I are still together-”

He broke off, seeming to realise exactly how that sounded. There was a slightly strained silence – like this was the sort of statement that a few months ago, a few weeks ago, would have been followed by the ever-saving “no homo”.

Ray was looking at him carefully, and Michael turned his head away, something like a blush rising on his cheeks. His shoulders were tense, almost hunched over as though fearing Ray's response.

“Yeah,” Ray said then, quietly. “I get you. Same here.”

He reached out and touched Michael's shoulder, and for a moment they stood, smiling at each other.

Ray looked about to say something else, but Michael turned away abruptly, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck.

“I – uh, it's getting cold, we should go back in.”

“Okay,” Ray said, and looked very thoughtful as he followed his friend back inside.

Ryan let out a huff of breath. Well isn't that fucking sweet. It'll all end in fucking tears eventually-

He realised he was being bitter – mean – and forced himself to calm down.

He was just climbing down onto the porch when the door opened again and Jack emerged.

“Jesus!” he said, as Ryan dropped down in front of him. “Um, what the fuck were you doing up there?”

“...observing the perimeter,” Ryan replied, drily.

Jack stepped forward, expression softening. “Are you okay?”

Ryan scowled at him, shoulders tensing – what did Jack mean? How could he even tell if Ryan was upset, he had his mask on – “'course I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be?”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “You seem out of sorts, is all.”

Maybe it was the tension of the long day, or seeing Michael and Ray so close just a few minutes ago, or the fact that Jack helping him with his arm the other day had been the first gentle touch he'd felt in a long time – for some reason Ryan found himself saying, “I fucked it up talking to Gavin.”

“What do you mean?”

“I tried...” he paused, swallowing – but he didn't need to tell Jack the whole story, just the gist of it. “I tried to tell him what happened. Why I hate Edgar so much. To explain why I left him back there. But I couldn't make him listen.”

Jack opened his mouth, then paused. “What do you mean you couldn't make him listen?”

“He just wouldn't listen to a word I said. He wanted to go back inside.”

“You dysfunctional bastard,” Jack said, with somethin almost like fondness. Ryan scowled at him, offended, but Jack continued, “I'm no fan of Gavin but even I can tell you that cornering him out here, holding him down and trying to force your explanation into his head when he's already so skittish was never going to work.”

“I just wanted him to get it,” Ryan said through gritted teeth.

Jack rolled his eyes. “He's angry. Give him more time. I'll get Geoff to talk to him if you're still worried he's not working. Now come inside before you freeze to death,” he added, reaching out to grab Ryan's arm. Ryan hesitated, but let himself be tugged back into the house.

 


 

 

He slept uneasily that night. It had been a long time since he dreamed of Edgar, of his old team and everything that had happened – those thoughts tended to haunt him during the day rather than at night – but it seemed talking to Gavin had dredged it all back up.

He was woken by a sharp rapping on his door, lurching awake with a sick sort of disorientation. He didn't often sleep later than he intended, and hadn't realised he was that exhausted after two days of stress.

“Hey, you awake in there?” Michael's voice called out, along with more furious knocking. “Fucking team meeting in ten.”

“I hear you,” Ryan called out, voice slightly hoarse with sleep. He scrubbed his hands over his face with a sigh, reaching out to grab his mask from the bedside table.

Everyone was already waiting around the dining room table when he walked in. Gavin glanced up at him, a strange expression flashing over his face too quickly for Ryan to work out what it meant, before he looked down at his phone again.

“Hey doofus, concentrate now we're all here,” Geoff said, reaching out and plucking the phone from Gavin's hands before tossing it onto the table. Gavin yelped.

Ryan moved up to the table, putting his own stuff down before leaning across to look at the map. “What's going on? I ordered in those weapons I mentioned before, we could pick them up today unless you were wanting to do something else.”

“That's literally what we were planning on doing,” Jack said. “Mine have come in too so we were thinking of going into the city to get them. The only problem is, we're pretty sure Edgar doesn't have eyes on this house, but he'll definitely be watching us if we go into Achievement City.”

“He's known too much about our movements for my comfort,” Geoff added. “So I don't want to send Jack in there alone. Where you picking yours up from, Ryan?”

“Meeting a contact down by the wharf. I'm a regular of his, but if Edgar has been tracking us I can call him and tell him to meet me in a different spot.”

“I'll go with you,” Geoff decided. “Michael and Ray can go with Jack. That way we all have backup.”

“What about Gavin?” Ray asked, glancing across at him. “We're gonna leave him in the house by himself?”

“I'll be fine,” Gavin said quietly. “Edgar doesn't know about the house, so. Nothing should happen.”

Ryan frowned. That was a bit of a face-heel-turn considering Gavin had just, you know, thrown a massive fit about Ryan leaving him alone earlier. Sure, they thought Edgar didn't know about the house, but he'd thought Gavin would err on the side of paranoia after everything that had happened.

“You sure?” Geoff asked.

Gavin nodded. “Yeah. I'm good. It's better if you all stick together.”

“If you say so,” Geoff said, a touch dubiously. He turned to Jack and the others. “You guys fine with this plan?”

Jack glanced between Geoff and Ryan, then nodded. “Sure. We'll stay in touch the whole way. Hopefully we'll get in and out before Edgar can cause any trouble.”

“He wouldn't attack you right in your own territory, surely,” Ray said.

“That monster would do anything,” Ryan said darkly, and they all turned to look at him. He stared stonily back.

Jack clapped his hands together. “Let's get going then,” he said, and moved to usher Ray and Michael out.

Ryan turned to gather his belongings. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Geoff move over to Gavin, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder.

“You sure you'll be okay on your own here? I don't mind taking you with me, or asking Ray to hang back and stay with you.”

“I'm sure,” Gavin replied, with a small smile.

Geoff started to turn away, when Gavin reached out and grabbed his arm – a sudden, almost frantic movement that tugged him back around.

“Geoff!”

“What?” Geoff asked, brows furrowing.

Gavin looked sheepish suddenly – and, Ryan realised with a frown, almost worried or nervous.

“I just... I want to say thanks,” he said, quietly. “You've been... kind to me.”

“Don't need to thank me, buddy,” Geoff replied, though he was starting to look concerned too. “God knows I've dragged you into a lot of crap you didn't ask for. Hey, you sure you're okay, kid? You're acting weird as dicks.”

“Nah, I'm fine, I just. Wanted to tell you that.” Gavin turned away with another slightly forced smile, and Geoff stared at him intently before nodding. He exchanged a glance with Ryan as they left the house.

 


 

 

“You don't need to keep looking at me like I'm going to explode any second,” Ryan said.

They were about halfway to Achievement City. Ryan had taken a motorbike and Geoff a car, deciding to go for both manoeuvrability and cover so they had both options in case something happened. They had driven alongside the others for a time, but had eventually split off in order to take different entrances into AC.

Now they had paused by the side of the road for Ryan to work out a different spot to ask his weapons dealer to meet him, and Geoff kept giving him looks – shifty, suspicious looks like he thought Ryan was going to turn on him any second. It was getting real fucking annoying, real fucking fast.

“Really,” Ryan said, “You're the one who first agreed to work with me.”

“So I did,” Geoff said. And then added, very informatively, “Hmmmm.”

“What the fuck is 'hmmm' supposed to mean?” Ryan snapped. “I get it, I fucked up, okay? I took a chance on killing Edgar and it didn't work out. Shit happened and Gav got caught in the middle. There was nothing sinister about it.”

“That coming from the most sinister man in the country,” Geoff replied. “But in all honesty I'm a lot more worried about Gavin than I am you at the moment.”

“He is acting decidedly strangely,” Ryan agreed. He smoothed the map out over the roof of the car. “Where are you thinking?”

“That bridge?” Geoff suggested, pointing. “Not too crowded but not too open either, and I can ask a couple of my guys to hang out in these buildings and cover us if need be.”

“Sounds good,” Ryan said. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, turned it on, and then did a double take. “Oh – crap.”

“What?” Geoff asked.

“Looks like I took Gavin's phone from the table by mistake,” he said. “Doesn't matter, I can still make the call.” He flicked to the phonebook and frowned.

“What?” Geoff asked, noticing him pause.

Ryan turned the screen to show him. “That's not any of our numbers, is it?”

Geoff squinted. “No...?”

“Who the fuck has he been texting and calling the last few days?” A feeling of unease was building in the pit of his stomach. “Look at this! They've been messaging on and off since the day after we got back from the Corpirate's place. I didn't even know he was in contact with anyone outside the house.”

“What the fuck have they been talking about? Who is it?” Geoff demanded, leaning in over Ryan's shoulder.

Ryan quickly flicked to the text messages. They were somewhat disjointed – the conversation occasionally breaking away into phone calls, it seemed – but he got the gist of it.

'You and I both know this is bigger than us,' the mysterious messenger had sent at one point – whoever they were, it seemed it was someone Gavin already knew, or so Ryan supposed from the familiarity of his address – ' We work for these guys but they don't give a fuck about us. Don't let Ramsey drag you into his mess. Edgar has no interest in you, it's Geoff he wants.'

'Piss off Shadles, I'm not interested in what Edgar has to offer,' Gavin had replied.

'Maybe you should be b/c Ramsey and the others will kick you to the curb as soon as they're done with you. It's happened before, Free – I heard about what happened with Barry. If you think that was bad, Edgar catching you after he's done with the others will be a hundred times worse. But if you help him now no one needs to get hurt.'

'Except Geoff and Jack and my other friends.'

'They aren't your friends, Free, they're using you for a job. Are you forgetting what happened back at the Corp's mansion? I was watching that night, I saw it all, Haywood dropped you like a pile of bricks as soon as he had the chance. Get out while you can because this is all gonna go to shit and you're gonna end up as the collateral damage. Again.'

A few more phone calls.

'Edgar says you don't need to help him,' the mysterious 'Shadles' had sent then, some time later, 'you don't need to actively work against your friends. Just meet up with him and give him everything you've got so far. All the info you've gathered on his men, his hideouts. Leave he and Ramsey on equal ground to sort out their own problems and Edgar will let you go right away'

'Like I'm meant to bloody trust that'

'I've been working for him a while, Free, he's a man of his word'

'I'm not bloody stupid'

'You are 'bloody stupid' if you think you're getting out of this alright. Edgar is going to win eventually and you don't want to be on the wrong side if that happens. Ramsey can't protect you.'

The texts ended there for another day, but there were a bunch of phone calls in the interim, and Ryan frowned, wondering just what had developed in these off-spaces.

Especially since, to his great alarm, the most recent message was from just four or five hours ago – early that morning.

'Trust me Free, you're making the right call. If you don't save your own skin no one else will. This is the only way you can get out of this before things get even more complicated. I'll see you soon'

“What the fuck does all that mean?” Geoff asked, slowly.

Ryan glanced at him. It was perfectly clear what it all meant, but he could see the denial in Geoff's eyes – the unwillingness to believe what was right in front of him.

“Whoever this guy is,” Ryan said, “He was watching us back at the mansion. And it looks like he's contacted Gavin trying to convince him to pull out of this and give everything he has so far to Edgar.” He paused, clenching his fists. “It's a trap. There's no way Edgar will be content with taking what he has and letting him go.”

“Gavin would never agree to that,” Geoff said.

“Take a good fucking look, Geoff,” Ryan said, pointing to the last message. “He already has. This guy knew exactly which buttons to press.”

“What do you mean, buttons, what buttons?”

Ryan recalled abruptly that Geoff didn't know about Gavin's scars, didn't know that whatever had gone wrong on his last mission, it had been bad. Bad enough to spook him into running now.

“Fuck,” he said then, a thought striking him. “Gavin was pretty fucking insistent on being left alone in the house today.”

“What are you implying?”

“I'm – fuck, I'm not implying, I'm telling you that he's going to turn tail and run, he's probably doing so right now. Damn it!” He glanced at his watch. Gavin wouldn't leave right away, would probably wait until he knew they had all travelled a safe distance from the house – would have to pack all his shit up as well. He could still make it in time.

Turning, he jumped on the motorbike.

“Ryan,” he heard Geoff start.

“I'm heading back to check on him, call the others,” Ryan ordered – and sped off without waiting for a reply.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, was all he could think, his heart pounding a rapid staccato as he raced down the road, as fast as he could – of course this would be Edgar's next ploy, of course he'd find their weakest link and exploit it. Ryan should have fucking expected this.

It seemed to take him hours to get back to the house. To his relief he found the two other cars still out the front – Gavin was still there, then, though how he was planning to leave when he couldn't drive was beyond Ryan. He leaped off the bike and fumbled with his key, crashing through the front door and pelting down the stairs.

But barely had he rushed into the basement than out of nowhere something heavy and solid slammed into the side of his head. Suddenly he was on the floor, the ceiling whirling above him, disoriented and confused.

Gavin's face swam into his blurred vision, crouching over him – he reached up, grasping weakly for the other man, but Gavin grabbed his hands and forced them back down.

“I'm sorry,” he said – or something to that effect, Ryan could hear about as well as he could see right now; everything was undercut by a faint roaring noise, like the ocean was trapped inside his head – then Gavin disappeared from sight and a moment later another blow struck the back of his head.

This time, everything went black.

 


 

 

Gavin was gone.

Geoff's heart dropped when he arrived back at the house with a screech of brakes to find one of the cars that had been out front had disappeared. Ryan's motorbike was pulled up, not even braked – the front door swinging open on its hinges.

What the fuck happened?

Determined not to think the worst until he'd actually seen it, he entered the house cautiously, glancing at his phone – Jack had just texted him; after Geoff sent him a somewhat panicked message he'd turned back towards the house with Michael and Ray and they were on their way back now.

“Ryan?” he called out, cautiously moving down towards the basement.

There was no response. He reached for his gun, an uneasy feeling starting in his stomach – and as he rounded the basement stairs, he gasped as he caught sight of Ryan sprawled on the floor, seemingly unconscious.

A sudden bolt of panic ripped through him at the sight of the other man lying so still and lifeless.

“Fuck – Ryan, what happened?” Crouching next to him, he reached out and rolled him over – he was breathing fine, and at Geoff's touch he stirred, wincing as he reached out to touch the back of his head.

“What the fuck happened? You alright?” Geoff demanded.

“Fucking Gavin happened,” Ryan spat. He rubbed the back of his head and Geoff could see him blinking heavily behind the mask. “Fuck that hurts.”

“Are you concussed?”

“Probably.” Ryan stood up and wobbled mightily, Geoff reaching out to steady him. “Where is he?”

“He's gone, dude, took a car too. Jack and the others are on the way back.” Geoff frowned. “How long were you out?”

Ryan glanced at his phone and swore. “Longer than I'd like. He could be anywhere by now. Damn it!” He turned and kicked the wall, hard. “Damn it!”

“Calm the fuck down, dude, we'll find him,” Geoff said – but the calm in his tone was forced because Jesus Christ Gavin betrayed them – but no, that wasn't right, the thought of him turning tail didn't sit comfortably in Gavin's mind.

Ryan seemed to realise what he was thinking.

“I'm not angry with him,” he said. “Well, I am, but not... I'm more mad at Edgar. That motherfucker knew exactly which cards to play and I don't doubt his intentions are bad. I think Gavin genuinely believes he can just hand over what data he's gathered so far and get out, naïve little fucker he is. He's not trying to turn on us, he's trying to get out because he's scared.”

“But if Edgar gets his hands on him...”

“He'll wring him for all he's got on us,” Ryan said grimly.

The level of fear that shocked through Geoff at the thought of Gavin in Edgar's hands was honestly astounding; he hadn't felt that panicked for anyone other than Jack in a long, long time.

Voices and footsteps up above had them turning, wary – but it was just Jack and the others. They burst into the room, glancing about.

“Where the fuck is he?” Jack demanded.

“He's gone,” Geoff said. “Knocked out Ryan and ran.”

Jack stared at Ryan. “How the fuck did he get the jump on you? Kid weighs like eight pounds wringing wet.”

“I forgot he had cameras watching the house. He'd have seen me coming up,” Ryan admitted, grudgingly. “I underestimated him. He hid by the door and hit me as soon as I came in.”

“What'd he hit you with?” Michael asked – then looked over and saw the fire extinguisher rolling on the floor a little way away. A slightly bitter smile tugged at his lips. “Son of a bitch.”

It took a little time to explain to the others exactly what was going on, and to show them the messages on the phone.

“So this Shadles is someone he knows from before,” Ray mused. “But now he's working for Edgar and he's been watching us the same way Gav's been watching Edgar's people. He must have been cut into the camera feed at the Corpirate's place too.”

Ryan nodded.

“What's this mean?” Geoff asked, squinting in confusion at one of the text messages. “I heard about what happened with Barry?”

He saw Ryan hesitate, and turned to him expectantly. “What? You know something you're not sharing?”

Ryan paused. “Remember how I was asking you about the last job Gavin went on? The one that went sour?”

Geoff nodded. “Yeah – what's what got to do with things?”

Michael had caught on too, it seemed. “Gavin's terrified of us abandoning him. That's why he freaked out when Ryan left him in the house. I think it's to do with the last bunch of guys he was working with; something must have happened there. But it sounds like this fucker Shadles has played on that to scare him into trying to cop out with Edgar.”

“He wanted to leave before,” Geoff realised. “But he couldn't because Edgar knows about him. Sounds like Shadles has mediated a deal where Edgar leaves Gavin alone in exchange for him giving him all his data so that we can't use it.”

“But like I've been saying,” Ryan added grimly, “Edgar's a fucking liar. If he gets his hands on Gavin... well, it won't be pretty for him.”

Ray looked horror-struck by this, Michael too – Geoff was pretty sure alarm was showing on his own face.

“He might spill where the house is – he knows a bunch of our plans,” Jack began.

Ray rounded on him. “I'm more worried about him being, y'know, fucking tortured and murdered!”

“Don't start a fight,” Geoff cut in quickly. “What we need to do is find him before Edgar does. Ryan, is there anything on that phone saying where he might be planning to meet Shadles?”

Ryan shook his head. “Not in the texts. I don't think there's any way to get back whatever they said in the calls.”

“Damn it,” Geoff muttered. “Well, there's only so many places around here he can go.”

“Gavin's not stupid,” Ray spoke up. “He won't meet them just anywhere. It'll be somewhere he knows – somewhere on his own terms.”

Ryan nodded. “If he knows anything about negotiations he'll have picked somewhere familiar to him.”

“Okay,” Geoff said. “Ryan, stay here and look back over the cam footage; we have eyes on some of the roads here so we might catch a glimpse of where he's going.”

“Oh my fucking God if he accidentally drives over those bombs we planted...” Michael trailed off as the possibility hit him.

The colour literally drained from Ray's face and Michael reached out to grab his arm.

“He won't,” Geoff said, but it felt like there was a great, cold stone sitting heavy in his stomach. “We warned everyone about those. He wouldn't be that stupid.”

“What do you need me to do?” Ray asked, voice hard and determined. Michael ran his hand up to his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly.

“You and Jack go scout around the area,” Geoff said. “He can't drive so he'll try get on public transport as soon as possible. See if we can catch him on the move. Maybe he hasn't gotten that far yet.”

“What about me?” Michael asked.

“You and I,” Geoff said, “are taking a little trip back to Achievement City. We don't know enough about Gavin to work out where he might be going, but I know someone who might.”

“Burnie,” Jack said, catching on.

Geoff nodded.

“Alright,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Let's move fast, we have no time to waste. We gotta get to Gavin before he gets to Edgar. Jesus Christ this is not what we need right now.”

They turned, splitting apart into their various groups. Geoff honestly had never felt this stressed over someone he barely knew – he wasn't sure why the thought of Gavin running into danger was making him so uncomfortable – but Geoff Ramsey protected his own, and somewhere along the line Gavin had become part of the fold. If anything happened to him Geoff suddenly realised he wouldn't just be able to brush it off.

You've been kind to me . The memory of Gavin's words from earlier that day suddenly seemed to him like a goodbye, and he bit his lip – that, if anything, only solidified his thoughts that Gavin wasn't doing this out of malice – or even out of cowardice; there was a difference between that and genuine, consuming fear.

Whatever had happened on that last job it had obviously messed him up something bad, and Geoff kicked himself for not noticing sooner – for taking him out into the field in the first place. All the promises he'd broken, the trust they'd all betrayed, had neatly and summarily led to Edgar being able to convince Gavin that this was a good idea. And now they were all in the lurch.

“Geoff,” Michael said – he was waiting by the door, and Geoff jerked out of his own thoughts.

Even Michael looked worried, and three days ago he'd've jumped at the chance to label Gavin a traitor or an idiot – but now he just looked determined to get him back. Geoff realised with a terrible sinking feeling that Michael had been the one to see Gavin break down over being abandoned – that it had probably shocked him into realising the severity of the others' issues.

“Come on,” Michael said, and Geoff nodded, lips pressed together grimly as they made for the car.

They would go to see Burnie. And then, however hard it was, however long it took – they would get Gavin back.

 

Chapter Text

Gavin seriously wished he had thought to eat something before leaving the house.

He drove for about twenty minutes before he suddenly felt so lightheaded that for a moment he was certain he was going to pass out, and was forced to pull over to the side of the road and put his head down until his vision stopped flashing and the odd tingling that had started in his hands and feet ceased.

Three days of running on nothing much more than tea and Red Bull – three days of little to no sleep, afraid of the nightmares he knew were coming – three days of wracking his nerves over whether or not to take Shadles up on his deal, of acting as though everything was normal and sneaking phone calls and texts between pretending to work.

All of it was catching up to him now, and it took a few moments of deep, steady breathing, head down between his knees, before his head finally cleared enough for him to sit up again.

Jesus bleedin' Christ. What am I doing .

For a moment he was struck with the urge to go back. He could just turn this car around and return to the house and apologise to the others.

But if they hadn't hated him before, they certainly would after this – and he just felt so stuck.

Should never have taken this damn job in the first place .

Because the problem was – the problem was, he'd never backed out of something in his life, but Barry had changed him. And maybe he'd thought he'd be alright with Ramsey, but the moment Ryan turned his back and left him everything had come crashing back down on him and he knew , then, that he wasn't alright – might never be alright – and if Ryan had abandoned him that easily then maybe the rest of them would all follow. And Geoff had been kind, Ray too, but Gavin just. Couldn't make himself trust them, and the more he thought about the possibility of things going wrong the more scared he got, and having that constant anxiety was exhausting , and he just – wanted it to stop .

And then Shadles had called.

Shadles who he hadn't heard from in years – he worked in a similar area to Gavin, though somewhat more focused on the hacking side of things. They weren't friends , but he'd been one of Burnie's contacts at one point as well and they'd both heard of each other in the way any two experts in a field have heard of each other. They'd worked together once as well, though they didn't make much face contact.

It seemed he'd fallen in with Edgar, and when he'd offered him the chance to get out – Gavin hadn't known what to do. The last thing he wanted was to betray Geoff, but when Shadles had said he wouldn't have to actively work against the man – would just have to bring Edgar the work he'd done so far so Geoff couldn't use it – that had been the turning point. All he wanted now was to get out of here, go far away and just be able to breathe again, to escape that sense of panic and danger that had been looming over him for too long.

And he was sorry – he was – he knew the others would be angry, but he needed this – perhaps, he thought dimly, the way Ryan had needed to go after Edgar – he needed to get out or he was going to go mad.

Taking a deep breath, he started up the car again. He'd driven a couple of times before, out of necessity on jobs, but he didn't have a license. Luckily the country roads out here were wide and empty, but he knew the others would be out looking for him by now.

They'd expect him to head straight for the city, he reasoned – so he took the opposite direction instead, intending to catch a bus back the other way. Hopefully it would throw them off a little.

They'll hunt you down, a small, paranoid part of himself thought. Maybe when they find you they'll kill you .

He bit his lip. The thought made him feel sick for some reason, in a way that the usual overwhelming presence of danger didn't normally. Even if he didn't think this a betrayal, the others probably would. And Geoff had been nice to him before – but he knew what happened to people who crossed him. Not to mention Ryan, who he'd gone and bloody whacked over the head. He felt vaguely bad about that – he hadn't wanted to actually hurt any of them, but at the same time it had kind of felt good. To lash out, to hit someone. Especially after what Ryan had done to him.

And that abandonment had stung, more than he'd expected it to – because Ryan had been so lovely before that – gentle and, and caring and like nothing Gavin had ever expected from the man. And the kiss...

Don't think about the kiss.

 


 

 

He drove for some time more. There was no sign of the others. Finally having reached his bus stop, he abandoned the vehicle and sat at the stop to wait. This far out busses were few and far between, but according to the sign one should come in twenty minutes or so. He'd just have to hope they didn't catch up to him by then.

He pulled Ryan's phone from his pocket. They'd switched accidentally and when he realised what had happened he'd sped up his escape, expecting them to head back and try to stop him – as they had. Now he fired off a message to Shadles letting him know to contact this number instead.

Sitting there, exhausted and high-strung and shaking, he stared down at the phone in his hands and was struck by the sudden urge to call Dan.

God, the only thing he wanted now – the thing he needed most – was to speak to at least one person he was certain he could trust. Who knew everything that had happened – and Dan was his bloody lifeline , the one person whose presence made him feel undoubtedly, unconditionally safe .

But Dan was hard to contact nowadays, thanks to a combination of time zone difference and too many fake cellphones and moving about all the time.

He'd said he would come back – but that wouldn't be for another few months.

Maybe once I'm out I should go back to England .

Thinking about it – having a solid plan for the future rather than staring into it as a swirling void of potential danger and pain and even death – that made him feel a bit better.

That's right. Once I'm out of this I'll go back to England. Edgar won't be able to find me there, surely – or Geoff, either, if he's angry with me. I'll get out of here and go back home and Dan will be there.

And with that in mind, the bus arrived.

 


 

 

It began raining heavily as the bus made its way through Achievement City, what began as a miserable dribble soon developing into a torrential downpour. The darkness that rolled in with the clouds made the city seem dangerous, menacing – Gavin glanced over his shoulder uneasily as he disembarked. He was paranoid that the others had tracked him down somehow, that they were on their way here for him now. Every car or pedestrian passing by made him flinch, expecting someone to jump out and try to stop him at any minute.

But no one stopped him – no one spared him a second glance as he made his way down the street towards his apartment, hood pulled up against the rain.

There was always something strange about going back home after having left for a job. God, it was hard to believe it had barely been a fortnight since all this started, so much had happened. The apartment building, an unobtrusive little block in a suburban part of the city, was quiet and disconcertingly normal as he went inside.

He felt like he'd been gone much longer than he had been, but being back in this familiar place brought him no comfort. Shutting the door behind him and switching on the lights, he looked around – everything was just as he'd left it. Bed unmade, the sheets in a tangled sprawl. Drawers left half-open from where he'd packed in a rush before leaving with Geoff. A fuckload of empty liquor bottles strewn across the kitchen counter and filling up the rubbish bin.

He entered the room and paused, staring at the bed. For a moment he wanted nothing more than to crawl in under the sheets and just hide, from everything – just close his eyes and pretend he was a child again, that nothing he couldn't see could hurt him. God knows he'd spent enough time doing that over the last few months.

But he forced himself into action, turning away from the bed and opening the backpack he'd brought with him to dig out a bunch of USBs and hard drives.

Gavin was not stupid. He didn't trust Edgar or Shadles as far as he could throw them. He hoped their offer was genuine – and God, it had to be, he had to be able to get out – but he wanted some insurance. So he fully intended to hide the data, confirm the deal, and then get a head start out of there before contacting them to tell them where it was so they could pick it up once he was a safe distance away.

He had used his own skills at finding people to make sure he couldn't be found if he didn't want to be – only Burnie and Dan even knew where he lived and he'd kept everything completely off the radar. That made the apartment as good a place as any to hide it.

He ended up stashing the hardware in the bottom drawer of a tallboy where he'd stored all the stuff Dan had accidentally left behind before he went back overseas, leaving it nestled on a pile of shirts and stray socks and assorted rubbish.

He hesitated in the doorway. If he went through with this – if he left this apartment now, went to give the key to Edgar – this was the last time he'd ever be in his home.

Home .

Was it, though? He'd not lived here for too long, about a year perhaps – before that he'd moved around between England and America, never staying in one spot for more than a couple of months due to jobs or fear of being tracked down.

And this place did not hold particularly good memories.

It was where he had... recovered, or tried to recover. That kitchen was where he'd had all his drunken rages, that couch where he'd sat all night letting the television burn into the back of his eyelids, trying desperately not to fall asleep – but it was also where Dan had held him every one of those nights, in his strong and comforting embrace, whispering it's okay and I got you out of there, B and he's dead now, I killed the bastard, he can't ever touch you again .

So leaving it still felt like saying goodbye to something important – but time was running out and there was no time for nostalgia.

He locked the apartment after him and went back out into the street.

It was still raining heavily as he paced down the road. By now the others would have gotten to the city. They were probably on the prowl, looking for him right that moment. Glancing about, he thought it prudent to hide out somewhere to make the call, and after looking around a bit ducked into a nearby store.

It was a relief to get out of the rain. He shoved his hood back, running a hand through his already mightily dishevelled hair. He'd picked the shop at random – some sort of antique home wares supplier – and it wasn't until he turned around that he realised the little, wizened old lady behind the counter was staring at him.

His immediate reaction was paranoia – that she'd recognised him somehow or secretly worked for Geoff or was otherwise about to confront him – but her expression quickly twisted into something like concern.

“You alright there, love?” she asked.

“What?” Gavin replied, taken aback. “I – fine, I'm fine.”

“You sure? You need me to call someone?”

“What? I... no? I'm just...” He waved a hand lamely around at the goods. “I'm, uh. Just browsing. Looking for a present. For my... mum.”

She looked very disbelieving at this, but gave a slow nod. “Alright. Just call me if you need anything then.”

With a somewhat sheepish smile, he ducked away into the narrow aisles. It wasn't until he came face to face with an antique vanity and got a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror that he realised exactly why she'd seemed so worried. He looked a complete bloody mess – the bruises on his face from where the guard in the Corpirate's house had hit him were still horribly dark in the centre, but beginning to spread yellow at the edges. He'd long gotten used to their dull ache, but he hadn't realised quite how bad they looked as they slowly healed. Add that to the dark bags under his eyes, the hollow gauntness of his face, and the way he was shivering from a combination of cold and nerves – well, it wasn't exactly a pretty sight.

I'm a mess. This is killing me. This is why I need to get out .

He pulled his phone out and called Shadles. The other man picked up after the first ring.

“Free?”

“Shadles,” Gavin replied. “I'm out. I'm in Achievement City.”

“Good,” Shadles said. “Ramsey after you?”

“Probably? But I haven't seen him since I left. I don't think he knows where I am yet.” A pause. “I get to pick the meeting spot.”

“Of course. Anywhere that makes you comfortable.”

Somewhere public. Somewhere close to a police station.

“The store Edgar pulled his first heist in, the one Geoff was originally going to hit. There's a Supermart just down the road from there. In the square outside that.”

“Sure thing. I'll see you then."

“Okay,” Gavin said.

Shadles hung up, and Gavin stared at the phone for a moment. His hand was shaking, a horrible mixture of guilt and nerves gnawing at his stomach. Turning, he left the store – the worried eyes of the clerk following him and somehow only serving to make him feel even worse, like a liar and a fool and a disappointment to society.

I'm not betraying them. Geoff didn't even pay me yet – I'm just his employee. I need to leave for my own good.

The meeting spot he'd planned was a little distance away, but he had no bus ticket left and would rather stay on the move than faff about buying one and then waiting at the stop, so he began to walk, the rain still beating down on him, cold and miserable.

He got about three blocks before he turned into a quiet street and heard the screech of brakes behind him.

Turning, he flinched as a black car pulled up behind him and a man in a mask jumped out. He'd barely made to turn and run before a strong arm was looping around his waist, dragging him back, and a rag was clamped down hard over his nose and mouth.

The thick, cloying smell of chloroform hit instantly and he knew enough to try and hold his breath, struggling, tugging feebly at the man's arm. But he was already being pulled back towards the car, and the man's grip was strong over his face – before long he was forced to gasp in a breath. A dizzy lightheadedness set in immediately; he felt his feet stall and stumble as they grew numb. The last thing he felt was the man lifting him up and pulling him into the back of the car before everything went black around him.

 


 

 

“When we find him I am going to fucking beat the shit out of him,” Michael said, fingers drumming agitatedly against the armrest of his seat.

Geoff glanced over at him, and Michael scowled.

“I mean it. How much will it fucking take to show him that we're not gonna ditch him? Fucking Team Nice Dynamite my ass, I can't believe he still thinks that I'd abandon him – that Ray would abandon him-”

He broke off, voice cracking a little as he realised he was getting far too worked up about this. Geoff looked over at him again and then gave a small, tired smile.

Michael was worried. He did not often worry, and usually it was over Ray, but God damn if the thought of Gavin alone out there somewhere wasn't playing at his nerves right now. And if he was angry, so sue him, he had a right to be – he hadn't gotten Gavin out of that mansion only for him to go and hand himself over to Edgar on a fucking platter.

And maybe there was guilt, lurking in there somewhere – maybe, he couldn't help wondering, if he'd been nicer to Gavin from the get-go the other might trust him more now.

But there was no use pondering over what-ifs and might-haves now. Normally he'd push his worry aside in favour of proactivity, but that was a little hard when they were fucking stuck in traffic.

They'd made good speed to Achievement City, but now it was raining like a bitch and traffic had slowed to a crawl. The bad weather was only compounding Michael's bad mood.

Geoff had been oddly quiet the entire drive. Michael knew he was stressed as fuck too – Ray was the same, he could tell. Both of them had gotten close to Gavin quickly.

“Anyway,” Michael continued – and he was talking too much, he knew, but somehow he couldn't stop. “I can't believe he managed to fucking take out Ryan. If he'd wanted to he could have killed him right then and there while he was unconscious. Can you imagine that? Fucking Gavin being the one to take out the mad mercenary. It would be hysterical.”

“Mm,” was all Geoff said in response to that – and the line of cars finally began to move again. Michael fell silent, turning to stare out the window again, watching raindrops slide down the glass pane under the force of his glare.

 


 

 

Michael hadn't seen Burnie in quite a long while. They'd spoken over the phone a bunch of times, Burnie contacting him to put him in touch with people offering jobs and such, but otherwise Michael and Ray had enough regular clients of their own to keep them quite busy.

“Geoff, Michael!” the man exclaimed – they hadn't thought to call ahead, and he looked quite surprised to see them. “Dude, come in the back. Didn't think I'd see you guys for a while.”

“Are you busy right now?” Geoff asked – out of courtesy more than anything else, Michael knew he had enough wield that even if Burnie had been doing something, he'd have dropped it if asked.

“Nah,” Burnie replied. “What's up? Where're your other halves?”

“Jack and Ray are busy with something,” Geoff said. “We need your help.”

“Need me to find someone to do a job for you?” Burnie asked, and Geoff shook his head.

“It's about Gavin, actually.”

Burnie frowned at that. They had reached the office by now, and he gestured for them to sit on the couch. There was a stack of files at one end and the remaining room was just small enough that Michael's knee brushed against Geoff's when they sat down.

“How's it going?” Burnie asked, abruptly. “The job you were all working on. Bringing someone down, weren't you?”

“It was going really well,” Geoff said. “Gavin was efficient as dicks until, you know, he freaked out and ran off on us.”

Burnie's eyebrows rose. “That... doesn't sound like him.”

“Not blaming him,” Geoff said, “Something scared him off, but we need to find him. He could be in danger. So you need to tell us where he might be going.”

Burnie looked thoughtful – and legitimately upset. Michael figured he was probably quite close to Gavin; some of his contacts were just people he knew vaguely – Michael and Ray among those – but others he tended to get closer to, making them his first port of call when he needed to refer them to someone for a job.

“Thing is,” Burnie said after a minute, “It's not like he has family here or anything. All the places I can think of are back in England.”

“What about friends? People he's worked with before?” Geoff asked.

“The last time I spoke to him – before I called him in for you – was just after the last job he took. I'd heard it went wrong and I was worried. When I checked up on him he was with another guy – not one of my contacts – some mercenary he'd met on that last job. They seemed close. His name's Daniel Gruchy, but last I heard he'd taken a job back across the pond.”

“What do you know about his last job?” Michael asked, abruptly, and Burnie frowned.

“Not much. I don't pry into these things, you know that. I know I called him in to help some guys who wanted to get back at someone who'd betrayed their group. They were a little group of wannabes – kinda like that guy you hate, Geoff, Felix or whatever his name is – and one of them had turned tail and joined another group and busted some weapons deals that they had going on, so they wanted to take him out. Gavin was gonna help track him down. Only it turns out this guy they're looking for is friends with this bigwig named Barry.” His mouth twisted. “Fucking nasty piece of work. Involved in smuggling and shit. Anyway, Barry went after them.”

“Gavin said they all got out, though,” Geoff said with a frown.

Burnie nodded. “So Gavin goes off the radar for a couple of weeks. Then the next thing I hear, he's back home with Gruchy and word on the street is that someone killed Barry. He tells me he's too rattled by it all to take jobs for a bit. I don't know what happened. I don't want to know what happened. But Gruchy's the only person I can think of that Gavin might go looking for if he's in trouble, and, well, he's back in England. So the only place I can suggest you go checking out is the airport.”

“He's not going to the fucking airport,” Michael spat – this was all so useless, he'd hoped Burnie might know the sort of places Gavin would go to make the deal with Edgar, or hide outs and city haunts he frequented.

“Michael,” Geoff warned, putting a hand on his knee. Michael fell still and Burnie's gaze darted between them suspiciously.

“I can give you the address to his apartment,” Burnie suggested quietly. “It's near here. And who knows, he might contact me – I'll be sure to let you know if he does.”

“That's all I can ask for. Thanks,” Geoff said, and Burnie nodded.

 


 

 

Gavin's apartment was only a ten minute walk away; and even less of a drive. It was odd, how normal looking the block of flats seemed. Then again, the apartment where Michael and Ray lived was much the same.

“You think he might be in here?” Michael asked, quietly, as they made their way up to the unit number Burnie had given them.

Geoff bit his lip. “Can't tell, dude,” he replied. They stopped outside the door.

It was locked, naturally, and Geoff pushed ineffectually at the handle for a few minutes.

“You know how to pick locks?” he asked Michael.

Michael scoffed. “Of course I know how to pick a fucking lock. Would be a lot more exciting to blow it, though.”

“Sure,” Geoff said, rolling his eyes, “If we want all the police in the world to come down on our heads.”

“You're no fun,” Michael muttered, but it didn't take him long to get the door open.

It became very quickly evident that Gavin was not at home; the apartment was dark, quiet and still. Michael paused in the doorway, feeling oddly like he was trespassing. It was far from the first time he'd broken into someone's abode, but this was Gavin – having lived in close proximity to him for the last couple of weeks, it was strange suddenly being in his private space, in the place where he'd spent so much time before his life crossed ways with Michael's.

Geoff flicked on the light and immediately tensed.

“What?” Michael asked, on the alert, hand already going to his gun.

“Look,” Geoff said. He pointed to the floor and Michael looked down – the carpet was spotted with damp patches. “Someone was here. Recently.”

“We didn't bring that in with us?”

“We drove here, we didn't get that wet.” Geoff crouched down and felt at the carpet, then nodded. “It must've been Gavin. If he walked from a bus stop he would've been soaked. He can't have left that long ago.”

“There's like, a hundred fucking places he could have gone from here though,” Michael pointed out – it would be little use setting out to search the city. What they needed was something definite, something to tell them where he'd gone.

“Why would he come back here if he wasn't planning on staying?” Michael mused.

“Change of clothes?” Geoff suggested. “Or he needed something.”

“Picking something up or dropping something off. Either way, he might've left something that can help us track him down.”

Geoff nodded, and for a moment they lingered very awkwardly. Despite the situation – despite how many times they'd done similar things before – it still felt like an invasion of privacy to be poking around in Gavin's flat. Michael knew if their positions were reversed he'd hate for Geoff and the others to be messing about in his stuff.

But they didn't have much of a choice, so after a while they set about it.

Michael moved into the kitchen first. He frowned a little at the sheer number of liquor bottles – all of them empty – that were lying about the place. The bin smelt terrible, obviously Gavin had forgotten to take it out before he went to join Geoff – and when he opened the fridge there was very little in there.

There was a computer setup in the main room, but all of it was powered down and missing pieces that Gavin had taken with him to Geoff's house. Eventually Michael gave up searching and went to join Geoff in Gavin's bedroom – their most likely bet anyway.

“You find his porn yet?” Michael asked – except Geoff turned to him with a sheepish sort of grin, and Michael's eyebrows rose. “What, seriously?”

“Who the fuck even reads magazines nowadays,” Geoff said, rolling his eyes. “Tech savvy guy like him, you'd think he'd just look things up online. Maybe there's a shortage of g-”

“Jesus Christ, I already know more than I wanted to,” Michael cut in, shaking his head. He turned towards the tallboy and started pulling open drawers. When he reached the bottom one he paused with a frown.

“Geoff,” he said – and the other man moved over to him.

Michael picked up the stack of hard drives and USBs. “This is stuff from the house. Gavin took it with him.”

“Why'd he stash it here?” Geoff asked. “I thought he was going to give it to Edgar?”

“No, he's being smart,” Michael said. “Hand it to Edgar and he's handed over all his cards. Make the deal first, give Edgar the key – then get a safe distance away and text him the address to pick it up. It makes sense. Except if Ryan's right then Edgar's planning on grabbing him anyway.”

Geoff frowned. “Still doesn't help us work out where he is.”

“What time is it?” Michael asked – and Geoff checked his watch.

“It's been a couple hours now.”

Michael felt a bit sick. “I hate to be the one to say it, but it's been too fucking long. If Edgar had let him go he'd've sent someone to pick this up by now. I think we're gonna have to operate under the assumption that he's got him.”

“God damn it.” Geoff turned and kicked the wall, hard enough that a chunk of plaster fell out.

Michael felt that churning worry ache at his stomach again. He took the drives out of the drawer and absently rifled through the clothes and items they had been stacked on top of.

“Hey,” he said, pulling out a t-shirt and holding it up. “This can't be Gav's. It's too big.”

Geoff glanced at it, then shrugged. “Didn't Burnie say that Gruchy guy was staying with him?”

“Well, he's left a bunch of his stuff here.” He rummaged through the rest of it – t-shirts, socks, boxers. A packet of bullets. A sudden thought struck him. “Wait – d'you reckon he's Gavin's boyfriend?”

“What?” Geoff's head whipped around. “The fuck gave you that idea?”

“Well, his stuff's here so they were obviously living together. And there's only one bed.”

“Maybe he crashed on the couch, I don't know. What does this have to do with anything?”

Michael shrugged. “Just fucking curious.” He hadn't even bothered to think of whether or not Gavin was single. Had sort of just assumed he was, the way most of them were – Ryan hadn't been joking when he said it was hard dating in this business. For all that Michael despised his cynical outlook on things, he was right that you had to either trust someone who was also a criminal, or risk dragging innocent outsiders into crap.

But realising that this mercenary friend of Gavin's was obviously close enough to share such a small space with him – that they might, in fact, have been intimate – that just raised so much curiosity in him. Since they'd gotten closer after the Corpirate incident Michael couldn't help wondering more about the other man; where he'd come from, the other jobs he'd been on – and knowing this Dan Gruchy was such a seemingly close part of his life naturally had him wondering what he was like.

Geoff sighed. “Well, we won't get anything else from here. I'll tell some of my people to watch the streets, see if they notice anything. But Edgar's been a sneaky bastard so far, I don't doubt he's covered his tracks. Maybe the others had more luck back at the house.”

It was a weak hope; they'd've texted or called if they had, but Michael nodded, getting to his feet.

 


 

“Who are you texting?” Geoff asked.

They were halfway back to the house and the rain still hadn't let up; the windscreen wipers doing double time in an effort to keep the glass clear. Michael glanced up from his phone and frowned a bit.

“Ray. He and Jack're headed back as well now. They found the car he took by a bus stop. But no sign of him anywhere around, so...”

Geoff nodded, sighing – it seemed their suspicions were correct then. There was no way they could intercept Gavin before he found Edgar now – their focus would have to be on hoping he was still alive and rescuing him.

Michael looked down at his phone again, and his frown deepened. Again, that mixture of fear and concern had him talking when he'd otherwise probably have kept his thoughts to himself.

“Ray's worried as fuck, I can tell. It's... kind of weird, actually.”

“What's weird?” Geoff asked, which sort of forced him to explain.

“How quickly he got close to Gav. You know Ray, when he's not on a job all he does is like, lie around playing Xbox. I'm basically his only friend. He just never really got close to other people before, even when we worked with them on jobs. That's why I found it so strange that he would stick up for Gavin all the time.”

Geoff harrumphed. “So that's why you got jealous, then?”

“Shut the fuck up, I wasn't jealous,” Michael snapped, more out of habit than anything else. “Besides, we're all over that now.”

“It's okay, you know,” Geoff said, his tone suddenly dropping into something softer, and Michael glanced at him sidelong. The sudden shift had him uncomfortable – almost embarrassed.

“What's okay?”

“To admit that you like him.” There was a teasing smile playing at Geoff's lips now, and Michael felt his face beginning to flush.

“Of course I like him,” he spluttered. “He's my best friend, isn't he?”

“Jesus Christ, Michael, you are living in the biggest fucking state of denial I've ever seen-”

“I don't know what you're talking about.” Except he did, that was the problem, and they were thoughts that had been playing at his mind for the last few days – ever since Ryan had brought it up, then Geoff – since Ray himself had returned from his trip suddenly softer and gentler and oddly affectionate – like he was testing the waters or something and oh fucking God, Michael realised with dawning horror. It was true. Somewhere along the line he had, somehow, developed a major fucking crush on Ray and Ray fucking knew about it.

Geoff was watching him with something akin to amusement, but Michael could barely care as he sat, struck by this revelation, unsure if he should feel horrified or embarrassed or-

“Wait,” Geoff said suddenly, “You didn't – oh my God, are you only just realising now that you like him?”

“Shut the fuck up Geoff,” Michael croaked, but Geoff was laughing now – not meanly, not even teasingly. Almost affectionately. And his laugh had always been contagious, and suddenly – and a little hysterically – Michael couldn't help laughing as well. More at the absurdity of it all than anything else.

“He fucking knows, doesn't he? Michael asked. “He knew I liked him even before I did.”

“And what do you think he's been doing about it?” Geoff prompted – and Michael realised that perhaps all along, it had been fear holding him back – fear that everything would change, fear that Ray would be disgusted or embarrassed and everything would be ruined.

But he already knew, and, if anything, they'd been getting along better since. And suddenly it didn't feel so much like everything was going to change horribly. Suddenly there was a range of possibilities opening up before him and he didn't quite know what to do.

Geoff sighed, then, reaching up to wipe at his eyes. “Ahh, God, now you guys can finally stop dancing around each other and fucking do something about it.”

“You mind your own business,” Michael warned, but still couldn't quite help but smile.

And he was still scared – still didn't quite know how he felt, and he definitely had a lot more thinking to do – but despite the situation, despite Gavin still being missing and the pressure they were all under – he felt, at least, a little bit of hope.

 


 

 

They got back to the house before Jack and Ray did, and headed down to the basement. Ryan was sitting in front of the computers, looking at grainy road camera footage of cars passing by. He turned around as they approached.

“How's the head?” Geoff asked, and Ryan waved a hand.

“Fine,” he replied. “You find anything?”

Michael tossed the bag of drives onto the table. “He hid this stuff in his apartment but he wasn't there. We think Edgar's got him.”

Ryan slammed his fist against the desk with such sudden harshness that Michael couldn't help but jump.

“God damn it,” Ryan hissed – low and venomous – and Geoff and Michael exchanged glances.

“You keep doing what you're doing,” Geoff said. “Michael, help him out if you can. I'm gonna call my people back in AC and let them know to be on the look out. If anything suspicious pops up we'll be the first to know.”

He headed back upstairs and Michael tentatively pulled a chair up next to Ryan. The other man was still turned away, shoulders hunched over, seething in some internal rage. For all that Michael was still annoyed at him for what had happened back at the Corpirate's place, he certainly seemed concerned for Gavin's wellbeing now.

“Hey,” he said, when Ryan still didn't move. “You know Edgar better than all of us. Where might he be?”

Ryan let out a long breath. Then he straightened up, gaze fixed on the computer screens. “I don't know. He's fucking crafty, he probably has hideouts everywhere.”

A moment of silence. Ryan still seemed distracted, and, taken by a sudden, absurd moment of camaraderie, Michael reached out and tentatively poked at his arm.

“Dude. Fucking chin up or whatever, we're going to find him.”

“You guys don't get it,” Ryan grumbled, and Michael scowled.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“I keep telling you Edgar is bad, Edgar is terrible – you don't get it. I'm not just saying these things. Words just can't express how fucking messed up he is. I don't throw the word 'psychopath' around for the fun of it.”

Though his voice was frustrated there was something else in his tone – a deep, underlying fear, and it sent chills down Michael's spine.

“What... what do you mean?” he asked, an odd sort of dread filling him.

Ryan turned to him, blue eyes boring into Michael's behind the mask. “We kill people,” he said. “But we're not brutes. And there are brutes out there, but even they – even they have at least some sort of line. Even they hit a point where what they're doing makes them feel sick, or they know there's a limit they can't cross – whether it be women or children or fucking skinning someone alive. There's a limit. But Edgar... Edgar doesn't have limits.”

Michael tried to swallow but all the moisture in his mouth seemed to have spontaneously evaporated.

“The thing about him,” Ryan continued – almost lost in thought now – “Is that it's not even that he's a sadist. He doesn't get joy or pleasure or anything out of what he does, he doesn't fucking get off on it like some people do. There's just – nothing. He feels nothing. He wants things – power, territory, to cause people pain – but it's like he doesn't have any fucking emotions at all. And that makes him the most God damn terrifying person I know, because it means he will do literally anything. You can't predict his movements. He never bluffs.”

“How...” Michael cleared his throat, tried again. “How do you know all this? How did you encounter him before?”

Ryan stiffened, turning away sightly – and Michael could tell that he was about to close off again, to turn into Haywood the terrible, Haywood the expressionless – the moniker rather than the Ryan that Michael had seen the face of.

And just as he'd been seized with curiosity about Gavin, so he was about Ryan – suddenly realising that if he didn't reach out now he'd never understand what this man was made of – and he didn't know why he wanted to, but on impulse he reached out and grabbed Ryan's shoulder, turning him back towards him.

Ryan grabbed his wrist and for a moment Michael was certain he was going to just snap it then and there – but he held on, speaking quickly.

“Dude,” he said, “I want to know, okay, I want to understand – I was pissed at you, sure, for ditching Gav that night – so you owe it to me to at least tell me why. I mean, I already know what you fucking look like, you might as well spill the rest of your deep dark secrets.” This last bit added teasingly, and for a moment Ryan's grip tightened on his wrist – then he let go.

“I know,” he said quietly, “Because I've seen him do it before. I've seen him go after someone the way he's going after Geoff. And he didn't stop until every last person in his way was dead.”

“Were you in his way?” Michael asked, and Ryan nodded.

“The only reason I got out is because of this mask,” he said, gesturing. “He doesn't know my face so he can't hunt me down. I went into hiding for a bit. Moved across the country. Waiting until I could find him and get my revenge.”

Revenge. Somehow Michael knew then that it wasn't just about Edgar trying to kill Ryan. These people – the ones Edgar had gone after – he must have been close to them. And what was it he'd told Gavin? I have worked with others before .

Ryan was staring at him and all Michael could do was give a slow nod – showing that he understood what Ryan wasn't saying.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I get why you went after him at the mansion. Fuck, I'd've done it too if I had that big a grudge against him. Still makes you an asshole. But I get it.”

Ryan relaxed visibly. There was something far too human about the motion. It almost made Michael uncomfortable, after having held the image of him in his mind as an untouchable legend of death and destruction for so long.

“Good,” Ryan growled.

“It's not gonna happen to Gav,” Michael added. “We're gonna find him. Geoff Ramsey and the mad mercenary on his tail – Edgar doesn't stand a fucking chance.”

“You know,” Ryan said, quietly, “I never liked that name.”

“What? The mad mercenary?” Michael questioned.

Ryan nodded. “I get where it came from,” he mused. “I have no qualms about killing or hurting people if need be. No one knows anything about me. But I'm not mad . Like I said,” he added. “I have limits.”

Well yeah,” Michael replied, “But 'the mysterious mercenary with limits' doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of men.”

“Apparently I don't strike fear into the hearts of men anyway,” Ryan muttered. “Since as you so aptly pointed out, Gavin wasn't scared of me in the slightest. At least he wasn't originally,” and there was something almost guilty in his tone now, “I think he might be now.”

“We're gonna get him back,” Michael repeated, firmly, and Ryan nodded, straightening up.

“Yeah – yeah. Can't let Edgar win again, after all.”

“That's the spirit.”

“Also,” Ryan said, and jabbed a thumb at him warningly, “If you let anyone know we had this conversation I will have to kill you.”

“Sure,” Michael replied easily, “Can't let it get out that you're human, after all.” Fuck that, he was totally going to tell Ray.

Ryan snorted.

And then, after a moment's pause, “I'm sorry.”

Michael blinked a few times, confused. “For what?”

“Going off at you guys for starting that fire. You were trying to help. I appreciate it.” He paused. “And for grabbing you afterwards.”

“Jesus Christ,” Michael said, shaking his head. “This whole time I've had an image of you in my head as this, like, monstrous tough guy who kills anyone who crosses him, but you're actually a giant fucking softie aren't you?”

“Hey, I'm self aware enough to know when I've been a dick,” Ryan said, but there was something almost endearingly awkward in his tone, and Michael had to laugh.

“Whatever. Just so you know, if you do it again I will actually punch you. Also, you're totally never going to live down the fact that Gavin managed to knock you out with a fire extinguisher.”

“Understood.” Ryan turned back to the screens and sighed heavily. “I don't know where to fucking start.”

Michael bit his lip, all humour draining away as he remembered exactly what they were working on.

“Will Edgar move him far?” he asked. “Will he take him out of the city?”

“Probably not,” Ryan replied. “He'll be confident enough in his ability to work right under Geoff's nose.”

“So he's probably still in or around AC somewhere.” Michael shook his head, letting out a huff of breath. “Hopefully not farther out than we went to kill Clarence.”

Ryan stiffened suddenly. “Clarence,” he said.

Michael blinked. “Yeah, what about him?”

“He was in charge of finding hideouts, safe houses, storage units – all the places Edgar needs to do shit,” Ryan said. “I took his phone when I killed him. I think Gavin was working with it – trying to come up with all the places he might have been using. I don't know how far he got but everything he'd started on is probably on these drives. It's a starting point, at least.”

Michael nodded, glad to have a solid plan. “Yeah – yeah. That's a good idea.” He turned and pulled the bag over towards him, rummaging through hard disks and USBs with a frown. “Couldn't have fucking labelled them, could he.”

 


 

 

It took them a little while to just sort through the files; Gavin's systems were a disorganised mess and some of them they weren't sure how to use or access. But finally Ryan managed to dig up a bunch of information Gavin had pulled from Clarence's phone and the data he'd already dug up on the man. There was the beginnings of a list of locations and a few clues leading towards others.

It was a slow process looking through them. Driving out to each one manually would take far too much time, so they were stuck slowly calling in friends and contacts of Geoff to go check them out for them, or using their limited tech skills to check out street cameras and such. Ray and Jack had come home by now, exhausted and despondent, but as they worked deep into the night Geoff eventually told them to go and get some rest while he and Ryan continued to work.

Mounting the stairs, the three of them lingered for a moment.

“If Edgar has him it's been like. Ten hours by now,” Ray said, face pinched with worry.

Even Jack looked a little disconcerted by that. “Well, at least we know he hasn't split on where the house is, or Edgar would be here by now.”

“Jesus Christ, Jack, him splitting on where the house is is the last fucking thing I'm worried about,” Ray snapped, and stormed off to his room.

Michael lingered awkwardly, and glanced at Jack, who looked a little taken aback.

“I didn't mean to be insensitive,” he began, and Michael let out a huff of breath.

“I know, man. Ray's stressed, that's all. We should all get some rest. I'll see you in the morning,” he said, and Jack nodded, heading off.

Michael went to his own room and sat on the bed. He rested his head in his hands and sighed heavily. Fuck this was messed up. He couldn't stop thinking about Gavin. Where he was. If he was hurt right now. Whether he knew they were trying to find him. Knowing him, he probably thought they weren't. Fuck. Fuck.

The knock at his door was quiet, but it still made him jump. He got up to open it and blinked as he found Ray standing outside, looking painfully awkward – shoulders hunched and tense, leaning stiffly against the door frame.

“Hey,” Michael said quietly. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Ray replied. “Mind if I come in?”

“Dude, of course.” He shifted over, ushering Ray into the room.

Ray sat on the edge of the bed, and after shutting the door Michael moved up and threw himself down beside him. The motion made the mattress bounce and Ray, already perched precariously, lost his balance and fell to the floor.

“Michael why,” he said, with mock despair, and Michael snorted out a laugh.

“Sorry,” he said, moving over on the bed so Ray could climb back up and sit next to him, side by side with their backs to the bed frame. They sat in silence for a moment before Michael turned to him with a small frown.

“Seriously,” he said quietly, “are you okay?”

Ray nodded, fiddling with the zipper of his hoodie.

“Yeah,” he repeated. “Just worried. Kind of didn't want to be alone right now.”

Michael had no idea what to say. Reassuring platitudes weren't really his thing, never had been.

“We'll get him back.” He'd been saying it a lot lately, as though repeating it over and over would make it true.

“Yeah,” Ray replied. “It's kind of... strange. I mean, normally if someone we were working with on a job went missing, I wouldn't be too bothered. Maybe because jobs haven't run this long before, or we haven't been under this much pressure, but. It's weird. I haven't cared about someone this much in a while. Not since... not since you, really.”

“Ray...” Suddenly Michael's heart was beating a lot faster, nervous and he didn't know why.

“I do care about you, you know,” Ray said. He still wasn't looking at Michael, shoulders practically up around his ears. “I know we don't normally like. Say it and stuff. But if we go after Edgar and something goes to shit I wanted you to know.”

“Fucking Christ, Ray, I don't... nothing's going to happen,” Michael replied, feeling a little uneasy now. “Don't fucking talk like you're saying goodbye or whatever. That's what messed Geoff up, you know, Gavin talking shit like that before he ran off.”

Ray snorted. “I'm not going anywhere. I just want you to know in case-”

He broke off – and suddenly Michael realised that this wasn't about Edgar at all.

“In case what?” he asked, tentatively.

“In case everything changes,” Ray said – and the words were barely out of his mouth before he was suddenly in front of Michael, hand curling in his hair, pulling him forward and pressing their lips together.

Their mouths met in an almost painful clash of teeth, and for a moment Michael froze – he was pretty sure his heart actually fucking stopped – and Ray went tense against him, the hand in his hair loosening as he started to pull away – and then it was like everything slammed into Michael at once; a rush of affection and excitement and – and love, and this wasn't even something he knew he wanted until earlier that afternoon but it was as though a missing piece had fallen into place.

His hands came up to angle Ray's face better, finally kissing back – and he felt the tension leach from the other's body as he leaned into the embrace.

When they finally broke apart, breathing heavily, they both looked down, almost embarrassed – and Michael knew suddenly that this moment, right here, right now, after the kiss – this would make or break them. If things were uncomfortable – if they didn't make a decision right now – they'd just go back to how they were before, pulling apart from each other, not communicating, awkward and unsure.

“Hey,” he said – quietly, nervously, and Ray glanced up at him.

“Things have changed,” Michael said – and saw Ray stiffen. “But for the better,” he added quickly, and after a moment Ray broke into a grin, letting out a rather hysterical laugh of relief.

“Jesus, you scared me for a second.”

“Scared you? You're the one who just planted one on me without warning,” Michael barked. “God, that was...”

“Intense,” Ray said, fiddling with his hoodie again.

“That's one way of putting it.” And they were both smiling now, with the heady relief of having averted some sort of crisis, Michael wasn't sure what.

“So,” Michael said. “I, uh...”

“You have a giant flaming crush on me,” Ray teased, and Michael shoved at him, face flushing. “And guess who noticed it first?”

“Yeah, I get it, I'm an idiot and you're apparently more perceptive than you let on.”

“Nah, man, it wasn't me – I'm just as oblivious as you were,” Ray said. “It was Ryan, actually, he was all he's jealous of Gav because he likes you! Fucking mad matchmaker more like.”

“Fuck Ryan,” Michael said immediately, “Just for that I'm gonna tell you that today he turned into a giant sap and apologised for being mean and shouting at me after I set the Corpirate's mansion on fire.”

Ray broke down snickering.

“Guess it all turned out alright though,” Michael mused with a smile. “Well in that case-”

He broke off as there was a thudding knock on the door, glancing at Ray before sliding off the bed to go and answer it.

“Yeah?” he demanded, pulling it open – it was Jack out there. Michael fought not to blush as he watched the other man raise his eyebrows, taking in his dishevelled hair, his reddened lips – and then Ray sitting on the bed behind him.

“Get down to the basement,” Jack said. “Ryan's found Edgar.”

 


 

 

“He's by the bay,” Ryan said grimly, “I don't know where exactly but he's there.”

“How'd you know?” Michael asked, crossing his arms – and Ryan turned, gesturing at the computer screens.

“Gavin would have found this in ten seconds,” he said, “I'm a little slower. I crossed off a bunch of the Clarence properties and all the ones that were left were on this side of the city. So I monitored some road camera footage and caught sight of that damn duck on the wharf. The cameras didn't cover everywhere so I don't know where it went, but they're definitely in that area.”

“Alright,” Geoff ordered. “We head over and look around. We'll split up – Michael, you're with me, Ray, you're with Ryan. Jack, you hang back and snipe, keep us covered. Let's move, people.”

They bustled off to gather their equipment, but most things were laid out already and it didn't take long. Michael paused as he headed for the front door, Ray coming to a stop beside him.

“We'll talk when we get back,” Ray said.

Michael nodded. “When we get back with Gavin,” he added, and that had a slight smile tugging at Ray's lips before he reached out, hesitantly, and squeezed Michael's hand. Michael squeezed back.

“Hey,” Geoff called out, glancing back at them. They pulled apart a little too slowly, but Geoff didn't comment, just raised his eyebrows. “Get your little asses in gear, we have shit to do.”

 


 

 

It was an ungodly hour of the morning by the time they reached the bayside in Achievement City, it having taken a little time to drive there despite their defying the speed limit.

Michael was on edge as they split up and began driving slowly down the bay, inspecting buildings for any signs of nefarious activity. He drummed his leg agitatedly, hand running over the bag of explosives on his lap as Geoff brought the car up alongside a dark, empty sardine factory.

“Maybe he's on a boat,” Ray commented, through the earpiece.

“They all look empty,” Geoff replied, turning out towards the water. “Jack, where you at?”

“I'm up around the side, near the wharf,” Jack said. “Checking out the boats with the rifle scope now- what the fuck was that?”

“What?” Geoff demanded instantly.

“Two guys just came out of a building and chucked something in the water. Looked like a body but it was quick, I couldn't tell-”

Michael's heart dropped, the prospect of Gavin being dead hitting him all of a sudden. He heard Ray draw in a sharp breath through the comm.

“Where are they going?” Ryan asked.

“Back into another building – shit, the light's on, I can see through the window. Let me just adjust this scope.”

“Jack,” Michael prompted, as there was a pause.

“Oh, fuck,” Jack said then. There was a rustle from his end, the slamming of a car door. “Guys, I'm going in.”

“Jack,” Geoff snapped, “What the fuck's going on? You're going in alone? What'd you see?”

“Edgar was in there, Gavin too – but he's killing him right now, it looked like he was choking him.” Jack's voice was quick and panicked, accompanied by the thud of running footsteps. “It's a restaurant on the east side of the bay, you can't miss it – got a big yellow tarp out the front.”

“Jack, don't go in there alone-” Geoff broke off in frustration as he spun the car around. “God damn it. Just get Gav out of there, alright? And for fuck's sake keep us posted. R n' R, you guys coming around?”

“Heading there,” Ryan replied.

“Doesn't look like there's too many guards here,” Jack said. “Two of them. They're heading back in now, I'm gonna take them out.”

There was a gunshot, then shouts – swearing – running footsteps.

“Got one, the other's run inside – I'm going in after him,” Jack said.

“Don't do anything stupid,” Geoff said – but Jack didn't answer.

Michael grit his teeth as the car swung around a sharp turn, heading for the east side of the bay. He felt less than useless sitting here, but all they could do was move as fast as they could and hope Jack got in there in time.

 


 

 

Gavin returned to consciousness slowly and painfully.

His head was spinning. It felt like all the fluid had been leached from his brain and his skull was stuffed with dry cotton wool. Add that to the cloying, sweet taste stuck on his tongue and the dull nausea in his stomach, and he was 99% sure he was about to throw up.

He coughed a few times and sat up, flinching as light stabbed at his eyes. His head was swimming, but slowly he managed to take in where he was. He was sitting on a cold, tiled floor, in a small room with empty white walls lined with shelves. There was a chill in the air, like air conditioning. He wasn't bound, but as he slowly sat up his eyes fell on a security camera in the corner of the ceiling, and only moments later he heard the thud of footsteps outside and knew they'd been watching him, waiting for him to wake up.

He got to his feet, reaching out to brace himself against the wall as the door opened. Two masked guards walked in and stood at attention. Shadles trailed in behind them, looking just as Gavin remembered him; dark, a little scruffy, and like a total prick.

“You're awake,” he said.

“Captain Obvious to the bloody rescue,” Gavin replied, but his voice shaking betrayed his nervousness, and he saw a small smile twitch at the corner of Shadles' mouth. “What the fuck, Shadles, we had a deal.”

“Gavin, Gavin,” and there was a patronising fondness in Shadles' tone now, “You always were too naïve for your own good. Did you really think Edgar was just going to let you go?”

Gavin felt sick. Before he could reply, Shadles turned – and Gavin's blood ran cold as Edgar walked into the room behind him.

He looked just as he had on the security cameras, but there was something much worse about seeing him in person. He was taller and more imposing than Gavin had expected, and that cow mask... the dead white eyes sent chills down his spine, and he involuntarily took a step back.

He'd had nothing against cows before this, but if he managed to get out alive – something that was seeming less and less likely by the second – he was going to eat so much damn steak in retaliation, by God.

“Gavin,” Edgar said. His voice was surprisingly cultured; low and smooth despite being muffled under the mask. Gavin was used to deciphering it, though, having hung around Ryan so much, who had a similar problem. “I'm sorry for grabbing you off the street like that.”

Gavin didn't reply. He was breathing too fast – knew it was glaringly obvious just how scared he was – but he couldn't stop.

“Oh dear,” Edgar said. “We really have gotten off on the wrong foot. It's too cold in here, let's move outside.”

The guards didn't grab Gavin, but they did stand there staring at him until he forced himself into motion, trailing after Edgar and Shadles.

He quickly realised that the room he'd been locked in was an empty, refrigerated pantry. As he looked around he registered the building as some sort of closed-down waterside restaurant. The kitchen led into an open dining area with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the bay. It was evening by now, Gavin realised – and the rain still hadn't let up. In fact, it had gotten even worse, developing into a full blown storm, and he could see the water of the harbour swirling down below; waves lashing violently under the force of the wind.

“This used to be such a nice place,” Edgar said. He pulled up a chair from one of the round dining tables and sat down. “Shame it went out of business. Have a seat, Gavin.”

“I'd rather stand,” Gavin replied. Fear was still gnawing at his stomach but he forced himself to straighten up; to act far more confidently than he felt.

Edgar tilted his head. Then he waved a hand, and one of the guards grabbed Gavin's arm and shoved him down into a chair.

“You're here now, Free,” Shadles said. He was standing, arms folded, by Edgar's seat. “So really, all you can do at this point is cooperate.”

“I would've cooperated just fine if you'd gone through with our initial deal,” Gavin replied.

“I'm sorry,” Edgar said, “But that was never going to happen. You're far too valuable a resource for me to just let you go. But nobody has to get hurt here, Gavin. I've heard plenty about you, and it sounds like your services could be just what I'm looking for. As you've probably realised by now, Shadles has been doing for me what you've been doing for Ramsey. But that's not his forte. I could really do with someone who specialises in that sort of thing.”

Gavin pressed his lips together and didn't speak. This was what he'd been afraid of – that Edgar would try recruit him to his side.

“I noticed you don't have the data I asked for on you,” Edgar continued.

“Yeah,” Gavin said. “I hid it. In case something like this happened. You let me go and I'll tell you where it is.”

Edgar chuckled – Shadles did too.

“That's not going to happen,” Edgar said, shaking his head. “It's really, really not. Look, Gavin, I don't think you quite understand. You're not leaving here. You will either stay on as my employee or as a piece of taxidermy mounted on my wall.”

What. The actual. Fuck.

“So tell me, please,” Edgar continued pleasantly, “Where did you put that data?”

Gavin was pretty sure he was going to faint. His heart was pounding so hard he could hear it and he was beginning to feel lightheaded. But he knew, dimly, that if he spilled even that one bit of information, then Edgar would expect more – the location of the house, everything he knew on Geoff.

And there was no way he could feign working for him, either. There was no doubt Edgar would be far more vigilant than Geoff had been, would notice instantly if he was just faffing about pretending to work.

You don't owe them anything , a small, frightened part of himself piped up – not a God damn thing. Work for Edgar and save your skin here.

But he couldn't – he couldn't betray them. Not when Geoff had been kind. Not when he knew that Edgar would kill him – would kill Michael and Ray and Jack and, and Ryan.

So he kept his mouth shut, and shook his head, and Edgar let out a long, slow sigh. He stood up abruptly, and Gavin flinched back.

“Do you think they're coming to save you?” Edgar asked, stepping towards him. Gavin leaned back in the chair, and Edgar moved closer – leaned in until his face was right in Gavin's. He could smell the rubber of the mask; stale and plasticky. “Do you think Geoff gives a fuck about you? Because he doesn't. Even if he did, that disappeared the second you ran off on him. He think you betrayed him – if he does come after you it'll only be to kill you. There is no way out of this, Gavin.”

Gavin tried to ignore him, eyes fixed directly ahead.

“Dan's not here now,” Edgar continued – and the mention of his name made Gavin stiffen, going rigid as a plank.

“That's right,” Edgar said. “I know everything that happened. No one is going to come swooping in to save you this time. You think Ray and Michael give a shit? You betrayed them as well. Oh, of course – dear Ryan, your, what was it? Your husband?” Another chuckle. “How quaint. I know Ryan well and let me tell you this: he cares nothing for you. Only for how useful you can be in killing me. You running right into my arms like this – it'll have disgusted him. He'll kill you as soon as look at you if he finds you.”

“Shut up,” Gavin forced out – and that's when Edgar lashed out, with a ringing backhand that knocked him clean off the chair. He fell to the ground, the side of his face burning – spitting out blood where he'd bitten the inside of his cheek.

“You know,” Edgar hissed, grabbing the back of his jacket and hauling him upright, “Exactly how this goes, Gavin. I know you've experienced it before. You hold out as long as you can but then you end up giving in anyway. Like I said. Dan's not coming this time. So you can spare yourself the pain or we can go through the motions. But I promise you, I can be much more creative than Barry was.”

Gavin squeezed his eyes shut. There was an odd roaring in his ears and he knew, with a sudden sick feeling, that he was going to go into total shutdown, into the state he'd ended up in last time before Dan had come to rescue him – using all his mental prowess to just block out what was happening.

A sharp kick to his stomach brought him out of it, as he doubled over, coughing. Then a blow to the side of his head – another to his ribs, knocking him flat before they rained down over his shoulders and back.

It hurt, but at the same time, he half suspected the guards and Edgar were holding back, and when the beating finally stopped he looked up to find Edgar's bovine face staring down at him impassively.

“That's the basic part,” he said. “It only gets worse from here. Last chance.”

Mustering all his strength, Gavin spat a glob of bloody saliva towards his feet, and Edgar sighed.

“Okay,” he said. “Take him back to the room.”

The guards grabbed Gavin's arms and hauled him to his feet. He stumbled between them as he was escorted back to the pantry, shoved roughly to the floor with the door slamming shut behind him. A moment later the lights went out, leaving him in total blackness.

Oh, God .

He let out a shaky breath – curled in on himself, nursing his bruised ribs and sides. Fear, worry, all of it still stabbed at his stomach – but worse than that was the knowledge that no one is coming, no one is coming – he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it. That it was probably going to end for him here and now, after pain he didn't even want to think about.

 

 


 

 

He wasn't sure how long it had been when the door finally opened again. The cold of the pantry had worn into him by then, leaving him numb and shivering, and when he got to his feet he stumbled back against the wall.

He knew instantly that something was different.

The lights were on in the kitchen area of the restaurant and when the guards pulled him in, he realised that Edgar was not alone. The duck was standing by him, as tall and menacing and utterly horrific as always. She had her gun trained on a figure kneeling at her feet, hands bound before him, a sack over his head.

“Gavin,” Edgar greeted. The guards had dragged him forward and flanked him, keeping a tight, bruising grip on his arms. “Have you reconsidered?”

Gavin just stared at him, eyes lidded, and after a moment Edgar tutted.

“Alright then. I'll deal with you in a minute, I have a little business to take care of that I thought you might be interested in watching.”

He turned and whisked the sack from the man's head. He was an unobtrusive little fellow; a middle aged white man with greying hair and the sort of face no one would remember. There was a gag around his mouth, and Edgar leaned forward and plucked it out.

“-please, please,” the man half-sobbed, “I'm sorry, I won't – it won't happen again-”

“Gavin,” Edgar said, “May I introduce you to the Corpirate's former head of security. Now, you were very clever breaking in as you did, but I always expect my men to be cleverer. Needless to say, I was not very impressed that you and Haywood managed to get in without him noticing.”

The man's eyes darted to Gavin and shot him the most hateful, murderous look Gavin had ever seen. He flinched back, and the guards' grip tightened painfully on his arms.

Ducky,” Edgar said – the simple childishness of the name only serving to make it even bloody creepier – and the duck grabbed the man and hauled him to his feet, frogmarching him across the kitchen to stand in front of one of the counters.

It was then that Gavin realised why, exactly, it was so warm in here – he had thought that it was just him, after the coldness of the pantry – but now he noticed that one of the deep fat fryers was on, the basket filled to the brim with boiling, bubbling oil.

Oh God no Jesus fucking Christ no no – every possible variation of what Edgar could be about to do slammed into him at that moment. He was pretty sure he actually blacked out for a second, because the next thing he knew Edgar was in front of him, slapping his face lightly.

“Gavin,” he said – distressingly soothingly - “Come on, don't be like that. I want you to watch. You will watch,” he added, rather more menacingly.

Gavin could only stare at him. He felt oddly detached from his body, like it was someone else he could hear gasping wheezing breaths. Like it wasn't himself who was shaking so hard that he was practically spasming.

The former head of security had realised at the same time what was going on, and he began to scream, struggling to shake free of the duck's grasp.

“Edgar – Edgar, I'll do better, it won't happen again, it won't-”

“Tell me how they got in,” Edgar ordered. “Tell me what you did wrong.”

The man opened his mouth, but at that moment Edgar nodded to the duck and she grasped the man's arm and plunged his hand into the boiling oil.

Gavin turned his head away, squeezing his eyes shut – but there was nothing he could do to block out the screams. The next thing he knew, there was a hand fisting in his hair, wrenching his head viciously around.

“I told you to look ,” Edgar said, calm as ever – and something about that was so terrifying that Gavin forced his eyes open in time to see the duck pull the man back. He collapsed to his knees, sobbing, cradling his burned arm against his chest.

“Not good enough,” Edgar said. “Come on, look at Gavin – he bested you, after all.”

The man's eyes lifted to meet Gavin's, but they were glazed over with pain now and he appeared to be on the verge of passing out.

The duck hauled him up, bending him over the counter until his face was only inches away from the hot oil.

“Try again,” Edgar said. “Tell me what you did wrong.”

But the man, it seemed, was past talking – he murmured unintelligibly, his teeth chattering together loudly, and after a moment Edgar sighed.

“In that case,” he said, “I'm sorry, but I'll have to terminate your employment.”

And, with a nod to the duck, she pushed his head down.

Gavin did not look.

He squeezed his eyes shut, even when he felt Edgar's grip on his chin, trying to turn his face to get him to watch. He focused on the way his lungs were heaving in gasping breaths and his heart was slamming in his chest and for some reason – for some reason his mind flew to Michael, to his voice low and reassuring in Gavin's ear back at the mansion. What's something you like? Cats and Team Nice Dynamite . He had been scared then too. But he hadn't been alone.

The ringing slap knocked him clean from the guards' grip to the hard, tiled floor of the kitchen, and his eyes snapped open to see Edgar looking down at him.

Reality slammed into him then. You're alone now.

“When I tell someone to watch something,” Edgar said, “It really is very rude for them not to.”

There was a thud as the duck dropped the man's body to the ground.

“Deal with that,” Edgar said, nodding to the guards. They left, picking up the corpse and carrying it out of the room, leaving only Gavin with the two animals. He picked himself up slowly.

His panic had faded slightly, and if anything he felt numb. Numb and cold and shocky, and his heart was still pounding so fast he couldn't feel the individual beats anymore.

Edgar moved up behind him and Gavin didn't dare turn to look at him. Looking at the duck was even worse, though. There was something very unnatural about those teeth. He fixed his gaze on the floor but couldn't help but flinch when Edgar's arms suddenly snaked around him, hands coming up under his shirt to touch his stomach. His fingers were dry and very cold as they ran lightly over the raised tissue of the scars. Gavin shivered, squeezing his eyes shut. Stop touching me.

“You are not new to this,” Edgar said in his ear. Gavin couldn't move, stood frozen and still. Stop touching me. “You know how this goes. First I hurt you – but not too much. Then, I scare you by hurting someone else. You know step three. Step three is where I hurt you worse.”

There was a pause, Edgar waiting expectantly, the room silent but for the morbid bubbling of the oil and the slow ticking of a clock on the wall.

Gavin had no idea what to do. His mind had gone white-blank and he didn't think he could tell Edgar where the data was even if he wanted to.

Geoff's not coming, Edgar's voice rang in his head suddenly. Dan's not here now.

And he could roll over, he could give up, he could hope for Edgar to kill him quickly –

You're better than all that, B . It was Dan's voice he heard now – triggered, perhaps, by having returned to the apartment earlier that day. Because maybe Geoff didn't believe in him anymore, but if Dan was here – if Dan was here, he'd be pushing Gavin not to give up.

So no one was coming to save him. He could escape by himself, or die trying – he could, at the very least, try and buy himself some time.

When it came down to it, it was very easy – he was already hyperventilating, he was already wracked by anxiety so intense that his whole body seemed to ache. All it took was forcing himself to breathe a little faster – all it took, in the end, was forcing himself to think back to how Edgar had just killed that man which Jesus Christ no that was horrible as fuck no no no – and he was able to push himself over the edge into a panic attack.

He played it up. Though he loathed to touch the man, he forced himself to stumble back until he hit Edgar's chest, feeling the man's arms tighten around him in surprise. Then he crumpled to the floor, curling in on himself – gasping loudly, making his limbs loose so that they looked like they were shaking as much as possible.

Because when he was hit by these things – he couldn't talk, sometimes. The first few weeks after he got home he would wake up at night wracked with fear – this was before he learned not to sleep – and Dan would race in from the next room. He'd ask if he was okay, if he was in pain, he'd reassure him that he was there. Would hold him, knowing that for Gavin at least, human touch was better than empty nothingness. But Gavin would be unable to reply, jaw clenched so tightly his teeth ached, unable to open his mouth if he tried.

And he did that now. Clenched his teeth and kept his mouth shut and his head down, hoping Edgar would realise that he was too panicked to talk and would leave him alone, at least for a few hours.

Unfortunately, it seemed Edgar had a very, very misguided idea about what to do in these sorts of situations.

“Get the fuck up,” he said – still very calmly.

And then, when Gavin did not, he grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet, slamming him against the wall.

Stop that,” he said. And when Gavin didn't, he repeated it louder - “Stop that.”

When that failed, he seemed to think that violence was a brilliant idea, and his hands clenched tight around Gavin's throat.

This was not part of the plan at all. Gavin had not expected him to be stupid enough to think attempting to choke a panic attack out of someone was a good idea, but who knew what ran through that guy's mind – he reached up and clawed at Edgar's wrists, but the man held fast, his grip tightening.

You will tell me where the data is,” Edgar ordered.

Gavin actually was blacking out now – his vision going white at the edges, his throat and lungs on fire as he struggled to pull in a breath. His head was starting to feel light and fuzzy, vision warping at the edges –

“Edgar!” a voice yelled – and Edgar twisted around, grip loosening as one of the guards ran into the room only to cry out and fall as a shot hit him in the back.

Slumped back against the wall, gasping raggedly for breath, his vision swimming – Gavin looked up to see Jack framed in the kitchen doorway. Relief slammed into him like a truck.

They came. They bloody came .

There was a moment of frozen silence as Edgar, Jack, and the duck all stared at each other. Then Jack launched into action, taking in the situation at a glance – before Gavin even realised what was happening he was pulling a lighter from his pocket, flicking it on, and tossing it into the vat of oil.

A streak of fire flared up, and the duck flinched back. Jack fired his gun at Edgar, who dived sideways – and Jack ran forward, grabbing Gavin and practically tucking him under his arm as he dragged him through to the next room, the dining area.

“There's-” Gavin's voice cut off in a strangled croak as his throat protested. “There's nowhere to go from here! There's no back door!”

“Fuck,” Jack cursed – and the duck and Edgar were coming after them now, guns raised and firing. He still had Gavin pulled tight under his arm, practically crushing him against his side as he ducked away from the bullets.

“Okay, Gavin, this is gonna suck, hold on to me really tightly,” he said.

“What are you doing?” Gavin cried-

And then Jack jumped out the window.

He shot it, first – fired a bullet at the floor to ceiling glass before launching himself at it, crashing through. Gavin barely had time to scream before they were plummeting down into the swirling tides of water below.

The impact was like being slammed in the stomach with a sledgehammer; Gavin felt himself fall away from Jack and for a moment all he could do was flail, limp as a ragdoll as the lashing waves swept him back and forth. He sucked in a breath and then choked when all he got was a bitter, salty mouthful of water. Thrashing wildly, he managed to right himself, kicking with all his might to break the surface and gasp in air, hacking wildly.

He could still hear gunfire, though it was nearly drowned out by the heavy rain and the slap of water on wood; he looked around for Jack and couldn't find him.

Jack!” he yelled.

His voice was small and rasping, that one shout setting his throat on fire with pain – and the wind caught his words, carrying them away quickly.

Then he saw it – a brief flash of what looked like a body in the water before it disappeared back underneath.

He dove towards it, kicking frantically, and just managed to grasp it before it sank too deeply. The weight nearly dragged him under too, and he fought hard to haul Jack up above the surface. Both of them were weighed down by their sodden, heavy clothes.

“Jack?” he cried, adjusting his grip – the other man was a dead weight in his arms, not moving in the slightest, and Gavin cursed as he realised that he had struck his head on the wooden poles supporting part of the restaurant balcony.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he said, spitting out water. He was working double time to keep them both from sinking, and even then shouting reached his ears.

Turning, he saw boats setting off from the nearby wharf. Little motor boats holding dark figures – Edgar had called in back up, it seemed.

He had to get them out of there.

Adjusting his grip on Jack, he frantically began to swim. For a minute he didn't know where to head, but by some stroke of luck he caught sight of a small pier nearby. Just below it was a small space. In the dark and the rain, maybe they could hide there.

It seemed to take forever to get there, but the boats did not draw too much closer. Jack was reasonably buoyant in the water, but as soon as Gavin hit the land under the pier – a tiny little alcove of sand littered with washed-up rubbish and cigarette butts – he struggled to drag him up out of the water.

Finally he managed to haul him ashore, and then pulled him deeper into the dark shadows until he hit a wall. There was little space here – the pier low above their heads, the water just lapping the sand that they were sitting on – but they were hemmed in by rocks and the pier's support poles, and he hoped the boats would pass them by.

A single, full-body shudder rippled through him – he was so numb that he wasn't even cold any more, and his stomach felt heavy and sick from swallowing so much water. But he could have laughed at that moment because they came for him, he realised suddenly – they had come to rescue him –

His joy was cut short as he turned to Jack, reaching out to check he wasn't about to be washed back into the bay – and realised something.

He wasn't breathing.

 

Chapter Text

Jack woke up coughing, with a pain at the back of his head, an uncomfortable, heavy pressure in his chest, and the strange feeling that someone had just been kissing him.

“Oh thank God,” a familiar British voice said – and he felt cold hands on his back and shoulders, turning him over onto his side as he hacked up what seemed to be the entire bay. And then threw up, for good measure.

Gavin's hand rubbed soothing circles on his back as he fought to catch his breath. What happened? The last thing he remembered was jumping out the window of the restaurant. Then nothing.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a moment to gather himself. He was wet. He was freezing. And his chest hurt like a bitch. Then he looked around. They were in a small, dark space, and he could couldn't quite make out where it was – but the rain outside had eased up a little and slivers of moonlight were slanting into wherever-the-fuck-they-were. Everything looked greyish and eerie, but he could see Gavin sitting next to him, resembling nothing so much as a drowned rat. His eyes were huge and wide with relief.

“Thank God,” Gavin repeated, his voice shaking. “I thought you were dead.”

“What happened?” Jack asked, reaching up to touch his head and wincing massively. His hand came away sticky with blood, which, y'know. Wasn't good.

Gavin smiled faintly. “Uh. We jumped in the water but you hit your head and sort of... drowned? You weren't breathing. Had to give you the bloody kiss of life and all that.”

“Wow. Okay. You can fucking call it CPR you know.”

“Yeah,” Gavin said. “That. Well, we're under the pier now and there're guys on boats out there looking for us. Looks like Edgar called in back up.”

“Right,” Jack said. He made a passing attempt at standing but stopped with a sharp gasp as pain stabbed through his chest. Gavin's hands were quickly on his shoulders, pushing him back down.

“Don't try and move,” he said. “You're probably concussed and I don't bloody know what else. Are the others here?”

It took Jack a moment to recall, which, yeah, probably meant concussed. “Yes,” he said finally. “They are. We split up along the bay, but I told them where I was going. They're probably looking for us as we speak.”

Gavin let out a long, slow breath. “Okay,” he said then. “Okay. We wait it out.”

There was a moment of silence.

Jack didn't think he had ever been so cold in his life; he was shivering violently, his clothes heavy and sodden around him. Matters were not helped by the sharp breeze blowing in under the pier from the inclement weather that was still raging outside. He could hear Gavin's teeth chattering behind him.

“Are you okay?” Jack said suddenly, realising he probably should have asked earlier. “Did he...?”

“I'm fine,” Gavin replied, with a weak sort of grin. “Roughed me up a bit but nothing... nothing too bad. Actually I'm top.”

“You're top?” Jack asked. “Looked like he was seconds away from snapping your throat when I busted in there.”

“Well yeah, but. You know,” Gavin said – and looked down now, his next words close to a mumble. “You came.”

Jack paused. And then he realised what he meant, and turned around abruptly, rounding on Gavin. The other man flinched back violently at the movement, which probably spoke far more about his mental state than any amount of 'I'm fines'.

“Yeah, about that,” he growled, “What the fuck were you thinking?! Running off to Edgar like that? Did you seriously believe he'd let you go? Jesus Christ, Gavin, why would you-” He broke off when he saw how the other was cringing back, all traces of a smile wiped from his face, and forced himself to relax a little. To sink back down against the damp sand – and a moment later the shouting had him breaking into a horrible coughing fit, that odd pressure rising up in his chest again until he was sucking in ragged, wheezing breaths between coughs.

Gavin crawled over to him, a hand reaching out tentatively then drawing back. But when Jack continued to cough, he seemed to gather his courage and reached out to thump at his back – which actually helped, because a moment later more water shot from his lungs.

“I'm sorry,” Gavin said – something like pleading in his tone. “I'm bloody sorry, okay, I didn't – I was stupid, I know that. God knows people tell me it enough for it to get through my head by now. But I... I got scared, I didn't...” He trailed off, swallowing audibly.

“I really didn't think you guys would come,” he said, in a small voice.

Jack felt his anger drain away abruptly, maybe from exhaustion, maybe from the raw, almost childlike desperation in Gavin's tone. He let out a heavy sigh, suddenly feeling nothing but tired.

“Anyway,” Gavin continued quietly after a moment. “He wasn't going to kill me. Not until I'd told him what he wanted.”

Jack blinked. “You mean you didn't?”

“What?” And Gavin sounded indignant now. “Jesus, no! Of course not! I wouldn't sell you guys out like that!”

“You really didn't tell him anything?” Because the thing was – the thing was, Jack had been sure. When it came down to it, Gavin really didn't owe them anything at all, wasn't nearly close enough to them to have the sort of loyalty that let a person hold up under torture. And Jack had seen it before – people selling out Geoff as soon as they got the chance, or a better offer, or to save their own skins. When you had as many enemies as they did you had to pick your friends closely and wisely. You couldn't just trust every Tom, Dick and Harry you hired for a job.

“No,” Gavin repeated. “And I never intended to. That's not why I left. I...” he broke off, looking away. “I might have. Eventually, if he. If he'd hurt me worse, I mean, I can't lie. I don't know what was going to happen. But it didn't get to that, and I. I tried, okay?”

“Okay,” Jack replied, simply – and Gavin glanced at him, eyes meeting his in the darkness for a brief moment before darting away.

“Are you angry?” he asked, after a minute.

Jack sighed heavily, running a hand over his face. “Yes. No. I don't know. Geoff is – but not because he thinks you betrayed us,” he added quickly, as alarm flashed over Gavin's face. “Because you didn't trust us enough to believe that we weren't gonna ditch you. That's... that's what the others are all mad about.”

“Oh,” Gavin said, and let out a heavy breath with something like realisation. “I... I'm sorry.”

Another silence.

Jack pulled his knees up to his chest, jamming his hands under his armpits in a useless attempt to preserve some warmth. His own teeth were chattering now, and he felt vaguely sick, the dank smell of the bay water raising nausea in the pit of his stomach.

Beside him, Gavin couldn't stop fidgeting, crossing and uncrossing his legs, wrapping his arms around himself.

“Edgar killed someone,” he said abruptly. Jack looked over at him. His eyes were unfocused, gazing out into the darkness. He looked almost lost. Like he was barely aware he was talking and the words were slipping out anyway. “He... he killed someone really, really badly.” A half-hysterical laugh. “I can't stop thinking about it?”

Something uneasy started up in Jack. He felt like he ought to reach out, or say something, but the words wouldn't come.

“I didn't realise that... that people could be that sick,” Gavin continued. “I mean. People do bad things. But not like that. Not something that... horrible.” Another huff. “I didn't spill on you. But I was scared. I've been scared for a bloody long time. That's why I ran from you guys. I needed to just get out, to... not feel like that anymore, at least for a bit.”

“Gavin...”

“I don't cry, you know.” He said it matter of factly, something oddly clinical in his tone. “Not since I was a kid. I don't know why, I just... it's not something I do. Sometimes I wish I could because otherwise it just... stays inside. It stays inside.” He looked down, wrapping his arms tighter around his body. “A lot of bad things happened. A lot. Ryan knows. And he left me anyway and that – that's why I ran.”

“What do you mean, Ryan knows?” Jack asked – but Gavin just shook his head before resting it on his arms, turning his face away from Jack.

In that moment Jack felt any residual anger and annoyance he might have held draining away. Because Gavin just sounded worn down now, like he'd seen too much, been through too much.

It had been easy to dislike him when he was just a loose cannon, a liability, a faulty product that Burnie had fobbed off on them. It was much, much harder when they were sitting here, alone, shivering in the cold together and a jagged edge to his voice like broken glass.

His chest heaved again, more coughs rising in his throat as he doubled over, struggling to draw a full breath between hacking gasps. Gavin scooted over to his side again, rubbing his shoulder helplessly.

“That, um, doesn't sound good,” he said, tentatively.

“It's too cold,” Jack stated – the others hadn't come yet and his earpiece was dead silent; broken from the water, or maybe it had fallen out – he couldn't muster the energy to reach up and check.

“We don't... we can't make a damn fire or anything,” Gavin started. “But you're right, we're gonna freeze to death. It's dangerous, especially for you, I think you're sick.”

A thought came to him, rising sluggishly from the depths of his mind, something half-remembered that he'd heard at some point but couldn't quite recall where or when.

“Take your clothes off,” he said.

Gavin drew back from him a little. “Um. What.

“Our clothes are wet. It's making it worse. We need to get them off. Or we'll both catch our death.” He was already moving to undo the buttons of his shirt, though it was hard, his fingers were shaking so much.

Gavin had pulled back by now, looking at him with something like alarm. “I don't... you're having a laugh, right? That's not... Jesus Christ, okay, you're actually undressing.”

“We're both shaking like fuck, Gavin, I can barely feel my fingertips anymore.” He finally got his shirt open, shrugging it off his shoulders. “Now's not the time to be shy.”

“I don't...” Gavin flailed helplessly for a few minutes – but upon realising that Jack was, indeed, going through with stripping off as he moved to pull his tank off over his head, he sighed, shoulders slumping in resignation, and began to unzip his own jacket.

Jack curled in on himself. It actually felt – well, not warmer, but less-cold without his wet clothes clinging to him. By now he had reached the point of barely being able to feel anything anyway.

“I think I heard somewhere that sitting back to back transfers the most body heat,” he began, turning to Gavin – only to freeze as he watched the other man pull his shirt off over his head.

Scars.

His back was covered in scars – big enough, bad enough that even in the dim darkness of the pier Jack could see them clearly. He saw Gavin tense as he heard the words died in his throat, arms moving to wrap around himself as he turned around. There were more on his chest, and for a moment Jack felt sick.

“That... that wasn't Edgar,” he began – they looked far too old – and Gavin shook his head. And Jack could see him starting to freak out, could hear the way his breath was picking up – he quickly shifted over on the ground, turning away from him.

If Gavin didn't want him to look, he wouldn't look.

“Come on,” he said. “Back to back.”

Gavin hesitated, but after a moment Jack heard him settle behind him, and a second later the cool, trembling skin of his back pressed against Jack's. Neither one of them was nearly warm enough to be generating any sort of heat, but Jack felt far less cold than he had sitting around in his wet clothes, so they were doing something right at least.

But those scars.

Everyone else in the house had basically been walking on eggshells around Gavin since the Corpirate's mansion, and it was fairly obvious from what Michael had told them about what happened that there was more to him not wanting to go into the field than pure cowardice. But this – somehow, Jack hadn't expected this. Hadn't quite thought to look past Gavin's generally lighthearted demeanour to the possibility that things weren't as peachy as they seemed.

“Is that what you meant by Ryan knows?” he asked suddenly, the thought striking him.

Gavin was so silent for a moment that Jack thought he was just going to ignore the question. Then he felt him take a shaky breath.

“Yeah,” he replied, quietly. “He saw. When we were sharing a tent that one time.”

“Does he know the full story?”

“No one knows the full story,” Gavin said. “Just me and Dan and... well, apparently Edgar and Shadles found out somehow.” He let out a somewhat pained noise and Jack felt something ache within him. And he'd accused Geoff of having a soft spot for Gavin – but damn if he himself wasn't starting to get concerned now.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

“What do you care?” Gavin shot back instantly.

The words felt like a test. Jack wondered if Ryan had pushed, if he'd tried to find out more.

“I care,” Jack said. “I'm not... I'm not heartless, Gavin, far from it. Jesus. I find you annoying as fuck sometimes, not gonna lie, but. I was worried when we thought Edgar had gotten you. My boyfriend has basically latched onto you like a mother duck. Whatever Edgar put in your head – whatever whoever gave you those put in your head – we all care about you.”

It took saying it out loud to realise it was true – somewhere along the line, they'd all gotten closer. Gavin was still tense behind him, but Jack could tell he was listening with rapt attention.

“There are other ways to let things out than crying,” he continued, softly. “And there are things you can't just ignore or they eat away at you. The things Geoff and I have done – some of the shit we've seen – you try deal with it on your own, it'll drive you crazy.”

More silence.

When Gavin did speak, it was so quietly that Jack had to strain to hear above the whistle of the wind and the soft lap of water against the sand.

“I... it was on the last job I took. Some guy had turned on his friends – they were a small crew, pretty close-knit – and he'd ruined a couple of weapons deals they had going. So they wanted me to help hunt him down so they could kill him. They thought he was running with another gang so they brought in a bunch of mercenaries for extra manpower – Dan was one of them. He and I got pretty close, I don't know, we got on well.”

A shaky breath.

“Anyway, it took me a while to find him. He kept moving around, he'd gone underground – then he finally popped out and they went to intercept him, only it turns out he wasn't running with another gang, he was with some smuggling kingpin called Barry. Way bigger and way more dangerous than anything we'd expected. And as soon as the guys I was working for realised he was after them they just...” he trailed off, helplessly, and almost involuntarily Jack found himself reaching back around him. Fumbling in the dark until he found Gavin's hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

“They just left me.” It came out in a rush of breath. “You wonder why I need special precautions all the time? Because these guys took none, they didn't give a fuck about what happened to me. They split as soon as they could and didn't so much as bother with me. I was just – expendable, now that I'd done what they needed me for. Just bait for Barry to find so that he'd be satisfied and not get after them. And it worked, he found me, and – he was pissed that we'd killed a couple of his guys, so he took it out on me. And then found I could be useful, so I was forced to work for him for a bit.”

There was raw anger and pain in his tone and Jack could feel his heart sinking with every word. He and Geoff had cycled through a lot of employees, hired guns and consultants over the years. And even if they'd never gotten close to them, Geoff had been a good boss, for what it was worth – had always done what he could to ensure their safety. Had never left someone behind on a job.

And fuck, no wonder Gavin had run, given what Ryan had done to him. Given the way Jack and Michael alike had had a go at his need for extra security.

“But you got out of there,” he said, quietly, and felt Gavin nod.

“I got out of there,” he repeated, dully. “I thought I was a goner. That he was gonna kill me or I'd just be – stuck there for the rest of my life, working for him. But then Dan showed up. He thought I had run along with the others but when he realised I had gone missing, well, he worked it out and came to find me. And he killed Barry and got me out of there. Can you believe it? He was literally just the hired gun, not even someone I was working for. And he was the only one who gave a damn. That's why I trusted Ryan at first, you know, he – reminded of me of him. Guess I thought he'd play the same role.”

“Gavin...”

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway.” He pulled his hand from Jack's. “Dan got me out. And I went back home and he came with me and I... recovered. I guess. Except I... I wasn't really scared of anything before, but now I'm scared of practically everything. Of getting caught, and pain, and being alone. I can't sleep. God damn it, I shouldn't – I shouldn't have taken this job with you because now it's fucked us all over-”

And here was the thing – Jack might be more cautious than Geoff, he might get annoyed easily, but if he was one thing it was kind – Michael and Ray had wormed their way into his affections easily, and fuck if Gavin hadn't too, over the course of the last, like, twenty-five minutes.

He turned, grabbing Gavin's shoulders abruptly.

“Listen,” he said, firmly, “You haven't, okay? You didn't fuck us all over. You said Edgar knew about this? Shadles too? They played on that, Gavin – that's not your fault. And we can hardly blame you for it when Ryan contributed as well. When I contributed. To making you feel unsafe, or like you couldn't trust us – that's on us, okay? Not you.”

Gavin just stared up at him, something almost hopeful in his eyes.

“And we came for you,” Jack continued. “”We didn't even think twice about it. The others have been worried sick. Geoff cares about you. Ray and Michael would probably kill anyone who looked at you the wrong way. Even Ryan told me he was trying to apologise to you for what happened.”

“And you?” Gavin asked, almost a whisper.

Jack swallowed.

“I care too,” he said. “So you don't have to be scared, okay? I know that won't stop you being, but. Just know that you're not alone. The shit that happened with your last group, it's not gonna happen here. Even if you don't trust me – trust Geoff. Okay?”

“Okay,” he replied – and sounded like he believed it, too. It seemed just the act of their coming after him had been reassurance enough.

There was a slightly awkward pause as they sat, staring at each other in the dark. Then Jack reached forward and pulled Gavin against his chest in a crushing hug. He felt the other's arms come up and pull tight around his back. And they were still both shaking, bare skin cold and clammy where it was pressed against each other, and he could feel the rough scars on Gavin's back under his hands – but he could also feel Gavin's heartbeat, pounding fast against his, a steady if rapid thrum, still-alive still-alive still-alive – the soft “thank you,” the other murmured against his ear – that was enough for now.

 


 

Jack had identified the restaurant as on the east side of the bay with a yellow tarpaulin out the front. This description proved to be very unnecessary. Ray and Ryan – who had arrived more quickly than the others, being closer by to start with – could tell instantly which building it was, as it was the only one currently burning to the ground.

“What the fuck is up with you people and setting things on fire?” Ryan growled, as he brought the car up to a stop.

“You guys there?” Geoff asked, sounding strained. Jack's earpiece had cut out some moments ago. They'd heard gunshots and sounding and a brief snatch of what sounded like Gavin's voice. Then shattering glass, and nothing.

“Yeah,” Ryan replied. “The whole building's alight. There's no way they're still in there.”

“Look,” Ray said, pointing. A bunch of cars were pulling up along the harbour, a little way away, and a group of men getting out. It seemed that Edgar had had reinforcements nearby, and as they watched they moved towards a deck of motorboats and started heading out along the bay.

Ray and Ryan got out of the car, heading for a footbridge leading down onto the beach, just out of vision of the others.

“There,” Ray hissed suddenly, catching a flash of movement near the restaurant. He grabbed Ryan's arm, turning him to face the building.

Two figures had stumbled out of a side door, accompanied by a massive plume of smoke. The duck and Edgar, it seemed – and at the sight of him, Ray literally felt Ryan stiffen in his grasp.

Ray raised his rifle. “I can take a shot at him.”

“Too late,” Ryan grunted – sure enough, some of the guards had made their way over to Edgar and were already surrounding him. There was no way they'd get a clean shot from here.

As they watched, Edgar waved a hand towards the bay, then turned away and, still escorted by his security, moved off towards a car parked out the front of the burning building.

Ray glanced carefully at Ryan. He couldn't tell what the other was thinking, just knew that he'd gone very still and very quiet.

A crackle of static in the earpiece.

“You guys find Edgar?” Michael asked. “Ryan? What's happening?”

“We found him.” Ryan's voice was quiet and harsh.

“You going after him?” Geoff asked, carefully.

Ryan leaned forward, gripping the rail of the footbridge tightly. Edgar's car began to drive off. After a few minutes he turned away and caught Ray's eye, staring at him for a long moment.

“No,” he said, voice low and grim. “It's not the time to kill him. We need to find Jack and Gavin.”

Ray heard Michael let out a breath, felt himself relax – the last thing they needed was Ryan running off on a vendetta right now.

“They're searching the water,” Ryan said then, his sharp gaze darting back to the bay. “They must have jumped in, escaped the fire that way. You guys circle around and we'll search this side.”

“Okay,” Geoff said. “Stay in touch.”

“Thank you,” Ray said quietly, as they headed down towards the beach.

“What for?” Ryan asked – and he might have chosen to stay but his voice was still low, quiet, harsh – an edge to it that Ray had heard before when he started poking into his background.

“For not leaving,” Ray replied. “For not going after Edgar.”

“It's not the time,” Ryan said grimly.

They descended onto the sand. This stretch of coast was empty and deserted at this time of night, the sour smell of sewerage and kelp hanging in the air. But out on the water there was light and noise. Most of the men were in boats by now, but a couple were still on the docks, taking pot shots at the water.

Ray wondered, abruptly, if Gavin could swim. He assumed so, but the water was still lashing and churning in the storm, and suddenly he wasn't sure where to start.

“Do you think they're still in the water?” he asked, leaning in closer to Ryan.

Ryan was watching the water with a frown. “Hard to tell. There's any number of places along the shore they could have stopped off.”

Ray raised his rifle, peering through the scope to get a closer look. The boats were starting to split off to search different areas. The water was moving too much; he couldn't see any sign of Gavin or Jack but it was hard to tell in the dark and the rain.

He lowered the gun, shaking his head. “Can't see them.”

“We need to take out some of those boats,” Ryan mused. “It'll be better if we're on both sides of the beach.”

Ray nodded up towards the men on the dock, still firing out at the water. “They'll see us if we move any closer. Gotta take them out first.”

“Hmm,” was all Ryan said, and he went very quiet again. Ray turned back to scoping out the water, assuming that the other was coming up with some sort of plan. He could hear Michael and Geoff talking quietly between themselves, searching down the other side of the bay, but tuned them out. After a few moments he took his glasses off, wiping them on the edge of his hoodie to get water droplets off – nothing was more fucking annoying than rain getting on the lens.

A hand seized his arm and he jumped, turning to see Ryan. In the dark of the night and the storm his eyes were barely visible; little more than two shadowy holes in his skull mask. By all accounts it should have been frightening, but Ray didn't feel scared.

“Do you trust me?” Ryan asked, still holding onto him. His grip was warm and firm just above Ray's elbow.

“What?” Ray asked, staring up at him.

“Do you trust me?” Ryan demanded. He shifted a little, the angle bringing his face out of the shadows and into the moonlight where his eyes became visible again. Something almost nervous built up in Ray's stomach.

“...yes,” he said.

It was true. God help him, he had no idea why, but he did trust Ryan.

“Okay.” Ryan released him to point across the beach towards a pier just a little way beyond the restaurant. “I need you to run over there. That way we can shoot from both sides, take out some of the boats and get a better look around.”

The pier was a good hundred metres away. Ray's gaze darted over to the men on the dock.

“They'll see me,” he said. “I won't be able to shoot at them on the run.”

“I'll cover you,” Ryan replied. “They'll be distracted when they see you move and I can take them out.”

Ray hesitated.

“What's going on?” Michael asked suddenly, having caught onto part of their conversation.

“Nothing,” Ray replied. “We think they're somewhere in the water. Trying to get across to have a better look.” He glanced up, met Ryan's eyes again. “Okay. Let's do it.”

Ray turned. He took a deep breath and then ran.

Running on sand was not easy. It felt like the longest 100m of his life. He felt bullets whistle past him, piercing the sand by his feet – Ryan's breathing heavy in his ear – but none of them struck him, and the gunfire had died down by the time he, panting, reached the pier.

“Took them out,” Ryan grunted. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Ray said, turning back to look at him – the men who had been up on the dock had vanished, presumably now lying dead on the floor. But the firefight had drawn the attention of the men in the boats, and the closest few were already turning to aim at Ray.

He took them out with relative ease, having the advantage of both the high ground and a more long-range weapon. Unfortunately, a misfire seemed to hit the engine of one of the motorboats, and the whole thing exploded in a pillar of flames that quickly had all the other, more distant boats turning to see what the commotion was.

“Oh, crap,” Ray said. “I got a bunch of people heading towards me.”

“I'll come over to you,” Ryan replied. “Let me just look around here quickly, make sure they're not hiding on this side.”

“Yeah,” Ray said, ducking back behind the columns of the pier. “No rush, there's only half a dozen guys with guns running towards me.”

He stopped to reload, peeking out in time to see one of the boats dock and the men get out. They were making a beeline for him, and he shot down two of them before he was forced to duck back again behind cover.

Fearful of ending up surrounded, he snuck down the side of the peer, staying on the move as he managed to take down several more. By now the others had reached him, though, and he was caught off guard when one of them came out from under the pier, taking a shot at him and missing before throwing a punch instead.

Ray ducked the blow, pacing backwards as he struggled to raise his gun in time – in his peripheral vision he saw another two guys closing in under the distraction – when suddenly a swift shadow moved up next to him and stabbed his attacker with brutal efficiency.

In the dark, with his mask and black jacket, Ryan looked like an angel of death. Ray had always favoured ranged weapons to knives and clubs, but Ryan moved now with such agility, almost elegancy; yanking his blade from one man's throat only to slash another's, taking down all three men within the space of a few minutes.

Ray could do little but watch, almost awestruck – this was the mercenary he'd heard so many stories about, the assassin with the hundred percent success rate.

Something stirred at the back of his mind – and he realised, with no small amount of bemusement, that he almost found it attractive. Not the murder – God no, he wasn't that far gone yet – but the skill of it. The same way he found Michael attractive, when he was intent and focused on building a bomb, or the childish glee of his smile when he blew up something satisfying.

Ryan turned to him, blood dripping from the knife in his hand, breathing heavily from the run over. Again, Ray figured he should at least be nervous, standing under a bridge with a serial killer – but he didn't.

“Alright?” he asked.

Ray nodded. “Fine. Nice work,” he added, nodding at the bodies littering the sand. “I'm impressed. Ten out of ten. Glad I'm on your side.”

He fancied Ryan smiled at that, though he couldn't tell under the mask.

“They don't seem to be around here,” Ryan said, frowning as he looked around. There were sheds and buildings further along, and the men were beginning to search there.

“I think we're overestimating them,” Ray said suddenly, an idea striking him.

“What do you mean?” Ryan asked.

“Assuming they jumped out of the window into the water,” Ray mused, “Those guys are searching way over here, we are too – but I really don't think they could have gotten that far away? I mean, Gavin looked like shit even before he left, we're assuming he hasn't been injured since. Hitting the water from the height of that window would be jarring. And look at how like, stormy it is out there. Not easy to swim.”

“You think they're closer to the restaurant,” Ryan said, and Ray nodded.

“Yeah.” He turned back down the beach towards the burning restaurant and pointed at a second pier, much closer by. “Around there maybe.”

“It's that or they've drowned by now,” Ryan muttered, grimly, which Ray did not find reassuring in the slightest. They headed off.

“You're very...” Ryan began after a minute, and then trailed off as though unsure.

Ray glanced up at him. “What?”

“If it had been Geoff or Michael with me,” Ryan continued, “I think they would have insisted that I do the running and they do the covering.”

“Heard my name,” Michael broke into their conversation, sounding distracted. “You guys talking shit about us?”

“Yes,” Ray replied instantly. “Hey, we're heading over closer to the restaurant, you guys keep looking around the rest of the area just in case.”

“Gotcha,” Michael said, still sounding suspicious. Ray caught Ryan's eye and grinned widely.

“Maybe you're right,” he said then, in answer to his earlier statement. “But I'm pretty sure you don't want me dead just yet. If anything, I trusted you were a good enough shot to take out those guys before they took out me.”

“Hmm,” Ryan replied.

By this point they had reached the pier; it was a smaller one, leading out from a rocky outcrop near a bunch of storage sheds and some old looking trucks. The smell of smoke was thick and heavy, hanging over the still burning building, and Ray could hear sirens faintly in the distance. It figured someone had called the fire department by now; probably the police too given the gunshots.

“Better move fast before the popo show up,” he murmured. The rocks leading out towards the pier were slippery, and he was surprised when Ryan picked his way over first before holding out a hand. After a moment Ray took it, letting the other man help him across.

“Thanks,” he said, and Ryan nodded before moving off to scan the water around them.

Ray was just turning to move across to the sheds when he heard a noise, and paused. It was faint, but by all accounts it sounded like someone have a coughing fit – and it was coming from underneath them.

“Ryan,” he called, and the other man strode over, stopping in his tracks as he heard it too.

“They're under the pier,” Ryan said, already turning to jump down over the side. Ray was hot on his heels. Sure enough, there was a small, dark space between the cliff and the pier, and Ryan pulled a torch from his jacket and switched it on, ducking his head as he entered.

“Jack?” Ray called out as he followed. “Gavin- oh thank God.”

The beam of Ryan's torch fell on Jack and Gavin, crouched in the darkness, both of them flinching back at the sudden bright light. Jack was hunched over, coughing violently; Gain kneeling behind him rubbing his back. Both of them looked like shit, they were practically blue with cold and wracked by constant shivers. There was blood dripping down the side of Jack's head and though Gavin was mostly hidden behind Jack's body, Ray could see dark bruising around his throat. It made something curl in his stomach, something angry and protective.

“Shit,” Ryan was saying, already stripping his jacket off, “You guys look half frozen to death. Come on, Edgar's men are searching off the other side. We need to get you to the car.”

Noticing that both of them were shirtless, Ray took off his own hoodie, hurrying to Gavin's side. Even through his t-shirt the chill of the rainy night air hit him – which fuck, fuck, it must be even worse for two people who were soaked to the bone. He handed the hoodie to Gavin and tried to help him put it on, but Gavin turned away, sinking back into the shadows out of range of the torchlight. Ray frowned, but let him be.

Ryan was helping Jack so he focused on Gavin, pulling him to his feet as soon as he was done dressing. He was shaking like hell, teeth chattering noisily, but seemed completely oblivious to the fact, like he was so cold by this point that he couldn’t even tell.

“Are you okay?” Ray whispered, looping one arm tight around his waist as he helped him out from under the pier.

Gavin gave a jerking nod. “I- yeah. Thanks for coming.”

“We found them,” Ryan was saying into the earpiece – he was moving up ahead, helping Jack along. “Heading back to the car now but I think you two should wait back here and hold the others off, make sure they're distracted so we can get away.”

“Is Jack alright?” was Geoff's first question, quick and panicked.

“Yeah,” Ryan replied, “They're both half drowned and freezing but we're getting them back home now. Meet us at the house.”

“Gavin okay?” It was Michael who asked, and Ray saw Ryan turn back over his shoulder to look at them. Ray shot him a thumbs-up, and Ryan said, “Yeah, he's okay.”

Gavin stayed huddled into his side, Ray practically hugging him as they moved along. Neither he nor Jack was moving at all fast, and it was slow, torturous work to get them up the beach to where they'd left the car, wondering at any minute if Edgar's guys still out on the water would spy them moving and come after them. But a moment later there was another explosion from one of the boats – it seemed Michael and Geoff were effectively distracting them.

 


 

“Get the heat on,” Ryan ordered, as soon as they were back inside the house. “The kettle, too.”

Ray nodded, moving quickly to obey. There was a gas fireplace in the living room which he switched on before moving to boil water in the kitchen. He heard Ryan running the shower in the next room. When he returned to the lounge Gavin was the only one in there, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire with a towel and two blankets around his shoulders. He was still pale but his lips weren't blue anymore, which was always a good sign.

“Where's Jack?” Ray asked, coming to sit next to him and handing over a cup of tea.

Gavin looked over at him and mustered a small smile. Ray watched him carefully; genuinely unsure how he was holding up. Everyone had been quiet in the car, but considering they were on the verge of passing out, that was to be expected.

“In the shower with Ryan,” Gavin replied, voice still a little shaky but edging closer to normal than it had been. “He got the worse of it I think.”

“Geoff gonna be okay with that?” Ray joked, and Gavin's lips twitched up again. Ray could barely help grinning himself; a wide, stupid grin at nothing more than the fact that Gavin at least still had the capability to smile. He'd been afraid – so terribly, unexplainably afraid – of that state the other might be on his return. Smiling was a good start.

“He'll have a lot to be upset about if he isn't,” Gavin said, “Considering I kissed Jack earlier.”

“What?” Ray asked, taken aback.

“Bloody CPR and all that,” Gavin added quickly, and Ray nodded, understanding dawning.

“Ah right. Maybe start with that part when you tell him.”

Gavin nodded, turning away and wrapping his hands around the mug of tea. Ray watched him, taking him in – the sharp line of his cheek against the firelight, the yellowing bruises still staining his jawline. The deep relief that settled in him at the sight of him, alive and well, was exhausting.

He reached out and Gavin flinched a little. Ray frowned, but just moved the towel away from his neck to get a look at the bruises.

“Did he hurt you?” he asked, his voice coming out lower and angrier than intended.

Gavin shook his head. “He... no, not too badly. He um.” He paused, squeezed his eyes shut. “He killed some other guy but I don't want to talk about it.”

“That's cool, man, just... tell me if you need anything. I mean it,” he added, when Gavin gave a generic sort of nod. “Anything. You need food, or you want to talk, or you want to like cuddle or some shit, I don't care. Just tell me and I'll do it for you.”

“Thanks X-Ray,” Gavin said then. “You're lovely. But it's enough that you came to get me.”

“Yeah, I'm holding off on the ranting because you look tired as hell and you just had what I imagine was a horrifyingly traumatic experience, but later on we are absolutely talking about the fact that you didn't trust me enough to stick around,” Ray said – and Gavin nodded, looking away again.

Ray frowned again. He had no idea what had happened with Edgar, but Gavin was behaving almost alarmingly normally. And in Ray's experience, the longer you tried to act unaffected, the more things got bottled up inside. It wasn't healthy.

But tonight wasn't the time to bring it up, to try and start a sharing and caring session or what fucking ever, so he left it, and they sat in silence beside the fire for a while, their knees touching, before he got up to go and make some soup.

By the time he got back Jack and Ryan had rejoined Gavin by the fire. Though Gavin seemed the more battered up, he had thawed out quite quickly, while Jack still looked on the verge of drowning, huddled in a large pile of blankets so close to the fire he was in danger of being set alight.

“Got food,” Ray said, passing the bowls over, and Jack turned to him with a slight smile. His eyes still seemed a little unfocused, and Ray frowned – Gavin had mentioned him hitting his head earlier. It figured he was concussed.

“Geoff called,” Ryan said, quietly. “They're on their way back.”

“Did you see Edgar?” Gavin asked – and Ryan nodded.

“Yes. He escaped with the duck.”

Gavin blinked a bit. “You didn't... you didn't go after him?”

“No,” Ryan replied, and looked intently at him. “We were focused on finding you.”

Gavin stared at him for a moment before turning away to fiddle with his soup spoon, seeming deep in thought.

“You don't look too hot, Jack,” Ray said, changing the subject – and Jack turned to him with a mock scowl.

“Fuck you too, Ray.” Then added, in a sing-song, whiny tone, “I'm telling my boyfriend you said that!”

“Oh no,” Ray replied, “Big scary Ramsey will come after me.” He dropped the joke when Jack started laughing and ended up coughing again. “Seriously, uh, are you gonna collapse and asphyxiate in front of us or something? Because that would be... bad.”

Ryan reached out and felt Jack's forehead. He frowned.

“You have a slight fever,” he said, “And I don't like the sound of that cough.”

“I'm fine,” Jack began, but Ryan shook his head.

“God knows how much water you breathed in before Gavin pulled you out. We can't take you to a hospital, though, we'd be sitting ducks for Edgar. Nothing we can do but wait it out and hope it clears up on its own.”

He glanced at Gavin. “You – let me check those ribs, make sure Edgar didn't break anything. Last thing we need is someone's lung suddenly collapsing on us.”

“I'm fine,” Gavin said – but it was Ray who his gaze darted to, almost nervously, and suddenly Ray felt like he was missing something, was left out of the loop somehow.

Ryan shook his head. “Let me check. We can do it in the bedroom.”

After a moment Gavin got up, gathering his blankets with him, and they moved towards the stairs.

“Um, okay,” Ray said. “I'm slightly confused.”

“He doesn't want you to see his bruises,” Jack said. It was a lie, Ray could tell – but it was a strange enough lie that he didn't call Jack out on it.

“You gonna die on us?” he asked instead, and Jack shook his head with a chuckle.

“Nah. Takes more than a bit of water to get rid of me.”

“Good,” Ray said. “I'd probably miss you, y'know.”

“Aww, Ray. I'm touched.”

“Is it just me or is Ryan being remarkably nice?” Ray asked then. It had been – well, not bugging him, but making him curious since they got back. “I mean, I know he's not an asshole, but normally the moment he starts showing any sign of caring he suddenly snaps back into 'detached robot' mode.”

“He is being oddly nice,” Jack agreed. “But like you said. He's not an asshole. Guess he's just not bothering to hide it anymore.”

A few moments later he got up. Ray glanced at him, confused, and Jack smiled.

“I'm tired as fuck and the others don't look like they'll be back for a bit. Gonna go have a lie down.”

“Don't go to sleep if you're concussed,” Ray said.

“Don't worry, I won't.”

He headed back, and Ray pulled out his phone, realising he had missed a text from Michael just a couple of minutes ago.

'On our way back, might be a bit late b/c we're worried about being followed.'

'OK,' Ray typed back, 'see you in a bit.' Except he paused before sending it, suddenly wondering if he should add something more.

Now that they weren't running on adrenaline, fuelled by the urgency of the rescue mission or worry about the others, the memories of the kiss he and Michael had shared earlier came flooding back to him, heat rising to his chest and sending pleasant tingles through his stomach.

It hadn't been an impulsive decision.

The timing had been impulsive – he'd been tired, and worried about Gavin, and suddenly, strangely paranoid that something would happen to Michael as well. But for a few days beforehand he had taken Jack's words into account – had reevaluated his relationship with Michael, had considered what it might mean to take it further. And the more he thought about it – the more he tentatively reached out, testing the waters – it became increasingly apparent that Michael was the most important thing in his life; the only person he was close to. If something happened to him – if he died, or left, or what else – Ray realised he would quite literally have nothing to go on for. They were a team, the two of them, and he had very little inclination to continue in the business on his own.

So he had taken a chance on it – and, it seemed, it had been the right one – suddenly the future stretching out ahead of them was new and exciting; not just an endless string of jobs and the occasional frolic with a girl or boy who meant nothing. But change – good change – making something new with the person he cared most in the world about.

He was looking forward to it.

But it still felt too awkward, too new to end a text message with anything extra (and he couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of what Michael would think if he suddenly started signing everything off with 'xx' or '<3' – unless it was in an ironic way, because they were assholes who delighted in taking the piss out of anything nice and cute and joyful).

So he sent it off as it was, and a few moments later Michael replied with a simple ':)' that he couldn't help but grin at.

':),' he sent back.

 


 

It was an hour and a half later by the time the others returned. Ray was sitting on the couch, Gavin curled up next to him with his head on Ray's shoulder and the other's arm tight around him, the blankets pulled over them both. He had his eyes shut but Ray was pretty sure he wasn't sleeping. Still, if silence and touch was what was most helpful for him right now, that's what he would give him – and they sat in a companionable quiet, as he gently rubbed Gavin's arm, cocooned in the warm nest of blankets.

Ryan sat at the table nearby, cleaning his gun and watching them. He didn't speak, just glanced across at them now and then, but there was no tension in the room. He only rose every twenty minutes or so to go and check on Jack.

When Geoff and Michael finally entered, moving wearily through the door trailing smoke and gunpowder, the first thing Ryan did was rise and ask, “Were you followed?”

Geoff shook his head. “No – but they had a damn good try and we reckon they're looking for us now.”

Gavin had sat up at their entrance and Michael made a beeline for the couch. For a moment he hesitated, seeing the two of them huddled so close together – but then he plonked himself down on Gavin's either side, drawing a yelp as he accidentally pulled all the blankets off them.

“You fucking idiot,” Michael said, though there was no malice in his tone. “I am this close to smacking you. What the fuck were you thinking running off on us like that?! I fucking help you narrowly escape the jaws of Edgar only for you to go fucking running back into them?! I'm actually confused about how someone could be that fucking dumb!” He was nearly screaming by this point, but then, as quickly as flicking a switch, the anger melted from his features, replaced by a relieved grin.

“Anyway,” he said, and reached out to ruffle Gavin's hair. “You okay, boi?”

Gavin nodded with a half-smile, seeming relieved that Michael's anger stemmed from worry more than any sort of genuine offence.

“Do cows even have jaws?” he asked then, and Michael nearly choked on his own spit.

“Dude. What the fuck. How the fuck do you think they eat? Fucking everything has jaws!”

“But not like, jaws like a shark!” Gavin cried, weakly, and Michael shook his head.

“Jesus fucking Christ, I can't believe you. What the fuck do you think jaws are? You don't need sharp teeth or a gaping maw to have them. Humans have jaws. It is clear this ordeal has not knocked any sort of sense into you. Fucking hell.” He sank back into the couch with a huff, but his lips were twitching in amusement and after a moment Gavin gave one of his squeaking giggles.

Geoff had wandered over too by this point.

“You're an idiot,” he informed Gavin, but reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “And I'm sure the others have drilled this into your head already, but we're not about to abandon you, so please do us the great favour of not forcing us to go running off on a rescue mission again. Now, where's Jack?” he asked, turning to Ryan, who pointed towards the stairs.

Both older men wandered out of the room, leaving the lads on the couch. Ray glanced over at Michael, who smiled at him, small and soft as though over some shared secret. Gavin was still sitting between them on the couch, but Michael reached back over his head and squeezed Ray's shoulder.

“...don't think it's too serious,” Ryan's voice drifted back down the stairs as he and Geoff returned. They paused in the hallway and Ray twisted around on the couch to look at them.

“He's still coughing like fuck and his fever's only getting worse.” There was barely suppressed panic in Geoff's tone. “What if he takes a sudden downhill turn? You hear all those stories about people who seem fine and then keel over a couple hours later because of like, pneumonia or water in the lungs or some shit.”

“Where are you reading those? The Daily Mail?” Ryan scoffed. “We can't risk going to a hospital.”

Geoff looked looked annoyed – almost angry – but Ryan stood his ground. Ray could tell things were about to get heated, when Gavin piped up from next to him.

“Uhh, we can't stay here,” he said. “Edgar has Shadles working for him – it won't be long before he tracks us down. That's how they knew we were at the mansion, how he knew you were following Beardo – he's got someone similar to me doing what I do for him. And given how many of his people we've taken down by now, he'll be cracking down on us bloody hard.”

“Where can we go?” Geoff demanded. He turned back to Ryan. “One of my other safe houses?”

“He'll have eyes on them by now,” Ryan replied. “We can't go to any of them.”

“Well, what do you fucking suggest then?” Geoff asked, testily. “I don't see you coming up with any fucking better ideas.”

Ryan stared at him in a stony silence, and Ray and Michael exchanged glances.

“I do have one idea,” Ryan said finally – almost hesitantly.

“Pray share,” Geoff replied, folding his arms.

Ryan looked down at him for a long moment. Then he turned towards the couch, looking at the lads – his eyes meeting Ray's for a minute.

“He'll have scoped out all of your hideouts by now,” he sighed at last, “But I've been hiding from him for a couple of years. He doesn't know about my places. We can hole up in my apartment in Achievement City for a bit.”

Ray's mouth nearly dropped open in shock. “You're serious?” he asked.

“I wouldn't offer if I wasn't,” Ryan said, very stiffly.

It was one thing for Ryan to show a couple of them his face, another entirely to reveal where he lived. And Ray fancied that he wasn't at all happy about it; after all, the mad mercenary had gotten into this assuming they'd just work together to take Edgar down and then part ways. But here he was, spilling his hard-kept secrets left and right.

Even Geoff looked taken aback.

“I... okay,” he said finally. “That sounds good. I'll get Jack up, we'll pack up everything from the house and you can lead us there in the cars.”

Ryan gave a curt nod before striding up off to his room.

Geoff moved over to them and turned to address Gavin. “You can get your stuff from the basement alright?”

Gavin nodded, rising and moving downstairs, and they parted ways, Michael and Ray heading off for their rooms together.

“Off to Ryan's place then.” Michael sounded as though he could hardly believe it. “I am curious as fuck as to what that's gonna be like. I can't believe he actually offered.”

“Hey,” Ray said, a thought occurring to him, “Didn't you say when you saw his face that you thought he was handsome?”

Michael gave a wide, amused grin. “Hell yeah I did. An eight at least, maybe a nine.”

“Really? Hm. What do you rate me then?”

Michael tilted his head, jokingly sizing him up. “Hmmm. Solid four, but I love you anyway.”

The words slipped out and he froze awkwardly as he realised what he'd just said, Ray stopping in his tracks as well. It wasn't like they hadn't said them before – jokingly, or occasionally even seriously, but never in a romantic way – but suddenly they seemed charged with something else. Something neither of them was quite ready for yet.

Fuck, Ray thought, already beginning to feel the awkwardness rise up – and he reached out and landed a joking punch to Michael's shoulder.

“Fine. I'd give you, like, a six, so we average out.”

Michael laughed, a touch nervously. “Right. Uh.”

They'd be talking about this later, Ray knew – but for now they headed off to their own rooms, and the nervous buzzing in his stomach wasn't quite unpleasant.

 


 

Jack felt like shit.

He slept most of the car ride away – spent most of the waking moments in a daze, too, not quite sure where they were going or why they were suddenly on the move – and when he did snap back to alertness, it was either to have a coughing fit or because a paranoid Geoff kept interrogating him about inane things like what the date was, or who they were with, or how to spell Kdin's name, just to make sure the condition of his brain wasn't deteriorating.

When he finally managed to drag himself back to full consciousness, his head still feeling somewhat foggy and that dull ache still ever-present in his chest, he realised they were back in the city, pulling up on a quiet, dark suburban street.

“Where are we?” he asked, groggily, and Geoff turned to him.

“Hey! You're awake. What's the date?”

“The same as it was the last time you asked me,” Jack grunted. “I'm fine.”

Geoff reached out and felt his forehead with a frown. “You've still got that fever. Are you cold?”

“A bit.” If anything he felt flu-y, bones aching, congested and plagued by the chills. “You didn't answer me?”

“Oh. We're at Ryan's place,” Geoff said, moving to unbuckle his seatbelt.

Ryan's place?”

“Yeah, the house wasn't safe any more. Come on,” Geoff added – and, rather confused, Jack climbed out and followed him.

The others were getting out of their own cars, similarly parked. Jack still felt out-of-sorts, struggling to remember when Geoff and Michael had gotten back – had he been sleeping? – but somehow they had all ended up here. Out of some instinct his gaze went straight to Gavin, perhaps because concern for him was still stuck at the forefront of his mind. He was hanging back next to Ray, hands shoved deep in his pockets, looking exhausted but otherwise fine. Jack let out a little huff of relief.

Ryan looked up and down the street before giving a nod, seeming satisfied they were not followed. He turned and headed up the street towards an apartment block, the rest of them trailing behind him. Geoff kept one arm across Jack's back, seeming fearful he'd collapse any instant, but after having rested a little in the car he felt marginally better. Certainly alert enough to notice just how tense Ryan was, and he got the impression it wasn't just from the potential threat of Edgar.

He's letting us into his home. Practically the most private person on practically the whole planet! It had been curious, getting to know Ryan after hearing nothing but rumours about him for so long. Putting a personality to the man, realising his often dry sense of humour. There had been something pleasant about finding out that he was just as human as the rest of them.

And despite every protest – Jack could tell he was starting to care about them. It was the only reason he trusted the man. He could deny it all he wanted, but it was obvious he had a soft spot a mile wide for Gavin, Ray too – that even if he furiously refused to acknowledge that they were a team, somewhere along the line they'd become one.

A long driveway led into an apartment complex; a series of modern looking, multi-storey white buildings with fancy glass balconies and narrow, dark-tinted windows. There was something very clinical about it, and it was not at all the sort of place that Jack had expected the mad mercenary to live.

Then again, he supposed that was sort of the point.

Ryan produced a key from his pocket, letting them into one of the buildings where he led them up a flight of stairs to his apartment door. Having entered, he switched on the lights and they all stood rather awkwardly in the living room, all five of them staring around with unabashed curiosity.

The apartment was clinically impersonal in a way that Jack had honestly expected; when your job required moving around so often – not to mention the possible need to pack up and leave any second – no single hide out ever really felt like home.

But despite that, there were still touches about the place, indicators of Ryan's having spent a significant portion of time there. The couch looked comfortable; slightly more crushed on one side than the other. The spines of the books on the small shelf under the window were creased and worn. The coffee table was ringed with watermarks in certain places.

Jack tried to imagine Ryan coming back here after a successful hit; curling up in that spot on the couch with a book – taking off his mask.

Ryan cleared his throat, still seeming somewhat uneasy.

“It's not huge,” he said. “There's only the one bed – Jack, you take that. Otherwise there's the couch, and I think I have a spare mattress and an airbed somewhere. We'll take turns on watches anyway.”

Jack nodded. Geoff nudged him towards the bedroom.

“Dude, you should go to bed now. It's way too late and you're sick. We won't be getting much done tonight – I think we all need to rest up.”

 


 

 

There was something kind of strange about literally sleeping in Ryan's bed. It felt odd somehow, intrusive – especially when he was alone in the room and left to shamelessly look around. He didn't go quite so far as to poke around in Ryan's drawers, and there was little laid about in the room anyway. A copy of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold on the dresser, and that was about it.

He was tired enough that he had half settled down to sleep – pausing now and then to lean over and hack, trying to clear the pressure in his chest – when the door opened and Geoff slipped in.

“Shit, did I wake you?” he whispered, and Jack shook his head, sitting up again.

“Nah, 'm good. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just came to check on you.” He settled on the side of the bed and Jack shifted over to make room for him. For a moment they just sat, relaxing in each other's company, unwinding after the stress of the day. After a few minutes Geoff's hand reached over and found Jack's, their fingers tangling together comfortably.

“Gavin okay?” Jack asked after a second, and Geoff sighed heavily.

“Wish I knew. Kid seems fine but... I don't know. Seems like he has a lot more bottled up than I ever expected.”

Jack bit his lip. “You can say that again.”

“What?” Geoff caught onto his tone, turning to him with a raised eyebrow. “He tell you something out there?”

Jack debated whether or not he should keep his confidence – but Gavin hadn't told him not to tell Geoff, and in all honesty, it was probably better for him to know the full picture. Information was power, especially when up against someone like Edgar – and as they'd seen, even the most seemingly innocuous details of someone's past could be used against them.

So he told him – about the scars, everything Gavin had mentioned to him. Watched Geoff's face slacken in surprise – then harden in anger, to the point where his fists clenched and his moustache was close to bristling.

“He say what happened to his old team?” Geoff uttered finally. “The ones who ditched him?”

Jack shook his head. “Not sure.”

“I find out who they are, I'll slit every one of their God damn throats.” Geoff shook his head, something almost horrified in his eyes. “God that's awful. I mean, shit happens – we've seen it – but to Gavin. Fuck.”

Jack nodded, sighing as he ran a hand restlessly through his beard.

Geoff glanced at him, and his anger melted away into something like a smile. “You warmed up to him too then, huh?”

“Hard not to, stuck out there with him like that,” Jack replied. “Anyway. I don't imagine any of us will be sleeping well the next few nights, but... keep an eye on him.”

“Will do.” Geoff leaned over and planted a kiss on his lips. Then, because he was an asshole, a terrible slobbery one on his cheek until Jack leaned over and shoved him away with a laugh.

“Fuck off,” Jack chuckled. “Go have a nose around, I know you're dying to.”

“Truth,” Geoff said, and rose. “Goodnight then. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

 


 

 

He drifted off after that, a restless doze broken by the occasional rasping cough. Ryan had helpfully brought him a bucket some time earlier, and he found himself spitting out mucus more often than not, though the pressure in his chest never quite seemed to get clearer.

He woke briefly when the door opened again. It was Michael and Ray who peeked into the room – he was tired and dazed enough that he didn't quite register what they were doing there – checking up on him, he assumed, and Ray had brought him a glass of water – but the next time he properly awoke it was dark, most of the lights in the flat out, except for the lamp over by the wardrobe. He sat up groggily at the sound of rustling to find Ryan rummaging through the chest of drawers.

“Ryan?”

Ryan turned around. “Hey. Sorry if I woke you up, I just needed to grab something.”

“It's fine.” He turned and hacked up another glob of phlegm, spitting it into the bucket. He still felt faintly feverish and achey, and didn't think he could get out of bed if he tried at this point. After a moment Ryan came over and checked his temperature again.

“Hmm. Still a bit high,” he said. “But it's not getting worse, so. There's that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

Jack wasn't sure why he brought it up. Maybe because being here in Ryan's house made him seem unexpectedly more human – maybe because the fever had brought down his filters. Either way, he found himself blurting out, “You do care, you know.”

Ryan went very stiff.

“What?” he said.

“You care about us,” Jack replied. “You don't need to hide it. I don't know what you're afraid of, but... it's okay. We should be able to be friends given just how much we've all been through together.”

Ryan rose. Jack stared up at him, wondering what was running through his mind – it was impossible to tell with the mask.

“You have a fever,” Ryan said, slowly. “You won't remember saying that tomorrow.”

“I mean it, though,” Jack said. “You didn't tell me I'm wrong.”

“Go to sleep, Jack.” There was something almost strained in Ryan's tone, and he left the room in an awkward rush.

The tiredness flooded back in as soon as he was gone, Jack slipping in and out of a doze until he could barely remember whether Ryan had ever been in the room at all, if it had all been a dream – but he was too exhausted to dwell on it, and he finally slipped back into sleep.

 


 

“You're fucking doing it wrong,” Michael said, snatching the pump from Ray.

Ray huffed, letting him take it as he flopped back to sit cross-legged on the carpet, watching Michael struggle with and swear at the air bed.

“Come on, you fucking – don't you fucking dare come out again – Jesus Christ, who invented this thing?” Finally managed to get everything in working order, he sat back as the machine turned on and the mattress slowly began to inflate.

“How mad would you be if as soon as you sat on it all the air just came out,” Ray mused, and Michael scowled.

“Don't even joke about that, you'll fucking jinx it.”

There came the sound of a door shutting from the other half of the living room, which stretched around a partition wall.

“All's clear out there,” Ryan's voice floated over to them. “I'll keep watch out on the balcony first. Where's Gavin got to?”

“He's in the bathroom,” Geoff replied.

There was a silence so awkward that Ray could feel it from here. He glanced at Michael, who put a finger to his lips and beckoned for Ray to come and peek around the edge of the wall.

Geoff and Ryan were standing facing each other, looking incredibly awkward. Ray wondered exactly what they thought of each other. He hadn't gotten a sense of them getting on very well, but they hadn't been actively hostile, either. Geoff had been the one to trust Ryan first, to agree to work with him – but now, it seemed, of all of them (save Gavin, who was understandably wary) he had become the one who liked him the least.

Geoff was frowning at Ryan as though trying to figure him out and coming up short from all angles. And Ryan stood, implacable as always, arms folded.

“Good of you to let us stay here,” Geoff said, at last.

“We're all in this together,” Ryan replied easily.

“Yeah,” Geoff said. “We are. Good of you to let Edgar go today as well, so we could focus on finding Gavin. Kind of makes me wonder what changed since the Corpirate's mansion to make you do that.”

Ray bit his lip. He could practically feel the tension in the room rise twenty notches.

Finally, Ryan said, “Indeed.” And turned and walked back out onto the balcony.

Indeed,” Michael intoned deeply, in a surprisingly good imitation – and Ray let out a breathy, almost hysterical giggle.

“Fuck, are they gonna start fighting? They'd better not start fighting.”

“Who the fuck knows.” Michael moved back over to the air bed, reaching out to poke it. “I don't think Geoff is mad at him. I think he's just... confused. God knows I am too, Ryan really knows how to play it hot and cold. I have no idea what he thinks of us.”

“He likes you, I think,” Ray mused. “Back when you were mad at him for what happened at the Corpirate's? He was hanging out to apologise to you. I think he felt bad about it.”

“You're absolutely his favourite,” Michael muttered. Finally detaching the pump, he flopped onto the mattress, which wobbled alarmingly. “You ever banged someone on an air mattress?”

“No.”

“Of course you haven't. Virgin.”

Ray flipped him off. “Like you have. It's fucking unstable. Why? You offering?”

Michael's eyes widened a bit.

The implications of Ray's words hit him all of a sudden, making him blush and look away. And God, they were acting like school kids, but this – this wasn't something casual, this wasn't just anything. This was Michael – his best friend – and Ray was just starting to wrap his head around how they could progress from that to something more. Kissing was one thing. Sex was, well. Kind of on another level that he wasn't quite ready to get to yet.

“Yes,” Geoff said from behind them, making them both jump.

“Do it,” he continued, with a wicked laugh, “Fuck on Ryan's air mattress. I dare you. Bonus points if you burst it and have to explain to him how.”

“This whole space is basically one big room,” Michael pointed out. “If we did, you'd have to watch.”

“Fucking free porno, man, I'm up for it,” Geoff replied easily. Then laughed. “Seriously, though, you guys are... together now? Right?”

Ray and Michael glanced at each other.

“I guess you could say that,” Ray said, carefully – and Michael smiled at him. Saying it out loud – defining it – it brought a comforting sense of permanence.

Geoff shot them a double thumbs up. “Fantastic,” he said then. “Was rooting for you all along. Well, have fun, kiddos. I'll be on the couch. Use protection. Michael, remember you're on second watch.”

He wandered off, and after a minute Ray moved to sit next to Michael on the air bed.

“Get off, man, you're gonna burst it,” Michael laughed, shoving at him.

Ray grabbed his wrists. “Nah, I'm not, I'm skinny.” He bounced up and down a few times, purely for the novelty of it, as he had not encountered an air mattress before. Michael watched him in amusement, a fond smile on his face, and Ray grinned back before getting up.

“Okay. Playtime over. You actually should sleep now if you're taking second watch.”

“Wait,” Michael said, grabbing his wrist suddenly and tugging him back down. “Not even a goodnight kiss?”

His tone was teasing, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness – this was still so new – and Ray let himself be pulled back down, settling in front of the mattress between Michael's legs as he was pulled forward into a kiss.

It was different to their first one – softer, sweeter, taking their time to work out how they fit together.

A loud, startled squawk had them jerking apart from each other, Ray falling back on his ass very ungracefully.

Gavin had just emerged from the bathroom and was standing, staring at them.

Michael wiped his mouth and grinned. “Sup Gav.”

“I... you guys... okay. This is a bloody new development,” Gavin spluttered.

Ray reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Things... happened?” And fuck, it seemed kind of insensitive in hindsight, that they'd gone off and gotten together while he was missing. He knew it wasn't like that at all – he knew Gavin knew – but somehow he still felt a bit bad about it.

“Okay,” Gavin said. “Congratulations? I'll, uh...” He made a weak, aborted gesture in the direction of the other room before scurrying away.

They stared after him in silence.

“Okay,” Michael said after a minute. “That was... interesting. He didn't want something, did he? Should we go after him and check?”

Ray shook his head. “Nah, I don't think so. Probably just startled.”

“Hm.”

“Hmm.”

“Goodnight then,” Michael said with a grin. And then blew him a shower of slobbery kisses that Ray pretended to deflect with an imaginary lightsaber.

And when he switched off the light – when he finally settled down into his own bedding – it was with an odd giddiness in his stomach, a lightheaded joy that he hadn't felt in a long time, if ever – and he knew then that whatever happened, however slow or fast they took things – they'd made the right call.

Chapter Text

Ryan was totally not having a silent, barely-restrained freak-out on the balcony in the middle of the night.

It was almost dawn, the air fresh with the smell of recent rain and the faint sound of birds already starting up in the darkness. In a few minutes he'd have to go back in to wake Michael up for his turn on the watch.

And inside – inside it felt claustrophobic, too many people crammed into too small a space. For someone so private and solitary, it was jarring to turn the corner in his own house and see the others there, in a space normally empty save for himself.

Jarring, but not... not unpleasant, and fuck if that didn't make him wonder if he was losing his mind.

You care about us, Jack's voice rang in his head. You don't need to hide it.

There was little point in even trying to deny it anymore when he knew he'd just be lying to himself. Somewhere along the fucking line, despite his best efforts, he'd managed to grow fond of them all. And it was already playing at his nerves – the sick panic he'd felt when he realised Gavin had gone, intensifying every moment he knew the other was in Edgar's clutches. The entire time it had been like a crushing vice around his ribs, the most horrible thoughts plaguing him of what Edgar might be doing to the other man – it was only a lifetime of experience, the convenience of the mask and with a great deal of effort that he'd managed to avoid letting the others know just how worried he was. And when they'd found him, alive and safe – the relief had nearly bowled him over and it had taken concerted effort not to grab Gavin then and there and just hold him. Know that he was still alive, safe, relatively unharmed.

The sheer force of those emotions had made him uneasy. And it hadn't been until he took Gavin into the bedroom to check on his ribs – until the awkward silence as they avoided talking, the way Gavin's breath hitched when his fingers ran gently over the scars, checking for any deeper injuries – until Ryan realised his own hands were nearly shaking – that it truly hit him.

He'd gone and done it. He'd gone and gotten attached and now – now he had something to lose. Something Edgar could hit at, could hurt him with – five somethings, because it wasn't just Gavin. It was Jack, and how Ryan wanted nothing more than to get him to a hospital despite knowing there was realistically no way to. It was Ray and how Ryan had never trusted anyone to have his back more. It was Michael making such a simple, easy effort to understand why Ryan had acted the way he did. And Geoff, too – how it almost hurt that the other man didn't trust him now, how Ryan knew exactly why he didn't and still felt bad for it.

It scared him.

It was as simple as that. It terrified him that he had a weak spot again, that now he could get hurt – and he hated it, hated that he'd somehow fallen back into the trap of caring, that every wall he'd so carefully built up was starting to crumble back down and there was nothing he could do to stop it-

Breathe.

He forced himself to calm down, fingers clenching almost painfully tight around the balcony rail.

He had no idea what he was going to do now, no idea where to even begin sorting out this mess. But it was late, and he was exhausted, and things always seemed better after sleeping – so he headed back into the apartment.

Michael woke easily; working in jobs like theirs you had to be able to snap awake at a moment's notice, and as Ryan settled down on the air mattress he was again struck by how strange it was, not being alone in his own abode. Normally it was dead silent, being located in a very quiet area of the suburbs, but now every noise the others made seemed deafening.

Jack's restless tossing from the bedroom nearby, laboured, almost wheezing breaths that probably didn't bode well for the state of his chest. Geoff snortling and snuffling from the couch. Ray grinding his teeth next to him.

Where's Gavin?

The thought struck him suddenly, sending an unpleasant bolt of panic through his chest, and he sat up, looking around the room. He quickly noticed that the bathroom door was open a crack and the light was on, spilling out in a thin sliver across the carpet. Rising, he walked over and peered in, careful to keep his steps and breathing quiet.

He needn't have bothered. Gavin was curled on the floor, between the toilet and the sink, completely lost in his own world. His head was down and he was breathing too fast. Ryan knew a panic attack when he saw one. He had had more than enough himself. But for a moment he froze, completely unsure what to do.

His first urge was to get in there, to try and comfort him, but he was struck by a sudden awkwardness and the memory of how Gavin had pushed him away before – if you think I'm going to forgive you, you're damn wrong – and he hesitated. Then decided he should probably bring him some water, and headed off to the kitchen.

By the time he returned with a glass, it was to find the bathroom door wide open. He approached with a frown and paused again in the doorway.

Geoff, it seemed, had woken up and gone to find Gavin himself. He was now sitting on the floor beside the younger man, one arm wrapped around his shoulders, head down and murmuring something Ryan couldn't quite make out. Hearing Ryan's footsteps, he looked up – something almost challenging in his eyes.

Something inside Ryan sank a little. He knew he ought to be relieved that Geoff had effectively saved him from having to do anything, but at the same time he was almost disappointed and didn't quite know why. But there was little he could do now except hand Geoff the glass – getting a nod of thanks in return – before turning and heading out, shutting the door quietly behind him, and lying back down to try and get some sleep.

 


 

 

He woke up with a start, heart pounding, feeling like he'd just had some sort of horrible dream – but it was fading quickly and he couldn't remember what it had been about, which was probably for the best.

Rolling over, for a moment he didn't realise where he was. Then he recognised his carpet, and oh hey, he was in the living room, and that was Ray next to him – Ray who had rolled halfway off his own mattress and now had his face only inches from Ryan's own, breathing heavily in sleep.

Ryan sat up groggily, reaching up under his mask to rub his eyes. It was early – he'd trained his body to wake at dawn – and he felt exhausted still, a headache building behind dry eyes.

And things were not better.

As soon as he was awake enough to remember why, exactly, Ray was in his apartment, it all came slamming back into him and suddenly – suddenly he just needed to get out of there.

Rising quietly, he made his way to the bathroom to wash up before heading for his bedroom to grab a coat.

“Ryan?”

He turned to see Gavin sitting up from the couch. Geoff was still curled up next to him, snoring gently, and Ryan frowned a little – it seemed they'd been sleeping there cuddled up together, though Gavin still looked like he'd spent half the night awake, the circles under his eyes just as dark as the bruises dotting his face and neck.

“Are you going somewhere?” Gavin asked, then, and Ryan nodded.

“There's no food here,” he replied. “I need to get some groceries.”

Gavin paused.

“I'll come with you,” he said after a second, and Ryan froze, surprised – he hadn't thought Gavin would want to leave the safety of the apartment so soon, let alone with just him for protection. He'd been certain the other didn't trust him anymore.

“...alright,” he replied then. “I'll be ready in ten. Let Michael know we're going out.”

Gavin nodded, and Ryan went off to his bedroom, opening the door quietly and peering in before entering. Jack was still asleep, and he moved over to the other man, reaching out to feel his forehead with a frown. His fever was still there, though it hadn't worsened. He looked oddly vulnerable lying there asleep – an odd way to describe one of the most dangerous, high powered men in the city, but true nonetheless, and again Ryan felt that terrible pang of concern for him.

Shoving it away, he moved to the closet and quickly got changed, pulling on a coat and then grabbing a cap, sunglasses and scarf before heading out. Gavin was waiting by the door, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Ryan glanced pointedly at Michael and Gavin nodded, indicating he'd alerted him as to where they were going.

They left the flat, walking down to the drive, where Ryan paused and, after a second, pulled his mask off. He could see Gavin staring at him as he pulled the cap down low over his eyes, jammed the sunglasses on his face and tugged the scarf up to cover his mouth.

“Put your hood up,” he ordered, and Gavin did so.

“Do you normally take the mask off when you go out on non-mission stuff?” he asked, quietly, and Ryan nodded.

“There are some public places you just can't avoid. I can't get groceries delivered because I'm not here all the time. I've learned how to keep on the down-low by now.”

Gavin nodded, thoughtfully, and said little else, trailing by Ryan's side as they walked to the shopping district a couple of blocks away.

It felt good to be out of the house. To be away from the others after having been forced into their company for so long.

It was early enough that the store would be closed for the next half hour, but there was a little cafe nearby, and Ryan paused.

“I definitely owe you a drink by this point,” he said, turning to Gavin, whose eyes flickered up to his curiously. “But you don't like coffee, right?”

Gavin looked startled, then a small smile played at his lips. “You remembered,” he said, and shrugged. “Nah, I can handle a coffee. I just don't drink it too often.”

Ryan nodded. He went inside and bought two, and they ended up sitting at an outdoor picnic table. Though it had long stopped raining, there was still a crisp chill in the air, and Ryan felt odd – he had done this many times before, sat out in the cold on his own with his thoughts, but somehow it was different with Gavin sitting across from him. There was something almost domestic about it, about having someone else's company in his life. And as he'd noted before: it wasn't unpleasant.

“I know why you did it,” Gavin said abruptly.

Ryan closed his eyes briefly. He'd known as soon as Gavin asked to go with him that they'd end up talking about what had happened. He supposed he was just glad the other had been the one to bring it up.

“I was... God, I was so angry with you,” Gavin continued. “You get why, right? Because...” he gestured vaguely down at himself, and Ryan nodded silently. He might not know all the details, but he got the gist of it. Got why his betrayal had hit so hard.

“But when Edgar had me...” Gavin paused, swallowed. “He... he did some stuff. I saw him do some stuff. And... he's pretty bad.”

Ryan scoffed quietly. “That's... that's one way of putting it. He's pretty bad.”

“So if you say he did something to you,” Gavin continued, “To people you – care about.” The words lodged in the air between them, hard and heavy like the lump building in Ryan's throat – “I can get why you might be so angry that you'd just have to go after him. If he... if he did what he'd done to, to Dan or someone else I care about... well, I don't think I'd have the skills to kill him like you probably can, but I'd certainly try. So I was an ass before, not listening to what you had to say.”

“It's not your fault.”

“No, I was a dick, I shut you down and... and I know it can't have been easy, trying to tell me that. So I'm sorry.”

“It's fine.” Something spread through Ryan's stomach, something warm and almost nervous. Because Gavin was looking at him now, and without the mask he suddenly felt open, exposed, too vulnerable, and the urge rose up to turn away and shut down the conversation, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it.

“I'm sorry too,” he said, “In case you didn't get the point the first time. I shouldn’t have left you and... it won't happen again.”

The words slipped out before he could really think about them, and it wasn't until they were out of his mouth that their full impact hit him; he'd made the choice, sure, to go after Gavin instead of pursuing Edgar, but that was once, in the heat of the moment, with Ray beside him and the others in his ear and everything on the line. He didn't make a habit of breaking promises, but this one – this one had come too easily. Laying his revenge second to Gavin had come too easily.

Oh God, oh fucking hell, what's happening to me.

Gavin grinned at that. “So we're cool then,” he said, and then when Ryan nodded, “Yay. Lovely Ryan.”

“Shut up,” Ryan said, ducking his head away, and Gavin laughed – which made Ryan smile, internally at least.

For a moment they just sat, warming their hands around the styrofoam cups, and it vaguely occurred to Ryan that it probably looked like they were on a date, two guys sitting at a cafe table having a deep conversation and staring at each other – but he couldn't quite bring himself to care.

At least until Gavin spoke again, that hesitance back in his tone.

“Uh... that other stuff you said, though, that night.”

Ryan bit his lip. You can't have friends in this business. It wasn't exactly hard to remember, considering how often he'd thrown it at the other guys. How often he repeated it to himself, a mantra whenever he felt himself slipping up – I don't care about you, I can't care about you, I don't care about you – I can't care.

“That kind of...” Gavin shook his head. “That's what scared me? That's what – and I'm not trying to guilt trip you here, but – that sort of pushed me to take Shadles' deal.”

A cold horror hit Ryan like a lead brick, and Gavin must have seen, because he quickly added, “I don't... I don't blame you, that's not what I'm getting at here. I'm just trying to explain that you're wrong, because... the whole time Edgar had me I had given myself up for dead, I didn't think you guys were coming. And the first time, the time with Barry – Dan came for me then, and you guys came for me now. Because you're my friends. Because you cared enough. So you... you can't operate like that, never getting close to anyone. Well maybe you can, since you seem to be some sort of superhuman, but. The rest of us, we can't, we need to be able to rely on people, we need to know that if something happens there's someone out there who won't abandon us.”

Ryan kept his mouth shut. The words struck something in him – he couldn’t disagree, not really, not when he knew deep down that if he'd been the one to disappear, Ray and Jack at least would have insisted on going out after him. But he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the truth of it either, because the part that scared him - the part that stuck in his throat – what if you care about people and you can’t save them? What if they need you, they’re relying on you, and you fail them - what if you’re too fucking late?

It had happened before, and the thought that it might happen again was killing him – but Gavin was staring at him almost hopefully, and right now things were fine. Right now what Gavin needed to hear was Ryan's agreement.

So he nodded, slowly, and when Gavin smiled he smiled back, even pushing the scarf down away from his face so the other could tell it was genuine.

 


 

 

“How long can we hole up here?” Geoff asked.

They were sitting around the kitchen table, in varying states. Jack had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and was still coughing sporadically, but his fever had gone down a little since that morning and Ryan hoped he was on the road to recovery, even if slowly. Geoff himself was agitated; twitchy and worried.

Michael and Ray were far more relaxed than the two older men. Ryan hadn’t missed the shift in their relationship and despite himself he couldn't help being pleased for them. At least they weren't fighting any more, and if touching tips was going to make everything more peaceful then he was all for it.

And Gavin – Gavin had set up his computers again, as well as he could in the small space, and had been working diligently for the last couple of hours, though he'd still made little progress.

Ryan shrugged, reaching up to adjust his mask, which he'd put back on as soon as they returned to the apartment.

“Not too long,” he said. “I picked this place for its discretion and it's not easy to hunt me down – but the six of us are a bigger group. We'll draw more attention. We should move on as soon as we can, and preferably before Edgar forces us to.”

Gavin nodded. “Yeah... this is a good spot but even someone of Shadles' skill could crack it in a week with all six of us here.”

“You have an ETA on when we'll know where the duck is?” Geoff asked.

Gavin shook his head. “Edgar's been a lot more careful lately. Half of his inner circle are gone – more than half – so he might be crippled, but he's also more cautious.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “To be totally honest, I don't know if I'll be able to find them.”

“At all?” Michael demanded, sitting up straighter.

Gavin bit his lip. “Well, before they find us, at least. I mean, unless we provoke them into doing something that I can then work from, I'll have to start delving back into past records and footage and stuff and it'll just take a really bloody long time.”

“So you're saying,” Ryan said, “That you need to work forwards, not backwards. You don't need to work out who the duck is and track her from there, you get eyes on the duck at this moment and then follow her back to wherever she's going. Same with the pig.”

“Basically,” Gavin said, with a sheepish sort of grin.

Geoff stroked his moustache. “Draw them out... draw them out...”

“It won't be as simple as just sitting one of us out in the open as bait,” Ryan mused. After a moment's thought, he said, “Edgar wants to mess with you as much as possible. Before, when you were pulling heists, he kept gatecrashing. If you planned one now, I guarantee you he'd show up and try to interfere.”

“There's an idea,” said Geoff.

Michael frowned a bit. “That's... gonna take a bit of planning.”

It was true; just showing up without adequate preparation was a recipe for disaster. Ryan'd pulled heists before, hired for extra muscle or sometimes with his old team, and often weeks if not months of planning went into them.

“We don't need to actually pull it off,” Geoff said. “Just cause enough of a stir that Edgar shows up.”

“We'll need weapons,” Jack spoke up.

Ryan nodded. “Those ones we ordered in before – we never ended up collecting them because we ran off after Gavin. We should go get those now. Then we can come up with the heist.”

Geoff nodded. “Gavin, you stay here and keep working in case you're able to turn something up. You too Jack, you're still sick. Michael, you stay behind in case something happens.”

Ray and Michael glanced at one another, but after a moment Michael nodded.

“Alright,” he said, and Geoff clapped his hands together.

“Great,” he said. “We have a plan then.”

They started to move off, gathering their belongings to go, but Ryan did not miss the long, careful look that Geoff shot him. The other man had been staring at him ever since he got back that morning, and Ryan could tell it went beyond simple curiosity.

Things between them had been a little strained since the Corpirate's mansion. He knew that even if all the others had forgiven him – Gavin included – Geoff was a little more cautious. He had the most to lose, after all – the most enemies and the most experience with people trying to stab him in the back. Ryan could hardly blame him.

But still. Something about it sat uncomfortably in his stomach, and he waited until everyone else had drifted out before turning to Jack, still sitting at the table.

“Everything alright?” Jack asked, noticing – and Ryan wondered, with chagrin, just when he had become so easy to read.

“Geoff doesn't trust me,” Ryan said, bluntly.

A strange expression crossed Jack's face, something tired and almost disappointed.

“No,” he replied, “He doesn't. It's funny, you know, back when this all first started – I was the one who was worried about you joining us.”

“How the tables have turned,” Ryan mumbled, and Jack's lips twitched a bit.

“It's not because of what happened with the Corpirate,” he said. “Well, it is, but not in the way you're thinking.”

“I'm not following.”

“When you're as powerful as Geoff is,” Jack explained, “You take chances on people, sure, but you've got to be paranoid. It's rare you can give someone the benefit of the doubt and have it turn out well. Sometimes it isn't even intentional – we trusted Gavin, and he nearly screwed us all over accidentally. That sort of thing gets people killed.”

Ryan pressed his lips together, still unsure where this was going.

“Geoff took a chance on you,” Jack continued. “And hell, I'm pretty sure he wasn't expecting to get so close to Gavin, to Michael and Ray too, along the course of things. I know I sure wasn't. But that's what happened. He's offered the two of them a job, he'll probably offer Gavin one too once this is done. But you... we don't know where you sit with us. You keep on throwing how much you don't give a fuck about us in his face.” There was a little chastisement in Jack's tone, and Ryan stiffened, not liking the guilt that shivered down his spine.

“You're right, in some ways,” Jack said. “Those sorts of feelings... they raise the stakes. They make things dangerous. But there's one thing that's even more dangerous, and that's when you care about someone who doesn't care about you back. Because that can be exploited. That gets people hurt, badly. The others obviously care about you – I care about you – but he doesn't know if it goes two ways. And that's what he's worried about. That you mean what you say. That you don't care. Because that fucks over all of us.”

Ryan had no idea what to say.

I care about you. That stuck in his chest like a knife, almost causing him physical pain. Because it was obvious that the lads liked him well enough – he'd consider them to be on friendly terms – but genuine caring?

It had been too long since he'd let anyone in remotely close enough for them to start feeling any sort of proper affection for him.

Suddenly he felt scared again, and horribly vulnerable, and he turned away perhaps a bit too abruptly.

“I'll... think about that,” he managed, and there was something kind in Jack's smile as he stepped forward and put a hand on Ryan's shoulder. Ryan stiffened at the touch. It was very warm, but not unpleasant – almost reassuring – and he hated himself for finding it so.

“Stay safe out there,” Jack said, and Ryan nodded once before quickly turning away, his heart racing for reasons he couldn't quite explain.

 


 

 

The situation wasn't great. They were stuck in a flat, they couldn't find Edgar, and he'd be cracking down hard on them now that they'd taken out so many of his top cronies.

But all the same, Michael couldn't help feeling oddly content.

Now that he and Ray were together – and God, it still sounded awkward in his mouth, but he didn't know how else to put it – it was like some missing piece had fallen into place. Things just felt right . Kissing him, or freely acknowledging (even if only mentally) just how important he was to him – thinking about a future laid out together.

It was hard not to be happy at that.

They'd been split up now, though, and he took advantage of the downtime to do some weapons maintenance and browse the internet, checking up on stuff he'd missed while they were so busy. But it wasn't long until he began to feel bored, and rose from the couch to potter into the bedroom and check on Jack.

Truth be told he'd been a little worried by how sick the other seemed, but he appeared to be a bit better this morning. Michael brought him a glass of juice, anyway, rapping gently on the door before entering.

“Hey,” he said. Jack looked pleased at the sight of him, and he grinned, moving up to plonk the glass on the bedside table before pulling up a chair to sit by the bed. “How're you feeling?”

“Coughing still, but a lot better. I'll be fine by tomorrow,” Jack said, giving him a nod of thanks as he reached for the juice. “But it wasn't pleasant. Next time remind me to pack snorkelling gear before I go anywhere near windows and water.”

“Would it be too mean to poke through all Ryan's shit now that he's not here,” Michael mused, looking around the bedroom, and Jack snorted so loudly he nearly choked on the juice.

“I doubt he keeps anything personal just lying around,” he replied, with an amused huff.

Michael nodded. He did wander over to the closet and looked inside, though, just in case there was something interesting.

“God, it's so weird, seeing his house,” he said. “When all this started I never imagined we'd wind up here.”

Jack nodded. “It is extraordinary how much he's opened up to us. How much we've all opened up to each other,” he added, and Michael turned to him, curiously.

“Really?” he asked, and Jack nodded.

“I mean, yeah. I know ten times more about you and Ray than I did when we started. Same with Gavin. I imagine it sort of goes both ways.”

Michael nodded thoughtfully, moving back over to the chair to sit down.

“I guess you're right,” he said. “I mean, we've gotten to know each other way more, that's for sure.”

They sat in contemplative silence for a moment.

“So you and Ray,” Jack began, and Michael couldn't help but smile, wide and terribly fond, and Jack shook his head with a laugh. “Jesus Christ, okay, you're smitten.”

“Aw, don't say smitten, that sounds all Harlequin and shit,” Michael protested. “But yeah, we're... seeing where things take us.”

“I'm glad,” Jack said with a nod. “I mean, it was obvious it was either gonna go this way or end in tears. And it's good,” he added, “To find that you can have that with someone you know so well and trust so completely. God you two remind me of Geoff and I when we were younger.”

“Oblivious idiots?” Michael muttered, and Jack laughed again.

“We were for a time, actually,” he said. “But we worked things out. And now you have too.”

“Yep,” Michael said, “And now we're gonna split off and form our own criminal empire. Or rise up and overthrow you, depending.”

“That's the spirit.”

It was oddly pleasant, Michael realised – just sitting and talking with Jack. Until this whole thing started they'd never really had the chance to get to know each other beyond what was needed to pull missions. He thought, suddenly, of what it might be like working with him in the long term, if he and Ray accepted Geoff's offer – a possibility which was looking more and more likely by the day.

“Tell me more about him,” he said then, and Jack tilted his head.

“About Geoff?”

“Yeah,” Michael said. “I mean, it's been interesting seeing you two over the last couple weeks. If we take you up on the job, what am I really getting into?”

“There's a question,” Jack replied. “I mean, Geoff doesn't... he doesn't hide who he is, not really – not like Ryan does. Just living with him should have given you a good enough idea. But he sees the potential in people, I guess,” he mused. “That's why he offered you the job, after all. He knows how to push people to get the most out of them, he believes in what they can do and helps them achieve that. You're actually the first people we've brought into the crew who had made a name for yourselves beforehand. It's a lot harder to trust older, experienced people than it is to foster someone who's just starting out. Can't serve two masters and all that.”

“He's a good guy,” Michael murmured – and meant it, he didn't give genuine compliments often and his full respect was not easily won. But Geoff had done so, and quickly too – Jack as well. “Not many people – especially the bigger names – care about their employees as much as he does. It's admirable.”

“He really likes you and Ray.” There was something quiet in Jack's tone, thoughtful, and suddenly Michael felt almost embarrassed. It was true, they had friends in the business, had worked with others before, but Jack and Geoff were the only ones who were in any way affectionate towards them – and he hadn't realised until this moment just how strange that was.

Jack seemed to realise the odd tension that had filled the room, and quickly grinned, dispelling it.

“What else,” he said. “He can never back down from a dare, that's for sure.”

Michael snorted loudly. “We talking, like, rival challenges or stupid dares?”

“Oh God, both,” Jack said, shaking his head. “Eating weird crap or shoving ice down his pants – one of our crew dares him and he's at it in seconds, it's ridiculous. And fucking Felix has caught onto it now too, he's always doing stupid shit to challenge him and Geoff goes along with it every time. He's not stupid, though, if it was anyone other than Felix he wouldn't, but that guy's a douche. He's not really a threat at all.”

Michael couldn't help but grin. “I get it. I'm the same, can't back down from a challenge. Ray's lost a lot of money to me over the years.”

“Great,” Jack laughed, “You join us and I'll have to be prepared for even more stupidity.”

“Hey, you know what you're getting into now.”

The door opened and they both turned around, jumping slightly – but it was just Gavin who entered, looking haggard. Michael smiled at him in greeting, but he was a little worried. Had been since Gavin got back, because it was obvious he was still shaken up over whatever Edgar had done to him while he was in his clutches. But it seemed he was more resilient than Michael had ever given him credit for, because if he was upset, he was keeping it close to his chest, even if he looked like he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep last night.

“Hey Gav,” Jack said, and patted the bed. Gavin walked over and sat down at the foot.

“So I'm getting nowhere,” he began, and Jack waved a hand.

“Don't stress out about it. The heist is probably a better plan, anyway. Take down some of Edgar's men while we're at it.”

Michael's gaze flickered between them curiously. It seemed Jack had had a heel face turn in attitude towards Gavin as well, but it wasn't just a matter of not getting annoyed at him; there was something soft and almost careful in the way he looked at the other man, and Michael suddenly wondered if Jack knew something he didn't, if something had happened that he wasn't aware of.

“Since we're all talking about our boyfriends,” he said then, in a bid to change the topic, “I've got a question for you, Gavin.”

Gavin looked up at him, confused but curious. “Uhh, alright.”

Michael hesitated, suddenly wondering if it was a bad idea to bring this up – but whatever, he wanted to know, and he'd never been anything but straightforward. “Geoff and I went to check out your flat, that's how we got the data back, and there was some other guy's stuff all around. Burnie said his name was Gruchy?”

“Oh,” Gavin said – he looked a little startled by the lengths they'd gone to find him, but not offended. “Yeah – that's Dan, he was living with me for a bit.”

“You guys touching tips?” Michel asked, and Gavin spluttered for a moment.

“No! God, no, Jesus Christ. We're just friends. I mean, we're tight – really tight – but not. Not like that.”

“Right,” Michael said – and suddenly wondered why that made him so pleased. What the fuck, Michael, what does it even matter if he has a boyfriend or not? It doesn't. Why would you even think about that. Perhaps because he didn't like being surprised by people; he'd assumed Gavin single and it was a relief to know he hadn't been wrong.

Jack was watching the both of them carefully, and Michael ran his mouth before he could quite think about it.

“So is it the same for you? I mean, you're not as involved in the field as we are, so I imagine it'd be easier for you to date someone who's not in with this shit.”

“Theoretically,” Gavin said.

“Why only theoretically?” Jack asked, seeming as curious as Michael was by this point.

Gavin just shrugged. “Because in practice I don't really... date? I mean, I've seen a couple of people, but not like. Proper girlfriend or boyfriend.”

“Why not?” This was turning into the most chick flick-y conversation Michael had ever had, and he'd had some serious sleepover moments with Ray before (two grown men should probably never play truth or truth together, but so sue them, there had been alcohol involved. Only on Michael's part, though, which had given Ray some serious blackmail material against him – but that was a story for another time.)

Gavin just shrugged. “I have this thing, like, where I can't ask someone out without being bevved up because otherwise I get anxious about getting turned down. So I guess it's the same thing with dating, I don't want to see anyone seriously because if things go wrong we'd break up and it'd be messy and it's easier to just avoid that.”

“So basically you like banging people but you've got commitment issues,” Michael surmised.

Jack raised his eyebrows. “Sounds more like rejection issues,” he said.

Gavin just shrugged, again. “I'd be a crap boyfriend anyway.”

“That's remarkably self reflective of you,” Michael replied drily – except there'd been something a little too blasé in Gavin's tone. “Why?”

“Why not?” Gavin replied. “I'm lazy and selfish and spy on people for a living, what's to like?” This self assessment appeared to genuinely not bother him, which was admirable in its own way. Michael had always freely admitted to his own assholery. There was nothing more annoying than people who couldn't see their own flaws.

“What's to like,” he repeated, and pretended to think long and hard. “Fuck, I don't know. Your pretty face, but that's about it I guess.”

Gavin barked out a startled laugh. “Yeah, maybe – but like I said. I still shag people, I just don't date them.”

“Ryan told me you were a crap kisser.”

“He did not!”

You kissed Ryan?” Jack asked – and Michael realised they'd not related that part of the story before; he'd told Ray but not Geoff.

Gavin nodded, but a change had come over him; he seemed bashful almost, not quite meeting Jack's eyes as he replied, “We were sort of faking being husbands at the Corpirate's. It didn't mean anything, it was just part of our cover.”

“God damn,” said Jack, sounding impressed – Michael could see why, thus far Ryan had exposed more of himself than he'd ever expected.

Gavin got up quickly, muttering some excuse under his breath, and left the room in such a hurry he nearly tripped. Michael watched him go with raised eyebrows.

“I'm guessing he and Ryan made up, considering they went out together this morning,” he commented, and Jack 'hmmm'ed thoughtfully. Michael turned to him.

“What?” he asked. “What are you thinking?"

“Nothing,” Jack replied, “Just find it interesting that Ryan actually kissed him.”

If anyone was gonna grow a soft spot for Gavin, Ryan was not the one Michael had expected either; he gave a wondering hum and nodded.

“So,” he said then, switching the topic back. “Tell me more about stuff you and Geoff have done.”

 


 

 

“You're good with a knife,” Ray commented, out of nowhere.

Ryan turned to look at him, unsure where this was going. The two of them were standing in a quiet street outside a slightly dingy store building, the door sign reading 'closed'. Geoff's contact would have been too alarmed at the sight of the mad mercenary, so they were waiting outside while Geoff conducted the deal.

“Thanks,” Ryan replied. “Where's this coming from?”

“Ehh, I was just thinking,” Ray replied with a shrug. “When you came out and killed those guys, under the pier? Solid knifework.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, again, “It takes practice. But it's good when you need to be quiet. Or you want lots of blood.”

Ray pulled a face at that, and Ryan snickered quietly to himself – he perhaps took a little too much delight in creeping people out sometimes, but when you spent your whole life under a mask and a moniker you took amusement where you could get it.

“You carry one?” he asked, and Ray nodded, pulling it from his belt.

“Yeah, but I rarely use it. Got into it with Thaddeus, though, if you remember, and that wasn't too fun.”

“Show me?”

Ray repositioned the knife in his hand, made a few slashing motions.

“Okay,” Ryan said, “I see your problem, your checking hand should be in front. That way you can deflect attacks or set up your next move. The thing about knife fights is you should expect to get cut, just make sure you don't leave yourself open for it to be too badly. Like this.” He reached out and took hold of Ray's wrists, repositioning his arms.

“So should I be getting in close or trying to hold them back?”

“Depends on how big they are. But you're small – you should usually be the one trying to get up close and in there.” He stepped back. “Try again?”

Ray did so, far more effectively, and Ryan was helping him reposition his grip on the knife when Geoff emerged from the building, a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, moving up to them with an odd look on his face.

“Hey – I got them. You two ready to go?”

Ryan and Ray stepped apart from each other, nodding – and Ryan saw the way Geoff's eyes flickered between them curiously. He felt almost guilty of a sudden, like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“Ray,” Geoff said, “Think you're alright to take these to the car and come around to meet us at the docks? The two of us will go ahead and meet Ryan's guy.”

Ray nodded, taking the bag from Geoff and setting off, leaving the two of them standing in a somewhat awkward silence.

Ryan began to walk first, and after a moment Geoff picked up and followed him. He could tell the other man wanted to say something, but was chewing over the words. The silence made him tense, which only compounded his irritation at just how much other people's behaviour had been affecting his own mood recently. Any detachment he'd been preserving was dissolving away faster than he could think.

“Nice of you to help him out,” Geoff said finally, and Ryan glanced at him.

“He's smart. Probably a better shot than me with a rifle. I don't have a problem with giving him some extra tips. It's flattering to know I can help him with something.”

Geoff was looking at him with a raised eyebrow now. “Seemed like you were quite the teacher.”

Ryan looked away. It had been a long time – a very long time – since he took on any sort of mentor role towards anyone. He was accustomed to keeping his skills to himself, to making sure he was the most capable person in the room at any given moment. But there had been something oddly nice about helping someone else.

When he didn't reply, Geoff left out a soft sigh.

“Well, don't go giving away all your secrets. You know what they say. Teach them everything they know but not everything you know and all that.”

“I gave him some tips, I'm not making him my God damn prodigy,” Ryan replied, with some amusement. “But yeah, I know what you mean. Honestly, if I was gonna bring someone up to pass the mask onto, it'd probably be Ray. Except he'd never take it.”

“You don't reckon he's cut out to become a big name?” Geoff asked, looking a little surprised. “He and Michael are working their way up, you know.”

“With Michael, sure,” Ryan replied, “Just not on his own. You need a certain kind of drive for that.”

Geoff frowned a little. “Do many people try to kill you?” he asked, and Ryan laughed somewhat hysterically.

“Oh, Christ, you have no idea. Or maybe you do. But it's a lot easier to survive when you're the only person who knows all your secrets.”

“See, that's where we differ,” Geoff replied, “I imagine we both deal with the same shit. People trying to work with you who you don't want to work with, people trying to kill you all the time, pretenders and liars and all that crap.”

Ryan tilted his head. He hadn't thought about it that way before, but he supposed that was true; getting your name out there got you more opportunities and a lot more money, but it came with its downsides, and it seemed the downsides of being a criminal overlord were indeed rather similar to the downsides of being a renowned mercenary.

“You got where you are because you don't trust anyone else,” Geoff continued, “You shit on anyone in your way and rose to the top on your own. And I mean, that works, but I got to the same place by building up a crew of close knit people. And yeah, there are some things I don't trust anyone but Jack with, but I've got that support when I need it.”

“That could blow up in your face if any of them turn on you,” Ryan pointed out, and Geoff shrugged.

“And you not having anyone to rely on when you need it could blow up in your face,” he pointed out. “So what I'm getting at is, what you do works for you and what I do works for me. We got where we are differently but they're both valid means.”

Ryan bit his lip. He could argue, sure, but it wouldn't change the fact that he knew Geoff was right.

And it wouldn't change the fact that no matter what he said, he'd put his foot in it. He'd started caring.

“My boyfriend has taken a liking to you,” Geoff continued, more quietly now. “If you do anything to make him regret that, I swear to God...”

“I have no intention of doing anything to hurt Jack,” Ryan said, but Geoff shook his head, firmly.

“I don't give a fuck about what you intend,” he said. “I don't think you intended to mess Gavin up that fucking badly when you left him behind. I don't think you intend to hurt Ray, but getting close to him like that? It's gonna upset him if you keep that up and then leave him in the dust. I don't know what you intended when you came to ask for our help, but you're in it too deep now-”

“I know.” It burst out before he could stop it, and Geoff fell silent, staring at him.

“I know,” Ryan repeated, through gritted teeth – and Geoff watched him for a long, long moment.

He didn't need to explain further. Didn't need to take off the mask for Geoff to understand. That he knew he was right, that he himself did care – that he was just... working through it, or something, and the last thing he needed was people pushing him to comment on it or change his already changing mind.

Thankfully, Geoff caught on, and gave a firm nod.

“Okay,” he said then. And smiled a little. “Okay.”

They continued on to meet Ryan's contact in silence, but he fancied the tension that had lingered between them for the last two days had dissipated somewhat.

And Geoff Ramsey was someone who Ryan had heard a great deal about, for many years, and he'd naturally formed his own opinions and conclusions about the man, but for the last few weeks living with him, interacting with him – it had almost made him wistful, because it was one thing to judge someone else from outside, but seeing how happy he was with Jack – seeing how this wasn't just a job for him, it wasn't just about the money, it was about his crew and his friends and having fun at the same time...

Ryan couldn't remember the last time he'd genuinely found what he was doing enjoyable.

Until now – because the camping trip had been good, in a way, and even going out to kill Clarence with Ray had been somewhat more exciting than his usual solo hits.

And now – now Michael and Ray were going to join Geoff, more likely than not, and Ryan knew, deep down, that they'd be unstoppable – that even if something went wrong, if someone got hurt, that they'd still pick that any day over going their separate ways.

What was the point in surviving, after all, if it was only to go through the motions over and over? That wasn't living.

But pain – pain was something else entirely, and it was the fear of it that made Ryan continue to shy away, to refuse to dwell too much on why he might care what Ramsay thought of him.

 


 

 

“We come bearing gifts!” Geoff announced, as he strode through the door, and Michael rose to meet him, though his eyes sought out Ray first, falling on him with a smile.

“Hey,” Jack said, stepping forward, and the two of them met in a kiss, with a sort of casual ease that Michael almost envied.

He needn't have; with a mischievous grin Ray shouldered past Geoff.

“Oh my God, Michael, I haven't seen you in two hours, we must kiss immediately to reassure the others of our love,” he said, and wrapped a hand around the back of Michael's neck, pulling him in to press their lips together.

They pulled apart, and Michael caught a glimpse of Ryan rolling his eyes under the mask.

“You guys are dicks,” Geoff said, rolling his eyes too, “Especially since we're the ones having to put up with your fucking honeymoon period. Does Ryan know what you did on his airbed last night?”

Nothing,” Michael said, as Ryan turned to him, somehow managing to convey intense disapproval despite his entire face being covered. “We did nothing on the airbed, despite Geoff's eager encouragement.”

“Geoff,” Gavin piped up, “Jack, have you guys ever gotten stuck together because your facial hair got tangled up while kissing?”

“No, Gavin, what the fuck,” Geoff replied, turning to him.

Gavin shrugged. “Just wondering. That was a really beardy kiss. And, you know, your moustache is just so twirly at the ends.”

“I'll show you twirly at the ends,” cried Geoff, whatever the fuck that meant, and made to lunge at Gavin. He squeaked and ducked behind Michael, who grabbed his shoulder automatically to keep him from tripping over his own feet and knocking them both down.

“If we're quite done here,” Ryan said, but there was amusement in his tone. “Jack, we'll show you what we've brought in and we can see if there's anywhere in the city we can hit easily.”

“Did they just deliberately ditch us?” Michael wondered, as the three older men took the bag off into the bedroom, shutting the door behind them. “I think they just ditched us.”

Ray shrugged. “Screw 'em, they can do the planning or whatever. Less work for us. Any progress, Gav?” he added, and Gavin shook his head.

“No, sorry.”

“Ahh, don't worry about it. Actually, I had an idea on the ride over here, if you're not busy right now,” Ray said, and Gavin shook his head, looking at him curiously.

“What sort of idea?”

“Edgar's gonna be coming after us hard now,” Ray said, “And I mean, we're gonna take care of you, but just in case, you should learn some self defence.”

There was a moment of silence as Gavin took this in.

Then he said, “Nope. Not touching a gun, thanks, that won't end well.”

“God, Ray, don't put a gun in his hands please,” Michael said at the same time, “Or it won't be Edgar that kills us all.”

“No, no, not with weapons,” Ray quickly clarified. “Just like, make sure you can throw a punch alright and what to do if someone grabs you and shit.”

“Oh,” Gavin said, and nodded. “Yeah, that'd be good.”

“Michael, I appoint you deputy self defence instructor,” Ray said, and Michael mock-scowled.

“Why've I got to be deputy?”

“Because I had the idea. Let us begin right this moment,” Ray said, clapping his hands together, and Michael shrugged.

It was a good idea, he had to admit; even some basic self defence skills would have come in very handy back at the Corpirate's.

“I'm surprised no one's taught you this before,” he said to Gavin, who raised and lowered one shoulder.

“Dan tried,” he said, “Never really took it seriously though. I'm regretting that now, of course.”

There followed perhaps the most hysterical forty minutes of Michael's life. It was not Gavin's fault, though his lack of coordination and upper arm strength certainly contributed, but he and Ray were possibly the most incompetent teachers in existence. This did not take long for them to realise. Michael lacked patience, and Ray was crap at explaining things.

Gavin, when faced with any sort of opponent, seemed to believe that flapping and flailing wildly was a feasible defence strategy (which it wasn't, Jesus Christ, you're not even hitting him you idiot make a fist it's not fucking hard you just curl your fucking fingers!)

But they had a good laugh while doing it, because it was never not funny to imitate cheesy kung-fu moves, and even if Gavin was going to have bruised wrists tomorrow he at least now knew how to escape a grab.

“You suck,” Michael laughed, half-sinking to the ground as Gavin tried and failed to escape the loose choke-hold he had him in. “Come on, remember what you have to do?”

Gavin slammed down on his elbow, loosening his grip, and scrambled free, making the sorts of noises that only further convinced Michael he had been a pigeon in a past life.

“He's learning,” Ray observed, and Michael – panting, exhilarated – looked up at him to see him watching the both of them with a ridiculously fond smile on his face.

“Gavin, we're not gonna be there shouting instructions at you if you get in a fight,” Michael pointed out. “So you gotta, like, imagine us in your head like Yoda.”

“I'd be right minged off if I was stuck with you in my brain forever,” Gavin replied – and at that moment the bedroom door opened and the others emerged, still deep in conversation as they headed into the kitchen.

Michael got up off the floor, brushing himself down, and a wicked idea sprang to mind.

“Gavin, go punch Ryan,” he said.

Gavin spluttered. “What?”

“Go test out your new skills on him!” Michael said, and Ray laughed, but shook his head.

“Not so sure that's a good idea, man, he'd probably break him in half on instinct.”

“Party killer,” Michael replied, rolling his eyes. “But yeah, you're probably right.”

“Boys, get over here,” Geoff called out, and they obliged, trooping across the room to stand around the dining room table where the city map was spread out.

“We have a plan?” Michel asked, and Geoff nodded.

“There's a jewellery store here,” he said, pointing to the downtown area, “That Jack and I had been planning to hit for a while, so we can recycle our idea for that. Among the stuff we got are smoke bombs and masks and shit, so I'm thinking we use those as cover and then plant something on one of their cars that will let Gavin track them down.”

Gavin nodded. “Sounds good – any sort of GPS should do. There's enough cameras in that area that I can keep an eye on everything and make sure you guys don't get pinned in. If you're using smoke it'll be hard for you to see.”

“Good,” Geoff said, with a grin. “Ray, you stay up top and snipe. Michael, you and I hit the actual store. Ryan, you wait outside as cover. Jack's staying here with Gavin.”

Michael turned to Jack, expecting some sort of protest, but it seemed they'd already discussed and agreed on this in the bedroom, because he just nodded.

“So when are we doing it?” Ray asked, and Geoff shrugged.

“Uh... now? Why not? We've got daylight to burn.”

Michael barked out a laugh. “Right – okay. At least let me go take a piss first.”

Geoff nodded. “Everyone go get your shit together.”

Except as it turned out, getting his shit together took a little longer than Michael had anticipated – normally he tried to spend a bit of time working out which of his explosives and charges would be the most useful to take along, but the last-minuteness of this plan didn't afford him that opportunity, so he had to just grab whatever he thought he'd need. By the time he was ready to go the others were all waiting outside, and he cursed, half-jogging through the main room for the door.

Gavin got up to let him out, and as he unlocked the door he glanced at Michael, catching his eyes, and then smiled.

Michael smiled back automatically. “Uh, bye I guess.”

“See you later,” Gavin replied. “Good luck or whatever.”

“Thanks or whatever,” Michael shot back, sticking his tongue out – and Gavin's smile widened, his hand moving to Michael's back to guide him out.

As the door shut behind him Michael paused, schooling his features – wondering why the fuck the smile was still on his face – before shrugging it off and going down to meet the others.

 


 

 

Edgar's men showed up approximately ten minutes into the heist.

Michael had to be impressed at just how quickly he'd tracked them down. But things, luckily, seemed to be going according to plan – they set off the bombs and that confused a lot of the mercenaries, who didn't have the proper breathing equipment to operate within the affected zone.

Unfortunately they had not counted on the duck's duck-suit being that fucking complex, because she seemed completely unaffected. Apparently it had some sort of air filtration system.

Which meant that now Michael and Geoff were backed up against a wall, being peppered with gunshots – because the duck also happened to be wielding a machine gun – Gavin yelling in their ears.

“That smoke's gonna clear up so if you want to get to the car under cover, you need to do it fast.”

“Yeah, alright, if that fucking duck will let up,” Michael replied, through gritted teeth – Geoff had the GPS they needed to plant, but they were pinned down here. “Ryan, can you take her out?”

“Not from here,” Ryan replied – he was on the other side of the plaza, across from the jewellery store, taking down Edgar's men whenever he caught a glimpse of them through the smoke. This whole place was unfortunately quite a public area, but all the civilians had fled during the initial heist and the square was clear now. But it was only a moment later that they heard the faint wail of sirens.

“Police incoming. The duck's turning to go away,” Gavin said, “She's heading back to the car, it's too late to plant anything now.”

The smoke was starting to clear up too, and Michael glanced out from behind the wall – quite a few of Edgar's mercs were lying dead on the ground. He wondered just how many more the other man had in his employ. If they'd made a serious dent in his numbers yet.

“I'm heading down,” Ray spoke up through the earpiece, when Michael heard Gavin suck in a loud breath.

Ray get down!”

There was a rustling thud as Ray threw himself to the ground instantly, and Michael heard the loud crack of a rifle through the earpiece. Both he and Geoff flung themselves back against the wall.

“There's one man still up on top of the bank,” Gavin hissed. “He's sniping.”

“Change of plans,” Ryan said instantly. “We capture him. Maybe he knows something.”

Michael blinked – that was a pretty drastic fucking change in plans – they hadn't prepared for taking a hostage, or getting up on top of the buildings, or any of that shit – but Geoff was nodding now.

“Alright, fine. Gavin, how can we do this?”

“Ray's in the best position to take him down. Michael and Geoff, if you turn down that side street you can climb up to the bank roof. But you'll need to distract him somehow so Ray can shoot him down.”

“I'll do it,” Ryan spoke up. “If I run across the plaza he'll aim at me and Ray can take him out.”

“He might also fucking shoot you,” Michael pointed out.

“No,” Ryan said, “Ray's faster. I'll be fine.”

“Okay,” Ray said – and it was only because Michael had known him so long that he caught the faint undercurrent of nervousness in his tone; not even from the scale of the job – they'd done harder things before – but, more likely, at the degree of confidence in Ryan's voice.

“Do it now,” Gavin said – and Michael peeked out from the wall again in time to see Ryan duck out from his cover and pelt across the plaza towards them, zig-zagging to make it harder to lock on to him. A shot rang out past him, shattering a lamp post – but a moment later he heard Ray fire as well.

“Got 'im,” Ray said then. “He's down – hit his leg pretty badly – but he's still armed, so be careful when you go up there. I'll go to the edge of the roof and see if I can cover you.”

Ryan skidded to a stop beside them. Michael could see his chest heaving, his breath loud and heavy through the filter of the masks they were all wearing for the smoke, and he was pretty sure it wasn't from the exertion of the run.

“Okay?” Michael asked, half-reaching out to touch his arm, and was surprised when Ryan nodded and didn't pull away.

“Police coming up fast,” Gavin advised, “If you're going to grab him, do it now.”

“Got it,” Geoff said, and motioned for the other two to follow him.

“Nice shot, Ray,” Michael heard Ryan murmur.

“Dude, I got your back,” Ray replied.

Ryan made a low humming noise that Michael couldn't quite interpret, but he had little time to dwell on it, as they made their way up to the bank roof to take their prisoner.

 

Chapter Text

“How are you holding up?” Jack asked, quietly, as soon as they'd taken their earpieces out.

Gavin glanced across at him. They were driving out towards the outskirts of Achievement City. The retrieval of the hostage had gone without a hitch, and Geoff had called in a couple of favours in the force, corrupt cops who managed to get the police enough off their backs for them to slip away. But bringing their prisoner back to the apartment would draw far too much attention, so they were heading to another of Ryan's haunts that was more suitable for keeping and interrogating him. Jack and Gavin were to meet the others there.

“I'm top,” he replied, automatically.

It wasn't quite a lie. In the scheme of things – considered against other, much worse possibilities – he was certainly not doing badly. His physical injuries were mostly healed up, he'd gotten off lightly on that front. And he wasn't catatonic, not the way he'd gotten after Barry that first time.

Jack looked at him suspiciously, and he turned away. Perhaps 'top' was a little optimistic, because there was only so much his usual don't-think-about-it coping mechanism could handle. It had not been equipped for things like, y'know, someone's bloody head getting shoved in a deep frier in front of him.

“I'm fine,” he amended then.

Okay,” Jack said then, with a final worried glance – and Gavin couldn't quite help but smile at his concern. Because sure, he couldn't sleep without thinking about it, he still got flashes of anxiety and panic, but he felt safe, as much as one could – with the reassurance that the others had his back, the worst of his fears had drained away.

It was strangely comfortable alone in the car with Jack. A few days ago he had no doubt it would have been awkward, more than likely filled with an irritable silence.

But now that they were on the same page – Jack was lovely; Gavin could see why Geoff liked him. Loved him. He was very good humoured, and when Gavin launched into his favourite pastime – ridiculous, shower-thought hypothetical questions – the other man responded with enthusiasm, even if he was not quite so creative as Ryan had been.

 


 

 

What had once been a trailer park out by a river on the bushy outskirts of town had been devastated by flooding some years ago, and was now an abandoned area littered with rubbish and muddy dirt roads. There was an old animal quarantine station in a clear area of ground, fallen into disrepair, and it was to here that they drove. The others' cars were already parked outside, and Michael was sitting on the hood waiting for them. He jumped up and waved at their approach.

“Hey. No one follow you here?” he asked as they got out, and Jack shook his head.

“No,” he replied. “You lose the cops alright?”

“Yep.” Michael looked around with a shiver, and not just from the brisk chill in the autumn air. “This place is creepy as shit. How many people do you reckon Ryan's killed in there?” he added, with a nod towards the stable building nearby.

“More than I'd like to think about,” Jack replied, grimly, already striding forward.

“I bet it's filled with the ghosts of dead horses,” Michael murmured, glancing across at Gavin with a wicked smirk. “I think there's a big furnace in there where they burned the bodies afterwards.”

“Stop it, Michael,” Gavin replied, with a nervous sort of laugh. “You're awful, you pleb.”

It was eerie, though, there was no denying that – far too quiet out here, as they'd turned off the main road driving in, and a haunted, damp sort of feel to the entire place. Gavin's sneakers squelched in the grass as they headed into the building, and he tried not to think about what else might be in there aside from mud.

It was dark in the stable, filled with a dank gloom broken only by the faint beams of sunlight filtering through the wooden boards of the walls, dust motes suspended within. The others were gathered around the centre of the main room, Ray perched on one of the stall doors, though he hopped off as they approached, catching Gavin's eye and smiling in greeting.

“There you are,” Geoff said, turning from where he stood, and revealing the man kneeling behind him.

Edgar's sniper had taken quite a beating; one eye was already bruised and swelling shut, blood dripping from his nose, his lip, a cut on his forehead. There was a bandage wrapped around one of his legs where he'd been shot, already spotted with blood, and his face was scrunched in pain, huffing harsh breaths through his nose over the scrap of cloth tied around his mouth in a makeshift gag.

His eyes dragged up at Gavin's arrival, meeting his, and for a moment Gavin froze.

There was anger in the sniper's eyes, hate and loathing – but the sight of him kneeling there, gagged and desperate and helpless-

Suddenly it wasn't the sniper before him but the head of security from the Corpirate's mansion, kneeling in the restaurant, the smell of hot oil bubbling in the air around them-

A soft thud as Ryan kicked the man in the side snapped Gavin from his reverie, and he jerked back to attention. Only Ray had noticed him zoning out, it seemed, the other man watching him carefully before he reached into his pocket and pulled out a phone and an intercom, handing them over to Gavin.

“That's the only stuff he had on him apart from weapons,” he said. “Thought you might be able to make something of it.”

“Yeah,” Gavin replied, grabbing them. “Um. So what actually is the plan here?”

“It's pretty straightforward,” Geoff said, looking down at the man kneeling before him with a discompassionate head tilt. “He's gotta know something. Edgar's bases, hideouts – where the duck and the pig spend most of their time. So we get it out of him.”

Ryan turned to Gavin. “You take that stuff and see if you can work out this guy's name, who he is. Might help us work out just how much he knows. In the mean time...” He turned back to the sniper and crouched in front of him, voice dropping into something low and menacing. “You might want to consider cooperating with us, because there's no way out from here. Tell us what we want and I'll kill you quickly. Or we can beat it out of you. You know how this goes.”

You know how this goes . It was Edgar's voice now, muffled by a mask the way Ryan's always was – phantom fingers running over Gavin's stomach – he took a step back, nearly tripping over the uneven flooring, and they all turned to look at him.

“I'll, uh – I'll work outside,” he said, and practically fled the room, distantly hearing Ryan's voice behind him as he said, “Let him stew a little, consider his options.”

 


 

 

Getting outside felt like bursting free from a prison cell; the wide expanse of empty, marshy land that had felt so sinister before now seemed inviting, relieving after the enclosed dark space of the stables. Gavin walked over to the cars and climbed onto the hood of one, sitting cross-legged and pulling his computer onto his lap.

Throwing himself into work was a welcome distraction. He thought back to the sniper's face – he was a middle aged white man, slightly dweeby looking, but there had been a thin scar running through his left eye and his position as sniper meant he wouldn't often have to wear masks for jobs, not getting up close and personal with any potential witnesses.

Over the last few years Gavin had compiled a database of other people in their areas of work. It made life a lot easier when he had to track people down to already have a list of possible names, and it was this that he worked through now, trying to find out exactly who Edgar's man was.

When the stable door opened some time later he jumped, looking up to see Ray emerging. The other man waved as he came over, pulling himself up to sit next to Gavin.

“Hey Vav. Getting anywhere?”

Gavin nodded. “I was actually about to head back in. What's...” he trailed off, hesitant, then continued at Ray's encouraging silence. “Uh, what's going on in there? I didn't really hear anything happening.”

“Yeah, they haven't started beating him up or anything yet.” Ray looked almost uncomfortable at his own words, and Gavin frowned curiously. “Ryan's letting him think it over a bit. The anticipation of it might make him spill.”

“From what I've gathered, he doesn't owe Edgar any particular loyalty,” Gavin mused. “Not the way Jack or even you or Michael are loyal to Geoff.” Not the way I'm loyal to Geoff, he thought, but didn't quite say it aloud. “There's no real reason for him to refuse to spill, not when he knows we can...” he trailed off, but the silence hung between them and he was forced to finish a little awkwardly: “Not when he knows we can hurt him.”

“Maybe Edgar has something on his family,” Ray considered. “A guy that clever... he'll have ways of making sure even his hired guns are kept under control. I don't know. But you should go tell Geoff what you've found.”

Gavin nodded, gathering his belongings and sliding off the hood. He hesitated. The doors of the stable seemed dark and menacing, and he pulled his jacket closer about him as a chill ran down his spine. The cold autumn air suddenly reminded him of Edgar's fridge.

A warm hand rested on his back suddenly, and he turned to see Ray standing very close to him.

“You okay?” Ray asked, brows furrowed.

Gavin nodded, tongue darting across his lips nervously. “Yeah – yeah, I'm fine.”

Ray didn't quite look like he believed him. His hand remained on Gavin's shoulder as they walked back inside, a steady reassurance.

The sniper was kneeling right where he had been when Gavin walked out. There was a fresh cut above his other eye, but that was his only new injury. The others were standing, just staring at him – the only sound in the room a rhythmic sching every few seconds as Michael sharpened one of his knives.

“His name's Mark Nutt,” Gavin spoke up – and they all turned to him, even the sniper's head snapping up. Gavin avoided looking at him, keeping his eyes trained on Geoff.

“Nutt with a double 'T',” Gavin added, and Geoff snorted.

“Fucking unfortunate name you got there, buddy,” he said. “What else?”

“Your run of the mill mercenary, though he's got a name for himself as one of the best snipers in the business. Did a slew of different jobs for a long time, but for the last couple of years he's been working exclusively for Edgar. Not part of his inner circle, but a regular employee of his.”

“So he'll know about his hideouts then.” Geoff turned back to Mark Nutt, who continued to stare up at him defiantly. “Edgar's not coming to save you. You're not leaving this building alive. So you can cooperate and we'll kill you quickly, or we can do things the hard way.”

Ryan leaned forward and plucked the gag from Mark's mouth.

“Well?” he asked.

Mark squinted up at him through one swollen eye. Then he spat a gob of bloody saliva at Ryan's feet.

“Go fuck yourself,” he croaked out, and Ryan gave a heavy sigh, straightening up.

“The hard way, then,” he said, exchanging a glance with Geoff.

The unease in Gavin's stomach was building up, nervousness and anxiety starting to overwhelm him.

They're going to torture him , he thought – and it was expected , he knew. He could see the necessity of it. And it wasn't as though he was foreign to such things – had seen footage of it on tapes before. But never in person. Never with people he worked with. And maybe he was a coward – maybe it was his recent experience with Edgar putting him on edge – but the thought of it made him feel sick suddenly.

“Wait.” The word left his mouth before he could even think about it, and suddenly they were all staring at him again.

“What?” Geoff asked.

Gavin opened and shut his mouth, suddenly unsure. “I... do you have to?” He dropped his voice a little so that Mark wouldn't hear, stepping in closer to Geoff, who frowned at him.

“Gavin..."

“Can't we... if you let him go I could track him, he might lead us-”

“Fucking hell, Gavin, we're not letting him go,” Geoff snapped instantly. There was something in his voice – something determined, dark, commanding, and suddenly Gavin remembered that this was a dangerous man. Perhaps not in the way Ryan was dangerous – but it had been easy to forget while living with him, laughing with him, that Geoff had not made his way to the top of the food chain by being nice to people.

“Right, of course, I... sorry.” He took a step back and Geoff's face softened a little.

It wouldn't take six of them to torture the one guy. Jack was already moving outside, muttering something about keeping watch, and Gavin skipped after him. He glanced back over his shoulder – gaze darting to Ray and Michael – and again saw that odd, uncomfortable look on Ray's face, as though what they were doing didn't quite sit right with him either. Michael had picked up on it too and had one hand loosely circled around Ray's wrist.

And Geoff – Geoff's shoulders were tense. Michael's mouth was set in a hard line.

They don't want to do this , Gavin realised. They're going to do it – but they don't want to. They're not enjoying it .

The realisation gave him some reassurance – even if, when he shot a final glance at Ryan before walking out, the only thing he could pick up was that the other man seemed... calm.

Jack looked up when Gavin exited the building, giving him a tired half-smile. He was leaning against the car and Gavin returned to where he'd been sitting before, pulling out his phone. The signal was weak this far out, but he had enough on there to amuse himself.

To distract himself.

He couldn't hear much from inside – the occasional snatch of a raised voice, but nothing audible – and it was about twenty minutes before the cries started. Low, reluctant shouts of pain at first, but steadily building their way up – and his hands were shaking now, fingers fumbling and unable to hit the buttons of his phone accurately.

Stop it, stop it, don't bloody think about it .

But it was bloody impossible not to, not when the harsh, piercing scream that sounded from inside, suddenly enough to make even Jack jump, echoed the man's scream when Edgar had the duck push his hand into the oil. And it was rising back up now, the image that had circled around his head all night last night – haunted his dreams as soon as he even started to sleep – the man's head being pushed down. That gargling scream breaking off into a sizzling nothing. The fucking smell -

Gagging suddenly, choking, he slid off the car – nearly tripping in his haste – stumbled over to the bushes nearby and threw himself to his knees, heaving and retching.

A large warm hand was suddenly rubbing his back, another reaching up to push his hair away from his face.

Dan , he thought, in a confused haze – but it was Jack's low voice in his ear, bringing him back to reality.

“Gavin? Gav... easy now, easy...”

He couldn't breathe. It felt like Edgar's hands were still around his throat. Like his lungs were still full of salty bay water.

He vomited again, though nothing much more came up, and was caught dry-heaving for a few moments before he slumped back, exhausted. Jack caught him against his chest, one hand still rhythmically massaging his shoulder.

“Hey, it's okay. Come on. Can you walk?”

His arm wrapped around Gavin's waist, pulling him upright, leading him to the car in a daze.

Gavin's mouth tasted like sour bile. When Jack handed him a bottle of water he took it gratefully, rinsing and spitting a couple of times before sipping and sipping as though if he drank enough the memory of it all would wash away.

And he wished, bitterly, that he was drinking something stronger, because that could make you forget – that was probably the only reason he'd even coped the first time. That and Dan.

Dan . He missed him with a sudden fierce, aching passion.

Stay here,” Jack said suddenly – and Gavin's head snapped up, panic slamming back into him – leaving, he's leaving, you're leaving me? But Jack was just heading for the stable doors, one hand up to wave reassuringly at him, and he slumped back against the car again, reaching up to run his hands through his hair.

Any sort of calm, any peace of mind he'd managed to gather over the last couple of days had just completely shattered. No matter how safe he'd thought he could feel, the memory of it was right there behind his eyes, playing out again and again no matter how hard he tried to shut it down.

And the cries were still coming from inside – but they cut off abruptly as Jack entered.

He emerged a few minutes later with Ray and Michael in tow. Michael strode immediately up to him and threw an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close in a half-hug.

“Dude,” he said, “You're alright now. You're okay. Anyone tries to get you they'll have to go through me first.” A somewhat feral grin accompanied this last statement. “You hear me? I'll cut a bitch.”

“I'm sure that's very reassuring when you're waving a knife around,” Ray said drily, and Michael quickly shoved the blade he'd still been holding back into his belt.

“Whatever. He gets what I mean.”

Gavin was not sure what, exactly, Jack had told them, but he nodded. Since they had stopped being at odds with one another Michael's presence had become increasingly reassuring to him; there was something about just how loud and angry he was that seemed to Gavin to ward off any potential threat. Like he would just take it in stride – swear at it a lot – but deal with it and move on.

Wish I could just deal with it and move on , he thought, but managed a smile, and Michael grinned back. And then, because he was an asshole, starting poking him in the side until Gavin laughed and squirmed out from under his arm.

“Stay safe out there.” Michael was addressing Jack now, “Keep an eye out in case anyone follows you.”

“Wait, what?” Gavin demanded. “Where's Jack going?”

“We're getting you out of here, man,” Ray spoke up. “We'll go like, grab food and then head back to the flat. The others can deal with it here. They don't need all six of us hanging around.”

Gavin looked to Jack, who nodded – and the relief hit him like a truck then; he wouldn't have to sit out here and listen to someone being tortured to death.

“Come on then,” Jack said, already getting in the car – Ray and Gavin quickly followed suit, Michael waving them off before turning and heading back into the stable.

Gavin turned to look at Ray. He seemed paler than usual – he was not the loudest of people, but even now he seemed quieter, almost withdrawn.

“Was it getting to you too?” he asked – but Ray shook his head quickly.

“Nah, I've seen worse. Jack said he was buying so I was like, lunch. Free food, man, I'm all over that.”

He was lying.

Gavin knew him well enough by now to tell, and he was pretty sure Jack did as well. As it was, they drove on without conversation – Jack switching on the radio once they were close enough to the city to pick up a signal – and they listened to some truly terrible country pop songs before finally pulling into a roadside McDonalds full of truckies.

The silence stretched on until they were sitting in a booth over cheeseburgers. Then Jack spoke up – with superb timing, as Gavin had just taken a sip of his drink.

“You ever killed someone, Gavin?”

He nearly choked, soda going up his nose and making him cough wildly as it fizzed.

“Jesus. Ow. Um, no.”

“You must have been in dangerous situations before though,” Jack said, with a carefully measured look.

“Yeah, but I don't normally go out into the field,” Gavin explained. “So I've never had to.”

“Okay,” Jack replied. “That's good. Ray, how many people have you killed?”

“A lot,” Ray replied – carefully. “You going somewhere with this? I'm not...” he trailed off, then continued, almost defiantly, “I'm not ashamed of it. I know you've killed just as many. And none of them were civilians.”

“That's true,” Jack said. “And you're proving my point perfectly. We don't kill civilians. Not unless we have to.” He turned back to Gavin. “But you need to understand something. We're not the good guys here. Not even close. You're not the good guy.”

Gavin opened his mouth to say he knew that, but Jack raised a hand to shush him.

“Geoff,” he continued, “Is not a cruel person. He's doing what he has to right now. He's done it before. But we don't make a habit of it. Torturing someone...” The word seemed too heavy for the almost casual way he said it. “It's a big thing. Deliberately causing someone so much pain. It weighs heavy on you. It's not fun, not unless you're a sadist. You kill enough people, you get used to it.”

Gavin looked at Ray, who was methodically removing the gherkins from his burger and eating them. There was an odd, almost hard look on his face. But when he realised they were waiting for him to contribute, he looked up and gave a reluctant nod.

“Yeah,” he said. “It gets easier. You stop thinking about it.”

Gavin wondered just how easy it was for Ryan to kill, given he had so many times before. This wasn't anything he hadn't already discussed with Dan, anyway, and even if the topic made him uneasy, it wasn't too difficult for him to shrug it off.

“What I'm getting at,” Jack said, “Is that I do it too. Everyone who decides to play things this way knows what they're getting into. Mark knew that when he decided to work for Edgar. So I don't feel sorry for him. I don't regret what we're doing. But I also don't want to watch it. And,” this addressed to Ray, “Just because Michael doesn't mind it doesn't mean you have to pretend you don't either.”

Ray relaxed visibly at that, a slightly awkward grin crossing his face.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding relieved. “I just... like I said, I've seen worse happen. But I've never... we've never done it ourselves. And I guess it just hit me that that could have been me. I've sniped for guys hundreds of times before. If I'd been caught...” He shook his head. “But like you said. We know what we're getting into.”

Jack nodded. With this conversation out of the way, their meal became far more relaxed.

“It was a mistake bringing you in there,” Jack said then, turning to Gavin. “We should have realised it could be triggering. Sorry about making you sit through part of that.”

Gavin flapped a hand, his smile coming more easily now. “Don't worry about it. I just kinda wish there was another way to get information out of people. Like, I don't know, hypnotising them or something.”

Ray laughed. “Hypnotising them? Really?”

“Yeah!” Gavin cried, defensively, “It's a thing.”

“It's all a stage act,” Jack replied. “I don't believe it could possibly actually work.”

“Dude, people are into that shit,” Ray said, “Like erotic hypnotism and all.”

Jack pulled a face. “That's... interesting.”

“Or at least, like, not hurting him to get it out of him,” Gavin said. “Couldn't we just threaten to feed him wet bread or something.”

“Wet bread?” Ray demanded, and Gavin nodded furiously.

“That's like... that would just be so gross, I think he'd spill immediately if we forced him to eat it.”

“What's so bad about wet bread?” Ray asked, but even the thought of it was starting to make Gavin nauseous.

“No. It's the worst thing in the world to me,” he insisted, “Just the texture, it's all soggy, it's...” He trailed off, gagging, and Jack leaned over and thumped him on the back.

“Jesus Christ, don't make yourself throw up.”

Having derailed from the original subject, the conversation quickly devolved into stupid things Ray and Jack had dared Michael and Geoff to do before, and things took a far more lighthearted return. Gavin let himself relax, let his worries slip from his mind, at least for the moment.

And it was then that he noticed it.

He'd been taking note of it subconsciously for a while – he couldn't exactly turn off his ability to observe things, it had become habit by this point, part of his job – but it was only here and now, alone with Ray and Jack, that it really became apparent.

In casual conversation, unrelated to missions or jobs, Ray looked at Jack with darting, nervous little glances. Didn't quite meet his eyes when he was listening to what he had to say. And when he spoke to him, it was a little too fast, a little too excited.

It was the way that you spoke to a new friend that you really, really wanted to get to know better – someone you were excited to get along with – and Gavin had been much the same with Geoff and Jack at first, in light of their being so famous in their sphere, but he was pretty sure it hadn't lasted more than a day or so.

And Ray wasn't even aware he was doing it, he could tell – and he'd noticed him doing it with Ryan as well, now that he thought about it.

Jack hadn't seemed to pick up on it either – and Gavin shrugged it off. It was strange, sure, but it didn't mean anything. Just an interesting observation.

 


 

 

The flat was quiet with just the three of them there. Gavin removed himself to the kitchen, where he sat with his laptop, keeping an eye on the streets in case anything cropped up. He wasn't sure where the other two had gone; vaguely recalled Jack saying something about staying on watch.

Alone in here, with nothing but his thoughts, the knowledge of what Geoff, Michael and Ryan were doing right now began to creep up on him again, leaving him anxious and shaken.

Starting to get restless, he rose from the table and began wandering about the kitchen, opening and shutting cupboards at random. Maybe it was a bit nosy to look around Ryan's house when he wasn't there – but he hadn't exactly told them not to touch anything, and Gavin had already had a poke around, just not in this room.

It was telling, he thought, that Ryan kept his flat so scrupulously clean. If it was truly a hideout, he wouldn't have expected to have company over. Wouldn't have everything already locked away and tidy.

Which meant he did have people over, now and then. Gavin suddenly found himself wondering who. One night stands from bars? Did he have friends who didn't know his identity as the mad mercenary? Surely not. He dismissed that thought instantly as stupid.

Lonely people keep their houses clean , he mused, reaching to open a cabinet. Because they still have some sort of hope that someone will come. If you're not lonely, you don't bother.

He paused as his eyes fell on the bottles of alcohol in the cupboard. It seemed he'd found Ryan's liquor supply. The man might not have kept many groceries around the place, but he certainly had no small supply of bevs.

And suddenly – suddenly Gavin was tempted, because Edgar was still there, a constant presence at the back of his mind, crowding for space against Barry.

He bit his lip.

Truth be told, the period he'd been working for Geoff had been the first streak in a long time he'd gone without getting drunk almost every night. It wasn't healthy, he knew – Dan had been worried as all hell about this sudden habit – but making himself black out was the only way he could even get a full night's sleep any more.

Drinking didn't make it go away. Only for a while – and then it came back worse – but the few hours that he couldn't remember were a welcome reprieve, and almost without thinking about it his hand began to reach for a bottle.

“Vav?”

Ray's voice made him jump violently, and he whirled around. Something like guilt pooled in his chest, and he wasn't quite sure why.

“R-Ray.”

“Whatcha up to?” Ray tilted his head curiously, and Gavin slammed the cabinet door shut behind him.

“Found Ryan's bevs,” he replied. His heart was slamming in his chest. Part of him was annoyed at Ray's interruption, the other half almost relieved.

Ray grinned a bit. “Raiding his stash?”

“That might have been the plan.” He sat back down, though, and after a moment Ray slid into the chair across from him, drumming his fingers restlessly against the tabletop.

“Michael texted. Mark's still not spilled anything,” he said then, and Gavin gave a silent nod.

They sat without speaking for a few minutes.

“Were you scared?” Gavin asked. The question sprang to him out of nowhere, and Ray looked up.

“When?”

“During the heist. When Ryan told you to shoot Mark. Were you scared?”

“I wasn't scared,” Ray replied – but there was something thoughtful in his tone. “I was... nervous.”

“Why?”

“Not because of the job. I've done harder. But Ryan... Ryan trusted me, and I wasn't sure why.” He shook his head, fisting his hands in the ends of his sleeves. “I guess it sort of hit me that if I failed – if he died – it would be my fault. And that made me nervous.”

The glance he darted at Gavin at this admission was wary, as though expecting some sort of judgement – but Gavin just nodded.

“Okay,” he said.

“Yeah.” Ray forced a quick smile – but for whatever reason, this topic of conversation had spooked him, and he got up from the table and quickly left the room.

Left alone once more, Gavin found his gaze drifting again to the liquor cabinet.

Not yet, he thought – just wait, maybe... maybe it will get better on its own.

Bloody fat chance of that. He was deluding himself, he knew – but for now he hung onto that futile hope. With a groan he buried his head in his arms, squeezing his eyes shut and waiting, hoping that the others would finish up quickly – that Mark would spill or die or something – because he felt like he was teetering on the edge of an abyss, that it would take very little to fall.

 


 

 

Ryan had started with the fingers.

Geoff was pretty sure it was so that if Mark Nutt somehow got free, he would be unable to attack them. It was very hard to attack people without fingers.

Now they stood in a circle around the gasping man, who knelt in a pool of his own blood, jaw still resolutely clamped shut even as tears of pain ran down his face. Ryan's method of removing digits was... brutal; he didn't just chop them off. There was peeling involved. Geoff felt a little ill.

Not that he let it show. He had seen worse and kept a straight face – you had to be able to, with his reputation – and he wondered if Ryan's mien was as stony under his ever-present mask.

Michael was holding up well, too; a little pale but grimly determined.

The three of them were all on the same page, and that more than anything made it easier for Geoff to hold up. He wasn't enjoying this, not by any stretch of the word – but they all knew it was their only route to Edgar at the moment. And he didn't grudge Jack for leaving – nor Ray, and God, certainly not Gavin. But he was glad that Ryan had taken control of this particular endeavour, and having Michael there for support was... reassuring.

“I'm not even close to running out of things to remove.” Ryan's voice was low, flat – it nearly sent shivers down Geoff's spine. God, he could be a creepy bastard when he wanted to, and if they weren't on the same side he might have been worried. “So you might want to reconsider your loyalties.”

Mark remained silent, leaning forward to let blood and spit drip from his mouth to the floor.

“What do you owe Edgar?” Ryan asked, leaning in and getting a tight grip on his hair, tilting his head up to look him in the eyes. “Nothing. Why let yourself suffer for him?”

Mark cleared his throat, and Geoff and Michael perked up in anticipation – but he laughed, then, a harsh, hoarse croak of a laugh.

“He told us about you,” he rasped. “Ryan Haywood.”

Ryan went rigid as a plank. Geoff could see the way his shoulders stiffened, even under his jacket.

“You'll want to think really fucking carefully about what you say next,” Ryan growled – but Mark just huffed at him, dribbling more bloody saliva onto his shoes.

“Keep pretending,” he hissed. “Even machines break down.”

Ryan's grip tightened on his hair – but it seemed he'd said all he was inclined to, because he fell silent again, and after a moment Ryan let go of him and straightened up slowly.

Geoff and Michael exchanged glances – both wary of the sudden coldness that had overtaken Ryan.

“Michael,” Ryan said, slowly, “In that back stall there's a horsewhip and a length of rope. Could you fetch them for me?”

“Gladly,” Michael replied, moving to obey instantly. He'd been like that the whole time – following Ryan's orders without question. Even if he wasn't enjoying what was going on, he seemed eager to please the older man.

Geoff frowned. He wasn't blind to the fact that even if they were wary of him, to a certain extent Michael and Ray looked up to Ryan. It was hard not to when he'd made such a name for himself.

After their little talk earlier that day, he felt somewhat more inclined to trust Ryan. He had been worried – very worried – when he noticed how attached all the others were getting to the mercenary, especially Jack, since Ryan seemed to care very little for them in turn.

But it was becoming increasingly apparent that he did care. Was struggling with it, perhaps – but it was enough for Geoff.

The relief he'd felt at that realisation, though... that was worrying as well. Because while he'd agreed to work with Ryan, he hadn't anticipated starting to like the man. Let alone start feeling fond of him.

Still – as much as he wanted to trust him, the innate protectiveness he felt towards Michael and Ray was keeping him wary, and he intended to keep a close eye on all of them in the near future.

“Here you go,” Michael said, upon his return.

Ryan nodded, reaching out to take the rope from him. “Help me with this,” he said, jerking his head towards Mark Nutt and then towards the rafters overhead, just the right height to string someone up by the wrists.

Again, Michael nodded immediately and moved to help, and after a moment Geoff followed as well.

 


 

 

By the time evening fell, Mark Nutt still hadn't spoken, and seemed on the verge of falling into a catatonic state. In the interests of him not dying on them, they decided to call it quits for the night.

“Michael,” Geoff said tiredly, as he moved to retie the man's hands – slippery with blood – behind his back. “Grab the first aid kit from the car and tend to some of his wounds, will you? Need him alive for tomorrow, after all.”

Michael nodded. His obedience, it seemed, extended to Geoff as well, because he darted off right away.

Ryan had moved to stand in the back door of the stables. His shoulders were slumped tiredly, in an odd moment of vulnerability, but he straightened up when Geoff approached.

“Still not talking,” Geoff murmured, and Ryan raised and lowered one shoulder.

“He will,” he said, confidently. “They take a while to crack. But they always do, in the end.”

Geoff tilted his head at him. “You do this often?”

“No,” Ryan replied, grimly. “But this isn't my first.”

Geoff watched him carefully.

Ryan sounded exhausted, and Geoff knew it wasn't just Gavin who didn't sleep at night.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Ryan stiffened again. He glanced at Geoff out of the corner of his eye, warily, as though he wasn't sure the question was genuine. Geoff stared resolutely back, and after a moment Ryan gave a jerking nod.

“I'm fine. I'll be better when we're on track to Edgar again.”

“Won't we all,” Geoff huffed. He reached out to press Ryan's arm, and felt the other stiffen under his touch. He wasn't quite sure why he continued to hold on after that – why he found it so satisfying that Ryan didn't pull away, and, after a few minutes, even relaxed.

The sound of a car pulling up outside made them both whip around, hurrying through the stable to the front of the quarantine station – but they quickly relaxed when they realised it was one of their own cars, and that it was Ray who stepped out. Michael was already moving to greet him, wiping blood from his hands with a towel.

“Dude, you fucking drove all the way out here?” he asked, going in for a shoulder clap, then hesitating awkwardly as he realised they weren't restricted to that anymore.

Ray rolled his eyes, pulling him in and kissing him soundly on the lips before stepping back. “Yeah. I can drive, you know.”

“Yeah, out of fucking necessity. You're crap at it.”

“You're not much better. Besides, I got here, didn't it?” He looked up, catching sight of Geoff and Ryan coming towards him. “Hey. He still hasn't talked?”

Geoff shook his head, with a frustrated sigh. “Stubborn as dicks. We've decided to stop for the night, let him rest up. Jack and Gav back at the flat?”

Ray nodded. “Yeah. I came out here to relieve you, since you guys probably need to go rest up and eat something.”

“I'll stay if you're staying,” Michael said immediately. “There's food in the car.”

Geoff nodded. “Make sure Mark eats something too. Don't want him passing out on us.” He turned to Ryan. “You staying here, or heading back?”

“I'll come back to the flat,” Ryan replied. He turned to Ray, reaching out to grip his shoulder firmly – and fixed both he and Michael with a stern look. “You should be fine out here. No one knows about this place. But keep an eye on him. Make sure one of you is on watch at all times.”

There was an undercurrent of concern in Ryan's voice, and it wasn't just about their prisoner escaping. Geoff smiled inwardly as he realised Ryan was worried about leaving the two younger men alone. Progress.

“We'll be fine,” Ray assured him.

“As long as the ghosts of the horses don't get us,” Michael muttered, and Ray turned to him with a fond sort of smile.

Geoff rolled his eyes. Young fucking love, he thought, but couldn't help but grin himself.

“In that case, we'll be off,” he said. “See you tomorrow morning. Stay safe – check in by text every hour. If you don't I'll call, and if you don't pick up we'll come out here to check on you. So please keep your phones on to save us having to drive out here for no reason.”

“Sure,” Michael replied, rolling his eyes. “Wouldn't want to interrupt your fucking beauty sleep.”

“Hey, this moustache didn't get this magnificent on its own,” Geoff replied. He tapped Ryan's elbow. “Come on then.”

 


 

 

The silence in the car somehow managed to be companionable rather than awkward. Geoff drove, and Ryan, in the passenger seat, spent some time motionless with his head resting against the window, so still that Geoff thought he might have fallen asleep.

He hadn't, though, and after a while he reached up under his mask and rubbed his eyes. His head was still angled such that Geoff couldn't see his face, even as he glanced over with unashamed curiosity.

Ryan noticed, of course.

“You've shown Michael and Gavin. Might as well let the rest of us see,” Geoff commented.

“I've got to keep some secrets,” Ryan replied, but Geoff was certain he was smiling under the mask.

“You have a moustache under there?” Geoff demanded – and Ryan let out a laugh at that, startled but genuinely amused.

“No, don't worry. I'm not about to overtake you on the facial hair front.”

“Good.”

The apartment complex was dark and sleepy by the time they got there.

“Your neighbours are quiet people,” Geoff commented, as they walked up to his flat, and Ryan shrugged.

“I scoped out the place before buying. None of them suspect a thing. Although that may change the longer all six of us stay here.”

There was something almost wistful in his tone, but he didn't say any more on the matter.

Jack was waiting for them, sitting on the couch drinking tea. He moved to greet Geoff with a kiss as he entered – then smiled at Ryan.

“No luck?” he asked, and Geoff shook his head. Jack's hand moved to his arm, squeezing gently.

“Tomorrow then,” he said. “Ray told me he'd stay over there, I'm guessing Michael opted to stay with him?”

“Indeed,” Ryan replied. “So it's just us here for tonight. I'll take first watch.”

“I'll take second,” Jack replied.

“Sure you're up for it?” Geoff asked, worriedly – Jack's voice was still raspy and a little congested, though his coughs had mostly receded over the course of the day.

Jack nodded. “I'm fine. Ryan, you want a cup of tea or anything?” he called out, as Ryan started striding out towards the balcony, but the other man just shook his head and headed out, shutting the balcony door behind him.

Jack turned to Geoff with raised eyebrows. “He alright?”

“I think so,” Geoff replied with a frown. He looked around. “Where's Gavin?”

“Kitchen, I think.” Jack reached out and poked at the bloodied spots on Geoff's shirt. “Go shower, I'll meet you in the bedroom when you're done.”

“Oh. I'm not sleeping on the couch tonight then?” Geoff asked.

Jack rolled his eyes. “Ryan's got a big bed, I don't see why you should. And no,” he added quickly, at Geoff's mischievous grin. “We're not fucking in Ryan's bed. You're terrible. You're awful. I heard about you encouraging Ray and Michael last night. No. We are guests here.”

“Good guy Jack,” Geoff muttered, with an exaggeratedly pained pout, but made his way to the bathroom.

It was a relief to shower, to wash the grime and blood off himself – the more brutal things they got up to always left him feeling somehow unclean, even if he should have been used to it by now.

He was crossing the dark living room when Jack suddenly emerged from the bedroom, shutting the door behind him and pacing over to him.

“What's up?” Geoff asked, a little confused.

“Okay, I've got Gavin in there,” Jack said, pointing back towards the bedroom. “And he's really... off.”

“Off?” Geoff demanded – but his stomach had dropped now. “What does 'off' mean?”

The night previous he had been unsurprised to wake up to find Gavin having a major-ass freak out in the bathroom. He didn't know quite what had gone down with Edgar – only what Jack had told him, which wasn't much – but whatever it was had obviously rattled him pretty badly, not to mention brought up memories of whatever had happened last time with Barry.

Calming him down had been... interesting, to say the least, and they'd ended up together on the couch somehow. If anything that night had only intensified what protective instincts Geoff felt towards the other man tenfold.

He regretted even bringing him over to the quarantine station. Wished he'd thought through their plan of capturing one of Edgar's people before dragging Gavin into it.

“He's pretty tipsy,” Jack said, mouth twisting oddly in an expression Geoff couldn't quite read. “Was on the way to getting blackout drunk when I caught him at it.”

Geoff was not one to preach, considering his own relationship with alcohol.

“He upset? Scared?”

“I don't know,” Jack said. “Just... come see for yourself.”

With a frown, Geoff followed him into the bedroom.

Gavin was sitting on the edge of the bed, quite literally twiddling his thumbs. When he saw Geoff he looked up with red rimmed, slightly unfocused eyes, and gave a wide, almost nervous sort of grin.

“Hello Geoff.”

“Hey Gavvy.” Geoff moved to stand in front of him, raising an eyebrow. “You shitfaced yet?”

“No. I bloody wish, tell your God damn boyfriend he's not my mum.” Gavin directed a somewhat poisonous look at Jack, and Geoff raised his eyebrows, wondering what exactly had gone down in the kitchen to lead to Jack dragging Gavin in here like a kid being sent to their room.

“Yeah, well, I think you've had enough, we don't need you hungover tomorrow.”

“Don't care about the hangover.” Even if he wasn't full on drunk yet, the words still spilled out of Gavin's mouth like he couldn't quite control them. “I just want to bloody well sleep.”

“Hot milk normally works for that,” Jack piped up.

“Take your hot milk and shove it up your crev,” Gavin replied, testily, and stood up from the bed, swaying a little.

Geoff planted himself in his path. “The only person who shoves things up his 'crev' is me, Gav,” he replied, drawing a rather unamused scowl from Jack. “That's what the drinking's about? You can't sleep?”

“Don't wanna talk about it,” Gavin informed him, and tried to push past him to the door. Geoff caught his arm, pulling him back, and Gavin spun around in his grip. Then his eyes fell to Geoff's body, and widened a little.

“Geoff's in a towel,” he announced, and Geoff rolled his eyes.

“A+ observation skills there, buddy.” He'd forgotten to bring new clothes to the bathroom with him.

Instantly Gavin reached out and whisked the towel off. Geoff squawked loudly, scrambling to catch it and cover himself, and Jack let out a rather alarmed noise.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Gav, what are you playing at?”

“You grabbed my wrist,” Gavin replied. “I wanted you to let go.” Then he giggled – and okay, he was much, much tipsier than Geoff had originally thought. “Nice nob, Geoffrey.”

“Sit yourself the fuck down.” Part of Geoff wanted to laugh, the rest was worried and annoyed. He grabbed Gavin's shoulders and pushed him back down to sit on the bed, then pointed a finger at him.

Stay.”

“'m not a dog.”

“Lord give me strength,” Jack muttered, and Geoff couldn't help but nod agreement as he walked over to his suitcase and pulled on some pants.

“You can stop staring at my boyfriend's ass any time,” he heard Jack say behind him, though there was little venom in it. The inebriation was something of a mitigating factor, Geoff supposed.

“Sorry. It was kind of noticeable when he bent over. Well good ass though. Congratulations.”

Geoff took a deep breath, trying to work out exactly what he was going to do about this. Gavin was obviously a mess. This wasn't something he could just wing on the fly. Think methodically. What's the problem here?

It came to him. He turned to Gavin, gaze stern and commanding. “Take off your shirt.”

Gavin froze, seeming to sober up in an instant at the command.

“What?” he asked.

“You heard me,” Geoff said, quiet but intent. “Take it off. Jack told me what happened to you. I know about the scars. I want to see them.”

Jack moved up next to him, fingers circling around his wrist and squeezing gently, a silent question – what are you playing at?

Geoff ignored him, gaze fixed on Gavin, who was staring back at him – eyes wide, slightly bloodshot. Scared under their defiance.

Then he stood up and marched for the door. Geoff grabbed him and practically threw him back onto the bed; it wasn't hard to pin him down, despite his squirming.

“You heard me, Gavin, do it.”

Fuck you,” Gavin spat. In a surprisingly fluid motion, he yanked his wrist in the direction of Geoff's thumb, breaking his grip – and shit, someone had to have taught him that – and then grabbed at his face, practically shoving his fingers up Geoff's nose in an attempt to get him off. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you-”

Gavin.” Spluttering, Geoff reared back – but Jack had moved up to help now, arms wrapping around Gavin from behind and pulling him back against his chest in a mockery of a bear hug.

“Take it off,” Geoff ordered – tugging at the hem of the shirt now, Gavin slapping at his hands fruitlessly. “You can't hide from it, Gavin – that's your problem, okay? You keep it all bottled up inside. I've had my share of fucking nightmares, okay, I know what it's like to not be able to sleep. You need to let it out or it festers. Just trust me, okay?!”

Jack moved to help him yank the shirt up over Gavin's head and Gavin curled in on himself immediately, hair wildly messed up from where the fabric had pulled over it. Jack let him go but he made no move to escape now, just sat hunched over, shoulders heaving as the two of them stared at him.

Geoff had prepared himself for seeing them, but it still hit him hard, those marks of hurt – distressingly similar to what they'd been inflicting on Mark Nutt today – again that surge of anger hit him, the desire to go out and tear apart the people responsible for it.

Dan had already done that. This was over, in the past – except not for Gavin, not now. And that was the problem, really.

“Gavin...” Despite the rage he felt, he kept his hand gentle as he reached out to smooth the other's hair down. Jack was rubbing his back now, and Gavin leaned into the touch.

“I know you're scared,” Geoff said quietly. “And what happened to you was horrible, I get that. But there's a difference between working through your shit and quashing it down. Drinking to forget isn't a permanent solution. Trust me. And I'm not saying you have to talk about it, but pretending it didn't happen at all? That's not healthy. That doesn't work. It happened. It sucks, but it happened, okay. And you survived. Don't let Barry – don't let Edgar – drag you down again.”

“I can't stop thinking about it.” The words were choked, shaky – rising thick from the back of his throat like he was about to throw up. “I can't stop – I can't stop thinking about it.”

“I know. But it's been two days. Memories fade. Scars fade.” He reached out then, touching the most prominent of the wounds; a thick, silvery line snaking right around his torso, a gouge that looked deeper than a knife cut or thin whiplash. Gavin flinched a little, then half-slumped forward, and Geoff caught him – pulled him against his chest and let him just shake. Work through it.

He caught Jack's eyes over the top of Gavin's head and gave a small smile; Jack smiled back, shifting closer on the bed to close in on Gavin's other side.

Some people might not have liked to be touched after what had happened to them; Gavin was the opposite, it seemed the contact reassured him that they were there, not going anywhere.

Is this what Gruchy did for him? Geoff thought – and wondered, suddenly, why that sat so uneasily with him, the thought of some stranger he didn't know being close enough to Gavin to offer him this sort of comfort.

They sat for what seemed like a long while, but likely wasn't; time seemed to have frozen in the room, all still and silent outside.

And even Geoff couldn't quite pinpoint what caused the change – except as Gavin calmed, the panic, the adrenaline, faded away – and suddenly he realised exactly how close their position was. He was shirtless, Gavin too, all three of them sat very near to each other on the bed, bare skin pressed to bare skin. He could feel Gavin's heart hammering against his; the rough hair of his chest scraping against Geoff's as he sat back a little.

“Umm,” Gavin said at last, eloquently.

Like I said,” Geoff repeated. “You won't be okay overnight. Drinking won't make it better. But it will get better. Scars fade.”

He reached out, Gavin's eyes tracking his hand as he moved to run his fingers over the marks on his chest. And he'd intended to just make Gavin look at them – to accept them – except the motion ended up too intimate somehow. Gavin shivered when he touched him, and there was a terrible, frozen moment in which some sort of tension built up between them – and Jack's knee, bumping against Geoff's, suddenly seemed burningly, feverishly hot – then Gavin jerked himself from their hold, scrambling up off the bed.

“I,” he stuttered, “Uh – thanks. For that.” He was painfully awkward – his words slurring a little, making Geoff recall that he was still somewhat intoxicated – and all Geoff could do was nod as he watched him stumble out of the room. Hopefully to just crash on the couch.

What the fuck was that?

He looked at Jack, wondering if he'd felt it too – that strange electric tension that he didn't quite dare to contemplate the meaning of – and Jack stared back at him, almost thoughtfully.

“He'll be okay,” was what Jack said – which broke Geoff out of the mood.

He nodded again, suddenly feeling nothing but exhausted – and they did not talk further as they turned out the light and climbed into bed.

 


 

 

Things were awkward the next morning, and Geoff didn't even know why; Gavin lurked about in the living room, avoiding his gaze. He looked like crap warmed over, and obviously hadn't gotten a wink of sleep the night previous, but did not seem inclined to discuss it with any of them – so Geoff left him in Jack's care, heading out with Ryan at a quite early hour.

“Something's up with Free,” Ryan said, in the car as they drove. “I take it you know that already.”

Geoff gave a tired nod, running a hand over his face. “Yeah. He's shaken up over Edgar.”

“I'm not surprised,” Ryan replied grimly. “He knows how to... shock people.”

Geoff gazed at him sidelong. Some of Ryan's torture methods were almost disturbingly creative. It was only the fact that Geoff knew he wasn't being cruel for the sake of being cruel that kept him from feeling overly uneasy in the man's presence.

He was seized, then, with a sudden fit of intense curiosity about the other man.

Because all he knew about him – all he really knew about him – were the stories. His reputation. And Geoff knew well that stories all too often got things wrong. He remembered what Mark had said the day earlier – that Edgar had told his men about Ryan – and wondered again what their previous encounter had been.

“I noticed a bit of a mess in the kitchen this morning,” Ryan continued – still, it seemed, preoccupied with Gavin, and Geoff nodded again.

“His motto seems to be 'drink to forget' right now,” he said. “We talked him out of it last night. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on him.”

Ryan nodded, and they fell into silence again – which only left space for Geoff's thoughts to wander further.

“Hey,” he said, and Ryan turned to him. “How're you gonna kill him?”

“Who? Mark?” Ryan asked, but Geoff shook his head.

“No. Edgar. Let's say everything goes exactly as we plan it. We have him helpless, cornered. How will you kill him? Quickly? Get it over with? Or will you draw it out?” It was a roundabout way of asking exactly how much he hated the cow. Whether he was out for torture and vengeance rather than a quick revenge.

Ryan stared at him for a long moment, seeming to search his face for something – and Geoff held his gaze, at least until he had to turn his eyes back to the road.

“I will probably strangle him,” Ryan replied, after a moment, and surprisingly casually. “Choke the life out of him with my bare hands. Just like he did to me.”

“Just like he did to you?!” Geoff asked, confused, and looked back at him to find Ryan meeting him with a cold, blank stare, the dark contours of his skull mask suddenly almost hellish.

“Yes,” Ryan intoned deeply. “He killed me. Three years ago. But I came back for revenge. That's what this is all about. I can't rest until the man who murdered me is dead.”

“What the actual fuck, Ryan,” Geoff snapped – almost believing it for a heart-stopping moment – but then Ryan broke down laughing.

“Jesus Christ,” Geoff said, and clapped a hand to his heart. “Fucking had me going for a second there.”

“I can't believe you fell for that,” Ryan sniggered – and maybe it was the fact that he was laughing more than Geoff had ever seen him before, but he couldn't help but smile himself.

“Only because you're the creepiest person to ever exist. It seemed fucking plausible with you. Wouldn't have believed anyone else. You're an asshole, you know that?” He shook his head. “Please pull that same trick on Michael and Ray, I want to see the looks on their faces.”

“I will when I find the right time,” Ryan said, and leaned back in his chair, one hand resting on his stomach. “Holy shit that was funny. I don't think Michael will believe me, though, I...” He trailed off, almost hesitantly, then added, “Told him a bit about why I'm after Edgar, so. He knows.”

“Oh.” Suddenly Geoff felt inexplicably almost hurt that Michael knew when he himself was left out. He brushed it off quickly.

“You believe in ghosts, then?” Ryan asked.

Geoff shook his head. “Nah, not really. You had me doubting that for a minute, though. Why? Do you?”

Ryan shook his head too. “No,” he said – then added, almost too quietly to hear, “Only the ones that come when you sleep.”

 


 

 

“Did you guys fuck?” Geoff asked, cheerfully, as Michael and Ray emerged from the stable to meet them.

Michael rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. Mark was right there.”

“So if he wasn't, you would've?” Geoff asked, and Michael shoved at him.

“Shut the fuck up, why are you so concerned about it?”

“Because I care about the lives of my employees!”

“Because you're a fucking nosy asshole, that's why. We're not gonna bang as soon as you leave us alone for a minute, Jesus Christ. Good morning, Ryan,” he added, and Ryan gave an amused wave.

“Right back to it, then?” he asked, and Michael nodded.

“I'll head back to the flat,” Ray said – with an almost hesitant sort of unease that had Geoff concerned. He knew Ray had left yesterday because he didn't want to watch, and while he obviously wasn't as shaken up over it as Gavin had been, it still worried him to see the younger man rattled.

Michael nodded, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder before he headed back to the car.

Mark looked far worse today than he had yesterday; the blood had congealed around his wounds dark, almost black, and he looked pale and sickly.

As soon as they entered the stable Ryan's entire demeanour seemed to shift; he turned colder, harder. Not towards them, though – when he asked Michael to fetch something for him or Geoff to help him out, his voice was stern but not unfriendly.

Day two was somehow worse than day one. There had been a (horrible, horrible) sort of novelty to it the first time, but now it just felt like they were pushing and pushing, trying to find deeper and deeper levels of pain to inflict upon the sniper.

And still he did not talk.

“What the fuck is up with this guy,” Michael whispered to Geoff as they stood aside and watched Ryan do... whatever it was he was doing, it involved rope and did not look pleasant. “He should have spilled by now. He knows Edgar's not coming for him.”

“Maybe Edgar has some sort of precaution in place,” Geoff mused. “Eyes on his family or friends or whatnot.” He realised, then, what Ryan meant about caring about people being a liability – it did give your enemies some leverage to threaten you with.

As the hours wore on, they all got tired, more miserable – tension building up in the room. Mark was barely responding to them anymore, not even screaming by this point – and if they didn't get something out of him soon, Geoff was pretty sure he'd pass out or die on them, and then this whole endeavour would be for nothing.

Finally Ryan gave a heavy sigh.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “I did not want to do this but you leave me no choice. Michael, in the trunk of my car there's a saw.”

Even Michael hesitated at that, exchanging a glance with Geoff.

“A saw,” he repeated.

Ryan nodded – and there was something about his cold blank stare as he looked impassively down at Mark that sent chills down Geoff's spine. “He's not walking out of here, so he doesn't really need arms or legs, does he?”

“Oh Jesus Christ,” Michael murmured, under his breath – letting his unease show for the first time. But after a moment, he moved to obey, walking stiffly outside.

“Ryan,” Geoff said then, and jerked his head towards the door. Ryan followed him out.

“Did you see his face?” Ryan asked. “He's afraid.”

“Yeah, you're threatening him with fucking quadruple amputation,” Michael replied, heading up to them with saw in hand.

“He'll crack,” Ryan said, confidently. “But I'll need you to hold him down.”

It was interesting, Geoff realised vaguely, how this entire time Ryan had addressed most of his commands to Michael rather than to Geoff. But it only took a moment's thought to work out why – even if Ryan was overseeing the torture, Geoff was the lord of Achievement City. Keeping him aloof and out of the dirty business was a way of making him seem more in charge. Clever bastard.

Michael swallowed – and Ryan reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“You okay with this?” he asked, seriously – and Michael stared up at him for a moment. Then he nodded.

“Yeah. Not going to bitch out now.”

“He'll spill pretty quickly,” Ryan assured them, and they headed back inside.

He was right, of course.

It was plain to see that Mark Nutt was terrified; breathing harshly through his nose and starting to struggle and thrash for the first time as Michael moved to hold him down, pushing one leg out in front of him.

Ryan raised the saw, and Mark held out until just as the blade began to cut into his leg before he croaked out: “Okay! Okay.”

But Ryan did not stop, keeping his eyes intently fixed on the other as he began to saw, slowly – and the words tumbled from Mark's mouth then, tripping over each other in his haste.

“I only know a couple things, Edgar moves all the time and we only get told what we need to know. There's an abandoned fairground off the highway north of here, near the cliffs – down near the old lighthouse. That's where Ducky's probably going – she stashes a lot of ordnance there- ahh-!”

He broke off with a shrill cry as the blade cut deeper – then nearly sobbed in relief as Ryan yanked it free, blood pouring from his leg.

“That's all?” Ryan demanded. “That's the only hideout you know of?”

“Yes! It is, I swear."

“I don't believe you.”

I swear.”

That seemed to satisfy Ryan. He rose, dropping the saw, Mark's eyes tracking his every movement – but he simply pulled the gun from his belt and then shot the sniper in the head.

After all they'd put him through the last two days, it seemed almost anticlimactic to watch him crumple instantly to the ground.

“You think he was lying?” Geoff asked, finally – couldn't help but doubt – but Ryan shook his head.

“No,” he replied. “I can tell. And that location sounds familiar – I think I might have run across mention of it when we were looking through Clarence's shit to find Gavin.”

For a moment the three of them stood, staring down at the body in its spreading pool of blood.

“Okay?” Ryan was addressing Michael, and Geoff turned to him – he was looking at the corpse in a slightly dazed manner, swallowing sporadically.

“Yeah,” Michael replied, gruffly – almost defensively, and Ryan held his gaze.

“It's alright,” he said slowly, “Not to like it. God knows I don't.”

“You're good at it, though,” Michael pointed out, almost without thinking about it – and then looked a little horrified by what he had just said.

Ryan didn't seem to have taken offence, though his shoulders were very stiff. “I might be good at it. But I don't like it. I don't take joy out of killing people. Out of hurting people. Satisfaction, yes, sometimes. Depending on who they are. But I did not find this fun. And it doesn't make you weak,” he added, turning to look down at the body again, “That you did not want to hurt him. No more than it makes Ray weak, or Gavin.”

He looked at Geoff then. “There is a misconception in our business that brutality is strength. It's not. If you can get what you want without killing or hurting people – that is skill. Cleverness, cunning – I'll take it any day over brute force.”

“He's right,” Geoff replied, quietly.

Michael's shoulders slumped a little, almost relieved.

“He tried to kill us,” he said then. “I don't feel fucking sorry for him.”

“Nor I. He chose to work for Edgar.” Ryan bent and closed Mark's eyes. “But you're allowed to be shaken up by it.”

The care he was taking to make Michael felt better was as reassuring to Geoff as it was to the younger man. Especially after having watched almost twelve hours of Ryan torturing somebody.

“We have our location now,” he said. “Do you want to go back and let the others know? Michael and I can dispose of the body.”

Ryan nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Meet us back at the flat.” He paused. “I'm worried Edgar will have worked out where we are by now. We need to move on tonight. Start heading out there, stay on the move even if we're still forming a plan.”

Geoff nodded. “Yeah, you're right – better to be cautious.”

Ryan walked out, leaving the two of them to deal with the body. They continued to stand in silence for a moment. Michael's uncharacteristic quietness was worrying, and when Geoff reached out and squeezed his shoulder, he jumped.

“Hey. You sure you're okay?”

Michael glanced up at him, and forced a somewhat bitter smile.

“Last night,” he said. “When Ray was over here... he wasn't angry at me or anything, but I could tell he didn't like what was going on. He was uncomfortable with it. And that sort of made me feel like a terrible person. God knows I'll admit I'm an asshole, but I'm not... I didn't think I was cruel.”

“You heard what Ryan said,” Geoff said. “And if anyone would know it'd be him. You're not cruel, Michael. Look how much you care for Ray. And what you did for Gavin, back at the Corpirate's... the way you care about him too.”

“Yeah,” Michael said. “I guess so.”

After a minute he grinned at Geoff – something almost hysterically relieved in it – and Geoff grinned back.

“Well then,” Michael said, clapping his hands together and looking down at the body with much less worry this time. “Better deal with this shit then.”

 


 

 

Gavin was downward spiralling at the speed of bloody light.

He felt sick. Like something terrible was about to happen, a horrible sense of impending danger that he knew was irrational – was more likely than not the product of exhaustion and anxiety – but he couldn't quash it down.

And what had happened last night with Geoff really had not helped.

Being on the verge of panic had made him jittery as all hell. Throw in the added bonus of his being tipsy as fuck, and his reactions had been all over the place.

He had not expected, when Geoff touched him, to feel a spark, deep and low in his belly. Not quite arousal, but something close to it – a nervous sort of excitement that he hadn't felt in a long time. And it was that which was now leaving him frustrated and confused, hating how all over the place he was.

Fuck , he thought, dreading to even consider what it might mean. Fuck, fuck – Geoff and Jack are together, don't you even fucking go there you smegpot.

Jack had been keeping a close eye on him all day, lurking in every room he went to, and it was starting to get to him – frustration building up and up until he wasn't sure what to do with himself. At least when Ray returned, later that morning, Jack had been somewhat more distracted – but Gavin still hadn't been able to get even a moment to himself.

It was only now, when Jack and Ray left the apartment to grab some supplies – having just received a call from Ryan that they were going to be on the road tonight – that he finally felt like he could breathe again without the Bearded Wonder hovering over his shoulder every second of the day.

He made his way straight to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from Ryan's stash, leaning against the counter and drinking it slowly – closing his eyes as he let the alcohol leach the tension from his body and mind alike.

He finished the beer and bent to the cupboard again, grabbing a bottle of whiskey this time and reaching up to another cupboard to get a glass.

The sound of the apartment door opening made him jump. For a moment he started, guiltily – then a swaying anger took him over. So what if Geoff doesn't want me to drink. He's not my father. He's not in charge of me. Resolutely ignoring the fact that technically, Geoff had employed him and he was drinking during work hours.

He looked up, expecting it to be Jack who marched into the room – then froze as Ryan walked in instead. The other man's eyes zeroed in on the bottle in his hand. Gavin lifted his chin defiantly.

“I see I've interrupted your solo drinking session,” Ryan intoned.

“Yes,” Gavin replied tersely, “You have.”

Ryan took a step closer to him. There was something very stern in his voice when he said, “Put it down.”

Gavin licked his lips nervously. He realised abruptly that Ryan was covered in blood – it was spattered over the front of his jacket and mask. He'd wiped it from his hands but Gavin could see the marks of it there, smeared red traces between his fingers. Darker clots under his nails. He could smell it on him.

Nervousness built up again, his stomach churning.

“No,” he replied, trying to sound braver than he felt. “I've bloody earned it, haven't I? Done more shit for Geoff than I ever signed up for. If I... if I need to distract myself, that's my call.”

“And that's my alcohol,” Ryan pointed out. “Distracting yourself? This is what this is all about?”

Gavin didn't like the way Ryan was looking at him; the quiet disapproval that seemed to be emanating from him made him unexpectedly annoyed. Mostly, though he barely wanted to admit it to himself, because he cared what the other man thought of him. Because he feared that the other's concerns may not be misplaced.

“Take your mask off,” he demanded, the words bursting out before he could stop them.

Ryan went very still.

“...what?”

“I don't want to talk to you with it on,” Gavin said. He waved a hand around the empty apartment. “Jack and Ray are out. I've already seen you without it. I don't want...” he took a deep, shaky breath. “I don't want to talk to you while you're covering your face the way Edgar makes all his men cover their faces.”

For a moment he thought Ryan was going to hit him. The other man loomed up over him, going cold and silent for a moment, but Gavin held his ground. Courage – or maybe stupidity – fuelled by bevs, he stared up at him challengingly.

And then, to his surprise, Ryan reached up and pulled his mask off, letting it drop to the floor beside him.

He looked tired – that was the first thing Gavin noticed. As tired as Gavin himself felt.

But there was something just as challenging in his gaze as he leaned forward, getting in Gavin's space.

“There,” he said – voice low, deep, “Are you happy now?”

“Ecstatic,” Gavin replied. “Still not going to stop me though.” He turned back to the counter, uncapping the whiskey bottle and making to pour it, his hand shaking a little.

Ryan's fingers closed around his wrist, pulling it back and making liquor spill out over the counter.

“There are other ways to distract yourself,” he said – and Gavin turned to find him closer than before, staring at him with those intense blue eyes. His breath caught a little, and for a moment he felt nothing but angry – furious that they were treating him like a child. Frustrated in himself for his inability to just get over it.

“Like what?” he demanded – and in that confused cocktail of feelings, he had no idea why he did what he did next. “Like this?”

He grabbed the front of Ryan's jacket and yanked him forward, smashing their lips together.

Ryan let out a soft, surprised noise – genuinely shocked for a moment as he went rigid and frozen – and all Gavin could think was what the actual fuck am I doing. Maybe it was because he was angry. Maybe because he couldn't stop thinking of that low thrill when Geoff touched him.

Maybe because he needed to feel something other than Edgar's cold phantom hands on his stomach and throat.

Then, like a switch had flipped, Ryan jolted into action, and suddenly he was kissing back – hard, hands coming up to grab Gavin's face and roughly manoeuvre him into a better position. He took control quickly, backing him up until the small of his back hit the counter – Gavin gave as good as he got, fisting his hands more tightly in the front of Ryan's shirt; tugging roughly at his bottom lip with his teeth until Ryan leaned in more, pressing his weight against him, deepening the kiss.

He had wanted a distraction – and he'd gotten one; everything fled from his mind except for Ryan, Ryan – his calloused fingers pressing roughly against Gavin's jaw, the faint whiff of his aftershave under the smell of sweat, leather and blood – his chapped lips – the pressure of his strength holding Gavin down-

And his touch, which seemed to leave a blazing, burning trail against Gavin's skin as he moved his hand to the back of his neck – then shifted his grip down to his waist, hoisting him up easily to sit on the counter.

“R-Ryan,” he choked out, when they finally pulled apart long enough for him to draw breath. The other man pushed between his legs, one hand coming to rest on Gavin's hip as he leaned in to press their lips together again. Gavin's hand came up to tangle in the other's hair – his heart was slamming in his chest, mind empty of everything but the sensations-

And then Ryan's hand started creeping up under his shirt, fingers brushing over the scars – and Gavin jolted backwards, reality slamming back into him of a sudden.

What am I doing?!

What the bloody buggering fuck am I doing?!

“Ryan... Ryan, stop.” He pushed at the other's shoulders and Ryan broke away from him immediately, withdrawing his hands and taking a step back.

Gavin stared up at him, trying to catch his breath. His mind was awhirl and he couldn't – he couldn't tell what Ryan was thinking, despite the mask being off. And it should have been easy. They were both breathing heavily, both looked wrecked, clothes and hair askew, lips swollen. But somehow Gavin couldn't fit the pieces together – all he knew was that his heart was slamming in his chest, so fast he nearly felt sick – that his skin seemed to be tingling everywhere Ryan's hands had been.

And that he couldn't do this, not here, not now – that somehow it would be a big mistake to let things go further with the other man when he had no idea what either of them felt.

Because he wasn't sure himself – wasn't sure that if they slept together he could leave it at that, leave it at a one night stand. Because even now he felt something like a pull – an attraction strong enough that it scared him, Jesus Christ this was a mistake-

(And he had kissed Dan, once, or tried to – drunk and confused and needing to forget, to feel something other than pain for once, and Dan had stopped him, gently, “No, B, you're not right – you're not thinking right.” And he had loved him for that, for stopping him from doing something he would regret later, because he adored Dan, for saving him that time and for everything else – but it had been the heat of the moment and the heady rush of gratitude that came with owing someone your life.

He owed Ryan his life, but he wasn't sure – wasn't sure if he knew what he was feeling.)

He couldn't act on uncertainties. Not when everything was already so fragile.

“Gavin...” Ryan's gaze on him was piercing, now, his eyes so very, very blue, and Gavin couldn't bring himself to look at him.

“I'm sorry.” He slipped off the counter, frantically pulling at his shirt, trying to straighten it. “I – sorry. I can't do this. I don't know what I was thinking.”

Ryan may have called something after him, but if so, he didn't hear it – couldn't hear anything but his heart pounding in his ears, his face burning as he ducked his head and slipped past the other man, pulling his jacket tighter around him as he fled for the door.

 

Chapter Text

“I need to talk to you,” Ray hissed, snagging Michael's arm as soon as he walked through the door.

Michael glanced at him, looking a bit surprised to be grabbed so roughly. Whatever he saw on Ray's face made him frown – and shit, Ray didn't even know what he must look like at this moment, didn't even know how he was feeling himself.

“What's up, dude?” Michael asked, sounding a bit concerned.

But Geoff was coming in the door now too, glancing at them curiously – and Jack was entering from the other room, Gavin trailing behind him.

“No time for chit-chat,” Ryan growled, striding in from the kitchen.

He'd taken off his jacket, Ray noticed. Straightened his undershirt and put his mask back on. And it had been a shock, walking into the apartment to find Ryan with it off.

He hadn't seen the other's face though, because – and here was the even bigger shock – it was fucking mashed against Gavin's.

He'd back-pedalled quickly, because what the fuck – neither of them had seen or heard him come in, and any and all words had died in his throat. He didn't think he could have spoken if he wanted to. And when he went back down to the car to help Jack with the bags of groceries they'd collected, it had only been a few minutes before Gavin came stumbling out, looking like he'd seen a ghost, refusing to talk about what had happened.

Ray didn't know what to think.

All he knew was that his stomach had dropped when he saw the two of them, Ryan looking two seconds away from bending Gavin over the counter then and there – and he had no fucking idea why it felt like there was a lead block sitting cold and heavy in his gut. It wasn't just shock. He felt – almost disappointed, stricken like something had been taken away from him, and he didn't know why-

Didn't understand-

“We got a location out of Nutt,” Ryan continued, slamming a map down on the table and smoothing it out with force. And he might look put together, but there was something tense and agitated to his movements, and Gavin – still lurking close by Jack's side – wouldn't quite meet his gaze.

Ray wondered what had happened after he walked out; why they had obviously reconsidered what they were doing.

Shoving these thoughts aside, he leaned forward to look at the map, trying to focus.

“The lighthouse he was talking about is here,” Ryan said, stabbing a finger at the map. “Up on the cliffs. It's about three days' drive from here; we're not exactly close to the coast. I don't doubt Edgar has realised by now we caught one of his men. He's probably onto us as we speak, so we need to leave immediately.”

“Three days,” Geoff mused, thoughtfully. “We can form a plan on the way.”

“And after that?” Jack asked, quietly. “Where do we go from there?”

“One step at a time,” Ryan said. “Let's focus on bringing the duck down first. Afterwards comes afterwards.”

“All our shit's still packed up here,” Geoff said, “So we can leave right away. We'll only take two cars; the bike's too open to be of any use. Gavin, can you get your computers packed up?”

Gavin nodded, already moving to do so, and Geoff clapped his hands together.

“Great. Any questions, lads?” This directed at Michael and Ray, who both shook their heads.

“In that case, let's get rolling.”

The business of moving all their belongings from the apartment back to the vehicles effectively meant that Ray had no chance to get Michael on his own to tell him what he'd seen. And then, of course, he began to doubt whether he should at all – it seemed a little on the side of gossip, of spreading around shit he had no business being involved in – but he couldn't stop thinking about it.

And part of him – part of him was almost worried. Or that's what he told himself, anyway, rationalising that that's why he couldn't get it out of his head.

Because sure, both Ryan and Gavin had looked rather enthusiastic about what they were doing, but there was something very fragile about Gavin lately, something that concerned Ray. And Ryan – he wasn't normally the sort of person anyone would worry about, but Ray could tell he'd been troubled by something since they saved Gavin. That his relationship with all of them was tentative more than anything else – only just starting to reach out and let himself connect properly with them.

And it wasn't his business, sure – but he couldn't help but think that neither of them was exactly in the right mindset to go about, well, banging each other. Especially if they couldn't even look each other in the eyes after just kissing.

An hour later they were ready to go. It was a few hours past noon by now, and they were all getting antsy at having lingered in the apartment so long. Apart from taking Gavin, Edgar hadn't made a properly offensive move on them yet, and the anticipation of waiting for one was starting to get to all of them.

They were only taking two cars, and since Jack and Geoff were obviously driving together, that left Ryan in control of the second. Ray and Michael automatically drifted towards him, as they had assumed that they'd want to be split up evenly with three in each – but Gavin hesitated, suddenly glancing at Geoff with just as much awkwardness as he'd looked at Ryan earlier, and okay, what the fuck was going on here?

“Gav?” Michael prompted, looking a little confused. “You coming with us or going with them?”

“I'll come with you,” Gavin said after a second, quietly – Geoff and Jack exchanged a glance that Ray couldn't quite work out, but didn't comment.

And so they set off, heading for the highway leading out of the city towards the coast.

There was a very awkward silence in the car for the first half an hour or so. Ryan focused on his driving, reaching out to switch the radio on after a little while, while Gavin stared resolutely out the window. Michael appeared very confused by this – and even more confused when he seemed to realise that Ray knew what was going on and he didn't.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” he whispered eventually, leaning in, but Ray shook his head, glancing at Ryan, who was staring out the windscreen but undoubtedly listening in.

“Tell you later,” he murmured back, and Michael frowned at him for a moment before shrugging and turning away.

The silence carried on, until finally it seemed to become too much for Michael.

“So the first time we worked with Geoff and Jack,” he announced, out of the blue – everyone turning to look at him, even Ryan's gaze flicking over to meet his eyes in the rear-view mirror – “It was, like... God, it must've been a few years ago now, right Ray?”

Ray nodded. “They weren't as big as they are now. They were still up there, but their position wasn't as solid yet.”

“Yeah. This was B.M. Geoff.”

“B.M.?” Gavin questioned, perking up a bit.

Michael grinned. “Before Moustache. He had more of a beard then. Not as impressive a beard as Jack, though.”

“Right,” Gavin said, and laughed a little. Even Ryan seemed amused.

“Anyway,” Michael continued. “We'd been pulled in 'cause he needed a sniper and an explosives expert, so Burnie referred him to us. And there were maybe five other hired guns on the job too. So we're hitting this big bank, except then that morning Geoff calls to say the fucking bank is shut, there was some fire or break in or something the night before so it's not open today. So there's a big change of plans to hit a nearby store instead, except along the way there's some sort of mix up and Ray and I are the only ones of the mercenaries who actually show up. Everyone else is at the wrong fucking store. So we end up pulling a nine-person heist with just the four of us.” He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “They got a lot more organised after that, I think. But we must've impressed him because they called us in again for their next heist.”

“It's always a big call to decide whether to go on with a change of plans or cancel a hit,” Ryan said then, and Michael nodded.

“Glad it's not one I ever have to make. Wouldn't want to be in charge of something like that.”

“How do you decide what jobs to take, Ryan?” Ray asked. “I've never heard of how people actually get in touch with you to hire you.”

“I keep an ear out and offer my services when it's something that interests me or pays well,” Ryan replied. “People tend to accept. And sometimes there's the rare occasion where someone manages to seek me out.”

“What's the weirdest job you've ever taken?” Michael asked.

It was funny, Ray reflected, just how much more comfortable with Ryan they'd gotten; they probably wouldn't have dared to pry this closely back when they'd first met him.

Ryan frowned, considering.

“Probably going undercover as a gnome,” he said finally, and they all exploded into splutters.

What the fuck,” Michael demanded. “A fucking gnome?! Why?!”

Even Gavin was laughing – quietly, one hand up to cover his mouth, but he was at least looking in Ryan's direction now, and Ray got the impression the mercenary was smiling under his mask.

“There was some weird, avant-garde fashion show on, and one of the critics in attendance was my target. He was pretty high-strung, suspicious that someone was going to take him out, so it would have been harder for me to get in as an audience member than as part of the show itself. I shot him down from where I was standing on a mushroom-”

Jesus Christ.” Michael was laughing so hard there were tears running down his cheeks, and Ray couldn't help but grin at him, barely able to breathe himself.

“How long ago was this?” Gavin asked – and Ryan glanced across at him, hesitating before answering.

“A while ago,” he said. “Before I got more... selective about what jobs I took.”

Gavin nodded, and smiled a bit – and some of the tension in the car diffused, Ray was glad to see. It seemed the two of them had come to some sort of silent agreement to just... move on, to ignore whatever it was that had happened between them in the kitchen. How long that would last was questionable, but for now he was just glad that they were talking again.

 


 

It was running on midnight when they came across a small motor inn by the side of the road. Up ahead of them, Jack and Geoff began to pull in, so they followed suite, seemingly having decided that it was time to stop for the night.

They booked two rooms, and an unspoken agreement was reached that Ray, Michael and Gavin would take one, and Jack, Geoff and Ryan the other. They ended up in the gents' room, eating a late meal from the groceries they'd brought with them and trying to form a plan.

“We can't assume that we'll have the element of surprise,” Ryan said. “They'll likely be on the lookout for us. They must know the duck and the pig are our next targets.”

“Gavin? Can you get eyes on this place for us?” Geoff asked.

Gavin looked up from where he was sitting on one of the beds, computer on his lap. He shook his head.

“There're no cams around the area. It's pretty old,” he said. “The best I can do is make sure our earpieces stay working while we're in there. What exactly did Mark Nutt say about this place?”

“That the duck stashes ordnance there and will probably head there between jobs,” Ryan replied.

Gavin 'hmm'ed thoughtfully. “I mean, there's no guarantee she'll be there then. If she's not, we could sneak in and plant cameras. But that's a bit of a 'maybe' plan.”

“What we really need is to scout out the area,” Jack said. “Edgar's main one over on us is brute force at the moment. He seems to have recruited every hired gun in the neighbourhood and then some.”

Michael perked up. “In that case we should be hitting his forces. He stashes ordnance there? We blow that shit up. How can he fight us without weapons?”

“That... could work, actually,” Ryan said.

Geoff nodded. “Gavin, see if you can get us something on the actual layout of the fairground, even if it's not a live feed. That'll put us in a better position to plan. In the meantime, everyone get some sleep. Make sure you keep a watch out. We'll reconvene in the morning.”

They nodded, the lads rising to move off to their own room, which was on the other side of the car park. Ray caught Michael's wrist as they departed, leaving Gavin to move on ahead. The two of them paused in the dark shadows of the parking lot.

“Everything alright?” Michael asked, seeming relieved that they were finally going to talk. “You've been acting weird all day.”

Ray nodded, opening his mouth – but the words suddenly stuck in his throat, leaving him to shift his feet awkwardly. “Yeah, I... I saw something.”

Something?” Michael demanded. “What's something?”

Ray glanced over his shoulder, suddenly paranoid that Ryan was going to pop out of the door behind him. “Ryan... Ryan and Gavin.”

“What about them?”

“I walked into the kitchen and they were making out. They didn't see me.”

Michael was very, very quiet for a moment. Ray could practically see the cogs turning in his head as he processed this new information.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Okay. Uh.”

“But Gavin, like, came out a few minutes later. I don't think they went anywhere with it, but it sure looked like they were about to when I saw them. And they were awkward around each other in the car at first – you noticed that.”

“Yeah,” Michael said. He ran a hand over his face a few times. “Jesus Christ.”

Ray wasn't quite sure what to make of his reaction. He didn't know what to make of his own – he still had that faintly sick, slightly disappointed feeling, and no idea why.

“I know they kissed at the Corpirate's mansion. I told you that,” Michael said, and Ray nodded. “But that was, like, fucking out of necessity. I mean, I can... I can see why.... I know Ryan's fond of Gavin.”

'Fond' was not a word that Ray had ever expected to hear in the same sentence as Ryan's name, but he couldn't deny it was true.

“But he's always going on about the danger of making connections with people and what fucking ever,” Michael continued, “So, uh... that's unexpected. And Gavin...” He trailed off, but it didn't really need to be said.

“I know it's none of our business,” Ray said. “But I'm... worried, I guess.”

Michael bit his lip and nodded.

It was then that Ray realised he didn't like it. He didn't like that Ryan had been pressing Gavin against the counter or that Gavin's hands had been tangled in Ryan's hair. But why? Why the fuck should I care, it's not like... ughhh. I don't even fucking know.

“Anyway.” He felt better for at least telling somebody, like it wasn't some huge secret he'd accidentally been privy to and was now carrying around. “I guess we wait and see what happens.”

Michael nodded, though he still looked thoughtful, and Ray fancied there was something possessive in the way his hand curled tightly around Ray's arm to pull him back to their room.

 


 

The motor inn was a dingy little place, and the room was small, with two single beds against the far wall, a table and chair and a couple of lamps. There was one bathroom leading off the main area, which sported a water-stained carpet and some truly horrific floral wallpaper.

Ray was used to it, though; these were the sort of places they tended to stay in when out on hits. Cheap and unobtrusive.

Gavin was in the bathroom when they got in, and they set about getting changed. And they'd long had no qualms about privacy, they'd lived around each other long enough for that to become fairly obsolete, but now when Ray glanced across at Michael to see him pulling his shirt off over his head he paused to take it in, letting his gaze linger longer than he'd allowed it before.

Michael noticed, of course, and gave him a shit-eating grin. “See something you like, Narvaez?”

“Maybe,” Ray replied, and then stuck out his tongue. “Grow some chest hair you prepubescent.”

“Ouch.” Michael clapped a hand to his heart. “We're right to making personal remarks, are we? Fuck you. In that case you won't get a piece of this baby-smooth chest for a long time.”

“Don't be a crybaby about it, Michael,” Ray grinned, but before Michael could reply there was a rap at the door.

Through the window they could see it was Jack, though what he wanted, Ray had no idea. He moved to the door and opened it, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Hey. Everything alright?”

“Everything's fine,” Jack replied, peering over Ray's shoulder. Michael waved. “Is Gavin in here?”

“He's in the bathroom, getting changed I think,” Ray said. “Why? Need me to pass on a message?”

In response, Jack handed him a pill bottle. Ray looked at it curiously. The name meant nothing to him but from the label it seemed to be some sort of sleeping aid.

“Ryan said to give that to Gav,” Jack said, dropping his voice a little. Michael had moved up over Ray's shoulder by now to hear what was going on. “He... hasn't been sleeping that well lately.”

“I'll let him know,” Ray said, and Jack nodded, waving them goodnight before heading back across to his own room. Ray shut the door behind him and exchanged glances with Michael.

“Well,” Michael said, and Ray pulled a face.

Despite the fact that he pretty much trusted Ryan with his life now – and God, when had that happened? When had he stopped being wary of the man enough for him to become... well, a friend? Someone who looked out for Ray – taught him things, like that lesson with the knife – despite all that, suspicion was still at the forefront of his mind. A lifetime of high-risk jobs ingrained that in you. The pills looked legit enough, but they only had Ryan's word that they were what he said they were.

He dismissed this paranoia instantly, though. Ryan had no reason to try and hurt Gavin – especially given what Ray had just seen.

Although he'd still opted to ask Jack to bring the pills over instead of coming himself – which spoke volumes, really.

At that moment, Gavin emerged from the bathroom.

“Whatcha got there, lads?” he asked, belly-flopping onto the nearest bed.

Ray glanced at Michael again before tossing the pill bottle to Gavin, who squawked, flailed, missed catching it entirely and then had to slide off the bed to pick it up from the floor.

“Present for you from Ryan,” Ray said, carefully.

Gavin snatched up the bottle and looked at it for a long moment. Then said, in a very odd voice, “Ohh.”

He put the bottle on the bedside table and rolled onto his back, seemingly having decided to ignore it. “So you two are sharing a bed or what?”

“I guess?” Michael asked, looking at Ray again, who shrugged – if Gavin didn't want to talk about whatever had happened with Ryan, that was his call. “I mean, one of us should stay on watch anyway.”

“I can stay on watch,” Gavin spoke up. “Don't really think I'll get much sleep anyway.”

“Okay, what the fuck does that mean?” Michael was biting the bullet then, it seemed, never having been one to hold his peace when he was concerned or irritated by something. “Ryan just fucking gave you pills to deal with that shit.”

Gavin bit his lip, looking away. “Yeah, but – I just don't feel like sleeping tonight.”

Michael snorted. “You look tired as fuck-”

“You ever get something stuck in your head?” Gavin interrupted. “Not like a song, like... something you've seen, or done, and it just goes round and round and you don't want to sleep because you feel like you need to... work through it, first. Like if you can play it over often enough it'll be finished and it'll go away. And if you sleep you might dream about it, or you'll wake up and it'll still be there.”

Ray and Michael glanced at one another, and Ray couldn't help giving a slow, reluctant nod.

“Not for a while,” he said. “But I know what you mean.”

Falling into this business had been almost too easy for him, but that didn't mean he hadn't been new at it once too. Your first kill – that was something that stuck in your mind. The first time you saw someone die slowly rather than instantly. The first woman. The first time you killed someone your own age – and God, he'd gotten into it young, Michael had too. They'd seen their share of shit.

Michael nodded as well, but there was a funny look on his face as he turned away.

Gavin seemed relieved he'd dropped the subject, and turned to grab his laptop, seeming intent on doing some work even as he climbed under the covers for warmth.

“You okay?” Ray asked, moving up next to Michael and pulling back the duvet to help him get into bed easier.

Michael hesitated, then met his eyes almost reluctantly. “Just thinking about Mark Nutt,” he admitted, and Ray sucked in a breath.

“Oh, dude,” he said – because that had been messy, he hadn't gotten himself out of there for no reason. And he'd been worried, that night he spent out at the stables with Michael. Worried because they hadn't talked about it – had just tried as hard as possible to ignore the man groaning in pain on the ground behind them. That wasn't something they'd done before. Not something he ever wanted to make a normal part of their routine.

“Ryan... Ryan sort of talked to me about it,” Michael said then, with a wry sort of smile. “Put things in perspective a bit. But I still keep thinking about how far we might have gone – what else we might've done – if he hadn't spilled when he did.” A slightly awkward pause.

“But fuck it,” Michael added, sounding a little embarrassed, “I guess it doesn't matter now.”

“It matters,” Ray replied. “If it's worrying you, it matters.”

“I'm fine,” Michael insisted, tersely. He glanced across the room and Ray followed his gaze just in time to see Gavin turn his head away quickly, obviously having been watching them.

“I'll take first watch,” Ray said then.

Michael nodded. He climbed into bed then patted the space next to him.

“Dude, come in here. I probably won't sleep for a bit anyway, I was napping in the car on the way back to Ryan's place. It's too cold to be sitting out there anyway.”

Ray hesitated, then shrugged, climbing in next to him. The bed was small, small enough that it was a squash for two grown men to fit, and it wasn't particularly comfortable – a thin, hard mattress over an iron frame – but Michael flopped onto him instantly, head falling against his shoulder as Ray wrapped his arms loosely around the other man. It didn't take long for them to settle into a better position, the bed warming with their shared body heat – and for the first time in a long while Ray felt almost peaceful. There was something very natural and comfortable about Michael in his arms.

After a while he let his hands fall to Michael's shoulders and started massaging gently, working out the knots and tension both from the stress of recent days and sleeping in strange and uncomfortable positions over the last few days.

Michael let out a soft grunt, but they fell into an easy silence after that. Ray wasn't sure how much time had passed – he half started to doze off, but caught himself, snapping back into alertness and making sure he was keeping an eye on the door and windows, though everything was still and dark outside.

He thought Michael had fallen asleep, so it surprised him when the other man sat up suddenly.

“Whatcha doing over there, Gav?”

Ray looked over to find Gavin sitting, staring vacantly at his computer screen. He looked like he'd been struggling not to sleep himself – like he was on the verge of drifting off but trying desperately to get his eyes to focus on the screen, to keep himself awake.

Sitting alone in his bed, he suddenly seemed very small, very lonely – and abruptly it hit Ray, maybe that's why. Maybe it was just a case of the odd ones out pairing up, because now that Ray and Michael were together, and Jack and Geoff were together, the other two were just sort of... floating.

For some terrible, unfathomable reason, the first thought that struck him upon this revelation was it doesn't have to be that way.

What. The actual. Fuck.

What does that even mean? Why would I even think that? It had hit him out of nowhere, a stupid, stupid thought he was too afraid to even work out for himself, and he shoved it away instantly, feeling almost guilty of a sudden, like he'd stumbled over something forbidden, taboo.

“I'm just pottering on the internets,” Gavin replied, because that made so much sense.

“You working?” Michael asked, sitting up a bit.

“Kind of.” He stifled a yawn, pushing his laptop back. “Not really, ah, getting anywhere.”

And then he looked kind of... lost, again, like he didn't want to sleep but he didn't want to work. Like he didn't want to be sitting alone there but also had nowhere else to go.

The sight tugged at something in Ray, and abruptly he wanted to call the other man over to join them. But he bit his tongue, suddenly realising how Michael might take that the wrong way – there was barely room for the two of them in this bed, after all, and he and Michael had been getting little enough alone time as it was.

But it was Michael who flung back the covers and clambered out, moving to start pushing Gavin's bed over towards theirs.

Gavin squeaked as the bed started sliding across the floor, with a rather alarming grating metal noise. “Mi-chael! What the bloody hell are you doing?!”

“If we don't shove these beds together one of us is gonna fall out at some point,” Michael said. He jabbed a finger at Ray. “You kick at night, I've seen you. So Gav, come join us in our fucking cuddle pile or whatever. Unless you're not into that shit.”

He glanced at Ray, belatedly asking permission, but Ray just grinned at him – suddenly overcome by a sweeping wave of affection, because Michael might act all gruff on the surface, but it was things like this – his blunt, non-nonsense sweetness – that made Ray realise exactly why he loved him.

Loved him. Shit, were they onto that already?

Two in the morning was not the time to be dwelling on that, though. He jumped out of bed and moved to help Michael, Gavin scrambling out as well. Between the three of them they soon had the two beds pushed together to form a double.

“Someone else get in the middle,” Michael ordered, “Because I refuse to lie in the dip.”

“You mean the crevice,” Gavin replied, instantly.

Michael rolled his eyes. “Everything's fucking anal with you, isn't it? Ray, get in there.”

They all clambered in, Ray in the middle.

“If you guys are both staying up I don't want to be the asshole who's just, like, lying there snoring,” Michael informed them. “So let's just all stay up. Gavin, do you have something we can watch or something on your laptop?”

“Security feeds of the car park outside,” Gavin replied with a grin, and Michael rolled his eyes.

“That'll put me right to sleep.”

“I've got a couple things,” Gavin replied, dragging his laptop to the middle of the bed.

As he lay there, the two of them pressed warm against each side, leaning in to bicker over which old British comedy they were going to watch, Ray couldn't help but smile. With Michael on one side of him, slumped against his side again – Gavin on the other, sitting a little more shyly, stiffly – it felt as though something had been missing before, but everything had now fallen into place, somehow more comfortable, more complete.

 


 

 

“Move over, Jack,” Geoff grumbled. “Or someone's gonna be kicked out of this bed and it's not gonna be me.”

Ryan rolled his eyes as he rose from where he'd been sitting on the other bed, reassembling his gun. “One of you take this one. I'll be on watch, anyhow.”

Geoff rolled ungracefully out of where he'd been tangled in the duvet with Jack, stumbling to his feet to stare at Ryan with raised eyebrows. “You always take watch. Let one of us do it for once.”

“I'll be fine,” Ryan informed him, a little stiffly.

“One of us can sleep in the car tomorrow,” Jack replied, something like worry in his tone. “You have to drive the whole time, unless you hand over to Michael.”

Ryan just shook his head again. “I'll be fine,” he repeated, a little more firmly – and saw the glance Jack and Geoff exchanged before they nodded.

He turned away from them, settling into a chair facing the door.

Something uneasy and nervous was brewing in his stomach. It had been there all day, since fucking Gavin had gone and... and...

What the fuck even happened this morning?

He'd been riled up from killing Mark Nutt, from the ensuing conversation with Michael. Uncomfortable in his own skin, his own reputation, the way he always felt uncomfortable when people called him the 'mad mercenary' or he had to play into the ideal of a bloodthirsty, creedless killer.

He didn't know why he'd kissed back.

Maybe because he'd needed a distraction as well. Maybe because their kiss back at the Corpirate's mansion was still fresh in his mind, something that rose up on sleepless nights, haunting him with the memory of how it had felt – how it had made his stomach flutter with something that seemed far too innocent and fresh for a man with so much blood on his hands.

And it scared him how far he might have taken it – how far he'd wanted to take it – if Gavin hadn't stopped him.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck-

Snapping himself out of it, he reached over to his bag and fished out a book, intent on distracting himself. He was flicking through it, trying to remember where he'd been up to, when murmurs from Jack and Geoff caught his attention. He glanced over to find them sitting in bed together again, faces hunched over Geoff's phone.

“What are you doing?” he asked, and their heads snapped up almost guiltily. It made him suspicious enough that he rose from the chair and wandered over to see.

“What's that?” he asked, frowning – it was a message from one of Geoff's contacts back in Achievement City. The message was full of coordinates, place names – they didn't sound American – even a couple of attached satellite images.

“You trying to track someone down?” Ryan demanded, and Geoff shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Well, sort of. You know Gavin's friend? Gruchy?”

Ryan nodded. Jack had filled him in on what Burnie had told them about Gavin's last mission, even if he still didn't know the full story.

“We're just keeping tabs on him,” Geoff replied. “Looking into him to try and find out what job he's working on.”

“Why?” Ryan asked with a frown. “What for?”

Geoff hesitated for a second, then said, quietly, “Gavin cares about him. We wanted to make sure he was okay. And... see if we could maybe get in touch with him. If Gavin hasn't contacted him so far it must be because he doesn't know where he is. So we're trying to find him. For Gav.”

That was... unexpectedly sweet, and a ridiculously caring gesture. Ryan nodded.

“It's funny,” he said, moving back to his chair. “I know most mercs around here, but I've never heard of that guy.”

“He mostly works in the UK,” Geoff replied distractedly, poring over his phone again. “I think that job he took with Gav was the first he did over here. Must've put him right off because he went straight back home again,” he added with a scoff. “Can't find much on who he actually is, though. Ex-military, that's about all we know.”

Ryan frowned a bit.

Geoff and Jack weren't just looking for Dan, they were trying to poke into his past – presumably Gavin's past as well, though they weren't telling him that – how long would it be before they started trying to find out more about Ryan?

Shooting them a suspicious look, he turned back to his book, finally finding his page again. He could feel eyes on him though, and he ignored them for a time, until it ultimately became too much and he looked up to see Jack staring at him.

“What are you reading?” Jack asked, then.

Ryan tilted it so he could see the cover. Jack's eyebrows rose.

“John Le Carré? Isn't it weird for you to read spy novels given your job?”

“It is amusing,” Ryan replied mildly, “The same way I imagine it's amusing for doctors to watch medical dramas, or detectives police procedurals. In any case, this isn't really a James Bond novel. It's more...” he trailed off, but Jack looked genuinely interested, so he pressed on. “It's darker. Tells it how it is or whatever. Our jobs are never as glamorous as TV makes them seem, after all.”

Jack snorted. “You can say that again. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” he mused again, still studying the title – and something nervous and awkward crept down Ryan's spine.

Jack didn't comment further though, just 'hmmm'ed and turned back to Geoff.

 


 

This was terrible.

Ryan was horrified to find that when Jack and Geoff eventually drifted off to sleep, he almost missed their company. They hadn't even been fucking talking, but knowing they were there and awake had been – reassuring, somehow.

Morning rolled around slowly; a grey, chilly dawn, dark clouds hanging over the horizon with the promise of yet more rain. Ryan woke Jack and Geoff before venturing across the car park to knock on the lads' door.

Ray answered instantly. He looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes like he hadn't slept at all, and Ryan raised his eyebrows.

“You keep watch all night?”

Ray shook his head, huffing out a laugh. “We kind of... all took watch, if that makes sense. Stayed up most of the night watching shit because none of us really felt like sleeping. We'll nap in the car if we need to.”

Ryan frowned a little. “Gav didn't take those pills I gave him?”

“Nah, he said he didn't feel like sleeping.”

Ryan nodded. It was understandable, even if he felt a little rejected – they were pills he took himself when his insomnia got to the point where it started to affect his work performance. But Gavin was a grown man and things were probably best left to his own discretion. Even if Ryan disapproved of his coping mechanisms, it wasn't his place to push.

“Be ready to leave in twenty, will you? We'll eat on the go.”

Ray nodded.

“Ryan!” he called out, as the other turned to go.

Ryan glanced back over his shoulder. “What?”

Ray grinned at him, widely. “Good morning.”

Ryan rolled his eyes, but couldn't help but smile back. “Good morning to you too. Now go get the others up.”

 


 

The awkward silence didn't last too long this time. Gavin seemed a little strained when Ryan greeted him at the car, but he was quickly distracted by Michael, raving over whatever they had been watching last night – some old show or another. All three of the younger men looked exhausted, but Gavin seemed happier than Ryan had seen him in a bit, which was something.

By now they had long left the city behind and were driving through great expanses of country land, passing the occasional farm or vineyard. The radio out here was nothing but static but they quickly occupied themselves with conversation.

As they all knew many of the same people – mercenaries, consultants, petty criminals and all manner of hired skills they'd worked with before – they found themselves playing a version of celebrity heads, taking turns asking questions to guess which of their mutual acquaintances they were thinking of. This quickly became an excuse to make personal and often offensive remarks about other people.

“Are they ugly?” Gavin asked.

Michael, who had thought of the person they were trying to guess, shook his head.

“Nah, man.”

“On a scale of one to ten how do you rate their attractiveness?” Ray asked.

“Hmm, 9.5 I guess. Marginal room for improvement.”

“Do they mainly work in small guns?” Ryan asked. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up pulled into this game, but there was no denying it was... nice, having friendly conversation with other people. Having fun. It was something he hadn't realised he'd missed so much working alone.

“Nope.”

“Do they have a beard?” Ray asked.

“No again.”

“Do they have a big nob?” Gavin asked, and Ray face palmed.

“Yes,” Michael said, and grinned. “A huge one.”

“So you've seen their dick then?” Ryan asked, and Michael nodded.

“Is it me?” Ray asked. Michael burst out laughing.

“Ahahahaha. No. You have a beard, idiot. Well, sort of.”

“Have you seen Ray's nob then, Michael?” Gavin asked, and Michael pulled a face at him.

“We've been roommates for years, of course I've seen his business.”

“And what do you rate it? On a scale of one to ten?” Gavin asked. Ray threw an empty coke can at him, drawing a yelp.

“You're a piece of shit, Vav,” he huffed, and Gavin grinned at him, tossing the can back.

“I'll get back to you,” Michael said, “Once I've seen it in closer detail-”

“Too much fucking information,” Ryan informed him then, rolling his eyes. “I've guessed it, anyway. It's yourself, right?”

Yes,” Michael said smugly, leaning back and folding his arms. “It was me! Ryan wins that round.”

“You're stupid,” Ray informed him, and Michael grinned, shifting over in his seat to elbow him.

“Your face is stupid.”

“Settle down children,” Ryan said, though he couldn't help the amusement leaking into his tone. He glanced across and accidentally caught Gavin's eye. Gavin's smile faltered a little, but he seemed determined not to make things awkward again, and held Ryan's gaze until Michael spoke up again, drawing his attention.

“Ryan, how big is your dick?”

“Eighteen inches and barbed,” Ryan replied instantly.

Ray choked on the water he was drinking.

“Like a cat,” was Gavin's valuable contribution to the conversation.

“And we all know how much Gavin loves cats,” Michael said, seemingly without really thinking about it, because Gavin froze – Ryan did too – thinking about each other's dicks was sort of really not what they needed right now – not after what had happened the day before – and for a moment he feared things would go back to being awkward and stilted.

But Ray, thank God, quickly diverted the conversation by announcing he'd thought of someone else for them to guess, and Gavin was promptly distracted.

Ryan let out a discreet breath.

There was no way they could ignore what had happened, he knew. They could damn well try – but it wouldn't be long before they were left alone together. They would end up talking about it eventually.

But what was there to say?

That it hadn't just been about... about sex, or about finding random comfort in another warm body. It had been Gavin, the entire time – Gavin's bony shoulders his hands had closed around, Gavin's scruffy beard scraping against his own stubble. Gavin's stupid nose pressing hard against Ryan's cheek as they kissed.

Ryan wasn't stupid. He was self aware enough to know what it all meant.

That didn't mean he had to acknowledge it.

Beside him, Gavin laughed, in fits over something Ray had said that Ryan had missed – he was rocking back in his seat, hands clasped in front of him, letting out those squeaky, croaky giggles that holy shit Ryan should not find endearing.

His grip tightened on the steering wheel. You're in it fucking deep, Haywood. And God, he felt like he was falling, and not in a good way, like he was plummeting into some sort of fucking bottomless pit and there was nothing he could do about it.

And at heart he was... afraid, or something close to it.

It was easier to watch the others than to dwell on his own feelings, and he frowned a little, behind the mask, as he watched Michael lean forward to mess with the headrest of Gavin's seat.

There was something excitable about the three of them today; possibly hysteria setting in from sleep deprivation.

So Gavin didn't want to sleep... and all three of them ended up staying awake all night?

There was something almost giddy in the way Michael and Ray were teasing Gavin. And they'd quickly become friends, he knew – even if Michael a little more belatedly – but something about the affection in the way they were looking at him, the way there was something almost flustered in Gavin's answering smiles...

It's nothing, Ryan thought, shaking it off – there's no way – it can't be.

He was projecting, he realised – but that was even worse, somehow, and he quickly pushed all thoughts related to this topic to the back of his mind, concentrating on driving.

 


 

At length they reached a pit stop, full of dairy tankers and livestock transport trucks. It was little more than a gas station attached to a toilet and shower block and a small burger restaurant, but they pulled in to refresh and refuel.

The lads went off to the bathroom while Ryan went to fill up the petrol tank. He was engrossed in what he was doing, but still alert enough to notice when Michael came back before the other two, even when the other stood silently by the side of the car, staring at him thoughtfully.

“I'd ask if there was something on my face, but you can't really see it,” Ryan said finally, detaching the gas pump and glancing at the screen to read the total.

Michael shifted, and Ryan turned to him. The other man was frowning a little, and Ryan suddenly felt uneasy, wondering what this all was about.

“Ray saw you kissing Gavin.” It came out a little too fast, blurted out like a secret, and Ryan froze.

His heart stopped for a moment, stuttering nervously – but he was a grown man, and he quickly kicked himself for such an asinine reaction.

“Yes,” he said, keeping his tone carefully measured. “But what happened between Gavin and myself is none of your concern – unless Gavin himself has been talking to you about it.” The possibility of that struck him even as he said it, but Michael was already shaking his head.

“He hasn't,” Michael replied. “But... I just... I don't get it. Back at the Corpirate's, you and I talked about this – you don't.... you keep insisting you don't... ugh.”

Being lost for words was obviously something very foreign to Michael, and Ryan could see him growing frustrated at himself for his inability to put whatever he was thinking into words.

And there was an odd, pinched look to Michael's face, he noticed – like he was unhappy about what he'd seen, but didn't quite seem to know why. Something almost confused.

That makes two of us, Ryan thought grimly.

“You kissed him back,” Michael settled on, finally. “You were... into it. Ray said.”

“Glad to know he took in the details while he was spying on us.” And Ryan's voice was stiff now, despite how casual he tried to make it sound. He knew Michael could tell he was growing uncomfortable – kicked himself for letting his reactions become so obvious – but holy hell did he not want to talk about this right now.

“You kissed him back,” Michael insisted. “Why? What were you doing?”

“What does it matter to you?” Ryan snapped. “If you're worried about him, you don't need to be. I didn't do anything he didn't want or initiate.”

Michael was scowling at him now. “God you're an asshole. I'm just... interested, Jesus Christ. You say you don't care about any of us but then you go and-”

“Fine,” Ryan ground out – and his heart was slamming in his chest now, and he hated it – hated it – but he couldn't stop the words falling from his mouth. “I fucking lied, okay? I care about you. I care about Gavin.”

“Don't fucking say shit like that if you don't mean it.”

I do mean it. God help me, I do mean it. That part wouldn't come out though – he couldn't choke it out past the lump in his throat and his dry as sand tongue – all he could do was turn on his heel and stride towards the gas station to pay.

This was not what he needed.

It had been bad enough dealing with this when it was just between he and Gavin. Ray and Michael getting involved... fucking hell, as if he didn't have enough shit on his plate already.

Something about the way Michael had questioned him was getting to him – in the heat of the moment he'd assumed it had been about Gavin, that Michael was just playing the protective friend – but the more Ryan thought about it, as he paid for the gas and spent a little time dithering in the shop, loathe to go back just yet, the more he realised that the other man had been very focused on what Ryan was feeling.

And not just for Gavin. For all of them.

Letting out a low groan, he reached up to rub his eyes under the mask.

The thought that he'd just upset Michael was getting to him more than he should – and it only intensified when he walked back out to the car and Michael barely spared him a slightly annoyed glance before turning back to Gavin and Ray.

Don't say shit like that if you don't mean it.

The only reason Michael would care about that would be if he himself was invested. And God, Ryan knew that Jack liked him – knew that Ray did too, and Gavin. Michael he hadn't been as sure about, but it was becoming increasingly apparent now that he did. That he considered him not just a friend but someone worthy of his concern – and Ryan had learned enough about him over the last couple of weeks to realise that that was not a privilege the other man bestowed lightly.

Again, that lurching sick feeling of falling into something he couldn't control overcame him, left him jittery in a way he really did not like.

“Ryan?” Gavin asked quietly – and he realised then, that the others had fallen silent – that they'd driven farther out than he'd thought as he was lost in thought, and Michael and Ray were now dozing off in the back seat, looking stupidly young where they were draped over each other, limp in sleep, Michael's mouth hanging open a little, Ray's glasses askew.

“Yeah?” he replied.

“Is everything okay?” Gavin kept his gaze fixed straight forward, out the windscreen as he asked, and Ryan followed suite.

“Everything's fine,” Ryan replied, and saw Gavin's eyes dart towards him for the briefest flicker of a second.

Even with his mask on he felt like Gavin could tell he was lying, but the other didn't push.

 


 

 

“This is the layout of the fair,” Gavin said, pushing his laptop to the middle of the table so they could all see.

They had reached another motor inn – somehow even smaller and dingier than the last one – and were again crowded in one of the two rooms they'd bought, huddled around the computer screen looking at the crude map.

“I don't know how much of this is intact. This is from when it was still in operation,” Gavin replied.

Geoff nodded. “Are those storage sheds there? That would be the most likely place to keep ordnance. They're built to keep weather out.”

Michael nodded agreement. “Yeah – those look fairly central too. Easy to guard.”

“Mark Nutt didn't say anything about how many people we'd expect there,” Ryan mused. “But if this is a main storage centre they're likely to have regular guards.”

“Michael? What's the best way to blow this shit up?” Geoff asked. Gavin helpfully pulled up a couple of photos of the storage sheds in question, and Michael peered at them thoughtfully for a few moments.

“Edgar's surprised us enough so far that I wouldn't feel at all fucking safe setting something with a timer,” he said. “In case something goes to shit and we can't get out in time. So something I can detonate remotely. I have the parts we need but we're probably much better off trying to sneak in and plant them without being seen. Fucking stealth operation or whatever.”

“I agree,” Ryan said. “Take out the ordnance then take out the duck. Stay hidden as much as possible. We should split up. Jack and Ray can find some cover and snipe. I'll go in to cover Michael. Geoff, you coordinate everybody.”

“What about Gavin?” Ray asked.

Ryan glanced at Gavin, who was fiddling nervously with the strings of his hoodie, but stepped back to let Geoff deal with it.

“Gav?” Geoff said. “It's your choice if you want to come in with us, or stay behind with the cars, or even stay back here at the motor inn. I can't promise any of those options will be safe. I can promise that if you come with us I'll do everything possible to protect you.”

“I'll come in with you all,” Gavin said.

“Good.” Geoff shot a thumbs up around at them all. “Get some rest then, boys. We should hit there by tomorrow. We'll pull up over by the cliffs and work out the best way to approach.”

The lads drifted out, heading to their own room, and once again they moved to settle down for the night. All of them were tired, restless after so long spent on the road. Exhaustion was pulling at Ryan's limbs, but he still moved to drag his chair up to the door.

Geoff's hand on his arm stopped him.

“You're not keeping watch again tonight,” he said – ordered, really. “You need to sleep.”

“I'm good-”

“If you're driving tomorrow, you need to sleep,” Geoff insisted. And then forcibly wrenched the chair away from Ryan, who tensed briefly in annoyance before registering the genuine concern on Geoff's face.

His irritation deflated as quickly as it had come. Fuck. So that's what it was like to be cared about.

Sighing, he turned away, pulling off his jacket and kicking his shoes off. He kept his back turned to the others until he was ready to get into bed; by that point Geoff had settled into the chair and Jack the other bed.

It was always uncomfortable lying down with the mask on, and he felt, abruptly, very self conscious at even trying to sleep while the others were still awake in the same room. He rummaged for his book again, hoping it would help him doze off.

“Hey Ryan,” Jack spoke up after a bit, when it became apparent none of them were sleeping just yet. “Can I ask you something?”

That was never a good sign, but Ryan sighed and lowered his book anyway. “Speak, demand, I'll answer.”

“What did Edgar do to make you hate him so much?”

Ryan froze.

It wasn't the first time he'd been asked since this whole thing had started – but it was the first time Jack had asked, and so directly too. And God help him, but he likedthe other man – trusted him. Didn't at all want to lie to him, or snap at him to get him to leave well enough alone.

Michael and Gavin already knew the gist of it. Surely one more person couldn't hurt.

“I told you already. I've seen him do this before – set his sights on someone's territory and do whatever he needs to do to blow their house down. And I happened to get in his way.” He let out a huff of breath.

Unfortunately he'd let the most important rule of keeping secrets slip his mind: let out one sliver of information and people started pushing for more.

And Jack – Jack was more perceptive than he'd given him credit for, because he stared at Ryan with narrowed eyes for a moment – Geoff watching with interest from the side – before asking, something distressingly gentle in his tone, “The people he was trying to take down... you were close to them. Your old team?”

Ryan's blood ran cold.

Too close, too close, too close – they were all too close. To him, to the things he had kept close to his chest for so long, locked up tight along with the secrets of his identity, of his face – he'd let them in too much. He'd already gone too far, given away his home – it was going to tear him apart.

“That doesn't matter.” It came out frozen and stiff, but Jack didn't look hurt.

Just horribly, painfully understanding.

Ryan turned his head away, but Geoff spoke up next.

“After you've killed him,” he said. “What will you do then? Go back to just taking jobs? Retire?”

“I'll get to that when I come to it.”

Geoff and Jack looked at each other in some silent communication.

“We hire a lot of people,” Geoff said then. “Even if not full time. I know a lot of big names like you tend to avoid getting associated with main players like us, but... it's been good working together.” He scoffed out a laugh. “Despite the kinks we had to work through. If you're ever looking for a job Jack and I definitely have a bunch we'd appreciate your help on.”

“Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we?” Ryan asked, but it was painfully obvious he was deflecting.

And that horrid, vulnerable tightness was swelling in his chest, again, because he knew this was a big thing. For someone of Geoff's calibre to extend an offer like that, even a roundabout one.

And the meaning behind it was clear. We like you. We don't want this to be the last we see of you.

He realised very quickly that the feeling went both ways.

God, today had been a stupid mess of ups and downs, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to just forget about it all for a couple of hours. He turned pointedly back to his book, scanning to find his place, the words running through his mind like water between his fingers until a single passage jolted him to a halt.

'We have to live without sympathy, don't we? That's impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really. I mean... one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold... do you see what I mean?'

Jesus fucking Christ, he thought, snapping the book shut and all but throwing it into his bag. Someone up there is really fucking trying to tell me something.

 


 

 

How someone could go their entire adult life without swallowing a single pill was beyond Ray, but apparently Gavin had managed to.

Getting Ryan's sleeping tablet down his throat had been an experience Ray never wanted to repeat. Not to mention Michael loudly yelling “Swallow it, bitch!” had probably given everyone in the neighbouring rooms completely the wrong idea.

That fiasco was nothing compared to what happened some hours later, though. Gavin had finally dropped off to sleep, and Ray and Michael were sitting in bed together again – Michael dozing, Ray awake keeping the first watch – when it started. Low murmurs at first, just sleep-mutterings. But then thrashing, wild breathing, horribly tortured moans that even woke Michael up.

The two of them sat in the bed, watching Gavin writhe about. Both of them stiff, still, awkwardly silent.

It was Michael who reached out to press Ray's elbow, making him jump.

“Uh, we should do something,” he said, and Ray nodded mutely.

Michael slipped out of the bed and walked over to Gavin, sitting next to him. Ray followed quietly, reaching out to gently shake Gavin's shoulder.

“Gav... Gav? Wake up, buddy, it's okay.”

It took Gavin longer than Ray would have liked to stir from his dream; probably the influence of the medication. When he did, he didn't seem to know where he was, staring wildly about before his gaze finally focused on Michael and he practically slumped over in relief. He was trembling violently by this point, not quite hyperventilating but close to it, and Michael was the one to lean in and pull him close to his chest. It was less of a hug and more of a protective embrace, arms wrapped around Gavin like a shield.

What the fuck happened, Ray couldn't help but think as he shifted across on the bed, reaching out to run his fingers soothingly through Gavin's hair.

This couldn't just be about Edgar, could it? Gavin still hadn't told them exactly what happened back in that restaurant. But Gavin's sleeping habits had been disturbed long, long before that – he still remembered that first night back at Geoff's house, when he'd run into Gavin in the kitchen in the middle of the night. He'd looked the same then; pale and shaky and tired to the bones.

“Damn it, damn it.” It was Michael muttering it, surprisingly – something fierce in his voice. His eyes met Ray's over the top of Gavin's head, and they were glittering angrily in the dim light. “Ray, shove the beds together again, will you?” The unspoken message was clear – we can't leave him alone like this.

Gavin still wasn't talking to them, but he responded to their touch – pressing himself closer against Michael's chest, practically burying his face in the other's shoulder, and they ended up staying like that – shifting so they were lying in the bed, Ray curled up above them, his eyes still on the door but one arm around Michael's shoulders and the other hand still reassuringly cupping Gavin's head.

A creeping unease spread over him as they settled in like that.

Because from where he was sitting – the surging affection and protectiveness he was feeling was not just directed towards Michael.

Just like last night, it was having all three of them in the bed that made him feel like the jigsaw puzzle was complete. Like everything had fallen into place.

Shit, thought Ray. Shit, shit, shit – because he'd started realising his feelings for Michael around the same time he met Gavin and befriended him so quickly, and those emotions were all tangled up in each other – stop this you fuck, you're... you can't think like that, you've got Michael, you've fucking got Michael – you love him you can't... you can't be thinking about Gav like that, that's just...

Except there was something in the way Michael was holding Gavin now, curling around the taller man as much as possible – his grip tight but still somehow gentle – the way from this angle his lips almost looked like they were pressed to Gavin's forehead – seeing the way they interacted, Michael's gruff concern for the other (and his concern was not easily won, Ray knew) --

Maybe it's not just me... maybe we could-

He cut himself off right there.

What the actual fuck, Narvaez. You and Michael only just got together. You still haven't... this whole thing is like, three days old. You can't stuff things up so soon by... by thinking about shit like that.

A guilty shame crept over him, leaving him feeling sick and anxious. It was not hard to keep awake for the rest of the watch that night.

 


 

Things were not better in the morning.

He swapped watch shifts with Michael halfway through the night – moving to lie down where he'd been in the bed, pulling his arm in around Gavin. And it was lying there, too close to the other man – Gavin's beard tickling at his neck, pressed against him so tightly he could feel the other's heart beating too fast – that he realised he was in far too deep, because his own heart started to pick up at little more than the proximity.

Gavin fit too well in his arms. There was absolutely no difference to him between holding Gavin now and the way he'd held Michael the night previous.

He was fucked.

And he felt a deep, bitter shame at it, because for God's sake, Gavin was – was messed up, somehow, that was the only reason they were in this position in the first place – Ray couldn't tell if he was sleeping or not, but either way he was quiet and inert and still trembling sporadically, and this was not the fucking time.

Somewhere that night, the hysterical thought occurred to him that Michael and I need to take things faster.

Because maybe that was it – this weird limbo they were in. Together but not yet fully acknowledging that they were together. Joking about sex without actually going all the way.

That was the thought that ended up stuck in his head when dawn finally rolled around the next morning, slow and grey and drizzling lightly, perfectly matching Ray's mood.

“Time to get up, guys,” Michael said, reaching out to shake Ray's shoulder – he'd been dozing, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, and he startled awake with a jump. “Come on, rise and shine.”

Gavin sat up instantly, confirming Ray's suspicions that he hadn't been sleeping much at all, and glanced between the two of them, suddenly awkward.

“I... sorry. Bloody kept you up, didn't I-”

“Don't you dare fucking apologise,” Michael said, jabbing a finger at Gavin's chest. “And we won't talk about this if you don't want to, just... don't apologise, okay?”

Gavin nodded, snapping his mouth shut. He looked at Ray again, seeming a little confused that they had been cuddling together so closely. Then he rose from the bed, snatching up his duffel and traipsing off to the bathroom.

Michael sighed heavily, running his hands over his face.

“What a night,” he said, and Ray nodded mutely – Michael's gaze turned to him, and he frowned.

“You okay? You look like shit. But cute shit,” he added, with a cheeky grin, and Ray smiled back.

“Just been thinking.”

“Yeah? Don't hurt yourself.”

But the thought was still stuck in Ray's mind – move it faster, faster - maybe out of some inane desire to prove to himself that this was his relationship – he and Michael – maybe because he thought working out some of his frustrations physically would help – he didn't even know, it was stupid and a little frenzied, but it was there, whirling through his exhaustion-addled mind like an out of control carousel.

Before he knew what he was doing he was on his feet, moving towards Michael, kissing him desperately.

Michael let out a startled oomph, stumbling back as Ray pushed forwards to press him against the wall, hands fisted in the front of his t-shirt but quickly creeping up under it. The kiss was sloppy, all clashing teeth – Michael's breath still fast and startled against Ray's mouth – his skin warm and smooth under Ray's examining fingers.

“Ray...” Michael turned his head sideways, breaking off the kiss, reaching out to gently grab Ray's wrists. “Ray, what are you doing?”

“Moving things along,” Ray said – his heart was pounding now, and Michael's fingers rotated around his wrist, thumb pressing against his pulse point. He glanced up at Ray, looking endearingly confused – hair still mussed and dishevelled, eyes lidded with exhaustion – and Ray tugged at his grip, trying to get his hands free, but Michael just continued to stare at him.

“It's like, fucking six in the morning,” Michael said.

“You complaining?” Ray asked, raising an eyebrow, and Michael shook his head. He let go of Ray, but the mood had been broken now – Ray turned away awkwardly, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden.

“Dude,” Michael said, reaching out to grab his shoulder. “Are you... what was that all about? I thought we wanted to take things slowly, not... not start it off with a morning quickie and God damn Gavin in the next room.”

“You're right,” Ray said, stiffly – and he could feel heat rising to his cheeks now. Stupid, stupid, stupid – he still felt sick, still felt confused. “I don't... I wasn't thinking.”

“Is everything alright?” and Michael was frowning now, but before Ray could reply, Gavin emerged from the other room – and he shook his head, turning away, drained and not wanting to explain it right now.

Michael looked like he wanted to press further, but he let it drop, moving past Gavin to get to the bathroom himself.

Ray was still standing, staring at his own clenched fists, when Gavin came up next to him.

“Hey X-Ray,” he said, softly. “Thanks for last night.”

“Save it, Gav-” He cut himself off when Gavin's face fell a little, and forced a smile. “I mean it. Don't worry about it. What are friends for, right?”

“Right,” Gavin replied, and gave a funny sort of smile before turning away just as quickly and awkwardly as Ray felt.

Jesus Christ. He fought the urge to bury his face in his hands. This. Is. Fucked. Up.

 


 

They made good time that day. They were quiet in the car, discussing little more than the mission – running over the plans Gavin had, trying to memorise the layout of the fairground. Talking weapons and strategies. It was a relief to get into the zone, to concentrate on the job – it meant Ray could keep his mind off all the other shit.

By noon the faint roar of the ocean could be heard over the rumble of the car's engine, and a crisp, salty breeze was hanging in the air. Before long the road began to slope upwards, rounding the coastal cliffs, and then the sea appeared before them. It was still drizzling gently and the water looked grey, the waves violent. The white peak of the lighthouse was visible on the hill overhead.

There was a viewing platform looking out at the ocean by the side of the road, and they pulled into the roadside parking there, where it was quickly agreed that Ryan, Geoff and Michael would go to scout out the fairground while the others remained behind, a larger group being more likely to draw attention.

Needing some space, Ray left Gavin in the car and headed out into the rain. He walked out onto the viewing platform and took off his glasses so they wouldn't get wet, shoving them into his pocket. The ocean before him was now little more than a grey blur, but he could smell the strong scent of brine and chalky mud. Could feel the sea winds whipping through his hair and his clothes. He was getting cold and wet but couldn't quite bring himself to care.

He heard a footfall behind him and turned, squinting to make out Jack.

“You alright?” the other man asked gently.

Ray nodded. “Just needed some air.”

Jack moved up next to him, leaning on the platform rail, his elbow just touching Ray's.

“Big job tonight,” he said, quietly. “Hopefully we can take down this damn duck once and for all.”

Ray nodded, but he was distracted – and it must have shown, because Jack turned to him, face creasing in concern.

“Seriously, Ray, are you alright? You seem really off.”

Ray bit his lip. It was no time for this, he knew – personal drama needed to take a backseat to the job – but at the same time... he trusted Jack, possibly more than he'd ever trusted anyone, at least with his personal, emotional business. And Jack had helped him before – God, helped him so much.

“I...”

And the problem was. The problem was, he barely knew himself what he was thinking or feeling. How could he even begin to explain it to someone else?

“What do you do when you love more than one person?”

As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them, because shit, that came out wrong – that didn't even begin to explain it – why the fuck had he jumped straight to love?

Jack was very, very silent, and Ray forced himself to look at him – but without his glasses on the other man's face was little more than a blur of shapes and colours, and he couldn't tell what he was thinking at all.

“Ray,” Jack began, slowly.

“I, I don't...” And fuck, the words tripped out of his mouth in a confused attempt to fix this. “Not, like. Like cheating on someone but. But if you think you love two people – if you think you could love two people, if the... the potential is there and you don't... I've heard of like. Shit like that. People in relationships like that. I don't know.”

“Hold up a second, Ray.” And Jack sounded confused now – concerned. “You need to slow down, what the fuck.”

The shock in his tone only intensified the agonising levels of shame shooting through Ray's stomach. His face was burning by now, despite the cold weather and the cool, lashing rain, and he pulled his hood up, turning away to hide his face.

“Forget it, Jack, I didn't – forget I asked anything. Please.”

“Ray, wait-”

Jack snatched at his arm but Ray jerked it away and made for the car – it was a good escape plan; Jack wouldn't bring it up in front of Gavin.

And his heart was hammering now, a thick, churning nausea deep in the pit of his stomach, and all he could think was I fucked up, I fucked up, I fucked up – not even just with the conversation with Jack. But with Michael, and Gavin, and his fucking feelings and Jesus fucking Christ he had no idea how he was going to work through this.

 


 

The plan was fairly simple.

There were several entrances to the fairground, and it was remote enough, quiet enough there that they'd quickly worked out the routes the guards patrolling the entrance points took. They would enter together through the back exit, eliminating the guards there silently and then taking up their intercom so that Gavin could stay tuned into the communication system and they'd know if they were about to be busted.

From there they would split up into the groups they'd planned before – Michael and Ryan heading to the storage shed to plant the explosives, Ray and Jack providing cover from two vantage points they'd found, Geoff coordinating them all, and Gavin sticking with Geoff.

They were now waiting for nightfall, in the quiet stages that always preceded a mission – off checking and cleaning their weapons, getting in the zone themselves. The rain had let up by now so they were still out at the parking lot.

Ryan fancied that the others were acting a bit strangely – Jack and Geoff had been whispering together before, but it was Michael and Ray they'd been glancing at, not Ryan, so he knew it wasn't about him – the younger men quieter than usual, but that was to be expected before a hit as big as this.

Ryan pushed off from where he'd been leaning against one of the cars, looking around to keep tabs on the others. His gaze fell on Gavin, sitting alone a little way away. He didn't appear to be doing anything much, was just sitting cross-legged on the damp ground, seeming lost in thought.

Ryan hesitated. Then thought, fuck it – they couldn't avoid each other forever – and headed over.

“Gavin,” he called out as he approached.

Gavin lifted his head. He tensed when he saw who it was, then forced a smile.

“Hey Rye-bread.”

“Rye-bread?” He crouched beside Gavin, eyebrows rising. “That's a new one.”

“Better Rye-bread than wet bread,” Gavin said, and snickered a little. Ryan did not particularly understand that, but shrugged, glad that they were at least back on reasonably good terms.

“Geoff give you a weapon yet?” he asked, and Gavin shook his head, suddenly nervous.

“Ahh... no. Don't think I'll need one.”

“Hopefully not, but we need to prepare for every precaution.” He pulled one of the knives from his belt and handed it over. Gavin took it gingerly, like it would burn him.

“Just in case,” Ryan said, staring at him intently, and Gavin met his gaze squarely before nodding.

“Just in case,” he repeated, and Ryan nodded.

“Ray and Michael have been teaching me some self defence, anyway,” Gavin added, and Ryan couldn't help but bark out a startled laugh.

“Have they now?”

“Absolutely. I could take you on right now.”

Ryan stood up and adopted a fighting stance. “Come on then.”

Alarm flashed over Gavin's features. “Uhh. I was joking-”

“I know. But show me. Throw a punch.” And he was quashing it down, because if there was one thing it was good at it was detaching himself before a mission, but there was an undercurrent of worry about bringing Gavin into the field like this. It was one thing that he didn't know how to shoot, but the added fact that he had the build of a twig was not helping to reassure Ryan.

Gavin frowned, but got to his feet and punched at Ryan's open hand. His form was actually surprisingly good – it seemed he'd been taught that before – even if there wasn't a great deal of force behind it.

“It was mostly how to escape grabs and stuff,” Gavin said, and Ryan nodded, reaching out to grab his arm. Gavin twisted out of his grip – or tried to, because again, he had the theory of it down, but in practice he just wasn't quite strong enough, especially since Ryan wasn't even holding onto him that hard. To emphasise this, Ryan jerked his arm around, careful not to actually hurt him – Gavin stumbled, off balance, and fell back into his chest.

Ryan caught him, gripping his shoulders firmly. “They might've given you some tips but I don't want you relying on this,” he said grimly. “Stick close to Geoff, alright?”

“I... okay,” Gavin said, a touch awkwardly – and it was then that Ryan realised he was still holding him very close, and immediately let go. Gavin stepped away, straightening his jacket, and there was a tense, frozen pause – but not an unpleasant one, somehow, even if Ryan quickly began to feel that loathsome embarrassment rising up.

“Thanks Rye-bread,” Gavin said then, with a grin, and Ryan flapped a hand at him.

“Don't lose my knife,” he replied, and Gavin gave a jaunty salute before walking off. And Ryan huffed out a breath, to no small degree relieved that things hadn't ended up too awkwardly. And sure, they still weren't talking about what had happened, but ignoring it was better than, well, letting it fester between them. Than acknowledging it and letting it pull them apart.

 


 

 

The speed at which things went to shit was fucking astronomical.

In hindsight, they should have expected it.

They should have fucking expected it – because Edgar had always been one step ahead of them so far. Because Shadles still had eyes on them – they'd let that slip past them. Because this had happened every single time they went to confront him so far.

But somehow – somehow they still thought they had the element of surprise.

And things went very well at first. As night fell they approached the fairground. It was a truly terrible place; built high on the edge of the cliff where the wind seemed harshest and coldest. It had long been abandoned – most of the rides were quite vintage looking, worn down and eerie in the dark and the night. The inclement weather meant there was little moonlight to see by, and everything seemed black and evil.

But they got in, as planned. They took out the three guards, as planned, and when Gavin took up their intercoms and listened in, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Of course it didn't.

It was their hope that got the best of them – a naïve optimism that Ryan would never have fed into if he was working on his own. A willingness to believe that things were going exactly as planned, that they weren't being played for fools.

Which they were.

Because they were standing there - in a group, not having split up yet - in a back drive between a delivery zone and a rundown carousel, when a tremendous explosion rang out, filling the night with colour and noise and fire, and they whipped around to see a nearby building site – a ride abandoned while under construction, still little more than half a building and a lot of scaffolding – combust into flames.

The scaffolding fell away from the burning wall and down towards them, and there was instant chaos as they all scrambled to get out of the way in time. Debris and shrapnel was raining down around them, and Ryan's ears were ringing from the blast, confusion and alarm surging through him as he threw himself sideways, rolling towards a nearby low wall for cover.

“What the fuck was that?” Geoff's voice crackled through the earpiece – before cutting off into static. Everyone else's was dead silent as well.

The explosion had fallen into a ringing quiet, and Ryan peered up from behind the wall.

Soldiers.

Mercenaries were flooding the fairground from all directions – and striding straight down the drive towards them was the duck, in all her horrific glory – a giant gun in one hand, the remote to the demolition charge that had just gone off in the other.

Fuck, was Ryan's immediate thought – again, fucking again he knew we were coming fuck fuck fuck – and he couldn't see any of the others; there was still a great cloud of dust and too many large, burning chunks of scaffolding and brickwork around the area.

Then a hand grabbed his elbow, and he turned to see Jack.

'Need to get out of here,' the man mouthed – probably said out loud, but Ryan couldn't hear for the ringing in his ears.

And then he hesitated.

He fucking hesitated, because for some reason Michael was at the forefront of his mind – where the fuck is Michael? And then Gavin, Ray – Geoff.

But there was no time – the mercenaries were closing in, and Jack was tugging insistently at his arm, and he let himself be pulled away, turning and stumbling into the darkness of the fairground.

Chapter Text

So things had gone completely, utterly, wildly wrong.

Geoff's ears were ringing. He couldn't hear anything except a shrill, high clamour, like a hundred fire alarms or an old-fashioned alarm clock trapped inside his brain. His head was pounding. His whole body ached.

The blast had come out of nowhere, startling them before they'd even had time to split off into their smaller groups. And Geoff's first thought had been for Gavin, because the two of them were meant to stick together – that was the plan, the plan that was now irrevocably ruined – but then the scaffolding had started raining down on them, and the last he saw of Gavin was him lunging sideways to avoid being crushed by chunks of falling debris.

There was dust everywhere. In his nose, mouth, throat – lungs. He wheezed, hacking and coughing as he sat up. He still couldn't hear anything. Could barely see through the dust. And he could feel heat.

Fire.

Jerking himself upright – he'd been dodging the scaffolding and ended up rolling against a wall – he stared frantically around.

He could hear gunshots, faintly through the ringing in his ears, but they were so distorted he couldn't tell where they were coming from. Everything was just dust and smoke and there were burning chunks of the building all around and absolutely no sign of the others-

“-eoff.” The voice warped into his ears, muddled and confused as though he was hearing it underwater, and he turned as a hand grasped his elbow.

It was Ray, face smudged with dust and ash – bleeding from a scrape on his brow but otherwise seemingly unharmed. Relief slammed into Geoff like a train – at least one person was still alive, at least he wasn't alone – and he reached out to clasp Ray's hand.

He reached up to his earpiece, but it was dead silent – the explosion must have damaged it somehow. Blown it out, maybe. And he cursed under his breath, because that was their only means of communicating with each other – Gavin was too worried about Shadles tracking their movements, their electronics, to risk using their phones, even the disposable ones.

“Let's get out of here,” Ray said, jerking his head sideways, and Geoff nodded.

They picked their way out of the debris. The faint gunshots stopped, probably as the mercenaries realised that they were wasting ammo when they couldn't see anything.

Out of the cloud of smoke and dust they emerged into the cool night air. Geoff looked around. The fairground was dark and silent, the rides looming up around them like enormous, twisted sculptures. Geoff's eyes tracked the black loops of a roller-coaster across the clouds of the night sky. He froze as he caught sight of movement in the shadows across the park, and grabbed Ray's wrist, yanking him back against the wall of a nearby building.

“They're splitting up,” he whispered. “Searching the park-”

He broke off as a beam of torchlight split the night, followed by several others and raised voices. More figures emerged from the darkness, heading straight for them.

Shit,” Geoff hissed. “Come on, come on-”

There were too many to fight – especially not when they were still disoriented from the explosion. He tugged Ray after him as he headed around the side of the building, but the movement caught the attention of the mercenaries and he heard them shout before giving chase.

He broke into a sprint, Ray right behind him. His chest was burning but he forced himself to move faster as they pelted through the park – and fuck he wished he could remember the layout, but he didn't have time to pause and think – just ran, dodging between long derelict candy stands and side shows until finally he turned a corner and saw a toilet block looming up ahead.

They'd put a little distance between themselves and their pursuers, so he reached out and grabbed Ray's arm again, pulling him sideways. The door to the disabled toilet swung open when he pushed it, and he shoved Ray inside before slamming the door behind them, fumbling to lock it.

It was pitch black in there.

He stood, trying to catch his breath, squinting furiously in the darkness – his heart pounding, bruises aching, but registering quickly that he was otherwise unharmed. The ringing in his ears was slowly beginning to fade and soon he could hear nothing but his harsh breaths in the darkness-

And Ray.

Ray gasping and gasping like a drowning man, breathing far too fast. A pang of concern hit Geoff and he fumbled for his torch, praying he hadn't lost it somehow.

He hadn't. As soon as he flicked it on both of them cringed, holding up a hand to shield their eyes against the sudden brightness.

“Fuck, they – they'll see the light,” Ray started, and Geoff quickly put his hand over the bulb of the torch, letting only a little light seep out between his fingers.

“You okay?” he demanded. “Are you hurt?”

Ray shook his head, even as Geoff moved forward, scanning him. He didn't seem injured, but his chest was heaving and there was an odd look on his face. Geoff had seen him on missions a dozen times before, and he'd always been professional as fuck – even when things went badly he never really panicked, not like this – but now he looked worried, too worried, and when he moved to sit down against the far wall, pulling his knees up to his chest, Geoff was suddenly reminded of how he'd found Gavin some days before, huddled in the corner of Ryan's bathroom.

He frowned. Ray had been out of sorts all evening, and Jack had told him what he'd been asking about earlier.

“Ray.” He moved closer, crouching next to him. “Calm down, dude.”

“Sorry – sorry.” Ray laid his gun on the tiled floor beside him and scrubbed his hands over his face, only succeeding in smudging more dirt and grime all over himself. “I don't know what-”

“It's okay.” Geoff glanced at the door, but he couldn't hear anything – couldn't see any light approaching them in the crack beneath the door – so he determined that they were safe, for now. He knelt down and grasped Ray firmly by the shoulders. “Breathe, alright?”

“Michael-”

“Don't worry about Michael, okay, he – I'm sure he's fine.” Except with the adrenaline and panic fading away, it hit him that they had no idea where any of the others were – if they'd been hit by the falling scaffolding, if they'd been picked off in the confused moments afterwards – if the duck was killing them right now. And oh God, Jack – but things like this had happened before, and all he could do was trust in his boyfriend's ability to keep himself safe. “Come on, things've gone south before – he can take care of himself.”

Ray nodded, but he still looked on the verge of a major break down.

It hit Geoff, then, that this wasn't really about their current situation.

What do you do when you love more than one person? That was what Ray'd asked Jack – and Geoff was ninety nine percent sure that Gavin was involved somehow, because he'd be lying if he said he hadn't noticed there was something between them – even if they hadn't realised it themselves at the time, the easy affection Ray showed the other man was on par with how he treated Michael.

And God, what a mess – for Ray to realise it so soon after starting things with Michael, and while they were in the middle of a fucking dangerous situation as well. Jack had said he'd been on the verge of freaking out already when they spoke – so it was no wonder their carefully made plans going to shit had pushed him over the edge. He was probably stressed as all hell – concerned about Michael even before they got separated – suddenly Geoff felt an overwhelming wave of care for him, a crushing desire to help, somehow – to protect him.

“Ray... it's okay. It's okay.”

“It's not fucking okay,” Ray spat, venomous suddenly, “You don't even know what-”

“Jack told me.”

Ray fell silent, mouth dropping comically open for a moment before snapping shut. Suddenly he looked terrified, and Geoff hastened to continue.

“It's Gavin, right? Like I said. It's okay. You need to calm down because freaking out isn't helping either of us here, alright?”

Ray stared at him for a few moments – and Geoff kept his grip tight and steady on his shoulders, staring intently into his eyes. After a little while Ray's breathing finally slowed as he seemed to get himself together somewhat. He turned his head away, shaking a little.

“No. It's not... it's not okay. I don't even know what I-”

“Jack's not mad at you for asking,” Geoff said. “He's not... disgusted, or whatever else you might be thinking.” When Ray relaxed a little in his grasp, he knew that was one fear abated, at least. “Look, the two of us would be the last people to judge you for whatever you may or may not be feeling, alright?”

“Maybe,” Ray said, grimly. “But Michael...”

Geoff closed his eyes for a minute. Michael.

Michael was about as straightforward as they came – he wasn't one to beat around the bush and he never flinched away from telling it like it was – often in a brutally honest manner. But despite all that, Geoff found himself suddenly uncertain of what he might think about Ray's little revelation, so to speak.

On the one hand – Geoff wanted to believe he'd be totally fine with it. That this could have a happy ending.

But at the same time – he remembered how Michael had gotten when Ray and Gavin first became just friends. To discover that his – incredibly recent – boyfriend was already falling for a second guy – it might not end prettily.

But then again...

Michael loves Ray. It was plain to see, even if, to Geoff's knowledge, they hadn't told each other properly yet.

And Gavin? How does Michael feel about Gavin?

The sudden shift in Michael's attitude made that harder to determine, even if they were getting along now.

But he was getting ahead of himself here – making assumptions – what mattered was right now, and right now freaking out over hypotheticals was the last thing Ray needed to be doing.

“Listen,” he said firmly. “These things – these feelings – they aren't as uncommon as you might think. And having them doesn't make you a bad person. It's what you do about them – the choices you make – that's what will be either right or wrong. Listen to me, okay,” he added, sensing that his words might be falling on deaf ears – that Ray might be tuning out, trapped in his own head. “Just listen. Jack and I can give you advice, sure, but it's not down to us. He and I – we've talked about stuff like this before. We know that if we wanted to make something like that work with, with another person – well, we'd give it a damn good go but we'd both have to be informed, and into it, and whatever else. So Michael is really the one you need to be talking to about this.”

The most horrified expression crossed Ray's face. “You want me to tell him?

“Maybe not right this second – or tomorrow, or even this week. Assuming we all make it out of here,” he added, with a wry grin – though Ray just shot him a rather unamused look, obviously not appreciating that sort of black humour at this moment. “But you do need to talk about it. Bottling it up like that, kicking yourself over it? Not fucking healthy, dude. But look, you're not alone here. Jack's not judging you for it. I'm certainly not. And I can't speak for Michael, but I do know he'd be far, far more upset if you were upset and brooding over this for ages. You act like something's wrong, he'll want to know what it is, and lying about it – that will just get you in deep, so. You're going to have to tell him at some point if this keeps up.”

Ray nodded, slowly. He still looked worried, tongue darting out across his lips nervously – but something in Geoff's words seemed to have reassured him a little.

“And Gavin?” he asked, quietly, and Geoff sighed.

Gavin was the wild card, the part he'd been trying not to think about, because he obviously had far more on his mind at the moment than romance and Geoff had no idea how he'd react to any one of them coming onto him.

“Don't worry about Gav right now,” he advised. “Michael is your first priority. Actually scratch that, getting the fuck out of here is our first priority.”

“Right,” Ray said, with a half-smile – and Geoff squeezed his shoulders before pulling his hands away, smiling back.

“When it comes down to it, buddy, we've all committed far, far worse crimes than loving somebody.”

The word 'love' made Ray flinch a little, but he nodded.

“You don't need to do anything about it right this moment. Work out how you feel first. Don't stress out about it. Things always seem much worse in your head – okay?”

“Okay,” Ray whispered – and he looked so mournful sitting there in the dark, so young and alone, that Geoff couldn't help reaching forward to pull him into a tight hug. Ray seemed startled for a second, but after a moment his arms came up around Geoff, loosely grasping the back of his jacket. Geoff squeezed him tighter – and he was still trembling lightly, from adrenaline or stress or maybe just exhaustion – but he let his head drop to Geoff's shoulder, and for a moment they just sat, in the quiet and the dark, and eventually Ray's breathing stilled and calmed.

Again that crushing weight of affection for him bore down on Geoff, and suddenly, for a moment, it stared him in the face, filling him with a sense of almost panicyou like him – you like him a lot – were you maybe a little too eager here to encourage him to...

He pushed those thoughts away. Not the time right now.

He released Ray, turning back to the door and pulling it open a sliver. All was quiet and empty outside.

“What's the plan now?” Ray asked, sounding rather more determined.

“They've moved on from here.” He shut the door again and moved to check the clip of his gun. “We need to find the others. Let's head for the exit and see if they're there, and take out as many of those fuckers as possible along the way.”

“Sounds good,” Ray said. With a solid goal in mind he seemed more reassured, standing up off the dirty tiled floor and moving to follow Geoff as they crept back outside.

Back towards the carousel there was still smoke rising against the dark sky. Rather than trek through the centre of the park, they opted to go around, heading for the main exit way. They walked in silence, on edge – and it wasn't long before they saw torchlight in the distance and ducked back against a nearby wall.

“-already checked this part. She wants us to loop back around past the kids' area,” one of the mercenaries' voices drifted towards them as they began to approach.

“They might've left the park,” another said.

“No – we've got guards on all the exits and no one's called in.” The third.

Geoff frowned a little. Something seemed strange about the three mercs, and he couldn't quite place what it was.

Before he could dwell on it there was another distant, sharp explosion, coming from the other side of the park – not as big as the first one. It sounded more like a grenade or a charge going off.

“What the fuck was that?” one of the mercs spat, head snapping around.

While they were distracted Ray leaned out past Geoff and got two shots off, dropping two to the ground instantly with perfect head shots. Geoff couldn't help but be impressed; it never failed to amaze him just how talented Ray was for someone so young.

The third stumbled back as her companions fell beside her, turning to point her weapon at them – but Ray was already stepping forward, gun rising in a fluid motion to shoot her in the chest. She fell back with a shout but Geoff could tell even in the dark she was wearing kevlar – before Ray stepped up over her to execute, a single, neat shot square in the centre of the forehead.

“Nice going,” Geoff said, quietly, and Ray turned to him with a half-smile.

“Helped that they didn't see us coming.” He glanced off in the direction of the explosion. “What do you think that was?”

“I don't know.” It could have been anything – the duck blowing something up to try smoke them out. A guard tossing a grenade. Or Michael.

He bent to grab one of the guards' weapons – an automatic rifle, and thank Christ Ray had taken out this guy first – and that's when it hit him, what he'd found strange before.

Edgar had a lot of men in his employ. Only six of them were his main circle, granted – but the rest of them, his seemingly endless stream of manpower – they weren't just your run of the mill hired guns. They'd all been smart, strategic, skilled enough to handle bigger weapons like this, or specialists like Mark Nutt.

It wasn't difficult to build yourself up a paid army if you didn't mind sub-par amateurs (as people like Felix often did – half-rate criminals who got what they paid for, which was little). But this many professional killers – that was expensive, not to mention that they weren't exactly common.

Leading to the other thing that had bothered him – their voices. While they'd spoken too quickly and briefly for him to get a sense of the accent – none of them had sounded local.

It dawned on him, then. Edgar's importing.

“Should we check it out?” Ray's voice broke him from his thoughts, still preoccupied with the blast – but Geoff shook his head.

“No. It'll have distracted them, in any case – let's take that as our chance to get to the exit.”

Ray nodded – slightly reluctantly, but he respected Geoff enough, it seemed, to trust his judgement. Which Geoff found oddly flattering, to be honest – he might have employed Ray and Michael, to be sure, but he knew they'd been pulled into a lot more than they initially signed up for, so as far as still being under his contract – it was questionable. But so far they'd both bowed to his authority, and not just because he was paying them.

He'd been surprised to find just how excited he was to continue working with them – if they all got out of this.

And not just them. Ryan too – if he took up Geoff's offer – which more and more Geoff found himself hoping he would.

Maybe it was the forced proximity of the last few weeks, but the thought of this job finishing and Ryan disappearing back into the shadows, becoming little more than a security tape rumour or the occasional, wildly unlikely story Geoff heard floating around... something about that upset him.

The same went for Gavin. Because Christ, the kid would need a holiday after this – but after that? Geoff didn't want to never see him again either.

They reached the exit to find it patrolled by two guards and took down one each. But there was no sign of the others, and Geoff didn't want to just hang about waiting for them.

“You got your rifle, still?” he asked, turning to Ray, who nodded. He'd been using his pistol but his rifle was still strapped over his shoulder.

“Sure. What's the plan?”

“Get to a high point. Scan the park. Pick off the guards as we can.”

“Sounds good.” Ray glanced around, then pointed. “There.”

Geoff looked over to see a nearby ferris wheel. He nodded with a slow grin. “Perfect.”

 


 

 

It wasn't until they actually reached the wheel that he realised it may not be such a good idea after all. The entire park had been built close to the edge of the cliff, and the ferris wheel in particular was close to the precipice side of the area. On the one hand, this meant there would be an amazing sea view from the top.

On the other, it looked down onto a dizzying drop, and the cold, strong ocean winds were making the carts swing gently, with horribly shrill creaking, squeaking rusty noises.

Geoff reached out and shook one of the support poles. “I'm starting to think this might not be stable,” he said, frowning a little. “It looks old as dicks.”

“Dear God,” said Ray, pulling a face. “Call the fucking safety people!”

Geoff shoved at him with a laugh. “I mean it, it's probably mostly rust by now. It might take your weight but not mine.”

“It's fine,” Ray assured him. “If you're too scared wait down here.”

“I'm not fucking scared,” Geoff snapped, affronted at the mere suggestion – and began to climb.

To his relief, the wheel might have looked rickety, but it was not actually in too bad a shape. The creaking was a bit alarming, but it held up fine under his weight and he found himself more concerned with not looking down. By the time he reached the top and pulled himself into the uppermost cart, his arms were burning from the exertion. He looked down to see Ray climbing nimbly up, and reached down to give him a hand, pulling him up next to him.

“Thanks,” said Ray.

For a moment they caught their breath, then Geoff looked out over the park.

This far out from the city, and with no electricity running through the place, it was hard to see anything much. The moonlight was weak tonight, so most of the park was nothing but darkness and shadow. A small area was burning where the building that had exploded was still on fire, lighting up its immediate surroundings – and there was another, smaller fire burning across the park, presumably the source of the second explosion.

The darkness meant that anywhere the mercenaries were using torches lit up like fireflies under them. Geoff easily counted two dozen, maybe even three – most of them scattered about patrolling but others milling over near the second fire.

Ray shifted to crouch in the small space on the floor of the cart, lifting his rifle to his shoulder, and Geoff shuffled over to make room for him.

“Can you get them from here?” Geoff asked, and Ray shook his head.

“Too far. But any that patrol in this direction – I can take a shot at them. Keep that torch off, though, we don't want them seeing the light and knowing we're up here.” He sat back on his haunches. “Gotta wait for them to come a bit closer.”

Geoff nodded. He turned, twisting in his seat to look out over the water. This far out from the smoke and smog of Achievement City, there were far more stars in the sky. It was almost pretty – y'know, if it wasn't for the guys all around trying to kill them.

Ray followed his gaze and scoffed a little. “Would've been nice here once.”

“It's sort of nice now,” Geoff pointed out. And then, at Ray's disbelieving look, “We're safe here for the moment. Sort of peaceful. You gotta take the moments where you can get them, dude.”

Ray looked about to refute that, then paused. Geoff waited patiently. Because sure, they were both still nervous, worried about the rest of their team and sore and aching from the exertion of the last couple of hours.

But it was quiet up here, and not too cold or wet, and the faint roar of the ocean and slap of waves against the cliff face was almost soothing.

“I guess,” Ray admitted – and leaned forward to look out at the water.

The view is not the only thing that is attractive, Geoff realised – and immediately kicked himself for the thought, which had hit him out of nowhere. It was true, though – even covered in dust and grime there was something about the Ray set himself – the professional ease he handled the rifle with, maybe, or the way his eyes softened when he looked up at the stars – something that made Geoff's gaze linger, until he realised he was staring – realised that his own expression had slackened into something that was far too soft and affectionate. He jerked his head away a little too quickly, and Ray noticed – turning to him with a slight smile tugging at his lips.

“I'm sorry,” Ray said then. “For freaking out on you back there. Not exactly professional.”

“Don't apologise,” Geoff replied. “You've put up with way more than I'm paying you for at this point.”

“Still,” Ray added, and looked away, something almost shy in his voice as he said, “You and Jack... both of you have been really good to us.”

“Really,” Geoff said. “Don't worry about it.” He grinned a bit, reaching out to squeeze Ray's shoulder. “And remember – no matter what else happens. You love Michael. And he loves you. Sounds sappy as shit, I know, but. Nothing's going to change that. So don't stress out about it, alright?”

“Okay,” Ray said. And then, after a moment. “I'm glad you're here with me.”

It was quiet – almost too quiet for Geoff to hear, but it made him smile. And it was true – if he'd been alone he would probably be a lot more panicked than he was now, frantically trying to locate the others rather than coming up with a rational plan. Having Ray here was reassuring.

“Me too buddy,” he said, and they looked at each other a moment longer before turning away to continue monitoring the park.

 


 

The first thing Michael registered when he woke up was that he was in rather a lot of pain.

The second was Gavin's face about three inches from his.

“Jesus Christ, Gav,” he groaned, reaching up to shove at him. “Get your freakishly large nose out of my face!”

Gavin reared back a little. And Michael was picking up more and more now – it was dark, but not completely dark, a dim orange glow providing just enough illumination to see by. Everything smelled like smoke. He could hear something in the distance – some sort of commotion, too muted and confused for him to make much sense of.

“Michael, that was mean Michael,” Gavin said. And then, hands fluttering around above him, “No, don't sit up-”

Too fucking late.

Michael sat up. And regretted it, because, y'know. Instant pain. A blazing fire set through his chest, making it feel like he was being stabbed in the lungs every time he tried to take a breath. He started coughing, but each motion only jolted his ribs further.

That was nothing compared to his shoulder. Even the motion of pushing himself upright with his left arm hurt so much that for a moment his vision actually flashed white and he nearly bit his lower lip completely in half.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck-”

“Lie back, lie back,” Gavin said, hand going to his good shoulder in an attempt to ease him back down, but Michael grabbed his wrist to stop him.

“Don't – I'm up now, anyway.” He tried to take shallow breaths through his nose, squeezing his eyes shut.

Suck it up, you fuck, you've been hurt worse. Come on. Come on.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually the pain in his ribs faded to a dull ache. He opened his eyes and was displeased to find that they were stinging with tears. He swiped them away angrily with his uninjured arm.

Gavin was watching him carefully.

“I'm fine,” Michael croaked, suddenly embarrassed.

“There's something stuck in your shoulder,” Gavin said, and Michael twisted his neck to look.

It was too dark to tell what it was – some sort of shrapnel, it seemed – but he could see a dark, spreading bloodstain across the front of his shirt. He managed a half-shrug on the other side.

“There aren't any vital organs in the shoulder, so I'm good for now. How long was I out?”

“About ten minutes,” Gavin replied, and Michael looked around. It took him a minute to work out that they were around the side of the carousel, in a small area for keeping bags and coats before going on the ride. To their left, in a small gap between the wall and the ride, he could see the flickering of fire. They hadn't moved far from the scene of the explosion, then.

Ten fucking minutes. It was a wonder they hadn't been caught and shot dead while he was unconscious.

“You dragged me here?” he demanded, and Gavin nodded.

“Yeah – you landed right next to me when... when that building blew up, I don't know. But I couldn't find the others, and the duck was there, so I just got you out of there and now... now there's bloody soldiers all over the gaff.”

Michael began to get up and Gavin moved to his side instantly. He tensed, expecting pain, but Gavin was very careful as he looped his arm around Michael's waist and helped heave him upright, both of them stumbling slightly at the effort. Michael grit his teeth as the motion jostled his wounds again, but by this point he was used to shoving injuries to the back of his mind and working through them.

“You okay?” Gavin asked, and Michael gave a jerking nod. He was shaking, though, and he knew Gavin could feel it.

“I'll live. Are you okay?” he added, turning to narrow his eyes at him suspiciously. He didn't realise that with Gavin by his side holding him up, their heads were rather close together, and when he turned his face his nose bumped into Gavin's cheek. The other squawked, rearing back a little, his grip inadvertently tightening around Michael's side.

Michael winced as a fresh burst of pain hit his ribs, and Gavin immediately released him, stammering apologies.

“Fuck, sorry, sorry-”

“It's fine, Gav.” He breathed through it as best he could. “I mean it, though, are you alright?”

Gavin gave a jerking nod, avoiding his gaze – but Michael reached out and grabbed his jaw, yanking his face around to look him in the eyes. Because Gavin had been remarkably composed so far, and Michael was half-expecting him to break down into a panic attack any