He’d never seen grass that green. It was really green, obnoxiously green, fresh and thick, framing the slate colored buildings jutting high from the foundation, a grey stripe casting a long shadow over the yard. It looked new, looked legitimate, peppered with the fine touches of bureaucracy, like nothing he’d seen back at basic. The giant, humming forcefield surrounding the building protecting it from satellite detection was definitely like nothing he’d seen back at basic.
Though he supposed it was to be expected-- top secret military, the so-titled ‘Soldier Enhancement Program’. They could afford a little more overhead on the bells and whistles. Didn’t even look like a military building proper, more like something out of the dog-eared comic books shoved under his bed back in Indiana.
Jack gripped the duffel in his hand, looked back down to where his fellow recruits were rapidly passing him by. All of them, men and women who’d been in for years, experience carved into the hardened lines on their faces, the scars and war-wounds clear even though they were mostly smiling, cracking jokes. And him, fresh-faced, the youngest recruit for the SEP, hand-picked by the top brass for his extraordinary bravery during numerous peacekeeping missions.
He swallowed, started walking, fell into line. Nobody ribbed at him, talked to him, they all kept their distance, divided into comfortable groups based on prior history. Sure, he was young, but he’d been picked, dammit. He deserved to be there like anyone else.
Yet through the initial addresses, about a million salutes and yessirs, the subsequent actually edible dinner at an equally well-equipped mess, the rest of his team stayed away. Jack sat at the edge of a table in silence, listening in as his new squad bonded, and kept to himself.
He had to focus anyway. He wasn’t there to make friends.
The first day of training, the first day where he could actually prove himself-- to say it went poorly was an understatement. Nerves got the better of him, made him twitchy and anxious, made him hesitate to take action. The look on the senior officer’s face as she took notes on her clipboard told him enough as he walked away, bruised and bloodied from the training room, trailing behind the others.
The private dorm rooms, while nicer than anything he’d encountered in his military career thus far, gave him a little too much time to live in his head. He wanted to be someone people could depend on. A hero. Not the guy always sitting on the sidelines.
Experimentation was weird. Being strapped naked onto a table and injected with various serums in a frigid, crystal white room wasn’t his idea of a good time, but he’d grit his teeth and bear it if it made him a better soldier.
And hell, it did. He could run faster, feel the blood roar in his ears as he raced through the kill room, could easily lift three times his bodyweight during PT, hold his breath longer. Everything felt so much more intense, his senses constantly assaulted, overstimulated. At the gun range, everything snapped into clearer focus, slowed down. He could feel the charge of the atmosphere around him as he nailed target after target, rapid-fire.
He could feel eyes on him as he flipped the safety on, then lowered his gun to the table. It felt good to show off, to prove to the others that he belonged there just like everyone else.
“Morrison,” said the senior officer, Hood, her thin lips pulled into a tight line, her default expression. “Good work.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Back in line.”
He stepped back from the firing range, fell into step with the rest of the recruits as they shifted restlessly, muscles primed for the next task. He wanted to hear it again. Good work.
“As you all know,” continued Hood, standing with her arms crossed behind her back before them, “you’ve been specially chosen for this program. I understand this may give you an inflated idea of yourselves-- that you’re something special.”
Hood looked straight at him as she finished speaking. Jack straightened imperceptibly, chin high.
“I’m here to tell you that you’re not.” She paused. “At least not alone. Part of being worthy of the enhancement program is knowing that you’re nothing without trust in your unit.”
Hood waved a clipboard. “We’ve been watching your performance these past few weeks, observing the way you relate to one another. We’ve assigned all of you a partner.”
A partner. He didn’t need a partner. It would only hold him back, and he didn’t want someone taking his credit. The youngest in the SEP, he’d gotten there on his own merit, dammit.
It seemed that at least some of his fellow recruits agreed. The man next to him snorted, said something under his breath. Jack flicked his eyes over his dark profile for a half-second, before directing his gaze forward.
“You’ll live and breathe together. Learn to understand one another without speaking. Look out for each other. Your enhancements will work to strengthen your bond.” Her eyes sparkled for a moment. “Learn to trust in your unit, and you will learn to trust in yourself.”
Hood cleared her throat, started going over assignments. Jack let his eyes wander the line. Maybe Ferrera, or Warren. Someone strong, with good moral fibre. He could work with that.
He snapped up straight, shoulders back. Hood waved her hand, looked up at him under her beret.
“You’re with Reyes.”
With a snort, the man next to him, Reyes apparently, looked him over, head to toe. “Me? With the kid?”
“I’m not a kid,” Jack insisted, feeling very much like a kid.
Hood passed by him with a friendly smile, before fixing her face into neutral as she sized Reyes up. “You’re good at what you do, Reyes; you’re a senior officer, after all, the best of the best in the field.” She sniffed. “But everyone has areas needing attention. And you, Reyes-- you need somebody with heart.”
“You saying I’m heartless?” Reyes replied, dryly. “You wound me.”
“I’m saying Morrison has an exceptional moral compass that could prove beneficial to someone like you.”
Reyes’ eyebrows rose towards his hairline. “‘Someone like me,’ huh?”
Hood scowled. “You know what I meant. Somebody who doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later.”
“The kind of places I’ve been, you don’t shoot first, you might not live to ask questions later.”
Jack looked over at him, then spoke without thinking. “But don’t you think people deserve the benefit of the doubt? The chance to make the right choice?
“And you think they deserve the opportunity to prove me right with a bullet in my skull?” he said, pressing a wide finger between his eyes for emphasis.
“Reyes,” Hood barked. They both stood at attention, even if Jack recognized that his name hadn’t actually been called out. “If you quit it with the snappy remarks, you could actually learn something from him. Now get on with the learning.” She gave him one last stern look before moving onto the next set of recruits.
Jack swallowed, turned and presented his hand. “I, uh… guess we’ll be working together.”
Reyes let his eyes wander down to the hand, then back up to his face. “'You guess.'”
He let the hand drop. “Okay, then. You’re not the friendly type, got it.”
“Isn’t that just like you, Golden Boy? Friend to everyone, just so well-liked, couldn’t hurt a fly.” Reyes stalked forward, pushed into the bubble of his personal space. Jack held his ground, boots planted, defiant. “And yet you’re here, letting them train you to kill better.”
His expression started to waver. “Excuse me?”
“I know who I am. I don’t lie to myself about what I'm here for. And I don’t need you to like me.” Reyes sneered at him, challenging him. “You just need to keep up.”
He kept up. They ran themselves ragged in training day after day, trying to one-up each other, arguing about orders, about who was right. Every hour spent practicing was grueling, punishing, their spars ignited with barely contained violence. It got to the point where their controllers forcibly separated them, sent them off in opposite directions to cool down.
It was throwing him off. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. How was he going to make a name for himself with Reyes riding his coattails, anyway?
Hood clucked her tongue at him as she tossed him out yet again, the door closing with a swoosh of air behind him. Jack leaned up against the cool metal of the wall, gave it a kick for good measure. This whole partner thing was really making a mess of things, even if he’d never felt stronger in his life.
His body, his mind were never better, enhanced from the serum flowing through his veins. The program had to be a success, the other recruits seemed to be shining, even as he faded into the background. Some Golden Boy. Reyes was breaking his focus. Ruining his future.
“So you gonna stand there pouting all day, huh?”
Jack started, snapping to attention, before realizing just who’d found him. “Where the hell did you come from, Reyes?”
“I walked here,” Reyes replied, flatly.
“No kidding.” Jack frowned.
Reyes just looked at him with that smug curl to the upper lip, that look that pissed him off to no end. Still, he had to give respect where it was due. Reyes was exceptional at tracking, skilled in areas of stealth, where he’d always favoured a more direct approach. He hated to admit it, but their styles were complementary, in the rare event they actually managed to complete a directive.
“Look,” Jack said, “You’re not my first choice in a partner, and I know I’m definitely not yours. But this is how it’s gonna be, and we need to figure some things out.” He took a breath, looked Reyes in the eyes, so impossibly dark. Guarded. “Can we start over?”
Reyes tilted his head, as if considering for a moment. Jack held his ground, only relaxing when Reyes crossed his arms, leaned against the wall next to him. It was probably the closest proximity they’d had without putting hands on each other, without trying to cut each other down. Jack tried to loosen up, but it came off unnatural, stiff as he mirrored the other man’s position.
Reyes scoffed. “You look like you ‘bout to run away screaming. I ain’t gonna start a fight or nothing. You can relax.”
“Hard to relax when you seem to hate me for no reason. I don’t get you, Reyes.”
“You don't impress me. You piss me off,” Reyes said tightly, nostrils flaring. “I know you've got no real experience in combat. I don't really get why nobody can seem to shut up about you.”
“I didn’t ask to be treated different, okay? Jesus.”
Beyond that, he fucking deserved it. He was good at what he did, he worked hard-- he deserved all the attention he was getting. Not that Reyes was bad, hell, he’d even learned a thing or two from him.
It clicked then, that maybe he should actually tell him that. Jack looked alongside to Reyes, idly staring at his nails, feigning nonchalance. He took a breath.
“You’re good, Reyes. Hell, better than good. And you’re right-- you have way more experience than I do.” He smiled, then, trying to inject some confidence into his words. He didn’t want to lay it on too thick, after all. “I want to learn from you, too. If you’ll just y’know… let me.”
Reyes blinked at him owlishly for a moment, like it almost threw him off to hear genuine words of praise. He recovered quickly, expression masked behind a wall of indifference. “Yeah, well. Whatever.”
“I guess we can start over. Try to work together. Real Disney shit.”
“Uh-huh. ‘You guess.'”
Reyes actually laughed, deep and a little bit raspy. “Y’know, you’re actually kind of a shithead, Morrison.”
“It’s, uh. It’s Jack,” he said, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck, “actually.”
“Yeah. My name?”
“I already knew your name, tonto.”
“Okay well, if we’re going to be partners, for real, I don't know. Shit. Just thought you should hear it from me.”
There was a brief pause, before Reyes nodded his head.
“Ah,” Jack said, intelligently. “It’s a nice name.”
Reyes snorted, then swung out a fist at him, startling him for a moment, until it collided harmlessly against his shoulder. Jack rocked into it, the feeling washing over him that yes, finally they might be making some progress.
“Quit it with that kiss-up shit. I’ll play nice. For now.” Reyes jerked his chin towards the door. “You ready to start over?”
Jack rapped his knuckles against the metal with a cocksure grin. “If you can keep up.”
Maybe it was never too late for a second chance, after all.
A big palm slapped over his skull, Reyes shoving him down just before an explosion rattled ahead, fire spilling around the small amount of cover they’d barely managed to reach. The door wouldn’t hold much longer, that was for sure, and Reyes was gritting his teeth as he peeked over the edge, eyes on the assailants.
“Some training exercise,” said Jack over the din, jamming another mag into his rifle. “I didn’t know an actual real-life terrorist attack constituted as training!”
“What, you thought you were gonna become some kinda super soldier shooting at fuckin’ practice dummies all day? This the real thing, chiquito-- shit!”
A gunshot cracked and Reyes snapped back beside him, their shoulders knocking as they crowded low against the door. He grimaced, cupping his bicep, where blood was trickling steadily through his fingers.
“Just a scratch, no te preocupes. But we need to move up, gain some ground.”
“Right, okay.” Jack reached a hand up for his visor, surveying the area for threat. Several heat signals nearby, trying to suss them out. He grimaced, then peered his head out, while Reyes reloaded next to him. “I’ll go ahead and--”
“Yeah, might as well paint a fucking target on your head. I’ll go around and come up from behind. You distract them, draw their fire.”
“Reyes,” he growled, even as the other man started to rise. “Try not to kill anyone. Remember, nobody’s supposed to know we’re here.”
“Calm down, boy scout, I ain’t gonna shoot at just anything that moves, I have some fuckin’ sense.”
More gunshots ricocheted off the walls next to Reyes’ head, but he didn’t flinch. He just looked down at Jack, expression set with determination, and hell if that didn’t ignite some kind of fire in him.
“We got a hostage to rescue, right? Can you find ‘em?”
Jack nodded, cycling through heat signatures. Then, there, a figure bound and shoved in a corner, hot with fear.
“Take the stairs straight ahead, hostage is in the first room on the right.” He cocked his rifle, looked over to Reyes and nodded with certainty. “I’ll cover you.”
“You know how to do that?” Reyes asked, raising his shotguns. “Point the shooty end at the bad guys, pull the trigger, yeah?”
“Shut up, Reyes, we don’t have time for your shit. Move it!”
Reyes ducked low, sprinting forward as Jack started shooting, covering him. He kept firing even as Reyes disappeared into the fray, kept firing until his ears rang, until he could move up to meet him.
With the hostage secured, they cleared the scene as directed over the comms, let the feds take over, their presence during the op highly classified. They would receive no credit and the public could never know they were there.
The flight back to base was mostly silent as the medical team did readings, took blood samples and pictures while attending to Reyes’ already healing injury. In the ensuing briefing, their actions were dissected piece by piece. It wasn’t hard to see how far they’d come in so little time. They made a good team, and by all means, the mission had been a success.
Jack idled outside the central office, smiling thinly at the recruits and medical staff passing him by. He perked up as the doors slid open, Reyes pouring through with an illegible look. “Hey! Reyes.”
He stopped. “What, you aren’t sick of me yet?”
“What? No.” He stuck his hand out, shoulders back with confidence. “Just wanted to say, good work out there today.”
Reyes regarded his extended hand for a moment. “Your schoolboy charm doesn’t work on me. I don’t need your approval.”
“I get that, but--” Jack spread his fingers, smile straining on his face, as he realized a few people were starting to look at them. “Would you just shake my damn hand already so I don’t look like such an asshole?”
Still, after a moment, Reyes reached out and firmly clasped his hand. His palm was warm, dry, the touch like a shot of electricity up his spine. Finally. They shook hands firmly, and Jack grinned in response.
“Yeah, you ain’t so bad after all,” said Reyes, gripping Jack’s hand tightly once more, before letting it drop. “Even if you can’t shoot for shit. Spray and pray.”
“Whatever you say,” he shot back, gesturing to the bandaging on Reyes’ bicep, “bullet sponge.”
They looked at each other for a moment, Jack’s grin going a little crooked. It was something good, at least, a public acknowledgment of their goodwill. He opened his mouth to speak again before a hand caught him on the arm, one of the med techs with a clipboard, vials of glowing fluid and expression that said he meant business.
He turned back to Reyes, that same look of vague annoyance back firmly in place. “Looks like duty calls. I’ll, uh-- catch you later?”
‘Later'. Like they were actually going to hang out or something. He’d seen the other recruits palling around with their partners, talking about their lives, sharing stories. Building bonds. Even though he and Reyes had managed not to blow each other’s brains out, they weren’t really friends or anything.
Not that he wanted them to be friends. Reyes, while impressive in the field, wasn’t exactly the type of buddy he’d pick in any other circumstance. Not that he had that many ‘buddies’ to begin with, having always been so focused on his future, somewhere far away from the everyday toll of the farm, his family, life. Nobody’d ever called him from back home other than his mom, really.
And yet still, as he turned to leave, Reyes gave an aborted little wave. He scowled, snapped the offending appendage to his side, like his hand had gone and betrayed the rest of his body. He stalked away in the opposite direction, Jack watching the clean lines of his thighs as he disappeared around the corner, until the med tech tugged at his arm again to make him move.
It had to be progress. Or something like it, at least.
‘Later’ turned out to be the early hours of morning. He couldn’t sleep. The dorms were lavish enough to have a common room, a big holo screen with plenty of channels, a fully stocked kitchenette. It was usually occupied by others in their downtime, but in the nights, more often than not, it was empty. The perfect place to zone out for a time, catch up on current events. Percolate.
Socked feet up on the coffee table, Jack sighed, tried to relax. He wasn’t sure if it was the mission, or the serum, but he couldn’t focus any of his thoughts or get them to stop rattling around between his ears.
Spray and pray. He’d have to get a few more hours in at the practice range. God.
He rubbed a hand over his face, groaned as he sunk down into the cushions. How was he supposed to help anyone if he ran the risk of accidentally shooting them first? Some soldier he was, couldn’t even shoot straight.
He wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t pushing himself hard enough. He was just paralyzed on the couch at one in the morning, mired in his own self-loathing. It was pathetic, if he was honest with himself, to be weighed down in this level of doubt.
“Ain’t you supposed to be tucked into bed by now? Or you missing your one of your mama’s lullabies?”
Jack slid the hand down his chin, looked over the back of the sofa. Reyes, of course, the bastard, was bending over, rifling through the fridge. The sweatpants he wore clung to his ass, and Jack swallowed, forced his gaze up the broad expanse of his back as he stood, bottled water in hand.
Cap twisted off, Reyes took a long pull from the bottle. Jack was helpless but to watch the muscles of his throat move as he swallowed, the trickle of water out of the corner of his lips before he wiped it away with the back of his hand.
Dragging his gaze away, Jack coughed, turned back to the holo screen. “Can’t sleep.”
Reyes moved up behind the couch, near silently. Jack sat up straight, hyper-aware of Reyes looming over his shoulder, uncomfortable for reasons he wasn’t wholly ready to admit to himself.
“You actually watchin' this?”
The rise and fall of the Omnica Corporation had been as quick and brutal as a shotgun blast. News channels couldn’t stop airing out their dirty laundry; large-scale corporate fraud, malfunctions, mismanagement, money laundering, and now they were saying they’d dismantle all of the omnics within a year. He didn’t usually pay attention to gossip, but the sheer magnitude of what had happened had managed to saturate every channel, every site. The crash had sent much of the world into an economic nosedive, with an alarming amount of criminal activity on the rise.
“I hate the news," Reyes said, blandly. "Less than a year ago they were saying omnic tech was supposed to lead us into a new era. Look what happened. It didn't work."
“Yeah. The original intent doesn’t seem to matter with all that information out in the public sector. Yesterday’s heroes, tomorrow’s villains.”
“Today’s embarrassment.” Reyes shrugged. “Don’t be stupid. It's a corporation, Jack. Or it was, anyway. Greed’s got a way of grinding down those pesky moral boundaries real quick.”
“I guess so.” He blinked, turned to look up at him. “Hey-- you called me Jack.”
“Yeah, it’s your name, ain’t it? Or do you prefer Junior? Chacho?”
“Oh fuck off, Reyes,” Jack replied, starting to smile, despite himself. So maybe it was kind of fun to have someone yank his chain a little. He was so used to having to smile and be polite, to answer on command. It was a nice respite.
He looked back to the holo screen, the ticker tape running along the bottom of the news report, the corners of his mouth flattening out. “But man. All they wanted to do was improve people’s lives. That’s got to count for something, right?”
“Yeah, and to make shit tons of cold, hard cash,” he said, raising the water bottle up to his mouth. Jack followed the movement until he noticed Reyes looking back at him, and turned away just a little too fast. “Nobody does anything without expecting something in return.”
“So, what, you’re suggesting Omnica should have never existed?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“So just because they ultimately failed mean they shouldn’t have tried in the first place?” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think you should make decisions on fear of a possible outcome. They wanted to make the world a better place. You can’t fault them for that.”
The plastic bottle in Reyes’ grip crinkled as his hands shifted. “You don’t think so?”
“No. I know I’d rather be the type of man who’d look at at a problem and take action-- look for a solution. I wouldn’t want to look back one day wondering what could’ve been.”
Reyes was quiet for a moment, looking down at him, contemplating. For some reason, it made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and Jack shifted his gaze away, wondering if he’d revealed a little too much of himself. He’d made it all about himself, somehow, this global economic crisis.
“So that’s why you’re here, huh?” Reyes asked, lowering his voice. He set his forearms onto the back of the sofa, leaned down, close enough that Jack could feel the body heat rolling off him in waves. “You wanna make a real difference.”
“Doesn’t everybody? If you have the ability to do something for other people, to take care of other people, shouldn’t you?”
Reyes looked at him, really looked, made him feel like an animal being dissected. He didn’t understand why that look cut right through him, why it made the start sweat under his arms, his palms.
“Big man. Weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“It’s not that, it’s just--” He cut himself off, struggling to find the words. “I want to be a good person, just like everybody else.”
“Shouldn’t be that hard. You’re the Golden Boy. You're not like everybody else.”
Jack cupped the back of his neck, choked out a laugh. “Man… I don’t know.”
“Uh-huh. False modesty doesn't suit you.”
“What? I’m not--”
“You're so touchy. Don’t take yourself so fuckin’ serious, you're way too easy to mess with.” Reyes set a big palm on his shoulder, gripped down for a moment. The unexpected physical contact was so hot and sudden that Jack tensed up, this electric current running down his spine. The touch was brief, but he felt like he’d been burned. Reyes patted him once in the same spot for good measure, fingers dragging the neck of his shirt wide as they slid away. “Pulling the stick outta your ass could do you some good. Try it sometime.”
With that, he turned off to the doorway, Jack watching him go not for the first time that day. He didn’t really want him to leave, now. One foot out the door, and Jack opened his mouth.
“You know, I’m curious. Why are you here?”
Reyes stopped in the doorway, looked over his shoulder. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah, I think so. I want to know at least.”
“And what if you don’t like the answer?”
“I’d like the opportunity to make up my mind, either way.”
Reyes seemed to consider for a moment, sliding his shoulder up against the metal door frame, leaning into it. “Shit," he murmured, running a hand over his goatee. “You ask the loaded questions.”
“Well, if you ever decide you want to tell me-- I’ll be around.”
Jack turned away, didn’t want it to seem like he hoped Reyes would hang around. Like he was lonely or something. A cursory second glance confirmed that Reyes had more than gotten the memo. The white light of the holo screen cut deep lines into his face, the night seeming endless before him. Maybe he did need to loosen up a little. He rubbed a hand over his shoulder, like he could still feel the impressions where Reyes’ fingers had touched him.
The weight of the world. He could handle it. He would handle it.