During holidays and lulls between missions, most people went home. They had houses and apartments, condos and lofts; they had places with their people, in other words. Not so for Jesse McCree. The watchpoints, the makeshift bases, the safe houses: these were home to him. He supposed he could have bought an apartment somewhere by now, but every time he mulled it over, he ultimately failed to see the point. He didn't need another place to be lonely. He'd already had plenty of that in his life.
They were in Colorado just then, fresh from handling various crises. Drug rings busted up, terrorist cells rooted out. For the moment, though, things were quiet. Some of the agents, Blackwatch or otherwise, had dispersed for a while. Jesse felt adrift, as he often did without orders to guide him. It hadn't always been like this. Used to be he hated when someone told him what to do; where to go. How to get it done once he was there (well, he still had trouble on that point from time to time). But after a few years with these people—Reyes and the rest—he'd come to rely on the structure. Maybe too much.
He was washing his face when she came in.
“Didn't hear you knock,” he said lightly, followed—quickly—with, “ma'am.”
“Door was open, cowboy,” Ana said.
He finished scrubbing at himself and turned to find her smiling at him; it was so fond that he wanted to whip around and find something else to clean before he blushed. She had a way of unseating him. Him and everybody else, too.
“I heard you were enjoying some downtime,” Ana went on. She leaned against the wall, smile unwavering, arms folded across her chest. “Got any plans today?”
“Not so much,” Jesse said. “Might walk around the city some.”
He ran a cursory brush through his hair, mostly because she was in the room. “Or just the base.”
“Exciting,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “If you aren't too tired after that, maybe you'd like to come over for dinner tonight.”
He paused, and tried not to sound as hopeful, as eager, as he felt. “Yeah?”
“Fareeha likes to see you,” Ana said.
“And what about you, Miz Amari?” he said. He flashed her a (surely) charming grin.
She laughed at him. “I don't mind. On occasion.”
“Well, I'll take it.”
“We have a place near here. I'll send you the directions. Five sharp, Jesse.”
He saluted. “Ma'am, yes, ma'am.”
She left him with a nod, and he took another minute with his face, his thoughts. He was so raw when he first came here. Angry all the time, hateful, even. Scowling at everybody like a cottonmouth, ready to bite. He had agreed to join Blackwatch so as to avoid prison, but he was locked up all the same. His schedule wasn't his own; his life wasn't his own. The organization controlled everything, down to when he ate and slept. He hated it, until he didn't. Until he realized that these were the best people he'd ever met, and was ever likely to meet, and that they weren't going to turn him loose at the first sign of resistance. Nor the second, or third, and so on. They held onto him, no matter how hard he thrashed, fought back. Now look at him. The smallest gesture of welcome or approval, and he's burning like a sunset. Well, there was no help for it. He liked sunsets, anyway.
The apartment was small, cozy. Two bedrooms, near as he could tell. A bathroom, and a little kitchen, which was divided from the couch and the TV only by a switch from linoleum to carpet. Simple and functional, as he'd expect, but it wasn't without decoration. Ana had paintings on the wall, done in blazing, rich colors—vibrant red and golden yellow against twilight black. The bookshelves were lined with not just books, but also intricately carved clay bowls, also delicate blown-glass bottles painted with complex patterns that gleamed in the orange, early evening light. The burgundy couch, crowded with sunburst pillows and a pile of afghans, had fat cushions that looked fit to swallow a man. Jesse felt comfortably sleepy just being near it.
Fareeha had greeted him at the door on his first knock (at four fifty-five, he proudly noted).
“Hey, there, darlin',” he said, laughing as she threw her arms around his waist. “You behavin'?”
“Of course!” she cried, squeezing him in reprimand. She wasn't that much younger than he was—a bit into her teens, while he was a bit into his twenties. Like the kid sister he never had. She was a friendly presence around the bases, often accompanying her mother on Overwatch business. Studious, attentive, polite. A much better kid than Jesse ever was. “C'mon, it's ready.”
“Good thing,” Jesse said. “Ain't had a bite to eat all day.”
He hadn't done much of anything, really. Practiced his aim. Ran laps. Read e-mails. The watchpoint was a graveyard. Almost no one was there, and the few that remained had actual work to do, and thus no time to talk with him. He hadn't heard the sound of his own voice since that morning, which was pretty unusual.
“Glad you could make it,” Ana said, once he'd tipped his hat to her (because he didn't go anywhere without his hat), set it aside, and sat down at the table. “I was worried your busy day might keep you from us.”
“Was touch and go for a minute there,” Jesse said. “But I ain't ever too busy for y'all two.”
He reached to flick at a beaded lock of Fareeha's hair. “Especially you, little missy.”
Fareeha slapped at his hands. “Quit it.”
Ana set a big plate down on the table; the dish was a casserole of some sort (to Jesse's mind), a confluence of chopped onions, chickpeas, bits of thick bread and spiced beef all joined together in holy matrimony. Everything glistened with a patina of fruity molasses; Jesse turned a forkful over in the light just to watch it shine.
“Dig in, kids,” Ana said, taking her seat. Her serene expression was intact, but Jesse caught something in her voice, something worn out.
“You feelin' okay, ma'am? I hope I ain't putting you out by being here,” he said. He scooped several generous helpings of the casserole—fatteh, Fareeha told him later—into his bowl.
“It's nothing to do with you, Jesse,” Ana said, not unkindly. She glanced at Fareeha, as if unsure whether to keep talking. “I simply thought I'd have a few more days to myself.”
Fareeha set her fork down, frowning. “We're leaving again? Where?”
Ana drummed her fingers on the table. “Gang activity. We have a lead on a big weapons shipment—dangerous technology. We need to intercept it.”
She took a bite of her food, nodding at Jesse. “You're coming, too, cowboy.”
“Strange,” Jesse said. “I read e-mail all day and ain't got a single word 'bout it.”
“We haven't prepared a full mission dossier yet. Consider this a heads-up.”
Fareeha picked up her fork and pushed the mass of vegetables and meat around in her bowl, like someone sifting through sand for gold. But she didn't spear anything; just kept searching endlessly.
“Gotcha,” Jesse said, not too bothered. He had more immediate problems, like the morose girl beside him. He got a big chunk of fatteh onto his fork, stuck it in his mouth, and made a face at Fareeha while he chewed.
She made a face right back. “Ew! What are you doing? Just swallow it.”
He did, after another few seconds. “I was gettin' there. That was my tasting face.”
“Y'know. The face you make when your tastebuds are tryin' to sort out if they like what you done to'em or not.” He grinned, as though this were an obvious and common thing.
“You are so weird, Jesse,” Fareeha said. She stabbed a cube of beef, chased after some bread, and ate.
“Don't I know it,” he said. He winked at Ana. “Got to say, this is some mighty fine grub, though. Very fancy.”
“This is not fancy,” Ana said. “This is a basic dish. Simple ingredients, simple prep. We have it all the time.”
“Thing is,” he said, “seein' as I lived mostly offa dive joints and truck stops growing up—and seein' as I by and large still do—this is five-star gourmet cookin' to my tongue.”
“Too much,” Ana said, but her irritated expression eased. At least for a second. Her phone beeped, and she picked it up, and then her eyebrows furrowed right back together.
“Excuse me,” she said. “A moment.”
She pushed away from the table and walked into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her, though Jesse caught “Morrison, I am having dinner,” before her voice cut off.
“Jesse,” Fareeha said, preventing him from getting lost in wondering what the hell that was about, “tell me a story.”
“What kind?” Jesse said, taking another ambitious bite of fatteh.
“You know,” she said. She wanted to hear about a mission. She always did.
Jesse glanced at the closed door. A little bit wouldn't hurt, right?
“Weelll,” he drawled. “Just last week, right here in Grand Junction, we had a sting op on some local kingpins.”
Fareeha leaned forward, eyes wide. “Yeah? How many guys were there?”
“Small army,” Jesse said. “Holed up in some warehouses downtown. Set on defendin' their product to the last.”
“What did you do?” Fareeha said.
“We went in with a select team,” Jesse said. “Includin' yours truly, of course. Positioned ourselves strategic-like. Waited til the right moment. And then—”
“Then?” Ana said, from behind him, her voice frosty.
He gulped, his next words curling up in his throat and dying. “Th ... then we had a real nice talk. And we—we settled our differences.”
Fareeha sat back in her chair, aggrieved. “That is not what happened.”
“You don't need to know what happened,” Ana said. “He makes this work into a fantasy.”
She pinched Jesse's ear, and he hunched his shoulders, wincing. “It is not a glamorous life, Fareeha.”
“You're saving people,” Fareeha said. “You're making the world better. Why can't I hear about it?”
And, the subtext: why can't I be a part of it?
Ana shook her head, and that exhaustion from earlier returned, weighing down the curve of her mouth, shading her dark eyes. “Enough. Come, the dishes.”
Jesse jumped up. “I got it, ma'am.”
“Nonsense,” Ana said. “You're the guest. Sit down."
He did as he was told. Fareeha, too, though she looked considerably more contrary about it. Contrary enough that he should've anticipated her next question.
“Jesse,” she said, over the dull roar of the faucet, “I've always wondered about your belt buckle.”
Ana eyed him, bowl in hand. She scraped at the leftover food with a brillo pad, with a careful, focused violence.
“Er,” Jesse said. “What about it?”
“What do those letters stand for?”
“Buh ...” he started, but Ana was still staring him down. Still systematically eviscerating the bowl.
“Best and most fortuitous,” he said. A pause. He shut one eye. “ … fella. Yep.”
Fareeha gave him a withering “You're no fun” look.
By the time the plates were cleared, the dishes were done, and they'd had more idle conversation—safe topics, like a paper Fareeha was writing for Doctor Ziegler on human anatomy, or her current karate progress—it was dark.
Jesee grabbed his hat. “Reckon I oughta be gettin' outta your hair,” he said, though he couldn't hide his reluctance. The near empty base was the only thing waiting for him, and he didn't relish the prospect.
Ana rolled her eyes. “Don't be foolish. It's near midnight. You're staying right here.”
She gestured to the couch. “Go on.”
He clutched the hat a little more tightly. “Y'sure? I ain't tryin' to impose.”
“I know. I would have kicked you out otherwise. Get some sleep, Jesse. Next few weeks will be busy.”
She clucked at Fareeha, lurking by the couch.
“And you, daughter of mine. Get to bed. I expect everyone up at 0500 hours.”
“Let me say goodnight to Jesse,” Fareeha said. “Then I will. Promise.”
Ana sighed. “Fine. Five minutes. I'm trusting you.”
“Goodnight, ma'am,” Jesse said.
She smiled at him then, her sharp features softening. She cupped a hand against his cheek. “Thank you for coming. It is always nice to see you.”
He swallowed thickly. “You, too. Thanks for invitin' me.”
“Sleep well.” She stepped back, turned away.
Her bedroom door clicked shut for the second time that night, and it did not open again.
Jesse sat down on the couch, cheeks burning, Fareeha watching him carefully. He pulled an afghan around him, though he felt liable to combust.
It had a sweet, musky scent, like cardamom and jasmine perfume. He drew the blanket up around his shoulders, comforted by it.
“Hey, girl,” he said. “Best get a move on.”
She rolled her eyes, just like her mother. They were mirrors of each other, much more so than either of them realized.
“Tell me,” she said.
“Tell you what, darlin'?” He was settled now, lying flat on the couch, letting his body sink into the cushions. Leagues beyond the stiff sheets and unyielding cots back at the base.
“Your mama will kill me,” he said. “And that ain't no maybe. I will be a corpse by morning.”
“She's already asleep,” Fareeha said. “She's efficient that way.”
“You want me to die? I thought we were close.” He grabbed her, pulling her into a hug against him. “Feelin' mighty betrayed right about now.”
“Come on,” she whined, pushing at his chest. “Whisper it.”
“Not going to bed until you do.”
“You only wanna know 'cause your mama don't want you to know.”
“Yeah, and?” Fareeha squinched up her nose at him, as though that was patently obvious. Not like he couldn't relate to the feeling.
“Some day all this determination is gonna do you real good, honey,” he said. With a furtive look back at the bedroom door, he leaned in, and he whispered.
She giggled, clapping her hands over her mouth. “That's ridiculous!”
“Was Ana what gave it to me,” he said. “All them did. Birthday present.”
“Because you're ridiculous.”
“Yeah,” Jesse said. “Reckon so.”
He let go of her, and asked her for his hat, left on the other side of the couch. After she handed it to him, he jammed it down on his head, making her laugh.
“Now,” he said, speaking from beneath the brim, his face in shadow, “you and me got to get some shut eye.”
“Okay, okay. I'm going.” She darted in and kissed his cheek, quick and light as a hummingbird. “Goodnight, Jesse.”
“Ah, I'll never wash my face again,” he mumbled, eyes half-shut.
She thumped his shoulder, and he added, “Sweet dreams, darlin'.”
Then she, too, went into her room, leaving him alone on the couch.
He breathed in, deep and slow, feeling the weight of the afghan, the spicy scent that was as woven into the wool as its colorful diamond pattern. The warmth of the whole evening stretched out before him as he fell asleep, bright and glowing, good as any sunset he'd ever seen.