His throat is a valley of broken red glass.
The thirteenth time Genji wakes from surgery, he tries to talk. And as it has twelve times before, pain makes a sound with no shape.
“So stubborn. Don’t speak,” says a sweet voice.
Doctor Ziegler, his exhausted angel, inhabits Genji’s darkness. There, she’s blank, bereft of all traits but kindness, and she takes his hand. He identifies the motion, but it doesn’t connect.
“Didn’t work,” he says. “Can’t feel.”
“Älskling, there will come a day when you will feel more deeply than any of us,” she says. “I promise.”
To respect someone, Genji thinks, is to resent them wholly.
“Don’t promise,” he whispers, moving his hand away. Doubt persists in his new body where all other feeling has abandoned him.
“Don’t give up,” says Dr. Ziegler. And when she moves around the bed, Genji finds he can track her by sound, by the soft squeak of her sneakers, her scrubs, even the faint but steady throb of her heart. Sound builds a framework in his darkness, thin neon outlines of what the world could be.
The room seems different than before this last surgery. A new room. New variations in the patterns of sound emerge and harden: fewer feet outside the door, longer intervals between beeping machines, unfamiliar announcements over the PA. And birds. There is a window and, beyond belief, he can hear its subtle vibration. Briefly, darkly, because all things after death have so far been dark, Genji wonders just how high up this new room might be. If the window is shatterproof and sealed at the edges.
While Dr. Zielger stands quietly across the room, enveloped by the maddening beep of some monitor, Genji lifts a hand to his head, to the tuft of wires that sprout from his bandages like dead grass. It’s strange to touch something and know what it is without feeling it. Destroying things doesn’t require feeling, though. Does it? He can’t remember. Genji grips three brittle wires between his new metaloid fingers, yanks them out, and crushes them. The beeping across the room stops instantly. He sighs.
A bold voice, gruff with laughter, splashes itself across the black canvas of Genji’s awareness.
“You’ve got grit, kid. Wish I had ten of you in my unit,” the stranger says, and Genji’s head whips around to find the source.
“Scheisse!” Dr. Ziegler drops something that sounds like hard plastic and rushes around the bed. Genji senses the pressure of her examination, fingers like ghosts probing his head under the cap. “Stop it, please. You will recover, but only if you’re a patient patient.”
Frustrated, needing to scream and getting nothing but wind ripping through his shattered throat, Genji turns what’s left of his face away from her. But for a split second, an agonizing breath, he feels it when her fingers graze his hand.
But she’s already moving away, and the stranger in the room says, “The last thing he needs is a pack of pretty lies, Doc.”
“I have to find replacements for these. If you want to stay and talk to him, keep an eye on him, be my guest,” she says, sneakers thumping out the door, turning in the hallway. “But no war stories.”
“That, uh, doesn’t leave me much to talk about.”
“Just talk. I’ve seen you do it.”
The door hisses and clicks, and for the first time in weeks Genji is alone with someone who’s neither a doctor nor a nurse.
“I’m gonna sit here and keep you company. Is that okay with you?”
Genji lays motionless in his anger. A chair scrapes across the floor, creaking as the stranger sits. He’s heavy, Genji can almost see the bulk of him just from how he sounds filling the space. No war stories.
A Soldier, then.
“I wasn’t kidding before, no one ever called me a great conversationalist,” says the Soldier. His voice hits Genji like a speaker laid on his chest, all-American bass under a pile of gravel. “But it seems like you could use a friend, and that’s something I know how to do.”
The chair creaks as the Soldier leans back. “Or used to.”
He’s so bitter that it tweaks something competitive in Genji. He can remember his friends, neon-lit in his darkness, but his brother still has no outline, like he’s the void itself. The silence in the room turns awkward, punctuated by beeps and announcements outside the room. The Soldier hadn’t lied, Genji thinks, he sucks at this. Under the balaclava, Genji tries to wet his lips. “Who did you lose?”
“Ain’t lost him yet, but it’s not looking good,” says the Soldier. “A sorta brother. Not the kind you’re born to, the kind you earn.”
Laughter stirs pain in Genji’s throat, and it’s comforting.
“Born brothers worse,” he says.
“Yeah, you’d know.” More gravelly chuckling, and more creaking as the Soldier leans in. “Hey, don’t talk if it hurts. Nod or something instead.”
“Head. Throat. Chest.” Genji gestures for emphasis. “Some pain is good. All that’s left.”
“That’s all you can feel, huh?” The Soldier murmurs. “Son of a bitch.”
Footsteps tapping in soft sneakers approach from down the hallway, and the Soldier moves closer to Genji’s face. Through his bandages, he can sense heat, hear the man’s heartbeat as it climbs.
“Doc’s got loads of exciting plans for you, and if anyone can pull it off it’s Ziegler,” the Soldier says quickly. “But you’re going to be missing some things, more than a few, so if you need to talk about it, er, nod about it. . .”
He squeezes Genji’s hand and two things happen so fast that the shockwaves cancel each other out: Genji feels the full range of the Soldier’s touch, and Dr. Ziegler rushes through the door.
“Found them!” she says brightly, moving around the bed.
Again, he wants to scream, but his voice splinters in his throat.
“I’ve got to head home, we’re rolling out at oh-six-hundred,” the Soldier says to Dr. Ziegler, getting up. Then he touches Genji’s arm again, he can feel it again. Real. “Listen, I’ve got some experience getting my insides reorganized by science-types. When I get back, if I’m not too banged up, I’ll come by and tell you all about it. That okay?”
Genji nods eagerly. He strains to follow the man’s footsteps as he goes, before the hydraulic door shuts. Down the hall, turning at a corner, pausing at the elevator, muffled and dispersing behind the sliding doors. Then gone.
He doesn’t even know the Soldier’s name.
But a week later, when the soft, post-op balaclava is removed, Genji spies the shape of a card on the bedside table. He asks Dr. Ziegler to read it to him.
“Jack Morrison,” she says, without looking, checking the new permanent ports smoothly integrated across Genji’s head. “He’s a good friend. And a good man. Not an easy accomplishment, given the other words on that card.”
They fill in the missing pieces, add to him in layers and build him up like clay on a wire frame. Everything starts to work together. Some things work too well to be mistaken for human.
He spends too much time, and mental energy, tieing down what he’s lost. He finds a blackwater lagoon deep in his chest, anchors all his grief with a heavy stone, and watches it sink. It doesn’t make breathing any easier, but he stops smashing every reflective surface that dares to tell him the truth.
Genji’s always liked robots and mecha stories, and after weeks of training he wants nothing more than to show Commander Jack Morrison the incredible, and incredibly tactical, things he can do. Gamers, manga junkies, and soldiers, he thinks, examining the open panel on his forearm, all love this shit. But Morrison doesn’t return.
Genji’s sense of disappointment remains intact.
With the exclusion of Dr. Ziegler, the professionals that handle Genji are as foreign and gray as the bits of Zurich he can see from the windows. They’re engineers and mechanics, he has learned, not therapists.
Today, the mecha hits the gym to test his reflexes, balance, and coordination. Mostly, Genji lays on his back, legs in the air, bouncing a red yoga ball from foot to foot. It feels ridiculous, like a low-rent Cirque du Soleil act, but it beats prowling around his quarters. He passes the ball to Dr. Ziegler, who lays beside him doing the same, long legs bicycling the air. For the gym, she wears leggings and a hoodie instead of her scrubs, and Genji finds the shift in image supremely satisfying.
With her feet, she passes the ball sideways to him, and he snatches it out of its arc gently and soundlessly.
“Angela,” he says, because it drives her crazy, and her lips thin out as her annoyance grows. “Does Zurich have an animal sanctuary? I mean, besides my suite here.”
Instead of directing the ball back to Dr. Ziegler with the soles of his feet, Genji sets it up and kicks it, like Messi making a miraculous goal. The yoga ball sails across the gym, thwanging against two walls before knocking over the water cooler.
With the sigh of a much older woman, Dr. Ziegler retrieves the ball, stepping blithely around the spreading pool of water.
“Mr. Shimada,” she says, because it tweaks him just as hard. “Please focus.”
She shoots the ball at him and he rolls backward, lighting-quick, into handstand.
“It would be nice to spend time with others of my kind, that’s all,” Genji says, stopping the ball with his feet. He holds the position. “The broken animals no one knows what to do with.”
He sets and kicks the ball backward, at her head, with the heel of his foot.
“Good idea,” D. Ziegler says, dodging. The ball ricochets. “The wolves and bears might find you more amusing than I do.”
From his handstand, Genji can’t fully see what she’s doing, but he hears it. The rubbery sound of irritated hands gripping the ball. Too late. The ball smacks him sharply, right in the ass, and Genji hits the mat.
“That’s no way to treat a circus animal, Angela.” Genji laughs, gets to his feet, and sits on the yoga ball.
Dr. Ziegler stares at him, arms crossed.
“It’s okay, I know how to entertain myself. And others.” Genji spread his knees wide, tilting his hips on the yoga ball, rolling it lewdly. It bulges between his legs. But Dr. Ziegler doesn’t blush or chastise him. She doesn’t look away scandalized. So, he runs his fingers down the pliant seams on either side of his groin, parts them slowly, and inhales as fresh air meets what’s left of his skin. “What do you say?”
Her ponytail remains still and calm as wheat on a windless day. “Do you imagine that as a woman, and a doctor, I’ve not seen every expression of vulgarity under the sun?”
“So, is that a no?”
The flutter of pity in her smile makes Genji queasy.
“It’s a no, Genji-kun.”
“As a woman or as a doctor?” he says. If she had complaints about his leftover hardware, she had only to look in the mirror and ask herself what more she could have done. For science.
Long seconds drag themselves across the gym, with Dr. Ziegler watching him, waiting. He can’t remember the last time he apologized for anything. Perhaps they can program him. Genji looks away.
She crosses the mat and sits on her knees, at his feet, looking up at him with wide, worried eyes.
“I’ve been called away,” she says, her voice firm and quick. “It shouldn’t take me more than a week, two at most, but your sessions will have to continue with Doctor Heinleith until I return.”
Genji bounces thoughtfully on the yoga ball.
“You mean Doctor Fun. He wears red socks, you know. Super fun.” When she doesn’t respond, just sits there on her heels like they are having the worst tea-service ever, Genji drops his chin. “I’ll be good, promise.”
Dr. Ziegler’s ponytail thrashes as she shakes her head.
“Good. Not so good. Doesn’t matter,” she says, taking his hands, squeezing them. “Don’t give up.”
He envisions jamming his ten heavy fingers into the yoga ball, slashing and deflating it, heat rising in his body from more than just overworked electronics. But Dr. Ziegler reaches up, disconnects the lock on his visor, and raises it. Genji flinches.
“I’ll see you in a week, älskling,” she says, to his real face. And his eyes are poorer without the visor but God the air feels good. Believing her feels good.
Squinting, eyes watering under the gym’s totality of light, Genji watches Dr. Ziegler get to her feet and move through the glass doors.
What will you see? he wonders. Out there.
He waves at her when she looks back at him one more time, and Genji can hear the ultra-fine servos in his wrist sliding through their motions.
Instead of his jaunty red socks, Dr. Heinleith wears an expression of a decidedly less cheerful nature. From his hiding place, Genji watches the gray-bearded doctor pace the floor of the PT room, alternately tapping his clipboard against his leg and glancing over at the digital clock on the wall. It’s been an hour. Genji is impressed by his tenacity. And, he notices for the first time, Heinleith has a bald spot.
Dr. Fun unclips the walkie at his belt, mutters several demanding German phrases, and strides from the PT room with his lab coat swirling behind him.
The vents along Genji’s shoulders sigh, releasing puffs of steam that catch against the ceiling at his back. He drops from his position between the rafters, hits the floor, and rolls to a crouch behind the heated therapy tub that he’ll never get to use. The last functioning camera in the room is trained on the exit, and he has a single shuriken left.
Genji stands, walks behind the camera’s blind spot, and disconnects the hardline.
“Good session, Doctor,” he says to no one, and slips into the quiet corridor.
Dodging quickly into a doorway, to avoid an oncoming pack of scientists, Genji takes the stairs down as far as he dares. Rather, he darts between the sweeping cameras, jumps the railing, and criss-crosses the artificial crevasse created by the stairwell until he lands at the fourth floor.
It isn’t so different from mountain-climbing in Hanamura. He’d been twelve when they stopped those little family outings, as Father became consumed with work, and Hanzo became. . .whatever Father wanted.
Mind clouding with thoughts of home, Genji glides through a dark hallway which deposits him into a small atrium bordered by high windows, a sort of waiting room punctuated with modern furniture and exotic plants. Standing at the windows overlooking the city are two men, tall and slightly taller, silhouetted by a flood of Zurich’s perpetually soft gray light.
It is one of the first rooms Genji has seen in this place that feels nothing like a hospital or a command center. It embodies an experience he has yet to reclaim: serenity. And he’s so taken with the atrium, with its silence and its lush greenery and its lack of personnel, that he misses how the two men turn to stare at him.
A low, appreciative whistle cuts through the calm.
“You weren’t kiddin, boss,” the younger man drawls. “Ain’t nothin like Swiss craftsmanship.”
They wear similar uniforms, a combination of field fatigues in charcoal, with long-sleeved black shirts. The taller man (older too, Genji notices) wears a gray hoodie. And where he expects to find the ubiquitous Overwatch emblem, Genji sees a different symbol.
Genji clears his throat.
“Japanese, actually,” he says, enjoying the brief surprise on their faces at the sound of his voice.
They wear hats. Genji’s pretty certain that Westerners have rules about hats and indoor spaces. But the older man, with the dark goatee and shrewd eyes, wears a knit cap that doesn’t quite cover the comm in his ear.
The younger man, to Genji’s delight, wears a cowboy hat, one that rests at a perfect angle over his mass of longish brown hair. He looks Genji over with confused fascination, but the spark leaves the cowboy’s eyes as they drop, and he tugs at the sleeve of his left arm. He’s quick. But Genji is quicker, every part of him is quicker, right down to his sight. He sees the sliver of metal that would be hidden by gloves and sleeves. And shame.
An arm? That’s all? Genji snorts inside his mask.
The older man moves his apocalyptic bunker of a body between Genji and the cowboy, head tilting at a dangerous angle.
“I used to joke that my brother was the one with a wrist like folded steel,” Genji says, moving casually to the window. A blanket of fog stretches and thins itself across the city outside, Genji can nearly smell it. He glances at the strangers, and the older one gives him an intense look, curiosity embedded in caution.
Genji answers his silent question with a. . .gestural elaboration. Holding his arm out, he makes the universal sign for jerking off.
The cowboy hoots with laughter, helpless to it, but stiffens when the older man throws him a stony look.
Genji looks down at his arm. “The joke is on me, now, eh?”
When he meets the older man’s eyes again the ferocity is gone, replaced with vague crinkles of humor that he can’t seem to dismiss.
He grunts approvingly at Genji and says, “It’s a cool look, kid.”
The familiarity of it brings Genji’s mind swinging heavily back to Commander Jack Morrison. Kid .
When Genji is quiet for too long, his novelty perhaps wearing off, the two men quit the atrium without giving him a backward look. The old soldier saunters. No, Genji thinks, less a swagger than a way to fill the room, wall-to-wall, with a threat that can be followed-through without hesitation. The two men talk in low tones, the younger one unable to lift his head. Then, the old soldier slides a broad hand across the base of the cowboy’s neck, holding him firmly until the iconic hat rises a fraction in confidence.
The simpleness of the touch between comrades, between a mentor and an apprentice, the ease of their closeness. . .the sight of it triggers a wave of Genji’s barely contained misery. The wrecking ball completes its arc. If he wasn’t going to come back, why offer? Why lie?
Dr. Ziegler had been right, and sooner than her projections indicated. Genji does indeed feel something deeply.
Hiding from everything proves to be as boring as simply going through the motions.
Genji wanders the ugly, backstage workings of the compound during the day, and the impressive empty corridors of Overwatch’s command at night. He always stops near the restricted area of the barracks, where portraits of each strike unit hang in chronological order. There, Genji identifies the two soldiers he’d met in the atrium, and the surprisingly varied faces of the squads. He walks from picture to picture, marking the passage of time for Commander Jack Morrison, whose transformation from a warm and effortless mid-western American type to a scarred and loss-heavy father figure appears to be interrupted. In the photos, Morrison’s ruggedness is incomplete, as if his body has refused to give up its last scrap of softness. Mostly around the eyes, Genji notices.
Days of sulking turn unbearably lonely, and none of his questions find answers. Lacking anything better to do, Genji returns to the lab.
Dr. Heinleith wears his red socks again, and welcomes Genji back to their regular sessions with minimal visible enthusiasm. They sit on opposite sides of a holo-console, preparing to test Genji’s mind. Dr. Heinleith loads exercises into the system, each one designed to push the new connections in Genji’s brain, and to strengthen the remaining organic synapses so they don’t fall behind.
Genji leans back in his chair, watching Dr. Fun swipe through the sequence of tests to rearrange them.
“Do you have family, doctor?”
His expression changes. It’s slight, but encouraging.
“I do,” Dr. Heinleith says without looking up past the rim of his glasses. “A husband. And a daughter, not much younger than yourself.” Then, his hairy knuckles pause over the keyboard, and he squints across the console at Genji. “Why?”
“They know about this place, about what you do?” Genji throws a vague gesture to the lab around them.
“If not for what I do, I would never have known them,” says Dr. Heinleith, an honest smile tweaking the corners of his mouth. “So, yes.”
Genji nods, bouncing against the flexible chairback.
“And if, one day, your daughter decided to pursue a career in this,” he says, gazing at the ceiling tiles, “world ?”
The holo-console between them shifts its readout from resting green to ready orange, the first of the tests waiting for Genji’s participation.
“She’s her own person, I am happy to say, and her choices reflect this,” Dr. Heinleith says. “I will always support her.”
He reaches for the start button, and Genji folds his hands in his lap.
“I wonder how proud you would still be if she opposed everything you stood for.” Genji continues rocking lazily in his chair, amused, marking the subtle changes in Dr. Fun’s color and expression. “If she came to the gates of Overwatch at the head of an army of protesters, what then?”
All traces of congeniality evaporate from Dr. Heinleith's face.
“This is a conflict I cannot speak to. And neither should you.” He stares at Genji through his glasses, through the display, then turns to his work. “Bitte , let’s begin.”
“Hit me,” Genji says, all false braggadocio, while a silky black thread of dismay winds its way from his heart to his mind.
The test begins.
Images flash across the display, detailed diagrams of weaponry and armor that Genji must identify, and just as quickly determine how to circumvent. There is a keyboard, but he doesn’t use it. Instead, the hardline plugged into his cranial port transmits Genji’s responses: blades for woven tactical armor, controlled explosives for heavy plating, ionic fire for barriers. After three sets, the images cycle faster.
Genji becomes a co-pilot in his own mind. Parts of him whose greatest previous technological achievements were high-scores at the arcade, or skating the light-speed barrier with his texting, now sit passively while an artificial force of such overwhelming competency takes the helm and steers Genji’s mind toward every correct answer.
“Next,” chirps Dr. Heinleith, “and faster, please.”
The display throbs from green to orange again. The second set of tests are text-based scenarios of causality, strategy, and morality. Choice . Save one person or many. Disarm a bomb or evacuate the building. Prisoner interrogation or willing cooperation. The simple fictions firing across the display tangle themselves with the smoky thread of Genji’s existing anxieties. His mind pulls back.
Dr. Fun tsks. “You confuse the nanos with your hesitation. Again, faster.”
“Is this because of before?” Genji sits up a fraction, his voice wavering. “Retribution isn’t your style, doctor.”
Dr. Heinleith says nothing as the test resumes. Deep amber words blur into a black field as Genji makes choice after choice. It’s pointless, lacks consequence, and yet with every decision Genji feels a little more powerful. Though, he’s not sure that’s the intended effect.
It is also exhausting. He prefers the gym, where his body never tires, his limbs don’t burn, then ache, then stiffen. His well-assisted lungs don’t heave. His heart, rebuilt to withstand preternatural cyborg speed, doesn’t thud threateningly against his false ribs.
The text flies across his display, humming through the hardline in his skull. And though he’s supposed to be using it for thoughtful analysis, Genji’s mind instead goes heavy with doubt. What if this is all? To fight, to conquer, to sacrifice. What of family? Does that end over and over again while I live? Forever?
The scenarios march onward from screen to thought.
Genji splits along the seams that hold together his analytical mind and his known world.
With his father’s somber, shrine-bell voice, the test asks, Which is more valuable, agents or intelligence?
Halt pursuit of an enemy to assist wounded civilians, or continue with the mission? Says Dr. Ziegler.
Kill the enemy in the field, or let him live and lead you to others? Hanzo demands.
Behind his visor, Genji squeezes his eyes shut, his mind succumbing to the outrageous exhaustion that his body once performed. And in mimicry of his old life, the feelings that twine like thorns in Genji’s upgraded mind still translate as body language. A body that shouldn’t know how to slump, curl inward, and sigh.
It must be obvious. Dr. Heinleith concludes the session early.
“Rest, Mr. Shimada,” he says, with a voice too kind.
He darkens the display, removes the program, and scoots around the console in his rolling stool. Genji doesn’t look up at him. With the uncomfortable expression and unsure hand of a man about to grasp an octopus, Dr. Heinleith pats Genji’s back.
“We’ll take the rest of the evening off, and tomorrow as well.”
He dreams of sweat in his eyes. Blurry salt obscures the pale orange HUD displaying his mecha’s stats, the battle damage and the power loss. In the driver’s seat, Genji spreads his arms, widens his stance, and feels the mecha’s body respond beneath him. He feels the earth tremble through complex gargantuan limbs. The mecha is part of him, sewn into his consciousness, and subject wholly to his will. And he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.
The mission lies somewhere in the rubble-dusted city before him, but the mecha stands still, at the ready, while Genji struggles to remember his purpose.
A moment later he is the mecha, one hundred meters high and made of shimmering metal, occupying the kind of space reserved for temples and skyscrapers. His body is machine and weapon and ownership. It is a vessel, and Genji feels the strength of guidance from something other inside himself. The steady hand of a battle-tested soldier usurps Genji’s will, eases it out of his unsteady grasp, and pushes Genji across the ruined city. He runs for redemption.
His steps shatter concrete and his arms cut the air with typhoon force. His mechanical mouth bellows for war, for justice, like the horns of ten-thousand Viking ships.
Madness clad in thundering steel, that’s what the dream is, and the part of Genji that remains aware of this wishes it would go on forever; the feeling of power, of guidance, of purpose and command replacing the chaos of choice.
In the dream, Genji finds comfort, even ecstasy, in the blank, hot simplicity of being ridden .
When Genji wakes, he half expects his bed to be soaking wet. But it isn’t. He abandons any further attempt at sleep to get up and draw the curtains back from his window.
To anyone else, the midnight city beyond the glass would be amorphous black shapes in the dark, winking with mismatched eyes of light. But Genji sees perfectly in the dark, every corner and crevice as detailed to him in shadow as in full sun. And like all of his other remarkable abilities, there are few benign reasons for such a gift.
It never would have occurred to him to miss something like darkness.
Thankfully, he can recover it as he likes. Genji removes his visor and mask, and the world loses its tactical sharpness.
Restless, Genji wanders his quarters without real purpose. He picks up comics and handheld games and newspapers just to set them down again in some other corner. Finally, he drops into the chair at his sleek, built-in desk, and pulls the Overwatch-encrypted laptop toward him.
Swallowing, Genji removes Morrison’s business card from between his armored breastplate and the softer patch of synthetic muscle beneath it. He leans it up against the laptop screen, fills in the address on a blank e-mail, and begins to type.
Did you know that I was awake during most of my procedures? They mapped my brain. Millions of nerves and neural pathways that used to lead to muscle and skin had to be reprogrammed, trained to connect to some kind of bio-webbing, and nanofilaments, integrated into synthetic muscle and hardware. So, I was awake when my brain finally stopped differentiating between what was, and what is, me.
Dr. Ziegler says I am the result of one of the most ambitious bio-mechanical recovery programs in human history.
But everybody here acts like it is totally normal. As if I am normal. Which tells me more about the people of Overwatch than the organization itself. But, you were right. I am missing things.
I remember my home. My brother standing over me. Pain. And I remember all the days I have spent becoming whole again in this place. I remember when you sat with me. But one memory is unclear, and I am afraid to ask Dr. Ziegler, or anyone else.
Did I choose this?
An hour after sending the message, Genji hasn’t moved. He stares deep into the pixels of his mostly-empty inbox, willing himself to forget how to hope for things, and decides to destroy the laptop. It’ll feel good. For the time it takes to inhale and exhale his strange new breath, it’ll feel wonderful to break something. To feel expensive and worthless. One more stinging report in expenditure that is Genji Shimada.
He picks up the laptop, intending to smash it over his exquisitely crafted knee. But the New Message bubble bounces at the bottom of the screen. Genji’s shoulders vent the overheated air he’s been holding.
Opening the e-mail, Genji breathes again.
Coming in on the next transport. Should be hitting the tarmac at HQ by 7am tomorrow. See you soon.
“Short answer is. . . yeah, you did.”
Morrison, Jack, looks different from the photos online. Older, taller, rougher, in an extremely appealing three-dimensional way. And Genji’s conflict about the pleasure of the visual and the sandpaper words can’t be seen behind his mask.
They hadn’t let him wait on the tarmac, where he might’ve seen the crop of Jack’s hair blowing sideways under the whirlwind of helicopter blades. Or maybe it kept that tousle by way of hair product.
As Jack shifts the box he’s brought under his arm, Genji wonders if Jack is a hair product kind of man.
He doesn’t color the creeping flags of silver that streak back from his temples. He doesn’t moisturize, clearly. Above the warm distraction of how Jack looks, though, Genji focuses on how he sounds.
All of Genji’s enhancements, working together with every tatter of his own humanity, tell him that the man standing here, in the peaceful atrium, is, as he was the first time they spoke, honest.
“I see,” is all Genji can say, eyes traveling the crags that form beside Jack’s mouth. “Thank you.”
It’s difficult to envision it, being able to bargain for terms while ninety percent of his body seeped blood and pain. His life in exchange for service. What would that conversation have sounded like, gurgling from his ruined throat? It wasn’t even that long ago.
Jack’s warm hand gripping his shoulder pulls Genji out of his imaginings.
“You were on the edge, kid. I had orders, but you and Ziegler,” Jack says, voice dropping, “you made that call together.”
“Unfortunate that I can’t remember it.”
“Maybe.” Jack eases the box out from under his arm, presenting it with the most awkward bow Genji’s seen since his father’s meeting with a French Canadian arms dealer. “Anyway, this is for you.”
Inside the plain brown wrapping is a set of clothing. Genji sits on a low bench to unfold and examine each piece: Loose pants constructed from some endurance tech-weave, a sleeveless tee in army green, and a soft matching hoodie with mesh vents at the shoulders and side panels. All of it discreetly identified with the Overwatch insignia.
The clothes are either a tactful nod to Genji’s unconventional nudity, or they are simply a gesture meant to bring him into the fold. Either way, heat floods his face.
“Wanted to throw in some boots, but they’re a little harder to, uh,” Jack mumbles.
Incredibly, the strike commander of a virtually indomitable peacekeeping organization. . .blushes. Genji catches the fleeting burst of color as Jack rubs his neck.
“It’s a very nice gift,” says Genji, hoping his smile is evident in his voice.
By way of gratitude, or something more immediate, Genji dresses. Right there in the atrium, he gets dressed. The flowy pants, the shirt, pulling them on feels natural, remembered. Sliding his arms into the hoodie, Genji realizes Jack’s been watching, or struggling not to, rubbing his neck and glancing around, unsure if locker room rules apply.
Beyond that, he keeps eyeing the empty box, because, as Genji sees, it’s not empty. In the bottom, beneath the beige tissue, sits a yellow rubber ball.
“Something like therapy.” The corner of Jack’s mouth twitches. “Throw it, smash it. See how it feels.”
Scribbled on the bright rubber in thick black pen is a cartoon face. If Genji squints, it could be Hanzo. The beard is right, but the face is a little too square, the ponytail an afterthought sticking out of the top of the comical head. Jack shifts his weight.
“If you don’t want it, we got a dog back at one of our Watchpoints that’d love-”
It’s a strange gift and Genji loves it. The humor and the meanness. He squeezes the Hanzo ball hard and loves that there’s no easy way to feel about it.
“Alright then,” Jack says.
From the atrium they walk the building together, Jack leading Genji by almost imperceptible cues. His new clothes make Genji feel ordinary, a thread in a larger pattern, not really invisible but closer to it. As they walk, the ball bounces on smooth flooring, then carpet, beside Genji’s feet. Face up, face down, face up, until the little cartoon Hanzo is covered in a fine layer of grime.
He shouldn’t feel relaxed. He shouldn’t slip into Jack’s troubled silence and feel at home there. He should insist to see footage of his recovery. He should take control of. . .something. Instead, Genji remembers what Jack had offered to share.
Turning together through the outer medical wing corridors, Genji clears his throat.
“Are you much different at this age, physically, than when you first did the program?”
Jack takes a breath.
“I’m not sure how much I can tell you about it. But, fuck it. Feels so long ago, some statute of limitation must’ve run out by now.”
Genji squeezes the ball, smiling to himself. “Perhaps. . .a grandfather clause.”
“Easy! I ain’t quite there yet.”
Genji laughs. A quick sound of escaping truth.
“To answer your question, no. I’m not much different. But age is funny enough when you’re not enhanced. When your body starts giving up the ghost it becomes the thing you talk about more’n anything else. Happened with my dad.” As if subconsciously directing his own aches, Jack rolls his shoulder, working a knot. His features turn soft, his voice wistful. “Jesus he could bend your ear about everything from bunions to diabetes.”
Genji nods. His own father had not aged well, but there’d never been a memorable moment when he’d complained about it. Beside him, Jack sighs.
“Without any of that deterioration. . .I don’t know. Feels like my mind’s aging all alone.”
As they leave the medical wing, strolling for areas of HQ that are more casually populated by vendors and visitors, Genji feels new eyes on him. But Jack’s presence alone is enough to dissuade staring.
“You got much pain, still?” Jack says.
“Some. My skin, what’s left of my tissue, isn’t adapting very well.” Genji’s steps slow. “Why?”
“At times I get this pain that’s got nothing to do with combat,” Jack murmurs, like a secret. “Feels like, I dunno, withdrawal and flashback all at once. Hurts like hell for an hour, then nothing. Happens once or twice a year.”
Again, Genji nods, processing. Surely Jack would have mentioned this to Dr. Ziegler. If she couldn’t help him. . .
They pass beside windows leading out to one of several rooftop courtyards scattered among the various levels of the stepped building. There, manned kiosks offer snacks and coffee.
Genji can hear Jack’s stomach rumbling. But he doesn’t go for the food. He wants it, but doesn’t push through the doors to go order something.
Because Genji can’t. He peeks sidelong at Jack, who looks right back, steady and knowing.
It hurts to have lost that joy, noodles and sweets and juicy chunks of pork. But data bombards Genji’s neurons, informing the picture of Jack in front of him, and it’s not necessarily Genji’s loss keeping them from the courtyard.
“You suspect these. . .withdrawals are from the program, after all this time?”
Jack rubs his hands together, gazing out at the unusually sunny Zurich landscape. He seems not to have heard the question.
“Yeah,” he says finally, voice breaking. Following Jack’s sightline, Genji spots the tall, dark soldier he’d met in the atrium along with the cowboy. “Not much else it could be.”
Genji looks at the ball again.
It hadn’t originally been Hanzo at all.
The ball is Jack’s, his own attempt at working through an unspoken frustration, gifted to Genji in deference to his more immediate pains. Genji squeezes, watching Not-Hanzo’s eyes bulge. He snorts behind his mask.
When Genji looks up, there may as well be clouds and rain. Jack’s soaked with it, heavy with it. His heart emptied and puddled at his feet.
It is the first time Genji sees Jack in relation to only Jack: Jack’s unknown life, the weight that sits on him, the black-clad soldier and whatever shadow he casts, Jack’s age and the events that have added up to this, the experiences worsened or foregone in the service of mankind.
“Not exactly,” Genji replies. Jack is just a person after all, not an avatar or a fantasy, and he’s in pain.
In Hanamura, Genji had understood his own selfishness relative to those around him. He knew what it meant to disregard pain when it wasn’t your own. But he hadn’t bothered to practice doing better. Being better. Selfishness, he decides, eyes narrowing on the tall dark soldier in the courtyard, shouldn’t be one of the pitifully few things he carries into this new life. An upgrade is required. One that doesn’t rely on Dr. Ziegler or some mechanic, but on Genji himself. Starting with Jack.
“Come with me.” Genji walks a few paces away from the windows. When he doesn’t hear Jack following, he turns around. Jack’s eyes surface from near-drowning in whatever memory has caught them. Genji points his chin toward the inner corridor. “Please.”
“Alright, I’ll bite.” Slowly, Jack eases out of his stance and follows.
Genji takes him the back way, his habit of avoiding the elevator giving him a chance to watch Jack move. Genji launches up the steps several at a time. Behind him, Jack shakes his head through silent laughter, but keeps up, his boots louder on the stairs than Genji’s featherweight footfalls. Not as quick, but not slow either.
Emerging on the eleventh floor, Genji half expects Jack to be winded.
“Supersoldier,” Jack says wryly, tapping his chest with a fist. “Wouldn’t be worth much if a couple of flights of stairs could take me out.”
Genji stops at the door to his quarters, ignoring the stares from the high-security-clearance guards who occupy the floor just to monitor him. Jack notices though. Micro-tensions spike through his body, invisible to everyone but Genji.
They go inside and Jack whistles.
“Hey, this is a damn sight better than the recovery room I found you in.”
Taking stock of Genji’s attempt to style the room like home, tatami on the floor and several scrolls tacked up on the walls, Jack eats up several minutes removing his boots and placing them by the door. Moving through Genji’s room, he picks up a comic from the top of a stack, then puts it down again. He stops at the window, and Genji winces behind his mask.
Jack squints at the Hanamura mountain, scratched into the glass with the point of a shuriken weeks ago under a maudlin fog thicker than Zurich’s gray skyline.
“Hmph. As destruction of property goes, could be worse,” Jack grumbles amiably, tracing the mountain’s deeply etched peak. Watching Jack’s gnarled fingers go soft on the glass, Genji shivers, surprised that he still can.
While Jack’s lost in thought, his back sagging a little, Genji unclasps his mask and visor. The normally boring room crackles with Jack filling it up, and Genji finds himself drawn close to the source. Too close, probably, to be mistaken for platonic.
“I want to show you something,” Genji says, his un-altered voice bringing Jack around.
If Jack’s touched or horrified or ambivalent about Genji’s naked face it doesn’t show. His mouth twitches.
“You hoping your peepshow goes over better with me than it did with Ang?” Jack smirks. It’s a tease or a warning and Genji freezes for the unreadability of it. But Jack’s look softens.
“If it helps, I get it. I get why. . .” He nearly blushes again, but settles for crossing his arms. “Just don’t pull that crap with her anymore, she deserves better.”
“No, I mean,” Genji replies, flustered. “Look.”
He squats to retrieve a footlocker from under his bed, and Jack moves to the other side of it. Genji pulls out a smaller box from inside. They kneel together on the floor as the lid creaks open. Sitting on the faded green silk are the fragments of the sword he’d never truly used well, never appreciated, and would never use again.
Genji swallows, shaping his shame into something manageable. For Jack.
“This is what it looks like,” he says, turning the box for Jack to see, “when you are so close to someone that you can’t talk to them.”
Jack peers inside, then runs a rough hand through his hair and down to the back of his neck. He shakes his head, sighing.
“It ain’t the same.” He doesn’t elaborate, but doesn’t hide from it, either.
“It isn’t different,” replies Genji firmly. “Have you done much sword fighting, Commander?”
Jack turns red, rubbing his hands on his thighs. “Was a time I could hold my own, yeah.”
Encouraged, Genji sifts through the pieces to find the inlaid tsuka.
“A sword is bad for defense. You don’t pick up a blade and pretend it is a shield,” he explains, swallowing hard.
His palm seems so large around the grip. The weapon is shattered, but the memory is whole, and it floods from him like an overfull furo.
“My katana was ruined in minutes. . .when Hanzo attacked. I was never masterful, not like him, but I knew better. I pretended that blocking was the same as fighting, and I paid for the mistake.”
“You didn’t choose your family, Genji.” The truth is warm and sure in Jack’s mouth, and he leans into it. “From where I’m sitting, only one of the Shimada boys made a mistake. And it sure as hell wasn’t you.”
The room takes on a heavy silence, fed from their combined doubts. Jack, honest above his own needs. Genji, wasting beneath his own chaos. He looks away, up toward the mountain he’d carved into glass, and the heat of Jack’s gaze stays encamped on the scarred topography of his face.
Throat tight, Genji meets Jack’s eyes and says, “I don’t know your friend, what kind of man he is, but if you love him . . .fight back.”