“Up and at ’em, sunshine.”
You resisted the overwhelming urge to scream and bury your head beneath the scratchy regulation covers of your single-person bunk. You didn’t need your clock to tell you that your commanding officer was waking you up five minutes earlier than you’d set your alarm for, and you certainly didn’t need the sun to tell you it hadn’t yet risen.
“Yes, sir,” you replied groggily. Your eyes burned as you tried to blink the sleep away.
The days had been blurring together as of late; you hoped you would’ve gotten used to the routine by now, but each new day was somehow more tiring than the one that came before it. You could feel the familiar pressure of an exhaustion-induced headache building in the back of your skull and you tried your hardest to will it away, like you did every morning for the past month and a half. You didn’t have time for bullshit like this, not when there was training that needed completion.
You were Overwatch’s newest recruit.
A competent military engineer, you were shortlisted not only for your specialized work in the field of evacuation technology, but also for your vast experience in developing emergency transportation for civilians in areas of war and natural disaster. As impressive as it may have sounded, when stacked against super-geniuses, world-renowned talents, and seasoned fighters who had single-handedly taken more lives than you’d saved, you were ultimately placed 24th in a massive waiting list of possible recruits, and you figured your chances of joining the newly-reformed international peacekeeping initiative were slim to none.
You were only here now because every single one of your predecessors had dropped out of the program within the first few weeks of training.
Now, you understood why.
“I don’t have all day,” the man in your doorway barked, his voice sharper than before.
“Sir, yes, sir,” you repeated, more awake this time.
Satisfied with the tone of your answer, he gave you a grunt of acknowledgement and left the room so you could get ready to face the day.
As the team’s most recent initiate, you were currently on probation. Your position with Overwatch wasn’t permanent until you survived the highly-specialized, highly-intense training regimen Winston had designed for you. Not only did you have to work on new tech proposals for the team, but you were also expected to simultaneously endure six weeks of boot camp hell with Soldier 76 in the little spare time you had.
You found out quite quickly that the old man didn’t stop.
Early morning jogs became routine regardless of daylight or weather. Much of your time together was spent combing through international stationed sites like obstacle courses. He seldom repeated himself, so you had to pay close attention to every lesson he gave you, every bit of tactical advice and every detailed discussion involving tech you’d find on the field. You never ran on more than three hours’ sleep at a time, and most of your waking hours were filled with him barking orders about how your best just wasn’t good enough.
Your work was suffering, you were suffering, but Overwatch was comprised of extraordinary individuals, and the organization needed to know you had the endurance to perform under less-than-ideal conditions. You knew you weren’t being trained so much as you were being tested to see if you could keep up.
That, however, wasn’t the biggest problem.
The biggest problem lied with the sleep-deprived madness creeping into the edges of your better judgement. The biggest problem lied within the quiet moments, the moments you could feel his eyes on you during training, the moments he would adjust your aim or correct your stance and the physical contact would make your breath catch in your throat. You’d zone out when he spoke, sometimes, and you’d let his voice wash over you; he’d lean over your shoulder to point something out, and his scent, warm and undeniably masculine, would dizzy you into delirium. You’d steal glances while jogging through the various landscapes, with your lungs filled with exhaustion and pre-dawn chill, and you’d listen to him breathing hard by your side, just imagining what that would sound like up close, past your ear, against your skin.
No, this was just the fatigue talking.
It had to be.
The whole thing culminated one memorable day, after you returned to base following an extended early jog beneath the overbearing desert heat. You were trying not to inhale the contents of your water bottle; meanwhile, aside from a trickle of sweat running down his forehead, 76 hardly seemed bothered.
He tugged down the zipper of his jacket and slid the leather from his shoulders.
A tight black t-shirt hugged his taut form in the exact way you found yourself wishing you could. The sleeves were snug around his sculpted arms, and the way the muscles of his chest strained against the fabric left little to the imagination. He looked so strong, like it would be nothing for him to just pick you up and—
“Like what you see?” he asked, half-amused.
“What was that, sir?” you replied, the false obliviousness rolling coolly off your tongue. “I think I just fell asleep with my eyes open.”
And he chuckled in reply—such a rich, resonant sound.
“Hang in there, private. I’m almost through with you.”
His hand rested on your shoulder, heavy and reassuring, as he walked past you.
Your stomach flipped.
Fuck, you didn’t need this.
You needed sleep.
The training bot’s head exploded under the charged beam of your microfusion rifle, and the landed hit filled you with an odd sense of pride and satisfaction.
Somewhere between your morning runs and your evening drills, you managed to meet Winston’s technology proposal deadline and engineer a weapon for yourself. The secondary stage of Winston’s training regimen focused on improving handling and marksmanship with your new creation; the end goal, of course, being to display your capability of landing consistent shots on the automated bots around the training field.
Your firearm was built from hard-light technology you developed for search-and-rescue missions, primarily used from a distance to assist evacuation agents on the ground or at sea. Although not significantly larger than any standard-issue rifle, the internal components made the firearm incredibly dense and difficult to carry: your aim with the rifle itself was fine, but you could only hold the damn thing up for a couple of seconds at a time before your arms gave out.
This was what you built, and this was what you had to work with.
After seeing you drop your gun for what must have felt like the thousandth time, 76 became fed up with your inept ambling; he suggested weight training to help you better handle your firearm, and ’suggestions’ from him were more direct orders than anything.
(Did he have to be standing there the entire time, though?)
“Chest up,” Zarya said sternly, snapping you from your reverie. “Feet farther apart. Don’t round your back, you will hurt yourself.”
With your hands wrapped around the length of steel bar in front of you, you kept pressure on your heels as you curled your arms and lifted the weights with all the mediocre strength you could muster. You’d seen Zarya do this in-person with more than quintuple the weight attached, and you couldn’t help but feel weak and pathetic with someone as amazing as her by your side.
“I—is all this really necessary?” you asked, voice wavering from the effort.
76 quirked an eyebrow, keeping his arms folded as he oversaw your training from nearby. “You can barely lift your own cannon, recruit, what do you think?”
“I think if I had more time, I could rework the blueprints to lighten the internal loa—”
“Rifle is not the problem,” Zarya interrupted. “You are the problem.”
Sighing, you nodded. If you took your time constraints into consideration, it was faster to change yourself than it was to redevelop your own tech.
“You’re receiving strength training from a world-class athlete,” 76 said loudly, “I wouldn’t complain if I were you.”
Seeming amused as she looked you over, Zarya placed her hands on her hips. “I will send you my coaching fee once you stop dropping your gun all over yourself, yes?”
“Do not call me that, mishka, we are the same age.”
“Just keep up with Zarya’s training,” 76 continued, “and the problem will fix itself. You’ve come a long way since we started.”
He didn’t give as much weight to the words as you did, you knew that, but you couldn’t stop your heart from fluttering inside your chest at the gentle bit of praise. It was the first nice thing he’d said about you since you met him several weeks ago, after all.
You nodded, trying to hide your reaction. “Thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you to say.”
“I’m not being kind, I’m just stating the facts.”
“Couldn’t have come this far without your help.” You set the weights down and rubbed your hands. You had to turn away quick, or else he might catch you blushing. “You’re an excellent mentor.”
“Then look me in the eyes and say that again.”
His biting tone made you freeze.
He thought you were being sarcastic.
The mere implication of him not taking your first compliment as seriously as you took his filled you with enough courage to face him and will away the shades of red threatening to rise in your cheeks.
Unblinking, you stared straight up into the glowing red panel of his visor, where his eyes would be. “You are an excellent mentor, sir.”
“Mentor’s only as good as his student,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, and he had the gall to sound playful. “Thanks for not making me look bad.”
“You’re welcome,” you replied, dimly.
Your face felt as if it were on fire.
You muttered something about needing to refill your water bottle and shuffled to the far side of the room without another word.
Zarya waited until you were out of earshot before she spoke up. “I think they like you, Soldier.”
“I’m not here to be liked,” he said sharply. “That being said, there’s no harm in building strong relationships with the new recruits. Good for morale.”
“Ah, for morale. Maybe is better that way.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t get what you’re trying to say.”
After a moment of silence, Zarya bellowed her laughter and patted his back, hard, and the force of her hand felt like a goddamn bear paw clapping against his spine.
Her reaction was just patronizing enough to make her implications loud and clear.
Safe to say, they were ridiculous.
You were military. Showing respect for those above your station was an attitude drilled into you since day one of basic training. Sure, you were one of the first of the new candidates he had trained who didn’t take success for granted—who, unlike the others, had to work their ass off due to their lack of natural talent, and in turn had a profound appreciation for every small victory they had. But in the end, you were just another recruit. You weren’t the first person to look up to him, and you wouldn’t be the last. It was dangerous to confuse subordination with affection. Besides, you were too young, too fetching for that.
Far too fetching.
He watched you loosen up across the room as you got ready for your next set. You were taking a moment to catch your breath, your skin still slightly flushed from training. He hadn’t noticed before now, but you’d taken to his regimen quite well over the past few weeks, building lean muscle that accentuated your build. Your hair was tied back, as it always was. He’d never seen you with it down, he realized, and he briefly wondered how you’d react if he asked to pull that band out of your hair himself.
That was inappropriate.
“I’ve gotta go,” 76 growled, quite suddenly. “Take care of them for me, will you?”
“Give me the week.” Zarya waved her hand at 76, shooing him away. “Forget puny laser gun, they will be able to carry you after I am done with them.”
76 chose to remove himself from the situation before he gave that image too much thought.
Chapter 2: colour
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You woke up five minutes earlier than you’d set your alarm for.
You knew returning to sleep would be an exercise in futility, so you wasted little time getting out of bed and doing the only thing you were programmed to do this early in the morning: you threw on a pair of sweatpants, donned your standard-issue windbreaker, and laced up your running shoes, going through each motion without a second thought.
Shutting the door behind you, you exited your bunk into the main hallway, promptly bombarded by the muffled sounds of a young woman shouting in Korean. You were always surprised Captain Song never woke anyone when she stayed up late playing video games.
Or maybe she did, and people were just smart enough not to say anything.
Distracted by your thoughts, you walked face-first into a bronze-tinted breastplate, the scent of earth and tobacco clouding your senses.
“Eyes in front‘a you, darlin’.”
“Pardon me,” you apologized, putting space between the two of you.
From the little glimpses you caught over the past few weeks, you thought McCree was quite a handsome man, in a rugged, rough-and-tumble sort of way. The fact he was towering over you now gave you the chance to really see him up-close and personal, letting you fully admire the darkness of his smiling eyes and the wild trim of his beard.
He was holding his serape, which was neatly folded in his arms, and he looked extremely tired. His lips were missing his trademark cigar, you noticed, before you quickly averted your eyes from his mouth.
You wondered what on earth he could’ve been up to, tonight.
“Damn, you’re still here?” McCree pushed his hat up to get a better look at you. “Haven’t seen you in a few days, figured you flunked and got shipped out like the rest of ‘em.”
“Oh, um.” (Yikes, was that what he thought of you?) “N—no, I‘ve actually completed my basic training with Commander 76, I‘ve just been holed up the past little while. Winston wants two area-of-effect tech proposals by Friday, and Commander Zaryanova said if I can’t do twenty pull-ups by the end of this week she’s going to break me.”
“...yeah, I wouldn’t take that threat lightly.”
Your voice cracked. “I know.”
“Sounds like you’ve been keepin’ busy,” he chuckled, low and soft. “Your gunslingin’ get any better since I last saw you?”
“Uh, depends...” You ran a hand against the back of your neck. “When did you last see me?”
“Over on the trainin’ grounds, ‘bout a week ago. You dropped your rifle on your foot, ended up cursin’ like a demon in a hay baler. Can’t say I ever saw 76 look that depressed in his life. And the man don’t even have eyes.”
You deflated. “I—I can carry it longer since last week. I‘m up to fourteen seconds, now.”
“Good to know,” he said, though he didn’t much sound like he cared at all. “Well, kid, if you ever need a shootin’ partner, don’t be afraid to come knockin’. Lord knows I‘m out there most of the day, maybe I could give you a few pointers.”
“You need to practice?”
“Always time to practice, darlin’. ‘Sides.” He winked. “I‘d take any excuse to get some alone time with a cute lil‘ thing like you.”
You knew from personal experience and secondhand embarrassment that McCree had zero reservations in flirting with absolutely everyone, but the sly compliment still made you turn a brilliant shade of red.
“Recruit,” snapped a stern, familiar voice from down the hall.
“Uh-oh.” McCree tipped his hat and walked past you, shuffling back to his quarters. “Later, kid. Call me.”
You spotted your Commander, suited up and ready to head out.
“Man, does anyone here ever sleep?” you joked.
Of course he did.
He certainly didn’t seem to be the kind of man who was capable of letting his guard down for eight straight hours at a time.
“I‘m, um.” You straightened up and cleared your throat, hoping to rid the situation of its tenseness. “I‘m going for a run. Wanna tag along?"
He raised an eyebrow. “You do know that portion of your training is over?”
“Yeah, well.” You laughed, awkwardly. “Twenty-one days to make a habit, right?”
“...you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course not, why would I mind?”
“Figured you had enough of me for a lifetime.”
(Not even close.)
You started stretching your arms and rotating your hips in a vain attempt to look as nonchalant about all this as possible. “I‘ve been running with you every morning for a month and a half, Commander, it‘d feel weird not to, at this point.”
The room filled with another bout of uninterrupted silence. All 76 did was stare at you in reply, as if he were at a loss for words that weren’t direct orders.
“...you know, you don’t have t—”
“Let’s move out.”
You were thankful that was the moment he chose to turn and walk away from you, because you couldn’t hold back the bounce in your step if you tried.
“So,” you started, smiling as you did a little jog to catch up with him, “tell me how this polyphasic thing works.”
As you no longer had specific routines to stick to, your outing that morning went on for longer than usual, and you were impressed with yourself for being able to keep up with 76’s pace the entire time.
Two hours later, the older man was standing beneath you, fiddling with a small piece of tech as you struggled on the chin-up bar above him. Because you were on a tight schedule to meet Zarya’s weekly training goals, 76 wanted to minimize your temptation to give up by keeping you as high off the ground as possible, so he made you practice on a bar so high up you needed a boost from him just to reach it.
Dangling from the bar, you flinched as another jolt of pain shot through you. “Sir, I can’t feel my arms.”
“There’s gonna be a lot more you won’t feel if Zarya finds out you’ve been slacking.”
Fear of the thought alone dragged another pull-up out of you.
It was the funniest thing, really.
After you returned to base that morning, you planned on taking another crack at the giant to-do list clawing at the back of your mind, but you and 76 were so used to having each other’s company throughout the day that neither of you really made an effort to leave the other alone. It felt incredibly routine to just be around each other.
And that alone was making it very difficult to focus.
Your grip on the metal bar shifted a little. “S—sir...”
“I don’t wanna hear it, recruit. Keep going.”
Your arms were on fire. You weren’t sure how much more of this you could take.
Again—did he have to stand right there the whole time?
Though his visor hid his face, you swore you could feel his eyes on you, watching your every move. The last thing you wanted was to look bad in front of him, especially him, so you pushed on.
All of this—your engineering, your stamina, your strength—was improving at a significantly faster rate compared to when you first started. Although this method of training was by no means fun, maybe if you tried hard enough, you would finally be able to wield your firearm properly, and 76 would get off on your back for once.
You hissed through gritted teeth. 76 stood below you, impassive as ever, watching—just watching, as always, like he did during your morning runs, like he did in the training field. You never knew what he was thinking; one moment, he’d be teaching you, correcting you, and the next, he’d be lashing orders at you like you had no idea what the hell you were doing. He was impossible to understand.
You were yearning to impress him.
It was silly, however, this entire sentiment of wanting to thrill him with your progress. It wasn’t as if you could ever actually impress someone like him, someone who’s seen it all and lived to tell the tale. Hell, you were sure he’d been fighting for longer than you’d even been alive. What could a scrawny new recruit like you do that he’d never seen before? That would make him praise you for your work?
That would make him tell you he was proud of you?
You would do it, and then you would move on to whatever else 76 and Zarya and Winston had planned for you. It didn’t matter what it was, you were sure you could take it. You would take anything, at this point.
The burning in your arms doubled as your muscles cried out in protest.
C’mon, you could do it.
Just a little more...
Your strength gave out and your hands slipped, completely out of your control.
You screwed your eyes shut and braced for impact.
The small electronic 76 had been holding shattered as it hit the ground.
When you managed to wrench your eyes back open, you became keenly, painfully aware of the pair of arms wrapped around you, beneath you, cushioning your sudden descent.
Your eyes went wide.
All you could think was how goddamn strong he was—he wasn’t even breaking a sweat, catching you in his arms like this. Your heart pounded in your ears as your eyes drifted up to the impassive red glass of his visor.
You swallowed hard and laughed, nervously, attempting to break the tension. “Looks like I‘m falling for you.”
You swore you felt him flinch before he dropped you on your ass.
You weren’t trained in hand-to-hand combat before you were recruited by Overwatch, but that was why you were here.
Flexing your bandage-wrapped fingers as you moved in place, you clenched and unclenched your fists, hands raised in front of you, your stance neither too forward nor too square. This stage of your regimen had been going on for the past couple of weeks: brief tutoring sessions of self-defense maneuvers, in the rare event you had to resort to unarmored, close-quarter combat.
You learned basic moves, like keeping your thumb outside your fist whenever you threw a punch, and driving the force of your attack from your hips, and following through by aiming a few inches behind your target to strike through it. The barrage of tweaks and tips weren’t going to help you win a fight against someone more skilled than you, but they were meant to keep you standing long enough to get away.
You were trying to focus, but unsettling confusion buzzed loudly in your head—anger, embarrassment, and worry all at once, a tumultuous roar of emotions swirling through your thoughts and pulsing in your ears, and you knew that wasn’t a good mix to take into a sparring session, but here you were, anyway.
He said he used to box, once upon a time.
Of course he did.
You swerved and dodged and retaliated in time with the pace he set. 76 was getting you used to predicting attacks, he wasn’t actually fighting you—still, sometimes he’d clip your cheek or tag your stomach a bit harder than usual and tell you to pay better attention. It almost felt like a dance, how oblivious you were, light-footed and lively on his playing field.
This was stupid. You were stupid.
You were never going to be good enough.
He took advantage of your momentary lapse in concentration to strike, driving you hard into the wall behind you with his forearm held firmly against your throat. He was still going easy on you, even now. You knew he wasn’t hitting you with a fraction of the force he could have.
His restraint felt like pity.
On the other hand, the sudden jolt of strength that had him pinning you against the wall like this was making you see stars—it was so quick, so effortless on his part, as if this was something he did all the time. You were immobilized. At his mercy.
Your stomach flipped, in a wonderful way.
“I said focus,” he snarled.
He was right.
You were distracted.
You grit your teeth.
You used his force to your advantage, letting his forearm pin you fully to the wall as counterbalance while you raised your knees and kicked forward, hard, shoving him backwards and knocking the wind out of him. Landing on your feet, you took advantage of his loosened guard and swung as hard as you could.
Thumb outside your fist. Roll from the hips. Follow through.
Just like he taught you.
The crack registered the same time as the sharp pain in your hand.
76 stumbled backwards, and you were immediately on top of him, straddling his waist as you dug your elbow into his neck in a chokehold, not applying pressure even though he knew you could, and you wondered for a fleeting moment if your restraint felt like pity.
It was then when you realized the left corner of his visor was cracked.
It was then when you learned his eyes were blue.
The silence was only broken by the sounds of your breathing. Tiny shards of shatterproof glass trickled from 76’s visor; the glaring light of his mask flickered and glitched with dead pixels in the damaged corner. The bandages wrapped around your clenched hand began steadily staining red.
You wouldn’t have been capable of doing this eight weeks ago. Both of you knew that much.
“Sorry,” you said in earnest, your nervous voice breaking as you kept your elbow against his windpipe.
“You’re dismissed, private,” he replied shortly, unmoving beneath you. “Go get some stitches.”
You were marveling over the shade of his eyes, and all he wanted you to do was get that hand looked at.
Still reeling, you couldn’t help but breathe tired laughter.
76 hadn’t wasted any time retrieving a replacement visor from the armory. A hard, well-aimed strike to the face from any angle would never fail to shatter the glass of the visor, as the upper half of his mask served as more of a computerized tracking and identification system than it did any solid protection.
He was running late for his next half-hour sleep session, but he’d make do.
The last thing he expected when he rounded the corner to one of his usual spots was to already find you there, fast asleep, your back slouched and your hand freshly stitched.
He was the only one to blame, he figured, as he was the one who‘d shown you most of these places, little corners hidden away from lines of sight that would provide tactical advantage during battle. When you asked about his sleeping routines, he didn’t think you’d interpret it as advice; even though the beds here weren’t the most comfortable, he was sure you would have preferred them over the floors he normally took to.
He guessed it was his own fault for training you on his schedule.
A part of him wanted to wake you up and boot you out of his damn spot. Another, smaller part of him wanted to claim the space right next to you—possibly rest against your shoulder—bold and shameless and without regret.
He shot both ideas down in an instant.
You looked too peaceful to be disturbed. For once, he realized, your hair was down—it was kind of a mess, probably made hastily and half-asleep when you realized wearing wearing your hair up while leaning backwards against a wall wasn’t the most comfortable position.
(How could he imagine that so clearly?)
You murmured a little in your sleep and shifted position, folding your arms against yourself a little tighter. Even more of your hair fell into your face, and you looked...well, ridiculous. An endearing sort of ridiculous. The sort of ridiculous that made you think dropping a cheesy pick-up line while you were in his arms was a good idea.
You caught him off-guard a second time, too, when he underestimated your strength and you overpowered him during training, cracking his visor and pinning him to the ground. You had an elbow in his throat, and all he could think about was how goddamn good you looked on top of him.
He snapped himself away from the memory. He really didn’t need to be thinking about that, not right now, especially since the incident had flooded him with nonstop thoughts he’d prefer not to entertain.
Instead, he knelt down in front of you as you slept, keeping silent all the while. He couldn’t get over how content you looked asleep, to be free of the worry and stress he’d taken the brash liberty of providing you these past several weeks.
He’d burdened you with enough.
Slowly, carefully, he reached a hand forward and tucked a bit of your hair behind your ear, as much as he could without waking you. You stirred and shifted in the direction of his hand, unconsciously seeking its warmth until your cheek met his palm.
You smiled softly, and his heart fell from his chest.
Withdrawing his hand from you, 76 stood up sharply, heading out of the room to return to his own quarters before he ran an even higher risk of being spotted. He didn’t look back. God forbid he had to explain himself out of that one.
What the hell was he thinking?
He felt like some dumb teenager again, all nerves and uncertainty. Entertaining the idea of you was so indescribably farfetched—he was your commanding officer, and about twice your age, to boot. It was wrong, it was disgusting, it was a flagrant abuse of power, harboring any sort of fondness for you. You had your whole life ahead of you. He was just another soldier past his prime.
A part of him knew he should have quashed these feelings before they got out of hand, but another, smaller part of him didn’t want to bother trying. He couldn’t explain why. Maybe you gave him something to look forward to.
Maybe he just hated himself that much.
Chapter 3: confession
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“Shoulders steady, recruit.”
“Yes, sir,” you replied automatically, and you did as you were told.
Though you’d gotten better at holding your rifle for extended periods of time, aiming had become another story. Throughout the weeks, you’d developed muscle memory that overcompensated for the heaviness of your firearm, but now that you had the strength to carry it properly, your targeting sense was completely thrown off. You weren’t terrible, but the fact you needed more practice couldn’t be made any clearer.
You readjusted your stance, ignoring the mild burning in your arms from the weight of your gun. The weeks of training with Zarya had done wonders for your upper body strength, and although carrying the gun wasn’t fun, it was now possible, which was something you couldn’t have said for yourself when you first started.
But, as always, 76 hovering over you like this never made your training any easier.
Having his eyes and his attention focused on you still made you so nervous that you were worried you’d drop your rifle again, even though you hadn’t made a mistake like that in what felt like ages. If you couldn’t manage your unease around 76 now, how on earth were you going to survive your first mission next week?
You needed to get over this.
You shot one beam, then another. Both charges narrowly missed the training bot in front of you, and you half-sighed, half-growled in annoyance. You weren’t as wildly off-target as you had been when you’d started this morning—that, at least, was a small comfort.
“Remember to compensate for recoil.” 76 came up behind you, making your nerves spark in anticipation. “If you keep your back straight and your grip tight, it shouldn’t be as disorienting.”
He made it sound so easy. You didn’t have a doubt in your mind that he’d be able to fire two or three shots with the same rifle in the time it took you to line up just one.
You expected him to provide constructive criticism of your skills today—what you hadn’t expected, however, was the large hand that found its way to the small of your back, gently adjusting your posture. He brought his other hand to your rifle arm, steering you to lower the barrel a little, and the feeling of his gloved fingers around your wrist made your breath catch in your throat. His guidance was gentle, but you could feel how strong he was, like tension rippling just below the surface.
You were putty in his hands.
“Like this?” you asked, trying to keep your voice steady. He’d done this plenty of times before, why the hell were you so shaky now?
He was inches away from you, and—gosh, he was warm.
“Keep the barrel steady. Get used to lining up your crosshairs not with where your target is, but where you predict your target will be.”
Christ, his mouth was right by your ear, and though it was muffled by the visor, the depth of his commanding voice resonated straight through you. If his mask wasn’t in the way, he could’ve pressed up against your ear if he felt like it, maybe trail down your neck while he—
“You’re not going to make the shot if you keep shaking like this,” he said, voice gaining enough of a gritty timbre to damn near make your knees buckle.
"R—right. Sorry, sir."
"When was the last time you ate?"
Did he honestly think these were hunger shakes?
“...sorry, sir. I was in a rush this morning.”
“There’s always time for proper nutrition. Can’t have you passing out on the field.”
He adjusted your wrist again, trying to stabilize your positioning, but all you could think about was the hand he still had pushed up against your back. 76 wasn’t exactly the most touchy-feely person—you figured he certainly would’ve stepped back and let you taken over by now.
Skirting the part of you that didn’t mind his lingering, you took a deep breath.
“Yes, sir,” you said, thoughts racing far too fast to contrive any other response.
“Try taking it now,” 76 said, soft and low, guiding you from your hazy thoughts.
You exhaled, softly.
Pulling the trigger, you released the charge from your firearm, wincing at the recoil while keeping your back steady against the support of his hand.
The hit landed. It wasn’t a headshot, but it was an improvement, at least.
He fell silent as you waited for him to pass judgement on your paltry attempt.
His hand pressed tighter against the small of your back. “You’re still trembling. What’s the problem?”
“I—it’s, um.” Your cheeks flared with heat. “It’s…”
Without warning, the sound of heavy footsteps strolled into the arena. The two of you turned your attention to the approaching man in leather boots, his spurs rattling slightly with each and every step.
“Hope I’m not interruptin’,” said the visitor, voice as sultry and Southern as ever.
Saved by the bell.
Earlier that morning, you’d taken McCree up on his initial offer and asked him to meet you on the training field if he happened to have any free time on his hands; as much as you needed the help, however, you hadn’t actually expected him to show up.
Still caught in your Commander’s strange half-embrace, you tip-toed to peek over 76’s outstretched arm.
“H—hey, Mr. McCree,” you said, meekly. “Glad you could stop by.”
“Jeez...” The other man clicked his tongue and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Drop the ‘mister,’ will ya, you’re makin’ me sound older’n I already feel. Jesse’s just fine.”
“Jesse,” you corrected. The name felt weird on your tongue.
76 let go of you so suddenly you almost fell over, leaving you to consider for a few hollow moments just how long you’d been leaning against him like that.
“You can take over,” 76 said sharply, turning around and heading out of the arena. “If they can’t strafe properly by the end of the day, I’m decommissioning them for the next assignment.”
You couldn’t believe your ears. “What?!”
“Get to work,” he snapped over his shoulder.
His pace didn’t slow a beat. Before you thought to argue back, he was long gone.
If you couldn’t feel sheer disapproval radiating from 76 before, you sure as hell did now.
You sighed out loud, and mentally picked yourself back up again. There was no time to dwell on this, you needed to practice. There was no way in hell you were sitting out your first mission—there was also no way in hell you would let 76 be even more disappointed in you than he already was.
“Well, shucks, I didn’t mean to impose.” The sly grin on McCree’s face made it rather obvious he wasn’t sorry at all. “You didn’t tell me you two had a date.”
“Yep, and I was just disappointing enough for him to up and leave right in the middle of it.” You paused in a moment of profound self-reflection. “Pretty par for the course for all my dates, actually.”
“Say what you will,” he chuckled, “but it sure looked like it, what with the way you were makin’ eyes at him.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Hey, I get it. It gets mighty lonely out here—wantin’ a little on-duty rendezvous ain’t no big deal. You wouldn’t be the first.”
For the first time that afternoon, you smiled. “Speaking from experience?”
“So what if I am?” He rolled his lit cigar to the other corner of his mouth. “’Sides, this ain’t about me, this is about you havin’ the hots for grandpa over there.”
“I do not.”
“I’m supposin’ those cute lil’ knees of yours were bucklin’ back there ’cause you were cold, that it?”
Warmth rose in your face at once. “So what if I was?”
”Darlin’, it’s a balmy 72 degrees in this here climate-controlled base, I ain’t sure who you’re tryin’ to fool.”
You crossed your arms. “Maybe I get cold easy.”
“Maybe,” McCree said, raising an eyebrow. He took his cigar between his fingers.
Refusing to look away, you locked eyes with him and mimicked his intense expression, trying your best to look a fraction as steadfast and intimidating as he did—compared to him, though, you were sure you probably just looked mildly constipated.
The first mistake you made was thinking you could win that staredown. The second was thinking you could con a conman.
Unsurprisingly, you broke first.
Letting your firearm dangle off to the side, you buried your face in your hands. “God, am I really that obvious?”
McCree smirked, taking another drag from his cigar. “More obvious’n a wolf in sheepskin, sorry to say.”
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
The way his eyes glinted struck unimaginable fear into your very soul. “Tell anyone what?”
“...you know what.”
“Ooooh, you mean that—” He cupped a hand over his mouth, making his voice echo throughout the training facility. “—THE NEW RECRUIT’S GOT A BIG OL’ HONKIN’ CRUSH ON—”
“Me? Aw, I’m flattered.” McCree took one glance at your exasperated expression and immediately ruffled your hair, laughing. “Don’t worry, kid, your dirty lil’ secret’s safe with me.”
Somehow that got you blushing even more, partly because of the stupid pet name he kept dropping on you, and partly because of his hand so boldly making contact with you by messing up your hair. You weren’t used to receiving such casual affection.
“It’s a good thing he doesn’t know, trust me. Sarge doesn’t much like bein’ the center of attention.” His laughter was gentle and genuine, in spite of his words. “Heck, he’d probably never talk to you again.”
You didn’t know what to say.
Obviously, McCree had been 76’s teammate much longer than you had, and likely understood him much better than you did. The prospect of 76 never knowing how you felt filled you with a neutral mixture of relief and emptiness, but the prospect of him vanishing from your daily life because of it?
That terrified you.
You absently rubbed your hands together. “Then I hope he never finds out.”
Something strange must’ve poisoned your tone, because McCree picked up on it at once.
“Look,” he started, and you could tell he was using his Reassuring Voice, “all I’m tryin’ to say is he’s very...by-the-book. Wouldn’t know a good time if it gave him a damn reacharound, y’know? Still.” He took a drag. “Haven’t seen him one-on-one with anyone as much as he’s been with you.”
“It’s just training,” you were quick to dismiss. “It’s nothing special, I’m just his assignment. We’ve been doing obstacle courses, jogs, weight stuff...god, you know, come to think of it, he’s probably still mad at me over the pickup line.”
McCree raised his eyebrow at you for the second time that evening, silently demanding an explanation.
Unsurprisingly, you broke first.
76 held both hands flat atop his office desk, keeping the large holo-print unfurled as it projected mathematical specifications and three-dimensional rotating diagrams in mid-air.
“All-in-all, the kit needs work,” he continued, “but the exit strategy has merit. Assuming they keep their distance and position the beacon in a good location, Evac gives us an immediate way out. We can afford to start being more aggressive on the attack.”
Outfitted in a hot-pink singlet, Zarya kept her deadpan expression, remaining seated backwards in her chair. “You call me out of weight routine for this?”
“Yes,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s important we discuss this.”
“I am not assigned to next mission. This information means nothing to me.”
“I thought you’d like to know.”
“You thought wrong.”
After a moment of silence, he raised his hands from the desk and let go of the holo-print. The paper curled into itself from both sides, dissipating the projections hovering above it in a shower of particles.
“Why am I here?” Zarya asked again, sounding more annoyed.
He grunted a noncommittal reply, rolling the holo-print back into a scroll.
“Come, Soldier. Tell momma bear what is wrong.”
He sighed. “...there’s a problem with the new recruit.”
“A problem?” she repeated, straightening up. “What did mishka do?”
“They’re scared of me, and they’re performing worse because of it.”
Zarya leaned in, intently. “Did they say they were scared of you?”
“Ah. They rub their hands, then, yes? They do this when they are scared.”
“...how would you know that?”
“Because I scare them. They tell me this.”
He shook his head. “We were training earlier, business as usual, but I could feel them shaking near the end of it. Enough for their shots to miss their mark, at least.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You...felt them shaking?”
“I was guiding their aim at the time.”
“How? Show me.”
76 hesitated for a moment before mimicking the pose he previously took with you. His gloved hands hovered in approximate alignment to where your arms and lower back would be, if you were standing in front of him.
Keeping her arms folded across the back of the chair, Zarya buried her face into her massive, well-sculpted forearms. “Дурачок.”
If McCree laughed any harder, you were worried he’d suffocate.
“Fallin’ for you.”
“It just slipped out!” you protested, your rifle slinging to your side as you covered your face with your hands again. “I don’t know why I said it!”
"Fallin’ for you."
“I don’t know, I don’t know—”
“FALLIN’ FOR YOU.”
“Hey, that’s the second time I got you screamin’ my name today. Guess I still got it.”
You wanted to think his constant flirting would desensitize you to the phenomenon, but the teasing still made you red around the ears.
“This isn’t funny,” you chided, even though it kinda was. “I don’t wanna get into trouble over something this stupid.”
“Trouble?” He sounded confused. “What’s the old man gonna do, court martial you?”
“Maybe? I mean, I’m pretty sure this could be grounds for harassment.”
“It ain’t harassment ’til you slap his ass.”
“I am ninety-four percent sure that is not how that works.”
“This sounds like a question for HR.” He snapped his fingers. “Let’s ask Winston.”
“Better idea!” You snapped your fingers back. “Let’s not.”
“Look, all jokin’ aside, the Sarge is what happens when you shove a stick so far up a man’s ass it takes thirty years to develop the technology to yank it out. Chasin’ him is a waste of your damn time, if you ask me.”
You laughed, raising an eyebrow. “And let me guess, chasing you isn’t?”
As much as you hated to admit it, the slow half-smirk McCree gave you in reply did nothing to help you forget how ridiculously charming he was. “That’s mighty sweet of you, darlin’, but I ain’t actually lookin’ right now.”
(Did he just turn the flirting blame back on you?)
(Had you really been misreading him that badly?)
“Tsk, look what you’ve done,” he mock-scolded. “Now I gotta tell Winston you’ve been harrassin’ me.”
“If you’re not...then why all the interest in what I’m doing, all of a sudden?”
He shrugged. “You’re new. I don’t have a good read on you yet, and I don’t take kindly to not havin’ a feel for who I’m workin’ with. Now I’m just curious ’bout what you see in that blowhard.”
“...do you really want me to answer that?”
“Why not?” McCree took the cigar from his lips and tapped ash off the end. “I got time.”
“They’re a good soldier,” 76 started. “Works hard. Doesn’t make excuses. Of course I like them.”
“That is not what I was asking.”
“...I don’t follow.”
“Never mind,” Zarya mumbled, waving her hand. “But new recruit, their progress was good before you started making them shake like leaf, yes?”
“Yeah. They’ve gotten stronger, too. Last time we did climbing exercises, they were actually able to help lift me up over the edge. You’ve been training them well.”
“Of course I have, who do you think you are talking to?” She clapped a proud hand against her chest. “My training is practical. Will make you very strong. I do not waste time making new recruit wear bulletproof vest so I can shoot them.”
“I shot them so they know what it feels like.” He knitted his brow together. “That’s practical.”
“You took Winston’s cannon—”
“Nothing wrong with a mild heart attack. Keeps you on your toes.”
“He’s very responsible,” you continued. “Capable, too. He knows what he’s doing, and I trust him completely.”
McCree shook his head. “See, that there’s your first mistake. Blind faith’ll get you a whole lotta nowhere.”
“We’re military. It’s what we do.”
“Amen to that.” He exhaled a thick cloud of cigar smoke. “I don’t know, just seems like he’s really puttin’ you through the ringer on this one.”
“He has to,” you replied. “I know how much the Commander cares about this organization because of everything I’ve had to do since I got here. If I’m going to be a part of this team, I need to be able to handle the workload. All the research and the early mornings and the regimens—they were less training and more ’could I eventually trust this person with my life,’ and knowing that...made me want to work even harder for you guys.”
Zarya made a swirling gesture with her hand. “So we keep them, yes?”
76 sighed, bringing a hand to his temples. His knee-jerk reaction was to keep you, of course, but there lingered a nagging fear that he might have had ulterior motives for his decision—ulterior motives that came to mind every time he remembered how you’d looked straddling him the day you broke his visor.
It was wrong, he knew. He was your commanding officer, you were his subordinate, and still, the thoughts haunted him. Sometimes, he’d remember your exhausted smile or the way you tugged at your tied-up hair to make it tighter, and he would have to direct his thoughts elsewhere before he allowed them to wander into unsavory territory. Was he biased in your favor because of it? Was that why he wanted you to stay?
On the other hand, however, that conclusion gave you far too little credit.
You were the first recruit of many who put forward actual, serious effort in their dedication and desire to improve. You were also the first of many who suffered from a distinct lack of natural talent, and made up for it the only way you knew how: by working your ass off until you got better. He’d probably given you at least half a dozen near-death experiences during your initial training, and still you stayed.
You’d come a long way from the rookie he took in on day one.
There may have been the pesky matter of 76’s undesired thoughts about you, but objectively, it was clear you were the best damn recruit he’d had so far. The thought of you ever taking an interest in him was laughable, anyway, so he was sure he just needed to give his feelings time to disappear. The last thing he wanted was to do anything that would drive you away. He didn’t want his team to lose you.
He hoped he wouldn’t wind up doing something he’d regret.
“Yes,” he decided out loud. “We’ll keep them.”
“Maybe I should just quit.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” McCree snapped. “You’re tellin’ me after everything you’ve put yourself through, you’d rather run home with your tail between your legs than man up and deal with this outright?”
“Absolutely,” you said firmly. “At least I could leave Overwatch with some semblance of dignity rather than risking the Commander never speaking to me again.”
“He might not do that, anyway. Guy’s not much of a talker.”
Your laughter was tired, and breathless. “You don’t spend a lot of time reassuring people, do you?”
“Aw, shucks, is that what I’m supposed to be doin’?”
McCree continued smoking in silence as he leaned against the banister, overlooking the ice-ridden waters from behind glass. Personally, you were much more taken by the mountains in the near-distance, colossal chunks of snow-capped rock tall enough to pierce the clouds. The view from the training arena was magnificent.
You were really quite lucky to be working here.
“You can’t control the cards you’re dealt,” McCree started. “All you can do is play ’em the best you can. Hell, not too long ago, I played a few hands against someone with the best damn poker face I’ve ever seen. Ended up winnin’ a little more than the pot, that night.”
“Well, yeah. You’re...you. Of course it ended up okay."
“Yeah, and you’re you. You’ll be fine.”
Sighing, you leaned on the banister next to him. “You don’t think he already knows, do you?”
"Darlin’, you could give him a lap dance on the payload wearin’ nothin’ but nipple tassels and a piece of string and he still wouldn’t get the hint.”
You snickered. “Is that what happened to you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, he’d never be on the payload.”
He flashed a glance at you. “Did I stutter?”
“Not at all,” you said, still smiling. “Cuts the possibilities down to about half, though.”
He chuckled and tapped the ash from the end of his cigar, again. “You know, darlin’, you’re alright. Where’re you from, anyway?”
“Figures.” McCree put his cigar between his teeth and turned around. “Anyway, enough shootin’ the shit. We’ve gotta get you strafin’ by the end of the day. I’ll be damned if you’re leavin’ me alone with the Sarge on our next assignment.”
You followed him. “Am I going to have to learn how to combat roll?”
“Not gonna let you have my signature move, kid. We ain’t that close.”
For some odd reason, be it out of friendship or boredom or some unholy combination of both, Zarya found herself increasingly invested in breaking down 76’s obliviousness word-by-word, slowly shifting her chair closer and closer to him over the course of the past several minutes until she was practically leaning onto his desk.
“You say mishka is scared around you,” she said, words careful and leading, like she was holding a child’s hand while was crossing the street, “but not like they are with me.”
76 was unmoving behind his desk, his gloved hands folded on the desktop. “That is correct.”
“They try to impress you. They shake when you touch them. They said terrible pun once to hit on you.”
76 wasn’t sure if he liked where this was going. “Yes.”
“You cannot be this stupid. You know what this means.”
He was quiet for a moment, taking in the full gravity of the realization.
“It means they have terrible taste,” he said, finally.
“Yes.” Zarya rubbed the sweatband across her forehead. “Yes, they do.”
Things will be getting a little hot under the collar next chapter, stay tuned.
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Chapter 4: namesake
Whoopsie daisy, what have we here.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A knock on the office door stirred 76 from his idle administrative thoughts.
Still looking over mountains of case files and personal research, he grunted softly in approval, loud enough for whoever was outside his office could hear. He didn’t remember summoning anyone, and because of the foul mood admin work always put him in, no one usually dared to bother him on their own accord unless it was important.
Several seconds later, you set a steaming mug of coffee on the coaster he kept on his desk, because of course Soldier 76 kept a coaster on his desk.
His visored glance flickered up at you. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey,” you said shyly. “Thought you could use a pick-me-up.”
“Hm.” He tried to regain his train of thought. Where was he, again? “How’s the tech coming along?”
You lit up like a goddamn Christmas tree.
“My kit’s just about ready.” There was a bounce in your step as you rounded the corner of his desk. “I can’t wait until you see it in action, Commander. Winston and I’ve put a lot of work into it.”
With no warning, you dove head-first into an unrelenting verbal tirade of calculations and experimentations you’d run over the course of the past several days, of facts and figures you and Winston used to perfect your technology. Most of it sounded like gibberish—as long as the tech worked, it was all the same to him.
All he could pay attention to within that moment, however, was the way you stood there and leaned back on his desk, your hands pressed against the corners to keep you upright and steady. He eyed the way your body swayed with your slight gestures—you still seemed nervous, somehow, shifting your weight back and forth as you spoke more and more about your engineering.
The dress shirt you had on was more flattering to your form than the regulation uniforms you usually wore around the base. He hadn’t noticed you walk in, at first, but from this angle, he had a very clear view of the pants hugging your thighs, a half-size too small.
It was only then when he realized you were trying to get his attention.
“I said I got you one sugar and two creams, was that right?”
“Oh, good. I’ll be honest, you seem like the kind of guy who takes it black.”
“Do I look like Hana to you?”
You raised a hand to your mouth to laugh. The third and fourth buttons of your shirt pushed together and made a gap just wide enough for him to catch a sliver of your skin underneath.
His breath caught in his throat but he coughed it away.
You tilted your head. “You okay, sir?”
“Yeah, fine,” he said dismissively. “Just trying to wrap my head around how your inventions work.”
“Don’t worry about it, Commander, just know that they work. I am the one who built them, after all,” you finished, proudly.
Glancing down at the mess of papers strewn about his desk, you twisted your waist to get a better view. 76 tried not to notice how your shirt also seemed a bit too small, or how the fabric was straining ever so slightly against you.
“What are you working on?”
There was a small mole on the skin of your chest.
“Paperwork,” he muttered.
He was organizing his recent research before you interrupted. You were far too close to him. Where had he been on this page, again? The fabric of your shirt wasn’t very elastic, straining more and more against your shoulders, your well-defined arms, as you turned to see what he was was writing. That’s right, he was sorting files into reverse alphabetical order. Had your top button been undone this entire time?
“Sir?” you asked.
His eyes snapped up to your face. You were still smiling at him, but that telltale blush still tinted your cheeks.
“Man, you must be exhausted,” you said, sounding concerned. “When’s the last time you slept?”
“Missed my last session.” 76’s vision dropped once more to his desk. “I’ve been busy.”
“Too busy for a half-hour nap?”
“Paperwork,” he repeated, eloquently.
You swung a leg over and moved yourself closer to him, placing a hand on his forehead to feel for a temperature. All he could think about was how nice your skin felt against his. God, your hands were warm.
He would not remember getting to his feet.
He stood before you, towering over your seated form as his hand rested, warm and heavy, on your thigh. He closed his fingers together at once in a split-moment of regret, his dull nails skating across the surface of the fabric as he refused to meet your gaze. A soft gasp escaped your lips at the contact, and he felt himself shiver. You didn’t pull away from his touch.
“Sir?” you asked. You sounded nervous, but not displeased.
“...yes or no?”
He was getting bolder, now, both his hands eager with newfound purpose as he slid them up the sides of your thighs, daring to untuck the fabric of your shirt to expose more of you to his touch. One hand strayed, finding its way to your waist. Your body felt just as nice as it looked, and he cursed himself for not doing this sooner.
“Yes or no?” he repeated.
You spread your legs a little, enough to pin his body between your knees.
A shaky hand found its way to the back of his neck, holding onto him with enough pressure to ease the quake of your own trembling.
“Yes, sir,” you sighed into his neck.
And the dam broke.
Soldier 76 woke with a start.
He was in his quarters, he slowly realized, far from his office and even further from the false image of you painted somewhere behind his eyelids. It was just a dream, it was just a dream, he repeated, over and over in his head, trying in vain to keep himself level. He could feel the dull throb of need coiling deep within him, and he knew he had to do something,quickly, before the situation got too far out of hand.
He threw off the covers and practically sprinted to the nearest bathroom, slamming the door behind him. He tore off every article of clothing—visor, pants, shirt, boxers—before turning on the shower stall and throwing himself beneath the cold water.
That dream was…
...highly inappropriate, was what it was.
He needed to get it out of his mind before he could even consider continuing on with his day, or going out on assignment with you.
A mental image of you, dressed like you had been in his dream, flashed through his mind.
Tight shirt. Tight pants. Office desk. Like something out of a bad porno.
He shook his head beneath the water—he couldn’t give it any more thought. No, he couldn’t think about how you’d looked at him, or how your frame fit so well against his hands, or how your breath caught in your throat when he touched you.
He turned the shower temperature as cold as he could bear it. The water felt like shards of ice raining down against his skin and he was determined to stand there, right there, until he drowned out every single unwanted thought, until his body stopped betraying him and he could come to terms with how completely and irrevocably fucked up this whole thing was.
...but it wasn’t working.
The longer he waited, the more his neglected arousal started to actually hurt, a slow but powerful ache for contact surging and straining and tightening in his gut, edging him closer and closer to a point where he had to do something about it or else he swore he’d burst.
Under the steady pulse of water, he had one arm curled against the shower wall in front of him, bracing himself. Unable to stand it much longer, he finally, finally relented, taking his cock into his other hand just to relieve the pressure, and at once, he had to stop himself from bucking into his hold.
God, he imagined what you’d sound like beneath him, every little moan and gasp you’d let slip, every curse and hazy word of pleasure cried in that voice of yours, all for him and him alone.
‘Sir,’ you’d call him, your hips rocking in time with his.
‘Commander,’ you’d call him, your voice breaking with the desperate effort to keep your volume low.
You didn’t even know his real name at this point, but fuck if he wasn’t imagining you choking on it.
The coil of lust in his stomach tightened just a little more.
In his mind’s eye, he’d turned you around so that you were no longer facing him; you were bent over the desk, his desk, gasping in pleasure each time he slid himself into you, hot and thick and deep. He even imagined taking off his visor for once, tossing it aside without care, just so he could breathe and whisper unimpeded by your ear, just so he could skate his teeth across the skin of your shoulder and feel you arch into him in reply. He could almost feel how soft your skin was, how warm and willing you were under his touch. The sighs and moans that escaped your lips as he reached around were of pleasure, of satisfaction, of you wanting this, needing this, almost as much as he did. Your hair was tied up, like it always was; part of him longed to tear it loose and see your hair cascade down your shoulders, but the opportunity presented to him was too good not to take.
He imagined wrapping a hand into your hair and tugging, sharply.
Pleasure jolted through him at the thought—he leaned further into the arm he had against the wall, breathing hard and laboured against wet tile, and his hand’s pacing against himself nearly doubled.
You moved fluidly with his motions, in perfect time. Hand still in your hair, he tugged up and you went with him, your back flush against his chest as he continued thrusting into you. God, he could almost feel the heaving breaths you were taking, he could almost hear the moans falling from you so carelessly.
“S—sir.” (Why was it so easy for him to imagine that in your voice?) “Sir, I—I’m—”
He sank his teeth into your shoulder, not enough to break the skin, but enough to send you reeling. You reached a hand back, and caressed his face softly. Before he could figure out what you were doing, you turned your head and caught his bare lips in a soft, sweet kiss as you finally, finally—
The image alone sent him over the edge.
He choked out a loud groan as he released himself over his hand, spilling thick ribbons of white against the shower wall. He leaned further into the wall, riding out the final waves of his orgasm in hushed, stuttered bliss, half-attempting to catch his breath all the while.
As the pleasure ebbed, guilt swelled in its place.
His consciousness filtered through the fading haze of his arousal and he became pointedly aware of where he was and of what he’d just done, with the steady beat of ice-cold water pouring over his flushed form and making him feel hollow.
He was disgusted with himself for disrespecting you like this. You admired him, you trusted him, and it was obvious that somewhere along the way, you’d confused your respect for infatuation. Even these private thoughts of his were treading dangerous ground; he was in a position of authority over you, and the power difference alone made him feel absolutely repugnant with every idle reverie he chose to entertain.
Could you ever really say no to him, after all?
Eventually, he shut the shower off, and the air around him was warmer than the water he’d tried to drown himself in. He ran a hand through his soaked hair, letting his forehead rest in his palm as he tried to steady his racing thoughts.
This wasn’t fair to you.
He had to distance himself before he ended up in a place he really didn’t want to be.
“I don’t understand.” Winston’s eyes, dark and beady behind his prescription lenses, flickered over the letter in his hands. “You want to remove yourself from the next assignment?”
Arms folded, 76 watched as the massive scientist lumbered around his laboratory. “Is there a problem?”
“Not a problem, per se.” He brought a large, leathery finger to scratch at his cheek. “This is just, um...rather unprecedented. You’re citing…” He adjusted his glasses and squinted at the paper again. “Personal differences, is that correct?”
“Have they been...acting inappropriately towards you or others on the team?”
“No,” 76 said quickly. “They’ve been a model agent, in every respect.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t want us on the field together.”
“You...don’t want to be on the field with the agent you mentored yourself?” He chuckled. “I’d have more confidence in your training, if I were you!”
“I do, which is why I don’t want to be out there. They don't need me to hold their hand. They're ready.”
“So it’s a matter of pride, then.”
“Maybe it is.”
Setting the form down on a nearby table, Winston sighed as he returned to the giant bundle of titanium and wires that was his latest innovation. “Do you remember why you agreed to come back to us, Jack?”
“Try to do some good in the world,” he said. “Make up for the bad we left behind.”
“Yes. Do you remember why else?”
76 fell silent, but he folded his arms tighter against himself.
“In exchange for our resources, you said you’d lend your services to any mission I coordinated for you personally. But how often do I ask for your help? How often are you even here to give it?” Winston plopped down behind his grandiose work-in-progress, picking up some tools from his nearby kit. “You training the new recruits is the longest you’ve stayed on our radar in months. Why you volunteered to do that is still beyond me.”
“What’s your point?”
Unintimidated, Winston refocused his efforts into rewiring the project in front of him. “The point is people like us aren’t called for easy tasks. Our unique challenges mean we need everyone performing their best during every assignment...and by the circumstances of their training, they’re at their best when they’re with you.”
The words resonated with him more deeply than they should have.
“They’re quite excited for you to be there, you know,” he grinned. “Very eager to debut their new tech in front of the Commander.”
Weary all the while, 76 released a tense breath.
Great. That would definitely make things easier.
Still not looking up or directly at him, Winston took a screwdriver to a panel of his contraption. “I respect you have personal differences. I encourage you to settle them sooner rather than later.” The panel released with a small hiss. “But right now, we have a job to do, and I need you on our side.”
“Fine,” 76 conceded. “If I want something done right, might as well do it myself.”
“Excellent,” Winston said, sounding satisfied. “Glad we had this talk.”
Knowing that ‘glad we had this talk’ was Winston-speak for ‘now get the hell out of my lab,’ 76 left Winston to his own devices, heading for the laboratory entrance without another word.
“Oh,” Winston spoke up from across the lab, “I just finalized the paperwork for their call name. Thought you’d like to know.”
“No kidding,” 76 shouted back. The laboratory doors slid open for him as he walked out. “What is it?”
“It’s ‘Reader,’” he said brightly. “Isn’t that catchy?”
“And then I said to him,” McCree half-laughed, tapping the ash from his cigar, “seein’ the way you’re slingin’ that cannon around, you’re about as threatenin’ to me as a blow-dried hamster.”
“No,” you gasped.
“Sure did. Anyway, as you can imagine, he didn’t take too kindly to me foolin’ around with his son, and I ended up havin’ to barrel roll naked out a three-story window. And that’s the story of why I can never legally buy a car in the state of Minnesota.”
It took you several seconds to recover from your laughter. “There’s no way all of that’s true.”
“Who cares? Made you smile, didn’t it?”
Then you couldn’t stop yourself from smiling, as if to prove his point.
Something behind you suddenly caught McCree’s attention.
“Well, hey,” he chuckled, “look what the gorilla dragged in.”
You spun around to see 76 making his way down the hall, walking straight towards the two of you.
“Commander!” you beamed.
76 noticed the way your eyes lit up when you caught sight of him, and the realization interrupted the pace of his stride. You were excited to see him, and probably even more excited to tell him about the progress you’d made—you looked up to him, and all he could respond with were reprehensible urges. He felt slightly sick.
He needed to not be here right now.
“Sir,” you said cheerfully as he approached, “you’ll be happy to know I’ve gotten strafing techniques down pat. My aiming still needs some practice, but Jesse gave me some pointers and I don’t miss targets anymore, regardless of which direction I’m running. Or falling,” you added, helpfully.
He didn’t reply.
He didn’t really slow his pace, either, instead charging right past the both of you like he hadn’t heard a word.
“Commander?” you repeated, doing a little jog to catch up with him. “Sir, I was really hoping I could get another training session in with you before our mission. Maybe you could give me some more constructive criticism on my technique?”
“I’m busy, agent,” he barked. “Save it for the field instead of trying to show off.”
Your heart sank. “Y—yes, sir. Sure thing.”
Your jog slowed to a standstill as you watched him storm away.
What had you done this time?
McCree let out a low whistle as he pushed up the brim of his hat. “Damn, who pissed in his corn flakes this mornin’?”
“No, he’s right.” You did your best to shrug off the disappointment. “I really have to start being more professional about this.”
“So you’re waiting until after this assignment to slap his ass, then?”
(He got you smiling, again.)
“That’s the plan.”
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The sky was pitch black.
Piloted by Athena, your dropship was currently flying under the cover of darkness, with you and both your comrades aboard. In a few short hours, you realized, you would be embarking on your very first mission as an official member of the new Overwatch.
To say you were nervous was an understatement.
You were lying on the metal-plated ground, a thick notebook in hand, using your duffel bag of packed belongings as a pillow while you read and reread pages upon pages of your own handwriting and crudely drawn diagrams. All was quiet within the dropship, save for the sound of McCree’s loud snoring from a hammock across the room, amplified by the hull’s acoustic interior build. Soldier 76, on the other hand...although seated nearby, you couldn’t tell from the corner of your eye whether or not he was sleeping, considering his visor always hid his face, and his statuesque body kept remarkably still wherever he parked himself.
If he was awake, he said nothing.
You heeded 76’s advice after your one-sided conversation the other day—the conversation that still made you cringe in embarrassment every time you thought back on it—and you redoubled your efforts in preparing for the upcoming assignment, mostly in the form of jotting down every aspect of the mission you remembered and every workaround strategy you could possibly conceive. You would not be caught unprepared, not under any circumstance.
Though the polyphasic schedule 76 trained you to sleep on meant you were due for another half-hour session soon, you were anything but tired. In a few hours, you’d be...out there. Fighting, probably. Every passing moment made the prospect more and more tangible—this wasn’t a simulation or a training session, this was an honest-to-god Overwatch mission and there was a very real chance you could get hurt out there.
You shook your head. You couldn’t afford to worry about that, right now. You’d have time for feelings and fear later—what was most important now was getting the job done.
“You’re quiet, Reader.”
76’s statement sounded like less of an accusation and more of a concern.
(So he was awake, after all.)
Even though you picked it out yourself, the codename felt strange to hear out loud for the first time, like the ill-fit of new clothing that hadn’t yet been broken in.
“Just trying to focus on the mission, sir,” you said, burying yourself further into your notes. “Don’t mind me.”
Professional, you reminded yourself. Focus on the mission. No showing off, no screwing around.
God, did 76 ever hate this.
You hadn’t spoken a word to him since that moment in the hallway.
He wanted you to concentrate on the task at hand, but this hadn’t been what he had in mind—the fact that you’d cut yourself off almost completely wasn’t sitting well with him at all. Sure, part of him was glad you decided to stop focusing on what he thought of you and instead start taking things more seriously, but a bigger, louder part of him was regretting the loss of your usual camaraderie.
People weren’t typically happy to be around him. Even on the best of days, he knew full well most of his teammates just barely tolerated him. It was selfish, but he missed the way your eyes lit up whenever you saw him—how eager you were to showcase your progress and how satisfied he was to see it.
You were warm to just about everyone you met, and in the harsh climate of your shared profession, your likeability was something he admired about you. His words must have gotten to you pretty badly if they made you shut down like this.
Even now, every bit of your body language was closing him out, from the way you held your notebook in front of you to the way you didn’t look directly at him when you spoke, and it stirred within him with an uncomfortably profound sense of worry, as if you were slipping between his fingers faster than he could catch you.
“I’m sorry,” he said, loud enough for you to hear.
Your head perked up. “Sir?”
“I’m sorry for snapping at you the other day,” he clarified. “I have some concerns about this assignment. I shouldn’t have taken them out on you.”
“Nah, you were right. I’ve been getting distracted a lot lately.”
By what, he wondered?
Did you even have any idea he knew that’s what you were talking about?
“Besides,” you laughed, tapping your pencil to your chin, “you’ve said much worse for much less egregious oversights.”
His brows drew together. “I was training you, back then.”
“Aren’t you always?”
76 fell silent. He could only remember faint traces of the things he spat at you during training, the rough, drill sergeant insults and casual degradation he’d bark at you to keep you going, and it was a sharp reminder of his past treatment of you and of your current state of subordination. You saw him as someone to take orders from, both on and off the field.
That’s who he was to you.
“You’re not going to be a recruit forever,” he said sternly. “We’re on the same team. Don’t be afraid to talk back or hold me responsible for my actions.”
(Don’t be afraid to say no.)
You looked at him for several seconds, as though you were trying to decipher the earnesty in his masked expression. “Do you mean that?”
“Then, I. I—I think the way you treated me was kind of unfair.” Your voice trembled slightly at your sudden bravado. “You were right about not trying to show off, but I shouldn’t be afraid to defer to your expertise if I need the help. Sir,” you added, quickly.
A moment of silence. “You’re right,” he agreed. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” An invisible weight of worry seemed to ease from your shoulders. “That...wow, that was easier than I thought it would be.”
“Communication is important. I need you to be able to talk to me.”
“Communication goes both ways,” you replied. You set your notebook aside and sat up, crossing your legs in front of you. “You said you had concerns about our mission. Is there something I should know?”
76 shifted uncomfortably. The question caught him off-guard, throwing his thoughts back into fantasies of you on his desk in various states of undress, and he did well not to choke on his breath.
“Nothing that wouldn’t be an insult to the both of us,” he finally answered.
“I’ll be honest, sir, I...don’t know what that’s supposed to imply.”
“No implications. I just want everything to go smoothly.”
“...you’re worried about me.”
Less of an accusation. More of a concern.
His silence spoke volumes.
“I can handle an intelligence mission,” you said. “I’ve studied the briefing through and through.”
“Lots of things look good on paper.”
“This isn’t my first time on the field.”
“It’s your first time on a field like this one.”
“Sir, I have thousands of hours of evacuation experience.” You sounded exasperated. “I’ve saved hundreds of lives with my tech.”
“But have you ever taken one? All the training in the world won’t prepare you for that.”
You stopped talking. That much was true.
All of your field experience may have been in the middle of natural disasters and war zones, but your specialty was evacuation—glorified Search and Rescue, honestly. You’d seen death firsthand, but you were never there to cause it—you were there to save those who survived and to clean up those who didn’t.
“This isn’t war,” he started. “Out here, there’s no unwritten code of honor for battle medics and rescue personnel. The kinds of people we’re dealing with are trained to focus on a team’s support system before moving in. It’s a professional hazard you should be aware of.”
You frowned, anxiety bristling across your nerves. “I thought we weren’t expecting pushback on this mission.”
“It’s not likely, but I won’t say it’s not possible.”
“You think something’s going to happen to me?”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you,” he said, quietly. “Not while I’m around.”
You could feel your cheeks flare as your pulse pounded in your ears. He sounded so earnest when he said it like that, bold and without a moment’s hesitation. You knew without a doubt that he would keep his word as best as he was able, and that he would do everything in his power to try and protect you out there as a fellow teammate.
As a teammate.
You knew better than to read anything special into what he was saying, but damn if he didn’t fluster you with the prospect, anyway. The Commander—your Commander—exuded an undeniable air of security about him. He made you feel safe, like nothing bad could happen to you while he was by your side.
Even so, you needed to prove to him that you could handle yourself.
The last thing you wanted was for him to see you as dead weight or a burden to carry for the sake of the team. If anything, his protectiveness only served to strengthen your resolve.
“I know what I’m doing,” you said, trying to shake off your sentiments. You weren’t certain who you were trying to reassure. “I’m your support. I need to know you trust me to do my job.”
76 went quiet, again. He wasn’t worried because of some lack of confidence in your ability, he was worried because he found himself caring about you far more than he should’ve allowed himself to.
“Do you trust me, Commander?”
But how could he possibly tell you that?
Your tone softened. “Good to know I earned that much.”
“Well, it was a battle hard-fought,” he teased. “I’m hoping the feeling is mutual.”
“Are you asking me if I trust you?”
“Always, sir,” you beamed, half-stressed and half-tired, as if it were the most obvious thing the world.
Your smile wrinkled the exhaustion lines under your eyes, and all he wanted to do within that moment was kiss your weariness away.
His chest tightened with pangs of regret.
He couldn’t help but get tossed back to the depths of his dream every time you threw a ‘sir’ or ‘commander’ his way, the imagined sounds of you gasping beneath him still fresh in his imagination. You would probably be willing to indulge him, if he asked.
You trusted him, after all. You admired him. It would be easy.
All he would have to do is ask.
Simultaneous jolts of shame and arousal shot through him—this was wrong, this was wrong, this was so goddamn wrong.
“You’re quiet, Commander,” you teased back.
He made a soft noise of acknowledgement. “Am I making you nervous?”
“A little,” you laughed. If he only knew. “It’s hard not knowing what’s going through that head of yours, sometimes.”
“I’m just thinking.”
“How little I actually know about you, for all the time we’ve spent together.”
You shrugged. “You’re not missing out on much. I mean, you’ve read my file.”
“File doesn’t tell me everything,” he said, nodding in the direction of your notebook on the floor, “like how you make contingency plans when you’re stressed out.”
You gathered your notebook back into your arms, closing the cover and holding it against your chest.
“No such thing as too many escape routes,” you defended. “It’s my job to give people a way out if things go south, remember?”
76 fell into quiet consideration.
“Is Overwatch your way out?” he asked, words slow and careful.
“That’s assuming I’m running from something.”
“Seems to me most people wouldn’t take a job like this if they weren’t.”
You sighed. “If I’m running from anything, it’s from other people’s expectations. I knew going into my career that, as long as I was capable, I wanted to continue doing as much as I could to make an impact in my field. That’s what I’ve done, that’s what I’m doing, but at my age...god, everyone I know is settling down, starting a family, and here I am, in my prime, just getting started. At least no one here’s going to ask me why I’m not married yet.” You laughed again. It sounded hollow, this time. “What about you?”
“Never been the marriage type.”
“Th—that’s not what I meant,” you started, blushing at the misunderstanding. “I meant...what you are running away from?”
”Too many things to count,” he replied, “but I’m here now because I made a promise.”
“To one of our other agents. There were people we knew before the Second Crisis. Got caught up on the wrong side of things, not entirely of their own will. I promised her after it was all over that I’d bring them home.”
You blinked at him. “That’s quite the promise.”
“Haven’t made good on it, yet.”
“Then you have a lot more faith in me than I do.”
You smiled to yourself, running your fingers around the edges of your notebook.
“Did you ever picture yourself here when you were younger?” you asked. “Like, did you ever think you’d end up doing everything you’re doing right now?”
“More or less,” he said. “I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, enlisted as soon the government would let me. I knew if I kept doing as well as I was, I’d end up going against tougher opponents, eventually. Thought I could take on the world with my own two hands. I was a pretty dumb kid.”
You tried not to giggle at the mental image of a young, rough-and-tumble farm boy fresh in the military. You vaguely wondered how he used to look, what colour his hair used to be. You wondered if any of the other Overwatch members would show you embarrassing pictures if you asked them nicely.
His voice snapped you from your thoughts.
“Kinda? I mean, I wanted to be an astronaut, when I was little. I wanted to help build houses on the moon! I focused on all my hard sciences in school, military paid for my post-secondary education in engineering, and I served right after I graduated.”
“What happened to becoming an astronaut?”
You shrugged. “I was too short.”
“CSA’s loss. You wouldn’t want to go to the moon, anyway. It’s run by angry gorillas, now.”
And you both laughed at the absurdity of it all.
“Tell you what,” he continued, turning towards you. “You get us through this mission, and we’ll aim for the stars, instead.”
You stilled, feeling your heart swell beneath your chest.
“I’ve got your back, Commander,” you said, and you meant every word of it.
76 chuckled softly, a sound that never failed to be music to your ears. “I’ve got yours first.”
You smiled a little.
Unbeknownst to you, so did he.
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Warzones weren’t new to you, but that’s why you were here.
The large group of buildings and warehouses belonged to one of Talon’s old main compounds, buried deep within the lush forests of Romania. The place had been abandoned for years, unoccupied since Overwatch’s eradication of Talon some time prior. Sunlight spilled in through the windows nature shattered, bright ribbons pouring through thin layers of fog. Vegetation had claimed what the bombs did not.
As beautiful as it was, the place was also...undeniably creepy. Urban legends claimed the local forest to be haunted, and whether it was by supernatural forces or the residual evil that humans left behind, you didn’t doubt it for a moment.
The initial plan was to set up your evacuation beacon on a rooftop or some sort of height, but the structural integrity of the surrounding buildings were far too compromised to accommodate such a strategy. As a result, you were currently set up in a warehouse office on the ground floor, in what looked like some sort of old board room. Your beacon was raised on a long, weathered conference table that took up most of the room. Shattered, vine-ridden chairs littered the area. You claimed the one with the least jagged edges.
You tried not to think about the acts of terrorism that were imagined here, the politically-driven destruction of property and murder of innocents that were planned in this very boardroom over some casual powerpoint presentation.
You knew coming in that your job was to ready the evacuation beacon and wait by it alone, but now that you were actually here, you were less enthusiastic about the responsibility. Of course, you weren’t about to let a little creepiness make you wimp out on an important mission, especially with the Commander counting on you. Heck, if everything went well, neither McCree nor Soldier 76 would have to step foot in this room.
Your existence was a contingency, after all.
After the fall of Talon, Overwatch stripped all of the terrorist organization’s major facilities of resources and kept a close eye on any activity in the now-prohibited areas. Recently, the monitoring systems detected trace amounts of activity in the Romanian base, spurring the current investigation.
“Might be some of ‘em ‘urban explorers,’ or what have you,” McCree started, registering yet another one of the abandoned rooms as secure. “Wouldn’t be the first time a couple’a kids got a little too brave.”
76 kicked open a door that was rusted shut, sweeping his rifle around the empty corners. “Protocol mandates the area needs to be cleared, anyway. Besides. Our systems detected residual disturbances, meaning whoever was here left something behind.”
“Probably got spooked by the alarm and dropped all their fancy camera equipment.”
“Hopefully not. Oxton would never forgive me if I didn’t go out of my way to haul it back for her.”
The communications line buzzed on for the both of them.
“Delta squad,” came your voice. “Update on coverage? Over.”
76 pressed the headset to his ear. “We’re at about thirty percent. Waypoint status? Over.”
“The Waypoint is active, sir, but I doubt you’ll be needing it at this rate, over.”
“Doesn’t matter. Guard it with your life, that’s our ticket out of here. Over.”
“Understood, Commander. Over.”
McCree touched his headset. “Oh, and try not to get too scared up there all by your lonesome. Over.”
“I’m too busy babysitting you guys to worry about being alone. Over.”
“Don’t worry, darlin’, I’m sure the spiders’ll keep you plenty company. Over.”
“Ha ha, very funn—HOLY SHIT—”
You neglected to turn off your comms. The sound of you freaking out and throwing heavy, ramshackled objects around the room blasted through the headsets, and McCree promptly lost his goddamn mind.
“Would you quit screwing around?” 76 scowled beneath his visor. “I know you two numbskulls are basically joined at the hip, but now’s not the time to lose focus.”
“‘Joined at the hip’?” McCree echoed, genuinely confused. “How d’you figure?”
76 didn’t respond—he clicked his tongue, instead, confirming another corner safe before continuing down the mind-numbingly repetitive hallway of rooms. Although McCree easily kept stride, he didn’t press the question, continuing on with their assignment in somewhat awkward silence.
Stupid as it was, 76 couldn’t get his mind off it.
It was all ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, Commander’ between you and him, yet nothing but easy banter and playful flirting between you and McCree. The two of you got along very well, a little too well, and had taken to spending a lot of free time together. 76 couldn’t help but wonder what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. Was he just being willfully oblivious, again?
God, were you and McCree...involved?
He felt something in his chest sink. There was no hard rule against agents being involved with one another, but 76 still didn’t like the idea of you and McCree together.
He didn’t like it at all.
McCree was definitely the forward type, it would be nothing for someone like him to charm you into his bed, not with how easy it was to fluster you. He felt his blood boil as he imagined the other man beside him pinning you to a wall, planting quiet kisses all over your skin—soft, warm, bare places 76 would only ever daydream about touching. The thought of you eagerly tangling your hands through the cowboy’s hair—knocking off his hat in the process—made him tighten his grip on his rifle.
Was he jealous?
76 tried to snap himself out of it. The decisions you made in your spare time as a rational, consenting adult were none of his goddamn business. Getting petty and resentful over something like this would only end up hurting the bond that had a hard enough time building between the two of you. Besides, he...wanted you to be happy. Regardless of who it was with.
It was obnoxious for him to worry about this, especially now. You were his subordinate, he was your superior, and the last thing he wanted to do was take advantage of you when he knew how much you trusted him. No, he knew his thoughts and feelings were wrong, and he redoubled his efforts to stop thinking about how you trusting him so completely was actually sort of endearing as all hell—
He rubbed a hand against his forehead, goddamn it.
McCree, on the other hand, watched the external gestures of 76’s internal conflict from the sidelines with delight, as if he could read the exact thought processes going on beneath that thick skull of his. 76 knew that McCree wouldn’t let a comment like that slide, not completely, and 76 would end up with either a confirmation or denial of his involvement with you.
Well, two could play at that game.
McCree silently activated his comms link with you before he spoke.
“You got the wrong idea about me and the new recruit, Sarge,” he started. “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on between us...be lyin’ if I said I hadn’t thought about it, though.”
76 stopped and turned to face him. For a moment, McCree feared he wouldn’t take the bait.
“Thought about what?” 76’s question finally came, trying and failing to sound sufficiently detached.
(There it was.)
“Well. C’mon, Sarge.” McCree offered a chuckle, low and deep. “I mean, I ain’t blind.”
Wielding a large, broken table leg like a battle axe, you’d been standing on your chair to avoid the stray spider—which was the size of a very small dog—scuttling about the floor, that seemed to disappear and reappear across the room every three seconds like some kind of demon insectoid Houdini.
The conversation that buzzed in over the open comms line froze you in place.
“That’s extremely inappropriate,” 76 snarled under his breath. “Comments like that do nothing but reduce your teammate to a set of—”
“No no no, I know they’re smart as all hell and they’re real damn good at what they do, but I ain’t imaginin’ gettin’ my hands all over their personality, y’know?”
“McCree,” he bit back, a warning tone.
“Please,” the other man scoffed. “Now, I know you’ve built a brand for yourself playin’ the role of Mr. Integrity, but don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Not with all that time you’ve been spendin’ together.”
That shut him up real quick.
You kept as still as a statue as you squatted on your chair to avoid direct contact with the floor, your eyes widening as you waited for a response and didn’t so much as breathe.
You were hunkered down in your evac nest, listening to the unexpected conversation take place, stuck in the room with nothing but a giant mutant Romanian spider and the knowledge that McCree was already involved with someone else. Why was he feigning interest in you like this?
He could play the part damn fine, though, and hearing him compliment you like that made your heart skip something fierce—being called attractive by someone who looked and talked like McCree made warmth rise to your cheeks.
Some little crushes you couldn’t help.
“Doesn’t matter whether or not I have,” 76 finally replied. “It’s disrespectful.”
McCree smirked. “That ain’t a no.”
“There are more worthwhile things to appreciate.”
“Their compassion, for one,” he said. “They help people. Got real dedication for what they do. It’s easy to get detached when you’ve been on the field as long as I have. They’re a reminder to keep trying to outdo myself. To pay attention to the good in the world.”
Who was he trying to fool?
“Uh-huh,” McCree laughed, pushing up the brim of his hat, “I’m sure you’re real fond of the shape of their compassion.”
76’s stomach turned. Is that what he was trying to pass this off as, now?
Daydreaming about bending you over his desk and wrapping your hair around his fist?
Fond of your compassion?
“...better than superficial objectification.”
Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite.
“Lighten up, Sarge.” Smirking, McCree scratched idly at his beard. “We ain’t the only ones who talk nasty, trust me.”
76 froze in his tracks, in spite of himself. The image of you and McCree fooling around was instantly replaced with the image of the two of you lounging in each other’s quarters, nursing cold beers, with McCree laughing as you casually talked filthy about everything you wished the Commander would do to you, loud and unabashed.
He could not decide which fantasy got to him worse.
You had a hand over your mouth, trying not to make any noise through your comms.
76 hadn’t denied anything McCree said. But, even if the idea of him reciprocating your feelings was ridiculous, you were happy to hear his disposition towards you was positive, at the very least.
He considered you something good in the world.
You couldn’t stop yourself from smiling like an idiot.
The fact that your Commander had almost immediately jumped to defend your honour in the face of McCree’s lewdness was...stupidly endearing. Even if his fondness was strictly professional in nature, it still made you happy.
...you couldn’t believe McCree made you listen to all that.
It was risky for him to pull a stunt like that. Sure, it may have been just you and McCree and 76 on comms, but—
It wasn’t just you three on comms.
You knew you were linked to HQ, and that a certain lumbering scientist was on constant standby, keeping his ears on the lines and his eyes on the monitoring systems to make sure all was well. The thought of the kindly gorilla hearing this ridiculous conversation made your stomach tighten in embarrassment.
“W—Winston?” you sputtered.
You straightened up, adjusting your headset and making sure it was functioning properly.
“This is Reader to HQ, do you copy? Over.”
You lowered your legs and stood up from your chair.
Something was wrong.
“We ain’t alone.”
The two men had their backs pressed to a wall, keeping a low profile while they observed their immediate surroundings. The glowing red line of 76’s visor twitched with irregularities as he scanned the area; behind the glass, his thermal imaging detected armed figures moving strategically around the area.
McCree already had his pistol drawn. “I’m countin’ three, in total.”
“That’s what I got.”
“That’s seriously all they sent?”
“No kidding, eh?”
“Careful, now. The Canadian’s rubbing off on you.”
Leaving the safety of your nest, you performed a quick perimeter check. Although you knew the layout of the building like the back of your hand, it felt surreal to explore an abandoned, decaying ex-terrorist facility for signs of life. This was how survival horrors started and zombie thrillers ended, after all.
You didn’t hear the woman decloaking behind you, and you certainly didn’t notice her lean over your shoulder until her painted lips hovered right by your ear.
Startled, you whipped around and faced your assailant.
Standing in front of you was a woman not much older than yourself, with olive skin and purple eyes sparkling with mirth. Her ombre-faded hair was shaved into an undercut on one side, strange purple attachments snaking their way across the bare side of her scalp. She had a smug look on her face, like she’d been tailing you for a while and was amused by your surprise; a smirk graced her soft features, and you gasped as she shoved her machine gun against your chest.
You were terrified, but she was hot as hell.
You shook your head of the errant thoughts and shoved her gun aside, raising your rifle and preparing to fire, but something jammed, and the sound of the pulse’s charge powered down.
The woman held her hand in mid-air, translucent purple strings sprouting from her fingertips and infecting the body of your rifle with veins of electric violet.
“Digitally-modulated weaponry,” she scoffed. “Who thought that was a good idea?”
You dropped your weapon, as if its growing virus of purple light was contagious. The rifle fell by your waist on its sling.
“Oh man,” she laughed, gesturing with her machine gun a bit too wildly for comfort, “I can’t believe they brought out the newbie for this mission. That’s going to make this so much easier.”
You didn’t have time to worry about whether or not you should’ve been offended, all you could do was run over scenarios in your head. Did she work for Talon? Did she know where your beacon was positioned? Were your squadmates in danger? Was she going to kill you first?
She must have seen your attention drifting, because she rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers repeatedly in front of your face.
“Listen up, pollito, because I don’t repeat myself,” she said. “This entire mission? It’s a trap. Talon agents are closing in as we speak. They blocked all your external communication—”
You immediately pressed your headset to your ear. “Delta—”
“—and I blocked all your internal communication, oops. Sorry, Reader.”
“How do you know—”
She interrupted you by groaning out loud.
“‘How do you know my name?’” she echoed, mockingly. “‘Who are you, what do you want from me?’ Do you mind if we skip the cliches, today? I’m kind of on a schedule. The clock is ticking and you don’t have a lot of time.”
You resisted the urge to ask what she meant by that, if only because her condescending remarks were starting to grate on your nerves.
“Your Commander’s been trying to track down the same two people for the past couple of years, yeah?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’re a terrible liar. How did you even get this job?”
She twisted her wrist, bringing up two hexagonal projections in mid-air that displayed a single picture each. On your left was a particularly dangerous-looking woman with a slender face, narrow, golden eyes, and an air about her that was distinctly serpentine. On your right was an intimidating man in a hooded cloak, all broad shoulders and black leather, wearing a sharp, bone-white mask over his face.
“Amélie Lacroix and Gabriel Reyes,” said the woman, pointing to each in turn. “Got it?”
Still half-dazed by the suddenness of the situation, you studied the images and memorized the names as quickly as you could.
“Come on, say them back to me.”
“Yellow eyes, Amélie Lacroix. Skull mask, Gabriel Reyes.”
“It’s not a skull, it’s a barn owl. Getting that wrong is a good way to piss him off.”
“These are the people your Commander’s looking for, but don’t be fooled. This,” she continued, pointing to the masked man, “is the one he really cares about finding.”
“Good,” she cooed, as if she were commending a pet for a trick well-learned.
You blinked. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I have intel that will help track them down.”
“Then give it to the Commander.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s a bigger waste of time trying to get someone like him to take intel from someone like me.” She curled her clawed, painted fingertips against her palm, dissipating the holographic images in a shower of purple sparks. “Something about ‘not negotiating with terrorists.’”
Knitting your brows together, you looked her in the eyes. “What makes you think I will?”
“You’ve already made up your mind.” She laughed, darkly. “You’re not going to pass up an opportunity to help the man who thinks you remind him of all the good in the world.”
She retched. You paled.
“Talon was never 'eradicated,'” she explained. “It splintered. Now the bigger groups are trying to get the old bando back together to try and make themselves relevant again. Faction leaders are given new digital cyphers every morning, detailing how to get into contact with the other members.” She held up a brown envelope. “The algorithm for today’s is valid for another seventeen hours. Hard copy, pen and paper. No tricks.”
You took the envelope. “Where do we find a Talon faction leader in seventeen hours?”
“There’s one here right now, and his platoon’s trying to kill all three of you. Surprise!”
“But—if you have all the intel already—”
“I don’t do work I can get others to do for free.” She flipped her hair. “Now, neither of us are stupid. We both know as soon as you get out of here, you’re going to tell everyone about our little chat. Doesn’t make this,” and she tapped a clawed fingernail against the paper, “any less valuable. Use it before it expires or I’ll find someone else to get the job done. I never make the same offer twice.”
This didn’t seem right. There had to be some sort of catch. “...what do you want from me in return?”
The silent smirk she gave you sent shivers down your spine.
“Looks like our time’s up,” she said softly. “You’d better get going. All of this will be for nothing if you don’t make it out of here in one piece.”
Your heart sank to your knees.
“Don’t die on me, pollito. You owe me.”
With a wink, she disappeared before your eyes, just as you heard a group of agents kick down the barricaded entrance to your floor.
“Delta team, do you read me?”
“Loud and clear. Tried to get into contact about six minutes ago and got no response, where were you?”
“Communication lines were cut, sir. We’ve been compromised.”
“No shit, darlin’. We’re dealin’ with a group of ‘em, right now.”
“Is the faction leader down there with them?”
“He the one with the weird jacket?”
“You need to strip him of his tech as soon as possible. These agents are ex-Talon members, and their general has a digital cipher that will lead you to the location of other active Talon leaders. I’ve acquired the algorithm to decrypt it, but it changes every day. We need to get a hold of the one for today’s and get on it as soon as possible.”
“How did you get this information?”
“Sir, there’s no time to explain, I can debrief you later.”
“Reader, I am not acting on intel I can’t confi—”
“Gabriel Reyes, Commander. This is going to help you find Gabriel Reyes.”
“Wait, Reyes Reyes? No. Am I hearin’ that right?”
“...where in the hell did you hear that name?”
“I can debrief you later. How many are threatening your position?”
“Three, includin’ their leader.”
“Good, less there than there are here.”
“What do you mean less than there are—”
“Shit, I can’t stay. They’re coming for me.”
“Light the Waypoint, Reader. This is outside mission guidelines—we are not equipped to deal with this situation.”
“The Waypoint is compromised. There’s only three agents down there because there are more up here. They’re trying to bait you into evac because they know exactly where you’ll appear...but if you stay down there and fight, there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll send out a much larger platoon to your location.”
“Agreed. We don’t know how outnumbered we are. Which is why I’m calling for an evac.”
“Let us worry about proper positionin’, missy—I think you’re forgettin’ the fact the two of us combined’ve got world-class aimin’ and real itchy trigger fingers. Listen to the man and send out the call.”
“You don’t understand—”
“Reader, activate the evacuation protocol. That is a direct order.”
“Commander, I am formally recognizing that you’ve given me a direct order, but given that it’s a stupid fucking order, I am electing to disobey it. It’s my job to provide you with a safe way out and the way out right now is anything but. I’ve got five agents here with their guns pointed straight at the Waypoint and I need to draw them out before I bring you in. Give me five minutes. Grab the intel from the general in the meantime.”
“Five minutes. Over and out.”
You shut off your communication line. Your hands were no longer shaking.
Strange as it may have been, you felt much more confident than you did before you placed the call. You just disobeyed a direct order from your commanding officer. Your ass was on the line, however this ended up going, even if it ended with you dead.
It was liberating.
Thankfully, you didn’t enter this mission unprepared. There was a very specific reason you chose this old, decrepit-ass building above all the other old, decrepit-ass buildings in the area.
Sitting with your back pressed to the decaying wall, you held your pulse rifle close to your chest and closed your eyes.
Five agents threatening your nest.
Five minutes before evac.
Five deep breaths before you crouched and lined up your shot.
The first one was easy, relatively speaking. The enemy group was focused on waiting for your teammates to teleport through your beacon, so you were able to steady your aim and focus a charge towards the agent closest to your position, just like you’d done in practice with training bots. It was not a difficult shot. You were expecting your beam to land.
You were not expecting the mess that came from hitting the target.
In all your concentration, you’d forgotten training bots didn’t bleed.
Your actions resulted in a flurry of bullets and foreign curses aimed your way, splinters of wood and chunks of plaster exploding from the walls where their shots landed. You rounded the corner and bolted down the corridor, but hung back just enough for whoever chased you to follow exactly where you were going. These bastards were trying to kill your teammates, your teammates, so you made damn sure they saw you, every hallway you crossed and every door you swung open; they followed, like moths to a flame, and god would you ever show them fire.
Adrenaline coursing hard and fast through your veins, you flinched and ducked as bullets whizzed past your ear, deafening you to everything else. Still running, you spun around and charged your next shot, strafing as you aimed not for the agents on your tail, but for Load Bearing Beam 47A and Load Bearing Pole 24C, respectively, as labelled in your blueprints of the area.
A significant portion of the dilapidated warehouse ceiling folded like a house of cards, and you got enough of a glance to see two agents incapacitated by the glass and rubble.
You didn’t slow your pace, not until you finished taking the long way back around to avoid the remnants of the collapse, careful not to expose your location to the remaining agents inside your nest when you arrived. You knelt to catch your breath, to refocus your efforts as your pulse pounded in in your ears; you could hear the two of them speaking in their native language, voices growing gradually more and more panicked and unsettled until one of the agents sent the other elsewhere—at this point, you could only assume he was headed to investigate the loud, crashing noises of the partially-collapsed building, and to see if anyone made it out alive.
That left one behind.
You could deal with one.
You rushed into the room, aiming your rifle straight away, but the man was much larger and quick to disarm you. He shoved your weapon away from his direction, knocking it out of your hands and making it swing uselessly on its sling behind your back. You felt sudden panic—you smaller, more physically fragile, and you knew if you got hit once, you were down for the count.
You avoided his strikes to the best of your ability by predicting his movements, as you were trained. You stayed light on your feet. Kept your thumb outside your fist. Rolled from the hips. Followed through.
Just like he taught you.
The punch dazed the man for no more than a split-second, enough time for you to regrasp your gun and finish the job.
The gory mess phased you less the second time around, even if you got caught in the splashback.
You activated the evacuation call.
The beacon on the conference table made a steady humming noise as it booted up and pulsated with light. Now that the area was secure, your beacon enabled 76 and McCree to opt-in and teleport to its current location at any moment they saw fit.
Wrapping your hands back around your rifle, you headed out the door and rounded the corner. All you had to do was defend the area until—
You ran into the final Talon agent.
You held up your gun. He yanked something from his waist.
A charged shot. A beam of light. A flash of pain.
The man slumped to the ground, a hole burned into his gut clear through to the other side.
Your wound didn’t quite register until he slid the knife out of you.
At first, the only thing your senses registered was an immense pressure, a heavy, thick sensation as the blade entered you, yet sharp enough to set your teeth on edge as it was removed. Then came the heat—intense and blazing—radiating from the frays of ruined nerves bordering the split skin of your abdomen. Out of the violent disarray of sensations surging through you in dizzying succession, it was the heat that confused you the most—the strange, vivid feeling of absolute burning in your stab wound, echoed by deep, dull thud-thud-thuds of agony that worsened with each pulsing, unrelenting wave. You were surprised at how long it took to feel it.
You were surprised at how long it took to bleed.
You don’t remember crumpling to the floor, but suddenly you were there, surrendering to the pain flaring across your senses. You weren’t sure how long it took for the two large, familiar figures to blur into your hazy vision; at once, you offered them the envelope from your back pocket, your fingers slippery with blood that was your own and viscera that most certainly was not. You don’t remember what you said to them, but you’d done your job.
They trusted you with their lives and you pulled through. They were safe.
They were safe.
That was all that mattered.
You sighed as everything around you faded to darkness.
THERE'S A BLOG NOW, HAVE YOU FOLLOWED IT YET?? http://miss-conduct.tumblr.com/
Don't worry, this ending is a fake-ass cliffhanger, you are definitely not going to die, but with what we have planned next this was just the best place to end the chapter and also McCree and 76 don't know you're not going to die so that's going to be fun to watch, right???
This chapter is the product of stressful days and sleepless nights, we rewrote this shit seventeen thousand times because coming up with missions and good character motivations and realistic scenarios that you can't poke holes in is really hard. I hope we did a good job. Action scenes aren't my strong suit but this fic's making me work on it and I hope it's decent. We're gonna try, try, try to get the next chapter out before Christmas because 1001 amazing things happen in the next chapter and we want you to see it as soon as possible.
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Chapter 7: collide
before you continue, we strongly recommend going back to the previous chapter and rereading the last scene, just to put you back in the mindset of what was going on.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Two seconds later, you were jolted with a heavy slap to the face.
“Y’ain’t fallin’ asleep, kid,” said McCree, his voice rough and laden with worry, “so keep those eyes of yours open for me, alright?”
The sting that shot across your cheek paled in comparison to the swell of pain you felt resurge through you, burning a hole through your abdomen and making tears well at the corners of your eyes. You were awake, now, and you were not too proud to curse, loudly.
You barely registered the heavy leather jacket that draped over the front of you until you caught its familiar scent, warm and masculine; it was 76’s jacket, and with a dazed, absent thought, all you could think about was how bad you felt getting your blood all over it.
A switch had flipped in the Commander, his attention directed on you with laser focus. The older man’s voice never rose above a low timber. Every one of his movements was urgent, but calm, level-headed and steady-handed.
76 dropped his rifle on his sling and picked you up, bridal-style, like you weighed nothing.
“Grab their tech,” he ordered. “We can’t let Talon get their hands on it.”
The room sparked with sounds of electricity short-circuiting as McCree yanked on various wires and apparatuses he didn’t understand, trying to gather as much of your beacon as he could under his arm before moving out. Better half-destroyed than in the wrong hands, anyway.
Fog clouded your awareness. Something inside your chest grew tighter and tighter as the moments passed; it was getting harder to breathe, and you allowed your head to drop, just a little.
76 hoisted you up a bit, taking care not to jostle your abdomen. “Need you to stay awake, Reader.”
Strategically positioned for an emergency escape, the dropship was within a forest clearing nearby, not too far from where you’d placed your beacon. With the evac procedure having moved quickly enough to delay attracting attention, your teammates escorted you back without incident—even so, McCree had his revolver drawn the entire time, keeping his eyes open for unwanted audiences until the ship’s drawbridge closed and he could safely shout at Athena to get you guys the hell out of dodge.
You were still cursing under your unsteady breath like a drunken sailor, curled up and bleeding in your Commander’s arms, and he tried his hardest to ignore how much colder you’d grown since he first grabbed hold of you, or how your breathing had become raspier with god knows what filling your chest until your weakened voice sounded absolutely nothing like you.
76 held onto you, keeping steady on his feet upon takeoff until the vessel finally stabilized in the air. He lowered you onto ground and activated a biotic field for the area. A calm, yellow glow enveloped the room and eased your pain, if only slightly, acting as a general anesthetic.
“Medkit,” 76 grumbled.
Chewing on his cigar, McCree yanked a large, white plastic box from the wall of the ship and handed it over.
76 opened it and rummaged for supplies. “Keep their head up.”
McCree hesitated for a moment, before awkwardly kneeling down behind you and setting your head in his lap.
“How bad?” he asked.
76 tore off his leather gloves. “We’ll see.”
“S’fine,” you squeaked through gritted teeth. Your breathing whistled, laced with a high-pitched wheezing, lungs rattling beneath your chest like shutters in a storm. “M’fine. M’okay.”
“Jesus—why do they sound like that?”
“Collapsed lung,” 76 replied. He turned back to you. “Stop talking.”
With McCree’s help, the Commander turned you slightly on your side and slid your shirt up, grabbing an alcohol pad from the medkit and sterilizing a spot just below your ribcage. He checked the supply kit’s sealed needles for their gauges, finally finding the one most suitable and tearing the package open.
You felt a sharp, thick length of metal poke against the side of your back.
“Hold tight,” he warned.
And he shoved the needle hard into your skin.
You cried out. A short, audible hiss escaped through the hub of the needle, preventing your chest cavity from refilling with dead air and putting pressure on your heart. You gasped, loud and deep, swallowing oxygen as if you’d never tasted it in your life. You could breathe again.
“Good,” 76 mumbled. “Deep breaths. Don’t panic.”
You coughed and sputtered a few times, catching your breath and getting used to the sudden lack of strain in your chest. God, it hurt, it hurt, it fucking hurt—from the gaping wound in your front to the new pinprick hole on your side—it all hurt like hell, and fuck, you couldn’t stand it, but you bit back the overwhelming urge to cry with every scrap of willpower you had left. You didn’t want him to see you as weak—you were fine, you were fine, you could man up, this was nothing, he’d been through so much worse compared to you, you could handle this.
Tears slid down your face anyway, betraying you.
(Please don’t be disappointed in me, Commander—please, please, please.)
“They’re losing too much blood,” 76 said shortly. “This can’t wait until we land. I need to close the wound.”
McCree blinked. “Y’don’t mean...”
“Don’t have a choice.”
76 grabbed a larger item from the medkit, something rolled up in stiff black cloth that filled you with an undeniable sense of dread.
McCree grabbed a silver flask from his inner pocket, unscrewed it, and brought it to your lips.
“Drink,” he ordered.
So you did.
Whatever it was burned like hell on the way down. You tried not to choke on it.
76 would’ve reamed him out for trying to force-feed you alcohol in your compromised state, but at this point, the older man was far too tunnel-visioned on threading the suture needle and getting what he had to do done properly.
He turned you back over and lifted your shirt further to give him access to the wound.
There was a small mole on the skin of your chest.
What were the chances?
He grabbed saline solution from the medkit, his bare hands smearing your blood across the translucent plastic bottle, and he emptied its contents to clean the area and flush out the open wound.
You winced hard at the sensation, and cold, metal fingers wrapped around your own.
Though the pain-filled haze, you realized it was McCree who had taken your hand, trying to provide some semblance of reassurance while 76 did all he could to stabilize you. You wondered why McCree was refusing to look you in the eyes.
You wondered if he knew exactly how shitty this was going to feel.
Pausing for a moment, 76 reached up and took your chin in his hands, gentle yet firm, just enough to get you to face him proper and prove you were still awake. “This is going to hurt like hell, but I need you to stay still.”
You could feel wetness on your jaw from your blood on his fingers.
“Yes, sir,” came your reply.
And you felt the suture needle delve into your skin, tactical and unceremonious.
It was the strangest sensation you’d ever felt in your life. The sharp pinprick of a needle entering your skin, the long, thick line of suture running roughly through the fresh puncture, the pressure of your split, bleeding skin being tightly pulled shut—rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat; smooth, fast, efficient motions—this was not the first time 76 had done this, and the thought both comforted and terrified you.
Even with your nerves full of biotic influence and your gut full of whiskey, you were still in unbearable amounts of pain; however, instead of writhing and cursing and sputtering whatever frantic nonsense raced across your addled thoughts, all you could do now was tremble in place. You squeezed McCree’s hand tight enough to make your arm shake, trying your hardest not to squirm lest you risk breaking your Commander’s concentration and messing up his handiwork.
“Hang in there, sweetheart,” 76 whispered. “You’re doing good, you’re doing real good. Keep it up.”
Unfortunately, you were not compromised enough to miss the way your stomach dared to flutter at his earnesty, as idiotic as it was to feel something like that at a time like this. His voice was the most gentle you’d ever heard it, but you couldn’t shake the sickening feeling that his tone felt like pity. You knew it was your own goddamn fault you got hurt in the first place, trying to prevent your teammates from waltzing into an ambush, but if you were to bleed out here, you’d only die knowing you managed to save them and fail them at the same goddamn time.
Angrily squeezing your eyes shut, you tried to get the tears to stop, but more of them came anyway. You were practically sobbing in front of your commanding officer. How fucking pathetic.
All you wanted to do was sleep.
Another tug of suture sewing you shut.
You swallowed hard, wincing at the bolt of pain that rippled through you when you did. “This feels so weird.”
“I know,” 76 said, his hands still working against you. “I know it does, but I need you to stay with me until I get you stabilized. I need you need to stay awake. Alright?”
“Haven’t reached the stars, yet.”
The way your grip on McCree’s hand tightened did not escape the cowboy’s notice.
You weren’t sure if it was the collapsed lung in your chest or the heart in your throat that was making it hard to breathe, again.
“Stay with me,” 76 repeated, quietly, and this time it felt nothing like pity.
You nodded, glancing down at him with drowsy, half-lidded eyes.
As soon as your condition stabilized, you were out like a light.
Sighing to himself, 76 ran his hands under the steaming hot water of the nearest sink, trying his damn hardest not to think about how much of your blood was all over him, the floor, McCree...you were all going to be okay, though, minus some catastrophic natural disaster striking the dropship clean out of the air.
He wondered if you had a backup plan for that, too.
76 didn’t want to admit it, but it had been close there, for a moment or two—thankfully, you were incredibly stubborn. What kind of a commanding officer would he be if he just let you die on the first mission like that, anyway? He was just getting to know you. You, the brilliant engineer who made contingency plans when you were nervous. You, the failed astronaut who shot for the moon and landed in a space he was lucky enough to share with you.
The skin of his hands were tinted red now, irritated by the heat of the water. After getting them as clean as he figured they could be, 76 returned his gaze to where he’d left you, surrounded by used medical supplies and ruined washcloths. McCree had moved you off his lap and onto a nearby couch; he was looking down at you, now, his expression unreadable until he caught 76’s stare.
“Legs were gettin’ numb,” he joked, tonelessly.
76 said nothing.
Your cheeks were still stained from when he touched you with fingers coated in your blood; the dried marks of scarlet were a sharp contrast to your pale, drained skin. For now, though, you looked peaceful, and 76 found some meager relief knowing you weren’t in pain while you were unconscious.
He took a seat near you, and the words he’d said earlier flashed through his mind.
‘Nothing’s going to happen to you. Not while I’m around.’
He knew the second those words left his mouth that it was a promise he couldn’t keep, a promise no true soldier had any right to make, and he’d said them, anyway. Was it because he regretted making you worry about the assignment? Was it because he probably would have said anything right then and there to ease your anxiety and put a smile back on your face?
Whatever the reason, he’d let you down.
The sound of McCree’s voice snapped 76 from his idle, self-loathing thoughts.
The cowboy had reclaimed his spot across the room. He had his arms folded behind his head, tipping the brim of his hat over his eyes; he rocked back and forth in his hammock, slowly, letting himself unwind for the first time since he left the dropship earlier that day.
“We are not having this conversation,” 76 snapped. “Not with a cipher to decode and an agent passed out from live surgery.”
McCree chuckled softly. “Just makin’ an observation, Sarge.”
“Stop calling me that.”
“You rather I use somethin’ else, Jack?”
76 narrowed his eyes, even though he knew the younger man wouldn’t see them from behind the visor. “Haven’t gone by that name in a long time. Best you keep it that way.”
Another moment of silence.
McCree took the cigar from his mouth and tapped the ash lightly from the end. “You’re avoidin’ the subject. Ain’t never seen you this gentle with anyone.”
“What was I supposed to do, yell?” His voice grew firm. “Speaking of, funneling that backwater swill you call liquor down the throat of an injured agent helps no one. You realize alcohol thins the blood and makes my job a hell of a lot har—”
“They needed somethin’ before you started sewin’ ‘em up, Sarge. I mean—no anesthetic? Been there, felt that. Noooo thank you.”
He had a point.
“...don’t let it happen again.”
Without looking, McCree reached into his pocket, tossing over the small device they’d stripped from the Talon general. “You reckon there’s gonna be an again?”
Without looking, 76 caught it. “You know what I mean.”
The Commander reached into his own back pocket and took out the blood-stained envelope that allegedly contained the algorithm needed to decode the Talon agent’s cipher. Where on earth had you gotten this? The same place you picked up Reyes’ name? The assignment resulted in more questions than answers, but he wasn’t about to wake you up to interrogate you. Not now, anyway.
You needed your rest.
He glanced over at you, again. Your face was twisted in an uncomfortable grimace, and 76 wondered if you were in pain or having a nightmare about being in pain or both, god forbid. The thought made something unpleasant stir in the pit of his stomach.
Across the room, McCree took out his flask and finished what little remained of its contents. He made a small, thoughtful noise, just enough to garner attention.
76 raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
“Nothin’.” He shrugged, nonchalant. “Just never knew chapstick came in strawberry.”
And Mr. Integrity’s blood began to boil.
McCree had absolutely zero reason to point out the flavor you’d left on the lip of his flask other than to get under 76’s skin, but it was yet another in an infuriatingly long list of unwarranted daydream topics, and 76 had never wanted to throttle another man so badly in his life.
Deciding to take the high road, 76 turned his attention back to the envelope in his hands. You mentioned it was only valid for a little while longer.
He had to get to work.
You were woken up in the middle of the night with a cold poke to the nose and a painfully aching reminder that you were not, in fact, dead.
“Rise n’ shine, sleepin’ beauty,” McCree drawled. “Angela’ll be around any minute, now.”
The dropship had landed a few moments ago. The biotic field 76 provided was running on low, its warm glow having almost died down completely. Your injury was sewn tight and covered in gauze which, by the looks of it, had been changed multiple times throughout your sleep. The once-gaping agony was minimized to a dull throbbing in your abdomen; the stab wound now felt more similar to any other cut, only deeper and far more amplified.
“No kiddin’. How you feelin’?”
McCree laughed, warm and low. “Alive, though.”
“Yeah.” You stared at the ceiling. “Christ, thanks for saving my ass.”
“Don’t thank me, kid, Sarge did all the dirty work. Haven’t seen him get that serious in a while, like he was damn possessed...talk about a man on a mission.”
“Yeah, well.” You rubbed a hand over your face. Flakes of dried blood caught beneath your fingernails. “Kinda told that man to shove his direct order up his ass, so I’m surprised I haven’t been wheeled into court martial yet.”
“He’s too busy investigatin’ that algorithm of yours. He found somethin’ while he was lookin’ at it on-board that lit a fire under his ass.”
You sighed, running your fingers through your tangled bangs. They were crusted with blood, too. “Good to know we have something to show for it,” you said softly. “He’s never going to trust me again, is he?”
McCree raised an eyebrow. “You really think he’ll take the direct order thing that hard?”
“We’re military. Of course he will.” You tried to give a disheartened shrug, but the action pulled on your side and you winced at the sting that shot through you. “I don’t even remember most of what happened after I got hurt. There was a lot of running. He carried me, stabbed my back with something...” You grimaced again, but not out of pain. “...you gave me whiskey.”
“Moonshine,” McCree clarified, grinning. “Sarge gave me hell for it, too.”
You couldn’t help but laugh, even if it hurt.
“Then he...stitched me up.” You closed your eyes, took a deep breath. “And he called me...”
Red tinted your cheeks, much to McCree’s amusement.
The memory was fuzzy, but it was there. You could hear it, the gentle timbre of 76’s voice speaking to you softly; the thought of his hands, warm and rough on your skin, still fresh in your mind. He had been so careful with you, stitching you up with practiced precision, doing all he could to keep you alive in spite of your blatant insubordination.
...you had let him down.
The realization caused your heart to drop through your stomach.
He spent so much of his free time training you, supporting you, encouraging you in his own gruff, steadfast way, and this was how you thanked him. Before the mission, you told him that you trusted him, and he told you that he trusted you in return. Disobeying a direct order was a gross violation of that trust. All you wanted to do was keep him and McCree safe, and you nearly died doing so.
You hung up your comms and refused to activate the Waypoint despite a direct order. Was it the right decision? What the hell did you know, anyway? Maybe if you followed orders, everything would have been fine. You knew of 76’s Tactical Visor and McCree’s Deadeye technology, though you weren’t quite sure what they did. What if they couldn’t tell you they’d be okay because they knew the comm lines were compromised?
What if they didn’t need your protection in the first place?
You buried your face in your hands.
You were finally getting somewhere, not only with your career in Overwatch, but with your commanding officer, as well. 76 had opened up to you more on the dropship to Romania than he had during the entire time he spent training you—you had been so ready to help him accomplish his mission, you negotiated with a fucking terrorist. And for what? Did you actually want to help him accomplish his goals, or did you just want him to be grateful to you? Indebted to you? To give him a reason to look your way?
Recalling the softness of his voice as he tended to you only made your heart sting.
God, you were so selfish. And now you were paying the price.
If he didn’t hate you outright, he most certainly at least thought less of you now, what with your blatant disobedience. The reason 76 left so soon after landing was probably because he couldn’t stand being around you any longer than he had to—he didn’t even stay to make sure you reached the hospital bay alright. The next time you saw him would probably be in a court martial hearing, deciding your fate as a result of your insubordination.
The thought made your stomach twist into unpleasant knots. To think, everything you worked so hard to build over the past few months had all come crumbling down on your first mission.
Maybe if you hadn’t been so stupid, things would have been different. Maybe, in some alternate universe, you spent the dropship ride back shooting the shit with McCree and 76 rather than bleeding out on the steel floor with your commanding officer trying to stitch split pieces of you back together.
“Kid?” McCree spoke up, voice tinged with concern. “You got quiet. What’s on your mind?”
You weren’t sure what hurt the most—the injury in your side, the fact that your career here was over, or the thought that maybe, just maybe, 76 could have liked you back.
People like Zarya could rarely be found in their designated offices, but the sensitivity of the current situation had warranted the meeting, even if the pink-haired woman still refused to sit down while she spoke.
Zarya’s office walls were heavily decorated with medals and plaques, equally sourced from her athletics and her military service, with the majority of her commendations scripted or engraved with Cyrillic messages that couldn’t be read by most people on-base. Her shelves and desk space, on the other hand, were tightly packed with an impressive variety of stuffed animals, and small weights, and stuffed animals mock-lifting small weights.
76 almost couldn’t take her concerns seriously with the little doll sitting behind her: a plush royal blue elephant lifting a stitched kettlebell with its trunk. His gaze then landed on the massive golden weightlifting trophy the elephant was tucked inside, and he was viciously reminded to take her concerns very seriously, indeed.
“I do not think this is a good idea,” Zarya repeated.
As someone who shared her hatred of sitting in offices, 76 opted to lean against the wall, instead. “I know you don’t.”
“Наебали.” Zarya opened the folder, and pointed to the familiar skull insignia plastered to the front pages of the algorithm. “Do you know what she has done my country, Soldier? Tearing my people apart with false images of one of the most powerful women in the world, during a crisis when my country had to stay united the most?”
Having dealt with political corruption firsthand, 76 had plenty of opinions regarding Katya Volskaya’s unambiguous betrayal, but he thought it wise to keep them to himself. “That’s why I thought you’d be interested. It’s a chance to track her down.”
“I am not an idiot,” she said shortly, tossing the file on her desk. “You think I do not know a trap when I see one?”
“Precautions can be taken. It’s the only lead we have.”
“But you know who is behind this intel.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, Zarya scoffed, her large hands gesturing at nothing in particular. “And you think she gives us this information for free? Sombra knows who you are and she knows who you are after. She wanted you to have this, so you could be pawn in her disgusting little game. Who do you think set up ambush in Romania in first place? How else would they know how Reader’s evacuation worked?”
That caught 76 a little off-guard. “...you know about that?”
“I was not going to wait for official report. I went down to medical bay, asked Reader questions before Doctor kicked me out.”
He sighed, heavily. Hopefully the experience hadn’t left you traumatized.
“How did mishka like my card, by the way?” Zarya asked, flashing a smirk.
“Couldn’t say,” he replied. “Haven’t gone down to see them, yet.”
76 felt his stomach sink. Why not? You disobeyed a direct order on the field, put your life in jeopardy, that’s why. He knew you would have to face consequences for it, but the other, more shameful, most unmentionable part of him was relieved you had the guts to say no to something you didn’t agree with, and he didn’t necessarily want to reprimand you for taking a stand for what you thought was right.
He wanted to convince himself it was the insubordination that kept him from visiting you—truth was, he promised to keep you safe, and you wound up nearly bleeding out in his arms later that very same day.
How could he face you in the wake of the realization you would’ve died for him without a second thought?
“Reader got hurt pretty bad out there,” he said, finally. “Guess it got to me worse than I thought it did.”
“You have lost soldiers under your command before.”
“This is different.”
“They’re valuable. Their tech gives us a strong tactical advantage we didn’t have before, we need them.”
“I need them,” he said flatly, as if it were obvious.
Zarya did a double-take, mouth rounded in mid-response.
“On my team,” he amended. “I need them on the team. On our side.”
Not buying it for a second, Zarya rolled her eyes. “How long are you going to keep lying to yourself?”
He sighed, again. “As long as it takes for me to believe it.”
“Don’t make such big deal of this. Talon is regrouping. Sombra has revealed herself for the first time in months. There are more important things to worry about.”
He nodded at the intel on the desk. “I’m giving you the lead on Sombra. You care about finding her more than I do.”
“And let me guess, you are heading straight into her trap. Yes?”
“Don’t have a choice.”
“Keep telling yourself that. How long will you be gone this time?”
“Situation’s changing pretty fast, not a lot of time to plan.” He unfolded his arms and headed towards the door. “Couple weeks, tops.”
“Say goodbye to mishka before you go.”
76 made a noise of acknowledgement before he stepped out of Zarya’s office.
He knew it wasn’t a suggestion.
You woke up to two gorgeous women having a conversation at the doorway of your hospital room and you briefly wondered if you’d died and made it to heaven.
You recognized the woman on the left as Dr. Ziegler, with her platinum blonde hair in its trademark updo and her stark-white lab coat loose and comfortable around her curves. A distinctly warm glow illuminated her presence wherever she walked, even without the golden aura of her Valkyrie suit. As gentle as her gaze was, the stress lines marking her eyes made her look perpetually tired, as if she’d seen far too much for far too long. You and the good doctor had become acquainted with each other some time ago—she performed your physical when you first arrived, and if you two happened to be on the same base, she was never too busy to lend you an ice pack or a heat wrap after your more rigorous training sessions.
The woman on the right, however, struck you as wholly unfamiliar. From what you could see of her profile, she had bronze skin, a tall nose, and dark, silken hair flowing to her shoulders. Gold hair bangles, glinting in the the low light, held a pair of symmetrical braids in place, framing her strong face beautifully. Although she was dressed quite casually, she held a fixed, proper posture where she stood, her back straight and her head held high. She had a hard voice, too—powerful and authoritative—and without knowing who she was, she immediately struck you as military.
“—says he knows where Amélie is.”
“That is what he told me, as well.”
“It’s quite worrying.”
“But if he were to bring her back...”
“I don’t know, that is...far outside my field of expertise. I can fix the body, but when the mind is broken...”
Dr. Ziegler’s head whipped towards you, picking up a sound you didn’t even know you’d made.
“I need to get back to work, spatzerl,” she whispered, hushed. “We’ll talk later.”
The stranger tipped forward, breaking her poised stance to press a kiss to Dr. Ziegler’s forehead. A dazzling smile blossomed across the doctor’s face.
“I told you,” the blonde beamed, pressing a gentle hand to the other woman’s chest, “not in front of my patients.”
The dark-haired woman laughed softly, brushing a curled hand against the other’s cheek before walking away. Dr. Ziegler clicked her tongue and slapped her shoulder playfully as she took her leave.
“So,” she sighed, approaching your bed as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, “how are we feeling?”
You suddenly realized you were hiding half your face under the covers.
“M’okay,” you said meekly. “Sorry. I. Didn’t, um...didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Fareeha and I can talk anytime.”
“Fareeha?” You sat up, lowering the sheets from your face. “Wait, was that Captain Amari?”
“Hm?” Distracted, Dr. Ziegler was busy looking over various readings on the machines around you. “Oh! Yes. Captain Amari. Not to be confused with Commander Amari. That distinction is very important. Be careful who you address the internal mail to.”
As much as you wanted to know the story behind that slightly foreboding piece of advice, you couldn’t help but feel overwhelming shame over the fact that your first introduction to the legendary Captain Fareeha Amari starred you knocked out and half-drooling on a hospital pillow. You were on a roll with all these great impressions you were leaving.
God, you hated yourself.
Tipping back to lean against the headboard, you turned to glance at the table by your bed, looking over the things that were left for you while you were asleep.
The stack of graph paper was clearly from Winston: it was a set of handdrawn blueprints containing proposed modifications to the next build of your beacon. The new version would be significantly more portable, and it would also project a biotic aura upon use to facilitate recovery upon evacuation, giving you some basic medical capabilities on the field.
There were two paper cranes left for you, as well; one of the small origami birds was folded with razor precision, while the other was less symmetrical and looked as if it had been refolded several times over. You had an idea as to who they belonged to, but you didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
At first, you weren’t sure who got you the get-well card. It had a cute cartoon character on the front, but the card itself was blank inside, except for a tiny handwritten note that read...
If you die on me, I will kill you.
...and suddenly, you knew exactly who it was from.
Somehow, you’d refrained from asking Dr. Ziegler whether or not 76 had come to see you yet, if only because it made you ill to think about how transparent the inquiry would’ve made you. If he had come by, he’d brought nothing with him, and that fact only served to fuel your fear. You knew he was upset, you knew you’d fucked up way harder than any apology could ever fix, but you held out some semblance of hope he’d visit, anyway.
That’s when you saw him walk through the door.
Dr. Ziegler was adjusting the dosage on your IV when she noticed the sudden shift in your demeanor. You went from relaxed, passive daydreaming to tensing from head to toe, your back straight as a board as you stared down at your now-fidgeting hands, wracked with anxiety. She shot the doorway a very serious look, her stern expression refusing to soften even after she saw who it was.
She then, in all of her infinite graciousness, asked you if you wanted her to stay.
You shook your head and denied your cowardice the satisfaction.
“Then I will be nearby,” she said, loud enough for both of you to hear.
Walking away, she stopped to mumble something at him before she left the room.
76 had spent the first twelve of the past eighteen hours programming your algorithm and using the resulting code to decrypt Talon’s ciphers. He then spent the next six hours comparing the new intel with intel he’d already acquired, both from Overwatch’s servers and his own personal research, cross-referencing multiple data points for accuracy and missing pieces. He hadn’t eaten in a day, he hadn’t slept in two. The digital pursuit of his new leads was interspersed with flashbacks of you nearly dying in his arms, but the last thing he wanted was your efforts to go to waste.
Of course, you knew none of this.
He wasn’t sure what look he was expecting to see on your face when he visited you for the first time, but it sure as hell wasn’t that one.
Your expression was suddenly awash with a nauseated mixture of fear and shame. You didn’t want to look at him, you were so apprehensive, so goddamn distraught—you felt like if you managed to level his eyes, you’d feel nothing but disappointment and frustration radiating from his entire being and compounding onto the self-hatred you already felt over what had happened. You knew him well enough to not have to see him; you could imagine his visor glowing from the doorway, how he’d fold his arms in the shadows and play a game of silent chicken until you broke.
“Please just tell me when the court martial hearing is.”
76 felt his chest tighten. You sounded so small.
He knew you understood the gravity of the situation, but he’d forgotten how hard someone like you would take it. Even so, out of everything that had transpired over the past day, he was surprised that was what had been weighing on your thoughts most of all. Knowing that he’d been a primary source of fear and apprehension for you since he last saw you filled him with retroactive dread his apologies couldn’t begin to ease.
So he decided his apologies could wait.
“The algorithm,” he said. “Tell me where you got it.”
And you told him.
From beginning to end, while still avoiding direct eye contact, you poured out every detail you could remember about what happened to you during the assignment—about the perimeter check, about the woman who could turn invisible in the blink of an eye, about how much she knew and everything she had told you.
“I didn’t give her anything,” you assured. “She didn’t take anything, either. I asked what she wanted in return for the algorithm and she just smiled at me like she knew something I didn’t.”
“That’s how she operates. She’s done something for you that she can blackmail you for later.”
“Not sure what favours she’ll try to ask from me, she knows a hell of a lot more than I do. She knew about me, about Talon, and the cipher...she knew you and how important finding Amélie and Gabriel was to you.”
“Only means she’s looking for them, too. She just wants me to do the footwork for her.”
“Wait, so the intel...”
He went quiet for a moment.
The sound of his heavy footsteps approaching set your nerves on edge. He took a seat next to you on the hospital bed. You felt the mattress sink by your side.
You glanced over at him, in spite of yourself.
Slouched back. Folded fingers. Line of sight fixed to the ground. Rare as it was, you knew this look. You knew it came from a heavy workload, from skipped meals, from missed sleep and private stress placing pressure on this load-bearing pillar of a man, and it was all you could do to restrain yourself from holding him up with your own two hands.
“When I came through the transport and saw you on the ground,” he started, turning slightly away from you, “the only thing I could think of was getting you out of there safely. But you...do you remember the first thing you did when you saw me?”
You shook your head. After sustaining your injury, most of what happened that wasn’t movement or pain was a dirty smudge in the timeline of your memory.
“You held up the envelope, and you repeated the same words. ‘Cipher. Save them.’ Just the same thing, over and over, again. You were dying back there and all you cared about was saving people you didn’t even know.”
“Yikes,” you smiled shyly, embarrassed. “Sounds like something I’d do, actually.”
“Because they’re important to you. Because Reyes is important to you.” You paused for a moment, wondering if you’d been too bold in saying so. “She...told me that, too.”
76 fell once more into silence. How much had she said?
How much did you know?
“We weren’t expecting enemy interference,” he interjected, changing the subject as he turned back to you, “so you didn’t have full disclosure of our abilities. You had no idea we could’ve handled the ambush without putting you in danger, and we couldn’t tell you that on compromised lines without giving ourselves away.”
“You took down five agents that day.”
It was your turn to go quiet.
“How did it feel?”
Your eyes drifted away from him as your fingers curled in the sheets. You’d forgotten that, unlike most of your other squadmates, 76 knew you never killed anyone before. Now that he was asking you, you didn’t know if you could gather the thoughts or the words to articulate it properly, what it meant to take a life. Several lives.
“I didn’t...feel anything,” you said. You shook your head, correcting yourself. “No—I mean, I did, but...I—I couldn’t. I couldn’t think about it for too long. They’re part of an organization, like I am. They were on a mission, like I was. They were people with lives and families and friends, with twisted, fucked-up motivations for joining who they joined and doing what they did, and I thought I had to clear them out because all I could think about was seeing these people—these people with their lives and their families and their friends—killing my teammates, and I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t watch you die. I couldn’t.”
“It was them or us.”
“You did what you thought was right.”
“So were they.”
“There’s no universe in which the murdering of innocents can be considered the right thing to do, but that’s what Talon has been doing. That is the terrorist organization these people have chosen to associate with, and it’s our job to make them deal with the consequences of that decision.”
You ran a hand through your hair. “What if some of them just got caught up on the wrong side against their will, like your friends did? What if they just don’t have anyone to save them?”
“You can’t save everyone.”
“I know.” A smile flickered across your face. “I at least thought I saved you.”
The remark took him by surprise, if only for a moment.
“McCree and I have agreed to keep...certain details out of the official mission report,” he said. “When you get around to filing yours, as far as anyone is concerned, a direct order was never issued. You made a decision, and you cut off communication to prevent your plan from becoming compromised. That’s the story. Stick to it.”
Your eyes snapped up towards your Commander, as if the man sitting on your bed had suddenly been replaced by someone you didn’t recognize. Lying on an official report? Encouraging others to lie on their official reports? All to give you a second chance, with little more consequence than a slap to the wrist?
You bit back the relief threatening to flood the dam built up by your anxiety, on the off-chance his suggestion was a ruse meant to test the boundaries of your integrity.
76 looked away from you and hunched forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. “I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, soldier. I don’t issue direct orders lightly. When I make a call, I make it for the good of the team. Insubordination puts everyone in jeopardy.”
“...I know. I’m sorry. I’m glad I’m the only one who got hurt because of it.”
“That’s not something to be glad about.”
“Could’ve been worse, sir. Could’ve always been worse.”
“Regardless,” he continued, still facing away, “if we’re going to be on the same field, I need you to trust me out there.”
“I do trust you, Commander. I’m just...after what I did, I’m hoping the feeling is still mutual.”
The metal of his visor glinted in the low light as he turned to face you. “Always.”
And you finally let the relief wash over you.
Knowing you had a second shot at this empowered you with renewed vigor. You were told that, as a support class, a well-trained enemy would always aim for you first, that priority targeting was an occupational hazard you needed to be well-aware of. You realized, now, that this meant more than risking your life protecting your squadmates—it meant that, more than anything, you had to protect yourself. They were your protection as much as you were theirs; you had to do everything you could to stay alive out there, so you could always be their escape route.
“The intel checks out, by the way,” 76 spoke up, surfacing you from your thoughts. “We’ve decrypted coordinates, dates, times...enough to begin strategizing. And if I play my cards right, I can find one of the people I’m looking for.”
You perked up. “Gabriel?”
“Amélie. She’s being held underground. I need to get her out.”
“Oh, shit.” You leaned forward. “Let me come with you.”
“Can’t,” he said. “Winston wants to coordinate with strategists from the UN, take Talon down systematically. I’ll lose track of her if we wait. If I go, the mission wouldn’t be sanctioned by Overwatch—anything bad happens, they’ll deny all involvement. I need to do this on my own. Off the grid.”
“Then we’ll go off the grid.”
“You need me out there.” You tried to swallow the panic lacing your voice. The thought of him infiltrating an underground base on his own terrified you. “Another body watching your back doubles your chances of success. We just had a mission together, Commander, you know what I’m capable—”
“I’m not asking you to put your life on the line for me.”
“You don’t have to.”
Though you were surprised at the resolve behind your words, you held, unwavering, back straight and head held high, staring through the impassive red glass of his visor to where you imagined the blue of his eyes would be.
You were suddenly enveloped with strength and warmth and it took you a moment to register that he’d gathered you in his arms.
He felt like a goddamn brick wall, solid and firm and vaguely unpracticed with close contact, an anchor to keep you steadfast amongst the swells of anxiety threatening to drown you. You could hear him sigh against your shoulder, you could feel his breathing as his chest rose and fell against yours; one of his hands clutched at the back of your hospital gown, gathering the fabric in his fist, holding onto you like he was worried you’d vanish the moment he let go.
“God, sweetheart, I thought I lost you.”
The deep rumble of his voice resonated right through you. The endearment and its implications hadn’t escaped you, and heat blossomed in your cheeks as he continued to hold you against him, even moreso as you noticed his familiar scent against you, leather and plasma and something distinctly masculine that made you feel safe and secure.
Had the thought of something happening to you affected him that badly?
You felt yourself choke on your breath.
No, god no, not this, not now—you couldn’t cry in front of him, not again. It was a miracle he didn’t hate you for the insubordination, you didn’t need to give him any more reasons to think less of you. But you couldn’t stop the tears from coming, no matter how hard you tried—being there in his arms, feeling the intensity of his fear, it was too much, it was all way too goddamn much.
Your arms found their way around his frame, until your hands barely met across the broadness of his back.
“I’m sorry,” you murmured, voice muffled by your face in his shoulder, “I’m so sorry.”
That was all you could think of to say to him, your voice occasionally broken by the odd sob or two. Your tears leaked onto the leather of his jacket, which he must’ve reclaimed sometime between the impromptu surgery and now, and you absently wondered if he managed to get all your blood out of it. You knew you were crying in front of him, fucking again, but emotions were overflowing from the bottle you tried to trap them in and you couldn’t really bring yourself to care.
76’s only response was to wrap his arms even tighter around you, holding you impossibly close. You’re pretty sure felt your back crack that time, and you breathed an embarrassed laugh at the sound it made—but when he threaded his fingers through your hair to cup his palm against the back of your head, guiding you to rest against his shoulder, you shut your eyes and felt your body sigh as you melted into the safety of his embrace.
Nothing in the world could hurt you. Not as long as you were here.
Neither of you said a word. Instead, you focused on the sound of each other breathing, letting the steady rhythms calm you both until you stopped crying and he stopped trembling. He wondered if you could notice how he was trying not to hold his breath, marveling over how perfectly you fit in his arms—you wondered if he could feel how hard your heart was hammering beneath your chest, and whether or not you cared enough to be embarrassed about it.
Eventually, you mustered enough brainpower to break the comfortable silence.
“Does this mean I get to stay?” you asked, voice still muffled by his jacket.
“Only if you want to,” 76 replied, and god, you loved how the words felt in his chest.
The hand bunching the back of your hospital gown loosened, just a little, and you brought one of your hands up and down his back, attempting to soothe him. His leather was worn and rough under your fingertips, but you liked the sensation. It was familiar.
Your Commander slid his hands down the length of your arms while he pulled away from you, and you let him, realizing that he wasn’t wearing gloves as you watched his large, warm hands encompass yours, now settled in your blanketed lap. He was looking right at you, you could feel it, with him carefully minding any sense of reluctance or discomfort from you; he was watching you to make sure you were okay with this, but you were busy watching the way his hands fit over yours as he ran his thumbs over your fingers.
You were certain you looked as bad as you felt. The stress had painted dark patches beneath your eyes. Tear tracks stained your cheeks with lines of salt, and you were still sniffling from all that crying. You hadn’t had a proper shower since before you left on assignment, and you were pretty sure there was still god knows what caked in your hair from the fight. He didn’t seem to care. Neither did you. He made you feel calm.
Even if the heart monitor indicated the contrary.
76 felt a small twinge of pride, knowing someone like him could still get your heart racing.
He nodded at the machine, keeping his voice playful. “That can’t be healthy. Should I call Angela?”
Stray tears slipped from the corners of your eyes; you laughed, softly, and you were so, so red, smiling as you tipped forward and touched your forehead against his. He leaned into the gentle contact and squeezed your hands a little tighter.
And that was when Dr. Ziegler charged back the room, her heels tapping against the linoleum as she clicked her tongue.
“Get away from them,” she scolded, slapping 76’s shoulder. “You are bad for their health.”
You gave a look of false worry as your hands parted from his. “Oh, c’mon, doc, five more minutes.”
“Absolutely not. You need rest.”
She mumbled something sharp in German and swatted him away from you and he laughed as he walked out—he laughed, like some mischievous schoolboy discovered up past curfew.
“Don’t leave until I get out of here,” you called after him.
“Better recover quick, then,” he called back.
Face still warm with embarrassment, you smiled down at your lap, remembering the faint ghost of his hands against yours, and somehow, you knew he wouldn’t be going anywhere without you.
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Chapter 8: limbo
jesus christ the response to last chapter was the biggest one yet. getting the chance to read all your reviews and concrits and liveblogs was an absolute delight. best holiday EVER.
this chapter's not quite as exciting, i'll admit, but it features a conversation that needs to be had.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He gave you a week.
The timeline for recovery itself was fine—thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, a couple of days was all you really needed to heal completely. You knew, however, that more time recovering meant less time to prepare for the upcoming mission—you could feel yourself rusting away with every second of inactivity in the infirmary, and by the time Dr. Ziegler cleared you to return to training, you were so ecstatic you could have kissed her.
You refrained, though, because Captain Amari was one of the last people on earth you wanted to make angry.
You returned to your routine at once. Zarya eased you back into your normal strength training regimen at a reasonable, yet challenging pace. Winston, who was currently attending a UN convention halfway around the world, contacted you daily at 3:30am local time to discuss your new tech while you worked on it in front of him over video conference. In your downtime, you managed to fill two notebooks with contingency plans. This time, you would be more than prepared.
There was no way you were going to let your Commander down a second time.
It wasn’t until day five when you realized you hadn’t actually seen very much of 76 over the course of the past week. Once in a while, you suspected he left on his mission without you, but then you’d catch glimpses of him stalking down a hallway with paperwork or using the training bots at an ungodly time of night, and the sight of him would dispel your fears. You figured you’d reconvene whenever he was ready to discuss the details of the mission. He was probably busy preparing for it, himself.
Unbeknownst to you, however, it was more than just the mission he was worried about.
After Dr. Ziegler shooed him out of the infirmary, he intended on catching a half-hour’s rest before getting back to work, keeping in alignment with his normal routine, but profound exhaustion and a missed alarm turned a half-hour into an hour, into two, into nine. 76 woke up in the middle of the following afternoon not remembering what day it was, suffering the disorienting ill-effects of his first full night’s sleep in years.
So much for his normal routine.
Once he recovered from his weariness and finally got some food in him, the unwanted weight of mental clarity settled on his shoulders, burdening him with the task of questioning what he’d done with you while he was drunk on anxiety and insomnia.
What on earth had possessed him to act that way, to surrender himself to sudden emotion like some pathetic, immature teenager? Now you were under the unambiguous impression he was interested in you—and, even if he was, you should’ve been the last person to ever find out.
76 was relieved when Dr. Ziegler cleared you for training, knowing your health was no longer in jeopardy. There was a small, regrettable part of him, however, that wished you’d taken longer to get back on your feet, that a week would be far too little time to make a full recovery and he would be forced to leave without you. But there you were, back to the grindstone in no time at all. You finished building the second prototype of your beacon. Your progress reports from Zarya and Winston were nothing short of glowing. 76 expected nothing less.
Why did you have to be so damn stubborn?
The thought of someone putting themselves in harm’s way for his benefit was something he hadn’t experienced in years, not since he was in charge of his own platoons, an entire lifetime ago. You didn’t need his protection, though—you weren’t a child, or a civilian, or some damsel in distress. What happened in Romania could have happened to anyone in your place, and considering the circumstances, you dealt with the situation far better than many others would have. You were no different than any other agent—no less talented, no less able—and to treat you as such because of some stupid crush was an insult to you and all you were capable of.
His interest was an insult to you, as well.
You were young, strong, brilliant, and you deserved more than what some old soldier past his prime could ever begin to offer you. He should have been the bigger person from the start—he should have quashed this infatuation before it got this out of hand. Instead, he selfishly chose to satiate his impulsive curiosity, quelling the wonder of how you’d feel in his arms if he reached for you in that hospital room, then and there without hesitation, and to hell if anything else in the world ever fit so perfectly against him.
He asked himself if he regretted it, and he could do nothing but run his hands through his hair once he found himself answering no.
76 found you in the weightlifting room, because of course you’d still be training at this hour.
You lit up when he entered. “Commander!”
Had you always smiled at him that way?
He lowered his eyes from yours to kill the warmth in his chest, but averting his gaze only meant it landed to take in the rest of you. You’d paired a standard-issue workout top with loose, yet form-fitting sweatpants. Your chest rose and fell as you caught your breath, your sweat-slicked skin flushed with effort and exhaustion. It was impossible to avoid noticing just how well you’d taken to your training regimen since he first brought you here, with the sculpt of your arms now toned and well-defined, and the firm thickness of your thighs built up from months of running and lifting.
Bits of your ponytail stuck out in place, and you tucked some of the frizzy strands behind your ear.
“You should’ve told me you wanted to see me, sir,” you laughed, embarrassed. “I would’ve left early and hit the showers, I’m a mess.”
He held his breath, for a moment or two. You were going to give him a goddamn heart attack.
You, on the other hand, were still far too worried about seeming weak, so you were pushing yourself twice as hard to prepare yourself for the upcoming assignment. You didn’t notice your Commander’s gloved fingers twitch when his eyes ran over you, or how his throat bobbed as he swallowed—you were only focused on doing your next thirty pull-ups without stopping.
Resting a hand on your opposite shoulder, you rotated your arm in an attempt to loosen up a little. “Are you here to discuss the assignment, sir? My journals are back at my quarters, I can go grab them if you want.”
“Yes, sir. I have no idea where we’re actually going, yet, so I...well, I made general plans for every environment I could think of to serve as templates for future missions.”
“How many books?”
“Two, so far. Almost three.”
“In less than a week.”
“Correct, sir. I got my polyphasic schedule back on-track, and I didn’t realize how much more time it gave me in my day. I looked over my plans from the last assignment, cooked up a bunch more for the next one, and I even had time to review my contingencies for...” You stopped yourself at once. “...other things.”
“Nothing important.” You ran the palm of your hand over the back of the other. “Anyway, you’re here to discuss details of the rescue mission, right? We’re leaving in a couple of days, we should probably go over those sooner rather than later.”
Watching you fidget, 76 couldn’t help but remember what Zarya said that day in her office.
(“They rub their hands, then, yes? They do this when they are scared.”)
The gesture left him at a loss. He couldn’t think of a reason why you’d be scared, right now—you never showed any hesitation in discussing your plans with him before. He found himself deeply unsettled by the fact he had no idea what was going through your head.
You knew, though.
”Talk to me.” His tone was gentle, but urgent.
“You make plans like crazy whenever you’re worried about something,” he said. “Tell me what’s on your mind. Are you concerned about the mission?”
You offered a smile. “Would you believe me if I said yes?”
“No, but I had to start somewhere.”
There was no voice behind the solemn laugh you breathed next. It was startling how well you’d come to know each other over the time you’d spent together, like strangers who were similar enough to already know one another completely. It had only been a few months, but you couldn’t remember what life was like before you heard the sound of his voice every day.
That didn’t make these kinds of things any easier to talk about, though.
You’d always been absolute shit at opening up to people, fearing the awkwardness would outweigh any closure you may have received from it. You wanted to fast-forward to the part where this conversation was over, so you could skip having to hear yourself put your ridiculous thoughts into words and delve straight into dealing with the following embarrassment.
Taking a deep breath, you found the courage to meet his eyes again. “I...needed a way to cope.”
“Well.” You were getting redder by the second, gesturing aimlessly with your hands. “You know, with...it’s just kind of humiliating, knowing that you knew that I...I mean, I always figured you’d be upset if you ever found out, so whenever I got nervous thinking about it, I planned ahead for negative outcomes. Best case scenario, you roll your eyes and write me up for misconduct—worst case scenario, I’d have to transfer to EcoPoint: Antarctica because you’d boot me out of here and never speak to me again.”
“...you had contingency plans for that?”
Embarrassed, you rubbed a hand over your face. “There was a flowchart.”
“In case I got angry over...this.”
Neither one of you could put a name to this, whatever this was, this strange Schrödinger’s relationship that managed to be dead and alive at the same time because neither of you were brave enough to tear the lid off the box. You’d always considered him knowing about your feelings as an irrefutable negative, with no room to entertain the thought of a happy ending. He saw reflections of his own anxieties in the facets of yours, and the realization made his stomach churn.
“How long have you been worried about this?” he asked, voice softer than usual.
You laughed, again, the sound dripping with unease. “How long have you known?”
“Not that long.” 76 rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t give me too much credit, Zarya had to bring it to my attention.”
You were mortified. Now you were worried about coming off as someone who fawned over him obnoxiously, like some stupid teenager who couldn’t shut up about their crush.
“I—I never told her!” you proclaimed.
“You didn’t have to,” he replied.
That only made you feel worse.
You couldn’t help but wonder what even motivated Zarya to bring such a topic to light in the first place, and what kind of conversation they could’ve possibly been having that would make the subject of your romantic interest even tangentially relevant. Zarya seemed like the last person on earth to waste time gossiping about other people. Or were you simply that obvious all this time?
(What had McCree said? Something about a wolf in sheepskin?)
“It’s a good thing she pointed it out, too,” 76 continued, noticing the dejection on your face. “Wouldn’t’ve occurred to me, otherwise. Didn’t even cross my mind someone like you would bother looking twice my way.”
Someone like you.
The subtle compliment made heat flourish in your cheeks again. Several days ago, you believed him finding out about how you felt would mark the end of your friendship, and now you two were doing the tenacious dance of possible reciprocation.
76 picked up on your nervousness, and it made him nervous in turn. This feeling of wanting, of being wanted, was a luxury he hadn’t afforded himself in years. Personal relationships were the first to be sacrificed in his line of work, and he’d resigned himself to living out the rest of his years on his own a long time ago. It would have been fine by him—it would have been fine, if he hadn’t met you.
He remembered your reaction when he held you in his arms, when you relaxed so wholeheartedly against him; it had been the body language of someone who cared for him, who trusted him, wholly and without question. He felt light whenever he thought about that moment, about how comforting it was to have someone that close to him, again, and the warmth the memory filled him with made him hate himself a little more than usual.
76’s eyes landed back on you, studying the shift in your expression. Your cheeks were still tinged with scarlet; you looked as if you had something important you wanted to say, dancing at the tip of your tongue and the edge of your thoughts, but you feared the words would come out all wrong.
“I’m fine with the way things are right now,” you finally admitted. “I don’t want to make things weird.”
“...is it weird?”
“No,” you replied, “and that’s what kinda scares me.”
You were right, he knew. All of this, once you pushed through the initial formalities of basic training, was comfortable. If anyone was making things weird, it was him—he had been the one to just up and wrap his arms around you completely out of the blue and without warning, not even bothering to read the situation properly, or ask your permission beforehand. But it felt natural, somehow.
This felt natural.
And he wanted to keep you safe more than ever.
Sometimes, when he shut his eyes, violent images of you bleeding out in his arms appeared in the pitch-darkness of his mind’s eye. Any rational person would have been put off missions for a while after an experience like that, and yet here you were, gearing to get back on the field with him not even a week after your brush with death. Did you understand just how much danger you were putting yourself in? Was it because of your misplaced affection that you were willing to put your life on the line for him?
Did you think being selfless would help him see you in that light?
“If I told you I wasn’t interested,” he started, choosing his words with searing precision, “would you still be volunteering yourself for this mission?”
The concern in his voice was tangible. The question itself was posed as little more than a gentle inquiry, a hypothetical that should’ve really only had one answer.
But for a split-second, you hesitated.
That was more than enough for him.
“That’s what I thought,” he growled, turning on his heel.
“W—wait, wait.” Trying to take back control of the conversation, you darted around in front of him and raised your hands. “That’s a really heavy question, sir, you just...caught me off-guard there, is all.”
“Hesitation is an answer in and of itself.”
You scowled at him. “No, it isn’t. You drop a bombshell like that without even giving me a chance to process what you’re implying?”
“And what is it I’m implying, Reader?”
“That you don’t trust me to want to do my job without the promise of being owed something at the end of it,” you barked. “Especially after what I did in Romania, as stupid as it was. Regardless of how I feel, we’re still a team, Commander—if you want me on this mission, I’ve got your back. You don’t owe me anything for that.”
“Neither do you.”
Your brow knitted together, pleading. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The idea of you being by his side on this next assignment was equal parts comforting as it was terrifying. He was at war with himself; he wanted you to feel free of any sense of obligation, but he also wanted you around as much as he could possibly have you. It didn’t make sense—there was nothing he could provide that a younger, more stable prospect couldn’t, and he couldn’t see anything coming from this except your own demise.
He hated this, wanting you as much as he did.
What would you think of him if you knew?
Minding his silence, you lowered your head enough to level his eyes. “...talk to me.”
There you were, using his own words against him. He shouldn’t have been surprised. You’d always been a fast learner.
The cruel humor in all this hadn’t escaped his notice. He always stressed how important communication was both on and off the battlefield, about how good teamwork was about trusting in one another, and now, after getting you to admit what had been troubling you, he was the one hesitating?
What a damn hypocrite. No wonder why you snapped at him.
“I don’t want to lead you on,” he said, firmly.
“What happened in the infirmary was inappropriate,” he continued. “I pushed boundaries I never thought I’d toe in the first place, but I did anyway, and now we’re here. I can’t tell you if this is going anywhere. I don’t know if it should.”
You frowned. He had a point. Above all, you were both in a military setting, and as military representatives, professionalism and protocol reigned supreme. There was no room for superfluous fraternization, not between people like you.
“It’s okay, Commander,” you reassured. Your smile didn’t quite reach your eyes. “I’m an adult, I can handle a little rejection.”
“I’m not rejecting you,” he said quickly.
All you could do was blink at him and give him a nervous smile. “Now I’m confused.”
“I’m the one who brought you in,” he explained. “I’m your superior officer, agent, and I’m...almost twice your age, for crying out loud. You and I, we’re...” He growled under his breath. “I have rank over you, and I have no intention of taking advantage of the trust you’ve placed in me.” He paused for a moment, gathering the last of his words behind an uneasy sigh. “I’m an old, washed-up has-been, sweetheart, and I’m in a world of trouble. Don’t feel obligated to set your grave by mine just because I taught you how to dig.”
The term of endearment he sprinkled in there still made your heart flutter, in spite of yourself. There was no embarrassment, no gnawing hole in your chest, no overwhelming urge to cry. If this wasn’t rejection, and this wasn’t reciprocation, then it meant that this just...was. And for now, that was okay with you.
Better than Antarctica, at least.
You were surprised at how direct he was being about all of this, even moreso at how much better it made you feel, not mincing words or dancing around the issue. Your Commander had always been a straightforward man, and you supposed he was never the kind of person to waste time playing games. Despite spending years as a wanted vigilante skirting the law, he respected protocol more than anyone; it made sense for him to be cautious about this, even if the thought of him being hypervigilant about not taking advantage of his position made your heart swell. It was indescribably honorable, and sweet, how concerned he was about doing this right.
But you had to do this right, too.
“Interest or not, I’m not letting you go out there alone,” you said, tone brimming with resolve, “and interest or not, you waited for me to get out of the hospital wing. We have a job to do, so...try not to overthink this. Not right now.”
“You’re the one with all the contingency plans,” he mused.
“True,” you laughed, “but we have more important things to worry about.”
“Now you sound like Zarya.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Feeling much better than you thought you would, you found yourself more than ready to put this entire situation on the backburner in order to move forward with the mission, but you could tell he wasn’t quite there yet. He was closing himself off, bit by bit, falling silent as he folded his arms over his chest and looked away. You could almost read the flurry of anxious thoughts swarming his mind in the silence, the worry carrying mindfulness away from the man standing in front of you.
You reached for his face, gently, taking his chin into your hand before turning his head back towards you. His visor was cold to the touch.
“Let’s get her out of there, Commander.”
A low, tired growl rumbled in the depths of his throat as he sighed at your attempt to ground him. The reaction sent shivers rushing down your spine—the rough sound of his voice could put your very soul at ease.
He rested a gloved hand along the length of your wrist, and the red of his visor levelled your eyes, again.
“I’m with you.”
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Chapter 9: retenu 
we...can't really explain.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This year, September marked a large cultural event in Le Havre, a small commune on the northern coast of France. The city was the final port in a major transatlantic sailing race that began at the end of the previous month. Travellers and tourists alike flocked to the city for the mass celebrations, and the drawn crowds would make it that much easier for friend and foe alike to blend in.
Because airline service to Octeville-sur-Mer had been discontinued years ago, the two of you landed in Caen before embarking on the three-hour train ride to Le Havre. Not wanting the enemy to catch wind of your infiltration, you packed light and dressed inconspicuously. The possibility of being ambushed kept tensions high, even when you both made it safely to the train car. You weren’t in the clear until you arrived.
Gentle rain tapped against the window of the booth, scattering droplets across the glass. 76 sat across from you, his arms folded while he kept half-slouched in his seat. He couldn’t have looked more ornery if he had ‘fuck off’ written across his forehead, and you suspected it was that very aura that kept anyone else from joining you in the booth. He’d been so still, however, you weren’t sure if he was awake or asleep.
76 had a nasty habit of sacrificing polyphasic shifts to get more work done. With everything going on, you knew he was running on empty, and the exhaustion would compromise him if he didn’t start taking care of himself. If he was sleeping, he needed the rest. You took care not to bother him, either way.
Suddenly, Winston’s voice came to mind.
“I don’t recall you two being quite this inseparable, before.”
Your gaze flickered back out the window.
Winston wasn’t surprised by the rogue mission proposal, but that didn’t keep him from being extremely irritated about the whole damn thing, anyway. With you and 76 sitting side-by-side in front of him, the meeting felt less like asking for his permission and more like asking for his blessing. Knowing as much, the scientist feathered through the stack of papers you’d provided him, talking in circles, trying to negotiate some way for you to stay behind and provide much-needed manpower to the base.
Then came your dear Commander’s curt reply.
“You said it yourself. They’re at their best when they’re with me.”
Flustered at the memory, you shrunk in your seat.
You remembered how much Winston got embarrassed on your behalf—muttering something about those not being his exact words, surely—but he didn’t take long to relent, as long as the two of you added another objective to your mission on his behalf in exchange.
“I should’ve known better,” he’d finally sighed, shaking his massive head. “You weren’t training a new recruit, you were training a new partner.”
76 didn’t respond. The vague, backhanded jab raised more questions for you than answers, but you knew better than to inquire about it then and there. Maybe you could ask 76 about it, eventually.
Sighing, you leaned against the train car window, watching the smattering of rain and racing stray droplets against the glass.
Whoever your Commander’s old partner may have been, all you could do was hope you could live up to the expectation.
Your intel revealed Amélie Lacroix was being held by ex-agents of Talon who wanted to retain control of her services after the fall of the organization. She was currently being kept in stasis—most likely to eradicate the possibility of her going rogue—but her consent in the matter was unclear. In a few days’ time, after Le Havre’s festivities were over, she would be smuggled aboard one of the many vessels travelling back across the Atlantic after the race, to rendezvous with contacts at the Port of New York and New Jersey.
If the intel was accurate, and Amélie was being transported while unconscious, it would have been nigh impossible to carry her by air—agents couldn’t force her through a commercial airline for obvious reasons, and they no longer had the resources to get proper clearance for a private flight. Logically, the ports of Gibraltar provided the fastest transatlantic route by sea, as sailors and tradesmen alike would take advantage of the northeastern tradewinds to cross the ocean; Gibraltar was, however, being heavily monitored ever since Overwatch’s reinstated presence.
Le Havre’s race provided the perfect opportunity.
Due to the nature of your mission, the more sensitive (see: deadly) of your supplies were retrieved from a drop point once you arrived. The tourist season breathed enough life into the small city to allow you to breeze through your multiple checkpoints without attracting attention.
76 kept his visor on throughout the journey. In an era where both Omnics and advanced prosthetics were commonplace, people didn’t think twice about the presence of a faceplate—yet, you knew your Commander was still known as an infamous vigilante within certain circles. This was a reasonable point of concern for you, especially considering that his idea of ‘going undercover’ was shedding his trademark jacket and switching the coloured light of his visor from red to blue. Still, he insisted it was enough for him not to be recognized.
And it was, surprisingly enough.
Even so, most people were too intimidated to address him directly, and the strangers you met along the way would defer to you—the smaller, kinder looking of the two—whenever they spoke. Your Eastern Canadian heritage afforded you fluency in the native language, but native Quebec French and native Parisian French were quite different, especially in the smaller communes, where the influence of dialect and regional slang was directly proportional to their distance from larger cities. The difference wasn’t too severe in Le Havre, but it was enough for the hotel clerk’s flow of speech to slip into something a little more comfortably condescending when he heard you speak.
All things considered, everything was going rather smoothly, up until you unlocked the door to your shared room.
If the fact that your accommodations only came with a single bed was going to be the biggest hiccup this mission, you’d take it.
“I’ll take the floor,” 76 grumbled, shrugging off his bags before you even had a chance to react.
“No need,” you said. “We’re sleeping in shifts, remember?”
“Neither of us got any sleep on the way here. We should rest while things are quiet.”
“Then I’ll take the floor.” You dropped your bags, as well. “You’ve been up way longer than I have, you should make yourself comfortable.”
“I don’t need to be comfortable,” he said, sternly. “I’ve slept on worse.”
“With all due respect, sir, so have I.” You made your way over to the closet to grab a spare set of blankets. “Look, we can take turns between the bed and the floor. I don’t need you to make room for me.”
“Reader, I’m taking the floor.”
“No, I want to sleep on the floor.”
“No one wants to sleep on the floor.”
“So you admit it.”
But it was too late—you’d already folded up the sheets and set up a makeshift bed below, burying yourself beneath the blankets by the time he found the right words to argue back.
The hotel room floor was hard and cold and uncomfortable, but you had a point to prove.
“Get some rest, Commander,” you said, sounding final as you kept your back turned to him.
He knew better than to object.
You woke a few hours later to the scent of coffee and something else, something warm and hearty that made your stomach rumble with craving. The sound of soft crackling filled the room. Something was being cooked, which in itself was confusing since the place wasn’t equipped with a stove or kitchenette.
You spotted 76 across the room, hunched over the old-fashioned coffee maker by the entrance. The glass coffee pot it was supposed to contain was set aside on the counter.
It took you a full minute to realize he was warming something on the heating plate of the goddamn coffee maker.
“Um...” You thought twice about questioning his methods. “What, uh. What are you making?”
This response did not aid your confusion. “Can’t you just throw it in the microwave?”
“Room doesn’t have one. Don’t know enough French to call down and ask.”
“So you...bought microwave burritos without checking to see if we had a microwave?”
“Didn’t buy ‘em.”
“I said I didn’t buy them. I packed them.”
“You packed your own microwave burritos.”
“You sound surprised.”
“I don’t know.” You ran a hand through your hair, shaking out your bangs. “Microwave burritos sound so...normal. I guess I was expecting you to have military rations in there, or something.”
“You’re military, aren’t you? You think I would willingly bring rations with me?”
“I didn’t think you would willingly bring microwave burritos with you, but here we are.” You stretched out and yawned, slouching and lazily rubbing your eyes afterwards. “There’s a McDonald’s around the corner. A French McDonald’s. I could’ve gotten you a Royale with cheese.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “You know fast food is bad for you, right?”
“Yeah, and that’s the pinnacle of healthy dieting right there.” You sat up, fully. It was then when you realized, to your abject horror, the plush softness of the mattress beneath you. “Wait—did you move me in my sleep??”
You tried to scowl the blush away. “Commander.”
“You were shivering,” he said. “Couldn’t just leave you down there to freeze, could I?”
Choosing not the chase the topic, you watched him poke his now-steaming goddamn burrito onto a plate, then immediately waving his ungloved hand to cool off his stinging fingertips.
“Coffee?” he offered.
He didn’t have to ask how you took it, you noticed. He already knew.
Distracted by the unsettling normalcy of the scene, it wasn’t until he poured your cup when you realized something important.
You pulled the blankets off yourself. “Did you want me to leave?”
“You need to eat,” you said, hopping off the side of the bed. “I can give you some privacy, come back when you’re done.”
76 paused for a moment.
He walked across the room and handed you your coffee. “Mind sitting back-to-back?”
You took the warm mug from his hands, glancing back up at the unfamiliar blue of his visor. “Not at all.”
So you folded your legs and sat on the floor, on top of the mess of sheets you laid out for yourself earlier. The blankets around you smelled like him, meaning he must’ve slept down here, after all.
The blush returned to your cheeks, and you were suddenly thankful you weren’t facing him.
Before you could regain your composure, you felt his back press flush against yours as he took a seat behind you. He was warm, and solid, and you could feel him move a little with every breath he took. There was a click and a quiet hiss of released pressure as he undid the locking mechanism of his faceplate, and your heart slammed against your chest.
He was letting his guard down.
Your fingers curled tightly around your cup. You took a deep breath, but remained unmoving, resolved to continue facing the other way. It would be so easy to turn around, right now—if you scrambled, you could probably get a good once-over of his face before he managed to get the mask back on. Then you could finally know. Then you could finally stop wondering.
You swallowed, hard.
It was a hollow plan, you knew. You would never do something as egregious as denying him the right to his own privacy, not after everything you’d been through together. You wouldn’t look. You couldn’t. You wanted to—oh, how you wanted to—but not at the expense of the trust he’d placed in you. He did trust you...
“Sir.” You took a deep breath. “If we really are going to be partners, I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide yourself around me.”
“Some things are better left hidden,” he grumbled.
“You know I don’t care what you look like, right?”
His words stung for a reason you couldn’t place.
“So you’re just gonna leave me hangin’, then?” You shrugged, your tone making it obvious you weren’t being serious. “That’s alright. Guess I’ll just have to keep guessing in the meantime. I’ve been imagining all sorts of things.”
“Like a bear attack, maybe. Or a skiing accident.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed, teasing, “I don’t ski.”
“Now that’s more like it.”
You smiled at yourself and at the mental image of 76 snowboarding, satisfied to be lightening the mood. “Hey, I mean, maybe you were just born that way. Like The Phantom of the Opera. Or that guy from The Goonies.”
“...do all of your backstories involve me being some kind of anomaly under here?”
“Well, there was this one idea I had where one of your missions went awry and whatever you lost had to be rebuilt with prosthetics and, plot twist, the mask is actually your face and has been all along.”
You heard him breathe his laughter, unimpeded by the visor for the very first time, and the sound sent shivers down your spine. Staring into your coffee, you went wide-eyed, wrapping your fingers even tighter around the mug as your cheeks grew hotter than the porcelain in your hands.
“Anyway, whatever it is,” you began, “I hope I get to see you, Commander. I hope you’ll feel ready to trust me with that, one day.”
After some considerable silence, you felt his back shift against yours as he turned slightly in your direction.
You tipped your head back until it touched the back of his. “Then I’ll wait.”
He was not deaf to your disappointment.
You had a right to be curious, considering how much closer the two of you had become since you first met. If he were being honest, the thought of simply turning around and shattering the illusion once and for all tempted him, greatly. He remembered the day in the training room—the day you straddled his waist and smashed his visor in an effort to prove your own strength—and he wanted to level your eyes with his own, again. He wanted to take your chin in his hand and look at you and watch your expression shift as you finally saw him for who he really was.
But he couldn’t.
Not yet, anyway.
It may have been dishonest and selfish, but he’d rather have you admire his enigma than despise his reality.
Returning to his food, he shook himself from his reverie.
“You must be hungry,” he offered, changing the subject. “Want me to make you something?”
“No thank you, Commander.” You finally raised your mug to your lips. “Got my heart set on a Royale with cheese.”
The two of you headed out in the morning for your preliminary investigation. According to your sources, the transportation of Amélie was set for the day after next. 76’s decryption of the encoded intel revealed all the relevant whens and wheres of the event, but if ex-Talon members were scouting or making preparations within Le Havre ahead of time, you needed to know about it.
76 never liked wearing civilian clothing. They never seemed to have enough pockets, never enough places to store emergency supplies, and going into public barebones during a mission made him feel particularly vulnerable. Yet, he couldn’t very well conduct an undercover investigation in broad daylight brandishing his now-infamous leather jacket, and he certainly couldn’t do it with a pulse rifle slung around his shoulder. If he were alone here, he wouldn’t have left the hotel room until it was time to infiltrate enemy lines, but having your support afforded him the liberty of taking a more subtle, strategic approach.
He still wasn’t a fan of civilian-wear, though. At least, not until he saw you.
Your outfit was simple enough. A hunter green cargo jacket long enough to reach your thighs, with a thin grey turtleneck layered beneath it. A black scarf was wrapped around your neck, tucked neatly beneath the dipped collar of your jacket. Black jeans—form-fitting, but comfortable enough for extended movement. Black boots—stylish, but practical enough to make running viable.
Leave it to you to bring a reasonable undercover outfit.
Your cargo jacket had so many pockets.
You’d never seen your Commander out of uniform or standard-issue clothing before, and you tried to keep your gaze from lingering too long. He was wearing a collared sweater, a light undershirt, and a pair of dark-washed jeans.
The colours looked good on him, and the jeans fit him well.
“Ready?” you asked, voice weaker than you intended.
He gave you a quiet nod, and you headed out into the city.
The skies were slightly overcast, and the streets were still slick from the early morning rain. It was abnormally chilly for a September morning, cold enough for you to see your breath in the air whenever you spoke, but in spite of the cold, the whole area was still buzzing with tourists in town for the multi-day celebration put on by the city. You stuck with the crowds, and in turn, the two of you went mostly unnoticed, making your covert investigation that much smoother.
You were there to overhear, to keep your eyes and ears open for anything peculiar. Drifting from place to place in silence would’ve been conspicuously strange, so the two of you talked sometimes just to break the quiet; you’d even rattle off some words in French to your Commander to stand out less, depending on who was around.
Athena did most the eavesdropping work, though. The AI was downloaded to your hidden communication devices, running an algorithm that sorted through all surrounding dialogue faster than any human ear could manage. Until Athena raised an alert about any relevant or suspicious tidbits of dialogue, all you had to do was walk around and let her listen in.
As they had yesterday, the people you interacted with deferred to you for conversation, as apparently, something about a tall, strong-looking man in a blue visor seemed intimidating. Not understanding the language anyway, 76 simply followed your lead from shop to shop, from street to street, feeling like dead weight all the while.
He supposed subtle, strategic approaches weren’t really his style.
In the boring, idle moments, when he’d linger in the background while you spoke to others, he found himself pretending he was on some sort of vacation. That maybe, just maybe, on one of your strolls down the rain-soaked streets, you’d take a hold of his arm and comment on the sights around you, wide-eyed with wonder. Had you ever been to France before? Would you want to be seen with him, if it weren’t for the mission?
Now that you were alone together, did you even enjoy his company?
He couldn’t quite get a read on you, so far. Unlike him, you had no time to daydream—you were far too busy chatting with people of interest, far too busy pulling out your pocket notebook every other second, writing down all the information you were gathering in an attempt to make some kind of new connection between it all.
76 had a passing conversational understanding of a few languages, but French was not one of them.
He had no idea what you were saying, but you were mesmerizing.
It was a secret shame, but damn, did he ever have a thing for foreign languages. A lifetime ago, soft endearments would be whispered to him in Spanish, a gentle hand in his hair and a reassuring voice in his ear, making him feel vulnerable. And now here you were, with your bright eyes and your soft laughter and your tongue wrapping so naturally around more words he didn’t understand.
He caught himself and tore his thoughts free from his flights of fancy.
That comparison was dangerous.
He had to tread lightly.
No, his opportunity for happy, mindless gallivanting with another person had long since passed. He had to stop being such a hypocrite and instead concentrate on the mission—right here, right now—no matter how nice the language sounded on your tongue, or how endearing you looked when you knitted your brow as you jotted down more notes, more connections, more leads to follow. He tried to compose himself. He tried.
But then the sun came out, and all his efforts were in vain.
He hadn’t noticed before then, but you’d worn your hair down, today. Your hair framed your face, brilliantly, catching the sunlight peeking from behind the overcast, and it was all he could do to keep himself from running his fingers through it to see if it was as soft as it looked. You were so engrossed in your note-taking, you didn’t see him staring, at first—you were so determined, so driven to get this job done, the mere thought of you working this hard to help him succeed on a mission that had absolutely nothing to do with you made that familiar warmth return to his chest.
“You doing alright?” you asked, glancing up. You’d finally noticed his reserved body language, his silence.
“I’m fine,” he said. “It’s colder than I thought it would be.” A lie.
You laughed, and the sensation in his chest caught in his throat.
“Don’t go a lot of places without your jacket, do you? Here.”
You tucked a couple of fingers past your collar and pulled off your scarf, wrapping the long black fabric around his neck and folding it just so.
You patted it in place. “There we go.”
A beat of silence as he examined himself.
He remained unmoving. “I look ridiculous, don’t I?”
“You really don’t!” you said in a hurry. “You actually look really, um. Not ridiculous.”
“Very reassuring, thank you.”
You looked defeated for a moment, before muttering something in French.
He raised an eyebrow. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” you said, sounding exasperated as you tucked your notebook back into one of your many, many pockets. “Let’s go.”
A couple of hours passed, and your informal investigation led the two of you to an independent vendor by the port. The shop was run by an older French woman with thin, greying hair and too much kindness in her eyes; she held a straight cane as she kept seated behind the counter, wearing the paint stains on her smock like badges of honour. A small gallery of paintings surrounded her: vibrant country landscapes captured with oils on canvas.
76 kept to the front of the shop as you approached the counter. He watched you fall back into the conversational routine you’d established during the course of the investigation; you feigned interest in her wares, striking up friendly small-talk while steering the conversation in a way to get your own questions answered. You were good with people—he wondered if that was from the personal or military side of you.
Before you arrived at the gallery, you’d explained that the majority of your discussions yielded recurring mentions of a freak hailstorm earlier that week, one that upset the skies and waters alike. Further dialogue revealed a few of the ships sustained enough damage to delay their expected departure by a few days’ time. One of the ships wounded by the storm matched the description of the vessel your ex-Talon agents were planning to use for the transatlantic crossing; now, you were verifying that ship’s description with this vendor, whose shop was one of many set up in direct line of sight of the port.
It was an extremely roundabout way of doing things, sure, but you couldn’t go sniffing around official sources for reports and risk the enemy catching wind of your presence.
After several minutes, you thanked the artist before making your way out of the shop, holding a packaged, rolled canvas under your arm.
“Bought one?” 76 asked, following you out.
“Yeah,” you laughed on your words, shyly. “Wasn’t planning on it, but this one...I don’t know, I liked it a lot. It’s silly.”
The artist said cheerfully called out something in French as you left her gallery.
At first, 76 didn’t think much of it—by her amicable tone, he assumed it was some sort of farewell, but by the way the blood immediately drained from your face, he knew whatever she said had gotten to you.
You stammered back what sounded like a goodbye and stormed out of the shop, taking off down the street a pace and a half ahead of him.
“Wait,” he called, rushing to catch up with you. “What’s happened?”
“What?” You turned halfway, clearly distracted. “Oh, n—nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t seem like nothing to me.”
“I said it’s fine.” You glanced away, absently rubbing the back of your hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Talk to me.”
You froze. There they were, those three magic little words neither of you could seem to ignore.
“Intel’s good,” you said. “Her description of the ships she saw moved for repairs corroborates the information from the others. One of the vessels that got damaged in the hailstorm is definitely ours. We need to find out whether they’ve made alternate arrangements, or if the trip itself is being delayed with the repairs.”
“Good, but that’s not what I meant.” The frown was clear in his voice. “What did she say to you back there?”
“She said...” You cleared your throat, embarrassed. “She said, ‘thanks for coming in, you and your father have a nice day.’”
76 felt his heart drop through his stomach. He’d been so enamoured with his own idle thoughts, he’d forgotten what this—whatever this was—must have looked like to other people.
Even worse, he neglected to consider how that must have made you feel.
“Sorry,” you said, your eyes avoiding him completely. “I’m...gonna head back to the hotel. Need to make a game plan for what we’re doing next. Let me know if Athena picks anything up.”
You took off before he could respond, leaving him high and dry in the rain-soaked streets of the city harbor.
The sun had set some time ago, but your Commander hadn’t yet returned.
Athena updated you on his status and location every half-hour, so you knew he hadn’t run into any trouble. He was still walking the length of city, it seemed, letting Athena pick up recordings on the stray conversations leftover from earlier celebrations. He was looking for new intel.
You’d been alone with your thoughts for several hours, now, and you couldn’t help but feel like you’d done something wrong. You tried not to think about what happened earlier that day—how awkward you probably made him feel, how terrible it was of you to just up and leave like that.
...what on earth were you thinking?
You buried yourself into your journal, but your thoughts were racing too much for you to read any of the words right. You wondered if you should’ve gone back out and re-joined him. You wondered how to go about an apology when you saw him next, and if you did, what exactly it was you were apologizing for. Had you offended him with your attitude? Would he be upset you abandoned the investigation early? Hell, maybe he wasn’t angry at all, maybe he was just confused as to why you had such a visceral reaction to the woman’s comment in the first place.
Why had it gotten to you so badly?
Clicking your tongue, you slammed your journal shut. What would he think of you if he knew you’d been spending the entire day trying not to romanticize the idea of being alone with him? If he knew you hyper-fixated on walking around and asking questions just to distract yourself from the irrational happiness you felt simply being at his side? If he knew your heart damn near stopped when you saw him that morning?
Collared sweater. Light undershirt. Dark-washed jeans.
The undershirt was lighter than the altered beam of his visor—a soft shade of sky blue, that looked white at first glance. His sweater, a deep navy, was thick enough to be warm in the cool weather, heavy and loose around his strongly built form. There was an undone button at the collar. A button on a sweater, for god’s sake, like something a preppy dad would wear. Still, the colours looked good on him.
And the jeans made his ass look great.
Heat flared across your cheeks, and you shook your head to rid yourself of any untoward thoughts. The last thing you needed was to make things even more awkward, so far out in a foreign country with only each other for company, and on assignment, no less.
You tossed your journal aside in frustration, and it landed softly on the floor across the room. As you sat up and prepared to get out of bed, a bit of red and blue caught your eye: 76 had left his jacket on a chair in the corner of the room.
You rubbed your face in your hands.
No, no, no—who cared if you constantly daydreamed about wearing the damn thing—the one time you did, you were delirious from pain and bleeding out in his arms, and you figured that was more than enough memories to make with it for a lifetime. Plus, how would you explain yourself if he walked in and caught you with his jacket on?
...but he’d been gone for most of the day, and Athena was set to alert you if he was on his way back. If you just...wore it for a few minutes, no one would be any the wiser. Except Athena, of course. And keeping secrets was kind of her job.
Your heart raced inside your chest as you slid off the bed and tiptoed across the room, approaching the jacket as if it could attack at any moment. After a moment’s hesitation, you reached for it. You could tell it was well-loved; the leather was soft under your touch, yet worn from years of wear and tear. You noted how soothingly familiar the texture of it was, just like it felt back in the infirmary.
Your thumb brushed up against what felt like a recently mended tear on the left shoulder. Did he get that in Romania?
You looked over both your shoulders, in case someone had somehow ghosted behind you over the course of the past 30 seconds. You knew you shouldn’t have been doing this.
But it was now or never.
With a deep breath, you pulled the jacket from the back of the chair and slipped it around your shoulders, clumsily shrugging it on. Since it had been left alone for a while, the leather and inside lining were cold to the touch. You wondered how he came across it in the first place. Was it something he had made for him, or was it something he found and claimed as his own? What kind of adventures had he faced in this thing? What kind of dangers? You wanted to hear about them all.
The jacket was, of course, pretty big on you. Height-wise, 76 had nearly an entire foot on you, and the sleeves alone just about completely covered your hands. But it kept you warm.
You weren’t quite sure what possessed you to nuzzle the inner neckline of the jacket, but the resulting scent of leather and plasma and musk was nearly overwhelming. It was almost like he was standing right next to you, and your eyes flew open to make absolute certain he wasn’t.
You wrapped your arms around yourself and sighed, completely content. It was almost as nice as hugging the real thing. It would be nice to find yourself in his arms again, for him to hold you like he held you in the infirmary, with warmth and strength and a touch of desperation. You thought about that moment often, maybe too often. You knew firsthand how firmly he could hold you, how easily he could carry you, like you were featherlight. You wondered what his hands would feel like beneath you, instead, keeping a firm grip on your thighs as he lifted you against the wall and—
Warmth rose to your cheeks, again.
The heat building inside you was tempting, but...here? Now? Where he could easily walk in and catch you?
A shiver trickled down your spine, prickling your arms with goosebumps. The thought was the opposite of a deterrent.
A few steps took you back to the bed.
You pawed at the clasp of your pants as you climbed in, fumbling with the button and undoing the zipper, loosening your jeans. A part of you wondered how much he’d like all these clothes of yours on the floor, instead. A part of you wondered how quickly he could do away with them if he tried.
Not wanting to dirty what wasn’t yours, you had the courtesy of shrugging up the sleeve on your dominant hand; you lifted your other arm to your face, bringing the leather of his jacket to your nose. His scent flooded your senses again, and you bit the inside of your lip. If you were all worked up just from this...
This was so, so dangerous.
What would he think of you if he walked in on you like this?
...god, how you ever wanted him to walk in on you like this.
You could hear the way he’d chuckle at you, low and deep.
“I don’t think that belongs to you.”
In your mind’s eye, there was no pretense—no anxiety or discussion or sense of uncertainty—just his strength suddenly pinning you hard and heavy to the mattress, his ungloved hands rough and eager beneath your clothing, his knee prying your thighs apart. You imagined the low noises in his throat when he carelessly grabbed at every inch of you he could reach, skilled and experienced and hungry.
You brushed your fingers lower, breathing a hazy sigh as you felt the evidence of your own arousal through the fabric. With the sleeve of his jacket still pressed to your face, every inhale was thick with his scent, making the lewd visions flickering behind your eyelids that much more tangible.
“On your stomach,” he’d order.
“Yes, sir,” you breathed, out loud.
You turned around, imagining his hand threading through your hair, cupping your scalp, pushing you face-down into the mattress with a sense of command that shot a jolt of arousal straight through you. It wasn’t your grasp that yanked your jeans down your hips; those weren’t your fingers unceremoniously shoving your underwear aside to make enough way to work against you.
“Nice and loud, now. Don’t be shy.”
You gasped into the pillow, your breath warming the fabric until it was hot against your cheek. You were holding back, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity through all this, but the thought of him burying the length of his cock into you and bottoming out, over and over again, with his deep, husky voice strained from the effort, and the indecent sound of skin against skin—it was too much, it was far too much, and you breathed stammered, uneven moans into your pillow, muffled yet unrestrained, as you rounded quick fingers against yourself.
You imagined the view—with you, face-down against the mattress, your hands grasping at the sheets in a mad effort to find anchor, your loose hair cascading messily against the insignia across back of his jacket as he fucked you hard enough to make stars burst behind your eyes.
You imagined it drove him crazy.
His voice was thick with lust, his want evident in every syllable.
“Is this what you think about when I’m not here?”
You never wanted him to stop talking.
He wove his hand tighter into your hair, getting a good grip and tugging sharply to steady his own erratic pace. His other hand was exploring you, hastily bunching your shirt above your chest, his fingers gliding around a beaded nipple.
Oh, you were close.
You imagined he knew.
You buried your face deeper into your pillow as you imagined him suddenly gripping your waist and half-lifting you from the mattress, angling himself against a spot inside of you that made you choke on your breath, damn near pulling you back onto his cock with every thrust as he chased your climax.
“That’s it, sweetheart, just a little more.”
You bit back a needy whine as you breathed into the sleeve of his jacket, imagining the tightness of his grasp on your waist and how those hands of his would hold onto you hard enough to leave bruises. You could almost hear the dark growl in his voice, rough and unsteady, his hips stuttering as he felt himself falling from the edge alongside you.
The thought was enough to send you spiralling, your own voice tumbling into a desperate, repetitive keen.
“Commander, Commander, Commander—”
Suddenly, you were much too warm, everywhere, and all at once; your nerves washed over with staggering wave upon wave of pleasure, making your toes curl and your breathing stop and your voice stammer wildly into his sleeve—and then, relief.
You toppled onto your side, dizzy with heat and effort, savoring the cold air filling your lungs hard and fast with your sudden panting.
You took deep, heavy breaths as you rolled over onto your back, facing the ceiling. That had been the best you’d had in a while, actually. You must have been more pent-up than you thought you were. It had been very cathartic. Very...
Now that you were sobering from your arousal, shame had the chance to occupy the vacancy.
Had you seriously just done that?
It wasn’t as if you’d never jerked off before, keeping your hands busy to private, indecent thoughts of him, but never while you were in training or on assignment, and certainly never while wearing his fucking jacket. This was creepy.
This was disgusting.
Fantasizing about him wanting you that way, as if he chose to be here with you, as if you were here for any reason other than being skilled enough to survive and being stupid enough to willingly follow him off the grid. If you weren’t useful, you’d be back at headquarters and he would’ve left without you. This mission was the only reason he had you by his side—it was the reason you were so resolved to accompany him.
It was the only way he’d let you stay.
Still cloaked in his jacket, you suddenly felt small and impossibly pathetic, harboring feelings like this after he made it clear you weren’t someone he wanted to pursue. This was disrespect of the highest caliber. He didn’t deserve to have to deal with you—he had enough on his plate, and you should’ve known better. Why would he ever look your way?
He didn’t feel a thing for you but pity.
You pressed the back of your bare wrist over your eyes, shielding the unfeeling blankness of the ceiling from your vision.
What would he think of you if he knew?
Though the evening was no longer young, cities like this didn’t sleep during seasons of celebration. Scattered groups and couples alike were still enjoying the midnight scenery, and stragglers from the bars were still struggling to reacquaint themselves with their lost sobriety. None of them paid 76 any mind as he walked down the same major avenue for the third time that hour, with his hands in his pockets and his attention kept to his own business. He’d come to terms with the fact he’d stopped searching for intel hours ago; he had no purpose being here, outside of running from his own thoughts.
It had only been a couple of days, but he’d already gotten careless.
Removing his mask in your presence was a dangerous move. Though you assumed his secrecy was a mark of self-consciousness, it wasn’t the scars or the burn marks he wanted to hide, not really. His true name was household once upon a time, a million years ago, and that very same name became particularly unpopular during the course of events leading up to the incident in Switzerland. As the initial disbanding of Overwatch had occurred less than a decade ago, you were old enough to not only remember those events, but also to have formed presumably strong opinions about it.
How would you react if you knew he’d been hiding this entire time?
Not that it mattered—he didn’t deserve a chance in hell with you, either way. So what if you had opinions of Jack Morrison? That man was dead. All that remained was a dusty shell of what he once was, withered and broken by trauma and time. Why, he was old enough to be your—
He recoiled at the thought, reminded of what happened earlier that day.
Jesus, you were so embarrassed. You had such a thick skin, normally. You were never one to let yourself become poorly affected by others’ opinions of you; instead, you took negativity and criticism and shaped it into something constructive, something you could use to improve yourself. 76 wasn’t completely oblivious—he saw the shift in attitude, sometimes, when your foreign dialect was made obvious and strangers would adjust their postures and enunciate their words as if you couldn’t understand them.
Come to think of it, 76 hadn’t a damn clue what you’d been saying all day, much less whenever you rattled off in French while you were alone together. Although he knew you were doing it to blend in, he was only ever in on half the conversation, left to infer what you might have been saying by reading your small smiles and your light blushes and the tiny gestures punctuating your dialogue.
And now he was curious.
“Athena,” 76 muttered under his breath.
“Commander Morrison,” came the artificial voice from his headset.
“Compile the recordings from today. Just the ones from our private conversations.”
“Compilation complete. One hundred and seventy four sequences found.”
“Isolate Reader’s dialogue.”
“Isolation complete. Ninety-eight sequences remaining.”
“Isolate non-English sequences.”
“Isolation complete. Fourteen sequences remaining.”
“Translation complete. Mapping sequences to voice replication.”
Still walking the streets of Le Havre, 76 kept his pace steady as your voice, slightly computerized from Athena’s generated translation, spilled through his headset. It was all scattered dialogue of yours, from random points throughout the day.
“I’ve never been to France, before,” you started, and he could tell you were smiling. The confidence in your tone made it clear you knew he couldn’t understand what you were saying, and you were much braver when you thought he couldn’t hear you.
76 found himself retroactively filling the other half of your empty conversations.
“Wish we had more time to sightsee.”
“Does this outfit look okay?”
(You couldn’t ask me that in English?)
“Navy’s a good shade of blue on you. That sweater makes you look all dignified.”
(‘Dignified’ is just another word for ‘old’.)
“Is blue your favourite colour? It’s mine.”
“This weather’s lovely.”
(Of course you’d like the rain.)
“I’m talking too much, aren’t I? I guess I’m a little nervous...I’m running out of things to say.”
“I’m trying to say you look handsome with the scarf, damn it.”
“Sorry—I’m losing focus, again. Can you blame me? I’m out here with you, after all.”
(You’ve always had terrible taste.)
“Thanks for letting me help you.”
(Thank you for helping.)
“I promise I won’t let you down, this time.”
(That’s my line.)
“I’ll protect you.”
With the emphasis you put on the words ‘this time,’ he couldn’t believe you were still beating yourself up over what happened, as if Talon’s interference in Romania was nothing to you but a personal shortcoming. It was a wonder that you still trusted him at all, that you were still trying to return a favour of protection he himself had spectacularly failed to provide.
“I know this isn’t a date, but maybe when this is all over...”
(You don’t want that.)
”...we can go out for real.”
(You don’t want me.)
He couldn’t keep himself from wondering if you’d wear your hair down then, too. You’d been so damn cute in the early autumn sunlight, he’d wanted nothing more than to just reach out and hold you, then and there.
“I wonder if you’d be embarrassed, to be seen with me like that.”
76 stopped in his tracks.
It was no secret you’d always been concerned over how he perceived you—as you were a new recruit and he was your commanding officer, you worried about being prepared, being taken seriously, and being good enough for him and his team. When he thought back to how intense your reaction was to the older woman’s misunderstanding, he came to a sudden conclusion that made his stomach turn: you weren’t embarrassed to be seen with him, you were afraid he was embarrassed to be seen with you.
Why hadn’t he figured that out earlier?
The idea of anyone holding someone like him in high regard seemed absurd, nowadays. Affection was a luxury he could no longer afford, and a part of him hoped you would eventually come to your senses—that the more you learned of him, the more he’d differ from the ideal you’d envisioned, and the sooner you’d realize you deserved better than he could provide. The years had transformed him into someone far different from who he once was, but he was who you admired, somehow; you, with no prior knowledge of the man he used to be, thought the world of the man standing in front of you now.
You were wasting your time and he was running out of excuses. If he wanted this whole affair to stop once and for all, he’d have to put an end to it himself. He knew that. He’d known that all along.
But he didn’t want to end it.
76 sighed, rough and heavy, running a hand through his hair hard enough to rake his nails across his scalp.
Before you left on this assignment, you’d given him two choices: to keep things the way they were, or to try something new—and instead of giving you a straight answer, he drew in his own checkbox labelled ‘Undecided’ and left you alone to decipher what it meant. In his self-righteous efforts not to lead you on, he ended up doing it, anyway—he’d taken you for granted, and as he busied himself with excuses for his apprehension, he failed to realize how lucky he was to have you around in the first place.
It had been such a long time since he had someone by his side, as you were now by his. After all the time you’d spent together, integrating each other into your daily lives without knowing it, the idea of returning to the way things were before he met you made him feel hollow.
76 still had concerns. He still worried about your difference in rank, and about his position of authority over you. He still worried about the years between you, and whether or not the gap in your life experiences would prove too much of a challenge to overcome. Yet, he also knew none of those concerns would be eased overnight. He had to take it one step at a time, and step one was for him to stop lying to himself.
Suddenly, he felt like running, like bolting through the streets at top speed and not slowing down until he reached the entrance of the hotel—he could do it in minutes flat, pedestrian traffic be damned. He could charge up the stairs and through the room and into your arms because he knew you’d let him hold you if he tried. No words would have to be said—it would all fall into place on its own, seamlessly and without effort, and you both could finally stop wondering.
He chuckled at the ridiculousness of his own optimism.
One step at a time.
Tucking his hands back into his pockets, he traced a path back to the hotel.
He needed to see you.
And for the first time in a long time, he felt terrified.
He nearly stepped on your tossed journal when he returned, and you didn’t seem to notice.
You said nothing when he walked through the door, as you were already buried beneath a pile of spare blankets on the hotel floor, your back facing the entrance. A glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table revealed he’d been gone well past the night and into the single-digit hours of the early morning. He could tell you weren’t asleep, but he could also tell it wasn’t from lack of trying.
As he took off his shoes and set your notebook on the counter, he noticed his leather jacket resting on the back of a different chair from where he first left it.
Had you moved it?
Keeping silent, he made his way to his jacket, running an absent had across the shoulders of the leather as if to make sure it was still intact. Nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary, save for a single strand of your hair caught in the inner lining.
He turned to you, your back still turned.
The idea would’ve irritated him if it were anyone else, but the thought of you wearing something so distinctly his own filled him with a flighty feeling he was altogether much too tired to deal with.
“It’s red,” he said softly, letting his jacket go.
You shifted under the blankets, lifting your head up. “Sorry?”
“My favourite colour,” he clarified. “It’s not blue, it’s red.”
Your heart sank to your knees, and you curled even further into yourself.
The overwhelming weight of the realization collapsed on you, all at once. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You double-checked each other’s work. Of course he’d have Athena play back recordings of your conversations from the investigation, and some of your ridiculous babbling must’ve gotten caught up in the translations. You couldn’t even remember half of what you said, but you knew a good 60% of it was mushy as all hell. Way to be creepy, again.
“God,” you groaned. “I’m so sorry.”
You winced at the fact he had the audacity to sound confused.
“It’s been two days,” you started, “I told you coming into this mission that I wouldn’t...I thought I was better than this. I thought I could get over myself if it meant helping you. But that lady—she was your age, and when she saw me, she thought...” You sighed, frustrated at him for forcing you to explain, frustrated at yourself for letting it get this bad. “Here I am thinking of you one way, and here you are probably thinking I’m just some stupid kid.”
He could feel your vitriol—an edge he’d never heard from you, before.
You laughed, and there was acid in your tone. “I’m such a hypocrite. Winston was right, I really shouldn’t have followed you here.”
And in spite of your resolve, your voice wavered on the very last word.
He noticed how you stilled when you realized you slipped on your own resolve, how you cleared your throat at once to get rid of it, to hide the fact you were on the verge of tears, but it was telltale.
“Sorry,” you whispered, and it broke his fucking heart.
After a few seconds of terse silence, you felt the blankets shift behind you.
“Mind if I sleep here, tonight?” he asked.
“‘Course not.” Your voice was steady, again. “Bed’s all yours if you want it, though.”
“I want to sleep on the floor.”
“No one wants to sleep on the floor.”
“So you admit it,” he teased.
He got a small laugh from you. Success.
“I think we’re both too tired to argue, right now,” he said, grabbing the rest of the blankets and pillows from the bed and tossing them in a pile on the floor beside you.
Your back still turned, you became hyper-aware of his presence as he made himself comfortable beside you. He tucked his fingers down his collar and drew off your scarf before pulling his sweater over his head, leaving him down to his undershirt, and jeans.
He got under his covers and laid down beside you, gently, his back inches from yours.
You were confused, to say the least. You expected him to be more upset about the day’s events upon his return, but if he wouldn’t grant you the grace of showing you the admonishment you knew you deserved, you’d just pick up the slack and be mad enough at yourself for two people. He had no idea about what you’d just done, after all; you did, and you’d take it to the grave with you, if you could.
You tried to adjust comfortably on the floor. You realized it was nothing but your mutual stubbornness that had you both sleeping on the floor, with an empty bed big enough for three people not two feet away from you.
“You know...” he started, sounding amused, “there’s no reason to beat yourself up over a crime we’re both guilty of.”
“...what do you mean?”
At first, you were met with nothing but silence, and the burdens of possible implications did nothing but grant more and more weight on your scurrying fears with every second that passed by.
He was, again, first to break the quiet. “You should wear your hair down more often. Suits you.”
“Can’t,” you said quickly, a knee-jerk reaction. “Gets in the way on-duty.”
He chuckled, softly. “Guess I’ll have to get to know you off-duty, then.”
Your face flared. Was he flirting with you? After everything that just happened? This wasn’t possible, you must’ve been misreading this situation entirely. Even if you weren’t—hell, what did you even say to that?
You mulled over your next words a hundred times over and they still didn’t feel right.
“You, um.” You cleared your throat. “You...wear a lot of jeans off-duty?”
Another laugh from you. He was better at this than he remembered.
He’d been thinking of you, too. You were trying to come to terms with that. Did that mean that he, too, had been fighting off the persistence of his own thoughts all day? Had you been so focused on the mission, you completely failed to read the signs right in front of you? He might not have been an open book, but maybe you could’ve read something if you’d just paid closer attention.
Guilty of the same crime, indeed.
Your blush deepened.
You’d wear your hair any way he’d like if it’d make him compliment you like that again.
His voice snapped you back from your thoughts. He sounded hesitant, all of a sudden, and the shift in tone made you nervous. “Commander?”
“I don’t think of you as some stupid kid,” he continued. “The opposite, really.”
Head still pressed to your pillow, you half-turned towards him. “Sir?”
“I’m at my best when I’m with you.”
And you forget how to breathe.
You pressed a closed fist against your chest as if the pressure would keep your pulse from thundering through you, as if the contact would keep your heart from bursting. The stray tears that threatened to break through earlier finally spilled from the corners of your eyes, in spite of how hard you struggled to bite them back, but you kept them quiet, and you kept them hidden, for they were yours, and yours alone.
You gave him no response at all, and for the second time that mission, he wanted to turn around and face you. You were close, but he wanted you closer; he wanted you in his arms until you fell asleep, he wanted to rest his chin in your hair and feel you move as you breathed against him. Your backs were separated by mere inches—it would be so easy—but he still couldn't bring himself to close the distance. Not yet.
One step at a time.
“Goodnight, Commander,” and he could tell you were smiling.
Your voice doesn’t waver, this time.
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Chapter 10: en pressant 
I'M SO SORRY THIS TOOK SO LONG
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This mission is a trap.
The harbor stretched out beneath you, delicate waves reflecting the light of daybreak as they rocked the idle boats and splashed against the pier.
They’re expecting us.
Below you, merchants and tourists set about their business for the day, sidewalks growing thicker with life while you jotted down streams of consciousness in your notebook.
How do you stay a step ahead if you’ve already tripped the wire?
The wind, thick with salt and cold against your skin, teased the edges of your paper. You brushed your hand along them, flattening the defiant pages.
You were perched on the rooftop of a nearby building—unauthorized access for an unauthorized investigation—keeping one eye on the harbour and the other on your pen. You were awake most of the previous night. Unlike 76, sleep hadn’t come easily for you.
With the retrieval mission less than twenty-four hours ahead of you, you’d been sitting up here since dark, studying the area and trying your best to decide which sea vessel, if any, seemed out of the ordinary. The whole thing reminded you of the old holo-puzzles you had as a kid, the ones that projected three-dimensional scenes side-by-side and left you to figure out what the differences between them were. Yet, all the sailboats were identical to one another: long, sleek bodies with white sails measured and curved and hung with mathematical accuracy, built for a trained hand and an experienced sense to catch the transatlantic winds just so.
It didn’t help you knew jack shit about sailing.
The cold breeze returned, sharper on your reddened cheeks. You pulled your scarf tighter around your neck. It still smelled a little like your Commander, you noted, and you had to stop yourself from smiling.
You remembered the soft sound of his breathing as he slept next to you, anxiety swirling beneath your chest at the closeness of his welcome presence.
“I’m at my best when I’m with you.”
Burying your face back into your scarf, you made an embarrassed little noise at the memory. He’d said that. Your Commander. The rough, stoic military figure who didn’t waste his time with idle compliments and sugarcoated lies, who helped you find a goal and eradicate the fears associated with working towards it—he felt better with you.
You tried to keep the other snapshot of last night from flashing across your memory like a strobe, when your quiet tears dried and you lay awake, thinking in the dark. You felt him stir beside you—subtle, at first, but growing more and more restless. You finally gathered enough courage to swallow hard and turn towards him, your shaky hand reaching to steady him through his nightmares, when he breathed the name ‘Gabriel’ with a whispered sadness you didn’t think he was capable of.
You drew your legs to your chest and cradled your notebook in the seat of your lap, trying to will back your concentration.
You had so much work to do.
76 woke with a sleep-induced hangover, the unfamiliar feeling of a full night’s rest weighing heavy on his shoulders.
He sat up to regain his bearings, ignoring the dip in his chest when he realized you were no longer at his side.
When it came to you, his worry took the liberty of jumping to the worst conclusions. He wondered if he’d crossed a line, maybe, if something he’d said or done had scared you into sneaking out to be on your own. This was the most forward he’d been with you since the infirmary—that desperate hug feeling more and more like a distant memory, even though it was only a week ago.
Determined to freeze out his guilt with a shower as cold as he could make it, 76 made it halfway to the bathroom when he spotted a small pan and hotplate on the front counter.
A sticky note attached to it read, in hurried handwriting,
be back soon :D
and something in his chest flipped, again—the other way, this time.
He could see you doing this, almost too clearly. You, going down to the front desk and requesting kitchenware so he wouldn’t burn his fingers from misusing the old coffee maker. You, writing a note so he wouldn’t wonder where you were. You, adding a smiley-face as an afterthought so your tone didn’t come off as short. It was more courtesy than he’d ever show you, if the roles were reversed and he left you behind without a word. It was more thought than he deserved.
Still, your messy scribbles on the yellow square of paper eased his spike of worry.
Cold water diluted his thoughts, working slow and steady to dull his senses for a while.
The front door unlocked. He heard the heavy thunk of your dropped pack, the screeches of a chair scraping against the floor. He sighed, choosing instead to focus on the resurging headache building pressure behind his eyes.
Maybe he could will the thoughts away it, if he tried.
Shutting the tap, he dried off before wrapping his towel around himself. He stuck a toothbrush in his mouth and palm-fulls of shaving cream to his cheeks, and with his mask and tactical headgear sitting idle on the counter, he couldn’t help but fantasize about foregoing the remainder of his routine. He could just stroll out of the bathroom right now, after all—maskless and towel-wrapped, approaching you with clear intent, threading his hands through your hair and leaning in until he kissed away the surprise in your expression.
His heart rate ticked up a notch.
Gripping the edge of the bathroom sink with one hand, 76 turned on the faucet with the other and splashed more cold water against the face. The fresh shock brought him back to reality, and with it, the judgement of his own eyes in the mirror.
Throughout your training, 76 had always avoided discussions surrounding the fall of Overwatch—whether it was to protect your integrity or shelter his pride, he couldn’t say for sure. If you admired him for who he was now, was it still selfish to hide the truth to keep you at his side? Would you even know who he was?
Who he used to be?
76 dressed himself, and slid his mask back on with an audible click.
Another to add to his list of questions he really didn’t need answered.
Running a towel through his still-dripping hair, 76 stepped into view wearing nothing but his mask and a pair of jeans that hung too low on his waist, and for a moment, you forgot how to breathe. He didn’t seem to notice you staring, thankfully, because you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him if you tried.
Broad-shouldered and well-defined, his physique was hinted at from the way his shirts hugged him beneath his jacket, yet this was your first time seeing...this much. Your Commander was built as strongly, as solidly as you imagined him to be, the same wall of muscle who’d caught you when you fell, who carried your injured self to the dropship, who wrapped his arms around you in some hospital room once upon a time.
Thick scars crossed around his torso in a variety of patterns; gunshots, stab wounds, burn marks—battle wounds of all shapes and sizes mapping the terrain of years past. They looked like they were painful, once, but also served to make him look even more ruggedly alluring. You imagined what each one would feel like under your fingertips, if you ran your gentle hands over his bare skin, tracing each scar, feeling his soft, deep laughter between idle stories of each one.
Heat rose to your cheeks.
“Any new intel?” he asked, snapping you from your reverie.
You swallowed. “No, sir.”
Finally, he pulled out a rolled, dark-grey shirt from his duffel bag, and slid it over his head. You couldn’t help but watch with bridled keening at the way his body moved, your eyes catching on the sculpted dip of his hips disappearing beneath his waistband before the view was hidden by his t-shirt. His shirt of choice was short-sleeved, though, keeping those wonderful arms of his exposed to your wandering eyes.
After a brief pause, 76’s visor met your gaze, and your head snapped back to the pages of your notebook half a second too late.
From the corner of your eye, you saw him turn towards you and cross his arms over his broad chest. Shit, had you upset him? It didn’t matter, your soul would abscond from your body from embarrassment, in any case.
“It’s a sorry sight, I know,” he muttered. “Guess my bikini days are over.”
You blinked. What was that?
“I’ll wear a bikini with you, Commander,” you laughed, lifting up your shirt to expose the jagged line of scar tissue tearing a crack through your side. “We match, see?”
He went quiet, the opposite of what you wanted.
Maybe he thought your scars were unsightly, too.
“...sorry about that, again. Kind of a rush job.” He averted his gaze. “You could probably talk to Angela about it, have her fix it up for you.”
“Low on the priority list,” you said, lowering your shirt. “Besides, chicks dig scars, right?”
76 chuckled softly, a sound you never heard enough.
“So, no new intel.” He grabbed the glass pot off the counter and filled it under the kitchen tap, pouring the water into the reservoir of the coffee maker. “Where does that leave us for tomorrow?”
“We know their vessel is out of commission, but we don’t know whether they’ll be using a new one or if they’re aborting the mission altogether.” You sighed, scratching your neck with the back of your pen. “On the other hand, this mission couldn’t be a bigger trap if Sombra rigged the boat with Christmas lights. Technically, we don’t know if Amélie is even here.”
“You want to confirm the target before going in.”
“Might be best if we did that before charging into foreign civilian territory with unregistered guns blazing.”
“Mhm.” You thumbed through your journal, looking for the correct page. “Athena’s been keeping an eye on every security camera in the harbor for anything irregular, but this morning, I made a listing of more isolated key points around the dock. You know, places that are very poorly monitored, or—” You paused to take a massive yawn. “—not monitored at all, wow, excuse me.”
Attention caught, 76 realized you were doing that little squinty thing with your eyes, a technique perfected only by the nearsighted and the sleep-deprived. He took a closer look at you, noticing the stress in your expression and the redness in your eyes.
“How did you sleep last night?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” you frowned, running a hand through your hair to try to put it back into some sort of sensible shape. “I’m fine, though. I can sleep after.”
For a split-second, 76 saw too much of himself in you than he liked. In that moment, you were so far removed from the recruit he met all that time ago—intimidated, obedient, unable to hold up the gun they built themselves—but here you were now, thousands of miles from home, headstrong and confident and ready to charge into hell.
He wanted to ask you if you were okay, if he’d done anything untoward, if you wanted to hit ‘reset’ and pretend yesterday never happened—however, he figured he’d been pushing enough boundaries with you lately, and he had no intention of putting you under any more undue pressure. You didn’t need to communicate every thought and feeling just to ease the tension of his worry. You’d tell him what was wrong, if you wanted him to know.
“Commander,” you began, chewing on your pen, “I need a second pair of eyes on this.”
It wasn’t any of his business, otherwise.
This time marked your turn to wait in the hotel room while 76 left to investigate the harbour. Your tiny hidden cameras would find new homes at the drop points you’d given him, so you could monitor the shadows while Athena watched the security cameras. 76 suggested you get some rest while he was away, as Talon wouldn’t be transporting the unconscious body of a wanted criminal in broad daylight, but you were too stubborn to comply.
“Any discrepancies from the diagrams, so far?” you asked over comms. You didn’t want to know the answer so much as you wanted to confirm he was still on the other end of the line.
“Not that I’ve noticed,” his radio-distorted voice replied. “You’re nothing if not thorough.”
“Still feel like we’re missing something, though.” You rolled over to the other side of the floor-bed, folding an arm behind your head. “Every boat’s got an owner, every owner’s registered and accounted for. These people are all celebrities in the global sailing community, too. Can’t imagine any of them being connected to Talon.”
“You can’t assume who Talon can and can’t get to.”
“I know, I know...”
“What about crewmates? These trips aren’t made solo, maybe they have someone on the inside.”
You shrugged, even though he couldn’t see you. “It’s possible, but we’re talking over 40 people who need to be investigated and monitored on an individual basis. We don’t have that kind of time.” You wracked your brain for overlooked possibilities, listening to sounds of the busy harbour bleeding into the background of 76’s communications line. “Hey, Commander?”
“How would you do it?”
“Picture this.” You rolled onto your stomach, facing the open laptop in front of you. “We’re here—same time, same place—but all of Le Havre is enemy territory. Eyes everywhere. I’m in a coma. How do you smuggle me across the ocean?”
“I’d find a less public way of doing it, for one. It’s a major harbour—there’ll be other days when the place isn’t crawling with civilians and security because of a global event.”
“You think Talon’s not trying to be quiet about it?”
“You said it yourself, this mission is a trap. Whatever they’re planning, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of it involves dragging us out into the open.”
Your heart sank a little. “So you don’t think Amélie is here, after all?”
“No, the intel is accurate. I’m sure of it. But I don’t think they’re keeping her where they’re telling us to look.”
Tapping on your keyboard, you flipped idly through the security camera screens, oddly-angled views provided by each hidden camera 76 managed to plant. He was convinced you were searching in the wrong places, looking only where they wanted you to look, and he was right.
But if this was a distraction, then where the hell was Amélie?
“You finally fall asleep on me?”
“No,” you said, indignant. “Just thinking.”
“Well...instead of trying to figure out where she’s going to be, I’m wondering where she is now. Keeping a grown woman’s body in suspended animation—I mean, the energy, the equipment needed—you can’t exactly pack it in a suitcase and go to a motel, you know? This stuff’s huge.”
“You’re saying they can’t transport the tech the same time as the body without drawing attention.”
“Meaning the tech must already be here,” you continued. “Their vessel allegedly needed repairs after the storm, right? But what if they never planned on leaving the day of the race in the first place?”
“The event gave them an inconspicuous opportunity to cross the Atlantic,” he completed your thought, “but they’re waiting until after the festival to travel.”
You sat up quickly, grabbing another one of your notebooks and rustling through the pages. “According to my records, the repair station should be located on the other side of the—”
“Already on my way.”
“Did you need me, Commander?”
“All we’re doing is confirming the target. We’ll regroup and move out tonight.”
“Good.” You sighed, heartbeat still wild from the sudden revelation. “That’s good.”
It seemed so obvious, looking back on it. You were getting close. This was actually happening.
You shut your eyes and took another deep breath. Behind your eyes, a picture of Amélie. High ponytail. Blue skin. Sharp eyes. A stunning, dangerous ambience suggesting she’d harm you for the mere implication she needed to be saved. Outside of the context of your Commander, you knew next to nothing about her.
Your focus drew back to the sound of 76’s movements over the communication line. “Sir?”
“What was she like?” You cleared your throat. “Amélie, I mean.”
“Oh. I...didn’t know her that well.” (He chose his words carefully.) “She was a dancer, I think. Back in the day.”
“Going through an awful lot of trouble for someone you barely know.”
“Could say the same for you, agent.”
“I might have not known her myself,” he continued, “but she was close to people from the old days. They still want to bring her home, find out the extent of the damage. If it can be reversed.”
“Talon kidnapped her, brainwashed her. Broke her down and built her back up into...whatever she is now.”
You felt your chest tighten. You’d known that Talon was a terrorist organization, but to think they had the power to strip someone of their autonomy, to shatter them, only to glue the fragments back together to form someone who would willingly reflect their image—it terrified you, knowing it was even possible to destroy someone so completely.
Unable to stop yourself, you spoke up, softly. “Is that what happened to Gabriel?”
You shared silence after that.
You couldn’t find much internal non-restricted intel on Amélie Lacroix or Gabriel Reyes, other than the fact that, on-record, they were dead. If anyone could answer all the questions this raised, it would be 76, but you wondered if you even had the right to ask, to dredge up classified history to satiate your own curiosity. Even now, mentioning Gabriel out loud—the name 76 whispered in his sleep, now said so casually in his wake—filled you with enough guilt for an apology to hover at the edge of your lips, half a breath away.
“Some people get caught up in the wrong side of the war,” 76 said, his voice low, “others just follow the signs. I’m partly responsible for steering him in their direction.”
“You two were close,” you offered.
“Partners,” he continued, “in...more ways than one.”
You felt ashamed of your emotions as soon as they flooded through you.
For some reason, you remembered that woman—Sombra, Zarya had called her—holding up those pictures in front of you, tapping a long, purple nail against the portrait of the one who was the most important for your Commander to find. You’d almost died needlessly, preserving the information you’d been given, but you didn’t have a right to feel anything over this, not when he tried to discourage you at every turn.
(“If I told you I wasn’t interested, would you still be volunteering yourself for this mission?”)
Would you have still done it if you knew?
“...why are you telling me this, Commander?”
“You deserve to know what it is you’re getting into.”
You laughed, rubbing a hand over your face. “A little late for that, don’t you think?”
“Sir, with all due respect, if I knew your investigation was about tracking down an ex-boyfriend gone rogue, I...I don’t know, I would have approached this whole thing a little more. Tactfully.”
“...Reader, he’s a terrorist and a wanted criminal. I’m not exactly trying to ask him to prom, here.”
“I know, but...” You sighed. “Is this why you wondered if I had ulterior motives to helping you?”
“It wasn’t because of Reyes, no. It was because I didn’t want you putting yourself in harm’s way for a stupid reason.”
“And what reason would that be?”
“Caring too much about an old man with nothing left to offer.”
Your shoulders slackened as you curled a little into the microphone. You could hear the defeat in his voice, the self-loathing burning in his tone. He blamed himself for whatever happened to Gabriel—you knew he did—and suddenly, the mystery of him unraveled itself to you, just a little more. Was he worried about the ghosts of his past threatening to haunt his present?
Was Gabriel the reason he preferred to be alone?
“Well, god knows you don’t care about yourself,” you finally said, laughing a little. “Someone’s gotta do it.”
A quiet chuckle in return. “I don’t think you’ve done anything to deserve that kind of punishment. Don’t go throwing your life away for my sake.”
“I think you’re being a little melodramatic, sir.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, get yourself out. Don’t worry about me. Stay safe.”
“I’m not letting anything happen to you, Commander.”
“If I couldn’t keep that promise, I sure as hell don’t expect you to. I have a lot of debt, Reader. I’m just trying to pay my dues.”
“This mission isn’t about you trying to atone for your sins,” you snapped, “it’s about bringing Amélie home. And I’m finishing what you started, with or without you.”
The line went quiet.
The following silence was of a different nature than the others punctuating your conversation. There was no background noise, no sound of his footsteps across the harbour—you couldn’t even hear him breathing.
Something immediately struck you as wrong.
One of the many video feeds on your laptop monitor swapped to the shared link of 76’s visor, allowing you to see a live feed from his perspective. You maximized the window. He’d arrived at the repair field on the other end of the harbour—a large, open area with boats of all sizes, mounted on wheels and hauled back onto solid ground. The colours of the display were all wrong, though, and it took you a moment to realize he’d activated the thermal camera built into his visor. Dark navy and neon blues stained most of the idle scene, easing into the brighter colours of more vivid forms, of the fluorescent yellows and reds of people up moving about. The vessel 76 faced, however, contained the unmistakable form of a person in the cargo storage area, folded into themselves in a fetal position; their heat signature was significantly weaker than those walking around outside—unmoving and cramped and cold—but still very much alive.
“You were right,” 76 said.
“Holy shit,” you replied.
“They’re expecting eyes on the main harbour. Whatever they’re doing tonight will point to one of the ships there—if we don’t follow, they’ll know something’s wrong.”
“So one of us needs to flank while the other takes the bait.” Lying on your stomach, you glanced up from your notebook, eyes half-lidded. “You remember that subset of plans, right? For splitting up?”
76 turned the page of the notebook he had in his hands. “All seventeen of them.”
The late afternoon tinted the room’s natural light, from greyish whites of overcast to warmer shades of sunset. 76 sat on the floor with his back propped up against the side of the bed; you laid perpendicular to the mattress, hanging a little off the edge and over his shoulder. You were both pouring over the newest journals you’d scrambled together: finalized strategies for the evening’s assault.
76 had given up asking you to reconsider your participation some time ago. He could tell by the tone of your voice and the look in your eyes that you were determined to prove yourself as dependable support this time, in light of what had happened in Romania. As much as you insisted that this rescue mission was not place for him to compensate for his misgivings, he knew you had your own you wished to atone for, and nothing he could say or do would keep you from his side once you made that decision. He really should have been more worried, but a part of him was...relieved, almost, to not have to go through this alone.
He stared into his lap, pouring over the same set of plans for the hundredth time that afternoon. Your handwriting was messy and the pages were filled with random diagrams with no keys or legends to speak of, but he was able to make sense of your thought process if he tried. A side effect of spending so much time with you, he figured.
He turned the page and found it filled with water-based survival tactics. “Remind me why we need this one, again?”
“In case we get knocked into the harbour or lost at sea,” you said, stifling a yawn.
“You made different plans based on whether we could or couldn’t swim.”
“Immobility contingencies. Cement shoes and all that.”
“You think they’re going to make us walk the plank?”
“Hope not.” You shifted around on the bed behind him. “Most of our equipment isn’t waterproof. Winston’ll be furious.”
“I’m sure you can talk him down. He likes you.”
76 turned the page, again. This one was a compendium with the makes, models, and owners of every ship in the harbour, as well as emergency escape routes from these vessels, their distances from dry land, and equipment that could be abandoned based on relative urgency. The longer he stared, the more your words and equations and statistics began swimming on the page. Your thought process was so thorough—too thorough—the detailed science you and Winston so often buzzed about splayed across the pages in his hands, lost on him. Was this amount of detail really necessary, or was all this just your anxiety speaking?
Did you only feel prepared if you were entirely in control?
“Last chance to back out, Reader.” He continued browsing the pages. “I won’t think any less of you.”
You shook your head. “You’re not going out there without me. Let me protect you, Commander.”
“I’m the one who dragged you here. You’re my responsibility.”
“And you’re mine.”
“And I’m yours,” he repeated, softly.
When he realized what it is he said, you’d already drifted off to sleep, your cheek smooshed against your folded arms without a care in the world for comfort.
As always, you looked peaceful when you were asleep, as this was the only time your head wasn’t plagued with plans and thoughts and imagery of worst-case scenarios. He could see the stress in the way you held yourself, in the furrow of your brow and the tilt of your shoulders as he watched your mind fill with what-ifs of every situation. But in sleep, you were still, with your worried expression finally softening to one of quiet contentment. He could count your eyelashes, given how close he was. He wondered what you dreamed about.
He wondered if you dreamed of him.
A thought came to him, one he would’ve berated himself for in any other context, but with your steadfast presence by his side and your pages upon pages of your dedication in his hands, affection began swelling within him, unexpected and unrelenting, building a pressure beneath his chest that made his heart hurt just to look at you. In that moment, he adored you completely, for all you once were and all you now are and all you’d grown to be, and he couldn’t stop himself—not from releasing the locking mechanism on his visor, not from sliding off his faceplate and resting it on the floor beside him.
Slowly, gently, he leaned towards you, placing a soft kiss to your forehead.
You breathed the smallest, happiest little hum in reply.
He pulled away, but you shifted and followed, sleepily following the traces of his warmth.
And he lets you.
Your phone alarm went off later that evening, marking the start of preparation time before the mission hours ahead of you. Still groggy, you groaned a little in protest, burying your face deeper into the unyielding, leathery surface you were laying against. Come to think of it, this bed wasn’t very comfortable. And why did it smell like your scarf?
Your eyes flew open, and sure enough, you were met with the familiar colours of your Commander’s jacket, having rested your head on his shoulder from behind in your sleep. If you were positioned better, you would’ve shoved yourself off and apologized at once—but the weight of his head was settled against yours, keeping you snug against the side of his neck. You noticed his faceplate on the floor as soon as you registered the feel of his stubble scritching along the top of your forehead.
You went stiff.
“Hey,” he muttered, feeling you stir.
“...h—hello.” You kept your eyes forward; as close as his unmasked face was to yours, you were very determined not to look up.
“Mhm,” you squeaked. Your cheeks were burning. “Think I drooled on your jacket, though.”
He chuckled, soft and deep, and you felt his shoulders rumble with his laughter. “I’ve cleaned off worse, agent.”
You could almost see the loading circle floating above your own head, struggling between acknowledging the compromising position you were in, or letting the realization of the mission ahead sink in your chest and settle fully in your gut. Your remembered the assignment your immediate future held and your stomach flipped; in spite of the work you’d poured into the preparations, you still didn’t feel ready to face the dangers lying ahead of you. Not completely.
Cold sweat beaded at the back of your neck as you began drowning in your own worry. You felt your grasp on your surroundings begin to slip.
Mistaking your rush of panic for discomfort, 76 slid his faceplate back on and made a move to stand.
Before you even realized what you were doing, you’d grabbed onto his arm.
“Don’t go,” you pleaded. “Please.”
The desperation in your tone was enough to make him stop short.
You knew you had to get up and face this—that’s why you were here—but for now, you didn’t want to move. Your Commander, warm and solid beside you, was pretty much all that was keeping you from a full-on panic attack, an explosion of anxiety repressed under your constant illusion of control.
And just like that, he was back at your side. He folded his arms and leaned back against the bed, reclaiming his seat on the floor. You weren’t leaning against each other, anymore, but you both kept silent until your breathing steadied and your grasp on his jacket eased.
“Sorry,” you whispered. “I’m just...I’m scared. About tonight.”
“Nothing wrong with being scared, agent. Keeps you careful. Keeps you safe.”
You smirked. “That why you’re never careful? Because you’re never scared?”
“On the contrary,” he said. “I’m terrified.”
“Not being able to protect you. God knows you won’t do it yourself.”
You laughed, weak and shaky, at the sound of your own words being thrown back at you.
“I’ve told you before,” he continued, “if I was alone here, I would’ve done this a lot differently. But it’s not just me on the line, anymore. It’s us out there. You and me. If either one of us gets reckless, we’re both done for.”
“So we promise not to be reckless.”
He turned to face you fully, the still-unfamiliar bright blue of his visor piercing straight through you. Still on your stomach, you leaned up on your elbows, levelling his gaze with as much intensity as you could muster. You both knew, now, that you were partners in charge of keeping one another grounded—two nervous soldiers taking solace in each other.
“Do you promise?” you repeated.
He reached a hand over to tuck an errant lock of hair behind your ear, savouring the surprise in your expression and the sound of your breath catching ever so slightly.
It took all of your willpower to stop from launching yourself forward into his arms.
You held your hand to the back of his, leaning into his gentle touch. “Let’s bring her home, Commander.”
He curled his fingers around yours, and you could hear the smile in his voice. “Sir, yes, sir.”
Reviews are love, reviews are life. A good 75% of this chapter was written by Ant, I struggled a lot through this one and couldn't have finished it at all without her hard work. Hopefully this update will help me get back into the swing of things. Please let us know what you think! ;w;
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The dead of night gave you plenty of cover as you kept perched atop your roof, overlooking the harbour.
Several days of recon had pointed to the indication that Amélie would be prepped for transport tonight, smuggled aboard one of the many ships bound for the Atlantic the following morning. However, some last-minute digging had uncovered Amélie herself—safe and sound in suspended animation—hidden away in a repair dock on the opposite side of the harbour.
You and 76 had the upper hand for three simple reasons: first, you were aware of the trap waiting for you at the harbour; second, you knew the real location of your target; and third, they weren’t expecting your Commander to be approaching the situation with backup.
76 was advancing towards the repair docks at that very moment. All you had to do was sit tight and pay attention to their presence at the harbour, in case there were any additional circumstances you hadn’t accounted for.
Surprisingly, getting out was the easy part.
The dropship was already in-range. Your handheld evacuation devices—the ones you’d developed with Winston to make your technology more portable—would transport its wearers to the main evac apparatus, installed safely on-board. One of the major flaws of the new tech was that, like its outdated, bulkier version, all nodes had to be activated at once, and once they were activated, it took several hours for them to recharge.
There were three devices in total—one with you, two with 76—and as soon as he confirmed that he’d affixed one to Amélie, you would activate the devices and transport all three of you onto the dropship.
Wait for 76’s confirmation. Hit a button.
“Easy,” you reassured yourself.
You were so tired.
Maybe it was a good thing, you thought. The unholy mess of stress and exhaustion numbed your fear and steadied the grasp on your rifle. At the same time, however, it dulled your senses, making you feel unreactive, and slow. As much as you didn’t want to dwell on the idea, you couldn’t wait to be rid of this mission.
You didn’t tell him that, of course.
Your Commander had glanced down at you before you parted ways, the glaring light of his visor back to the familiar cherry red that suited him most. When you held his gaze, a sinking feeling dropped heavy in your gut, with the inescapable anxiety of absolutely everything going wrong. You’d completed enough training and gone on enough missions throughout your lifetime to be able to control these last-minute fears, but within that moment, you couldn’t shake them off as easily as normal.
“Nothing reckless,” was all you said, “we promised.”
You felt stupid for thinking it at a moment like this, but you wanted to nestle against him again until your raging nerves ebbed to a crawl, until his scent was all you needed as reassurance that everything would be alright.
A few moments of awkward silence passed before you realized you were holding your breath.
“Good luck out there,” you settled on.
And that was the last you saw of him.
Sudden noises drew you from the memory.
A box truck pulled into the streets below, near one of the boats docked along the harbour. Once they killed the engine, four men rushed out of the vehicle and rounded towards the back of it, hoisting the rear door and prepping to transport something out.
“Athena,” you whispered, voice still feeling too loud in the chill of the early morning. “How many heat signatures in the back of the truck?”
“Calculating...” The female tone was cool and even in your ear. “Detecting six additional heat signatures in the back of the vehicle.”
Four in sight, six in hiding.
Hissing urgent commands at one another, the four visible agents worked together to ease a massive crate from the truck onto a large metal dolly.
“And how many signatures that crate?” you asked.
As expected, you thought. The crate was a decoy. They were expecting 76 to muscle his way in—and maybe, if you weren’t here, that’s exactly what he would’ve done, only to be met with an empty container and an ambush.
...you both should’ve been gone by now.
You touched the communication device clipped to your ear. “Commander, do you read me? Do we have an ETA on evac? Over.”
The silence sent your mind racing.
“Athena, can I get a status report on the Commander?”
“Vital signs: stable. Communications online. Evacuation node two is prepared for activation. Evacuation node three is prepared for activation.”
Then why the hell wasn’t he responding?
The answer was obvious—he must have encountered enemy interference, either en route or at site. However, the agents below were still maneuvering the decoy cargo towards their ship docked at the harbour, meaning neither them nor the ambush in hiding had been notified of the compromise.
That meant you could still buy him time.
“Commander,” you started, “assume contingency 32B. If I do not receive orders within five minutes, we abort without payload. Athena?”
“Understood. Initiating contingency 32B.”
A split-second later, several cracks shattered the air like fireworks, as every hidden camera your Commander had planted in the immediate area self-destructed.
Neighborhood dogs began barking. Windows of nearby apartment complexes lit with newly woken civilians. The agents below surrounded the dolly, drawing their own guns in response.
Amidst the sudden confusion, you balanced your rifle along the edge of the rooftop, charged your shot to maximum power, and fired at the ship—another crash echoed through the harbour as you blew a hole in the ship’s main hull. The damage wasn’t enough to sink it, but it was enough to keep it from disembarking—more importantly, it was enough to get their attention.
The hidden agents were already piling out of the back of the box truck, while those guarding the dolly shouted and pointed towards your rooftop. Though the shot had given away your position, you immediately lined up another, this time aiming for the vehicle’s engine. The explosion tore through the air louder than any disruption that had come before it. You ducked for cover just before automatic fire began spraying in your direction.
The self-destructing cameras had woken up half the neighborhood, so French authorities would be on their way. You made yourself out to be someone making a play for the fake cargo, which would buy 76 a few extra minutes. And you’d crippled the agents’ ground transportation, meaning they couldn’t fall back to your Commander’s current position, even if they were called to retreat.
Rifle slung around your shoulder, you fell back. You could already hear the heavy footfalls of enemy agents scrambling up your fire escape; you headed for the opposite side, instead, using your grappling equipment to hook onto the roof’s edge and scale down the side of the building.
Three agents were standing guard at the bottom of the fire escape.
You hit the ground running.
Enemy fire sent your heart rattling inside your chest like a bell in a cage, but you kept focused. You’d studied the layouts of these alleys a hundred times over, and outmaneuvering the enemy was child’s play—but the knowledge of what was behind every corner did nothing to ease the sound of their bullets ricocheting as they missed, blasting off bits of brick and concrete around you.
Behind this dumpster. Through this door. Right turn. Left turn. Right turn. Right.
You couldn’t let yourself get hurt again. Not after last time.
“Payload secured,” came the voice you were waiting for, like music to your ears. “Requesting evac.”
And you hit the button.
Teleportation felt like being yanked by a set of wires tied to your ribcage—it always left you feeling disoriented and unsteady on your feet, even as you made solid contact with the floor of the dropship.
The sight of the unconscious woman jarred you to your senses. Though she was unarmed and barely out of stasis, you weren’t about to underestimate the lethality of a known Talon agent held in such high regard.
Falling over yourself with urgency, you rushed over to the side of her unmoving form. You lifted her body, bridal-style, to the small holding chamber in the back of the dropship, and sat her upright.
You sealed the door shut, and stumbled backwards with the shock of what you’d just done.
You did it.
You rescued her.
As your adrenaline-fueled haste died down, the electric excitement vibrating within your chest replaced itself with a cold, harrowing realization—that the dropship was far too quiet, far too empty around you.
You knew what was behind you before you bothered turning around.
A spent evacuation node sat on the floor where your Commander should have been standing.
“Athena,” you near-whispered, voice weak, “status report?”
“Vital signs: unstable. Communications offline. Evacuation node two, offline. Evacuation node three, offline.”
You took a deep, shaky breath.
You knew what you had to do.
To say you hadn’t planned for this was a lie.
Of course you’d planned for it—you’d planned every iteration of every possibility of any combination of the three of you becoming compromised. The contingency of this scenario was clear: neither one of you would leave without the other. Surely, he’d know that.
Surely, he knew you were coming.
All three of your evacuation nodes were spent, which meant you would have to get him out the good old-fashioned way. The question gnawing at you remained: what could have happened that necessitated him removing the transportation device from himself? The node was an instant get-out-of-jail-free card, one which hadn’t been damaged or malfunctioning at time of transport, so why would he ever take it off?
You didn’t have much time to wonder.
Athena dropped you off as close as she could to your Commander’s last known coordinates on the dry docks.
If your positions were switched, you had little doubt 76 would’ve come after you, guns blazing, regardless of enemy numbers or positioning, but you couldn’t afford the same bravado. If you were too heavily outnumbered, trying to get him out on your own would be nothing short of suicide. For 76 to have been taken down, you expected to be faced with an army.
But the dry docks were barren when you arrived. Almost serene.
There were no signs of recent activity in the area, let alone of a recent fight. Aside from 76’s signal pinging you from across the docks, Athena confirmed there were no other heat signatures in the immediate area.
Had he been abducted, maybe? Taken to a secondary location without his tech?
You shook your head, doing your best to parse contingency from paranoia. You were approaching the cargo ship where Amélie’s body was being held mere minutes earlier—unfamiliar enemy territory—and you needed to pay attention.
Readying your weapon, you ascended the set of metal stairs along the side of the ship; already, your footsteps sounded far too loud.
The large, open deck of the cargo vessel was crowded with storage units—massive, rectangular metal boxes of identical shapes and sizes stacked on top of each other like multi-coloured building blocks. As you approached 76’s signal, you kept your steps light and your wits about you, checking your corners while keeping your back pressed to solid surfaces. The deck was dark, claustrophobic, terrible grounds for a fight—if it weren’t for Athena’s confirmation there were no other living souls on-board, you wouldn’t have stepped foot in here without backup.
The pinging in your ear grew more rapid as 76’s signal became stronger on your radar.
To your right, an open storage unit containing the now-empty stasis machine, still running, casting an ice-blue light across the deck and illuminating the scene before you.
Several toppled cargo units crowded the area, all of which were heavily damaged with massive dents and bullet holes. The path of destruction led to the rear-most area of the deck.
A splash of blood was illuminated brilliantly against the dark surface of the ship, awash in the stasis machine’s ice-blue glow, as if it were under blacklight. Another spatter, smeared along the side of a storage container. Several drips along the metal flooring, rounding the corner of another open unit nearby...
You checked your corners before checking inside.
Inside the open storage container sat the form of a man in the glow of his own cherry red visor, hunched over with a hand pressed to his thigh, a pool of his own blood seeping beneath him.
“Don’t,” 76 croaked, sounding weaker than you’d ever heard him, “it’s a trap—”
Reflexes kicking in, you raised your weapon and did a swift 180, aim landing on the head of the other man standing behind you.
And you fired.
You thought you missed, at first—your laser burned a hole in the storage unit behind him—but you realized your shot had gone through him, as the man’s entire body morphed into a cloud of black vapour before your charge made contact.
This didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t anyone else alive on this ship.
“Athena?” you whispered.
“Target possesses no heat signature. Target possesses no pulse.”
The insinuation of her words sent your mind reeling.
You had no contingencies for this.
The swirling cloud solidified into being once more. Hooded and broad-shouldered, the man towered before you, the sharp edges of his bone-white mask glinting in the blue light. His gloved hands—every finger clawed with a sharp silver talon—carried a mammoth pair of black shotguns you could’ve easily mistaken for cinder blocks. He was black leather and red adornments. He was dread and absolute foreboding.
The partner in more ways than one.
The one he cared about finding.
And Gabriel Reyes laughed at you, his voice as ethereal as the rest of him. “You’re late.”
You blurted out the only words that came to mind. “What the fuck?”
As much as you were trembling, you didn’t lower your gun. “You’re here to kill us, then?”
“And if I am?”
“Anything happens to either us, Amélie is dead,” you snapped. Your voice was much steadier than you were. “The dropship is already en route to headquarters—if we don’t both check in within the hour, it’s set to self-destruct.”
“That so?” His claws readjusted their grip on his shotguns. “How were you planning on getting out of here?”
“Dunno.” You swallowed, hard. “Didn’t think that far ahead.”
He made an amused noise, low in his throat. “It’s been a while since you’ve had someone so willing to die for you, Jack.”
Attention faltering, your blood turned to ice beneath your skin. Pieces of the puzzle were jamming themselves into place, violently, all at once, and as the big picture revealed itself to you, you felt more and more like a complete fucking idiot for not having seen it earlier.
As if reading your mind, Gabriel tilted his head to the side.
“Oh my god,” he chuckled, darkly. “You didn’t know.”
You stood there, facing each other—his guns still at his side, yours still pointed at his head. If your Commander was Jack Morrison, that meant the Gabriel Reyes in front of you wasn’t just any Gabriel Reyes—this was the Gabriel Reyes, ex-commander of Blackwatch, public scapegoat for the first fall.
You suddenly found yourself in the company of men who were killed in an explosion nearly a decade ago and you no longer knew what was real.
“Congratulations, Jack,” said Gabriel. “You managed to find the one person on the planet who bought into the world’s worst-kept secret.”
“Leave them out of this,” snarled the voice behind you. “Your fight is with me.”
“Oh, but this is so much bigger than you and I. Why shouldn’t your new lackey come along for the ride?”
Your desire for an explanation outweighed your caution. “I thought you died, Commander Reyes.”
You could tell the use of his name gave him pause.
“He did,” he replied. “It’s ‘Reaper,’ now. Or did he leave that part out, too?”
Your breath caught in your chest. So not only was Gabriel Reyes still alive, but it was the true identity of the infamous terrorist you’d only ever heard rumours of. The ghost of the battlefield, the shadow of death, the one rumoured to steal the very souls of his victims until their bodies were nothing but dried husks—here he was, standing before you, dismantling your worldview one word at a time.
And yet, you didn’t want him to stop talking.
You lowered your rifle by an inch or two, just enough to better meet his gaze. “What did Commander Morrison do to you?”
He sneered beneath his mask. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Though you continued aiming at him, Reaper still had not yet raised his weapons against you. He seemed to consider you for a moment—your quivering hands, your unblinking gaze, your steadfast positioning in the face of common instinct screaming at you to run. The sounds of your Commander’s laboured breathing seemed to do little to break your resolve.
Were you really so curious?
Reaper took a few steps forward, his footfalls heavy against the ship deck.
“War is a game,” he said. “A game you can’t win if you’re the only side playing by the rules. But Jack was never one to get his hands dirty. That’s where I came in.”
He continued his approach. The closer he came, the less you could move.
“You’ll do what they ask. You’ll do what is needed. Then they’ll orchestrate your downfall, and deny they had anything to do with you.”
He was inches away from you, now.
He smelled like a battlefield—like death and decay, like earth and gunfire.
“There will always be war,” he continued, “and there will always be people they need to do their dirty work. People just like you.”
“You’ve taken Lacroix. You already are.”
Though you managed to keep your rifle raised, your subconscious had already surrendered, knowing full well you posed no semblance of a threat to this anomaly of an undead man who could dissipate at will.
Slowly, carefully, he pushed the aim of your rifle off to the side, as if he were drawing a curtain in his way.
He closed the distance between you by pressing the tip of his shotgun beneath your chin, tilting your head up until you were gazing into the black sockets of his mask.
You hear your Commander’s voice call out one of your names. You can’t tell which one.
“Remember, when you leave this place.” His gravelled voice was low and deliberate. “Every breath you take is air I’ve let you swallow. Your every heartbeat is a gift from me. From this moment on, you are living on time I’ve allowed you to borrow. And I will be back to collect my dues.”
You barely registered the next words that left you. “I’ll be waiting.”
To your surprise, Reaper laughed. “You don’t deserve them, Jack.”
To your surprise, 76 responded. “I know.”
And Reaper was gone, dark plumes of smoke vanishing into thin air.
Once again, you didn’t have time to wonder.
You immediately unslung your rifle and yanked your jacket off, rushing to 76’s side, the floor of the storage unit scraping hard against your knees.
You reached for the side of his belt and pulled out the Biotic Field canister yourself, slamming it onto the ground and activating it. Reaper had prevented him from using it, you figured, in order to have 76’s unstable vital readings lure you here faster.
You bundled your jacket and helped him apply more pressure to his thigh to stop the shotgun wound’s bleeding. The blood loss had made him several shades too pale, you noticed, but the flow already seemed to be easing as the biotic yellow glow knit his insides back together. It wasn’t going to be a complete recovery, but it would be enough to keep him stable until you reached headquarters.
A gloved hand brushed your bangs out of your face and tucked your hair behind your ear.
You looked up to meet the light of his visor.
“Hey,” he offered, sounding almost playful.
“Hi,” you said back, still feeling numb.
“I know asking if you’re okay is a stupid question, but I’m asking it anyway.”
“I’m...compartmentalizing.” You took a sharp breath. “We’re not safe, yet. We need to get out of here.”
“Mm. How are we getting out of here?”
“Dropship’s on standby. Should be here in a few minutes.”
“I thought you said the dropship left.”
With your jacket soaked through with blood, the fabric as a whole became easier to twist around; you wrapped the wet jacket firmly around his thigh, tying the sleeves into a tight knot to keep the makeshift tourniquet in place. He reacted little to the pain—he must have been exhausted.
“You took off the evac node,” you said, dully. “You took off the evac node to go after Reaper.”
You didn’t need to see the look on his face when his silence already spoke volumes.
As hard as you willed against it, tears stung the corners of your eyes as you tried to look down to hide them, down at the rapidly blurring vision of your hands covered in his blood. The memory of you turning the corner and finding him sitting here, bleeding to death, rewound and replayed in your mind’s eye. What if he was hurt just a little worse?
What if you got here just a little too late?
“You promised.” Your cracking voice gave your tears away. “But you don’t give a shit about dying, do you?”
“Not until I met you.”
“Don’t give me that.” Your chest felt tight. “Not after what you just pulled. We could’ve gotten killed—Commander, I almost lost you—”
His hands reached for you, moving up to hold the sides of your face, and your words died in your throat. You could feel the blood in his gloves pressing against your cheeks—everything around you smelled like it now, smelled like him now, like regen and blood and leather—but he leaned his forehead to yours, and the warmth of his skin steadied you.
You’d never felt him tremble, before.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he breathed, and the way his voice broke on the words shook you to your core. “I’m sorry.”
The sound of his faltering only made you break worse. Your shoulders shaking, tears still streaming down your face, you held your hands against his, keeping them pressed against you—he was holding onto you as if he needed you to anchor him in place, as if you were the only thing on this earth keeping him tethered to it.
For the briefest of moments, he touches your lips to where his would be.
He passes out against your shoulder before you can register what happened.
And your dropship arrives.
look man it's been a solid year and a half i don't really have anything to say for myself lmao
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Chapter 12: absence
Chapter by FiveTail
I can't even begin to express how thrilled I am that Soldier 76 has been confirmed as gay. The fandom reaction (on my side of things, anyway) has been nothing short of heartwarming, and the flood of celebration artwork has been outstanding. I really hope future lore updates give us more on Jack and Vincent's relationship--the idea that 76 chose Overwatch over a stable relationship / civilian life, only for what happened to have happened...please, Michael Chu, I'm dying.
tl;dr It won't affect a thing! We started writing this story two years ago and we've got no intentions of stopping--I've added a tiny disclaimer in the story summary to reflect this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Using the fireman carry on a grown man double your weight and at least a head taller than you was no minor feat. As you held your Commander’s body around your shoulders, blood from his wounded leg now leaking steadily down the front of you, you shuffled your way up the ramp into the waiting dropship, making a mental note to thank Zarya for her training.
You punched the inner hull to pop down a medical table folded into the wall, and you rested him down as carefully as you could.
“Athena?” you snapped, out of breath.
Several nearby devices activated, springing out of the wall at the ends of mechanical arms. One of them performed a full-body scan, while another projected the numbers of his vitals on a mid-air screen. A third device appeared above him, casting a familiar, biotic-yellow glow across his injury.
Athena’s voice sounded from overhead. “The biotic field will control the bleeding, but it appears unable to close the wounds alone. Extraction of foreign matter is needed for full recovery.”
“Should I go in, then?” you asked, already rifling through the first aid shelves for the proper tools. You hadn’t had to perform emergency field surgery in ages, but your knowledge was still there, as was your knee-jerk reaction to get busy before things took a turn for the worst.
“Analyzing...immediate action not required. The interaction between the biotics and the SEP treatment will be enough to keep him stable until landing.”
Your hands fell limp against the shelves. You hung your head, wearily, still catching your breath.
‘SEP treatment.’ You had no idea what that was. You weren’t sure if you wanted to know.
“Vitals are stabilizing. Status: breathing and unresponsive. Please place the Commander in the recovery position and ensure clearance of his airways to prevent fluid or mechanical obstruction of his breathing.”
‘Clearance of his airways.’
You had to remove his mask.
You turned towards him, wiping your brow across the back of your hand. Logic dictated that the hesitation you felt right now was stupid, nonsensical. This was a medical emergency, neither the time nor place for pride; if he were to choke on his own vomit and die in his sleep because you thought seeing his face was a violation of privacy, that would be on you. You doubted he would’ve cared at this point, anyway. Especially not now. Now that you knew.
You just imagined this going differently, somehow.
Adrenaline kept your pulse pounding in your ears, loud and headache-inducing, as if your heart had leapt straight into your skull.
With careful, still-bloodied fingers, you felt along the sides of his mask for the release trigger. The faceplate seperated with a soft click, deactivating the red glow of his visor, and leaving the jawstrap of his mask framed around his face.
And there he was. Overwatch’s original Strike Commander. War hero and international celebrity.
He looked older than you remembered from the posters, his hair and brows having gone from bright blonde to stark white. He had the same strong jawline, now peppered with stubble, and the same slight curve in the bridge of his nose. Deep scars had been slashed across his face, as if the claws of some great predator had taken swipes against him; the thought evoked a memory of Reaper’s talons, black and lethal and a perfect fit.
His lips were slightly parted in his unconsciousness. The ghost of his visor was on your mouth, again, and waves of unease crashed within you at the reminder of how foolish you’d been.
How could you not have seen it?
You adjusted his arms and legs into the recovery position and turned his unconscious body towards the wall.
You do not look upon his face again.
With the Commander’s body secured, the dropship rumbled beneath you during takeoff. You turned to steady yourself on a bar affixed to the wall, and the sight of the figure now sitting up in her holding cell gave you a jolt of surprise.
“Salut,” you offered, meekly, because what else did you say to a deadly brainwashed enemy assassin staring at you from behind glass?
The greeting in her native tongue gave her momentary pause, but she did not look away from you.
“I never touched the Atlantic, did I?” she asked, her voice dark and crisp.
“...you don’t seem surprised.”
“This isn’t new to me, moving from one set of incompetent fools to the next. The only difference is I’m no longer getting paid for it.” Her gaze on you softened, her golden eyes laced with such sudden informality it made you doubt your own safety. “Am I under arrest, chérie?”
You opened your mouth before closing it, again. You didn’t actually know the answer to that question.
She sneered at your silence. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
With your Commander incapacitated, you mentally ran through every security feature aboard the dropship. The multiple panes of heat-strengthened glass surrounding her. The knockout gas lines lining the cell. The sidearm on the wall filled with Commander Amari’s sleep darts.
You made the call and walked, slow and deliberate, towards Amélie’s holding cell.
You hadn’t had a chance to get a proper look at her during the panicked rush of earlier events. She was barefooted and clothed in a white wraparound hospital gown, the colour a stark contrast against the pale blue of her skin. Her untied dark hair was a straight, sleek mess of strands, long enough to bunch around her as she sat. You noticed a tattoo around her right forearm—araignée du soir, cauchemar—a rhyme, playing on an old French expression.
Unblinking and stone-still, she kept her eyes fixed on you as she tracked your gradual approach. You could feel her bristling, the electricity in the air growing with the inches closed between you, but that wasn’t what you wanted at all. Instead, you angled your approach to give her a wider berth, stopping only when you reached the opposite wall, several feet away from her cell.
You sat on the floor. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t speak as if you haven’t read my file.”
“Not your birth name, your real one. The one they won’t tell me.”
You could still feel remnants of the earlier static between you, filling the silence with its sparks.
“Fatale,” she said, finally. “Or, ‘Widowmaker,’ for those who refuse to pronounce it properly.”
“It’s an honour to finally meet the person everyone’s been fighting so hard for.”
“Fraternizing with the enemy will get you no answers from me.”
“You’re not our enemy.”
She sneered, again. “You are new.”
“Let me rephrase,” you offered. “The Commander never spoke of you as an enemy.”
“Oh,” she pouted, making a sardonic, mocking expression of interest, “and how did he speak of me?”
“Like a prisoner of war.”
“And how does it feel to be led by someone that profoundly naive?”
“He may have led me here, but who’s the one half-dead on a table and who’s the one sitting in front of you? I was given a mission to bring you back. And I succeeded.”
“Yes, you have me,” she said, a slow smirk on her lips. “Your grand prize. And you’ll kill me, again. Isn’t that enough?”
“No one’s going to kill you, Fatale,” you said, but you couldn’t even convince yourself that much was true.
Amélie rose to her feet as if lifted by a breeze, her elegant movements pronounced with the grace of a woman in command of every fiber of her being. As she stood tall and stared down at you, a triumphant smile playing at the small curves of her mouth, you were once again struck with the feeling you were in danger.
She turned her back to you and sat down against the glass of the holding cell, leaving you silent, hopeless, and aching with the inexplicable guilt of having done something wrong.
Reaper’s words accompanied the heartbeat in your head.
There will always be people they need to do their dirty work.
People just like you.
Winston, McCree, and Dr. Ziegler were there to greet you when you arrived back at headquarters. The impromptu welcome party wasn’t unexpected, as no mission reports had been filed on the way back; the only updates your team had to go on regarding the status of your assignment were returning flight paths and readings of your vital signs.
So, as you disembarked, their reaction didn’t come as a surprise.
“We—welcome back,” gaped Winston.
“What in the hell happened to you?” McCree asked, loudly.
You hadn’t slept and you looked it, your eyes dark and your line of vision the slightest bit unfocused. You walked down the ramp wearing nothing but cargo pants and a tank top, as your tactical jacket was still wrapped tightly around 76’s thigh to help apply pressure to his still-open wounds. Most noteworthy of all, however, was the blood all over you, now dried and dark; a flaky mess of smears formed a gradient from your fingers to your forearms, alongside a massive stain down one side of you from where your Commander bled as you carried him on board.
You weren’t injured, however, and you tried not to make a show of carrying yourself down to the tarmac, keeping your back straight and your tone matter-of-fact. “Commander Morrison needs surgery. He sustained a severe shotgun wound to the upper thigh that the biotic field won’t close.”
“That—that doesn’t make sense.” Winston glanced back at the ship. “The biotic field should be able to—unless—”
“Reaper was there,” you said. “Whatever’s in his bullets is keeping the Commander from healing up. I’m sorry I haven’t completed my mission report, I’ll have it finished within the hour.”
Bewildered, McCree tipped his hat up as he scratched at his forehead. “That’s all fine and dandy, but are you—”
A slender hand grabbed your bare shoulder from behind, clutching onto you for purchase.
“You found her?” Dr. Ziegler asked, breathless.
And suddenly, no one’s eyes were on you.
Everyone’s attention was redirected towards the holding cell within the dropship. You turned to look as well, and the unbridled hatred sparking in Amélie’s eyes was unlike any you’d ever seen.
This was a reunion for them, you remembered.
You didn’t belong here.
You shrugged off Dr. Ziegler’s grasp and headed back towards base.
“Please take care of the Commander,” you repeated.
76’s surgery took less time than your paperwork.
Though your report and post-mission medical examination were both complete, Dr. Zeigler refused to clear you for active duty. She reminded you that you only had a week’s rest between Romania and Le Havre, a week which was almost entirely spent healing and preparing for your next mission, and after this ordeal, you needed some actual time to recover.
What was supposed to be an extended break ended up being nothing more than an exercise in worry.
Every idle thought would drift back to the memory of Amélie’s murderous gaze when she first laid eyes on the rest of your crew. You realized that, for some reason, she’d afforded you a patience during your conversation that she had no intention of sharing with anyone else. Reaper’s words to you were on repeat, again—you felt as if you were the only person on-base none the wiser about Amélie’s case, or about what Overwatch was planning on doing with her now that she’d been rescued.
Whenever you sought to ask details from Dr. Ziegler about Amélie’s situation, or her progress, or even where she was being kept, the good doctor would quiet you with a tired smile, every single time.
“You’ve done your job, Reader. Let me do mine.”
But you couldn’t sleep.
Most of your time was spent squirreled away in your personal quarters. When you weren’t comparing the Le Havre mission reports from yourself and your Commander, searching for hints about Amélie you might’ve missed, you were staring at the contingency plans you’d made in France, seeing where you could’ve done better, gradually sinking under the weight of your own anxieties.
Where was Amélie? Was she safe here?
Several days had passed since you returned, and the one person you trusted enough to answer your questions still hadn’t bothered to summon you, or find you of his own accord—and the act of you seeking him out after everything that happened would’ve felt like surrender.
Was he angry with you?
The thought made your blood boil. He had no right or reason to be upset, least of all with you.
Why else would he be avoiding you?
A knock sounded at your room one night, and the voice that followed was not the one you were expecting.
“This mopin’ of yours’s gone on long enough,” McCree said through the door. “Get dressed, you’re comin’ with me.”
Buried within the contents of several journals spread across your desktop, you kept very, very still. Maybe if you were quiet enough, he would think you weren’t here.
“...don’t make me drag you outta there.”
“Alright, alright, jeez.”
So you put on pants.
You followed McCree’s wordless lead to the practice range. You figured he was taking you for aim training—nothing gets your mind off things like shooting other things, after all—but you were guided away from the distance markings on the floor, past the training bots hovering in fixed path rotations around the grounds, and up several flights of stairs.
Eventually, you arrived at an open balcony at one of the highest points of the range, overlooking a large portion of the facility.
McCree sat down against the wall, to one side of a plastic container. “Have a seat.”
“...am I in trouble?”
He looked up at you, his brows knitting together. “Y’know, there’s something to be said about the fact that’s the first place your mind jumped to.”
“I’m support,” you said, taking a seat next to him on the other side of the box. “Worst case scenarios are kinda my thing.”
McCree reached for the sealed container, which popped open with a gentle hiss.
It was a cooler.
He grabbed a bottle of beer from inside, uncapped it with his metal hand, and handed it to you. You accepted it, gratefully.
And you drank together in silence.
The stars were out in full force tonight, twinkling pinpricks in the blanket of a moonlit sky. The pitch-black shadows of mountains were silhouetted the horizon, while sheets of ice drifted across the surface of the distant water. The alcohol was smoother than you were expecting—strong, but sweeter than most. One drink turned into two, into three, into four. A warm, familiar buzz soon blurred your thoughts, soothing you from the inside out.
Several empty bottles piled up between the two of you before McCree broke the quiet.
“Pull,” he called, another drink raised to his lips.
You blinked at him, slowly. The place better have been as abandoned as he thought it was.
You grabbed an empty bottle and threw it as hard as you could over the balcony, high into the air. You hadn’t even registered him pulling his weapon from his holster before he’d shot the damn thing with a single bullet, pieces of glass raining like stardust onto the barren ground fifty feet below.
‘Nice shot,’ is what you thought.
“I can’t believe zombies are fucking real,” is what left your mouth.
He chuckled. “Pull.”
You tossed another bottle. Again, he hit it spot-on, first try.
“If it helps,” he started, cracking open another couple of drinks for the two of you, “whatever’s goin’ on with Reaper ain’t exactly widespread technology. He’s one-of-a-kind. That’s what makes him so dangerous.”
You downed half the bottle before speaking. “He promised he was gonna kill me.”
“Don’t take it personally, that’s just how he says goodbye.”
“You’ve met him, then?”
“I have. Knew him before the mask, too.”
The memory of the cloaked, clawed, dual shotgun-wielding man floated through your mind like a passing ghost, and you found it difficult to imagine there was ever a ‘before.’ “What was he like?”
“Reyes?” McCree considered your question, nursing his drink as he did so. “A hardass with a good sense of humor. Got the job done at all costs. And quite the family man, believe it or not.”
“...he had a family?”
He nodded. “Civilians, though. Moved on after the Fall.”
You continued drinking. Somehow, you hadn’t considered Reaper was once a regular person with a life all his own. A spouse. Children, maybe. If they were civilians, did that mean they believed him dead, like the rest of the world? If he still remembered them, did he care for them, even now? Did he have a family before his relationship with your Commander? After?
McCree noticed you’d gone quiet. “What’re you thinkin’?”
“Just trying to wrap my head around it,” you admitted. “Never had a dead guy point a gun at my face, before.”
He clicked his tongue before taking a swig. “Welcome to Overwatch.”
Slouching over a bit, you ran a hand over your face. “If I knew about Commander Reyes from the start, I could’ve been better prepared in Le Havre.”
“None of us had any reason to believe Reaper would be runnin’ interference down there. Our intel had him halfway around the world when you and Sarge left for France.”
“So it was bad intel.”
You kept a hand over your mouth as you stared into the distance, thinking it over. Reaper was the one 76 cared about finding, so of course he’d have updated knowledge of his whereabouts. That’s why 76 hadn’t told you about him from the start, and that’s why he was so shocked to find him there—maybe even enough to reevaluate his mission objectives and go after him without a second thought.
“What do we want with Amélie, anyway?” you asked.
“Couldn’t tell you,” he shrugged. “Probably classified.”
“‘Classified.’ Of course it is. Meaning she could be being tortured or murdered underground somewhere and I would’ve been complicit in that.”
“...bein’ a little overdramatic, don’t you think? Not exactly in the business of kidnap and torture, here.”
“Yeah, not anymore.”
“Now, now.” McCree flashed a grin from the lip of his bottle. “Our hands might not be clean, but these things ain’t ever black and white in the long run, either. All we can do is make sure our shade of grey’s lighter’n most.”
“How do I know we’re doing the right thing if there’s this much I wasn’t told?”
“You’re forgettin’ the obvious.”
“And that is?”
“You’re new,” he enunciated. “Everyone but you’s been here from the start of it all, years and years ago. What’s ‘classified’ now is just a bunch of random, tragic shit that happened to us once upon a time. It’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know for the things we brought you on for.”
“I know,” you said, emphatically, “I know I don’t need everyone’s life story to work here, I’m just worried there’s more things I should’ve known from the start, things that...could’ve helped.”
“You talkin’ ‘bout Sarge?”
You didn’t respond, instead opting to take a very long sip from your bottle.
“If I’m bein’ honest, the whole ‘Soldier 76’ thing is more of an inside joke here than anything else. We keep it up to protect his pride, ‘cause pride’s just about all he’s got left. His callsign’s a cover for the outside world, but everyone here knows who he really is. And he knows that.”
“He knew I didn’t.”
“He knew,” you repeated, more forcefully this time.
McCree raised an eyebrow. “So are you mad at him for not tellin’ you, or mad at yourself for not figurin’ it out sooner?”
Frustration burned your cheeks. Without warning, you chucked two empty bottles over the balcony at the same time; he shot both, dead-on, one after the other in less than a heartbeat.
“He waited for me,” you growled.
“After Romania. He waited for me to recover because he wanted me in France. And I was so damn worried, you know? Was I going because it was important, or was I going because it was important to him? He says he doesn’t want to lead me on, he says he doesn’t want me to make a decision based on him alone—but regardless of how I felt, or how he felt, he waited. And it was the first time I felt like he saw me. Not as a new hire, or as a subordinate, but—”
“—as an equal.”
“Then when we’re over there,” you rambled, voice breaking, “he says shit like he’s ‘at his best’ when he’s with me? And we promise not to be reckless, but two hours later, he does just that—and I have to save him, even if it means walking into a trap, even if it means carrying his bleeding ass back to the ship, because I said I’d protect him and I don’t break my fucking promises.”
You didn’t give permission for the angry tears to stray from your eyes, but you were already too tipsy to care.
“And for what??” you snapped, voice growing louder. “To bring back a full-fledged Talon agent for reasons I never understood in the first place. And now that she’s here, I can’t log into my computer without wondering if Sombra’s tracking my movements, trying to make contact again. I can’t stop thinking about how much time I have left until Reaper makes good on his promise—and I know you said not to worry, but you didn’t hear what he said to me, and god, you didn’t hear how much he meant it.”
McCree didn’t say a word. He gave you a few moments of silence to collect yourself, to catch your breath, to get it all out of your system.
Then he reloaded his revolver, and handed it to you.
The initial shock of him letting you anywhere near Peacekeeper was immediately drowned out by the sheer weight of it in your hands. The gun was massive, twice the size of any normal revolver—much heavier, as well, but somehow still balanced within your hold. You cocked it, and the heavy click of the hammer was incredibly satisfying.
McCree tossed up an empty bottle. It took you three tries, but you managed to shatter it.
Nothing to get your mind off things like shooting other things, after all.
“I don't have time to worry about something like this, you know?” you said, sniffling. “I—I just don’t have the time.”
“The time to what? Figure out the feelings of a dumbass givin’ off more mixed signals than a traffic light? I don’t blame you.” McCree lit a cigar and held it between his teeth. He flipped another bottle over the ledge, watching you catch it in two shots. “Least he bought us booze.”
You glanced back at the cooler. “The Commander bought all this?”
“A fine cider I recommended,” he bragged, tapping the ash from his first drag away. “You should be thankin’ me, too, the man’s got shit taste. Likes that sex-on-a-boat type beer.”
“Sex on a boat?”
“Fuckin’ close to water.”
You snorted an ugly, too-loud laugh through the last few of your tears. McCree smiled from behind his cigar.
“Look, Sarge wants to talk to you,” he said, “but he wants to talk to you on your own terms. Told me so himself. Didn’t wanna ambush you if you weren’t ready, all that shit.”
“So he sent you as a messenger?” you scoffed. “Why couldn’t he just tell me that himself?”
“Scared, I reckon.”
“Scared of what?”
McCree threw one final empty bottle into the air. Having gotten used to Peacekeeper’s weight, you finally managed to shatter it in one shot, with the very last bullet in the chamber.
“Thought that much’d be obvious,” he said, wryly.
You turned your nose. Maybe it was the pent-up frustration, maybe it was the one-too-many bottles of cider swimming around inside you, but something about the Commander leaving the ball in your court rubbed you the wrong way. You were tired of sitting around. You were tired of worrying. Above all else, you were tired of not knowing.
You stood up, which in itself was an accomplishment. You weren’t drunk—it took a bit more than that to really knock you on your ass—but you were hovering at that wonderfully hazy point where you were intoxicated enough to lack better judgement, but sober enough to make bad decisions.
You wobbled your way towards the stairs, keeping one hand on the building for balance. “If no one’s giving me answers, I’ll just get them on my own.”
McCree made a little noise of disapproval. “I wouldn’t have that conversation drunk, if I were you.”
“No,” you snapped, “I’m going to the medbay to see if I can find Amélie’s intake files.”
“Reckon the doc’ll just hand them over if you ask nicely?”
“Kinda counting on her not being there.”
He laughed, burying his face into his palm. “Oh, lord.”
“I’m not asking you to help.”
“Now, what kind of friend would I be if I got you drunk then didn’t help you break into somewhere you shouldn’t be?”
“You coming, then?”
“Depends. Can I have my gun back?”
As you navigated the barren hallways of the base, trying to move as silently as you could from corridor to corridor, you became certain that McCree’s spurs were the loudest objects known to mankind.
Dr. Ziegler’s office was located towards the back of the hospital wing. To your surprise, the door of her office was left unlocked, but as you made your way inside and hit the light switch, you suddenly understood why. She kept absolutely everything in neat, impeccable order—not a single pen or scrap of paper out of place—with an impressive array of individually fastened drawers, locked filing cabinets, and padlocked storage units located all around the room.
You booted up the computer at her desk, only to discover that the words across the loading screens weren’t even English.
“It’s all in German,” you sighed, shutting down the computer at the password window. “Even if we figured out the password without triggering a lockout, it’d be hard to navigate.”
“Shouldn’t there be an original form, though?” asked McCree. “A physical one?”
As you explored the office and examined the many filing cabinets, you finally came across a set labelled with letters.
You grabbed a paperclip from the magnetic holder on the desk and unfolded it, running through the alphabet under your breath.
“It’s this one,” McCree interrupted with a snicker, knocking a knuckle on the drawer with the ‘G - Mc’ label. “Sorry—should I have let you finish your ABCs?”
You angled the straightened paperclip into the lock. “Leave me alone, I can barely see straight.”
Once you popped open the lock, you found the drawer’s contents separated even further, dividing individual letters throughout the row of files. A particularly overstuffed folder at the very end had a tab that read:
McCree reached over your shoulder to grab it. “Yoink.”
You feathered through the folders under ‘L.’
So she had a family, too.
With a rush of excitement, you pulled Amélie’s file.
The first page had a photograph clipped to it, a picture of her from when she was younger. Her skin was a more human, peachy colour, and instead of a sharp gold, her eyes were dark, and lively.
As these were Dr. Ziegler’s files, you quickly discovered that her hard copy medical documentation was also in German. All you could read were the dates, and all you could gather was that, aside from the first few pages, the majority of contents in Amélie’s file had only been created within the last week.
With the amount of medical examinations you had, from agent onboarding to post-mission observations to scheduled weekly checkups, you were sure that even your file had more content than hers did before she was brought here. Her having a file in Dr. Ziegler’s office at all meant she was known to Overwatch before the incident with Talon, but the lack of documentation implied she wasn’t a field operative.
Had she been a civilian before the incident?
You continued searching through the German archives, picking out roman numbers and borrowed English words but understanding none of it for the most part, until you got to the very end of her file.
A thirty-page copy of a scientific report in English, addressed to Winston.
The report itself was extremely dense, filled with equations, diagrams, and scientific terminology you didn’t understand, but you skimmed through it as best as you could.
“...inoperable neural implant…”
“...resistant to outside observation or interference…”
“...primary concerns regarding legal responsibility for acts of terrorism…”
“...reversal not feasible…”
“...attempts to replicate initial procedure…”
“...erasure of terrorist associations from memory…”
“...implant triggers electromagnetic restoration of neocortex to prior neural state…”
“...to correct the experiment we must repeat the experiment in full…”
“...can’t help but feel as if somewhere, Dr. O’Deorain is laughing at us.”
“Christ,” McCree’s hearty laughter tore through the silence. He held up an old picture of himself. “A soul patch. The hell was I thinkin’?”
“I found what I needed,” you said, trying to keep your voice steady. Your hands trembled as you shoved Amélie’s file back into place. “We should go.”
Picking up on your urgency, McCree slid his file back into the cabinet as well, shutting the drawer as you prepared to leave.
He called after you before you left the office. “Hey, now—we can’t leave this unlocked. She’s gonna know someone was in here. They’ll review the security footage, then we’ll both be in shit.”
You wiped the sweat from your forehead, and nodded. You hadn’t thought of that. “You’re right, but...I’ve never picked a lock closed, before.”
“Good thing you’ve got me around then, ain’t it?” he winked, before grabbing another paperclip from the desk.
In spite of the night’s events, you slept more soundly than you had in weeks. Although the thirteen-hour cider-induced coma was a nice break, the anxiety came flooding back with a vengeance as soon as you woke up, only now accompanied by a nasty hangover that made your brain throb.
You stayed hydrated and tried to walk it off, entertaining the fresh wave of thoughts in your head.
Overwatch wanted to help restore Amélie’s old personality from before she was kidnapped and brainwashed by Talon. When that didn’t work, they just tried wiping her memory clean all over again—but the implant in her head wouldn’t let them.
I have been killed many times, chérie. I will be born again in the morning.
Any reprogramming done to Amélie’s implant would just be reversed by the implant itself.
As nefarious as it was, it was also absolutely incredible technology, the likes of which you had no idea existed in your world. Who was Dr. O’Deorain, and how were they able to develop this tech in the first place? Did Talon really have the resources to allow that level of experimental technology?
Did Dr. O’Deorain have something to do with Reaper’s condition, too?
You turned a corner and came face-to-face with a giant gorilla.
You both jumped.
“I—I’m sorry,” Winston laughed. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Sorry,” you smiled back. “I’m a little out of it today, should’ve watched where I was going.”
“It’s...good to finally see you up and about, Reader.” He paused for a moment and cleared his throat, looking a little too sympathetic for your liking. “I know it must be hard, but...you’re a fine agent. This recent development is in no way a reflection of your performance,” he finished, in a tone he appeared to think was reassuring.
“Recent development?” You looked confused. “I know we had some hiccups, but the Le Havre mission was a success. We got Amélie back, didn’t we?”
“Oh.” His expression went blank. “Um.”
“...Winston, what happened?”
“My apologies, I thought you would’ve been told by now.”
“I—it’s really not my place to—”
“Tell me what happened,” you demanded, your voice suddenly shaking with the worry of a million possibilities.
Winston looked more solemn than you’d ever seen him before.
“The paperwork was filed a few days ago,” he sighed. “76 has stepped down as your commanding officer.”
I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Reviews are love, reviews are the lifeblood of the ever-starving fanfic writer. Thank you so much for reading!!
Chapter 13: concession
You and Jack Morrison have a conversation after the events of Le Havre.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
You levelled your gaze in the bathroom mirror as you adjusted the fit of your uniform. The wrinkles within the fabric smoothed out beneath your firm palming, nary a button nor strap out of place.
You had recently returned from a covert operation in France, successfully capturing Amélie Lacroix and bringing her into Overwatch custody. During the course of the mission, however, you learned the true identity of your Commander. Not only was the late, great Jack Morrison alive and kicking, but so was his ex-partner, Gabriel Reyes, an Overwatch-leader-turned-international-terrorist in possession of biotech you didn’t believe humankind would be capable of inventing within your lifetime. To add insult to injury, shortly after you returned to base, Soldier 76—no, Morrison—stepped down as your commanding officer without so much as a single word of warning.
A laundry list of recent events.
Had you forgotten anything?
Athena delivered your request to meet him at sundown, and you took his subsequent silence as an agreement.
There was no planning to your conversation this time, no flowcharts or emergency courses of action. Your dialogue would be directed by the worry in your bones, the weariness brought on by Amélie’s murderous gaze, by Reaper’s aura of death, by the feel of Morrison’s blood pouring down the front of you as you carried him back to the dropship.
With one final adjustment to your jacket, you crouched down and laced up your combat boots.
You dressed like you were on a mission.
That’s precisely what this was.
The training grounds felt familiar in a way little else did. The mechanical hum of bots reached your ears and gave you a boost of adrenaline, preparing you for intense drills, the preemptive rush almost pavlovian. This was where you first hauled out the gun you built, the one you could barely lift on your own. This was where you trained, where you improved your endurance, your strength, and your aim. Just yesterday, a few floors up from where you stood now, was where you got drunk and tossed bottles for McCree to pick out of the air with his revolver.
This was where it started, and this was where it would end, one way or another.
Another deep breath to steel yourself as you rounded the corner.
You almost didn’t recognize him.
Clad in cargo pants and a plain black t-shirt, Morrison leaned against the metal barrier bordering the cliff’s edge, keeping his back to you as he looked out over the landscape. No jacket or visor, no mask or pretense—just him and his presence, whole.
“Thank you for meeting me,” he said, not turning to face you.
You did not reply.
His voice had a warm clarity you hadn’t heard unhindered by the mask since you sat back-to-back on the hotel room floor in France.
It felt like such a long time ago.
(Him and his damn frozen burritos.)
Your thoughts poured in with varying levels of patience, filtered through the consideration of how many emotions you would let yourself bring to the conversation. You had questions, many questions, questions you made a point not to plan beforehand because he did not deserve the courtesy of your organization. As frustrated as you were, you had to maintain composure, as revealing how much his actions had affected you would have compromised your position. These mistakes were his to resolve, after all. Not yours.
Keeping an arm’s length from him, you approached his side, gripping the railing with both hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said at once.
You kept your tone even. “Do you know what you’re apologizing for?”
“Too many things to count.” He breathed out, slow and deep. “I warned you that I—”
“Don’t turn this on me.”
“I didn’t mean to,” he replied, coolly. “I’m bad at this, Reader. I didn’t used to be, but I’m a few years out of practice.”
He was trying to be placating, you could tell, but the informality of his tone only served to annoy you. “Why are we here, Commander Morrison?”
He bristled at the sound of his name; it sounded so foreign, so distant on your tongue. “I stepped down as your reporting officer.”
An unfamiliar emotion—unfamiliar to you, at least—flickered across his face. The sudden set of his jaw, the slightest tug of a grimace at the corner of his mouth, both subtle traces of annoyance, but as his every microexpression was new to you, any reaction he let slip may as well have been spelled out before your eyes. It was satisfying, in a way, to see something other than the cherry-red vacancy of his visor across his face.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you, so you would at least know why.” His brows drew together in that old, familiar way they did when they still peeked up above his mask. “I stepped down so we could talk. Any questions you have, I’ll answer them the best I can. No secrecy. No bullshit.”
“You had to step down to do that?”
“I don’t make the rules anymore, Reader. I just play by them.”
The implication was not lost on you.
As a Commander within the organization, it went without saying he couldn’t speak openly because of his position. You were still new to Overwatch, and he was given orders to restrict what information you had access to; without him as your direct superior, however, he no longer had any obligation to stand in your way. Regardless of what Morrison told you today, Strike Commander Oxton was going to be under the impression you left this conversation knowing more than you should.
So you figured you might as well ask whatever the hell you want.
For a moment, Morrison looked surprised, as if that wasn’t the question he’d been expecting. “She’s in secure holding. Angela’s trying to figure out how to reverse what Talon’s done to her.”
“But she’s safe?” you pressed. “We’re not...interrogating her, or anything?”
“No,” he assured. “She’s been a prisoner of war for over a decade—Lena’s putting everything we have into her care. As a matter of fact, Amélie...” Hesitance gave him pause as he reconsidered his phrasing. “She asked about you the other day. ‘The one from Quebec.’ Wanted to know how you were doing.”
(Amélie was looking for you, too?)
Blindsided by the revelation, you were sure your expression of bewilderment had already given you away. No use trying to lie about it, now.
“We...had a few words on the ship,” you said, dismissively.
“That wasn’t on your mission report.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
You volunteered no further information. To your relief, he decided not to push.
Not right now, at least.
“I think she wants to talk to you,” was all he said.
“...can I do that?”
“Don’t see why not. Make sure you’re on Angela’s good side before you go asking her for favours, though. Take it from me.”
(Memories of you and McCree breaking into Dr. Ziegler’s office flashed through your mind, and you hoped you were half as stealthy then as you would have been if you were sober.)
After the events of Le Havre, you felt responsible for Amélie’s well-being; although she was in more-than-capable hands, that didn’t mean she wasn’t being harmed. Who had the final say in what was best for her, anyway? Had anyone asked her what she wanted, or did her condition render her incapable of providing informed consent? Did the countless attempts to reverse Talon’s procedure cause her any pain?
Would she even tell you if it did?
Weary, you dragged a hand down the front of your face to reorient yourself, covering your mouth as you stared out at the view beyond the training facility. Ice floes drifted at the foot of the distant mountains, the rocky landscape carving jagged edges into the horizon.
“You chased Reyes after we promised not to be reckless,” you mumbled into your hand, sounding bored.
“I did,” he replied. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m your strategist. I’m your escape plan. Not communicating your change of objective was stupid as hell.”
“You put both of our lives in jeopardy.”
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you.”
“You know, agreeing with me still takes all the fun out of standing up to you.”
“But you’ve gotten so good at it.”
You sneered. As quick as he’d always been to own up to his mistakes, acknowledgement alone wouldn’t be enough, this time. “I’m going to need more than that, Commander.”
“My intel had Reyes on a different continent at the time of our mission,” he explained. “I wanted to make sure we hadn’t been compromised, but it was my chasing him that ended up compromising us. He let himself be seen because he knew I’d follow. I should have known better.”
“Couldn’t just rack up the sighting to bad intel?”
He shook his head. “The intel I had on him’s never been bad before.”
“Really?” you said, incredulous. “Who’s your source?”
“Once in a while,” he sighed, “she’ll find me and tell me where he is, what he’s up to, where he’s going. Thinks that counts as me being indebted to her. I told her it doesn’t. That’s why she contacted you in Romania. She knew I wouldn’t take the algorithm, so she got you involved to grab it for me.”
You thought it over for a moment. “Then why lie about Reaper not being in France?”
“Maybe to prove how much I’ve relied on her intel up until now. Maybe just for the hell of it. I’ve learned to stop trying to rationalize her motives a long time ago—whatever they are, they’re for her own benefit. No one else’s.”
Everyone was connected in one way or another, you realized. By virtue of being an agent of Overwatch, you were just as much a part of this tangled web of complicated pasts and ulterior motives as anyone else was, like it or not—and like or not, you’d entered this game at a disadvantage, as everyone involved seemed to have some history with one another you were forced to learn about on the fly.
The most pressing question of all leapt from your throat, quicker than you could think to contain it. “Was I the only one who didn’t know?”
You knew the answer, of course—McCree had told you the previous day—but you wanted to hear it from him, if only to test the waters of his honesty.
And he nodded again.
“You were the first recruit we picked up after we got the team back together,” he said. “Everyone here’s from the old days, or related to someone from the old days. When I came back into the picture as Soldier 76…the rest of the world may have had no idea who I was, but they did. How could they not? We were family.”
“Was that why you liked having me around?” You felt your grip on the railing bar tighten. “Because I was the only one who didn’t know?”
His face fell.
“It wasn’t the only reason,” he said, “but it was a reason.”
(No bullshit, indeed.)
You weren’t sure if you had a right to be as frustrated as you felt. His identity was his own to protect, after all; as hard as it was to admit, he never owed you the truth. Even so, you felt like an idiot. You hated being caught off-guard. You hated not knowing all the facts.
McCree’s words rang through your thoughts, clear as day.
So are you mad at him for not tellin’ you, or mad at yourself for not figurin’ it out sooner?
From the corner of your eye, you noticed Morrison shift his weight, leaning heavier against the railing as he folded his hands together.
“I’m sorry you found out the way you did.” His voice was soft, but earnest. “I put on the mask to separate the man I am now from the man I used to be. You didn’t know who that was, but you took my lead, anyway. Spoke with me. Enjoyed my company. It...made me feel new again. I was afraid I was starting to consider you in ways I shouldn’t.”
“I’m pushing thirty, Commander, you can stop treating me like a child.”
“That doesn’t make the problems go away. I’m not your boss anymore, but I’m twice your age and I still have rank on you. There’s a difference in power dynamics, in experience—you might not see it as taking advantage, but that’s exactly what makes it dangerous.”
“I know,” you snapped in frustration, running a hand through your hair. “I know it does. How do you think I felt, crushing on my superior like some kind of tired cliché? I’ve gotten this far in my career without ever—I thought I was better than that. I tried to convince myself out of it. I thought working by your side would be enough.”
“But it wasn’t, was it?”
Your stomach sank. He hadn’t sounded accusatory, but somber, almost sympathetic.
“And by the time you realized it wouldn’t be enough,” he continued, “it was too late to say anything. Not without undermining all you’ve done and making it seem like your emotions were the only thing keeping you around.”
You watched him stare down at his hands, as if the words he was searching for were held somewhere between his fingertips.
“You’re smart. Tenacious. Diligent. If I were to...if I did anything that might’ve suggested I brought you on for a reason other than you deserving to be here—”
“I know I deserve to be here,” you interrupted. “Had my doubts for a while, but that was before I saved your ass.”
He chuckled, and the sound was music to your ears.
His striking blue eyes shifted to glance in your direction, the remnants of his laughter lingering in his smirk. “Guess there’s nothing stopping me now then, is there?”
“...stopping you from what?”
“There’s another reason I stepped down, Reader.” Wavering under the intensity of your gaze, he was no longer quite looking you in the eye. “I don’t want command over you, anymore. I don’t see you as my subordinate. I haven’t for a while.”
You had to keep yourself from trembling. “What am I to you, then?”
“An equal,” he said. “A partner.”
The bottom of your stomach fell out and shattered, filling your insides with slivers of ice as something dense and panicked tightened within your chest. There that word was again. ‘Partner.’ What he hadn’t had since he went rogue. What Winston once said Morrison had always been training you up to be. Your mind grew overwhelmed with the memory of a clawed, shadowed stature and a dark voice and a life-changing chance once gambled on.
How could you ever measure up?
“I’m not Reyes, Commander,” you whispered.
“I never wanted you to be.”
Vulnerability weighed upon his shoulders, the likes of which you’d never seen him bear, before. The gears in his head were turning, you could tell, thinking of you, and of him, and of where you would go from here. His eyes alone were so expressive, you noticed—a stark contrast from the statuesque carbon-fiber stoicism you were used to. You hadn’t realized how much the mask was hiding until it was off.
Maybe that was why he wore it so much.
“I’ve betrayed your trust,” he said, firmly. “I know that. I would like to work on getting it back, if you’ll let me.”
From where you once placed him on a pedestal, recent events had cast him in a lower, imperfect, more mortal light. The man you once idolized stood before you, nearly wringing his hands in anticipation, as human as you’d ever seen him. You respected him more, but you revered him less. You figured that was a good thing.
It was then when he looked away from you, returning his gaze to the absence of answers held within his barren palms.
So you gave him one.
Reaching to cross your forearm over one of his own, you wove your fingers between his, your silent gesture unapologetic and sure.
His hand curled back around yours at once, like a reflex.
He laughed quietly in disbelief. “Didn’t think I’d get a chance to feel this way about anyone, again.”
You felt him run a thumb across your fingers, the gentle motion making your breath catch in your chest. You glanced up at him; though he’d kept his voice steady, his eyes were glazing over, and the unexpected reaction decimated what remained of your resolve. The warm smile he gave you wrinkled the corners of his eyes, his expression giving you the briefest glimpse into a man many years younger.
“Truth is,” he beamed, “I’m crazy about you, sweetheart.”
You felt your heart seize within your chest.
The weight of his words collapsed on you all at once. It was you who made him feel hope, you who affected him so profoundly, you who made him question what he once swore off for the sake of self-preservation. You’d imagined him confessing before, but no amount of idle thoughts and private daydreams would prepare you for hearing the words out loud.
There was something settled behind his eyes, as well—something unsettling you couldn’t ignore. This was a man who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, who made a career out of staying level-headed in the toughest of situations, and here he was before you, absolutely terrified. The last time he gambled on something like this, life and circumstance dealt him a poor hand; now, all these years later, he wanted to try again.
It was only when he brushed a finger to your cheek did you realize you were crying.
He breathed another small laugh, shaking a few of his own tears loose from the corners of his eyes. He could see you replaying his words inside your head—he could always tell when you were overthinking—and he squeezed your hand tighter to let you know how much he’d meant it.
You wanted to hold him close, to burrow deep inside his chest, to reach straight into his heart and fix whatever it was that made him so goddamn scared. But he would have to let you, first. You couldn’t do that if he continued keeping you guessing.
“Stop isolating yourself when things go wrong,” you said, the first on your list of ground rules. “You did it after Romania. You did it after Le Havre. I don’t need to know everything, but you need to stop disappearing on me.”
He nodded with total understanding. “Force of habit from going solo. I’ll work on it.”
“And I need you to talk to me more,” you continued. “If we’re doing this, you can’t keep me wondering where your head’s at.”
“You got it. That does go both ways, you know,” he teased.
“Hey, I never said I was any good at this, either.”
You gave him a sly smile and wiped your eyes on the back of your sleeve. Earlier that day, you didn’t think you would be standing in full uniform before your casually-dressed Commander, the two of you recovering from tears as he took orders for what he could do to restore your trust in him. A rare opportunity, indeed.
It would be a shame if you didn’t take advantage.
“...one more thing.”
You levelled his eyes again. “Do you really want to be with me?”
He didn’t shy away from you, this time. “I do.”
You let go of his hand and took a few slow steps backwards, sliding away until your fingertips broke contact.
You hoped the smirk you gave him was half as playful sober as it would have been if you were drunk.
His look of confusion turned to surprise, then to determined understanding as he watched you walk away.
There had been a resolve in his voice, a finality, the kind that made you realize he would move mountains for you if you so much as wished it.
You had issued him a challenge. It was his turn to give chase.
And he was all too happy to comply.
I'm sorry it's been so long without an update. I don't know where the time goes.
To encourage new readers, the fic has been revised to be gender-neutral--however, I will still be keeping the original Tumblr URL and the (female) fanart design because lord knows I'm far too attached to both after all this time. These revisions will have zero impact on the future of this story.
Reviews are love, reviews are life! Thank you so much for your ongoing patience. I promise it won't be another seven months before we update again. 6_9