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the name of the ruiner

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Reaper finds him in Tbilisi, while he’s sleeping.

Seventy-six jars awake the instant he hears noise inside the room he’s taken for the night, but too late: there’s a shotgun leveled at his face and a shadow over his bed.

Reaper is alone. But so is he.

He darts his eyes toward the door. Closed; no sign of forced entry. Reaper is standing on his right side, and the bed isn’t quite against the wall to his left. There’s just enough space for him to roll off. But at such close range, even without a direct shot, the scatter from the shotgun burst is still wide enough to tear him apart before he can even get to the door. He’d have to drop down between the bed and the wall, flip the bed up for cover. Fuck, he’s not ready for this, he doesn’t have any defenses in place, he thought they had more time.

Seventy-six shifts his hand the smallest possible amount, hoping the movement won’t be detected under the covers. The side of his hand grazes his rifle, warm from contact against his side.

The shotgun comes forward, close enough to brush the tip of his nose.

“Drop it on the floor,” Reaper says. “Pull back the sheets. Don’t pick it up; slide it with your elbow. Push it off this side.”

Seventy-six feels his mouth thin out. He folds the sheets down from his upper body and gives one quick push with his arm before he can be tempted to do otherwise. The rifle clatters to the floor, the noise of it shockingly loud. Reaper catches it under his foot and sends it skittering to the far side of the room.

“What else?” Reaper demands. “Put it all on the floor.”

Seventy-six hesitates, then slides one hand up and snags a corner of the thin pillow. He works the pillow out from under his head, exposing a 9mm semi-automatic. He can’t get to it with his elbow, so he makes a tight fist, see, not trying to grab it, and knocks the pistol off the bed without looking. It skids a little on the floorboards and spins around and around. Reaper kicks it away with the side of his boot. Then he backs two steps to the end of the bed, leaving the shotgun trained on its mark, and casually flips the covers off the bed. Seventy-six can’t do anything but watch as Reaper hooks the tip of one of his metal finger guards under the cuff of his pants and slides his pant leg-up his calf, then flicks the butterfly knife strapped to his leg onto the floor, too.

“I could have gotten it myself,” Seventy-six mutters.

“What else?” Reaper asks again.

“That’s all I’ve got.”

Reaper strides forward and mashes the shotgun up against his nose.

“It’s all I’ve got in the bed,” he clarifies, tilting his head away from the mouth of the gun.

“Where’s your visor?”

“It, it’s under the bed already. I don’t sleep with it,” he says, a little defensively. “It could get damaged.”

“Where’s Amari?”

“I don’t know,” he lies. “We separated.”

“Why?”

“She’s got her own plans and problems—don’t ask me what, she never told me. Being around me brought too much heat.”

“Where did you last see her?”

“Why would I tell you that?”

“Because you don’t have a choice. You’re alone and unarmed. No one is going to save you. This isn’t the time to try my patience.”

“Didn’t you used to be good at interrogations?” he asks, blandly. “You’ve really lost your touch.”

Reaper rumbles with irritation, making a sound Seventy-six has never heard from a human being. He’s almost certain he actually feels it in the air, feels it in his chest, like the reverberations of a particularly low note. The back of his neck prickles.

Reaper says, “You’ll have to let me know if you still think that when I’m done.”

And as he starts to reach out with his free hand, Seventy-six says, “I’ll tell you what: I’ll answer a question for you if you answer one for me. What are you doing here?”

It’s not to kill him—not just to kill him—or he’d already be a splatter on the mattress. There’s a chance that confronting Reaper will only provoke him, but it’s worth the risk. He can handle whatever is coming next as long as he knows.  

Reaper’s hand stops, but he doesn’t answer right away—long enough that Seventy-six braces for some kind of retaliatory reaction. Then Reaper says, “I’m here to take what’s mine.”

It’s the worst possible thing to do under the circumstances, but Seventy-six laughs. It comes out dry and brittle, like chalk in his mouth. He dares to push himself up on his arms, shoving back against the shotgun with his own forehead. Reaper doesn’t step back, but he bends his arm at the elbow, allowing Seventy-six to gain ground as he rises until he’s sitting up.

“Really?” he breathes. “Because you already threw away everything that was yours. You fucking destroyed it all.”

There’s a sudden crack close to his ear, and Seventy-six realizes, only after he has registered the noise itself, that his cheekbone has been hit by the shotgun. The blow has knocked his head slightly aside. The pain catches up with him an instant later, throbbing hot and dull through half of his face. One of his eyes waters, and he blinks rapidly to clear his sight.

“Hypocrites don’t get to talk,” Reaper bites out.

Seventy-six turns his face back around and spits pinkish saliva onto the shotgun. “Oh, are you going to talk, then? That’ll be the day.”

“No,” Reaper says. “I’m not interested in talking.” And then: “Lie down and touch yourself. Get yourself hard.”

Seventy-six doesn’t move. He can’t comprehend what he’s just heard. He looks up at Reaper, stupid and blank. Then his heart begins to pound. He’s felt strangely neutral and clear-headed up until now, but now panic reaches into his head and stirs through his brains. Oh, God, he’s going to be raped.

He unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth and swallows thickly.

“If you want to kill me,” he says, hoarsely, “just do it. Let’s keep things simple for once.”

The muzzle of the shotgun strokes against his cheek, wiping his own bloody spit onto his face.

“Then I’ll make the decision simple for you: if you make me repeat myself, I’m going to find and kill Ana Amari, and I’ll let her know that you threw her life away for a second time.”

Seventy-six’s eyes betray him: he glances, for just a fraction of a second, at the rifle on the floor. The shotgun slides under his chin and forces his head back.

“You have three seconds,” Reaper says. “One.”

Seventy-six’s elbows creak audibly as he lowers himself, slowly, onto his back. He flexes both fists before straightening his arms down the bed, against his sides. He’s wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a ragged tear at the neck; thin, worn-out clothes. He stares straight at the ceiling as he pushes his pants and boxers halfway down his thighs. He shouldn’t take his eyes off Reaper, but he can’t look, he just can’t, as he brings an unsteady hand between his legs and begins to touch himself. Will Reaper have to put his shotgun aside to do… whatever he plans to do? Maybe. But Reaper is physically stronger than him, and at close quarters he can both do and take more damage than Seventy-six can. If he were armed… But the chances of getting across the room and then getting off a shot that would stop Reaper long enough to make a difference… Jesus, if they actually go toe-to-toe, he’s going to lose.

But if he doesn’t fight, there’s nothing to stop Reaper from executing him like an animal after… after… After he’s done.

He’s not… afraid to die, but he doesn’t want it to happen like this. Not like this.

Seventy-six stops moving his hand. Time has turned syrupy; he’s not sure how long he’s been working at himself, but his body has barely reacted at all, except for his eye now swollen half shut.

“This isn’t going to work,” he says tightly, trying to make himself sound more spiteful than sick and ashamed. “It’s cold in here, and you’ve got a shotgun in my face. You haven’t set the mood very well.”

“You’re giving up?” Reaper jeers.

“Yeah,” Seventy-six says, short and blunt. “What are you going to do about it?”

He reaches for the waistband of his sweatpants, ready to pull them up again, but Reaper cracks the heavy barrel of the shotgun down on his hand. He hisses, making a fist, and jerks his hand back toward his chest. It tingles with pain.

“Put your hands above your head,” Reaper growls. “Grab the headboard.”

The headboard in question is just two iron posts with a crossbar between them. Seventy-six tips his head back enough to look at it, but he pauses for too long: Reaper suddenly stoops closer and grabs his right wrist with one hand, wrenching it up toward the headboard. Seventy-six reacts without thinking: instead of pulling away, he swings sideways and manages to grab the barrel of the shotgun, which he pushes up as high as he can. His left arm lashes out across his body, and he slams his hand, with all the force he can muster, into the back of Reaper’s right elbow. Reaper’s elbow is locked to stabilize the heavy shotgun, and his own grip on the barrel prevents Reaper’s arm from moving with the blow, which would diffuse some of the impact. The joint blows out with a grotesque crunch, and Reaper’s arm bends the wrong way. He grunts out a little noise, almost comically soft and understated.

Seventy-six braces himself for the heavy kick of the shotgun, either to scare him or because of an accidental spasm of Reaper’s hand, but the blast doesn’t come. Instead, Reaper actually lets go of his right arm.

The victory is short lived. As soon as he releases Seventy-six’s arm, Reaper passes the shot gun from his ruined right arm to his left. Then he shakes out the broken arm, and it unravels instantaneously into a sinuous mass of blackness. The blackness splits apart into several ribbons, which writhe momentarily in the air, then weave and bunch together into the shape of muscle groups. And then his arm is back again, whole and normal, so fast that Seventy-six doesn't even see the transition. He has exactly enough time to think fuck before Reaper descends upon him and grabs him by the neck, then lifts him, one-handed, and shakes him, once, so hard that he sees dark spots. The top of his head grazes the the horizontal bar of the headboard as he’s thrown back down into place. He coughs horribly as his throat reopens. Now both of his eyes are watering.

“Grab the bar,” Reaper snarls.

Seventy-six grabs the bar, first with one hand, then the other. His neck stings. It’s bleeding from shallow horizontal lacerations where Reaper’s sharp finger guards split the skin. The blood tickles, like there are gnats on his skin, as it wells up and runs slowly from his neck into the pillow. He raises his chin, his teeth set, and cuts his eyes toward Reaper, throwing out a wordless question: now what, you bastard?

Reaper doesn’t make him wait long for an answer. As he watches, the entire lower half of Reaper’s body dissolves into a churning black haze, and Reaper drifts sideways, like a thunderhead, toward him. Over him. The hazy mass flows over the bed, flows over his own lower body, and it’s cold, and it hurts—and, oh, God, somehow he’s getting hard, just like that, and he goes light-headed from the suddenness of the arousal. Then Reaper’s legs suddenly reform, and he’s straddling Seventy-six’s hips, and, oh—he’s actually inside Reaper, and his nerves crackle with the shock of sensation. His back arches, the back of his head pushing into the mattress. He hears himself make a strange, strangled noise.

Then he wrestles himself together again, his body settling as he forces himself to look at Reaper, trying to make sense of what’s happening. Reaper’s big coat is still pooled behind him, flowing over the bed and their legs, and his upper body looks exactly the same. But as Seventy-six drops his eyes down the length of Reaper’s torso, the difference between clothing and body becomes indistinct. Reaper gradually melds together with his own outfit in such a way that Seventy-six cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Reaper’s lower body is human-shaped, ostensibly naked, but entirely black and smooth, like a cloudy glass container filled with ink. His legs catch just enough of the diffuse light from the window for Seventy-six to make out the normal shapes of muscles and body fat, and even familiar scars, but the texture doesn’t resemble skin at all. His groin is completely shadowed.

“What,” he starts to say, not even knowing what he’s trying to ask, “what are you—”

“Shut up,” Reaper grunts. “Just move.”

The shotgun hasn’t wavered at all. It’s still right there, pointed at his face. God, this is insane.

“G-get that fucking thing out of my face,” he snaps. The cold makes his voice waver. It feels like the temperature has dropped twenty degrees. “If this is what you want from me, you’re not going to blow my fucking head off in the middle, s-so I’d appreciate it if we could stop the posturing.”

Reaper makes a brusque little noise, but this time he sounds unmistakably amused. “Anything to make you more comfortable,” he says nastily. But he has to be a bastard about it, so he brushes the shotgun against Seventy-six’s aching cheekbone one more time before withdrawing his arm. And then he simply… pushes the shotgun right into his own chest, which absorbs it like liquid tar, until the whole goddamn thing is swallowed up and gone. Seventy-six finds that his mouth has dropped open, and has to snap his teeth together.

“Thanks,” he says after a moment, and manages to put an appropriately sarcastic twist at the very end of the word.

Reaper responds by hooking one finger under his shirt, right above his navel, and ripping a gash straight down to the bottom hem as easily as tearing paper. He presses the very tip of the claw into Seventy-six’s exposed stomach until a drop of blood wells up around it. Then he just keeps on pressing down with steadily increasing pressure, and when Seventy-six finally chokes and squirms to relieve the pain, Reaper slowly and deliberately cycles his hips up and down.

Seventy-six groans with a terrible mixture of things, his body tensing under the warring sensations, and there’s nothing else he can do: he bends his knees for leverage and pushes up.

He does his best not to think about what’s really happening as they move together. It becomes a meaningless bodily act, something that simply has to be done because there’s no other option, like running and running past the point you thought you ever could possibly run, because you cannot stop, you cannot, something terrible will happen if you stop. More than once he finds that his eyes have closed, and he has to force them open again. It would be easier, maybe, not to look at Reaper while this happens, but he does it anyway, making himself stare at the white mask poised above him. Reaper’s body may have a familiar shape, but he doesn’t feel natural at all. He’s not wet or slippery inside, but his body is smooth and unresisting even without any preparation, and eerily cool. He doesn’t feel human. He doesn’t feel alive. It doesn’t help that Reaper himself is strangely unanimated, almost unresponsive: he’s swaying with the motion just enough to maintain his balance, one hand braced on his own thigh, the other hand resting on Seventy-six’s bare stomach, the tip of each finger making five sharp points of contact. The mask doesn’t give anything away. He doesn’t even seem to be breathing. Eventually, without meaning to, Seventy-six makes the mistake of looking at the dark space between Reaper’s legs.

“You’re not even hard,” he snarls, slowing down to a rock, and this shouldn’t be something that bothers him, but nothing else makes sense, and what’s the fucking point of putting him through this?

Reaper manages, somehow, to go even more still. He doesn’t say anything right away, and Seventy-six’s brain automatically translates the silence into an unspoken answer.

“You can’t—?”

“No heartbeat,” Reaper says with savage flatness. “No circulation.”

Reaper can break down and reconstruct his whole body from the waist down, but he can’t give himself an erection? That doesn’t make any sense. Unless—there’d be no point to doing that because—

“Can you come?” he blurts.

Another beat of silence. Then Reaper says, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t—? You’ve never—?”

Reaper makes a long, low grating sound, like jammed machinery.

“If you stop,” he grinds out, “I’m going to kill you.”

And it sounds like something they used to say to one another, just another one of the stupid big-talk barbs and challenges they traded, but the tone is all wrong: deadly serious; not a joke; and Seventy-six hates the both of them in equal measure as he locks his jaw and sets his heels into the mattress and moves, and moves, and moves.

For awhile he counts out the time to himself—one minute, three minutes, nine—because it stops him from being able to think about anything else, but his focus eventually starts to lag. His pace stutters and goes out of rhythm. He’s been cold the entire time, and it’s only gotten worse. Now he’s shivering wildly, his teeth actually chattering together. His feels like he can’t get enough air; he has to gasp for breath. All of his body hair is standing up, while Reaper is— He doesn’t seem— Nothing has changed. He’s still quiet, not even his clothes rustling, his back straight, barely moving.

“This - this isn’t working,” Seventy-six stammers, again slowing and then stopping altogether. Reaper’s head jerks a little, like he’s coming back to attention from the verge of sleep. “You’re not ge-getting anything out of this. Get, get off of me, or just ff-fucking kill me.”

Reaper scrapes out a short laugh and ruts his hips back and forth, and Seventy-six sucks a hard breath through his teeth.

“You’re not enjoying yourself?” Reaper asks, sardonically.

“No,” Seventy-six says. He doesn’t want there to be any ambiguity about this, any possibility for Reaper to have that kind of victory over him. “I’m not. I w-want you to - to stop.”

Reaper rolls his shoulders back, arcing himself so that the feeble light washes over his chest and stomach, letting Seventy-six see his torso as clearly as possible, and then the area under his ribs just disappears. His whole belly melts away like he’s been splashed with strong acid, until the whole core of his abdomen has been hollowed out between his diaphragm and the bottom of his pelvis, and, fuck, oh fuck, Seventy-six can see himself inside the shell of Reaper’s body, can see his own cock. Reaper is all black inside, and empty, like a pottery figure.

“Are you sure want me to stop?” Reaper asks, as a tendril of blackness, like a tongue, separates from inside the cavity of his body and licks against Seventy-six’s cock—and he squirms, desperately, and barely manages not to gasp. Fuck, fuck.

It takes him three entire seconds to realize that he can close his eyes and turn his head away, but too late: the image is there in his mind: Reaper opened up and empty because he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. Seventy-six gags on a wave of revulsion and has to choke back stomach acid that rises all the way to the top of his throat, souring his mouth.

Then Reaper’s hand is turning his face back around, and a claw pricks into his bottom eyelid, drawing it down until his eye has been pulled half open. Seventy-six opens both eyes as much as he can before Reaper decides to just tear his eyelids off—and thank God for small mercies: Reaper’s stomach is closed up again, though Seventy-six is half certain that he can still see a crooked seam, like a mouth, stretching down the middle of his abdomen.

“You don’t seem uninterested,” Reaper says.

“You’re the one doing it to me,” Seventy-six spits. “It doesn’t mean anything. I sh-shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

Reaper laughs again, and strokes the cold metal claws diagonally across his face, tracing the trajectory of his scars. Seventy-six shivers, his bent-back arms reflexively closing in around his head in a futile gesture of self-defense.

“Of course,” Reaper sneers. “Evidence doesn’t mean anything to you if you don’t want it to.”

He starts to say, “Ga—,” but Reaper instantly squeezes down on his jaw, the claws digging into either side of his mouth.

“If you say that name,” he breathes, “I’ll tear your tongue out. Keep going. Stop talking.”

So he keeps going. He doesn’t try to count out the time again. He doesn’t think about anything in particular. He focus wanders between a series of individual sensory details, anything other than Reaper himself. He notices that his hands have gotten so cold that they’ve lost feeling. He tries to stretch them out, experimentally, just to see if Reaper is actually watching, but he can’t tell whether he actually manages to move them or not. Then, for awhile, he can’t pay attention to anything except for a particular mattress spring digging into his back, a little point of discomfort so ordinary that, under the circumstances, it seems insulting. Then he thinks about how much he wants to be able to scratch his stomach, which is itchy from dried blood. Then he hears someone walking in the street, and he wonders how many time he’s been on the other side: passing, unsuspecting, scant meters from something private and awful. Then his mind fills up with the ugly groans of the mattress and the bed frame’s steady creaking, and the noise is so familiar that it turns his stomach, and he tries to think about something else, to notice other things, but the sound is so rhythmic that he can’t shake his own awareness of it.

And just like that, Seventy-six’s mind is whipped somewhere else, and he sees—

Gabriel on top of him with his neck bent against the underside of a too-low top bunk, fingers tangled in the bed-springs above him, eyes closed and mouth just barely open, the whole bed frame making so much noise that he’d almost missed it when Gabriel whispered, raggedly, “Jack,” the first time he hadn’t been ‘Morrison.’ And he felt, all at once, invincible, and young, and powerful, and joyful, and he’d babbled yeah, yeah, Gabriel, yes, Gabriel in a light-headed rush as he bucked into Gabriel’s body, which was warm and—

And suddenly he just wants this to be over, and he’s slamming into Reaper with savage force, panting, “Th-this is what you wanted? Then take it, come on, take it, take it—” And Reaper falters. He lurches for balance, his hands jerking up.

He recovers, and he reaches for his own chest, fingers sinking into himself. He’s going to draw the shotgun.

But his hand falls away, and he pitches forward. He catches himself on his hands, his arms braced on either side of Seventy-six’s chest. His breath grates out through the mask: hah… hah…

Then his entire body shudders, and his shoulder flakes off. It just wisps away like fine ash and vanishes. Hah… hah… Reaper hunches his back, then pushes off from the bed and rears back, arching away, but his body jerks again, again, again as Seventy-six fucks him unrelentingly. Then he makes a noise, ah, like he’s in pain, and the whole outline of him suddenly loses its cohesion: his legs blur, and pure darkness steams off them; one arm fractures apart into several ink-black fragments; blackness boils through the sockets of his mask. And then he jerks a final time, uncontrollably, and a hole opens up right through his chest, and his entire body splits down the center into two roiling black clouds.

Seventy-six freezes, completely freezes, for just a second. Then he lets go of the headboard and hurtles himself off the bed, yanking up his pants in the same motion.

The clouds crash together right in front of him. Reaper catches him mid-step and throws—actually throws—him back onto the bed. He bounces heavily on the mattress and almost tumbles right off the other side, except that Reaper is somehow already there with him, on top of him, stopping his movement, pinning him to the bed. Seventy-six is momentarily sick and dizzy from the abrupt changes in direction and momentum. Then he struggles. He grabs back at Reaper’s arms, gashes his own hand open on a piece of metal, shoves against him, kicks him. Nothing. No give.

Seventy-six looks up, gasping, and says the most important thing he can think of: “Take the mask off.”

And this makes sense to him, this feels right. Because if he’s going to die now, he wants them to be face to face, wants to actually see the eyes of the man who kills him.

Reaper doesn’t move or speak.

“I already know what you look like,” he plunges on. “Ana told me. Let me see.”

Reaper gives another low rumble. “That’s not what I look like.”

“Take off the mask,” he repeats.

Reaper doesn’t do anything for a few seconds. It feels like a very long time. Then he says, “Look, then,” and leans in very close, and brings a hand to his face, and slips the mask away, and—there’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Under the cowl there’s just blackness so absolute that his mind can’t make sense of it. Looking into it makes him feel like he’s gone partially blind. Reaper leans even closer, and the blackness fills his entire field of vision, and suddenly he can’t see anything, not anything. Then the blackness… touches his mouth, a cool and alien sensation, and he starts. Oh, God. Without sight, his brain loses its sense of orientation; he knows he’s on his back, on the bed, but his very own memory and other senses suddenly seem untrustworthy, and he feels displaced, like he could be anywhere, like he’s not really anywhere. His hands scrabble. Blood runs down his arm from his cut hand, but he can’t see, he can’t see. The darkness nudges past his lips; it seeps through the tiny gaps between his teeth; it presses against his eyes—are they still open?—and laps, cool and dry, against his jaw, his neck, his chest. He realizes that he cannot breathe. He begins to struggle with real urgency, twisting and thrashing on the bed. Something is all over him, Reaper is melted onto him, but he can’t connect with anything solid. He scrapes at his own face, and his hands pass uselessly through through the blackness. Bursts of color flash in front of his eyes without creating any illumination: not real light, just his suffocating brain firing off in desperation.

He needs—

Gabriel was the one who always came to save—

No, no—

It’s then that he has an orgasm. He has half a second of awareness, just enough time to think please, no, before it happens, devastatingly intense. His hips lift involuntarily, and his legs writhe on the bed. He makes a soft, shameful sound, and Reaper sucks the noise straight out of his lungs. The blackness thrums around him like a living pulse. Seventy-six thinks don’t, don’t, desperately and meaninglessly, and then his head bursts.

 



He wakes up.

He is in the bed. He is alone in the room. It’s still dark outside. He turns his head and feels dried blood crackle and flake off his neck. His rifle is still on the floor, the pistol not far away. He sits up, gingerly. Oh, his head hurts. He brings a hand toward his face and finds his arm caked with blood from his palm to his elbow. The cut is not as deep as he’d feared, but his hand has stiffened up, and his palm bleeds sluggishly when he moves his fingers. His shirt is spotted with blood. His pants. The mattress.

He coughs, fighting back the urge to vomit. His throat feels raw. His hand is tender and clumsy, but he manages to peel his shirt up, then shoves his sweatpants and shorts down his legs and off his feet. He lets his eyes go out of focus, doesn’t look down at the rest of his body. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it. He throws the whole ruined heap onto the floor, beyond the foot of the bed. He’ll have to find a way to burn everything, later. Then he gets out of bed and limps across the room, avoiding the window. He goes to his rifle, first, and kneels to check it for damage or evidence of tampering. Nothing. He gives the pistol a cursory examination. Still loaded, even. The only other piece of furniture in the room is a wooden chair. His travel bag is lying on the seat, his jacket draped across the back. Neither appear to have been touched. He rummages for gauze and disinfectant and cleans his neck, his hand and arm, his stomach, between his legs—don’t think about it, don’t think about it—and wraps his hand just enough to staunch further bleeding. Then he dresses himself completely: clothes, and socks, and boots, and his jacket over it all. He holsters the pistol, retrieves the butterfly knife and puts it into his pocket, and takes the rifle back to the bed, where he reaches underneath for the pieces of his face plate and visor and one of the biotic field deployment units. He activates the field, then sits on the bed with the rifle across his lap.

Pain disappears from his body. His hand regains its flexibility. When he can move it well enough, he carefully assembles the visor around his face. The room is briefly dark, and then the visor brings the world back to him.

He starts to shake. His breathing slips out of his control; he pants, open-mouthed, like a dog, against the inside of his face plate.

Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.

Sweat runs down his chest and back. Then he clenches his teeth and wrestles himself back to rigidity. He fumbles for his ear piece, swallows, and rasps, “Ana. Do you copy? Ana. Are you there?”

There’s a terrible silence. His heart thuds like a fist against his sternum. Please, please. Then he hears: “Jack. I copy.”

And the name still makes him flinch, but he almost sobs with sheer, wild relief. He sags a little, wrapping an arm over his stomach. He manages to say one word: “Contact.”

This time the silence lasts only a fraction of a moment, but it’s much heavier. “Are you hurt?”

He shakes his head, a gesture of reassurance meant for himself. “Not seriously. I’ve taken care of it.”

“Have you changed location?”

“No.”

“I’m coming to you,” Ana says decisively. “Don’t move.”

“No,” he says quickly, his voice rising. “Stay where you are. He suspects you’re around. I lied, but— He might be watching. Don’t let him see you.”

Ana scoffs into his ear. “If you fought him off, I think I can do the same.”

“I didn’t fight him off,” he says, almost frantically. “Do not change your position! Ana. Listen to me.”

“Jack, what are you talking about?” Ana asks, an edge of frustration in her voice. “How did you get away, then?”

“I - I don’t know, Ana. I don’t know why he left. I wasn’t— He just knocked me out, and - I was, I was alone when I woke up. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Jack,” she says after a moment, and her voice has gone soft and careful. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know.” And he grabs at his own head, pulling at a handful of hair, curling over on himself. God, oh, God. “I - I’ll tell you in the morning. I can’t— Not right now. I’ll tell you later. I don’t know what happened.”

“Jack,” she says again, but she doesn’t continue, and neither of them speak again for awhile. Eventually, he sits up straight and breathes out through his mouth. It’s over, it’s done, he’s alive, he’s fine. He can’t afford to wallow. Ana can’t afford his weakness.

“I was right, Ana,” he says at last, feeling triumphant, though he has no right to be. “He didn’t try to kill me. He had a chance, I couldn’t stop him, but he didn’t do it.”

“He seemed pretty ready to kill you in Egypt,” Ana says flatly.

“There wasn’t another option: we were in public; he was on a mission. No choice. But he still left even though he could have continued fighting, after you saw him. His face. He wanted you to see him.”

“Maybe,” Ana says, but she sounds doubtful. “But why? But what does he want with you, then?”

He doesn’t know. And then, abruptly, he does: not the exact details, maybe, but the general intent.

“There are things he still doesn’t know about himself. Things he can do; strengths; weaknesses. He wants to understand himself, and he… he trusts us. We’re the only ones he trusts enough to let us see him while he’s… figuring things out. Maybe that’s just because he expects to kill us later, but…” He pauses and remembers, unbidden, the sound Reaper had made, ah, before he broke apart. He swallows, and goes on with measured intensity: “Ana, you can’t let him find you. You have to be careful. You can’t be seen with me in public. I want your word that you won’t expose yourself unnecessarily for any reason.”

“You know I can’t do that, Jack. And I don’t understand what you’re talking—”

“You have to do what I’m telling you, Ana!”

A beat of silence. He can see her expression as though she’s in front of him: mouth thin and tight, bottom eyelids tensed up. “I’ll try,” she says stiffly. “But, Jack, why won’t he just listen to us? Do you think he really wants to kill you, or not? I don’t want to keep relying on guesses.”

“I think he’s confused,” he says, which is the best non-answer he can give. “And angry. He thinks I abandoned him, or— I don’t know. You know what he’s like.”

“Never forgets anything, never lets anything go,” Ana sighs. “I know. Even after everything, there are some things in the world you can always count on to be the same.”

Seventy-six smiles, despite himself. “That’s true. I’m glad you’re one of the things I can count on, Ana.”

Ana murmurs, “Well,” then trails off into a ringing silence, but he understands the unspoken addendum as clearly as though she said it out loud: not always; because they couldn’t count on her, could they, when the world burned up around them. He wants to say something gentle and reassuring, but instead they’re both silent for a little too long to salvage the moment.

At last he exhales, softly, and says, “I’m sorry for waking you. You should get some rest. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“You, too. I’m here if you need me for - for anything.”

“Thank you,” he says, meaning it. “Let’s switch to rendezvous 'C' tomorrow.”

“Copy. I’ll talk to you at six hundred. Good-night, Jack.”

Then the channel is quiet, and he’s alone. He's alone.