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Love Like Ghosts

Chapter Text

A tired groan was usually the way she started and ended her day. It was habitual, recurrent, and the continual cycle of getting up early nearly every day was the realization which promptly hit her at the crack of dawn each morning.

“Ms. Amari, it is now 5:00 am,” the computerized voice dictated, and Fareeha groaned again, this time more loudly than before. She rolled over once, covering her head with the pillow. Amidst the few thoughts floating lazily through her sleepy mind, she contemplated debating against getting out of bed with her home’s security system before settling against it. Athena would just keep bothering her until she finally left the comfy covers, since no amount of sympathy was bestowed to the AI. She was simply just doing her job.

With eyes closed she sat up, gave her body a good stretch, and swept her legs over the side of the bed. A greeting sounded from the walls around her, Athena’s omniscient motion sensors acknowledging that their master had finally decided to ditch the confines of her warm bed.

“Good morning, Ms. Amari.”

Fareeha waved a hand and yawned as she made her way to the restroom down the hall. “Same to you, Athena.”

She entered the bathroom and immediately the lights turned on, illuminating the sleek, modern silver cabinets and tiled floor. Aside from the light on in the restroom, things were dark throughout her apartment. It made sense, considering that it was still quite early and most individuals were tucked away in their beds for at least another hour or two (three, if they were lucky), and that the days were getting increasingly shorter and colder this time of year. This lonesome spotlight of illumination here was helpful visually, yes, but each and every morning it caused the same thing to stir within the woman who had entered the room only seconds ago.

This was the need to stop and scrutinize herself. It was something she found she had begun to do more often, and although she recognized that it was inappropriate for anyone to be so judgmental upon themself, she could not stop. It was impossible.

It was also Fareeha Amari’s weakness. In particular one which she made no comment about to anyone other than herself, if she could possibly help it. So far she had kept true to her promise.

Deep brown eyes were drawn for the upteenth time to the right, where they landed on the dark, metallic blue of the cybernetic prosthetic attached to her shoulder. Her gaze stayed there, studying every dip, every curve. Memorizing. Criticising. She lifted the cybernetic arm, opened and closed her upturned palm, and then balled the metal fingers into a steely fist. There she held it for a few moments, a subtle frustration seething through her entire weary being, until sense began to win her over again.

Her fist dropped back down to her side, and she mindfully decided it was best she continued getting ready for work. Reinhardt would not be pleased if she was late, and neither would Brigitte be anything less than amused if her superior happened to accidentally forget that time was an eternal, ongoing event. According to Rein, Fareeha was supposed to be a good (perhaps even outstanding) example in the realm of the city’s police department, since the older man had entrusted her with watching over his goddaughter Brigitte and modeling the correct way to work under the law.

Fareeha rolled her eyes thinking about the two, who often seemed more like fraternal twins (who were more than forty years apart and not related, if that was even possible) than anything else, and shoved her toothbrush back into its stand. She rinsed, spit, and stood up to wipe her mouth when her eyes caught yet again the metal prosthetic protruding from out underneath her old t-shirt.

“...Whatever,” she mumbled through tight lips, and exited.

The lights behind her in the restroom made note of the lack of a human body’s presence in the room, and quickly shut themselves off.

Fareeha walked down the hall back to her bedroom, darkness draped behind like an oversized shadow.


 

Upon stepping out of the apartment complex’s lobby door, Fareeha felt a few miniscule droplets of water hit her cheek. She looked up, and sure enough the gray sky had decided that today was a perfect opportunity to share with the rest of the city it’s lonely sorrow.

The woman squinted, looking back down at the floor to see small pinpricks of water dotting the dark ground beneath her like a painter creating a pointillism masterpiece. It appeared as though the rain would be coming down a little heavier than she expected.

She reached behind her head to grab the back of the hoodie she had so conveniently decided to wear underneath her overcoat, pulling it over her head. Fareeha had never been too fond of the cold, and out here in the gloomy, damp city, even the body heat from the countless sea of people forever trudging through was not enough to make a difference in temperature.

Gently easing her way into the crowd, she began her daily journey to the city’s local police department. People here always traveled by foot for the most part, since the roads and alleys were too narrow for any cars to maneuver through. Police and emergency response vehicles were the only exceptions, usually. The reason for this was that throngs of people made the attempt at transportation all the more difficult.

Thin puddles split under her feet upon impact, but Fareeha did not take notice. She passed a few cuisine shops, which were dismissively open despite the rain, and a few rundown alleyways littered between buildings. As she walked past what looked to be a somewhat vacant tempura shop, she was alarmed when an omnic fell flat on his face in front of her, skidding violently through a dirty puddle.

Fareeha stepped back in alarm and looked toward the source of the mighty throw, not surprised to see a large, hefty man with a greasy apron and one of the meanest scowls on his face advancing toward her and the omnic.

She stepped between the two, giving time for the robot behind her to struggle to his feet.

“For the last time, we don’t hire fucking omnics, you nasty piece of scrap metal! Now get lost!” the man shouted, lurching past Fareeha to sneer at the omnic behind her.

A panicked hand grasped Fareeha’s arm for what she thought was a wordless plea for protection, and she stiffened up then as a soft, robotic voice sounded from behind her. It wafted past her ears like a light breeze, and if it was not for the lack of distance between her and the omnic she would most likely have not understood the whisper escaping his mouth.

“B-But….my family. My father used to work for you….We need money an-”

The man’s sneer (Fareeha figured he was the shop owner) did not lessen, and he stomped forward, causing the omnic to stumble back a few feet in fright, but Fareeha herself refused to let up. The woman’s bravery was somewhat stunning when it came to helping others, and at this particular time it disturbed the man who was so adamantly trying to rid himself and his restaurant of the persistent omnic.

“Move outta the way, girlie,” he growled, and Fareeha could smell his fetid breath hot on her skin. She suddenly wanted to take another shower.

“Sorry, not going to happen.” Reaching into her coat she pulled out her ID badge, and her profile, name, and profession, along with the government seal, flashed across the screen. “Detective Fareeha Amari from the city’s police department. I will not allow any violence to ensue here in order to protect the general public, and I think this would be a good time for you to cool off before things get out of hand.”

Fareeha watched the large man clench and unclench his fists a few times, and he shook his head before spitting on the ground near her. His saliva melded with the rain, and his annoyance drew a sense of disgust from Fareeha.

“You coppers are always going around helping those fucking omnics….Don’t you remember what they did to people like us, just a few years ago?” He glared daggers at the omnic again. “You assholes are protecting them. They turned against us! They’re not safe. Never were to begin with.”

She didn’t say anything, just watched the giant man waddle his way back into his restaurant.

When the owner was a good distance away Fareeha turned around, and was met with the immobile face of the young omnic, who wore nothing except a simple thin coat and baggy pants splotched by muddy water. If his family needed money, his appearance surely reflected that - he must have been extremely desperate about asking for a job, especially from such a restaurant owner as the one she had just encountered.

Tucking her badge back into her coat pocket she gave the omnic a small smile. “You okay, kid?”

He patted down a patch of damp water on his jacket, most likely in hopes of getting some of the dampness out, and shuffled back. “Y-Yeah….I’m fine.”

Fareeha doubted that. But then again, her question was a bit irrelevant to begin with. The omnic was clearly unharmed, but that didn’t mean that he was still alright .

She shrugged a shoulder and quickly took a peek at her wrist tag under her coat sleeve, making sure that she still had enough time to get to work. So far it looked like she was good. “Do you live around here?”

The omnic hesitated before answering. “Kind of….My family and I….We’re street creepers. But that’s only because we don’t have any place to stay right now. That’s why I’m trying to get a job, to help out.”

Fareeha nodded. This was exactly something any young, responsible individual - human or omnic - would do, would they not? So then why was it so hard for many to see that omnics and humans should be treated as equals?

“Listen....I’m sorry that guy kicked you out. And I’m sorry to hear about the situation of your family.” The rain pelted down harder, and the omnic in front of her continued to get drenched. She took a step closer to him, escaping the shelter of the overhanging metal sheets of the restaurant behind that blocked the rain, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hang in there, alright? One day things will be set right. I promise.”

She was unsure if what she had just said was a promise she could keep….Or rather if it was an outcome she had control over, but spoke the words nonetheless. All she wished was to deliver some hope. It was all she could offer.

The omnic nodded slowly, silently. He stepped out of grasp of her gingerly placed hand, and it slowly fell back to Fareeha’s side, where she stuck it into the coat pocket at her hip. “Thank you.”

And then he left. Slipped off once again back into the crowd, leaving no trace of ever having been there talking to the detective.

Fareeha stood there for a few seconds, mulling over what just happened. It truthfully was not unusual to see an omnic and human get into a fight on the way to work, or on the way back. It was also not unusual to witness an rapidly gathering protest or riot in the close quarters of the already too skinny streets - those she was habitual to witnessing every few days or so.

She sighed, the breath escaping her mouth quickly condensing into a miniature cloud, and continued monotonously back on her way.

There was only so much she could do.


 

Almost immediately following her entrance through the sliding glass doors that led to the countless office desks, Fareeha’s shadow reappeared ritually, as it did almost every single day of the week. As she weaved her way through the copious amounts of other police staff, donut crumbs began to magically appear on her shoulder, and a currently-too-excited voice found her ear.

“Yo, Fareeha! How are you?” Brigitte wrapped an arm around Fareeha’s shoulder and pulled her in close for a second, the latter feeling like she was getting all of the air in her lungs squished out forcefully. She shoved a half-eaten donut into Fareeha’s face. “You want a donut?”

Fareeha grimaced slightly, perturbed by the fact that there were likely no more whole donuts for Brigitte to offer to her, and so was helpless in resorting to giving her whatever piece she had left. It was a generous offer, but it was an offer that Fareeha would not take. She’d rather not bring herself that low.

“Uh, no thank you, I’m good.” She continued on her pilgrimage through the chaos of the early morning in this specific area of the police department, which consisted of over-caffeinated (or under-caffeinated) coworkers and grumpy criminals being pulled in for interrogations and whatnot after a night in the slammer.

But Brigitte was relentless. “You sure?” She waved the half-eaten chocolate donut with rainbow sprinkles one more time in front of Fareeha as if it were instead a priceless treasure she were dangling before her eyes.

Fareeha stopped in front of her holodesk and faced Brigitte with a serious countenance. “I am 100 percent positive. Thank you for offering though.” She slipped off her heavy, slightly damped overcoat, and set it over the back of her chair. After straightening the collar on her black button-up shirt she tapped out her password on the desk’s top, and watched files begin to pop up on the terminal in front, one after the other, like daisies springing up after the last of winter’s snow.

All the cases were the same. A death here. A death there. Another one here. They were all triggered by one similar factor - the NNv, or neuro-nano virus, abridged to NNv for short.

Fareeha scanned over the synopsis of each rather quickly, gathering only one piece of evidence from each that she was ultimately searching for, other than the affirmation of the fact that they were all caused by the NNv. She knitted together what evidence she had been solely seeking after by going through each synopsis, just to confirm what she already had concluded a few weeks ago after being assigned the cases.

A few more crumbs fell, this time onto her desk. “They’re basically all deaths. Street creeper deaths.”

Fareeha looked up from the screen and met Brigitte’s unwavering studious eyes, which were intently focused on the cases at hand. Although Brigitte was fairly new to the whole police thing, having just graduated the academy a little less than a year ago and been thrown into this hellhole of a reality, she was sharp of wit and caught on quickly to almost anything taught to her. Fareeha was thankful that she had been assigned to Brigitte and not some other foolish, haughty young individual who had just left the academy. A lot of the ones who did thought they new everything, and that usually led them into getting into more trouble than their superiors had hoped.

Perhaps this maturity belonging to Brigitte was one of the results of being friends with your boss for as long as you could remember? As far as Fareeha was concerned, Reinhardt was the father she never had. Maybe the same could be said for Brigitte, who often spent more time with Reinhardt than she did with her own father due to certain circumstances. The two women had more in common than they initially thought, which was rather interesting and created a unique bond between the two of them.

“Exactly,” Fareeha commented after a few seconds, turning her face back to the screen and swiping her fingers across it to view more case files. “But the question is why ? Why are street creepers the ones who are infected by the virus more often, as compared to other members of society?”

“There have been a few cases that aren’t street creepers,” Brigitte pointed out, voice muffled by the chewing of her donut.

“I know…. But it isn’t many.” Fareeha dropped into her seat and leaned back tiredly, running a metallic hand through her hair. “This is stupid. Why can’t I fucking figure this out? It should be easy.”

Brigitte bit at her lip apprehensively, unsure if there was anything she could do to lift her friend’s spirits. Fareeha thought long and hard about these cases every single day, and she was beginning to think the ever-present look of exhaustion on Fareeha’s face was due to the fact that she pondered this kind of stuff way too much.

At that exact moment probationary officer, particularly one whom seemed fairly new to the department, scurried by with a large box of donuts in hand. The container of desserts caught Brigitte’s eye and she grabbed him by the collar to tug him back, the incredibly shrimpy man shriveling under her gaze as she motioned for him to hand over the box. She plucked one from its depths before shooing him away again. The young woman grinned devilishly and hoisted one leg onto Fareeha’s desk, resting her elbow on her thigh and beginning to munch on her new pastry.

“How about we don’t dwell so much on these cases, huh?” Brigitte shook her head, seemingly in disagreement with what she just said. “Wait wait wait, that came out wrong - I don’t mean forget about the cases. What I’m trying to say is how about we stop fretting over the fact that we haven’t solved this stuff yet? These kinds of things take time and lots of investigation, especially if they’re tough to crack.” She took another bite and shrugged. “You know what I mean? We’re doing our best. Let’s just keep doing that and supporting each other. We’ll solve them eventually,” Brigitte smiled, and Fareeha couldn’t help but return the gesture and nod in agreement.

“You know I want to solve these cases too,” she continued. “It’d be amazing to be able to help the city in such a way….And I’m sure it’ll make Papa proud too.”

Fareeha frowned. “You’re still trying to get your father’s attention?” she asked, putting a heavy amount of stress on the word ‘still’. Brigitte wasn't about to give up the dream she kept dear to her heart so easily. The detective had heard that dream numerous times, and it consisted of getting promoted to the next tier and advancing out of being just a regular probationary officer (although she was definitely one of the best ones the department had, which made Fareeha very lucky to have her).

“Yeah….I mean, wouldn’t you like to make your parents proud too?”

Fareeha was silent for a moment. She didn’t care - her mother wasn’t around anymore. “No, not really,” she finally answered, swiping away at a few more cases on the screen and giving her partner a negligent shrug.

Brigitte looked at the ground for a moment, thoughtfully mulling over what she was about to say. “Well, I know you’ve probably heard me mention it before. But it’s just that - you know - ever since growing up, there’s been so many of us. It was hard to stand out and make my Papa see that I wanted him to notice me and be proud of me….Hopefully now, having joined the police, I’ll be able to do that if I get promoted to a legitimate officer instead of a probationary.” The smile she gave was sad, yet hopeful. It was a strange combination that Fareeha felt was all too true.

“Yeah yeah kid, this is probably the twentieth time you’ve told me your sob story,” Fareeha chuckled after her sarcastic comment, and subsequently earned herself a swat from a whining Brigitte.

“It’s true! He was always gone doing official city work, and he still is! Plus I have, like, a bajillion brothers and sisters - I’m not lying, Fareeha!”

The detective got up from her chair, still having herself a good laugh as she did her best to dodge her friend’s fist. She thought it was hilarious when the younger girl got all pouty, and sometimes she made a point of actually teasing her just to see her comedic reactions. “Okayyyy okay - alright Brigitte,” Fareeha snickered, arms held in a protective manner over her head to shield herself from Brigitte’s dramatic flailing. “You know I’m just joking with you.”

Full downturned lips gave Fareeha a negative answer. “....Sometimes it feels like you’re not taking me seriously though.”

“And why would you ever think that?” Fareeha slung an arm over the other girl’s shoulder, which was a bit of a ways up, but was successful in performing the act even so. “I laugh and tease you sometimes because you’re funny to get a reaction out of - but don’t let that ever cause you to think that I don’t take you seriously. I care about what you think and how you feel. You’re my friend.” Fareeha offered Brigitte a sincere smile, and just like she had hoped, the younger girl took it.

“....Okay.” Brigitte cracked into a grin, having put aside her doubt with Fareeha’s honest reassurance.

That’s what I’m talking about.” Upon seeing the blossoming grin, Fareeha pulled her subordinate’s head down and began giving her auburn head a noogie. The taller girl protested half-heartedly and allowed herself to laugh along as she submitted to the jesting form of affection, which was something of a rarity. She didn’t exactly like noogies (to be truthful - who really does?), but decided she wouldn’t break the nose of those who gave her one unless they were someone she was close to or greatly admired. That list currently consisted of two individuals right now, those of who worked here in this exact city police department: Reinhardt Wilhelm and Fareeha Amari. Her father didn’t count because he was too short to give her one anyways.

Reinhardt, as a matter of fact, was exactly the individual that Fareeha was hoping to see this morning. There was something that had been sitting on her mind for a while now that she had been wanting to bring to his attention.

“Ouch.” Brigitte moved a hand up to her head and began rubbing her noggin with the utmost care. “Your noogies hurt, Fareeha.”

That was actually something Fareeha frequently forgot to consider. Utilizing her cybernetic prosthetic was often something she still had trouble with. It would make sense that sometimes she could hurt others slightly, considering that she had not yet grown fully accustomed to the fake limb. There was likely also some extra force she was exerting in the faux-drilling motion she initiated when performing the act on her friend’s head, and coupled with the hard, metal exterior of the cybernetic arm, it was bound to be slightly painful.

Letting Brigitte go, Fareeha cleared her throat, thus reintroducing her transition back to the professional within the situation. “Sorry,” she apologized, wincing slightly as her friend continued rubbing her head. She took a few steps forward and thrust a thumb in the direction of the conglomeration of offices’ entryway. “Say, I was hoping I’d get to chat with Rein for a bit this morning; there was something I’ve been meaning to tell him. But after that we can go ahead and do our routine shooting range practice, before diving into some more investigating of those cases?”

“Sounds like a plan.” Brigitte smirked, giving a little salute. “I can stay here and try and focus on them some until you get back, see if I figure out anything with the clues we already have.”

“Wonderful,” came Fareeha’s satisfied reply, which signaled that she would be taking this opportunity to exit. With a curt wave she was off, hands shoved deep into her pockets as she strode down the main walkway through the jungle of desks, officers, and delinquents, leaving Brigitte behind.

The walk to Reindhardt’s office was one she knew by heart, since she had walked this path thousands of times before. Because the layout of the city’s infrastructure in relation to the creation of buildings was incorporating minimization, the police department had utilized as much vertical space as it could. Floors of any tall building were stacked conveniently like a tight pack of cards, and this was no exception for the local police department. As a matter of fact, it constituted of a first main floor for public interface, a second floor as the department’s shooting range, and then the third and fourth were neverending seas of offices. An underground level, which was situated below the first, was a singular storage unit for everything weapon related.

Reinhardt’s office was just one floor above the one Fareeha and Brigitte worked on. It was….a place she was familiar with to say the least, and the journey of getting there was just as similar. Down a few halls, into the elevator, go up, out the elevator, then down another hall, and voila. The reason why Fareeha was so acquainted with this process, just as she was naturally with the highest floor, was because she used to work there.

The highest floor was reserved for the highest ranking officers, those of whom had various placements based on their service and experience. For Fareeha, walking up there was always something special - and always somewhat nostalgic, although she did what she could most of the time to make herself seem undisturbed by what used to be.

….Perhaps dwelling on what had been and chasing ghosts of the past by her lone self had been her downfall.

For today, that was precisely the issue she was going to share with Reinhardt.

Halls, doors, elevators, faces - they had all passed by slowly, a blurred mess of something Fareeha did not care for and took no notice of until she stepped into the menagerie of holodesks on a particular sector of offices this fourth floor, her vision zoning in on one particular office shrouded by translucent glass walls.

This was Reinhardt’s office, allowed the privacy of some seclusion, away from the rest of the other officers. He was, after all, the resident chief of police.

“Reinhardt?” Fareeha knocked on the glass wall beside the doorway, and it slid aside to reveal the man she was looking for a second later.

The ginormous, incredibly muscular man (“100 percent German power!”, he would always say) was seated comfortably at his desk with a small ceramic mug of coffee in one hand, the cup looking strangely out of place next to his large body. He had a few images pulled up on his desk, which he swiped away with one swift movement of his monstrous hand so that they did not block his view of Fareeha.

“Ah, Fareeha my dear, come in!” Reinhardt’s booming voice called, beckoning the woman in as he set aside his mug and leaned forward. A large grin danced upon his face, creating a honest, pleasant gesture of his authentic delight in seeing her.

“Good morning, Reinhardt,” she smiled likewise, taking a seat at one of the chairs set in front of his desk. “How’s the chief doing today?”

“Quite well, quite well,” Reinhardt chuckled. “As I hope you are doing too.” A relaxed, lengthy sip of coffee halted his greeting, and then he placed the mug back down, folding his meaty hands together. “What brings you here this fine morning?”

The detective before him pursed her lips as she steadied herself for the flow of conversation she would soon be initiating with her boss. She knew Reinhardt wouldn’t be mad, but still….the disclosure of what she was going to say was eating at her, and it most certainly was not in a good way. She felt guilty, but there was also a strange pressure that encouraged her to just spill what had been on her mind for almost two whole years.

“There was something I have been meaning to talk to you about….for a while.”

“Ah?” Rein raised a brow, the one above his bad eye. The chief had refused to get a cybernetic implant because he said that the damaged eye was a constant reminder to remain humble, as well as diligent in protecting the people around him. How he got it was a story he shared with a young Fareeha in front of a rustic fireplace many winters ago, and was the same one he would sometimes belt out at a bar with a gigantic mug of beer in hand. Overall, it was a tale Fareeha had heard countless times.

“I….” Fareeha twiddled her thumbs in her lap, somewhat glad that her hands were hidden from view and thus keeping her physical discomfort a secret for the time being. “I don’t think being a detective is a good fit for me. I - Things were different when I was out in the field. I could actually help people, you know? Actually save them.” Her initial reservation was weakening. “I wasn’t the crippled officer I am now who has to solve problems from behind a desk. And even when I’m doing that I still have trouble!” She raised her hands in exasperation and watched Reinhardt’s face morph from confusion to something more sympathetic.  

The mountainous man stood up, and slowly made his way to the door of his office. Looking back at her he stretched out his hand, and with the smallest flick of his large fingers, gestured for her to come. “Follow me. I have something to show you.”

As asked, Fareeha followed Reinhardt. They walked wordlessly through the coming and going police officers, and Reinhardt sent a friendly wave to those who greeted him good morning, but didn’t pass any conversation between the two of them.

They stepped into the elevator finally and when the doors closed, they found themselves alone. Fareeha watched him plant a thumb over the underground level button and crossed her arms. It was easy to figure out what he was going to do, and she found herself already connecting the dots to what the older man was going to show her. Why this detective intuition didn’t kick in when she was solving cases, she could only ponder hopelessly.

Amidst the thoughts swirling through her mind, she remained quiet.

When the elevator doors parted, things were strangely silent. It was almost as if they had suddenly been transported to another building that wasn’t the police department - such contrast could be made when switching from any of the top floors and then coming down to the final, last section of infrastructure.

Neon lighting tracing the edges of the corridor guided the two, leaving a hazy glow in it's wake which made the titanium walls turn an exotic shade of aquamarine. It was a walk that lasted a minute or so, and a thin row of LEDs overhead helped guide the way as well.

Reinhardt finally stopped at a large door at the end of the hall, the thick, black fortress guarded by an omnic who quickly saluted the two incoming personnel.

“Good morning!” the omnic greeted, hastily moving out of the way of a nodding Reinhardt so the man could step in front of the ret-scan. Fareeha also nodded at the omnic in acknowledgement, and when the beep signaling that acceptance to entry had been granted, the doors before them parted vertically, like an extra large pair of ebony jaws.

“We’ll be but a moment,” Reinhardt reassured the omnic, and as he motioned again for Fareeha to follow she huffed and folded her arms over her chest again. Although she couldn’t deny the absurd fact that she was probably pouting like a spoiled child, she couldn’t shake the thought of where he was taking her. It made her somewhat upset and she’d known their destination since she watched him press the lowest button inside the elevator on the control panel.

“Reinhardt….” she began, but was shushed by an upheld hand from the older man.

“We’re almost there.”

Paths of neon blue lit up their way as they traversed through the maze of weaponry, and when they came to a large, black titanium vault with a digiscreen Reinhardt erupted into hearty laughter. “Aha! Here she is!” he chuckled, and placed a hand over the screen while Fareeha waited back with furrowed brows. She was wondering if she regretted talking to him about her predicament, but it was too late to get him out of whatever it was he was going to mention to her once he showed her this.

The hiss of compressed, sterilized air echoed around them as the door to the container opened, and inside, graced by the shine of some small fluorescent lining was a winged, steely blue suit.

Something Fareeha was entirely too familiar with.

Reinhardt turned around and gave Fareeha the largest grin she had seen from him that entire morning. “Remember this old thing?”

Fareeha sighed, dropping her arms down to her side and marching over unenthusiastically to reach out and skim her fingers over the surface of the suit’s chest plating. “Of course I do. How could I not?”

Reinhardt nodded, his one and only good, blue eye filled with mild excitement. “I was hoping you would.”

“I....really missed this suit,” Fareeha admitted, whether it be to herself or Reinhardt she was unsure of, in a hushed, longing tone. “I missed being the hero I was with it.” The cool metal plating of the Raptora suit felt good against her fingers, and she extended the feeling to her entire left hand as she relaxed, the stifling frustration she had when coming down here drifting away like a leaf on a steady creek. “I wish I could still pilot it.”

Reinhardt was quiet for a moment as he watched the younger woman silently recall memories of the past, and it pained him to see her eyes soften in what he knew was nostalgic reminiscing. He did the same thing himself oftentimes.

“Fareeha….Things change. You know this.”

“....I know.”

“Then you must also know that this - this suit, the life you had back then - is part of the past. And the past is something that we must learn from and move on from. It’s not good to dwell on what cannot be anymore.”

“....You don’t know that.”

Reinhardt’s lips curled into an amused yet melancholic smile. Fareeha was wrong. So very wrong. “I do. I know it for a fact very well.”

“...”

“Your mother. You’ve known me since you were a wee little one, you remember - your mother and I were partners. When Ana….” He stopped short, hesitant. “When Ana disappeared, I realized I had to move on too. Even if I didn’t want to.”

Fareeha pulled her hand away slowly from the Raptora suit to witness Reinhardt glancing at the floor with downcast eyes. His grin was long gone.

“Sometimes things happen in life that you wish never had taken place,” he started again softly. “Things that can steal away happiness, family, friends….It happens to everyone. What matters is if we can pick ourselves up after the fall, and keep moving forward.”

Fareeha reached out, carefully placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. She wasn’t sure what to say. All she knew what that she had been wrong in the conclusion that Reinhardt did not know what he was talking about. The man understood loss well - perhaps just as much as she did.


 

The two of them stood side by side under the cover of the police department overhang, pointlessly staring out into the dreary, mist-ridden layout of the parking lot.

The sky had already started to darken into a deep, ominous blue, which in turn would soon surrender itself completely to the beckoning black of night. What Fareeha admired about the city was that as the sky may continue to hue deeper, the brighter the city lights would appear. They sprung up here and there, minute, glowing greeters of the late hours that displayed their enthusiasm with their flashy appearances. With the forgotten puddles of the afternoon rain having found residence on every street, the city at this time of the day was even more ethereal - the glowing of almost every color imaginable was quite literally everywhere one turned, and it made walking home somewhat entertaining, to a degree.

Brigitte turned to the woman beside her after their moment of comfortable silence. “So….Didja want to go pick up something for dinner?”

Fareeha nodded, dragging her eyes away from the speckled sky. She wasn’t completely sure why she was so concentrated on the heavens above; one could barely see the stars. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

They began walking, and the stretch of the parking lot littered by various models of police cars was their last bit of feigned peace before they entered the fray of the city streets. The night was when the city truly came alive.

“You’ve been kind of quiet today after that chat you said you wanted to have with Rein,” Brigitte noted, picking up her pace so that she could match Fareeha’s confident stride as the detective turned the corner and seamlessly meshed into the flow of ongoing people. “Did everything go alright?”

“Everything went fine,” Fareeha responded curtly, and perhaps too tersely for Brigitte’s liking, because the younger girl stayed solemn for a while.

The reply wasn’t brutish enough though to keep the girl down for long, because as soon as they began walking down a street known infamously for it's selection of restaurants and bars that lined each side, an excited sparkle reappeared in her amber eyes.

“Oooh, oooh!” she waved her arm rather enthusiastically, pointing at a noodle shop down a little ways of the current street. In her large waterproof coat while waving her arm around sporadically, Fareeha thought her partner looked quite childish, yet she found herself smiling warmly and gave her eyes a sarcastic roll. “Let’s eat here, let’s eat here!”

Fareeha followed the skipping Brigitte, pretending to be slightly annoyed with her liveliness. “Sounds good - but tell me, Brigitte - is this another one of those restaurants you look up during the time we spend looking at cases? Because I’ve seen you have a restaurant tab pulled up on your desk more than a couple of times,” she grinned wryly, watching with pleasure as Brigitte wilted in embarrassment under her gaze.

Brigitte stood at the foot of the noodle shop’s entrance, a party of red and yellow lights whirling over her skin, and rocked back and forth nervously on the heels of her boots. “Uhhhh, maybe it is…?” The unconvinced look Fareeha gave her made her break. “Ugh, I can’t help it though! I get hungry and think about what I want to have for dinner and then I go searching up stuff that I probably shouldn’t be looking at during work hours-”

A playful punch on her shoulder shut her up. “Hey, I’m just messing with you,” Fareeha smiled. “Just don’t let Rein or another boss catch you doing that, okay? They might give you a worse scolding. Maybe they’ll think you’re hiding porn.”

“Okie do- Hey!!” Brigitte whined, and her grumbles were soon interrupted by blooming laughter kicked off by Fareeha’s joke.

Following Fareeha inside the shop and out of the frigid, biting air that nipped at her ears and kissed her cheeks, she let the warmth of her new surroundings put her at ease. Good thing it wasn’t raining anymore; the windchill was already worse enough, and topping it off with some more rain would make things even colder.

Brigitte looked around the small place with a pleased smile on her face, taking notice of the number of individuals gathered. An assortment of both omnics and humans sat at the bar, located near the back of the cozy restaurant where steam filtered through the continuously opening and closing back doors. Through the doors a disheveled looking omnic waiter filed through hastily to deliver dishes, and behind the bar, delivering sake and unique, oriental versions of spiked tea to the guests was a short, stocky woman with a tight bun. She was entirely enveloped in her job of bartending, and cleaned glasses with a defined purpose, ears closed to any conversations floating around unless they were specifically addressed to her. She also looked like a lady who Brigitte figured didn’t take shit from anyone.

“Is this place good?” Fareeha asked, pulling out a chair from a small table stationed next to a larger one where a family of four sat.

“Yep, it’s fine with me.” Brigitte shrugged and smiled over at the family near them, attempting a gentle wave in particular at a girl who looked up from her noodle soup. The young girl had lifted her head to laugh at a joke someone had said, her chopsticks effortlessly contained within the fold of her small hand. Upon closer inspection, the family didn’t seem too well off: the state of the attire belonging to the children was a bit ragged, and a stylized cyber tat peekly shyly out from under the father’s sleeve. The mother was also decorated by a few designs on her skin, thus revealing the fact that they were most likely street creepers. Even so, in Brigitte’s eyes they were just another family enjoying a meal together, and the thought warmed her heart.

She sat down, stretching her arms out for a moment to remove herself from her coat when she saw Fareeha discarding her own, and afterwards sighed pleasantly. “Ah….I love places like this,” she commented, earning a raised eyebrow from the woman across from her.

“What do you mean?”

Brigitte gestured to the entirety of the restaurant. “You know, pretty friendly, comfy kind of ambience, a family here, a couple out on a date there….some sappy drunks at the front who are too busy watching the wrestling match on the holovision to cause any harm ‘cause they’re too into it….” she drawled, then sighed again. “It’s just nice. Reminds me of home.”

Ah, so that’s what it is , Fareeha thought to herself, picking up one of the menus in the center of the table and sifting through the weathered pages. Being in this kind of enclosure surrounded by people who are having a good time together is the type of environment she was raised in, my guess. Would make sense - Torb is a good man, he’s just grown increasingly busy with his work.

“And what can I help you two with today?” It was the omnic waiter. His white button-up was somewhat lopsided as a small towel resided on his left shoulder, and the deep red apron tied around his waist was emblazoned with a golden insignia of the restaurant’s dragon mascot. There were some suspicious looking flecks of a darker substance dotting the waiter’s apron, which Fareeha guessed by the power of deduction were either soy sauce or oyster sauce.

“Oh!” Brigitte gave a small, surprised laugh, startled by his sudden but not ill-intended appearance. She had barely opened the menu, ironically enough. “I’m sorry, I haven’t spent enough time deciding on what I want yet,” she winced, and the omnic gave a little chuckle.

“No worries, take all the time you need. May I start you off with some drinks?”

The two of them ordered some tea, and tucking his notepad back into the pocket at the front of his apron the waiter scurried off again to go prepare their beverages.

Fareeha leaned back against her chair, folding her hands together before her. “It is a nice place, I’ll have to admit - very welcoming.”

Right?? ” Brigitte confirmed as she crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. She looked over at the family beside the two one more time. “Everything about this place just screams friendly,” she laughed, causing Fareeha to crack another smile in the process.

Fareeha followed Brigitte’s wide eyes, which were traveling around the restaurant a mile a minute, landing here one moment and there another. She was astounded by everything, and her happiness flourished in the curated, cordial environment the restaurant offered to the guests. It was the feel from an environment that Fareeha had not experienced in quite some time.

She was used to being alone. Perhaps this was what mediated her into being this tight, awkward person who had trouble opening up. There was one exception to that: being around Brigitte made her come out of her shell, which she liked. Brigitte was never the kind who forced another to act or behave a certain way, she just naturally stirred up a friendly comradery with the older woman, and Fareeha enjoyed the relationship they shared. It was good to have a friend.

“Listen,” Fareeha began, staring at the conjoinment of her fingers extended before her on the table top. “I’m sorry if I’ve been acting a bit off today. My talk with Reinhardt went well, it’s just that….What I heard from him wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, if you catch my drift.”

Brigitte leaned forward, a confused expression exposed on her face. “Well….not exactly. If - If you wouldn’t mind sharing more I think I’d be able to understand, but if you’d rather not then that’s fine.”

“Well….” Fareeha was nervous. She didn’t want to tell Brigitte that she felt displaced with her position as a detective for the past few years. Of course it had been something that was eating at her this entire time, until she had decided to reveal to Reinhardt what had been going through her mind for so long. She was afraid she’d hurt Brigitte’s feelings, in the event that she’d stumble over this potential confession like the letdown she was and make it seem as though Brigitte was the problem. She didn’t want to reveal her feelings of inadequacy, but perhaps she should.

Hiding her feelings was one thing, but hiding them in order to protect her friend’s feelings was another. Was it right? Fareeha was mature enough to realize that keeping things to herself wasn’t healthy, especially if someone who cared about her wanted to understand the struggle she was going through. Maybe it was only a realization that dawned upon her with the information she had decided to share with Reinhardt that morning, but it was a piece of valuable wisdom anyhow, no matter how new it may be.

So she took a deep inhale, closed her eyes, and did the best she could to ease (the irregular thumping of her heart was what she translated go be as nervous palpitations; it happened sometimes) her closed, troubled heart.

“....I don’t like be-”

Heavy, violent coughing sounded from beside them, interrupting the thought Fareeha had finally gathered up enough courage to deliver.

The detective turned to the side in time to see the little girl that Brigitte had waved to earlier hacking in the most peculiar manner, and it appeared as though she had perhaps gotten a remnant of food lodged in her throat.

What caught her off guard and mandated her to discard this assumption was the blood that had found its way onto the girl’s shirt, and the liquid was now mingling with the soup before her and splattered morbidly across her tiny hands.

There shouldn’t be blood.

She rushed out of her seat, bumping the table in the process, and rushed over to the family’s side, Brigitte right behind her.

“Ava?! Honey, are you okay? Ava?!” the mother shrieked worriedly, her hand on the girl’s shoulder as the child tried to produce any kind of response she could, and ultimately failing in the process. The mother stood up from her seat brusquely alongside with the father, and the two looked around in hopes of possibly finding someone or something that could help their daughter.

“What’s happening to her??” Brigitte exclaimed, clearly panicking. Fareeha doubted she had seen this happen before, considering how relatively new she was in the field.

Strangely enough, Fareeha had never witnessed this scene either.

“I-I don’t know-” Fareeha croaked, the tone of her voice incredibly tense.

Without warning the girl fell out of her chair and onto the restaurant floor, alarming the family, as well as Brigitte and Fareeha, who were scrambling through all the police academy and field experiences in their brains to find any source of information that could help them at this precise moment.

“Can you help her?? She must have swallowed something!” the father pleaded, his eyes begging with Fareeha as he kneeled hastily onto the floor beside his spasming daughter. Fareeha quickly followed suit, carefully hauling the hacking girl up to rest her against her chest in fear of the child accidentally hurting herself upon any restaurant furniture.

A crowd had started to gather behind the family and the two police officers, creating unwanted pressure on the panicking detective who had seen nothing like this her entire life.

“I-I don’t think she’s choking on anything - there wouldn’t be any blood coming out of her mouth if she was!” Fareeha shook her head in response to the father, who nodded his head in understanding and fear. “Someone call the paramedics!” she ordered, and a young man bystanding, having long ago rushed over when the commotion started, darted off to tap the emergency code on his wrist tag and usher some form of emergency reinforcement.

Useless thoughts crashed haphazardly through Fareeha’s mind with no utter goal as she knew that she had no correct, singular idea that would possibly help prolong or save this young girl’s life.

Seconds that seemed like hours passed, and Fareeha had done enough studying of the girl to see that her breathing was becoming more sporadic, her eyelids were fluttering, and strange black lines as thin as the film of a spider’s web had begun etching their way across her temples. It was utterly horrific watching the child thrash and toss herself around, and Fareeha’s strong arms almost felt like letting go of the girl every second that passed, but she told herself that holding on would help. That careful, physical contact could maybe help this young individual she protected in her arms to feel like she had support, hope. That help was coming.

She was lying to herself, and she knew it.

“Ava!” the mother voiced again, her voice wrecked by heavy sobs.

Fareeha could swear her ears were playing tricks on her when she heard the iconic sound of a wailing paramedic alarm echo in the distance, because by now things didn’t seem real anymore. Her arms were covered in blood that was not her own, and the murmurs and shouts of the crowd that had gathered behind her, Brigitte, and the young girl’s family were deafening.

The girl opened her eyes one last time to meet Fareeha’s. They were a startling blue that seemed to pierce into her very soul, and then she heaved her final breath.

She was gone.

Fareeha backed away, loosening her arms as the girl’s own fell limp against her, and allowed her mother to pull the child into what would most likely be the last embrace she would ever give to her daughter.

Brigitte’s hand on her shoulder and concerned voice in her ear didn’t register. Fareeha simply raised up her hand, glimpsing the deep crimson that had stained her prosthetic. It haunted her, frightened her out of her mind that she had not been able to save that child. How on such a normal day she had found herself holding a dying girl in her arms.

This - this - was a fall.

And she would pick herself back up.



Chapter Text

She had tossed and turned pointlessly, violently , in her bed the night that the little girl had died in her arms. She didn’t know why. After all her years working with the police department (goodness, it had to be around almost ten already) she had seen countless deaths that fled her mind a day or so later. She had watched people slip out of the weak, unforgiving hands that life extended to every individual for who knew how short a time. And every single occurrence, each death she watched, had caused a brief stirring of sadness within her just prolonged enough for her to feel a drop of sympathy, yet wasn’t enough to keep her up at night.

So what was so different about this particular death? The thought almost drove her mad as she looked up frequently at the pitch black ceiling in front of her, allowing herself to be sucked into the daunting question her mind reflected on over and over again.

It was a process that kept her awake, frightening away any form of fatigue that dared to creep up on her. But then, as the sun had begun to rise and before Athena could alert her that it was time to wake up once again, something clicked.

It was so simple, and it angered her that she hadn’t realized sooner.

Fareeha had let her own perturbed thoughts of inadequacy keep her from doing what she was meant to do. She lifted her right arm and hovered it over her head. This. It was this stupid thing that she had let kick out her confidence’s legs from underneath, like a petty bully. And subsequently it was also this exact predicament that snuffed her desire to do her best in protecting not just the city, but those within it.

Until now.

She grunted and let her cybernetic hand lower down onto her face, massaging her tired eyes. I can’t do this anymore. Lives are at stake and I can’t just let them slip through my fingers when I have the ability to do something about it. It's - wrong. That little girl yesterday….Maybe I could have done something to help her, that is, if I was more interested in upholding my duty as a protector than wallowing in my own self-pity 24/7.

And then a more valiant idea, one derived from everything that had happened in the past day, along with the sudden revelation of her failure’s origin. I’ve got to figure out what’s the cause of this virus. I will put a stop to it, and all the deaths that follow.

Not bothering to look at the time or wait for Athena to greet her good morning, she hopped out of bed and trotted to the restroom down the hall.

She needed to get a move on if she wanted to save some lives.


 

With more pizazz than she had thought she could muster, Fareeha dropped a box of donuts on Brigitte’s desk, which was stationed conveniently right across from her own.

Giant, sparkling eyes looked up to her with an unmatched elation, and Fareeha swore that there was suddenly a halo of blinding sunshine radiating from behind Brigitte’s head with an incredible ferocity. All of a sudden she wasn’t sure if delivering a whole box of donuts to her partner was such a good idea, and was contemplating regret-

“Are these for me??” An eager Brigitte lifted the flimsy lid of the container as quickly as a child tearing open a present on Christmas morning, and Fareeha stood by watching the scene unfold before her with uncertainty.

Fareeha kept a straight look on her face, refusing to show too much emotion. She was afraid that if she did it would only encourage Brigitte to give her a giant bear hug and then shower her with ten million cheek kisses and unrivaled praises, those of which she did not want to be heard by the other police staff surrounding them. “Er, yes….Those are for you.”

“All of them??”

She gulped. It was too late to take the box back. “Uh, yes….”

“Oh Fareehaaaaaaa, thank youuuuuu!!!” And there they were, Brigitte’s big, burly arms snaked tight around her neck (they were wrapped around her neck because Brigitte did happen to be slightly taller than her friend), and Fareeha immediately regretted everything. There was no use in trying to pry the girl off; it was like attempting to peel a stubborn barnacle off of a rock. Nearly impossible unless you had the right tools, and Fareeha didn’t have a spare box of donuts ten feet away to play as a distraction at that moment.

Brigitte pulled away after a little while, allowing Fareeha to gasp for air. “What are they for though?” she asked with piqued interest, her brows furrowed.

Fareeha never did this kind of thing, and if she recalled correctly the only time she did was when it was Brigitte’s birthday. But even then it was only a bag of a dozen donut holes, not even the entire donut, to Brigitte’s dismay. She had accepted the gift with politeness even so; how in the world was she supposed to turn down any kind of free pastry?  

“And not to mention, but you’re here kind of early….I wasn’t expecting you to come in for another half hour or so. Also….I didn’t get the chance to greet you at the door today,” she whimpered sadly as Fareeha slipped out of her coat and fixed her with a deep brown stare that was somehow peculiar in the manner that Brigitte hadn't seen it before.

Fareeha pointed her index finger, holding it out in midair between the two of them. “The donuts are for feuling you. We’ve got a long day ahead of us. Which is why I showed up early.”

Brigitte’s mouth hung agape slightly as she nodded, not quite getting what Fareeha was saying. “Okay….?”

“Bring that box with you,” Fareeha called out, turning on her heels and gliding across the room to the entryway, Brigitte hasilty following behind with the donuts tucked neatly underneath her arm. “We’ve gotta talk to Rien.”

“Didn’t you just talk to him yesterday?” Brigitte mumbled, a donut already stuffed halfway into her mouth. It was almost hilarious how she could still form coherent words.

“I did, but I have to tell him something again. It’s different this time. And don’t worry, I promise it’ll be quick.” Fareeha pressed the glowing circle on the side of the elevator, and a few seconds later the doors pried open to grant the two their trip upwards.

Within a few minutes time Fareeha and Brigitte were outside of Reinhardt’s office, and the looming bulk belonging to the giant German was visibly present as a dark figure through the frosted glass lining.

“Reinhardt?” Fareeha’s tone was strong, purposeful. There was no wavering or questioning if what she was about to say was right or not, as she had felt yesterday morning. “Reinhardt, I need to speak with you.”

As usual, Reinhardt’s voice was boisterous and lively; it never ceased to amaze Fareeha at how excited the man always was at what seemed to be all hours of the day, even if it was 6:30 in the morning (which it was, as of now). She wouldn’t admit it, but it was part of the reason why she liked him so much. “Fareeha! Come in!”

“It’s good to see the two of you this morning,” Reinhardt beamed, instantly coercing Brigitte to plop down in the chair at the front of his desk and hold out her donut box to him generously.

“Hey Rein, want some?” Brigitte blurted through chipmunk cheeks before Fareeha reached out to toss a hand over the box’s lid and stop Brigitte from unsheathing the “fuel”. Once Rein (or Brigitte, for that matter) started eating, sometimes there was no stopping them.

“There’s something important I have to tell you.”

Rein waved a hand, inviting Fareeha to continue. “Yes, of course. What is it? Still thinking about what we talked about yesterday?” he questioned, a considerate lilt in his voice.

“I want you to give me the permission to ask personnel of my choosing to help with the cases I’m currently trying to solve,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“Permission to ask personnel of your choosing?” the elder man rephrased thoughtfully.

“Yes,” Fareeha nodded, confirming her claim. “I decided I’m going to do the best I can to solve the cases involving NNv from now on, and that means I want the best people I can find to help me.”

An amused glace from Reinhardt made her halt in her tracks, and she stiffened as a small smile took form on his lips. “....You are so driven now.” A pleased chuckle, and then something that appeared to be mentioned for his ears alone. “Maybe this old man does have a few words of wisdom left in him after all…?”

“So is that a yeah?” Brigitte pressured innocently, finishing off her second donut in what must have been five minutes (since Fareeha had arrived). Both Fareeha and Brigitte fixed Reinhardt with matching nervous, anxious glances, wondering if perhaps the man would be kind enough to entertain the idea and give Fareeha permisison to ask others to help with the case.

“Hm, I think so,” Reinhardt grinned. “You’re trying to make a difference and -” He raised his large hands in the air, as if tossing his worries to the wind. “I won’t ask why - but something in you has changed, and if I can help you remain the dedicated person you are here in my office now, then I’ll do whatever that may be. I just want to see the old Fareeha again. Driven. Passionate. Unconquerable.”

The detective before him remained silent. She was positive he knew of the death that had happened the previous day, since he was always on top of everything going on within the city (why else would he assign her to these cases?), and it was a no-brainer that NNv was the cause of it. It clicked afterwards, when Fareeha had come home and opened up the files she had downloaded to her wrist tag, eyes scanning and skimming with a deranged ferocity that could be rivaled only by perhaps a conspiracy theorist. Street creepers. Omnics. NNv. Physician notes that claimed it still remained a mystery as to how the virus was contracted. Irregular amounts of deaths, with the only thing set in stone being that the number seemed to grow over the past few weeks. These were the conclusions that she drew from the notes on the cases, and it didn’t help that before she had been reluctant in investigating too much and thus had been lax on visiting crime scenes.

That was all about to change.

“You have my permission, Fareeha.” Reinhardt reiterated assuringly. “Do what you need to do to solve these cases. I have faith in you.”

“Thank you, Reinhardt.” Fareeha turned on her heels, but not before snatching up the box of donuts out of Brigitte’s hands and hustling out of the office with a renewed purpose.

With an empty desk before her aside from Rein’s own coffee and picture frames that faced the chief, her donuts already out onto the office floor, Brigitte tossed Reinhardt an apologetic wave and skittered after her friend. “See ya, Rein!” were the words that floated behind her as she dashed away.

The man laughed to himself and shook his head. Fareeha was much like her mother sometimes.

A whisper filled the vacant air before him. “Good luck.”


 

“Explain to me why we’re doing this again?”

Fareeha stopped short on the sidewalk, the two directly outside the city’s main hospital. It loomed above them like a daunting figure, shades of deep grey and stretches of malicious silver glinting in the daylight. The sun was out, but the shadow that the gigantor of a building caused cast it's bulk of darkness almost everywhere that it could possibly stretch, giving the premises around a strange chill.

“Listen.” She extended a hand out sternly and fixed the ever-curious Brigitte with a rigid stare. The other girl unsurprisingly still had the box of donuts cradled in the nest that was her arms, and watched Fareeha expectantly. Holy fuck. This is going to be a long day. “Remember we were talking about the state of our police department on the way here, right?”

A nod from Brigitte.

“Well, the reports I’ve been looking at have literally nothing in the biological investigation department.” She took the opportunity to lift her wrist tag and tap out some instructions, which caused the various reports she had downloaded to float about in the air between the two. “Our physicians are shit. And I’m not lying. They literally don’t have a clue about what’s going on with the people who have been infected by NNv.”

“Okay…” Brigitte nodded slowly, eyes wide.

“So we are going to try and recruit a physician of our own.” Fareeha gave her wrist a flick and the projected cases vanished, having dissipated in the blink of an eye. “If possible,” she added, hoping she didn’t sound unsure of herself, which she truthfully felt like somewhat inside. Fareeha took a step back to raise her eyes, the expansion of her gaze grazing the very top of the hospital, which pushed crudely against the sky. It had to be at least a menacing forty or fifty stories high. “I think….that this might be a good place to start.”

There was a heavy clap on Fareeha’s back that made her stumble forward a few steps, and unexpected laughter rang out. “Haha, righto then! Sounds like a wonderful idea to me!”

Fareeha refrained from shooting a dangerous look Brigitte’s way, seeing as she had almost bumped into a small child scuttling by with their mother on their way towards the hospital. “Just - Just leave the talking to me, alright? I want you to see how we negotiate with the masses.”

“The masses?”

“Well, just any sort of people,” Fareeha replied in a hushed voice as the two stepped up to the sliding doors. They barrier opened rather quickly, which was preferable for the questionable quantity of people who came in and out of the hospital each day. Fareeha had spent some time here a few years ago, and could still remember the nose-tingling stench of the gauze and disinfectant that were used much too often on her wounds. She shuddered and turned her attention to the front desk, where a woman with tubular, cybernetic implants starting from the back of her head and coursing along the length of her arm fiddled with a protected array of patient holographic files.

The woman looked up as Fareeha and Brigitte approached, the usual practiced, fake smile one finds plastered upon the face of an emotionally dead person set rightfully upon her own. “Hello. How may I help you today?”

“Detective Fareeha Amari of the city police department, with probationary officer Brigitte Lindholm assisting. We’re looking to speak or get in contact with your best physician, if possible,” Fareeha demanded in the most polite way as was realistically feasible, fingers territorially clutched around her identification badge in presentation before the woman. “Who would that doctor be, if you don’t mind me asking?”

The woman pretended to think, flitting her digits around in front of the software and data only visible to her, a hum of contemplation filling the silence for a few moments. “That would be….” She bit on her nail hesitantly. “Doctor Angela Ziegler.”

“May we speak with her?” Fareeha immediately inquired, as she was eager to get a suitable start on the cases, beginning with the physical clues presented by the victims of NNv.

“She’s usually extremely busy, so she probably doesn’t have any time to see you.” The lady waggled her fingers again, only this time at Fareeha and Brigitte in a dismissive manner.

“But you don't understand, it’s very important-”

“What’s very important?”

Fareeha’s head snapped to attention at the foreign voice that made its way over the din of the front lobby, and caught sight of another woman who had just popped out of a door with a medical employee sign fixed to the front.

The stranger scribbled out something on the digipad settled comfortably in her arm before pulling it to her chest, then began closing the distance between herself and the three ladies at the front desk until she was standing triumphantly right in front of Fareeha. There was something dignified about her, and Fareeha couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. She was vigilant, that was for sure, seeing as how she’d caught wind that she was being sought after literally seconds following the two police’ arrival. Maybe it was the way her blue eyes twinkled playfully that made Fareeha’s brain struggle for any grasp at pre-recorded introduction conversation topics. Either way, whatever it was that made Fareeha stumble over her own tongue, it was inviting, at the same exact moment as it was intimidating.

She gave a soft smile and cocked her head to the side as she caught Fareeha’s dark brown eyes. “And what can I do for you today?”

It took Fareeha just a tad too long to answer, and her prolonged lack of anything resembling an English word only added to the length of Doctor Ziegler’s smile, which was now a rousing grin.

“I-I - we’re from the city police department,” stuttered an embarrassed detective, thumbing over her back at the monster of a girl with a jelly-filled donut brandished lazily in one of her large hands. “Considering our arrival at dead-ends on more than a few of the cases we’ve been trying to crack, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I asked if you could take a look at some of the victims. Maybe you could deduce a few things our own physician department couldn’t.”

Doctor Ziegler’s smile faltered for but a second as she glanced to the linoleum floor, and she tugged her bottom lip between her teeth in deep thought. A few utterances were passed under her breath, all of them too hushed for either Fareeha, Brigitte, or the woman at the front desk to hear. Then suddenly, “....I presume it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.” She nodded quickly at the woman behind the counter. “Let my colleagues know I’ll be gone for a few hours, I am going to take a somewhat early lunch.”

“But-”

A slender finger held in the air from Doctor Ziegler was enough to silence the persistent squandering of the desk attendant, and Fareeha’s eyes widened slightly in surprise at the physician’s disagreement of rebuttals unspoken. “I said I will be back in a few hours. It shouldn’t be too much of a bother; I will help with anything they might be behind on when I return.”

And that was that. The apparent end of the conversation.

“Follow me.” The same slender finger as before, once held out to refute the woman at the front, was now inviting Fareeha and Brigitte to tag along after the same blonde doctor it was attached to.

A few crumbs found a home on Fareeha’s dark blue coat shoulder, and a rough, half-whisper scattered them not a second after they had comfortably settled. “Do you think this is an abuse of power? Like, man - she’s ditching work just to come with us.”

“I’m not sure,” Fareeha whispered back, covertly guarding the admittance slipping out of her lips with her mechanical hand. “Maybe it is? It’s not like we’re forcing her to come along, so she’s doing it on her own will….But I think we should follow her? Maybe she’s gonna tell us something important.”

Brigitte nodded, dusting off the powder sugar from her fingertips with a quick plunge into her mouth. “Gotcha.”

Doctor Ziegler was waiting patiently by an elevator which delivered both patients and medical practitioners to and fro from various levels above them at one side of the foyer, and Fareeha and Brigitte hustled over to her without any more delay. She fixed the two with another gentle smile. “I will drop a few things off at my office, as well as bring a few things along, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me.” The elevator doors slid open with an augmented, robotic chime. “I need the best tools I can get my hands on to perform a proper autopsy.”

Makes sense , Fareeha thought, trying not to stand uncomfortably close to the woman as the doors began to shut when all of a sudden lighthearted elevator music, maracas and all, began pouring through the shiny walls encasing the three individuals. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me . Does she have to listen this crap everyday? It’d drive me crazy.

Bright white-blue lighting flashed against the floor every second or so, signaling that the trio was moving up through the building at a rapid pace. Fareeha’s worried gaze floated to the top of the elevator, where centerstage above the doors rested the indicator displaying which floor they were on and/or passing. The digital numbers grew higher every second, and when they passed the first set of double digits Fareeha’s brow knitted together in confusion.

“Um, what floor exactly is your office on...?”

Doctor Ziegler was back on her digipad, the pen in her hand twirling about wildly as she jotted down something; what it was, Fareeha had no idea. Through her peripheral vision she was able to piece together a diagram of some sort, with the doctor’s messy but undeniably (well, at least she figured) genius notes sprawled messily across the screen. A cheeky grin was visible on Doctor Ziegler’s face when she glanced up from her work. “The fortieth floor.”

“WHAT??” Brigitte balked, completely astonished. Fareeha had to hold herself back from tackling the larger girl to the floor in embarrassment. She instead could only settle, unfortunately, for elbowing her partner in the side and tossing a charismatic (but pained) smile back the doctor’s way.

“Er, haha wow! You’re certainly quite, uh - high up - aren’t you? Good thing you have elevators instead of stairs, hahaha!” she joked, hoping Brigitte’s yelp of surprise didn’t come across as disgusted or disappointed, rather than amazed.

“It’s - it is up high, I agree.” Doctor Ziegler tucked a rebellious strand of gold behind her ear, an almost indistinguishable look of sadness washing over her for a split second. It was so quick Fareeha almost missed it, and wondered if perhaps she really had been imagining things and really didn’t witness it in the first place. “Sometimes I wish I was down closer, to where everything is happening. Where the people are. I feel isolated, quite often.”

Fareeha frowned. Then she reached up to grab viciously at Brigitte’s collar and tug her down to her level, muttering harshly into her friend’s ear. “Way to go, you’ve made her sad.”

“No, what?? You’re the one who brought it up!” Brigitte stepped back, shaking her head and waving most likely her sixth donut, along with a finger, Fareeha’s way. “Don’t go blaming this on me,” she huffed, finding solace in a corner of the elevator.

And then there was laughter, brave, unabashed, and most of all sweet-sounding, bouncing off the walls and penetrating the insanity-inducing rhythm of the generic elevator music. Both Fareeha and Brigitte stared in shock, twin deers caught in the headlights of the faultless, pleasant noise derived purely from - what…? What exactly was it from?

“Oh my goodness….” Doctor Ziegler chuckled, finally turning her attention to the pair and swiping at the corner of her left eye. “You two are quite close, are you not? It’s simply adorable.” Her smile was new, and wider than Fareeha had seen it since their initial meeting. Somehow it suited her.

Fareeha didn’t know how to respond. “W-Well, I don’t know if you’d call it adorable. She’s a close family friend of mine, who became my coworker recently, I guess….”

A white-sleeved hand extended itself across Fareeha to find it’s destination somewhere on the other side of her. Doctor Ziegler left her hand to relax in the space in front of the pouting girl, the tempting promise of friendship made clear with her open palm. “What is your name, child?”

Brigitte slowly caught the doctor’s hand with her own as she mumbled out her response. “Brigitte. Brigitte Lindholm.”

The doctor was now in front of the two, Fareeha somewhat astounded as to how she missed the action of the other woman moving from her side to directly in front of her in what seemed like the snap of someone’s fingers, and when the doctor had made sure that she had repeated Brigitte’s name correctly, she turned to the detective.

Fareeha gulped. The elevator music did nothing to soothe the alien nervousness she felt hit her like a sack of bricks when the blonde turned her way.

The same hand that had once extended itself out to Brigitte amiably was now reaching out for Fareeha.

“And your name? I’m sorry I didn’t make the effort to ask sooner, but I assume now is as good a time as any.” The blue in her eyes was expansive, just like a rural summer sky, and left behind a thousand questions that Fareeha was desperate to have answered.

….Who are you?

“I’m Fareeha Amari. Police detective.” She fought back a wince when she realized that the hand she had extended was her prosthetic, having forgot to offer her real arm to meet the doctor’s own.

When the woman before her smiled, however, eagerly grasping the hand before her without hesitation, almost all of her trepidation dissolved within the blink of an eye. “A pleasure to meet you, Fareeha.” She then smiled crookedly, and the offsettedness of the curvature of her lips claimed a gentle mischief. “You don’t mind me calling you by your first name, do you? If you’d rather I not, please do tell me.”

Fareeha waved her free hand, seeing as how the doctor was barely letting go of her cybernetic one. “No, it's fine.” I mean - who knows. Maybe you’ll be working with us for a while on these cases, so why not just get rid of all the formalities and stuff now?….I mean, I wouldn’t mind if you came along for this adventure. I’m sure you’d be a big help.

Of course though the words flowing effortlessly through her mind stayed put, declining the opportunity to burst out into the open.

The doctor finally let go of Fareeha’s hand, at the exact moment that the elevator door let out another mechanized ‘ding!’ and slowed to a halt. It was the fortieth floor.

“And I’m Angela Ziegler. Feel free to just call me Angela though,” she proposed with a wink that made the back of Fareeha’s neck begin heating up, before the doctor turned on her heels and stepped out into the open hallway. “That goes for the both of you. I don’t want any formalities, alright?”

“Yes ma’am!” Brigitte chuckled with a little salute, tagging along out of the elevator and the presence of the horrendous music still playing in the background to catch up to the woman who was making her way down the hall.

Fareeha took a second to give herself a mental kick and force herself out of the elevator, just in time to see Angela come to a stop before a very complex security system (not entirely unlike a few at their own police department) propped up on the wall by a doorway which she presumed was the entrance to the woman’s office.

A dual-memory security system , Fareeha thought to herself as she watched Angela scan her hand and then her retina afterwards. It was by far a more secure system, that much was for sure, and came in very handy in places such as a medical centers, social service departments, and other services that dealt with people’s security and wellbeing.

When the door had finally removed itself to allow entry, Angela stepped inside and gestured over to a holodesk in the back, set up aesthetically in front of windows which functioned as walls and also presented a breathtaking view of the city below.

Fareeha almost bumped into a small desk on the inside of the doorway as she entered, seeing as her gaze so transfixed on the new surroundings which were otherwise known as Angela Ziegler’s office. “Shit,” she cursed, catching the side of the table and adjusting it so that the lamp on it didn’t fall.

“Feel free to take a seat at the chairs at my desk; I’m afraid they’re the only ones I have presentable to guests,” Angela called out from somewhere in her office; where it was, Fareeha nor Brigitte had a clue. A few other small rooms were separated from the main by doors, and it appeared that perhaps the doctor had disappeared behind one of those. “I’ll be back in a moment, please allow me to grab a few things!”
Fareeha tried not to trip over her feet again, urging herself to be more cautious as she weaved between small desks and counters, various sketches, diagrams, and photographs of both cybernetic and physical body parts littering every free surface. She somehow managed to find her way safely to the other side of the office, where Angela had suggested she and Brigitte wait for her. Brigitte was already there, standing with arms crossed over her chest and a half-empty donut box tucked safely underneath, gaze raking over the cityscape in admiration.

Fareeha, on the other hand, had refrained from being drawn to the mesmerizing buildings that loomed outside. Instead something else called her over as she had taken a seat at the jet-black leather cushions situated in front of the holodesk, and that was specifically a single, lonely picture frame.

Just one thing. Nothing else.

She glanced around, hopefully inconspicuously, to see if Angela was due back any time soon, and when she had convinced herself that the doctor was still gone, she leaned over from her spot on the seat to take a peek.

It was Angela, albeit a younger version of the woman, maybe around five or six years of age and bundled up tightly in a poofy windbreaker which made her look more like a marshmallow than anything else. A blonde woman had an arm wrapped around the little girl, and a man with light brown hair framing the top of his thick glasses had pulled the two others in close to take a picture, his free arm extended high above the trio. They looked as though they were on either the outskirts of town or another rural area, as pine trees topped with brilliant white caps of snow paraded the scenery behind them. Wherever they were, it was somewhere far away.

Cute , Fareeha smiled softly, allowing her eyes to roam freely over the only decoration on the desk. I wonder if those are her parents.

“Ah, alright! I’m ready to go.”

Fareeha fell back into the chair with less grace than she had hoped and did her best to seem like she had simply been admiring the view with Brigitte for the past couple of minutes. She coughed, lifting herself up out of the cozy depths of the armchair to stick her hands back into her pockets as she backed away from the desk, and thus, the photograph as well. “Great,” she replied.

Angela was standing over by the door once again, the previous white lab coat of before swapped out for a thick, creamy petticoat, which matched well with the dark brown pants she had been wearing. She had a small dufflebag of some sort slung over her shoulder, where Fareeha guessed she was storing her supplies to perform tests and such on the bodies they were hoping to inspect. “Ready to go?” she implored, fingers weaved tightly around the black handle of her bag.

“Yeah, we’re ready,” Fareeha answered for Brigitte, who was nonchalantly waltzing her way back and trying to mosey her way on through the rest of the office until her friend had grabbed her by the arm and forcefully dragged her back to the front door.

Fareeha’s eyes skipped over to the picture frame on Angela’s desk one more time.

“Perfect. Let’s be on our way then, shall we?” With a flick of Angela’s hand the door slid shut behind them, dowsing it’s interior with nothing but empty darkness.

“Where do we start off?” Angela asked once the three of them were out of the building.

“Our department laboratory,” Fareeha quipped, focused on leading the doctor back to the police department without delay. She remembered that the woman had declared she’d be back in a few hours, and she didn’t want to waste any time.

Lives were also on the line.

Looking over her shoulder she caught sight of Brigitte and Angela following closely behind. “We have a victim there that died yesterday; hopefully you’ll be able to examine her and make some deductions about the NNv that our city is currently experiencing. Then perhaps after that if we have enough time, the crime scene.”
Angela only hummed out an affirmative, until Brigitte asked her a question and the two fell into some sort of hushed conversation, awestruck oohs and more hums, this time inquisitive, coming from Angela every so often.

It didn’t last for too long though, because within ten minutes the three were crossing the police department parking lot that separated the large building from the rest of the uncontrolled, metropolitan society. Fareeha was thankful for how close in distance the two buildings were when she recalled her concern with time.

“Here we are,” Fareeha declared as the three of them entered the lobby, and something inside her chest kicked proudly when the doctor behind her gave a little gasp of amazement.

“Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Brigitte grinned as she sided up next to Fareeha in what appeared to be a skipping sort of travel mode. Whatever it was, it made Fareeha squint her eyes at the tap-dancing feet and keep her sight fixed on the hallway ahead that housed the laboratory.

“Will I be allowed in?” Angela asked timidly, slowing down for a pair of police officers dragging by a wriggling street creeper most likely jacked up on something both illegal and unhealthy.

“You should, you’re with us. Don’t worry about it.” The dual-memory system guarding the lab was unlocked promptly by Fareeha, who then ushered the doctor and Brigitte in. Both Fareeha and Brigitte had been to the laboratory section of the police department a number of times, but due to their position as staff not specializing in science, their exposure there was limited. Despite that, it was common sense for one to recognize where the morgue (a smaller area of the lab) was located, and it was exactly there that Fareeha was leading the two behind her.

A few department physicians and coroners, more accurately (and collectively) a variety of scientists who worked specifically for the department, watched with wary eyes as Fareeha guided Angela through. None decided to question the situation though. Fareeha was thankful for that.

Finally they arrived in the smaller room, and Fareeha motioned with a short nod of her head for Brigitte to close the door behind them. The tall girl did so without a word and glided back over to Fareeha and Angela, who were standing directly in front of the wall composed of shiny metal drawers, letting out a small gasp of wonder.

“Are all these drawers filled?” Angela wandered over to one of them and squinted at the barcode flashing on the front of it, an unrecognized lastname glowing beneath.

“No, just some of them,” Fareeha answered as she knelt near one of the drawers on the right hand side of the room. Lifting her left arm slightly she swiped at her wrist tag, and up popped the case from the previous night, a picture of Ava and a barcode beneath her profile tucked neatly into the left corner of the digital file. This is the one we need. Once the digital barcode from her tag had been singled out and expanded to a size similar to the one that decorated the silver drawer in front of her, one swipe of her finger stirred a chirping noise and the box popped open with a small hiss.

“Whoahhhh, this is like something from an alien movie!!” Brigitte squealed excitedly as she watched with more enthusiasm than Fareeha thought was possible for something so unusually morbid.

“Shhh!” Fareeha fixed her with the most judgmental look she could muster, which truthfully was something to indeed be scared of. Brigitte didn’t see the face often (thankfully), but if she did, it meant certain death. Or at least that’s what it translated to in the younger girl’s hyperactive mind.

“Ah, sorry!” Brigitte voice lowered to an apologetic whisper, and she clasped a hand over her mouth as Fareeha returned her attention back to the drawer.

Alrighty…. Giving the drawer one last tug, the body of the unfortunate Ava came into full view, encased in a clear bag. Fareeha didn’t want to look at the pale little girl who had dried blood stuck to the area around her mouth, the front of her shirt, and the palms of her hands. It made her sick.

Nonetheless this was a job she had to do if she wanted to get somewhere with her investigation, and reluctantly reached down to grab at the small girl’s shoulders, hefting her up until she was cradled in her arms in just the same manner as she was the day before. Fareeha deposited her carefully on a stainless steel work table, the cold radiating from Ava’s lifeless body still glued to her skin like an extra layer of clothing. She couldn’t help a shiver from traveling down her spine, but remained discreet in hiding her unwarranted repulsion.

The whisper slid out from between her lips lightly, just loud enough to be heard amidst the eternal hum of the generator providing the power for the cryostatic morgue chambers. “Here she is.” Ava.

Angela removed her coat to drape it over the side of a lonesome swivel chair, and began pushing up the long sleeves of her shirt. “Wonderful. I’ll begin right away.” The doctor skillfully untied the top of the frosted bag with deft fingers, prying it down by wiggling it side to side until it reached the bottom half of the girl it encased. Fareeha felt as if she should have helped, but couldn’t bring herself to do so for God knows what reason. It irked her to a disappointing degree.

The three women hovered over the table studiously, an extremely bright overhead light beaming down with ferocious intent that exposed every minute detail of the girl that lay before them. It was almost cruel.

Angela now had on a pair of thin, skin-tight gloves that allowed her hands and the numerous extensions that were her fingers to move about with dextrous precision, and plucking some kind of handheld device with a small screen from the duffle she had placed on a chair, began scanning the body. “Just doing a quick endo-epidermal scan to start off. I want to know if this virus has left any traces of decay; judging by the strange markings on the sides of her face I would say it has, but it’s always good to double check.”

Fareeha nodded, her eyes fixed on Angela’s purposeful probing with a silent fascination which she was hoping wasn’t too notable. It was almost mind-boggling, how when the doctor swiped purposefully at the screen, tapped out jargoned instructions on the contraption, and uttered a few indistinguishable words, that Fareeha was still so engaged by a world she knew nothing of.

Perhaps the same thing could have been said about Brigitte, who was absentmindedly chewing on another donut as she similarly watched Angela with a heightened attentiveness, and was unknowingly spilling crumbs onto the examination table.

The persistent munching attracted Fareeha’s attention and the woman frowned, squinting at her work partner. “Do you mind?” she asked disbelievingly, all joking aside as she was somewhat perturbed by Brigitte’s ability to consume sweets in such close proximity to someone who was deceased.

Brigitte blinked a couple of times, falling out of her stupor. “Oh shit, sorry,” she half-laughed. “I just eat when I’m nervous - lemme finish this outside.”

“That would be thoughtful, thank you Brigitte,” Angela laughed softly, amused by the girl’s strange ravenous appetite and its untimely emergence. It was simply an innocent mistake, and she glanced briefly Fareeha’s way to see the darker woman’s face fixed with such an incredible seriousness that it made her slightly more uncomfortable than Brigitte’s donut eating.

When she heard the sound of the door closing and realized Brigitte was no longer present, she inhaled deeply and cracked a weak grin, one that was birthed by a cautious desire to know more. And there were many things she wanted to know more about.....More about why she was here, for example. More about who this little girl was. Or exactly how serious was this virus that she had so recently learned about and why she hadn't seen a case of it sooner? And then who was this woman standing before her so regal and so somber at the same time, and why did she look so crestfallen?

“Who is she to you?” The question was sincere, and she steeled her nerves just long enough to look up once more at Fareeha, searching the latter’s countenance for some sort of answer.

Fareeha’s eyes were still, fixed diligently upon the girl on the table whom Angela had begun to study more closely with a different function of her tool, switching the former setting to x-ray to get a more descriptive reading of what had occurred below the surface. “.....She’s just someone I could have saved, is all.”

Angela nodded. “I see.” A beat. She realized Fareeha was still undoubtedly quiet, and something stirred within her to try and see through this other woman’s eyes - to realize how things were within her dimension.

“Do you wish to know more about me?” Angela threw the question out into the vacant air, the atmosphere thick with unintended tension perhaps only palpable to the doctor alone, in hopes that Fareeha would open up more. She followed the question with a nervous laugh. “We did meet after all in a somewhat hasty fashion, as I understand that this case - or these cases - concerning this bizarre virus are important to you.”

Fareeha crossed her arms over her chest. She remembered the picture of Angela that she laid eyes on while waiting for the doctor in her office and its idyllic contents: a perfect family of three embracing one another amidst the glistening white snow that blanketed the scenery around them. Something pulled inside her chest but she fought against the feeling that made her stomach churn uncomfortably when she tried pulling up a family picture to compare with Angela’s own and came up empty. “....While we were in your office I saw a picture on your desk. Was that your family…?”

“Ah,” Angela smiled sadly as she continued her work. “Yes, that was my family. My parents and I. I was around five at the time of that picture, and we had decided to go on a little trip to our vacation home in the mountains for a weekend. The three of us were quite close.”

Fareeha looked up for the first time in a while. “Were...?” Maybe she’s alone too.

Angela nodded. “....They passed away not long after that picture was taken. Perhaps a year or so later. As you probably could tell by the background of the photo that we were someplace far from this area - I grew up in Switzerland during the early years of my childhood. It gets quite cold there during the winters, and I remember one week before Christmas they had just attended a medical seminar somewhere far and were driving back home when their car was rammed into by another larger one.”

By now Fareeha was completely disheartened, previous cares and worries completely forgotten and pushed aside to make room for the guilty sympathy she felt upon hearing Angela’s story. And there you go blaming Brigitte for making the doc sad….look what you’re doing to her right now. This lady’s got it as bad as I do - maybe even worse.

“The driver of the other car wasn’t hurt badly. All I know was that he was put in jail for some time. He was under the influence of a narcotic at the time of the accident….and was released not too long after….” Angela caught Fareeha’s gaze and held it for a short moment, her blue eyes shiny with unshed tears which she refused to let free. Now as not the time. “I’ve….been on my own ever since.”

The detective stumbled once again over her own tongue for words of comfort, phrases of support - anything that would help the woman standing before her feel an ounce less desolate. “I - I lost my parents as well. I never really knew my father, and my mother was only ever the singular parent in my life. She died when I was twelve,” Fareeha uttered softly.

Maybe it had been the right thing to say, because Angela shot her a compassionate yet still somewhat downcast smile. “We parentless adults must stick together, don’t you agree?”

She earned a similar smile from Fareeha. “Yes, we should.”

And with that, things were silent again except for the metronome-like ticking which resonated from Angela’s screened device. As her eyes skimmed rapidly over the touch screen she registered the images and colors flooding onto it with precautionary alarm. It was incredible how much red was blaring aggressively at her, and the rate of the ticking began to pick up as she suspended the device over Ava’s chest, capturing the full proportion of her upper torso. Crimson (no, it was not just the dried blood) darted around as if it was a collection of a million bloodred fireflies performing a slow, drunken dance, and Angela inhaled sharply.

“What is it?” Fareeha asked.

“There’s….Much decay. Organ failure caused by decay, specifically. It’s what all this red is saying. The brain, heart, lungs, stomach - it’s all been affected. Every part consisting of her nervous system.” Angela held up the device, turning it Fareeha’s way so that the detective could see as well. “Have you not been aware of this in these NNv victims?”

Fareeha reached up her prosthetic arm to rub at the side of her other in a sheepish manner. “We were aware of the organ failure and erosion, that much was deductable from the deaths and bodies. But we don’t know why it’s happening. That’s the only problem.” Brown eyes met blue ones. “It’s why I brought you here.”

Angela sighed, running a hand through her thick blonde hair as she leant against the edge of the steel table in thought, having set aside her medical scanner for the time being. “Organs don’t just eat up themselves. And even if they did, it would only make sense for it to happen to a single person, not a handful, considering it’s a rare occurrence. The numbers of those afflicted with this virus are growing, I take it?”
“Yes, unfortunately.”

“Then there’s only one logical explanation for this.”

Fareeha waited with bated breath for Angela’s diagnosis, one she assumed would turn the tables in their favor. She couldn't help but wonder, in such a small, miniscule but immensely significant moment, that Doctor Angela Ziegler was truly astonishing for figuring out in less than an hour what the police department physicians couldn’t figure out for the past number of weeks.

“The virus was caused by nanites.”

A few seconds passed before the other woman was able to form her reply. “....How do you know?”
Angela look away, curiously enough, as if she was unable to meet the detective’s curious stare. Perhaps it was because it held too much emotion. Too much innocent passion filled Fareeha’s eyes, along with a desire to understand, and letting someone know every meticulous detail of what would be the proper, deserved answer was something that Angela was not prepared for.

“I - I’ve been in the medical field for quite some time, and specifically have worked more than a few instances with nanites and the sorts. I understand they’re still an up-and-coming technology in the medical field which remains on shaky ground as of now, but if anyone knows about nanites and their purposes, it’s me.”

“So are you saying the nanites are the ones that damaged her nervous system, ultimately killing her?” Fareeha’s voice was low and frighteningly sullen.

“That is exactly what I’m saying.” Angela gently scooped up the screened device that rested on the table and swiped horizontally, immediately changing the type of vision choice one desired to see of their studied organism or patient. “Here,” she motioned for Fareeha to come to her side of the table, and after the detective had obeyed she pointed to the screen again.

Instead of red this time, the color had now changed to a dark blue that lined the sides of particular organs. “The blue represents the remains of the parasitic nanites. Judging by the looks of it, since they have all settled naturally at the bottom of the remains of her organs, these should be the fractured skeletons of the tiny machines after their host had perished. They must have self-destructed or shut down after her death, and that’s what caused them to gather around the remaining lining of her organs,” Angela disputed with an admirable ease that made Fareeha almost compliment her (why on Earth was she thinking about doing that now? There was no time for that….) genius, but the taller woman withheld, rather nodding almost mechanically as she juggled the new information within her mind.

“That would make sense. But we still need to figure out what is causing this virus - what the origin of these destructive nanites is,” Fareeha muttered, deep in abyssal thought.

“Yes,” Angela nodded promptly in agreement, her heart aflutter with a concoction of both excitement and fear at the next sentence being put together automatically in her head.

“So….I know I’m supposed to be the detective and all that, but….” Fareeha laughed. It was a short bark of embarrassment, but one that made Angela feel less worried with what she was about to say next.

So we’re both afraid. It’s why we have to stick together, don’t we?

“What do you suggest is the best thing to do next?”

Angela gave her a smile that Fareeha had seen before, one she recalled quite clearly, as a matter of fact. It was the same one that the woman had so generously given her when the two, along with Brigitte, had entered the elevator and the doctor had taken the opportunity to properly introduce herself after their initial brief encounter at the front desk of the lobby.

To Fareeha, it was the embodiment of a laugh in the face of death. Of doom. Or destruction. Any and all of it. Brave, perhaps slightly foolish, but strangely debonair all the same.

“Simple, Fareeha my dear. We pay the street creepers a visit.”



Chapter Text

Fareeha and Brigitte watched with piqued interest as Doctor Angela Ziegler paced back and forth outside of the police station, the blonde forcing a powerful argument onto someone whom they assumed was one of her coworkers. It was evidently one-sided in the doctor’s favor by the way she interjected often and spoke with such an authoritative tone that the two other women could do nothing else but admire her from a safe distance on their communal bench.

“Well!” Angela exhaled with satisfaction, swiping at her wrist tag to cancel the call she had just finished. One corner of her mouth tugged higher than the other, creating a lopsided grin that begged for Fareeha’s attention.

The detective refrained from saying anything and instead rose from the bench, hands deep in the pockets of her coat to guard them from the chilly air that attempted to attack any exposed skin. The rain delivered the day before had shrouded the city in a thin layer of moisture, and it was just their luck that a fog had begun settling in like a blanket of thick gloom, subtly being lowered down farther and farther until one realized it was suddenly right overhead. I hope this weather doesn’t prove to be anything of a hinderance today. It wasn’t like this earlier this morning, she thought, gazing up to the cloudy sky for a moment.

Angela moved forward and hugged herself tightly, eyes and nose scrunching up as she laughed. “Goodness, isn’t it cold!” Upon opening her eyes they twinkled playfully in delight, and Fareeha began to mentally set in stone that perhaps what she saw was a perpetual characteristic of the doctor, maybe one she realized she actually didn’t mind seeing as much as she initially thought. “I’m sure you’re wondering what the verdict is -” Angela tightened her fingers around her duffle’s strap. “Looks like I’m all yours for the day. This is a very dire situation, and I know you two need my help in order to succeed….It’s also my duty to aid the ones who can’t help themselves, so I believe it's in the city’s best interest if I tag along for the remainder of the day.”

“That’s awesome!” Brigitte cheered as she haphazardly tossed a fistpump into the air. “We could really use your help!”

“It would seem that way,” Angela nodded and giggled, turning her attention to the ever-silent Fareeha, who only offered her (from what she interpreted as) a nervous smile. To Angela, Fareeha was still somewhat of a closed book in many aspects, but there were parts of the tall, dark detective that she seemed to identify with ease. One was apparent nervousness around the doctor, and another was the somewhat forced interactions, to be specific. She wasn’t sure why that was so - perhaps it was just the way this woman behaved upon meeting new people? - but whatever the reason, she was determined to figure it out and make amends.

“We’d better get going,” Fareeha muttered as she nodded her head in the direction of the street and continual flow of foot traffic. “It’s better to do this during the day, and we don’t want to be around the slums when it gets late anyways.”

Angela felt a pang of disappointment sink into her gut as Fareeha began walking away, and she jumped in panic realizing that their departure was now. Quickly pulling her petticoat tighter around her, she stiffened the collar up near her neck before chasing after Fareeha.

Brigitte was already beside the other woman, clearly used to her long, purposeful strides, and seeing how the younger girl was even taller in height than her friend, she had the same (or even better) means of travel. “So do you have a specific area in mind that we’d be heading to, Fareeha?” Brigitte asked, and Angela couldn’t help but be slightly envious when the detective lifted her wrist to pull out her tag’s screen, showing off an aerial view of the city with dots scattered around various locations. Without expressing any deep thought, Fareeha motioned for Brigitte to get closer so that she could get a better look at the diagram.

The doctor scuttled up to Fareeha’s vacant side, narrowly dodging a bulky cart piled high with meat buns. She shot out a sincere apology when she almost similarly bumped into its owner, a bit nervous but otherwise ecstatic to have finally caught up with the two.  

“There’s an area a mile or so away that I found has been a top area for NNv deaths. A lot of the places around here not in that exact slum have had cases to do with the virus as well, such as the restaurant we visited the other day….” Fareeha paused, and whether she did it because she was uncomfortable with rendering the image in her mind of the death she was present for so recently, or because she had switched trains of thought, Angela didn’t know. It took a few seconds for the detective to speak up again, and when she did she had zoomed in on a particular area of the city, presumably the one that she had forementioned was close by. “This is the A9 sector, and we’ll be heading there.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Angela smiled, this time mentally praising herself when Fareeha finally met her eyes with preoccupied brown ones as she swiped at her screen, the diagram hovering about in the air disappearing finally. “I’m quite excited to be with the both of you on this adventure.”

Fareeha hated the way her pulse quickened at the doctor’s words, but she managed to give her a polite reply that didn’t betray her by going along with her nonuniform behavior. “And we appreciate you taking the time to help us out Doc-” she cringed, “Um, I mean - Angela.”

“My pleasure.”

It didn’t take long for the three of them to near their destination, and as they did, naturally the surroundings revolving around them began to change with a steady progression. The narrow streets, clouded in both the fall mist and steam pouring out of pipes vents that decorated the dirty ground beneath them, were noticeably filled with more street creepers, which told Fareeha that they were getting close. Neon signs, usually blinking wantonly against the sky darkened to attract visitors, sparked on and off, and graffiti issued by both digital and physical spray paint beckoned their attention. Raunchy clubs and hotels were extremely common, and lined the streets as frequently as if they were mere lampposts.

When Fareeha noticed the street make a sharp left and taper into a narrow alleyway constructed of scrap metal and sheltering a colony of various dumpsters and forgotten trash, she knew that they had arrived. This was the magical portal that led to the A9 sector.

Fareeha dipped her prosthetic inside of her coat and down the side of her thigh, where she had taken the liberty of attaching a small, stealthy-looking holster with a handgun tucked neatly between the leather. She couldn’t feel the the gun with her hand, but knew with absolute certainty that she had checked the magazine to make sure it was full before shoving it back into the bottom and strapping it into the holster before they left the department. Never in a million years would she forget to bring one on such a case as this, and especially now that she knew they were entering street creeper territory it was best to be on guard lest something disastrous happened to any of them.

“This way.” Fareeha cocked her head to the left, having retracted her hand decidedly from the inside of her coat to make the three of them less conspicuous. It was a bit strange after all, to see three women of relatively well-off middle class backgrounds sauntering down a rusted, patchwork alleyway to the deviant-filled, gangster-ridden (probably also disease-ridden too) A9 sector….

“A-Alright….” Angela exhaled deeply, and forced a strained thumping of her heart to cease its hilariously bad timing. Just….Just pretend like you’ve got this. Be confident. No one is going to know anything, so stop worrying. Another deep, purposeful exhale and she had regained her nerves. Placating such anxiety with a self-assured grin, although it was one she wasn’t completely feeling but knew she needed to flaunt in order to keep her mind within the illusion of assertiveness, Angela was back. Or so she appeared to be.

Upon entering the alley put together in a makeshift manner that was hard to find appealing but easy to find astounding, the trio passed people coming and going of all kinds. Lowlifes were extremely common in this area, and although it wasn’t unusual to see them in the uptown premises strolling down the streets, starting riots or protests, or simply getting into trouble. They found comfort in specific areas where they were able to call home for the time being, and those areas soon evolved into sectors; it was here that any and all previously mentioned activities were upscaled.

There were a few times when Angela would get pushed around by a larger individual who was coming the opposite direction. Fareeha no problem leading the crew, and Brigitte was good at looking intimidating, so no one dared to bump into the tall girl fortunately. After the third time someone had hastily knocked her back a foot, the doctor found herself grabbed by the arm in a manner both simultaneously rough and gentle (was that even possible?), and pulled in a bit closer to the strange woman with the tattoo under her eye.

Her voice was deep, but flowed to her in a subtle whisper that left Angela unsure of what to do next except exactly what the detective asked of her. “Stay close to me.”

Angela nodded speechlessly, and with her arms clutched in a nervous manner around Fareeha’s bicep they found themselves out of the alley leading to the sector within a few moments. She almost didn’t want to let go, but thought it awkward she even fancy the thought of remaining attached to Fareena’s side if there was no apparent reason to do so.

“Heh….” Brigitte chuckled and tossed her hair ostentatiously before striking a silly but heroic pose, with hands on hips in a Superman-like manner. “Now that was a piece of cake!”

Fareeha waved a hand at her. “Brigitte….” she sighed, “We haven’t seen anything yet. That alley we passed through was just like the first street in entering a neighborhood. There’s much more ahead.”

“Ah….” Brigitte’s superhero pose faltered. “So, er, where do we go now?”

Fareeha frowned and pulled up her wrist tag again, the three having settled to the side of the walkway near a heap of discarded omnic parts. “Well, I haven’t been to this sector before, so all we can do is look at the map and see where the last case caused by NNv happened around here. Then we go there.” She traced a finger into the air, outlining the projected path floating before them to give an idea of how their journey was going to go. “I think if we headed around a few more corners then there’s a cluster of street creeper homes right about here, and that’s where a few deaths took place. That might be a good place to start.”

“Awesome possu-”

“Move it or lose it!” Someone called out as a small, blurred figure pushed past the three, briefly bumping into Brigitte and sending the taller girl’s box of donuts (she had brought them along, yes) scattering onto the damp, puddle-riddled ground.

“What the fu-” Brigitte began, about to unleash a series of rarely witnessed, rarely heard cuss words (quite the scene, coming from her) when the perpetrator turned around for a second to give her an apologetic wave.

It was a girl - petite, sporting short brown hair that stuck up at odd angles, and donning strange pink tattoos which glowed brightly and crawled up the sides of her pale face curiously.

She was also apparently enough to cease Brigitte’s attempt at throwing a tantrum, because the tall girl was now frozen and babbling noncoherent words of almost-comebacks, her remaining donuts long forgotten.

“Sorry about that!” the peculiar girl shouted as she picked up speed. She was almost halfway down to the next turn at the end of the alley when all of a sudden Brigitte was pushed again brashly to the side by a second someone, and twisted her body in a ridiculous fashion so as to not land in the pile of rusted omnic parts. Unfortunately she didn’t succeed, and face-planted into a mishmash of robotic arms and legs, her own arms waggling about desperately for any sort of support to pull herself out until Fareeha quickly came to her aid.

Grabbing the back of Brigitte’s coat with her cybernetic arm Fareeha gave a strong tug, and miraculously lifted the other girl to her feet in an instant. She would have been somewhat proud of herself if not for the fact that Brigitte was already dashing off down the alley, chasing after the mystery girl who had sent her gifted pastries to their watery grave.

Oh shit. “Brigitte, wait!” Fareeha took a step forward, almost succumbing to the desire to chase after her subordinate, until she remembered that she had someone with her whom she needed to protect. Dammit, how am I supposed to keep you safe Brigitte if you keep on getting into trouble? A small sigh escaped her. This wasn’t anything new.

“Try to keep up, alright?” Fareeha skipped forward a few feet in gesture that she was about to go after her partner, and Angela nodded once more, slipping the handle of her duffle over her head and under her arm so that it wouldn’t get lost.

Within the next second Fareeha was off on Brigitte’s tail, and Angela was following close behind. The doctor did her absolute best to keep the detective within her line of sight; it was a tremendous struggle, to be honest. As the other woman weaved her way through the slow trickle of street creepers who were traversing the same path, Angela tramped (she knew she probably looked ridiculous) by with her penny loafers and secretly praised whatever deity had given her the idea to skip wearing high heels today. She pumped her arms aggressively, willing her legs to move faster in fear that if she lost sight of Fareeha she’d most likely not make it back home in one piece.

When Fareeha turned a second corner so did she, and after briefly just doing so she was alarmed to find herself plowed into the other woman’s back rather forcefully, not having had enough time to prepare herself to stop. “Ooof-!”

“Leave me alone already!”

Angela raised herself an inch or two higher, just enough for her to peer over Fareeha’s shoulder and catch glimpse of the girl who had run into Brigitte earlier backed up against a fence at the end of the alley. It appeared as though she had attempted to crawl over the cluttered collection of everything ranging from old refrigerators to cardboard boxes, and ultimately failed, seeing as how she was still attempting every few seconds to scramble upwards on the trash, only to slide back down unsuccessful.

A scruffy man in ripped pants and a jet-black trenchcoat, along with a brazen mohawk which zigzagged down the middle of his head, was encroaching on the girl slowly. He had a throaty, pleased chuckle as he eyed her in the way a wolf would eye its prey, clearly filled with the excitement of getting something he was after. Whatever it was, the three women who had voluntarily tagged along were about to find out.

The man reached nonchalantly into his coat and pulled out a baton, one a bit smaller than the average baseball bat, and plopped it down into his palm once before it burst into crackling white-blue electricity that illuminated his wicked smile. Along with the devilish grin and highlighted by the chaotic flashing ignited by his weapon was a deep blue skull design that had suddenly decided to appear menacingly upon his rugged features. “So where’s the cash I lent you, Hana?”

Fareeha glanced rapidly toward the girl who she figured was Hana, dread building in her gut. She hardly registered the timid fingers which clutched at the back of her coat in fright as she turned to Brigitte and nodded slowly, their eyes meeting for just enough time to send the same message to each other.

We need to help her.

“I told you, jackass! I don’t have the money yet!” The girl had given up on trying to climb the mountain of trash, feeling it her only possible chance of survival if she was able to come to some sort of compromise with her offender. Her eyes darted back and forth in terror, searching for a way out of a situation with no apparent escape route.

Fareeha began moving forward quietly, as to not let the man know that she was there. To be truthful it would be somewhat funny if he didn’t realize - Brigitte had been chasing him down before even she could even think about it….Which was part of the problem to some degree; sometimes she just acted without thinking. Considering that, it was one of two picks: either the skull-painted man was incredibly stupid, or he didn’t care enough to give two shits about the women who had followed behind him.

Even if it was just that he simply didn’t care, he was about to be proved incredibly stupid as well for deciding not to pay attention to the two experienced police who were slowly coming up behind him, one on each side.

“Stand down.” Fareeha had her gun pulled out, aim taut on the man’s broad back.

“Or what?” he drawled, turning around to face Fareeha with a disappointed scowl.

Brigitte was slowly creeping up the left to put herself between the man and the girl named Hana, escaping his view with careful precision as she found security within the shadows cast along the side of the alley.

“Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest. Maybe your head if you try anything sketchy.”

The man twirled the baton in his hand with ease before pointing it in the direction of the girl with the strange facial markings trembling behind him. “This little bitch owes me some money, and that’s something between her and me. So why don’t you just scram before I beat the shit outta you and your pretty little blonde friend?” He laughed, and the sound sent a chill down Angela’s spine.

Stay calm stay calm stay calm Angela.

“That’s not going to happen, so drop your weapon and leave the girl alone.” Fareeha took a step closer, and the man laughed once more before cracking his neck and lunging towards her. The electric baton was held high over to the side of his head, and as he brought the weapon down Fareeha wrapped her arm around Angela’s shoulder and pulled her out of harm’s way just in time.

The two stumbled off to the side, and she kept the doctor a close distance to her considering the other woman was rendered defenseless. With both hands curled tightly around the grip she held out her gun defensively, its barrel aimed straight at his backside again as he regained his balance and whirled his head back in their direction, clearly not pleased.

“You fuckin’ cunt -”

He hurled himself at the two again, and a second before he was about to slam the baton harshly into Fareeha’s ribs she let go of the gun with her left hand to latch onto his own thick wrist. The action shocked him just long enough, seeing as this woman had enough gall to stop his erratic brandishing with but a simple wrist grab, and she swung her right leg upward to connect her boot with his stomach. He groaned and flew back a few feet, giving Brigitte just enough time to kick his legs out from underneath him, and his baton clattered across the ground.

“Too easy,” Brigitte quipped confidently, and drifted over to the discarded baton with perhaps a bit too much carelessness, for she didn’t notice that the man had pushed himself up angrily and was now heading her way.

Fareeha processed everything happening lightning-quick, and to her it all seemed to be occurring in slow motion as she left her position beside Angela, feet pushing powerfully against the concrete as she flew forward. Somehow she managed to get between the man and Brigitte before anything could unfold, and this time the man wasn’t so easily surprised as he threw a steel-knuckled punch right at her.

Shit.

Bringing up her cybernetic hand she caught his fist, the two differentiating metals clanking together disturbingly. She didn’t have to look to know that there was going to be a dent in her prosthetic’s palm from now on.

With the man’s hot, seething breath creating clouds of condensation in the air before her she grunted, forcing herself to push back with all the strength she could muster from her right arm. Just as he was raising his fist to try landing a punch again, she kicked him between the legs and followed with a throw to the face. It was powerful enough that it sent him slamming down hard into a dirty puddle, the blood and saliva leaking from his mouth now mixing with it without hesitation. He didn’t move after that.

“Fuck,” Fareeha swore, shaking her cybernetic hand in a frantic way as if she had just experienced some sharp, unpleasant pain despite the fact that she retained no inkling of sensation within the constructed appendage.

Angela immediately rushed over to the woman who was gripping her metal hand tentatively. “Are you alright??”

Fareeha slipped her prosthetic back into her pocket without really looking it over. “I’ll be fine,” she murmured, much to the doctor’s dismay. “We can take a look at it later. There’s other things that need more attention.” And with that she turned towards the sloppy, distrusted trash heap dividing the alley, expecting to see the small girl who they had rescued frozen in place when instead all she saw was-

“What do you think you’re doing?” Brigitte was standing over the unconscious man’s body, watching with fascination as their once-damsel-in-distress (Hana would beg to differ) dug through the poor fellow’s trenchcoat pockets.

“Seeing if this guy’s got any valuables, what else?” she grinned cheekily, not looking up as she continued rummaging.

“Don’t you already owe him money…?” Brigitte winced, meeting Fareeha’s curious gaze with a worried look as Hana continued to scour the man thoroughly. Who is this girl…?

“Yeah, but this guy’s a dickhead so like hell I’m gonna pay him back; that’s stupid.”

Angela kneeled down to the girl’s height to match her crouched position. “Listen….I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be doing that. It might get you in worse trouble than you’re already in,” she tried gently, eyebrows furrowed with concern that the girl barely decided to acknowledge.

Hana stopped for a brief moment, gave Angela an unconcerned look, and dusted herself off with a heavy sigh. “Well! That search was uneventful!” Sticking a hand in her raggedy pants’ pocket she began waltzing off again, appearing as carefree as if her near-death situation had never taken place, and offered the three completely confused women a small salute. “Guess I’ll catch ya later -” A minimal pause, as if she had suddenly remembered something important, “- oh, and thanks for saving my ass, by the way.”

“Hana - wait!” a voice called out, breaking through the apathetic silence that had settled as soon as the girl had bid goodbye.

It was Fareeha.

Hana, back still turned to the three of them, halted in her tracks.

“I….I can help you with your debt.”

Fareeha, as she had been hoping, had struck a chord with the curious street creeper. Perhaps it would buy her enough time to garner what she wished for, which quite simply was someone who knew this part of the city well enough to steer them clear of more trouble…..As of now, their only hope was this girl. But then again, Fareeha could have been wrong, seeing as how they had just rescued the girl by beating up a thug…. There’s only one way to find out if this is gonna work, I guess.

Hana lolled her head over one side of her shoulder, and the three women behind her could almost swear they heard a delighted lilt in her voice, thanks to the smart detective who had managed to capture her attention. “For reals?”

“Yeah,” Fareeha replied with a benign smile. The rapid beating of her heart was barely beginning to settle, as was her heightened adrenaline flow, and she forced away further thoughts of things going downhill out from her mind. “We need someone who can guide us through the A9 sector; if you can do that, I’d be happy to help you pay off what you owe.”

Hana twisted on her heel, this time completely facing Fareeha and the others, and pulled something out of her pocket, tossing it quickly into her mouth. She chewed, and a bubble sprouted like a perfectly round, pink pearl from her pursed lips. “....With all of it?”

Fareeha nodded. “As much as I can.”

The bubble popped and Hana hummed in thought. “Hm….sounds legit to me.” She sauntered over to the three and laughed, bluntly shoving out an empty palm in Fareeha’s direction and waggling her fingers. “If you want a tour of the wonderful A9 sector you gotta pay in advance,” the girl winked, and Fareeha blinked out of her daze. Apparently their new friend had dedicated herself to aiding them in their exploration of the sector.

“R-Right….” Fareeha straightened herself up, Brigitte and Angela nervously trudging in closer to behold the spectacle of what was about to be the finalizing moment dictating whether Hana would be willing to go with them or not. All thing considered the probability was already very high, but money in any sort of deal always seemed to be the deciding factor. “Er….How much would you like?” Noticing what she had just said, Fareeha winced at her word choice. Baaaaad idea, idiot! You can’t ask it like that! “Uh, I mean - how much do you need?”

But Hana was already smiling wickedly at Fareeha’s faux paux, and the sight sent a disturbing chill down Fareeha’s spine - just an extra addition to the cold weather that made her tug her coat around herself just a bit closer. “Hmmm, two thousand sounds like a good amount to me,” Hana confessed nonchalantly, studying her chipped pink and black fingernails.

“....A thousand five hundred.”

“Two thousand.”

“A thousand seven hundred.”

“Two thousand! Take it or leave it!”

Fareeha groaned. Shit. Well….that’s coming out of my personal bank account…..But I guess it's a small price to pay for the ultimate salvation of the city and its people, if we’re able to get that far. ….Which I hope we will. “....Fine,” she huffed irritably as she ran a hand through her hair to slightly soothe her ruffled state of being. “Give me your wrist.”

Hana obliged with a haughty, giddy little laugh that made Fareeha almost want to call the whole thing off for an instant (she had begun to think that it was possible for this girl to drive her up the wall, just like Brigitte did every now and then), and Fareeha tapped out a number on her own wrist tag with her damaged hand before a four-digit number blinked gaudily in the air.

“....There. Two thousand.”

“Sweet!” Hana’s eyes sparkled with excitement as Fareeha performed the transaction with fluid movements, pressing and swiping on both of their tags until a small beeping echoed simultaneously from the two tiny screens which signaled that the transaction had went through successfully.

Hana grinned again, this time just wide enough for her canines to protrude cheekily just over the top of her bottom teeth. Fareeha could imagine she was at this exact moment (without shame) praising the thought of the hefty sum delivered so easily to her, and she grumbled uncomplacently.

Pivoting around, her entire body feeling a million times lighter as she imagined the weight of the world being lifted off her shoulders, Hana threw out her hands to either side enthusiastically. “Now that that’s done….” A deep inhale before she cried out with an impossibly loud, booming voice questionable for her diminutive size. “Welcome, ladies and gents to Hana’s amazing , Hana’s incredible , Hana’s fantastical round-trip tour of the A9 sector!” She rubbed her hands together in delight. “But first I have to ask - is there anywhere in particular you would like to stop by first? There’s a bunch of great stuff around here; we’ve got the Los Muertos gang’s hideout, the regular run-of-the-mill shacks, Rickety Tunnel, you know, the one that always smells like bad cheese and people like to go there and fu-”

“Can you take us here ?” Fareeha interjected just before Hana finished her sentence, Angela and Brigitte silently giving thanks that they weren’t able to hear the rest of whatever it was she was going to say. The detective had once again pulled out the map she had shown Brigitte earlier and pointed to the spot she had mentioned they search around first, and Hana studied it closely before nodding.

“Oh yeah, I know where that is! Those are the shacks. My friend Zen lives over there. Wanna visit him?” Hana asked the three as she began leading them back down the way they had originally come.

“Uh, sure….” Fareeha answered timidly, not quite sure what else she was supposed to say. Zen, huh? I wonder what kind of person they are. She eyed Hana cautiously, finding a peculiar comfort in the way the girl snapped her fingers to a tune that only she could hear and paired the quick, tempoed clicks with the popping of her bubblegum. She was…. silly , yes, that was it - but also somewhat fascinating in a way that Fareeha couldn’t put her finger on.

Hana continued to make unnecessary (but also completely witty, that Fareeha could agree to) comments as they traveled down the remaining pathway to their selected area of the A9 sector, and it kept the three mildly entertained. It was also quite astounding how they didn’t run into any more trouble from there on out since their encounter with Hana, and a shy, pleased smile found its way onto Angela’s lips when they rounded the last corner and found the slums standing there ready to greet them.

“Whoah….” Brigitte marveled, and Fareeha was discreetly doing the same in a more covert manner.

The detective glanced with her peripheral quickly to Angela beside her, the woman’s intense blue eyes fixed on the strange conglomeration of junk and broken, forgotten buildings that had been united by generations of street creepers to create the ‘civilization’ it was now. And to Fareeha’s surprise, the doctor looked - what was it? - almost….sad. Was she reading the other woman correctly?

“Pretty cool, ain’t it?” Hana beamed proudly, running a hand through her short brown hair and taking a deep inhale of the expectedly musty, fog ridden air.

“It’s like a giant jungle gym!!” came Brigitte’s fascinated reply. Fareeha innerly dragged a hand down her face exasperatedly at her partner’s comment, but Hana only barked in laughter as she took the insight into stride.

“Kinda, a little.” The petite girl scampered forward a bit and waved her arm over to the three. “Come on, I think Zen’s over at the square. He’s usually there around this time of day.”

“The square...?” Brigitte glanced about wide-eyed, completely amazed at the hidden world that she had finally gotten the opportunity of seeing. Then again, it wasn’t smart for one to wander into street creeper territory unless they had some sort of connection with something/someone there or were a street creeper themselves - the judgmental audacity that some street creepers fixed them with was perfectly well-placed, but the lingering gazes still managed to dig under Brigitte’s skin to some extent.

“Yeah, it’s kinda like the middle of the shacks, I guess? Zen spends a lot of his time there.”

Hana led them through much of the street creeper population belonging to the A9 sector, which one could easily see was quite condensed the deeper they made their way to what the girl had to breezily referred to as ‘the square’. With an excited bounce to her step and an animated “Excuse me!” or a “Move outta the way please!” to the occasional, ambiguous passerby or gang of children too absorbed in their game of tag, Hana finally skittered around an old omnic and slung out her arm to reveal a clearing.

Rested upon an ancient fountain splotched by invasive moss sat an omnic. A few children ran past him shouting idle remarks, and he laughed. It was a peculiar sound, uniquely light, gentle, and warm. The baggy brown pants that hung loosely around his waist and the beaded necklace of shiny, marble-sized spheres that chimed every time he moved only furthered the distinctive impression he was already exemplifying.

“There he is! There’s Zen!” Hana crowed delightedly, waving to the omnic as she scampered over to him. Hearing her voice he looked up, but not before Hana ran back to Fareeha, Angela, and Brigitte and grabbed the latter by the sleeve to begin tugging her over to her friend.  

“Yo, Zen! Look look, I made some new friends!” The smile on Hana’s face was so wide that Fareeha didn’t have the heart to slip in a comment regarding their newly found acquaintanceship (did the street creeper really consider them friends already?), and instead she distracted herself by watching a very confused Brigitte babble a polite greeting to the omnic before them.

“A pleasure to meet you.” It was curious seeing as how the robot bowed to the tall girl rather than extend his hand in the usual mundane greeting one generally did when meeting another individual, but Brigitte grinned wide at the gesture and rubbed the back of her neck.

“Haha, same here!” She faltered for but a moment as both Hana and Zen stared at her inquiringly, as if wordlessly expecting something more until the answer hit her. “Oh! Uh, my name’s Brigitte, by the way -” A nervous laugh as she gestured a hand to Fareeha and Angela, who had sided up next to her. “And these are my friends, Fareeha and Angela.”

The omnic turned towards Hana. “This is ludicrous. Hana, why on Earth do you force them to introduce themselves? Such bad manners, honestly….” he chided, and Hana’s cheeks immediately flushed a deep shade of red accented by the bright pink tats, which had begun to glow furiously. The sight was somewhat cute, Brigitte found herself admitting mentally as a flustered Hana attempted to come up with some sort of legitimate explanation.

“I-I - there was a lot going on, okay? It didn't occur to me to catch their names in the heat of the moment! One of those Muertos assbutts I borrowed money from last week -”

“Was it Gordon?”

“I don’t fucking remember his name, but he’s the dude with the big mohawk and blue skull paint? That guy? Y’know?”

“Hmm….Can’t seem to recall him.”

“Pah, doesn’t matter - anywho, he wanted my ass but then I got saved and al-”

A metal finger extended itself into the air, frightening Hana into startled silence. “....Did I just hear correctly that you ladies fished Hana out of trouble?”

Fareeha took the question as her opportunity to step forward and introduce herself. “We did….Admittedly it wasn’t something planned, but I’m glad we were able to be of some help.” Making sure to keep her warped appendage in her coat pocket for now, she extended her other hand in hopes that Zen would take it in greeting. To her surprise he did. “I’m Fareeha, by the way.”

“And I’m Angela,” the doctor offered once Zen’s hand was freed, her grasp surprisingly strong as she met his palm with her own. The smile that she shared was curious.

“How wonderful to meet you all.”

“So are you busy, Zenny? Wanna come explore the rest of A9 with us?” Hana slung an arm around his shoulders and tugged him in close, but not before she had pulled his holey, coffee brown hoodie over his head teasingly. He struggled for a few moments as he tried to lift it off, chuckling softly as he did so. A few moments later his face was exposed once again and he could give Hana and her new group of friends an acceptable answer.

“I’m sorry Hana….I don’t think I can today. I have a rally planned for this afternoon, and I like doing some pondering about how exactly I’m going to get my points across before I speak with everyone.”

“A rally? How curious,” Angela reiterated bemusedly as she watched Zen turn her way with a slow, affirmative nod.

“He’s been trying to keep his brother’s legacy alive,” Hana chimed in, finally releasing the friendly omnic from her choke hold and stuffing her hands into her pockets once again. “‘Datta passed away a few months ago, so things have been a bit hard for most of the people around here….Lots of us looked up to him.” She paused for a moment, just long enough to glance at Zen and see how he was doing. He had remained silent for most of the exchange, so she figured it wouldn’t hurt to add just a bit more, perhaps lift his spirits some with her last comment. “Zen….he’s a good guy. He cares just as much about all the street creepers in the city as his brother did.”

Brigitte was the first to ask the question that was on all of their minds. She didn't have to look at Fareeha to locate that questioning veil that would cover her face often - it was the same contortion of her features that she noticed whenever Fareeha would sit at her desk, eyes glazing over the countless cases floating across the screen. “How….How did your brother die, Zen? If - If you don’t mind me asking.”

If Zen could have, he would have smiled. Even so, the few seconds of hesitation made a difference, and once he began speaking again the silence from before had added more weight to the sadness in his mechanized voice. “My brother Mondatta….was killed.”

“By who?” Fareeha barged forward, her good fist clenched in frustration. If I find out it was from that stupid NNv then God am I so fucking useless….

“He was shot. But we don't know by who….It happened while he was delivering a speech to gather new companions to repair omnic and human relations, but it’s apparent many don’t want that to happen. Whoever shot him was hoping to most likely put an end to those who wished to bring us together,” Zen sighed rather depressingly as he rested himself back down on the side of the fountain. Lifting one finger in the air again he caught the girls’ attention, and they all looked up from the ground where they had been awkwardly staring in hopes that they wouldn’t appear so downhearted after hearing his story. “ But! That doesn’t mean that things around here can’t change. Although the world may have been ravaged by omnics once, it’s something that I am working toward to the best of my ability to let others know will not happen again.”

“How can you be so sure…?” the blonde doctor tossed the question casually in the air, disregarding the fact that she was ultimately playing the devil’s advocate. To be honest she really did wonder how this omnic so valiantly declared that the world wouldn’t be tormented by another technological chaos a second time, and was invested in hearing his reply.

“If omnics and humans can learn to work together, I’m sure it’ll be something that, once feared due to events of the past, can become avoidable. We must not lose hope.”

Fareeha’s mind was churning now, absolutely filled with questions that she wanted to ask this omnic. He seemed like he knew so much, about anything; the omnics, the street creepers, tension between the two groups and the rest of society, and that there was something else - maybe someone else - lingering behind it all. There had to be. Why else would Mondatta have been assassinated? For some reason, to her, it was undeniably strange that Hana had decided to bring them to this particular individual. Or maybe it was just that luck had finally decided to take her side for once, but still that was definitely something she’d never get used to.

Luck has better things to do; always has.

“Where will you be rallying?” Fareeha casually asked, although she was thoroughly intrigued by the idea of the omnic going out in search for more people who actually had morals and didn’t hate anything with two feet that was made out of metal.

“Near the entrance of the A9 sector,” Zen’s voice was kind, and she could tell that he was fascinated by her interest in his endeavors. “We usually begin there, and often times move deeper into the heart of the city to initiate peaceful protests, so we can get more people’s attention. It tends to work rather well.”

“Well? Well? ” Hana barked, shooting a murderous glare Zen’s way. “Don’t you remember what happened last weekend? You were over there protesting near city hall and then they called in a black squad to shoo you guys away! And it wasn’t gently though….” she muttered, kicking a rock away with the tip of her sneaker, voice indescribably soft. The girl was afraid. “Like, they literally threatened you. With guns.”

Zen cocked his head to the side in thought, the beaded necklace nestled against his chest clanking together briefly. “I do remember. But protests like that are needed in the city, Hana. You know the discrimination and injustice that goes on. We all witness it everyday. Someone has to make a difference and stand up to the people who are supporting such obtrusive legalities.”

The short haired girl threw her hands up into the air, startling the three women beside her. “Fine! I give up!” she scoffed brusquely. “Do what you want, get yourself killed in one of those rally-protest thingies for all I care. It’s not like you’re the only person I have who watches my back around here.” She whipped around and grabbed Brigitte by the elbow. “Come on Baguetta, let’s go.”

The taller girl stumbled as she was pulled backwards. “Whoah, hey-! I-It’s Brigi-”

“Just shut up and let’s go.”

And with that, Hana began dragging her away, somewhere off into the street creeper crowd and away from Zen. Wherever it was the two were going, Fareeha had no idea. She only watched, refusing to disturb what had just unfolded between the two by calling her partner back, and followed an utterly confused Brigitte begin towed by the small but feisty Hana with her dark eyes until the pair had disappeared.

Zen sighed sadly and Angela and Fareeha could do nothing but bask in the sorrow that emanated from the action. The robot dejectedly raised himself from his station on the fountain’s ledge to bow to the two women one last time. “I - apologize for that. Hana is a difficult girl sometimes….She doesn’t have any friends except for me, so she does seem to get overly-protective and disagree with some of the things I do.” His gaze seemed focused on somewhere past the two, Fareeha noticed. Most likely trying to see if he can still spot Hana. “I have some work to do to prepare for the rally. I am sorry Hana left you here - but if you stick around I am sure she’ll return sooner or later. She just needs some time to cool off. Feel free to remain in the area, but please - do be careful,” he advised them, and the two nodded wordlessly as he waved politely goodbye. “Peace be with you.”

And then Zen was gone.

Things were still between the two for a moment, and the street creeper world revolved around them as it always had, filling in their gap that was conversation and which had deceitfully eluded them.

“Seems like a charming fellow, doesn’t he?” Angela finally mused to no one in particular. “Hana as well. Such a peculiar character,” she hummed, unslinging the duffle’s strap from under her arm and over her head and gently placing the bag on the fountain’s ledge. She rummaged around inside it shortly, and when her fingers skimmed over a smooth, cold surface, she extracted the screened device she had been using earlier.

“She is rather strange….” Fareeha agreed as her eyes continued to rove over the scene before them, painstakingly studying everyone and everything with concern. Robots and humans alike, many poorly dressed for such depressing weather, continued to mill about, appearing as of figments of the past as the steam wafting out of broken piping clouded them. They dipped in and out of the gas, easily at home in this hidden realm tucked into a mere corner of the city; more so than Fareeha could ever possibly wish to be.

“Fareeha,” Angela prodded the other woman with the tip of her elbow, voice low and secretive. Tapping a few fingers across the screen to expand the view, she zoomed in on a group of street creepers who were huddled together, conveniently chatting around a blazing metal trash can. “There,” she pointed.

It was red. Red again….They could have just as easily been pinpricks of blood, of the imminent death that would follow soon after. No matter, it all meant the same thing.

Fareeha darted forward, propelled by the urge to find out just how many of these people were infected. There couldn’t have been many of them….it was impossible. Wasn’t it…?

The doctor behind her hurriedly picked up her duffle and followed after Fareeha, the thought of them being conspicuous earning no place in her mind as something concerning enough to put a halt to the discovery which had dawned upon the two. She hovered through the street creepers daintily and darted around protruding shacks, too afraid to get close in fear that she would find that they too had been contaminated by such a horrific fate.

But the scans were proving her right. The nightmare had been given form, having taken the shape of undefined clusters that splotched crimson on anonymous outlines. They were here - the A9 sector had been compromised by NNv.

“They’ve….They’ve been infected.” Angela’s voice was but a mere whisper. For those individuals who had shown up on her screen untouched by the fiery red swarm that burned within many others around them, she held no high hopes. There was no cure for NNv. Not yet.

“Shit….” Fareeha swore, siding beside Angela once again as the doctor rotated the screen, taking in street creepers from every angle possible. “It’s not all of them, but - but -” There was a lost look in her eyes, one that Angela figured by default was in her own as well.

Words, like they had so many times before, evaded Fareeha once again.

But this time there was a reason why.

There really was nothing that could be said to make things better.


 

The city was dreary tonight. More so than usual. Of course the city lights, enigmatic in their variety of colors and shapes, were alive, as they were every evening when the sun went down. Still, they paid no attention to the state of the world around them. It was all so pretty, but underneath those sparkling lights darker things lurked.

She knew that much - more easily than she would like to admit.

“I thought I’d find you up here.”

She didn’t need to turn around to know who it was.

“There’s something I need for you to do.”

Hah - he always needed her to do something. There was never a time when he walked up to her or initiating conversation unless he needed something specifically from her.

“More of your dirty work?” she laughed haughtily, voice raspy as it scratched against the rising wind that blew onto her face. It was refreshing against her old, aged skin, and she preferred to come out here to feel that blissful rejuvenation; being away from everyone and everything brought her a sense of peace she couldn’t compare with anything else in her current situation.

“Not exactly. Someone else will be doing the work this time,” he answered. The sound of his thick, heavy boots came to a halt behind her, instigating the formidable chills that ran up and down her spine each time he came close. “I want you to tell Sombra we have a mission for her.”

Another amused laugh. “And you can’t tell her that yourself? Shameless.”

“There’s a reason I’m asking you,” he growled, and she immediately fell silent without hesitation. “One of the Los Muertos members reported some individuals who seem to be investigating the A9 sector. I want Sombra to be there to catch onto anything else that may arise and let us know what’s really happening, make sure these people don’t unearth anything they’re not supposed to find out. But I want you to inform her. You know the sectors better than most of us do, seeing as how you work there often enough.”

“....” Her one good eye roved across the cityscape with intensity that burned much deeper than one could imagine; it was like someone had lit a fire inside her chest, but it didn’t burn because she cared. It burned because she hated.

And what she hated, more precisely, was what she had become.

“Find Sombra. Relay my message and inform her on anything she doesn’t already know about the A9 sector.”

When his footsteps had disappeared, leaving her once again with her thoughts, she arose from the ledge omnisciently overlooking everything. Adjusting the hood over her head a deep sigh parted her lips before she took leave, and she opened the rooftop’s door, slowly making her way back down the stairs.

She really didn’t want to be doing this. She really didn’t want to be doing anything except….except getting away from here. It was a shame that she had already abandoned the dream of doing so many years ago.

The stairway was worn, and the halls were just as tumbledown. They creaked as she strode through them, the wood whispering stories of past lives and forgotten memories of the ones who used to live there.

She trudged along, and a few doors down she glimpsed a faint streak of purple emanating from the crack at the bottom which glowed in a mysterious manner. Knocking on the door she sighed again when she heard nothing after a few moments, but then a voice called out, calm and collected.

“Come in!”

The door opened with a jagged creaking as it slid on its rusted hinges, and the woman was not surprised to see the individual she was looking for nestled cozily in a swivel chair, two separate screens boring violently into her vision with their ridiculously bright glare. On one side she could identify a shooting game of some sort, and on the other was a collage of multiple windows of differentiating sizes, each revealing something completely different than the other.

The woman in the swivel chair laughed when something exploded on the screen to her left and red letters flashed across it appraisingly, row after row reverberating the same message with slightly different alterations each time. A thin, magenta cable was hooked up to her left arm from the terminal, and when she whirled around, lifting up a pair of strange goggles to place them on her forehead, it dangled in the air heedlessly.

“Aye, Abuelita! ¿Qué tal?” the woman purred, sending an impish grin the other’s way. She tossed a bag of some foreign chips the other’s way, and the latter caught them with one had, studied them briefly, and tucked them into her cloak to save for later.

“Same as always,” the older woman shrugged, making her way over to the girl in front of the screens. “How’re you doing?”

“Increíble - I just won against all these idiots; they never knew what hit them, hehe….” Sombra cackled as the screen switched over to the scores of the game, an overwhelming amount of text scrolling far too quickly down the left side of the gaming screen for the other woman to read properly. All she managed to interpret from the hasty messages was a mixture of cuss words and enthralled admiration. “Oh neverminddddd ugh ,” the computer genius sighed defeatedly, her entire body going limp as she groaned. “They fucking know I’m a hacker - I should have guessed.”

The woman standing beside her said nothing to the comment. That wasn’t important.

“Sombra….There’s a job for you.”

“Ah, what is it?” Her fingers danced effortlessly in the air, touching lightly on thin, digital tiles only she could see with the help of her technologically modified eyes. “Did Gabe send you on a little adventure to give me all the details instead of telling me himself? Ha, he’s such a loser….Gotta love that edgelord though.”

“He did, yes,” the other woman replied monotonously.

“So where am I going this time, Abuelita?”

Ana remained reserved for a lengthy minute, struggling with the heavy sense of dread that had suddenly plunged itself into her stomach for some unforeseen, undetermined reason. “The A9 sector.”

 

Chapter Text

“Stop following me, Angela….” The command was lenient, and barely a weak mumble over the evening din that had begun to settle over the city.

It’s response was uncompromising. “Don’t be silly Fareeha. I saw the blow you took to your hand and I know you don’t want to be walking around like that for the remainder of your career.” How true those words were, and every syllable hammered the sense it was trying to bring harder into Fareeha’s mind.

The detective stopped hesitantly outside the door of her apartment building, deep in thought. She couldn’t fight Angela’s claim even if she wanted to. There were just too many things going on at the same time and to be quite frank, she had no idea where to begin or what to consider first. Just when she thought perhaps they had a chance of figuring out some timely clue to this whole NNv situation, the direness of the circumstance socked her in the face - socked all of them in the face. But somehow Fareeha felt that it had hit her the hardest. Maybe it was because she blamed herself far too much.

Just let her help you. “....Okay, fine. Just -” Fareeha ran the crumpled hand through her hair exasperatedly, finding it annoyingly hard to stretch the fingers of her prosthetic. “Just -” The words were lost, but she didn’t bother to find them or provide an explanation. When she sighed and stepped up to the front door of the lobby, defeatedly making her way across the foyer and refraining from making eye contact with anyone (even the kind omnic at the front desk, who had tried offering her a wave and a “Good evening; welcome back, Ms. Amari”), Angela knew that Fareeha had granted her permission to follow, even if it had been very reluctantly.

And so that’s exactly what Angela did.

She had, honestly, been following Fareeha ever since the horrific discovery they had unearthed over at the A9 sector, much to the sullen detective’s dismay. Angela knew that Fareeha wanted to be alone. She could feel it; it was like seething frustration and disappointment had taken form, wafting off of the detective in steady waves.

And it had been going on for a while - having started after their investigation of the sector and the conclusion of their unfortunate finding there. Brigitte of course had returned maybe an hour later with Hana after their sporadic leave of absence, and been filled in on the event upon meeting back up with the two. Angela had done most of the talking, and soon after the update Fareeha opted to leave without so much as a follow-up plan. That was when Angela had decided to intervene, and provide the other woman some form of silent companionship as the sun sunk lower in the foggy sky, making room for twilight and the moon to slide in and take it’s place.

After they had made it to Fareeha’s floor, she had unlocked her door with a quick ret-scan, kicked off her shoes upon entering, and immediately headed down the hall without a single word.

She’s….taking this rather poorly. I can’t say that I’m not either - it’s a tragedy, really. All those people….gone. Angela frowned and closed the door behind her, before gently slipping off her loafers and placing them next to Fareeha’s own carelessly tossed boots. Padding a few steps down the short hall she took notice of the kitchen to her right, which was serenely pristine. Counters were cleared, stainless, and spotless. Even the outer surfaces of the fridge were barren, void of notes or momentos, save for the constant flickering of the digital touch screen that displayed the time of day proudly.

“Welcome home, Ms. Amari.”

The sudden voice emanating like an omniscient being throughout the apartment put Angela on edge, and she looked around for the source for a lackluster reason (most people had Athena in their home nowadays; the gentle voice resonating throughout the walls was not a surprise). She figured she had done it to make her seem more interested in her surroundings, she naively assumed, and to drag away her concern from the woman who had collapsed into the depths of the couch in the living room.

“There is a guest with you? How nice. Welcome,” Athena added, and Angela mumbled a soft thank you.

Fareeha said nothing. Angela watched as Fareeha’s feet dangled over the edge of the couch’s armrest, her right arm hanging over the seats as if she had gone limp. The state of one’s physique sometimes mimicked the state of one’s psyche, and as of now there were no truer words that corresponded to the inert woman’s demise.  I better go talk to her. Get her mind of this whole thing, even if for a little while.

A deep inhale was her calling card, allowing her just enough time to gather her nerves and force a bit of her faux bravery to surface - much akin to the kind she had utilized when entering the A9 sector - to guide her to the living room. The doctor stopped by the side of the couch and looked down at the figure sprawled out hopelessly before her, as lifeless as the dead. It was somehow amusing (and maybe even a tad bit cute) how Fareeha had succumbed to such a sulking, doubtful state, Angela thought, before deciding that perhaps she was thinking rather sadistically. Without entertaining any more bizarre thoughts she coughed once into a closed fist. “I-If you’d let me fix your arm I’ll be on my way soon enough, and you may have the rest of your evening to yourself. You have my word.”

A sliver of deep brown peeked through heavily lashed lids, and then a subtle sigh echoed briefly as pillows were moved while someone rearranged the surroundings and herself. Fareeha threw a pillow recklessly at the other side of the couch where things were empty, sat up, and shuffled over to the middle to make room for Angela; all done without a single, uttered word.

“My thanks,” Angela smiled weakly, and took a seat beside the other woman as she placed her duffle on the glass coffee table in front of them. Things were silent between the two as Angela set aside her coat and dug through her bag to extract some interesting tools, many of which Fareeha had never seen before. She tried averting her eyes to feign disinterest when Angela glanced at her sidewise a few times. “These are special instruments I use to repair cybernetics. Some of them are new, since I developed a couple of them myself,” Angela tried, wishing that Fareeha would find her comment somewhat intriguing and add a question or brief response of her own.

Still nothing.

“Would you please give me your arm?” In that moment, the lapse of both sound and action was crushing. Was time really passing by so slowly? Angela had no idea. She could only wait helplessly for some sort of reply.

It came when Fareeha slowly but surely lifted her right arm and placed it onto Angela’s lap, and it was then that the world finally seemed to regain it’s momentum. The cybernetic hand flicked in her own some, like a fading creature enacting it's final death throes, and Angela gripped it confidently as she reached out to grab a dent removal tool. As she began applying the instrument to particular areas of Fareeha’s hand, generally the palm and the base of the fingers, her mind once again flittered off back into no man’s land. She was thinking - about anything and everything - and thinking was both Angela Zeigler’s best friend and worst enemy.

The lack of conversation was somewhat irking to the blond doctor, and the more she dwelled by herself in silence the more her mind churned with unanswered questions. She was quite certain that Fareeha was either feeling the same way, or choosing to acknowledge nothing at all. It was fascinatingly peculiar, how this woman beside her was so readable at one moment and a closed book another. Fareeha Amari was an anomaly; like a little known specimen recently discovered - a unique, rare finding that one was sure would reveal countless secrets if only investigated thoroughly without the restraint of limited time. And being the scientist that Angela was, it made her want to study and learn more about such an individual as this one before her even more.

“What happened to it?” Such a harsh question. By the way she had whispered the words softly she hoped her question had sounded somewhat gentle, but even so it would be ludicrous to assume it didn’t pick at an undesired memory, tucked away somewhere in the darkest shadows of Fareeha’s mind.

The hand twitched in her palm, but Angela refused to turn Fareeha’s way, worried that she might exert extra harrowing pressure with her own eye contact if she had opted to do so.

“...”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I just thought it would help take your mind off of the current situation.”

A short laugh. It embodied quite perfectly unamusement to a frightening degree, and carried with it a dry tone that made Angela almost wish she hadn't said anything at all. Yet it was too late now.

“You really are strange.” Fareeha shook her head, and Angela tilted her own just in time to catch a glimpse of the crooked smile that had somehow appeared short-notice on Fareeha’s dark lips. “So curious, I swear.”

Angela shrugged. “What can I say? I am a scientist.”

“That you are….”  Fareeha fell into a quiet stupor for a few seconds more, before breathing out deeply. As she did so it felt as if something had been lifted off of her shoulders, but she wasn’t sure quite fully what it was, aside from it being the forced attachment she had created for herself to the depressing discovery of a few hours prior.

The strange tool within Angela’s grasp hovered over the hard surface of her palm, and with the doctor’s guidance, meticulous movements were beginning to bring the original appearance of her metallic hand back steadily. Angela wasn’t trying to hurt her in any way. She only wanted to help - if anything, it was apparent enough by the events of that evening, when she had followed an incredibly downhearted Fareeha Amari all the way from the A9 sector and back to her own apartment like a lost puppy.

….And so Fareeha relented. “It was an accident.”

Angela’s blue eyes flicked up to meet Fareeha’s wavering brown ones for a short moment, before shifting back to the detective’s hand.

“....I had been out on the job. Back then I - I wasn’t a detective. I did a lot more fieldwork, being so experienced with the number of years that I’d been working for the police department, and had been gifted with permission to utilize a personal weapon unlike any other. It was called the Raptora Mark VI - basically a combat suit.” Fareeha waved her free hand in the air, gesticulating something that Angela couldn’t quite decipher. She figured maybe it was the movements of the suit the other woman had been envisioning, and couldn't help but allow a charmed smile find it's way onto her face. “Basically it flies and does cool things - I wish I could show you for reals. I-It’s a lot more awesome when you see it in action.”

“No worries,” Angela chuckled, shaking her head as she did so. “I believe I’ve heard your name spoken numerous times back then; of the wondrous woman in blue who protected the city and the skies.”

Fareeha didn’t know what exactly to say at that instant, only able to find herself unresponsive as a light blush innocently dusted her cheeks at the thought of the doctor’s possible admiration. “I wasn’t that important back then….I definitely was more than I am now, but that’s in the past.” She cleared her throat quickly to break the reverie she was certain she was about to fall into. “ Anyways - so I was out one night, chasing a felon who we had been trying to track down for months. He had been smuggling and selling human body parts for experimentation and such on the black market. With every previous encounter I had been so close to catching him, and that night I just felt like it was going to be the last time I had to chase him - finally being able to lock him up behind bars. I had him on the run, and then he disappeared into an old warehouse sort of building.”

She paused, just long enough to let out a disapproving sigh. “It wasn’t smart to follow him in; I should of thought of that before. But I was so close. So close….I didn’t want to lose him. A few moments after I had entered the building everything just started happening too fast. I found out that he had rigged the place to explode, most likely to get rid of me once and for all…. The whole building just sorta collapsed….and I,” Fareeha winced.

“I got trapped beneath the rubble. My arm in particular had been pinched by a steel rafter, and no matter how much I tried to wriggle out of there, I couldn’t. I think I even made it worse….I could feel the rafter biting into my skin, having made it's way past the layering of my suit. It was torture - it felt like my arm was being ripped off slowly. I tried signaling for emergency backup as soon as I could, and they eventually arrived and got me out. But by the time we had made it to the hospital there was nothing the doctors could do to save my arm…. I was left with the sole choice of going with a prosthetic instead, and this was all I was able to really afford,” she nodded to the arm gently cradled by Angela’s hand. It was only thanks to reciting her story that she wasn’t feeling uncomfortable or blushing yet again at the sight of Angela’s hand touching hers, despite her lack of feeling in the appendage.

Angela, apparently done with remolding the cybernetic material of Fareeha’s prosthetic, carefully set aside her tool on the glass table. “And what happened after that?” she muttered curiously, voice low. There was definitely more to the story. There had to have been.

The woman beside her bit her lip hesitantly, then shrugged. “I-I couldn’t fly the Raptora anymore. Simple as that.”

Angela had the idea that that must have been the unfortunate outcome. Even still, she wanted to hear it from Fareeha herself; it was part of her wish to understand the other woman more. And every question she asked, whether it be significant or utterly trifle, brought her that much more knowledge, however little it may have been.

Meeting Fareeha’s eyes yet again she let the words fall from her mouth, unaware of her hand gripping the detective’s just a tad bit tighter than before. “....Your arm prevented you from using the suit.”

Fareeha shifted beside her. “....Yes. Recovery took me much much longer than I had hoped it would….I thought that I would just hate the part about being away from work for a week or so, heck, maybe even a month. But it took me five months to get back, Angela. Five months .” There was a heavy sense of emotional agony deep beneath it all as she spoke, and it made Angela’s heart ache in a way just slightly different than it had for a patient, or someone she had been aiding during her time working at the hospital. Maybe it was because this woman, Fareeha Amari, truly was still hurting, even after all of this time, somewhere that she couldn’t see.

“My body rejected the cybernetic implant. It’s what took me so long to get out of the hospital, and even in my own home I could barely do anything by myself. I remember going to therapy every single day, and not being able to complete any of the exercises without having my arm cut out during an action, or feel a sharp jolt of pain shoot through my shoulder. Even now sometimes my shoulder aches when I’m stressed, despite me having gotten more control over my prosthetic.” Fareeha tried waggling the fingers of her cybernetic, and frowned when she saw that she could only move a couple of them in either irregular flinching, or sluggish mechanized actions. “The department told me that I couldn’t fly the Raptora after what had happened because now there was the risk of my arm malfunctioning and endangering me even more, if an accident were ever to occur.”

Angela had a different instrument in her hand this time and had been prepared to work on reconnecting circuits at the base of Fareeha’s fingers, but took a moment to pause. She….She lost hold of her dream. Of who she was before all of that happened.

“A-Are you alright?”

The doctor didn’t realize that she had been staring forlornly at the carpet, and immediately felt a rush of embarrassment as she found an awkward smile and turned her attention back to the blue fingers before her. “Oh, yes! I - I was just thinking about your situation. You….have gone through much hardship, Fareeha.”

Images of Reinhardt standing before the blue suit she was so familiar with jumped to the forefront of Fareeha’s mind, as so did the conversation the two had shared just a day ago, and she felt a strained twist in her chest as she forced out a reply. “I-It’s in the past. There’s nothing to be done about it now.” Except...Except learn from it and move on. That’s what Reinhardt said, isn’t it?

Hissing filled the silence between them as Angela moved her tool around Fareeha’s fingers, thin blue and white sparks jumping up every so often excitedly, almost as if they were alive and hoping to leap to a distant freedom. A few minutes later she tucked the tool away in her bag, and clasped her pale hands together, pinching them between her knees in a shy manner. “There!” the doctor chirped, a delighted twinkle yet again shining from her startling blue eyes. “All done. Can you move your hand?”

Outstretched arm before her, Fareeha slowly moved her fingers up and down multiple times, before scrunching them all up together as if she were holding a ball or crunching a piece of paper into a crumpled mess. “It’s - It’s much better than before.” She smiled genuinely for the first time that day, and Angela grinned back. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Angela’s smile (and apparent good mood) was infectious, and Fareeha quickly coughed into her metal hand and stood up as gracefully as possible from her spot on the couch.

The detective argued with herself for a few seconds, fighting over the thoughts invading her mind on what was her next move, considering the doctor was here - in her apartment, innocently smiling up at her from her spot on the couch. She couldn’t ask her to leave - no, of course she couldn’t - how rude would that be? The blonde woman did vouch earlier that she would go, but Angela had just repaired her hand (and quite nicely, might she add) after their encounter with a Los Muertos ruffian. She had followed the other woman (with good intentions the whole time, of course) home, just to make sure that she had gotten the proper aid and handiwork, without asking for anything in return, except receiving the closure that Fareeha would be fine.

Fareeha was unaware of how much time had passed as she stood there in front of Angela, debating over what to do next, but the understanding and gentle countenance belonging to Dr. Ziegler convinced her to believe that it hadn't been long. She took a few steps backwards and thumbed over her shoulder to the kitchen behind the two of them. “I-I can go get you some water or coffee if you’d like.” Eating was the last thing on Fareeha’s mind as of now, but a warm cup of simmering coffee didn’t sound like a bad idea.

“Oh, really? How delightful. I’ll take a cup of coffee, please.” Angela looked thoroughly excited about the prospect of a hot drink, and Fareeha nodded nervously, strangely on edge as she mentally turned over the thought of whipping up a decent cup of coffee for the prestigious doctor. After all these years by herself she had never had to cook or make anything else for anyone save Reinhardt; when her mother had passed away, the burly German man had taken her in until she had decided to join the police academy after graduating high school.

“Alright, I’ll go make some then. Feel free to relax while I’m in the kitchen, if you’d like.” Nervousness fading away for the moment, Fareeha darted off, seeking solace behind her fortress of the metallic countertops.

It was a couple of minutes before the coffee brewer had prepared a batch of savory dark roast coffee. For some reason the taste of it was particularly nostalgic to Fareeha, but it was always something she had kept to herself. As a young girl her mother drank this kind quite often, and the one time Fareeha asked to have a quick little sample, she almost spat the liquid out instantly, but valiantly forced herself to swallow. An amused Ana had laughed at her heartily, and ever since then Fareeha had done her best to find that deceptive, acquired taste of the dark roast. So far she was still working in it.

“Here; I’ve got a couple of cups for us.” Fareeha held a mug cautiously in each hand so that neither would manage to spill any over her hardwood floor (or the carpet), and upon reaching the couch where Angela Ziegler had been resting, handed her a steaming mug.

Their hands touched for a brief millisecond and Fareeha grinned awkwardly, putting her own cup down for a minute as deep brown liquid threatened to slosh over the sides and onto her coffee table. “Give me a sec, lemme go get some sugar and creamer -”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary - the coffee is fine as is. I prefer it straight black.” The curious smile that Angela gave her when explaining her preferences in coffee was hidden by the mug’s rim as the woman took a sip, and Fareeha nodded slowly, inwardly chiding herself for thinking a doctor such as Angela Ziegler would enjoy her coffee with a handful of creamer or sugar.

“Um -” Even with her own mug in hand, Fareeha felt strangely out of place within the whole scene. “I’m going to step outside for a moment. Excuse me.” Carefully making her way to the balcony, her sanctuary separated by a thin wall of glass doors, she crossed the small stretch of living room and opened the escape route. A sigh of relief escaped her as she slid the doors shut behind her, and a fresh gust of wind hit her cheeks. This was where she wanted to be.

She just wanted time to think. About everything.

Being within Angela’s presence was something of a bizarre phenomenon to the Egyptian woman. It appeared to her as a sort of blessing, but she also was striving to find the comfort of simply being around such a brilliant mind, and because she was not there yet (how long would it take to reach that state, she wondered?), found herself floundering helplessly almost every time she engaged in conversation with the other woman. She prayed that it didn’t seem too apparent, and even if she did feel ridiculously confident at certain moments, it never lasted too long.

Thus, her nervousness instigated her mental and physical retreat to the balcony, where the lulling sound of sirens wailing and heavy wind buffeted against her ears. It was the rhythm of the city being engulfed by night and introducing the uncanny, otherworldly life of blinding lights and lurking shadows, and it always managed to bring her a strange sense of peace. This was her home.

Here out in the open, a steady grip on the mug she held within both hands over the balcony rail, Fareeha Amari was once again alone with her thoughts in the same manner as she had been when trekking home. The time she had spent sitting with Angela as the doctor fixed her prosthetic was beneficial in the way that it distracted her from the turmoil shifting in her mind, since she would have churned the events of today over and over and over again. But it was precisely what she was doing now, now that things were no longer pulling her attention one way or another.

Why….Why so many people? What is there to possibly gain from so many deaths of innocents? Now that she thought it about it - had she even ever been this invested in such a case before? Probably not. Not since her accident. She had been a different person yesterday than who she was today, and she was wholeheartedly glad for that. But no matter how dedicated she was at the moment, she knew it was impossible for her to solve the case on her own.

Angela.

Speaking of Angela -

“I-I’m sorry for bothering you.” Angela was standing timidly by the sliding glass door, uncertain of her indecisive position at the balcony’s entrance as she muttered her intrusion. There was a solemn sigh as she quietly shut the door behind her, and Fareeha stared at the other woman inquiringly, brown eyes searching Angela for an explanation she was sure she was about to hear. “I know I said I would leave earlier, but….I didn’t want to be alone.” It was a truthful admission; one that both the speaker and the listener acknowledged with a sorrowful reception.

She sidled up next to Fareeha, arms folded neatly over the handrail. “I can tell you have a lot on your mind.” Angela snuck a furtive glance Fareeha’s way, the taller woman fixated on the city before them with a gaze so intense it was impossible to assume she wasn’t thinking about the nanotechnological apocalypse that careened closer at a more rapid pace than they tried to solve it.

Fareeha said nothing, and instead downed a pleasant, warm sip of her drink. She was strongly aware of her frequent dissociation from people at times, but being around Angela was a mixture of that and something else. Now the overpowering desire to make conversation coursed through her, and since she had dispelled much of her past just minutes before, felt the need to bring up a topic to discuss and change the subject that she was sure was probably still swirling around in Angela’s mind.

“Angela.…” Fareeha began softly, her eyes following the bright trails of hover cars off in the distance. From here they looked so small….like ants, crawling along a predetermined path.

“Yes?”

“What do you….What do you think about the virus?”

There was no answer for a few moments, just the the sound of the city. Fareeha was beginning to wonder if Angela had not heard her question and was considered reiterating her past statement when the doctor hummed in thought, the tune so light that the detective was concerned she had perhaps conjured up the noise in her head to subdue her own impatience.

“....Well, after what we’ve seen, it’s apparent both omnics and humans are affected. I have a hunch that the virus kills a rate individual to each person, since everyone’s biology or components slightly vary - making them unique - in a sense. In simpler words, their effect is staggered or shortened depending on who has been infected. It’s the only idea I have for so many deaths popping up everywhere, one after another, but of course all at different times. That, or they’re being affected in separate intervals.”

“I see….” Fareeha nodded to herself, quietly contemplating Angela’s assumption. It was almost scary how much this woman could pick up about something so new (heck, even though she said she had a hunch she already knew more about NNv than any of the scientists at the police department lab did) in such a miniscule amount of time. Certainly she was quite extraordinary, as well as intellectually brilliant, and easily someone Fareeha realized she was grateful she had asked for assistance.

“....You know quite a lot about this virus, even if you’re only making educated guesses.”

“That’s simply all they are, Fareeha.” A somber sigh slipped from Angela’s lips into the chilly evening air. “Only educated guesses.”

Only educated guesses, huh...? I can go with that. “Then we also have to assume that other parts of the city have been infected as well, not just the A9 sector. It’d only make sense since the deaths are happening in multiple areas, and the fatalities are the same.”

A serious nod from Angela made Fareeha swell with pride inwardly, although she swiftly ushered away the positive feeling to focus her mind once again on the matter at hand. “I agree with that. There is only so much we can assume, but that statement seems highly probable.”

“What we need to know is where this virus is coming from, and how to put a stop to it.”
“We can’t find a cure for it unless we have a live sample,” Angela added doubtfully. “Taking the nanites from a person via extraction is definitely out of the question. Considering they eat away at their host’s nervous system until the individual can no longer function, we don’t know what they’ll do if provoked.”

“Shit....” Fareeha ran a hand through her hair worriedly, the decorative beads that framed the sides of her face clicking together with her frantic movements. A ghost of a sensation seeped into her right shoulder again, and she realized the pain in her upper arm had returned. “I - Where are we going to get one, then? We don’t even know the origin of this thing.” Fear was causing her voice to waver, and she swallowed thickly, forcing the uncomfortable, tight constriction in her throat to ebb away.

The enticing view of the city at night from Fareeha’s apartment had become significantly less alluring, and Angela focused all of her attention with deeply knitted brows on the pacing woman next to her. “I believe going back to visit Hana and her friend might be a good idea,” she offered apprehensively, Fareeha stopping her repetitive walking to stare bewildered at the doctor.

“You really think going back there -” she pointed out into the middle of the city ambiguously, her tone heavy with an offensive sarcasm that almost made Angela cringe, “is really going to help?”

“I do,” Angela stated firmly. “We need to connect with the street creepers if we want to progress even an inch with this case, and so far she’s been the only one who shows any interest in helping us.”

“...”

“It’s our best bet for now.” A pause, and then something more of a sincere, hopeful plea. “Please listen to me on this, Fareeha. There’s more to find there, I promise.”

The detective appeared to consider the notion briefly, and it was when her eyes met Angela’s that she managed to say more with the darting of her chocolate brown irises than she could try to convey verbally at that very moment. Was there anything else she could do to get the answers they needed? She didn’t know. It was so incredibly aggravating to know the solutions to every single question, every single problem - that had to do with this web of horrendous cases involving the deadly virus - were most likely floating around out there in the expanse of the city, whether they be lurking in the shadows or boldy prancing around right in front of their blind eyes.

Maybe Angela was right.

Maybe they needed to go back a second time.

Fareeha glanced out at the conglomeration of neon-trimmed buildings and blinking lights, now enveloped by a nearly jet-black blanket of darkness dotted by flecks of sparkling white. A wispy billow of steam slinked lazily from her mug into the air, and was carried away no sooner than it had arisen. How it was so alike to her thoughts and desires in countless ways - here one moment and gone the next. They had no sedentary place to call home thanks to what Fareeha would like to call life - and for as long as she could remember, life had always been fascinated with playing cruel tricks on her.

The recent series of events was no exception.

“Alright, Angela. We’ll go back.”


 

Hana was waiting.

She hardly ever waited. It was one of the things she liked to do the least. Hana was the impatient type, of course - who took what she wanted when she wanted. It was so alien having to actually do nothing, except only be able to assume you would be achieving your goal at the end.

And her goal for today? Correction - her goal for this morning .

Meeting up with Baguetta (somehow she found it the height of hilarity whenever she called her new friend by that name. It was easier than saying Brigitte anyways, which had been her unconvincing excuse).

Today it was drizzling, as it seemed to perpetually be at this time of the year. Hana pulled her hoodie closer over her head and sighed, adjusting the mismatched phonobud she had attached to the side of her temple. Zen had given her one of his own after she had lost one belonging to her favorite pink pair, so now she had a curious duo of both rosebud and a dull (but once shimmering) yellow-gold.

She gave a low growl deep in the back of her throat and pushed herself off of the side of the AI hotel she had been loitering around. Where the fuck is she? A quick glimpse of her wrist tag showed that Brigitte was at least fifteen minutes behind schedule from the projected time she told she’d be able to meet Hana at, and the thought of the older girl ditching her for perhaps another coworker (or simply because she did not want to be around Hana, God forbid - that was the little street creeper’s worst nightmare) was almost sickening enough to the point where she was about to give up on everything and head back to A9.

A shrill beeping stopped the music pouring in over her phonobuds, and she lifted her wrist tag to see an incoming call arriving beside Brigitte’s profile. It blinked once, and was about to pulse a second time when Hana swiped the screen, immediately silencing the incessant action in order for her to figure out what was going on with Baguetta.

“Where are you? I’ve been waiting here for a while, geez!!” Hana croaked aggressively, hearing her voice crack slightly. She almost hated how attached she had grown to the other girl in just the span of a day’s time. But her thoughts relented, telling her she was in desperate need of a new friend, especially when Zen was growing consistently more busy with forming rallies and initiating protests as he paved the way for himself to become the second Mondatta.

“I’m sorry!” Brigitte’s voice sounded strained, as if she had been through an assortment of unfortunate dilemmas within the hour or so that she had been awake. “There’s a really bad car crash over here out on Fifth and Rodway; the two hover cars collided in midair and kinda just took out a block or so, they’ve got the fire department here and I’m trying to reroute my way to work but it’s taking me a while.”

Damn. Sounds pretty bad. “Oh….um, sorry to hear that.”

“It’s alright, it's not your fault!”

The hint of a smile that Hana missed sneaking across her lips was forgiving. “Okay. Don't worry about it. Maybe we can meet up later today?”

“Yeah! Maybe you can join me and Fareeha for dinner after work, we usually always pick something up if she’s not busy. Wanna do that?”

A little flabbergasted (although she tried to play it off smoothly - thank god Brigitte was somewhat thick at times) puff of air escaped Hana’s mouth, and she pretended to clear her throat. “Oh yeah, sure, I’d totally like that. Gotta check my schedule first, make sure I don’t have a business meeting or anything,” she joked, and when she received a laugh from the girl on the other end of the line she grinned brightly.

“Alright, sounds like a plan! I hope to see you then. Sorry again about the delay.”

“No worries.”

The phonobuds emanated a gentle white noise that invaded her mind, yet couldn’t take her thoughts off of the idea of having dinner with her newfound friend. Wait until she told Zen her plans for tonight -

“Oof-!!” Hana rubbed her arm and grimaced at the individual beside her, thoroughly aggravated by the rude bustling. “Watch it! The fuck are you on?!”

“Aye, desculpe me, chica!”

Hana backed away to get a better look at her sudden offender, and was surprised to see another street creeper (was she? She looked a little different….) woman. Glinting purple eyes studied her playfully, and from the darkness of the black cloak encasing the figure’s top half, Hana swore she could almost see something that resembled a skull similar to that of the man who attacked her the previous day.

“Um….Um yeah, desculpe you….” Hana stuttered, obviously understanding the meaning of what the other woman was saying but ultimately failing with her Spanish practice. She straightened out her waterproof jacket, the few tattered holes that it housed making it not entirely water resistant, and was about to turn around with a huff and head back home when a question caught her off guard.

“You were waiting for your friend, no?”

Hana’s curiosity was piqued, and although she was interested in precisely just how this unusual individual knew about her waiting for Brigitte that morning, something about the person standing before her was intimidatingly uncanny in a way that Hana realized something was off. “How - How did you know that…?” she questioned, the drizzling of the early morning beginning to pelt down a bit harder. So preoccupied was Hana that she was unaware she was getting wet from the rain in the areas that her jacket did not cover.

The other woman waved a hand and laughed, purple-tipped fingers clawing at the air mesmerizingly for a second. “Ah, I know a lot of things. But you for one looked like you were waiting for someone; I guess they stood you up this time, didn’t they? Pobrecita.”

“Nah,” Hana corrected them, shuffling one of her grimey sneakers beneath her and disrupting a thin puddle. It burst upon the impact, and trashed some muddy water on her opposite foot, causing her to scowl slightly. “She got held up by some traffic, so it’s not her fault. I’ll probably see her later on today, so it’s fine.”

The figure reached up to pull back on the black hood covering most of their face with various hues of soft shadow, and a innocent tuft of magenta hair poked out. Whatever ghost of a skull Hana had seen earlier beneath the layers of darkness had now disappeared, and instead rested the friendly face of a tanned woman with a quirky, crooked grin. “I see, that’s good!” The woman extended out a hand, which Hana eyed wearily. “I’m Sombra, by the way.”

It was a slow couple of seconds before Hana closed the distance between Sombra’s hand with her own, and when the other woman smiled back playfully a smidge of hesitance within the young street creeper’s psyche faltered. “Nice to meet you. The name’s Hana.”

Sombra began waltzing forward nonchalantly, arms folded behind her head as if she had no worries or cares in the world, and unprecedentedly Hana found herself chasing after the strange woman. “So, any plans today while you wait, Hana?”

“Not really….I mean, I usually never wait for anything. I’m kinda just used to taking things whenever I want them, haha,” she laughed nervously, sensing the cyber tats on her cheeks flushing a tint brighter at the subtle mention of being a thief. For the most part it wasn’t something she was relatively proud of, but it was the style of life she had grown accustomed to.

“¿De verdad? You sound a lot like me, chiquita.”

“Heh, really? Awesome!” Hana’s lips pursed together as she rearranged her method of thinking. “Well, I mean I guess it isn’t good good, but you know what I mean - we street creepers do what we gotta do to stay alive and all that shit. We gotta stick together,” she finished, turning Sombra’s way with a toothy grin as she skipped around to the front of the other woman and backpedaled her gait.

“That we most certainly do.” Sombra nodded. She quickened her step in time to the enthusiastic beating of her heart, and it felt wondrous to finally be having a normal conversation with someone. Everything she had been doing recently was tied to her work in some way or another, and although this exact rendezvous was more staged than not for the sake of her boss’ desires, she was quickly warming up to this girl named Hana by her own choice.

Despite her admiration for the girl skipping in front of her animatedly talking about something she had heard from her friend the other day on the street, a thought pinched somewhere in the depths of her brain to remind her that work came first. She almost wanted to groan, but she knew those secondary thoughts were usually always right. That they always meant something.

“A lotta strange stuff has being going on around here lately, sí?” The woman sidestepped a rattling omnic with a sluggish demeanor, most likely intoxicated from a tech narcotic. “I’m new to the area, but I just joined a gang. Been trying to catch up on what’s going on within the city, y’know?”

Hearing this, Hana immediately perked up. “Oh really?? Which gang are you in? I’ve been trying to join one for the longest time too, but none of them really seem to like me enough to keep me there for long,” she laughed, and the noise was meant to be self-mocking of her own situation but Sombra couldn’t help but hear a tinge of longing within the normally cheerful sound.

“Los Muertos,” Sombra purred, and with a quick flick of her wrist pulled her hood down one more time over her head, and midnight purple lips smirked as the ghost of the skeleton’s head Hana thought she had seen before burst to life. The green sugar skull decoration danced on Sombra’s skin as if it had a mind of it’s own, and the younger girl found herself gawking in unparalled fascination.

“Whoah!!”

“Cool, huh?” Sombra encouraged, and Hana nodded back, eyes wide and an indescribably wide smile on her face.

Way cool - how’d they let you in the gang? I’ve been trying for ages , ugh!! I only manage to get myself into trouble with them; I’m sure they hate me now.” She was surprised when she received a soft, sympathetic pat on the back from Sombra, and before she knew it, the other woman had her arm wrapped amiably around Hana’s shoulders.

“Don’t worry chiquita, you can hang out with me if you want. I think you’re pretty fun to be around,” she winked, and promptly placed a finger on Hana’s nose to give her a mischievous boop.

“Y-You do?” Came Hana’s shaky reply, and Sombra tugged her tighter into her side without hesitation. It was almost overwhelming how affectionate this stranger was, but having a friend who was actually willing to spend time with her and not get stuck in traffic or leap out into the face of danger to strike up (what she thought were foolish) protests, was currently a piece of heaven she hadn't yet attained. Was this what she had been waiting for?

She thought of Brigitte for a split second, and the way that the other girl had listened to her rant about her useless problems the day before after she had ditched Zen with the pretty doctor and stoic police lady, and felt a pang of guilt flash through her ever so briefly. She’s a good friend too, you know.

Ehhh, it can’t hurt to spend some time with Sombra for a little while, right? I can tell Baguetta about how cool Sombra is when I see her tonight. Bet she’s so going to want to meet her.

“Of course I do.” The words were a miraculous salve to the loneliness that wrecked Hana’s soul, and there was no way she could bypass this opportunity to turn down a potential friend as witty and interesting as Sombra.

“Fuck yeah!” Score! Hana threw an ecstatic fist pump into the air, unwittingly beating through the rain, and latched on to Sombra’s baggy sleeve. “Yo, wanna go get some breakfast with me? I was gonna get Baguetta something on the way to her work but since she can’t make it I guess we’re just going to have to go without her.” She began pulling Sombra along down the ever-crowded road (especially with that accident a ways off - more than a handful of people were rerouting, it seemed), and the hacker dodged and weaved through the pedestrian traffic tactfully as she followed Hana’s assertive lead.

Sombra scoffed cheekily, highly amused by the nickname Hana had apparently bestowed upon the unfortunate individual the other girl had just mentioned. “Baguetta? Is that the name of the friend you were waiting for?”

Well ,” Hana turned back to meet Sombra’s gaze for a short moment, before making a sharp right at the next corner to bring them to a small row of assorted restaurants, all of which looked vaguely homey and also somewhat cheap. It was hard to find a decent place to eat in this city; that much Sombra already knew. Perhaps Hana had a grasp of which eateries were sufficient so far, and which were just plain trash?

“Her real name is Brigitte, I think? I mean, it is a really weird name - so y’know, Baguetta totally sounds like something that makes more sense. It fits her cause she’s really tall and baguettes are really long.”

Sombra stopped dead in her tracks and let out an exuberant laugh - the sound in itself was so unexpected by Hana that the younger girl reeled back in shock, somewhat afraid that maybe this was the moment that Sombra decided her newly-made friend wasn't worth hanging around with anymore due to her shabby jokes and lack of comedic skills.

“Hahahaha - oh my god -” Sombra wiped a tear from her eye carefully. “You’re hilarious, you know that?”

“I meant it, I didn’t just say it to be funny,” the short-haired girl chided playfully, and although her words were serious she couldn’t help but slide in an amused lilt that matched the skip in her steps. “Oh, and whaddya say, I think we’re at the right place!”

In front of the two stood a rundown building pieced together with scarred brick and peeling mortar; a small collection of steps lead up to what appeared to be a revolving door at it’s center, but looked immensely out of place among the ancient building. The whole thing looked peculiar, and Sombra wouldn’t have ever guessed in a million years that it was indeed a restaurant had not Hana pointed out the cartoonish pancake with a chef’s hat prancing directly over the door and the steam leaking out the pipes at the top of the building.

Mr. Jack’s… ?” Sombra read goofily as she rolled the restaurant’s title over in her mouth, as if it were some sort of exotic dish she were attempting to pronounce.

“Yessssss,” Hana lunged forward with a sigh and contemptuous roll of her eyes to grab once again at Sombra’s sleeve. “They have the BEST pancakes here, I’m not kidding! You’ve gotta try them. Pleeeeeassseeeeee?”

The sight of Hana’s wet, matted hair due to the carefree tilt of her hood and flashing pink cheeks were enough to make Sombra fake a reconsideration, and after a few contemplating side-to-side nods of her head she shrugged. “Okay, I guess it’s worth a shot.”

Hana wasted no time dragging Sombra through the revolving door - they had a bit of trouble initially when Hana went in one set of doors and Sombra in the other, seeing as how their hands were still connected. Hana reluctantly needed to detach from her new friend, but soon they plopped down into a comfy bright red booth, one across from the other.

“Yo, Luce!” Hana waved to a dark man behind the counter, and when he noticed her he shot back with a wink and genuine laugh, the kind that one does with a friend that they’ve known for many years.

“Yo, Little Hana, long time no see!” His dreads swayed to and fro to an old swing tune pouring out of what looked to be a (what on Earth was that?) well-aged vinyl player on top of the front counter, and he seemed sincerely excited that this girl was back in what appeared to be his stomping grounds. “I play a lot of music, but you’re still my favorite Song~” he laughed, and Hana waved him off with a smile.

“Fuck off, Luce - yeah yeah, I bet you say that to all of the customers!” she scolded although her voice held no malice, and then on a more serious note added: “Can we get two Jack’s Combos over here, pretty please?”

“No problemo!”

“One chocolate milk and a coffee too, please!”

“Okie dokes!”

Sombra grinned slyly at the smaller girl sitting across from her as she tried to flag down her friend Luce with the drink orders, and when Hana finally realized that the woman had been staring, she shrugged.

“What? Just ordering a few drinks for the two of us.”

“Oh, nothing, nothing, amiga -” The hacker twirled an imaginary design on the napkin in front of her. “You seem to know what I like already.”

“Ha!” Hana scoffed, and when a waiter traversed by speedily to place down their respective beverages she reached forward and plunged a straw into her own brown drink, slurping it down immediately. “Nah, I just figured all adults like coffee. They’re serious and shit, and only wanna do adult things like go to meetings and talk about bills.”

“I’m not like that,” Sombra uttered quietly, pouring a bit of creamer into the coffee that Hana had ordered for her. “I’m part of a gang, remember? Those are the kinds of people we like to mess with.” She lifted the hood off from her head, having forgotten to do so sooner, and sighed contentedly as she cushioned the warm mug with her cold hands before taking a lengthy sip.

There was another long, shameless slurp from Hana’s end of the table. “Well you know my friend Baguetta? She dropped by the A9 with two of her pals yesterday. They were kinda like that, all busy with their work and everything….” She absentmindedly twirled her straw around in the now half-empty glass of chocolate milk. “I mean, they probably should be worried about their work….”

Hmm….Now we’re getting somewhere. “Aye chica, is it really that bad?” Sombra’s tone was considerate, and gave it the same hint of worry as if she had just heard about a friend’s distant relative passing away. But of course she knew this was much more serious….she just needed to play the part.

 It appeared as though Hana was in deep thought, considering whether or not it would be a wise decision to spill the details to Sombra. When she lifted her head from the invisible spot on the table she had been focusing all her mental energy on for the past few moments, her eyes were trained gravely on the intrigued woman across from her.

“I heard them talking. I think their names are Fareeha and Angela - they’re both really important people, I guess. But anyways….When Baguetta and I came back, they told her something about this virus that has been going around, and how lots of people in the A9 sector are being infected.” She pointed to her chest harshly for a deeper emphasis, and Sombra continued to look on, extremely invested in the story unfolding before her as she took another sip of her drink.

“And I’ve seen it, Sombra. People are dying. They’re dying every single day, and no one knows why. It’s just - it’s scary , because you don’t know who’s going to be next. If it’ll be you or not.” Hana sighed, and returned her attention back to playing with the straw wading down into her milk. “That’s what they’ve been working on. It worries me. I really like them, they’re super cool people, but I just kinda wish I could do more except be annoying.”

Luce glided on over at the peak of Hana’s depression, and both Sombra and Hana looked up at him simultaneously, wondering how in the world this man could navigate the aisles and walkways of Mr. Jack’s on roller skates (and yes, they were the old ones. They didn’t even make the models that he wore anymore - this whole place was somewhat of a relic).

“Here you ladies are: two Jack’s Combos.” With a curious flick of his wrists the plates he had been holding skidded over to both Sombra and Hana, and the latter looked up at him fondly with big brown eyes.

“Thanks, Luce,” Hana smiled somewhat sadly, most likely from the thoughts that had been careening through her head so recently as she explained what was happening around the city to her new friend.

The young man bowed, performed a stylish flourish at the end that made Hana smile just an inch wider for a single second, and then was gone.

“I just want to be helpful. You and the others are the first friends I’ve made in a very long time….I mean, I know most of the time it doesn’t seem like I want to be a good person, but I think deep down I really do want to. It’s just hard….you feel me? I’ve never had very many friends, and I want to change that.” The way she chewed on the chunk of pancake she had shoved into her mouth was lethargic, and to be honest, quite saddening in Sombra’s eyes. Even with so much strawberry syrup drizzled over the top she assumed Hana would have been more than excited to finally eat what she was so hyped about showing off to the hacker.

She needed to fix this.

“You know, chiquita….” Sombra picked up her fork and knife, and cleanly cut into the stack of pancakes that sat opposite from the single egg and two slices of bacon on her dish. “I think that’s something I might be able to help you with.”

Fork halfway to her mouth and dripping with the red glaze Hana froze, Sombra’s words having penetrated a way into her muddled thoughts just long enough to catch her attention. Whatever happened at this breakfast meeting, in this strange, retro diner tucked away in a unfortunate side of town, was crucial.

Sombra didn’t want to mess a single thing up.

But so far, things seemed to be going her way.

“Mmphh -” A quick, struggled swallow from Hana as she gulped down her food.. “Really...?”

Ha. Yes, it really did look like things were going her way.


Chapter Text

The clickety-clack of the keyboard being tampered with heavily was somewhat soothing to Ana’s ears. The keys thrummed together in an irregular beat, with no particular rhythm aside from the quickened breathing and occasional curse word dropping from the hacker’s mouth against the backdrop of dramatic music.

She did what she was supposed to have done. She listened to Gabriel and “toured” Sombra around A9, even if it may have been done from the shadows during the wee hours of the morning. Every piece of her was forced to agonizingly follow along with the plan, and if she had a choice she would have just left Sombra stranded there at the entrance to the street creeper neighborhood without any explanation. The hacker could have found her way along; she was sure of that. Sombra was street smart in her own way, and the conning that she organized online through the anonymity of cyberspace definitely spoke for itself in saying that she could snake her way around things that gave her the slightest trouble.

But, then again….Orders were orders.

Ana sighed deeply and grabbed at the mask she had tossed onto Sombra’s raggedy bed, the blue lights etched deep into the face’s screen waking up as they reacted to her touch and the warmth of her fingers. I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.

She was about to leave the room when Sombra called from over her shoulder, and with a wave of her hand instantly froze whatever computer game had been taking place on screen. The colors and figures flickered somewhat, as if they were bugs grimly caught in a spider’s web attempting to escape. “Abuelita, lo siento! I was meaning to tell you about today, but I got really absorbed in my game and y’know, one thing leads to another -”

Ana was already shaking her head in understanding, but she didn’t want to hear the explanation. “It’s fine, Sombra. I was just on my way out.”

“No, for reals! You should probably hear about it; who knows if Gabe’ll throw a hissy fit if I don’t fill you in on all of the juicy details. You might need to know this stuff.” Sombra was stuffing a crispy, bright red chip of some sort into her mouth, and she shook a finger at the older woman jokingly.

“Sounds like it’ll be a wonderful story.”

A figure had stepped into the empty doorway, tall and intimidating. Tresses of thick, black cable wound down a slender build and over a shoulder, and the fingers belonging to the woman who owned such strange locks toyed with them jadedly.

“Ah, Araña, you’re finally here!” Sombra leapt up from her chair and made a beeline for the other woman in the doorway, and forgetting she still had cables attached to her arm (the computer screens had skidded an inch or so and Sombra growled in frustration) had to go back and detach them before she threw herself at Widowmaker.

“Sombra, you are such a bother sometimes -” Her words, of course, we demeaning in a mild manner, but meant nothing of the sort to the smaller individual currently attempting at engulfing her friend in a bearhug. “But….I suppose I have not seen you for a while, yes.”

Sombra pulled back, and with her hands still tightly clinging to Widow’s shoulders turned to meet Ana’s gaze with bright eyes which radiated an unparalleled happiness in their deep purple. The two were good friends (apparently, as claimed by their resident hacker), and although the three of them didn’t exactly help improve the society in any sort of way through the eyes of anyone currently outside of their little organization, something about the two women bickering playfully together was something that made Ana smile.

Perhaps it was because maybe this was how things were with Fa-

“Get on with your story, petit ravageur,” Widow hissed softly, and with a gentle push shoved the hyper-clingy Sombra off of her shoulders.

“Fine, fineeee , if you insist!” Sombra found her way back into her chair and motioned for Ana to do the same on her bed, and the older woman obliged by making herself comfy. Then the Hispanic woman winked at Widow and patted her lap. “You want to sit down, Araña? I have a good spot for you right here. Nice and warm too.”

Widow mumbled something under her breath that sounded to Ana like a string of elaborate French slurs on Sombra’s behalf, but did nothing more except turn her eyes away from the grinning hacker and make it nearly impossible to tell if she was grinning or grimacing.

When Sombra had finally mentally accepted that the sniper wouldn’t be taking her up on her generous offer, she shrugged and sighed. “Guess you just want to hear the story, huh? Veo como es….”

“Sombra,” Ana urged, and the younger woman laughed away her disappointment with a wave of her purple-tipped hands.

“Right, okay don’t worry I’m going!” There was a quick sip from Sombra as she gulped down some of the cold coffee she had sitting next to her keyboard, and then after an incredibly loud breath of relief at the end, finally began her recollection of the day’s adventures.

“So we were told about the Los Muertos gang running into this strange little group of girlies investigating the A9, right? Okay - so I met up with this street creeper kid named Hana. She’s the only one I was able to get in touch with as of now, but it’s probably for the best anyways - two of the others are police, and then the other is supposedly a doctor.”

“Hana.…?” Ana couldn’t help but feel that the name was exactly how it sounded on her tongue. Small. Young. Innocent. She could have been wrong, but Ana was rarely ever so.

“Mhm!” Sombra nodded, and watched as Widow shuffled in place to rest her weight against the side of the doorframe. “She’s this little, cute girl with pink cyber tats - found her outside an AI hotel this morning waiting for one of her friends, but the other girl never showed up. La chiquita y yo went to get some breakfast at this diner too, was pretty tasty. I got some pancakes and eggs, oh! And the coffee was delici-”

“What did you talk about?” Widow was unimpressed with Sombra’s lack of concentration on the subject since it happened quite often with the hacker (but it was also a major part of the woman’s character, if one really thought about it), and found it necessary to keep her friend on track, especially if she was low on her patience. Which was pretty much all the time.

Sombra mulled it over for a moment, tapping her chin as she re-gathered the events of earlier in the day. “She mentioned that people are dying in the A9 sector. It would make sense though, since Ana’s doing her job.” She glanced quickly the old woman’s way, but Ana was fixated on the mask in her hand, features of her visage hidden from Sombra’s view thanks to the dark hood pulled down over her snowy head.

“I’ve done some research on the people she’s been with recently. It doesn’t look like Hana is someone who’s super invested in figuring out what’s going on in the sectors and around the city considering she’s just a regular girl, but she does want to help. Pobrecita….Most of the investigation is being done by the other individuals.”

She waited a moment to see if either of the women in the room would interject, maybe ask a question or add a sarcastic comment, and when no one did she continued. “I did some research on them. There’s Brigitte Lindholm, a probationary officer for the city’s police department. Apparently she’s the daughter of the city official Torbjorn Lindholm, which is very interesting….” Sombra had pulled up her digital computer and was now typing in midair; for a minute she looked as though she was miming clacking away at her keyboard, but when she turned on the holo setting on her arm the screen she had been viewing in her head was available to both Ana and Widow. She scrolled through a file (one of many) normally secret to anyone except those who had a hand in the way things were in society, but for Sombra, accessing a file such as this was child’s play.

“Then Hana also mentioned this woman, a doctor. Her name is Angela Ziegler.” Her eyes skimmed through the Swiss woman’s file with rapid optical motions, and the processing of such data that filtered in through them was transmitted and stored in her brain over a hundred times faster thanks to her cybernetic enhancements. “There’s a few things here that’ve been left blank on her file, and I don’t know why. At least not yet. We’ll find out soon,” she muttered, mostly to herself, and Ana couldn’t help but feel a reluctant sense of dread come over her.

“And last but not least, Fareeha Amari, police detective….” Sombra grinned wickedly as she swiped a finger and suddenly the three landed on Fareeha’s file. Cocking her head lazily to the woman resting on her bed, she released the question that had been bugging her all afternoon (that was, until she had forgotten it when she came back to their hideout and had begun playing videogames again). “She’s your daughter, isn’t she?”

Sombra and Widowmaker were equally silent, as well as fixed on the woman sitting with one leg over the other on Sombra’s bed. There was no doubt that Fareeha was Ana’s daughter, but it was so peculiar to actually think about - Ana was their coworker now. She had been for the longest time. Stoic, ruthless (but also sometimes sweet) grandma Ana was all they knew….She absolutely never talked about her past, although everyone knew about it. Keeping to herself was what she did best, and even now Sombra wondered if the older woman would entertain her question inquiring about her daughter despite her already knowing the answer.

“She…..is.” Ana’s voice was low, having been unable to find the strength to make her claim powerful and assertive. It felt like she had just been hit by a train, hearing Sombra say that the last individual was actually her own daughter. What were the odds? She had left - albeit unwillingly and without choice - Fareeha more than ten years ago, and although she would never forget her daughter, every single day that she woke up she wished Fareeha would forget about her, instead of chasing after the possibility that she could one day find her mother again.

Fareeha didn’t need to know where Ana was. It would be best if she never found out. Things were better off this way.

“She looks just like you.” It was an unexpected declaration, one that bit violently at Ana’s heart and threatened to bring undesired tears to her eyes. She fought back the feelings of both with a clearing of her throat, but unable to raise her head she could only continue to stare at the floor and the blue-lighted mask resting between her gloved hands.  

She didn’t want them to compare Fareeha with her. They shouldn’t.

There was a knock on the outside of Sombra’s room before Ana could decide whether or not she was willing to provide a reply to Sombra’s comment, and the three women turned their attention to the man swathed in black who had just stepped into view.  

“Looks like you’re all having fun. Mind if I join?” he asked sarcastically, and Widow scoffed while Sombra shot back at him a childish raspberry.

“Get outta here Gabe, we’re having Girls’ Night and you weren’t invited.” Sombra had another handful of chips in her mouth within the blink of an eye, and tried spitting another raspberry at him mockingly, but instead rained a shower of half-eaten chips down on herself.

“I like to crash parties, so what?” This only proved to strengthen Sombra’s fit of laughter, and Widowmaker sighed when the hacker began to choke helplessly on the chips before walking over to pat her roughly on the back and assuage the situation.

Gabe waved a clawed hand, absolutely dismissing the scene of Sombra suffocating on snackfood unfolding before him. “Nah - I came because I need to tell Ana something.”

The older woman perked up at the mention of her name, but wished she wasn’t always the one Gabe wanted to see. It got tiring, but more than that….it was disheartening, especially since each time she was asked to follow through with a job it usually involved death.

After all her years working for the police department, one knew that killing should have only been done for a reason, and it should always be a rational one, at that. Taking lives without any sort of reason was completely immoral, especially since the gift of life had unmeasured worth. Lives were things that should be protected, and valued.

But if anyone deserved to die, the sniper firmly believed it was she herself. There was no redemption for everything she had caused up until now.

“Ana, outside.”

A troubled inhale sounded as Ana trudged wearily to the door where Gabe was waiting, and she clutched her shrike mask tight between her fingers as she filled her gaze with the image of a worried Sombra (fearing for Ana’s future was a possible reason) with heavily furrowed brows, alongside a slightly concerned-looking Widowmaker.

After passing the doorway the two women were gone, and so were Ana’s hopes of hearing Gabe fill them in on some lurid gossip, following the short-lived dream of Girls’ Night that their resident hacker had suggested. Walking through the empty hallway and up the stairs to the roof where she usually spent her time mulling over her present life was more depressing than she had assumed it would be, and with every step she took causing the floorboards to creak underneath her and threaten to give out, her already almost nonexistent resolve to listen to Gabe weakened.

With an infernal, rusted wail the door to the rooftop opened and the two stepped outside, and Gabe waited for Ana to bypass him before he shut the entrance behind him. There was no real use for speaking up here aside from a secluded type of privacy, but even so hardly anything was safe in this city. Who knew; Gabriel was infamous amongst both Widowmaker and Sombra for being something not unlike a drama queen, although the man adamantly refuted whenever the nickname was brought up. Perhaps he was blowing things out of proportion and making them more serious than they seemed by bringing Ana up here - at least she hoped that was the case.

“I take it you three had been talking about Sombra’s success within A9 gathering details about the investigators.” Gabriel’s vision was fixed on the woman in front of him who had drifted off to a corner of the rooftop, particularly in the direction of one of the city’s major hubs of gaudy lighting and towering, ethereal skyscrapers. The possibility of her being zoned out was nothing to be concerned with; anything he discussed with the woman was of the utmost importance, and they had drilled that into her the moment she had been tossed into the orchestrated chaos which was the organization.

An unadorned, clipped response was adequate enough. “Yes, I was informed.”

For the slightest of moments Gabriel almost felt a smidge of pity for the other woman. Almost. But before he had enough time to fabricate any meaning derived from the hundredth of a second in which he had hesitated, any solicitude within his mind and ice-cold heart had vanished. “Good….The next step of the plan is simple. Part of it has been already done by Sombra; she instigated a little visit to somewhere they assume they can get more clues about the NNv. You will be there at the chosen location to greet them….Your next task is to infect the mentioned group currently investigating the A9.”

It just her luck that she felt as though she had been hit by a train for the second time within such a short interval, and if her breathlessness was any indicator of her state of shock, she was beginning to think that she’d die of cardiac arrest sooner rather than later. “I - Gabriel -” she stuttered, unable to piece together a valid rebuttal. It was impossible, because there was nothing she could do to fight the decision that had been made without her input.

“Boss’ orders, Ana. We need them out of the picture in order for the plan to succeed.” Plodding footsteps filled by the unrelenting ghost of a man who had devoted himself to things unspoken faded farther away, and Ana knew that anything she strived to ask within those last few seconds would be whispers disregarded without hesitation.

“Tomorrow they’ll be heading to the A9 sector. If you don’t show up I’ll know.”

“...”

Maybe Gabriel had been thoughtful in his own demented, unforgiving way by inviting Ana to the rooftop for their crushing discussion, which had practically torn the woman’s heart into a hundred tiny fragments.  

Why was this, one might ask?

So that no one would be there to see Ana cry.


 

Dinner the previous night had been more than eventful; it had been nothing short of a pleasantly surprising revelation, one that would hopefully lead the group to some once-evasive answers. True to her word, Brigitte resolved to meet Hana later that day after work with Fareeha, and the young street creeper had lounged outside on the resident communal bench situated near the police station with a barely contained excitement. The pair had just managed to usher Hana to a small sushi bar hidden by the onslaught of street creepers and other citizens on their way home from work without her bouncing off into the crowd, and plopped her down into a seat just long enough to give Angela Ziegler a call and direct her to their rendezvous destination for the night.

It was a few minutes before the doctor arrived, having rushed from her office in a fluster of heavily engrossed theories that had been culminating in her mind throughout the day and golden flyaways, both which had Fareeha Amari’s heart quickening the pace at which it kicked against her chest.

Hana’s discoveries and reenactments (she couldn’t help but play everything out exactly as it had occurred, and Fareeha found herself rolling her eyes and shaking her head at Angela across the table while Brigitte leant over her assorted sushi rolls in fascination) were nonetheless mentally simulating, and although Fareeha was jokingly making disengaged gestures, her mind was a tumult of elation and awe. It was foolish of her to think before that there was nothing significant remaining in the A9 sector, and without noticing her own actions, followed through with more than a few glances of admiration in Doctor Angela Ziegler’s direction. The woman was enthralled by Hana’s indulgent displays of the events that had ensued in the morning, and with every word that dripped from the girl’s mouth, noted what she felt was important on the digipad that she carried with her at every waking moment, lest she be provided the opportunity to list a signal scribble or two.

What was ultimately absorbed by the three women who had so graciously lent their time to a perpetually hyperactive Hana was that this mysterious woman Sombra, supposedly a new member of the Los Muertos gang, knew enough about NNv to give them a generous indicator of a whereabouts that contained more information.

According to Hana (as mentioned by her new friend Sombra), the alleged goldmine where they could further their investigation of the NNv cases running rampant throughout the city was an abandoned cargo ship at the edge of the bay on the city’s north end, having been forgotten over the years due to the popularization of airship and drone delivery. The tip from Sombra was their only lead as of now, and although Brigitte had shared a few circumspect looks with Fareeha when Hana wasn’t paying attention, they both shared the unanimous opinion that they wouldn’t put Hana’s information to waste. Brigitte especially knew it’d break her friend’s heart if they decided to revoke everything that they had just heard and resort to pilfering around the A9 or another sector again, and what was the use in doing that?

“We’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for anything to happen,” Fareeha had announced brusquely while plucking a tempura shrimp from her bowl to toss it down her throat. “This could be a set up of some sort, so we just need to take the right precautions.”

Just because they were all in public, Fareeha had lowered her voice down to hushed tones to inform Angela and Hana on the plan (and the weapons they’d be bringing when they decided to investigate the lonesome freighter), and it was wonderful to watch the two nod their heads in drawn understanding as she and Brigitte explained what would be wise to do. The plan was simple: Fareeha and Brigitte would of course be the protectors of their adventure, donning their own protection of choice which they thought would be sufficient for the mission. Hana would lead them to the spot where Sombra had informed her of, and after deciding on an entry and exit route where they could all hustle to if anything unfortunate were to happen, the four would infiltrate the ship as stealthily as possible.

And then whatever transpired from their initial “break-in”, they would play by ear.

That was also exactly what they were reminding themselves of as they neared the docks of the deserted bay the next evening, the only noises interrupting their hopefully inconspicuous little holiday to this side of town being the frolicking of water lapping at the sides of the manmade shore. The massive freighter that they had been alerted of by Hana’s mysterious friend a day before drifted unsettlingly across the water’s surface, and as the four of them creeped closer, weaving in between and around shipping containers with a frantic drive, the little street creeper grew incredibly excited.

They finally stopped behind a stack of shipping crates relatively close to the boat they were about board, and Fareeha spread her arms out like a football coach calling in her team for a mid-game huddle. The detective’s heart was pounding in her throat, and watching Angela give her a confident grin as their group huddled closer to murmer a few dire reminders and answer last-minute questions made her feel a not unwanted, but distinctive rush of adrenaline that she hoped didn’t cause her to blush (and if it did, then she hoped it was unnoticeable - sometimes it helped having darker skin, and she was grateful for that).

The doctor’s arm around her shoulder was smothering her ability to think accurately, but she persevered and was able to babble quite cohesively a couple of grammatically correct sentences. “Is everyone ready to do this? Remember we all need to stick together; no one is walking off to go look at something or whatever it is the fuck they want to do once we get in there.”

“Aye aye!” Brigitte nodded heartily, and also a bit too loudly for Fareeha’s liking, because her partner shot her a warning with sharp brown eyes and then Brigitte was uncharacteristically quiet after a quick clearing of her throat and a feeble “Sorry...!”.

“I can’t wait, I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!” Hana squealed softly as she hopped to and fro on the balls of her feet between Angela and Brigitte. Fareeha was clearly doing the “harumph” sort of dissatisfied, disappointed look across from her, which only spurred the eagerness clawing at the inside of Hana’s stomach and forced her to bump hips playfully with the tall auburn-haired girl who had a muscular arm over her shoulder. Yes! I can’t believe I’m actually helping them out! This is so cool! I finally get the chance to do something awesome, hehe!

Fareeha’s head swiveled back and forth around their discreet pow wow circle for a short moment, gathering that everyone had memorized the plan the previous night as they discussed what new information had been gathered and divulged at the restaurant. Standing back up with a slightly unwarranted reluctance of leaving Angela’s warm embrace, she waved a hand over her shoulder. “Alright gang, if no one’s got questions or anything then this is it. Let’s start looking for an entrance.”

Brigitte and Hana lagged behind Fareeha some (but not too far, just enough to whisper a few things to each other without behind heard), the intriguing matter of the semi-lack of distance between the doctor and the tall, dark woman pressing forward initiating amused comments between the two of them.

They sidled up against the hull of the ship, where Fareeha began to study the perimeter for any sign of activity having gone on within the area to make this the place where supposedly NNv clues (whatever that consisted of) had been floating around.

“Psstttt!” Hana hissed, jabbing a studious Brigitte in the ribs and then waggling a finger back and forth from Fareeha to Angela and then Angela to Fareeha, eyes squinted at the pair suspiciously. “Since when did the two of them get so cozy with one another? It’s like they’re basically holding hands or some strange shit.”

Brigitte’s features warped with the addition of confusion into a melange of furrowed eyebrows and a nervous frown, not understanding what Hana was trying to point out. She was known for being a bit thick at times, but had a considerably large heart that made up for her sometimes dense state of mind, which thankfully didn’t surface too often since she was lucky enough to find herself away from the situations that did arouse that part of her. “Eh? What are you talking about?” Brigitte asked, quickly scuttling over to Fareeha and Angela, who had decided the only way of entry was the main deck and were now attempting to clamber on top the first of a collection of shipping crates that rose roughly to the height of the ship’s deck.

“Just look at the two of them!”

Brigitte did as she was told so as not to upset the feisty little street creeper, and watched as Fareeha miraculously pulled herself up onto the first crate with a perfected agileness only attained from years of physical training, and then reach down a strong hand for Angela to grasp onto. In the faint evening light she was almost sure she glimpsed Fareeha blushing slightly as the woman seized Angela’s pale hand and began to heave her upward, having recognized the agonizingly faint (but still noticeable) shade turning the detective’s cheeks just a flush darker than before. Hm, maybe Hana’s onto something there. Or maybe it’s all the blood rushing to Fareeha’s head with the physical effort of pulling Angela up. Not saying the doc’s heavy or anything , Brigitte thought to herself muddledly.  

Hana shot her an accusatory glance when Brigitte looked her way, and before the older girl could organize a response that vaguely supported Hana’s hypothesis, Fareeha called out to the two of them to hurry up.

“Lift me up, Baguetta.”

“That’s what I’m - oof - doing! Ow, watch it with my head….”

“Sorry about that Baguetta. Need a hand?”

“Nah, I got this.”

Finding themselves within close proximity to the two older women, Hana and her trusty-but-reluctant sidekick (as she was beginning to mentally label the other girl) Baguetta went about the feat of scaling the crates in comfortable silence, until they finally made their way to the top. A sizeable gap separated the four women from their destination, but with a running start followed by a leap, they all were able to land on the deck in a somewhat uncomfortable pile.

Fareeha was the first to brush herself off, and immediately went to Angela’s side to assist her, to which the doctor politely refused and helped her own self up. “U-Uh, well there should be an entrance to get below this first level somewhere around here….” the detective tentatively began, unaware that Brigitte and Hana were stifling back obnoxious giggles that had threatened to erupt from their mouths when they saw Fareeha backing away shyly upon Angela’s declaration that she was indeed fine.

“I’ll lead the way.” Fareeha pulled out her handgun from the inside of her jacket and held it out before her, one arm steadying her aim.

The four of them crept along as cautiously as one would walk knowing they were trodding across an old minefield, every innocent creak ignited by the bay’s rough breeze that caused something to topple or swing putting them all on edge slightly. Every new sound was unexpected, as so were the sights that merged to create an alien world of singularity, very much similar to the A9 sector they had visited recently.

It seemed as although the deck was bare of any signs of life, there were fragments of a past where it was plainly visible to glimpse the actions and culture that had been harbored here for as long as the freighter ship had been out of service. Makeshift tents that were now tattered lay slain across the metal floor, the holes punctured into their thin walls showing the grime and ash that lay beneath. It was hard keeping an eye out for empty bottles and cans - even needles and other vile things - since the women were attempting to stay alert and keep their wits about them, but for every littered trash particle they startled, they too would cringe in worry that perhaps they had just innocuously woken or angered some mysterious being on the ship.

Once they had arrived at an agreeable entryway, their particular choice a latched door near the center edifice they figured functioned as an office of sorts, their apprehensiveness only grew.

“Wait, Fareeha!” It was Brigitte, having sidled up next to the woman leading them to grab her by the shoulder before they dared to descend down the ominous stairway that opened itself to pitch-black darkness. Her heart beat wildly against the gun harness clasped around her chest, and the sensation of it knocking against the strap was bothersome to an unfamiliar degree.

“What is it?”

Brigitte hesitated, and she hated herself for it. But the fear was there, nonetheless, and she couldn’t seem to get rid of it despite her being in the good company of a former police celebrity, a genius doctor, and a certain pink-cheeked street creeper. She so direly wanted to ask if what they were doing was a good idea, but capitulated into locking the phrase deep in the recesses of her mind. “N-Nothing….Just, um, maybe we should use some lights, so we can see.”

“Good idea,” Fareeha nodded, gesturing with a subtle cock of her chin to everyone before fidgeting with her wrist tag for a moment until a faint blue light emanated from the side and projected in front of them, painting the stairs aquamarine. “Everybody, lights on.”

The feelings of regret and trepidation weighed heavily on Brigitte, but she didn’t dare inject another one of her insecurities as the four girls moved along down the stairwell. Fuck, if something goes wrong….

But another thought tapped on her shoulder following her previous question, and she entertained it for the slightest of moments. If something goes wrong it’s not your fault, you know. And to be brutally honest, that was exactly what worried her. Any mishap would be entirely out of her control.

The four of them were successful in descending the stairs without so much as a slip-up, and Fareeha imagined the three individuals behind her slowly releasing their bated breath. The light from their tags proved to be sufficient in lighting their surroundings, and it was completely astonishing of what lay beneath the surface of this old, rusted cargo ship.

It was literally another world, just….simply that it had been forgotten. In unison with the very top of the ship and what remained of a distant, unfortunate past, the setting clouded in darkness a few feet below was much the same.

“What….is this place….?” Hana’s voice was a mere whisper, and she clutched the back of Brigitte’s bomber jacket in a way that made the older girl’s fear melt away a few inches.

“It’s the ship you told us about, silly,” Brigitte tried to shoot back humorously, finding that her attempt at being a comedian was indeed not well suited for this particular situation.

The hand at the midpoint of Brigitte’s back pulled tighter on the owner’s jacket. “I know, but….this place is just….I don’t know - more creepy than I thought it would be.”

“Well don’t you chicken out easily? I thought you were excited about this a few minutes ago?”

“Shhh!” The warning to remain quiet was alarming, to put it mildly, at least for Brigitte and Hana (especially considering it came from Angela, who they had gathered these past few days was more carefree than their fearless leader Fareeha was). “Girls, we need to remain on our toes. Chat can be saved for later, when we actually find something.”

Hana sighed somewhat heavily before allowing her interest to fall, swapping it out for unenthusiastically obeying the doctor’s orders and shutting her trap. “ Fine….

Fareeha had been unwillingly listening to the entirety of the exchange developing behind her, albeit with a fixation on the surrounding scenery which was currently illuminated with the help of the gentle glow of her tag that bathed everything around her within a ten foot radius. She reiterated Angela’s comment in her mind. But what are we even looking for? The question was commonplace, but so was the answer.

I guess we’ll now it when we see it.


 

Unbeknownst to Fareeha and the others, there was another being on the ship.

Ana knew she wasn’t alone. She had kept an eye on the four individuals who had decided to make use of what “truth” Sombra had discussed with the youngest member just the day before, but being here was the hardest thing she had done so far these past years. With every passing second she felt as though the surrounding darkness would suffocate her, finally. She almost wished it did, as a matter of fact. Snuffing what significance left in her life (which was hardly any, she truthfully thought) and putting an end to the hell she new as the mundane cycle of waking up over and over again in a never-ending nightmare sounded like a favorable demise.

Waiting was always the hardest part, but after all the years of working for the police department and rising in the ranks to become what the city recognized to be the best gunman they had ever known, she realized that it was part of the job. Therefore it didn’t really add up as being something of a problem, anymore. Patience was a necessity, and usually one that she had no issue with harnessing, but today things were absolutely as contrary as they could get.

Her eye was focused on the middle of the cavernous hold, where lay strewn about rather convolutedly were the remnants of such enticing talk Sombra had played off to the street creeper girl named Hana yesterday morning. Indeed, this ancient cargo ship had once been a hideaway for anyone in the city who felt out of place, unwanted, or sought after in a precarious manner. A safe haven for those who flew under the radar, the hold in particular was known unanimously as the grounds for the ungodly to evolve….And being shrouded in darkness didn’t make manners any better.

A ragged creaking cut into eardrum-scratching intervals sounded throughout the hold, and Ana flinched, heaving her biotic rifle up on her shoulder. Refined by the help of her shrike mask, night vision brought to life the four cautious but blissfully ignorant individuals who had found their way down into the remote but most important part of the ship. They slipped in stealthily through one of the side doors, which had been previously pulled shut tight with the help of a wheel lock.

Fareeha.

The detective had apparently taken the reins of the expedition (Ana recognized this as the  headstrong persona of Fareeha, and it melted her heart some), and wandered over to the middle of the hold, where a generous multitude of broken glass from testing vessels and carelessly opened blackmarket crates had gathered dust over the decades.

Ana watched her daughter kneel down to point to something on the ground, where a recently spilled bottle of biotic fluid had been hastily thrown by the sniper herself not long ago. The nanomachines had been floundering on the dirtied floor, and although it had been under an hour that they had been emptied from their comfy confines, without the liquid cushion in which they traveled through and lived, they had begun to wilt. Simple nanites had been the choice decoy in serving as a pivotal “clue”, and judging by the way the blonde woman who followed closely after Fareeha (Ana figured she must be the doctor Sombra mentioned, Angela Ziegler) knelt down and began to hover over the mess with an unrivaled wonderment, the bait had been swallowed, hook, line, and sinker.

Ana focused the electric blue crosshairs of her rifle in their general direction, breathing shakily. Why was she doing this? She didn’t want to be doing this.

Two younger women threw themselves onto the scene in front of her, eyes wide as Angela began to collect what nanites she could with the help of a unique-looking tool she had pulled out of the bag that was now resting on the floor by her side.

It felt as if the temperature settling in the hold had risen at least a hundred degrees, and her palms grazing the gloves which she always wore were becoming clammy. Ana fumbled with the weapon on her shoulder before pointing the crosshairs at the young woman with the tattoo under her right eye, who was deep in hushed conversation with the beautiful doctor beside her.

Just get it over with.

But….

There was no distinct though that flashed through her mind and strained her from infecting her daughter, and neither was it any single individual who had stepped into this cursed hideaway. It was all one overwhelming swarm of concordant memories, thoughts, and beliefs, pressed hard into the timespan of a second or two. Just long enough to cause her to think twice.

Finger hovering above the trigger, something convicted her to not abandon the cause in which she had been sent to accomplish this task, despite the careening morals and reminisced fragments of times past plaguing her mind.

She couldn’t depart having left any of them unscathed, as much as she desired to do so. Her forced initiation into the organization was quite literally torture, and going against the head’s orders, especially at such a time as this when tensions in the city were escalating, was irrefutably suicide.

The doctor was the key to their success, surely. Without her, Ana was certain the investigation would fall apart. Fareeha was smart, she always had been - but nanotechnology was something entirely out of her reach, as it was for anyone who didn’t make their living delving into nanotechnology and cybernetics. There was no exact answer that inclined her to settle for the choice individual she would ultimately infect, it was all a jumble of ambiguous comments from individuals she didn’t trust coupled with the aching of her heart as she dwelt on past lives.

With the crosshairs on the blonde doctor, Ana finally pulled the trigger.


 

Angela flinched suddenly, having felt the most peculiar streak of pain sear her exposed neck. She was highly driven towards rubbing the area and chasing away the soreness that had spread like a wildfire for a moment, but refused from doing so because she didn’t want to drop the tools she had been using to collect the remnants of what nanites were still alive.

What….was that….?

And before she knew it, the pain had ceased. Perhaps a bug? She dared not entertain the other though that lounged in her mind, perpetually waiting in what darkness encased it for the right moment to leap out and haunt her.

A few moments more and she had collected what she hoped was enough of a sample, and felt relatively accomplished in doing so. Angela carefully tucked away the tubular container into her duffle, along with the dropper-like utensil she had been using to harvest the remains of the liquid, and sighed in relief. “Well, it appears as though we got what we came for,” she smiled, but the gesture was troubled in a way she wished the others were unable to identify. “I believe studying these nanites will be essential in developing an antidote to the virus, or at least making some sort of intellectual guess that can lead us to more clues.”

“Educated guesses, huh?” Fareeha crossed her arms nonchalantly, although she was quite attuned to the whole situation, and Angela immediately knew she was referencing the conversation that had taken place between them last night. “Is there any way to tell if these nanites we just collected are NNv, or not?”

Brigitte and Hana looked on in pure astonishment as they absorbed the interaction occurring between Fareeha and Angela, and although the doctor shook her head glumly as she began her response, the negative answer would not extinguish any of the reverence they garnered for the woman. “No, unfortunately I won’t be able to tell if this is NNv or not until I get back to my office and run some tests. Either that, or we test it out on someone, and I don’t believe we would like to become familiar with the repercussions of the second choice,” she chuckled at her own morbid joke, and the detective nodded in understanding.

“Ah, I see. We should be probably be heading back soon then.”

“Agreed.”

The group remained in the hold for a few more minutes to see if perhaps there was anything else they had missed, and stumbled upon a variety of other interesting findings, none of which they could directly correlate to the NNv epidemic currently. Still, pictures were taken and small scraps of noteworthy mementos were scrounged and stuffed away for safekeeping in Angela’s duffle, and without further ado the four were off again.

Night had fallen, and stolen the place of the sunset sky like a thief would a precious belonging while the four had descended below the deck of the old cargo ship. There, beneath the countless sheets of metal that constructed each and every floor, time had appeared to become a foreign proposition as the women had lost all care for the outside world. But now, having emerged from the steel walls, they were back in a world that needed their help. And they were going to do their absolute best to make their success and the city’s survival a future destination they would reach, despite whatever obstacles may come their way.

The walk back was strangely pleasant. Fareeha thought it best to escort Angela home (and by this the doctor fervently meant the city hospital, her second home) first, if possible, since she was in possession of their previous findings and the ominous nanite fluid. Although they hadn't directly visited the A9 sector again today, Angela had been right in assuming that there was more there. Hana had run into this Sombra person, after all, who had informed the girl of the lonely freighter where they had been lucky enough to gather what they assumed could be helpful clues and possible assets.

There was a peculiar nagging at the back of her mind though, after the few years she had been working as a detective. Even before then, although it was most likely still in a more premature stage, her instincts had played a large role in her job as a police officer when her forte was protecting the city by raw manpower. Now she had to rely more on the gears that were constantly swerving inside her head, and although she wasn’t fond of her new position, perhaps it was slowly growing on her, and just maybe she was becoming better at it - finally.

She had chosen to lag somewhat behind the group this time as they traversed their way back through the city; Brigitte and Hana were in the middle chatting up a storm about something completely unrelated to the case (Fareeha could have sworn they were discussing a movie, but she didn’t feel like eavesdropping to such an invested degree), and Angela led the way wordlessly, tossing a gentle smile back to the three occasionally when she heard the two girls laugh about something or make a cheery comment.

Fareeha was flummoxed in the most candid way possible. The curiosity shone through her eyes in a scrutinizing glimmer as she watched Angela make her way through the streets, sidestepping the push and prod of the night crowd with seamless elegance. What was going on in that mind of hers? Was she questioning the same things Fareeha was? Did she too also feel just slightly uneasy about what they had discovered on board the old freighter?

It was nearly impossible to tell - here was Fareeha Amari’s allergy to most forms of social norms, having refused to be any kind of close friend to anyone for years. The record of solitude was broken when Brigitte had stepped into the picture not too long ago, but even then Fareeha found it undeniably hard to admit to Brigitte things of high importance and which held a notable space within her heart or mind often enough.

Maybe there really was no way of understanding what on Earth was going on in Doctor Angela Ziegler’s mind aside from asking her what it was she was thinking about. Which, of course, was an option Fareeha needed more practice doing.

Her worries were washed away when the four of them glided across the hospital foyer, bypassing an unreasonably crowded formation of people who were either workers chugging their coffee on their way to clock in for the graveyard shift or unfortunate folks who had been waiting for a chance to be seen in the emergency room, and slid into the respected employee-only elevator. Brigitte and Hana were guffawing like children at a circus, each of them taking turns jumping up and down as the elevator continued rising - to which Fareeha quickly chided them for, meeting Angela’s occupied gaze for the slightest of moments to catch the doctor shooting what appeared to be an admirative but shy smile her way. Fareeha’s cheeks burned, and she pretended to cough while Brigitte and Hana took a break from elevator stomping and transferred their current interest to poking fun at a bashful, very awkward Egyptian detective.

Their second ride to the very top of the hospital building was agonizingly long yet again (it did feel longer this time though, probably because of all the teasing that ensued as Fareeha threatened wringing both Brigitte’s and Hana’s necks), and when the sliding doors opened and the painful elevator music was discarded for the quiet halls of Angela’s floor, Fareeha was able to relax just enough.

“Whoahhhhh, this place is so cool!” Hana drawled, unconsciously performing sloppy eights on the floor as she wandered around, head on a swivel. “Wait, fuck what I just said - this place is amazing, Angela! Can I live here with you?” The younger girl had resorted to calling Doctor Ziegler by her first name, and the initial time she had done so Fareeha immediately wanted to cover the little street creeper’s mouth in fear that perhaps it would be taken as something out of place. Instead, apparently Angela was quite taken with action of her first name being used by the quirky Hana and delivered a bright grin instead of a haughty correction.

“Ah, it isn’t much of a home, Hana -” Angela answered with a nervous chuckle, slinging her duffle over to rest on her backside as she fiddled with the dual-memory security system guarding her office. “I’m just holed up here often enough because of my work, so that’s why I joke that I live here.”

“Huh,” Hana mumbled lethargically, and it was clear to the three other women that the statement had fallen on deaf ears. Nothing much to be done though when the one and only Hana Song decides to not listen.

Angela’s office door made way for the small group to enter, and Fareeha once again lay behind in wait to grab at both Hana’s and Brigitte’s shoulders, hauling them back. Their arms pumped at their sides with excruciating force as they tried to pry themselves away from the older woman, but Fareeha had no intent in giving leeway to their desires.

“Wait a sec kiddos, I think we should let Angela have some space. It’s late, and I’m sure she’s tired - it’s probably best that we head on home for now.”

Brigitte balked at the exclamation. “What? Oh come on, Fareeha, we just got here!” And then with a quick glance to Hana, who was struggling even more trying to free herself from Fareeha’s grip, it was as if a lightbulb had just gone off right over her head. “Oh, and Hana! Hana hasn’t seen any of Angela’s office yet! We gotta show her!”

With a vigorous grunt Fareeha pulled them both back, and the two got shoved behind her and thrown out into the empty hallway. “Wait there! I’ll be right back!” She managed to catch a glimpse of Brigitte and Hana scrambling off of one another to try and catch the office door before it closed, but it was too late. Groans of disappointment trailed behind their hasty jettison, and Fareeha almost wanted to grin at her sudden display of strength and success but stopped short when she remembered that she was still in the presence of Angela Ziegler.

She rubbed the back of her neck nervously, hating the way she had suddenly become so self-conscious. “I - um, I was meaning to leave too, I just thought I should kick them out so we wouldn’t overstay our welcome -” Fareeha mumbled a concoction of a few other inaudible things too low for Angela to gather the whole idea of, but the sight of a furiously blathering Fareeha Amari made her giggle.

There was a hapless sigh, and then Fareeha’s shoulders sagged. “I guess what I’m really just trying to say is - thank you for your help today. It was….I truly couldn't appreciate your help more than I do now.” Her hand hovered over the heat sensor on the side that allowed for a means to exit once someone signaled for the door to open, and she hesitated just long enough for Angela to formulate a response that was music to Fareeha’s ears.

“I don’t know if I’d say that, Detective Amari.” Angela’s angelic smirk was seductive in a way Fareeha couldn’t describe, and the unexpected new referral of her title ‘detective’ partnered with her last name never sounded so wonderful, especially coming from the other woman’s lips. “I’m sure there’s much more I could do for you, and the city as well.” She lifted the duffle bag still slung around her shoulder and smiled. “I do have a bit of work to do tonight, after what we’ve gathered.”

“Right, right!” Fareeha’s prosthetic had found it's way to the nape of her neck again, where it rubbed tensely at what she knew was hot, bothered skin. “I’ll meet up with you again tomorrow then, and see what we gather from the findings?”

“Sounds perfect.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Eight o’clock.”

Fareeha’s free hand jabbed at the heat sensor on the door aimlessly, her innocent brown gaze resting on Angela just a moment longer than necessary. “Goodnight, Angela. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The smile on Angela’s face was irreplaceable, and it grew even wider when Fareeha finally placed her hand correctly on the scanner to the left of the doorway and the structure separating the two from the girls outside departed, sending Brigitte and Hana crashing down without warning into a pile at Fareeha’s feet.

“Goodnight, girls,” Angela laughed, offering a timid wave to the two as Fareeha hauled them up by their collars and dragged them in the direction of the elevator.

“Ah, goodnight Angela!”

“Imma come back and see that amazeballs office of yours, don't you worry!”

There was a light hiss as the door closed once more, and Angela sighed. She was in silence, once again, alone. The thought was almost enough to bring her down, when her optimism (long time no see to that particular friend, actually) kicked in, and she instantly remembered she’d meet up with the detective and her partner, as well as the feisty street creeper soon.

I’ll see them again tomorrow, nothing to fret over.

Fareeha’s nervous yet strangely adorable face popped into her mind, an exact figment of the way she had appeared when bidding goodnight to the doctor, and her heart lifted some. I can’t let her down. She’s counting on me.

With a driving nod Angela made the decision to get to work right away on preserving what she could of the nanites they had gathered on the cargo ship, and tossed her coat on a diagram-littered counter before weaving her way through the mess that was her main office and over in the direction of her lab. She figured it wise to get a headstart and do whatever she could before exhaustion overtook her, but then again she had a burning desire to pull an all-nighter and down multiple cups of coffee in order to wipe away all the mystery that surrounded their gathered clues.  

And then it hit her, as inconspicuous as a piano falling from overhead without any forewarning from the universe.

It was a roiling tension in her gut that stretched and squeezed without heed, and jolts of the blistering pain she had felt before in the dark hold on the ship had now spread up her chest, sparking at her brain. She doubled over, and thankfully caught hold of the side of the counter she had deposited her coat on just a moment before - but this, this wasn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to be this painful.

There’s - there’s something wrong with them….

She coughed, and no alarm coursed through her enough to make her panic when blood dripped out the corner of her mouth and pooled into a collection of crimson splatters on the floor. Her hand rushed to her mouth, as if she could possibly hold in the liquid that gave her body life, and she collapsed to the floor when another pang of fire scorched her insides.

And then Angela Ziegler’s world succumbed to darkness.  

 

Chapter Text

The streets were her home now. The elusive, binding shadows shrouded her in darkness as she scampered through the streets on nimble feet. They pushed her to continue running, and the act in itself was never done for enjoyment, seeing as it was a hobby for a number of individuals.

She found herself running this time because she had plunged head first into a scramble of mischief. A couple of years ago, this circumstance would have been rare for Angela. Now, it was almost pure habit.

There was a figure she was trying to catch, one that somehow always shied away from her grasp at the last moment, like a fleeting memory of the past never fully realized. She was panting heavily, and knew without a doubt that if she didn’t voice her desire to halt (at least for a few moments), she’d surely be left in the dust.

“Moira!”

The girl ahead of her skidded to a stop, and her head whipped around quickly as Angela collapsed into an exhausted position with hands on her knees for necessary support. Strands of sticky blonde hair stuck to the sides of her face in a way only a mother could love, but it was just Angela’s luck that she didn’t have one anymore to wipe away the perspiration with a damp cloth and a gentle smile.

“What is it?” Mismatched eyes scrutinized her, almost unbearably enough to make Angela writhe in agitation. “We’re almost back at the sector, Ange.”

Angela huffed and attempted to pull back the messy nest of gold that sat atop her head. She urged it to come together in an adorably unkempt ponytail before sifting through her mind for a legitimate reply. Nothing she pulled up was good enough for Moira, but she did desperately need a break, even if it may be for only a minute or two. “I - I just need a minute, that’s all. I’m sorry.”

There was a small backpack slung over the redhead’s shoulder, hilariously enough an unfitting hot pink, with rainbows and flowers peppered across the front - it screamed every sort of girly symbolism possible, and looked terribly out of place with the taller girl. Despite the utter contrast of aesthetics between her and her bag, Moira was unrelenting in letting Angela keep the goods safe, and ignored the younger girl’s frequent begging.

They had scoured the local junkyards scattered around the city, and pestered a few blackmarket narco dealers for supplies that were particularly hard to come by. Every now and then when they couldn’t strike a deal Moira would devise a sort of plan, particularly one that Angela automatically knew would involve some sort of diversion. She would perform the more innocuous acts, and when their target audience had been suitably sucked in, Moira would peel away from the havoc with whatever it was they had been after, Angela scampering after.

The run that the two of them erupted into perhaps a half hour before had been reduced to a cantering gait as soon as they had realized the burly men with cybernetic enhancements (which of course, weighed them down more than they wished) had given up on pursuing the girls long ago. Even so, Moira was immune to the winded side-effect that struck Angela each time, and although the smaller girl would like to brag that she was building endurance, she was still no match for the gangly redhead.

Being the bright child she was, Moira knew this. She didn’t want to make it a habit of stopping to take a break and relieve their burning calves and dry throats each time they were tasked with escaping with the supplies they needed, but today, having already accepted they were in the clear, she thought she could make an exception.

“Come on.” Moira easily closed the distance between her and Angela with a couple of long-legged strides, and wrapped an arm around the younger girl’s shoulder to help guide her through the undying crowd. A lonely stretch of chipped granite on the side of the road tempted their presence, and the stretch of parking overhang that rested above their heads provided them a homely amount of temporary shelter.

There was a sigh as Moira plopped herself down onto the ground and unslung the pink backpack’s straps from over her thin shoulders, and Angela watched in silent fascination as her friend moved their cargo to rest safely between her legs. There was something captivating about the way Moira was so protective over the things she took an interest in, and it was part of the reason why little Angela had quickly warmed up to the aloof girl in such a short amount of time.

Moira didn’t have many friends, and neither did Angela. Perhaps it was another reason as to why they got along so well together. Numerous adventures through the city in search of supplies Moira claimed they needed for further experiments or inventions were impossible for Angela to back out of, and if she was being honest with herself, although each time they ventured out into the metropolis to nosedive into mischief, it was always worth it.

Sometimes though - Angela had begun to notice it recently, like a gradually creeping shadow - Moira was shielding a darker portion of her persona. There was an irregular, enthusiastic lilt to her voice when the two witnessed omnics being beat by a black squad agent, or a sadistic expression in her mismatched eyes when she decided to test what she created on some hapless creature they had found lurking within the garbage littered around their home. Angela would usually retreat to a corner of their room if that was the case, reluctant to visually accept the outcome of what Moira had been dying to create. It was the only downside to their scientific endeavors, and the only time where something cold and dark slithered into little Angela’s heart.

Something white startled her from the reverie she had fallen into once the two of them had made themselves comfortable on the curb.

“Look!” Angela pointed to the fragment of heaven that had fallen from the sky, slowly wafting its way down to Earth and into her eager, open palms.

In her hands lay a singular snowflake; the two of them eyed it ravenously for a second to testify to its unfathomable beauty and geometric perfection, right before it sank into the warm depths of Angela’s hands and reduced itself to a droplet.

“It’s the first snow,” Moira exhaled, her breath condensing into fluffy little clouds that ascended into the air. If it was cold before, she hadn't noticed until now. ….Why was that?

Beside her, Angela had fallen under the spell of the fragile pieces of white that had begun wafting down ever so slowly. Wide blue eyes explored the small wonder that no one had cared to take notice of, including Moira herself, until this moment which had appeared only when Angela pointed it out.

Despite the rough treading of feet against the ground and ever-present vendors’ shouts for the city peoples’ attention, Moira could hear every word that fell from Angela’s lips. Each syllable was as sanguine and sincere as one could possibly put them. She would never forget the look on her friend’s face as the blonde smiled back at her, the constant icy blue of Angela’s gaze suddenly appearing somewhat warmer with the addition of a subtle blush blooming across her pale cheeks. They had already been stained a light scarlet from the girls’ recent physical activity, but now it was the cold’s turn to pester Angela, notably without the young girl even taking notice.

“It’s beautiful,” she had muttered full of wonderment, arms still outstretched to reach what flakes of ice she could harvest before they dissolved once again in her grubby, red-tipped hands. “....Reminds me of home.”

Home…? Moira almost wanted to ask, but bit her lip in a mottled amalgamation of confusion and (perhaps just a wee, tiny, little amount of….) frustration. Surely Angela wasn’t talking about the place that they shared in their sector; the rundown apartment was abandoned years ago because it had ceased to meet health code standards, resulting in an unavoidable closure. Long, sleepless nights had passed there where Moira had been tirelessly working on her experiments, and Angela would admire her galvanizing efforts from the comfy pile of tattered blankets strewn about on the floor. Words, utterances, and stories floated between the two of them like consecutive series of passing ships, usually never to be discussed again. Hasn’t Angela told me about home before? Where she used to live. I think I remember….

…..

“It’s cold there.”

There was a rustling of the blankets as Angela twisted into a more comfortable position on the futon in the corner of their small room. She had devised the ingenious idea of transforming herself into some sort of linen cocoon, one that checked all the boxes she needed for comfort and warmth, fitted exactly to her liking. It was her current safe haven - this room and her habitual, pleasant surrender to the weathered comforter on a winter night such as this one - and nothing filled her heart with more joy than being able to share such a blissful but mundane portion of the day with her friend.

Moira frowned. She had registered Angela’s question, and forced her mind to divide from the cluster of mechanical parts she fumbled with between her dry, cracked fingers. Pausing for a moment she formulated a response, and although she realized it wasn’t anything particularly elaborate or engaging, it was obvious that it was more than enough to placate someone as innocent as Angela. “….I would think so.”

A subtle rustling which sounded suspiciously like the girl was rolling around on the futon reached Moira’s ears, and she turned her attention back to the incomplete, complex device between her hands.

“There are many mountains there, you know? Snow covers their tops like powdered sugar - it's so pretty and fluffy it almost makes me want to have a taste.” There was a thoughtful hum, one that was infused with the melancholy contentment usually found upon reminiscing. “Does it snow here too?”

Moira reached for another tool, this one with a sporty array of different screwdriver extensions. “Sometimes. Not often.”

Angela contorted her initial disappointment into something more pliable, something that fit her gentle persona.“Oh….I see. That’s alright. Maybe one day you can come visit where my home is, and you can see the snow for yourself. I’m sure you’d love it there, Moira! I know you like science, and exploring how things work. There’s something about the sparkling mountains and towering trees that makes you wonder. About everything.”

Moira was unfazed, but slightly touched by the sentiment behind the plea even though she would never admit it to another living being. Science was her life, and that was all that mattered to her. It was touching how Angela acknowledged this, and perhaps that riveting statement (nothing was more true; this Moira placed first before anything else) that everyone else seemed to ignore was worth at least a half-hearted reply. Something that would rouse Angela’s imagination and tickle her fancy, even if that meant Moira would be foolishly entertaining the younger girl’s dreams for but a single night. “….Fascinating.”

“….Would you….ever want to visit, maybe?”  

Moira needn’t turn around to know that Angela’s bright blue eyes were trained directly at her, studying her every gesture, every flinch, every turn of her fiery head as she maneuvered in her seat. What should she say this time? It was almost painful placing down the conglomeration of screwdrivers, the extensions sticking up here and there out of their slots like a skeleton tree burdened with an army of useless, bare branches.

At that instant, something clenched within Moira’s chest for a split second. Whether it was the sudden emergence of her conscience or the abnormal rupture of a cardiac palpitation, she felt it beyond necessary to deliver a somewhat presentable answer to Angela. She deserved it. “Perhaps. I have no particular like or dislike for the cold, but if you insist on me visiting then I am sure your home must certainly be something special.”

…..

Angela was exuberant then, just as she was now - and rightly so. She was witnessing something spectacular unfolding right before her very eyes, perhaps the only glimpse of a familiar fragment in this chaotic world she had been dropped into so suddenly.

A snowflake landed on the tip of her nose, relaxing for the shortest of moments before Angela laughed heartily. With a short, gleeful puff of air she sent it sailing into the crowd, where ultimately it would be trampled under the never-ending sea of people.

But that’s what makes them so special , Angela thought, unaware of her lopsided smile as she watched a rusty, elderly omnic limp on by with the assistance of a smaller omnic clearly no older than a couple of years. They’re all so unique, and despite their frighteningly short existence, are each important. There was a slight pause in her thinking, just long enough for her to gather her thoughts again and develop a quirky riposte to her own comment. Well, at least to me they are. Others may think differently, but that’s what I believe.

When she blinked again a calloused hand was stretched in her direction, and every other time this gesture had been done before, it would seem so far away. Right now, curiously enough, even though it was dangling right before her very eyes it didn’t feel so distant.  

“It's probably time that we head back.”

The hand was still there, inviting her into something she had missed for so long. How strange how she had sought out friendship for so many years to no avail, and found it with this like-minded soul originally thousands of miles away whom she had stumbled upon by chance.

There was no way she would ever pass up an opportunity that involved this other girl, and as of that moment Angela could have sworn her admiration for the other street creeper grew an astronomical amount. The outstretched hand was a simple gesture, but one that meant the entire world to her, no matter how small it may have appeared to another individual.

There were no second thoughts.

It was with ragged breath and a chest still heaving from the exertion of their midday run that the young girl with piercing blue eyes seized hold of the hand before her.


 

So heavy were her eyelids that she thought they had been swapped out for iron anvils, and Angela grumbled frustratedly as she attempted to open them. There was a cold, hard surface under her cheek that she immediately realized was the floor of her office, and it was only when her eyes began to focus and she regained her vision that she took in the half-dried puddle of blood daubing the ground beneath her.

Things then slowly started falling into place as memories realigned, all beginning from last night.

First it was a trip to the old freighter with Fareeha and the others. Then finding evidence of some nanites that were there, and carefully gathering what they could for Angela to bring back and study. Then it was the girls wanting to come into her office but Fareeha shut them out forcefully, only to leave once she had properly bid the doctor goodnight and tell her they would see her tomorrow.

After, there was pain. Blinding, fiery pain that felt like it was negligently feasting on her insides, and finally the drops of crimson that had forewarned her something was amiss, which she knew exactly what was wrong without a second thought.

There was no need to mull things over for a moment or two, this was something that had been haunting her for years….The doctor had just never been willing to share the secret with anyone, and was convinced it was better off that way. No one knew except for Angela Ziegler.

But now….Should she tell someone? There was something horribly wrong with them, and she didn’t know what the cause was.

A bleary image of Fareeha materialized in her still half-asleep mind as she propped herself up onto her elbows, maneuvering herself to have her back resting on the side of the counter. She was hesitant to allow what she knew would grow into an idea any free reign. Instead, quickly tossing the figment of what could have been her salvation out the window, she transferred what current brainpower she retained to the dream that had taken place within the nebulous space inside her head.

Moira. I haven’t thought about you in ages. She brought her dirtied hands to rest on her knees, and studied the circular patterns of deep mahogany on them as they dipped carefully in and out of the wrinkles in her soft palms. Why now, of all times? Why now…?

Something beeped tentatively, just a tinny blaring over the raging thoughts and barely loud enough to be heard. Angela jerked her head up at the sudden noise, and wasn’t shocked when the back of her cranium connected with the counter’s side. When she reached up to rub her sore skull the volume of the noise grew, and any another time when she wasn’t currently sitting on the floor in her own blood she would have belted out into gentle laughter at her own misconceptions of the common technology everyone owned. Now , she could only force a slightly amused grumble.

My alarm. Of course. The doctor swiped at the screen to silence the little device that had been spouting annoying discourse at her, which would have normally been the herald singing of her necessity to depart from sleep (and thus, her bed as well if she was still groaning and covering her head with a pillow). Glowing numbers caught her eye, and she did a double take to make sure she was registering things correctly.

5:00 a.m. I - I slept the entire night?!

Now Doctor Ziegler was frantically scrambling to lift herself up from the ground and the mess she had created the night prior, catching herself a few times when her lightheadedness hindered her movement and threatened to make her topple over yet again. I need coffee. And something to eat. The thought of food and something warm to drink was extremely tempting, but common sense forced her to solve the dilemma that had taken place. Fareeha and the others were planning on arriving in three hours, and she wouldn’t dare let them take note of the crimson splattered on the floor and side of the counter, let alone find her in a similar, morbid-looking state adorned with the fluid one usually desires to keep inside.

The process of erasing what had happened the night before was accomplished with thoroughly scrubbing the floor, changing into a new set of clothes, and splashing her face with some cold water. The event was not so easily wiped from her mind though, and although the hastened attempt to abolish the stains across the interior of her lab was successful, disregarding the incident in her always churning mind was impossible.

Soon enough Angela was grateful to be snacking on a bagel, and overjoyed to a particular extent that she wasn’t experiencing any further physical repercussions. Munching thoughtfully she wandered over to her duffle which she had abandoned on the counter, and was pleased to see inside of it the small test tube with a few centimeters of the biotic fluid they had discovered on the freighter. The container was perfectly intact, and the early morning rays of light penetrating her windows from the other side of the room made the canister glow faintly, almost in proclamation of the wonders Angela was sure she would discover once she ran a few tests.

Her initial decision was to introduce the nanites to a buffer fluid that would allow more space for them to be at ease, just enough to allow some mobility. After pouring them into a small petri dish filled with a harmless solution that mixed well with the original biotic fluid, she hustled over to the area of her lab where her digital microscope was located. She skillfully chugged a gulp of her black coffee and shoved the half-eaten bagel into her mouth right before she placed the dish on the scope’s stage.

Angela’s current goal was just an initial magnification overview of the specimen, and from there she’d figure out which settings she would switch to. With her fingers flying over the screen to select the proper settings, it was a mere second or two later that the projection of the nanites swimming carelessly within the biotic fluid was projected onto the screen. Adding an extra double tap, the image exploded into an enlarged hologram that dangled menacingly in the air.

It was onerous to a stifling degree how hard Angela had to force her jaw to remain shut upon witnessing what she did now.

She recognized the handiwork and intelligence which were displayed above, having bathed in the presence of its creator for more than a few years.

There was no reason to drag a finger cautiously across the hologram of the projected nanites, but she did it anyways - as if by engaging in this inexplicable kinesthetic action she’d be able to memorize and file away every inch of the nanites dancing before her very eyes.

She’d seen this before. It may not have been this exact nanite, but she vividly remembered a redhead slaving over something she recalled only her parents ever spending an ungodly amount of time on. Being surrounded by people she cared about who had a deep affinity for medical technology and inventive breakthroughs had always been part of her life, and because of this, she viewed it all as something wonted.

This particular nanomachine she could recognize anywhere. And if it was any aid in furthering what hunch she had devised, there weren’t many individuals who had such talent enough (nor the appropriate intellect) to create something as intricate as this.  

You’re still around here, aren’t you, Moira…? Angela thought to herself as she downed a roughly overbitten amount of bagel, simultaneously digesting the prospect she had just come across. She ignored the shiver that ran down her spine like electricity traveling down a wire, but was overcome with the impulse to perform an even more daunting task than running more tests on the nanites underneath the lens.

What if….What if…. There they were again, the pitfalls of doubt engorging her hopes of ever forgetting the pain she had experienced the night before. How could she? It would be ludicrous to think for even a second that heaving up blood on the floor of her office was something trivial, and welcomed to be waved off as a hiccup.

Angela’s coffee sloshed dangerously close to the rim as she set it aside on a partially cleared counter, and the spills it made on the stainless steel were disregarded as she floundered across her lab. Her mind was traveling faster than her body ever could. Collapsing into the chair at the far side of her personal technological haven, she grappled with shaky hands at a thick roll of cables connected to an elevated screen.

Where is it where is it where is it - It was as if the cable had called out to her in some alien manner, the way she found it distinctly amidst all the others despite her brisk shuffling through the collection. Raising a hand to the base of her neck she tugged aside the dark collar of her turtleneck sweater, and fingers grazed the almost invisible grooved outline of a small outlet at at the very nape, hidden by loose tresses of wispy gold.

Angela was more than cautious. She noticed an instantaneous moment of doubt fill her entire being for a moment, terrorizing what certainty she had left, and stared at the cable held between the digits of a white-knuckled hand.

Then, she took a deep breath, and touched the end of the cable to the beginning of what was her inner circuitry.

The action filled her with a sudden jolt of something she couldn’t put a name to, and for the first time in forever her arm tingled unpleasantly, enough so that the past was brought back to life.

…..

“What is it?” Angela stared at the vial poised reverently between Moira’s pale fingers. It wouldn’t be true if she said she hadn't seen anything quite like it before, because she had. But with her friend, anything ordinary took on a more macabre approach.

Moira swirled the clear liquid around, smirking. Her accent somehow added another layer to the palpable malevolence Angela was beginning to sense.“Oh, just a little side project I’ve been working on. Want to help me test it out?”

Something told her whatever followed wouldn’t be good, but did she really have a choice? She….didn’t want to be alone, and thus followed Moira’s question with a solemn nod.

“Fantastic. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.”

Angela was visibly pouting, her little red cheeks pushing out against the winter air in protest to Moira’s snarky comebacks that were somehow almost as cold as the weather itself. It had started snowing again, and Angela’s first love had been rekindled the morning after the initial snowfall the evening before. She stood on her tiptoes against the boards nailed to their window in their room, and glimpsed only shades of white as far as her eyes could see. But considering her short stature, it wasn’t very far.

They walked for a while, Moira always with the attentive vigil and pulling Angela away into a tight alley whenever she glimpsed someone that looked like trouble coming their way. Angela was almost to the point of asking her friend what in the world they were doing, since to the younger of the two it only seemed as though they were playing a slightly obnoxious game of hide and seek with strangers she knew not the names of. When Moira let out a muffled, thrilled sound, something along the lines of a delighted hum, Angela coerced herself to keep her trap shut for just a minute longer.

The two of them were in another claustrophobic alleyway, of course. Were not it for Angela’s budding vexation, perhaps she would have noticed the pile of snow quaking for a second before it returned back to its original position; a miniature mountain amongst a collection of old boxes and a dumpster long overdue to be emptied.

“Well what do we have here?” Moira ventured forward with a confidence that guided her stride just enough to power a swift, forceful kick that she directed at the pile of snow. It slumped as white cascaded down the once majestic sides like a microcosmic avalanche, and when a rusted arm flopped onto the ground Angela could not resist letting out a shriek of surprise.

It was an omnic. The poor thing was clearly on its last legs, as far as Angela could tell. While she allowed her eyes to drink in the sight of the unfortunate being that lay before them, Angela’s hands found the back of Moira’s thin jacket. “Is….Is it alive?”

“Hard to tell.” Moira was hunched over now, studying the omnic that had fallen on its side to use the assemblage of junk as a makeshift crutch. The gaze trapped within her mismatched eyes was debilitating, and just as she was about to reach out and shove the omnic to perhaps muster its consciousness, something within the robot whirred loudly enough for the redhead to stumble back and land on her bottom.

Like a puppet attached to invisible strings it began to straighten itself up against the foundation of the wall behind, and the head snapped to attention as a mixture of blue and white light flickered in its empty sockets. “H-Help me….” it croaked, and Angela felt her heart plummet into a danger zone seeing something so tragic.

“Moira…” Angela was by the being’s side in an instant, brushing away snow with bright pink fingertips that stung with every connection they made to the omnic’s frosted metal. The whirring grew louder for a second as the omnic turned it’s head toward her, and Angela was suddenly filled with the desire to become someone stronger than she knew she was now.

She knew she couldn’t do anything.

But maybe Moira could.

“We need to help it!” she cried, realizing her imploring stare was finally reaching her friend when Moira nodded in what she assumed was agreement.

The older girl had stuffed her hand in her pocket to pull out the vial she had been displaying for Angela earlier, and all at once it was as if Angela’s heart had come to an abrupt halt. “Of course. We can help put it out of its misery.” She took another step closer, and Angela’s heart jump-started again - only this time it was painfully throbbing in her chest. “Such a brilliant idea, Ange.”

“M-Moira - what are you doing?” Angela didn’t know what else to say, and she felt stupid uttering those three words which she was absolutely positive would not receive a direct answer.

Moira was swirling the vial again ominously, a sly grin etched across her face in a way that curdled Angela’s blood like never before. Sure, Angela knew Moira had a bit of an eerie fascination with things the majority typically saw as immoral, but was she finally - in the years that she’d known the redhead - going to physically prove that heinous compulsion? “I am going to test this out, Angela. You said you were going to help me, remember?” There was a playful sincerity to her words, and Angela immediately regretted the agreement she had fallen for in a time of weakness (she was forever in an undying state of helplessness, she would admit to that).

Maybe today was different. Maybe it had to do with the way Moira crept closer, dusting powder snow off the back of her pants with one hand and eagerly clasping the vial with the other, that caused an ascendant amount of bravery (or foolishness) to push Angela back on her feet. Maybe it was because Angela felt like she was needed.

Whatever the reason, Angela, with furrowed brows and a crooked yet defiant stance, had now become the significant obstacle between Moira and the dilapidated omnic.  

“No. I won’t let you hurt it.”

An incensed sigh and matching roll of red and blue eyes. “Ange, it’s just a robot. It doesn’t have feelings. It can’t get hurt. It’s not even really alive. Are you really so ignorant that you actually believe it’s a person?”

“It is alive, Moira! How can you say it’s not?” Angela threw an arm back indignantly at the omnic behind her. “It's clearly in pain….And probably dying! It just asked for our help, and that’s what we need to do!”

Moira’s features twisted, and what once was a god-awful smirk warped into an even more hideous frown, one that obscured any of the ill-intent she was planning on unleashing in this hidden part of a city that never slept. “This is where you always fail, Angela. You’re too weak, too naive - to move forward with things that must be done. That’s the difference between you and me.”

Angela knew the words that had fled Moira’s lips were meant to deter her. And it hurt hearing the person whom she considered to be her best friend demean her so effortlessly. Was this how Moira had always seen her? It didn’t matter now….Somehow Angela knew this was the beginning of the end of their friendship.

If it even should be called that now.

“Move out of the way, Angela,” Moira growled, the unlidded vial held tight between her fingers. She was a mere few steps away from both the omnic and Angela, and it was almost amusing how valiant the scrawny blonde had become within the last minute. Currently the only thing overpowering her urge to burst out into laughter was the bubbling anger that coursed through her at Angela’s resistance.

Angela stood her ground. “I won’t.”

Everything else that followed happened without thought, without ample time to process the sequence of events that dropped like dominoes in a prefabricated line. The way they could have been predicted to unfold was arduous, and Angela was compelled to react with what knowledge she had attained during the years she lived out here on the streets with the rest of the lowlives.

Blazing red flashed to Angela’s right, and there was nothing that could have prepared her for what happened next. Those years of running the gangly older girl spent, trading and contorting deals to her advantage? They were all in Moira’s pocket now, along with an honed prowess for lightning-quick agility.

Angela’s whole body shifted in time to protect the omnic behind her. She threw herself once again directly in front of Moira, and the rapid closure of distance between her and the other girl immediately set off Angela’s ever-lurking indecision.

The chance allowed just enough time for Moira to grab at the base of Angela’s collar, and she thrusted her to the side. Now free of the obstacle that previously posted a challenge, Moira, eyes glinting with what one could only refer to as maliciousness, moved to place herself in front of the omnic.

To Moira, there rested no life in its eyes - only fading, short-circuiting LEDs that flickered on and off like the throes of dying fireflies. She was about to put a permanent end to this imitation of a creature’s “life”, or at least she hoped so, and with every ounce of her being. What a joy it would be to see such an useless invention be reduced to a pile of sizzling metal, forgotten in the nothingness they found it in.

But to Angela, this was a person. It would always be a person, even if others said it wasn’t. Even if others spat on them, kicked them when they were huddled over on the side of the road, or shouted uncivil condemnations at them, those who had done nothing wrong aside from exist.

Angela had never been quick. She probably never would be quick. Everything happened, and always did happen, in slow motion for Angela. There were always too many thoughts to process at the same time, too many ideas to sift through in an apt fashion….And this situation called for the exact kind of efficiency which she lacked.

The younger girl scrambled to her feet, kicking up snow as her wide eyes drank in the sight that was unraveling before her at unimaginable speed. It was, unfortunately for Angela, happening much too rapidly to think of a sufficient plan. All she knew was that Moira was close - too close - to the omnic, and the terror in its eyes flooded her mind with a frantic worry. It killed her to see a pain so overwhelming that it was visible through the soul’s windows.

And so Angela did the only thing she could think of.

She jumped into the crossfire of Moira attempting to pour whatever had been in the vial onto the snow-covered omnic.

The thin jacket she adorned was no use and proved to be a futile covering; suddenly she couldn’t feel her left arm anymore. All she could feel was pain. It was a burgeoning fire that she couldn’t put out, and was dripping across her skin at breakneck speed, like someone had poured molten lava on her bare arm.

If she was screaming, she was unaware of the fact. The ringing in her ears was beating what sense and consciousness remained to a pulp, and it took all the strength she retained to support herself upright enough that she wouldn’t fall. She wavered, yes, but refused to be brought down by anything, especially not Moira….

Moira’s lips twitched. Angela was sure she was saying something, but it was impossible to register what the words were when every part of her was screeching in protest of the ridiculous pain.

Both girls were wise enough at that instant to understand that things had just taken a nasty turn, one that could never be reverted. This was the climax, and quite unambiguously all Angela could take. Moira may have been stuttering back silent condolences, and even if her words were dripping with apology, Angela couldn’t hear it. She wouldn’t.

For the briefest of moments, and what she figured was the final time she’d see Moira, Angela’s pained blue eyes latched onto a pair of disparate ones, ones she had learned to associate with what she thought was home after everything she had already been through.

Apparently she had been wrong. A part of her wondered if she learned this a little too late, but then her mind fast-forwarded back to the present to relay the crippling situation at hand.

Unshed tears made every single action all the more burdensome. Moira and the omnic barely even appeared to remain on the same plane of existence before her, and dissolved into messy blurs of grey and white.

There was nothing here for her anymore.

Alone, once again, Angela fled.


 

The doctor twisted a golden lock on her index; it was a fidget she got into the habit of sometimes when she was apprehensive. And there was indeed good reason to be - she only hoped that her insecurity was invisible to the three individuals beside her as they rode up the floors in the hospital elevator.

I told you I was coming back!” Hana’s shrill laugh was relieving, and the weight on Angela’s heart lifted a smidge. Somehow at a point during the ride when Angela hadn't been paying attention (when had she been paying attention, honestly? This whole morning she was more distracted than she had ever been within the past twenty years), the girl had managed to prompt a vise-like grip on Angela’s lab coat. “Gonna finally see that bomb-ass laboratory of yours Brigitte was telling me about.”

“You didn’t even see the lab; what on Earth have you been saying to her?” It was Fareeha, staring incredulously at her partner who had shrunk down to a third of her height at her superior’s lack of sugar-coating the brash question. And on top of that, it was done in the presence of two more individuals who didn’t happen to be a part of the police force, which one could ultimately assume would be a little embarrassing, to say the least.  

Brigitte rubbed the back of her neck abashedly while her cheeks flushed a light shade of red, and Hana wanted to point out how the taller girl’s freckles almost seemed to disappear in the most adorable way. She refrained for Baguetta’s sake and her assumption that the comment would only cause her friend even more discomfort. “I - um, I mean I did kind of see a little teeny bit once - like a glimpse of it? - the first time we ever went to see Angela’s office…” she tried, and although the claim was absolutely absurd in Fareeha’s book, she didn't have the heart to shut the younger girl down yet again, especially with her innocent reasoning.

Fareeha was too amused to be annoyed, and even though she tried to hide the lilt in her voice behind a metal hand, Brigitte knew that her friend wasn’t really mad. “Well, I guess if that’s how it was….”

“That’s exactly how it was,” Hana joined in, and Brigitte shot her a preemptive glance she hoped would spare the smaller girl a spiel of frustration from the police detective next to her.   

These kids, Fareeha rubbed her temples and watched through her fingers as the glowing light of every passing floor flickered by in a soothing, perfectly sequenced manner. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with them….Although I have a hunch they’re going to be the death of me.

She must have said the comment earlier than was relevant, because Fareeha’s eyes faltered to the left without prompt, and her hand slowly fell back down to her side. Mesmerized, she watched Doctor Ziegler paint lines and curves of dramatic sizes in the air as she animatedly described what Fareeha assumed was the interior of her mysterious office. There was something about the doctor that, from the very instant they had met, attracted Fareeha’s attention.

She just….I don’t know….Stands out. When part of her brain suggested to dig up a reason for that being so, blanks were all she could draw. Whether it be because she was so transfixed by the doctor’s charming interactions with Hana, or because she was quite possibly one of (or the most , but heaven forbid she actually mention this out loud!) the most beautiful persons she had ever laid eyes on, or maybe it could have even been a plethora of other undiscovered reasons she had yet to explore, she did not have a definite answer to the question she knew part of her craved.

Fareeha registered a minuscule beeping through her multi-layered thoughts, and fought back a smile as she stepped aside to let Angela go out first when the two of them had initially almost collided when trying to escape the elevator’s perpetual maraca and congo drum ensemble.

Whatever happened to her stoic, Woman of Steel persona that she worked so hard to obtain during her years in the police academy and after graduation? Of course it had dispersed an appropriate amount upon her “demotion” (she thought of it as that, more precisely) to a police detective, as compared to a field officer - and a very favorable field officer at that, one who was granted access to utilize a special combat suit, nonetheless.

Words of astonishment passing from Brigitte and Hana to Angela were prominent in the instant that the door guarding the doctor’s office slid open. Not surprisingly, they flew over Fareeha’s head as she pondered the strange creature she had become in such a short span of time. Maybe the alteration was so far only visible in her eyes, but sense was prodding the idea forward that it was possible the new Fareeha would become more prominent. The variables that initiated the event were so far unknown to her, and it was worrisome.

Until now, her weaving and absent-minded trotting behind Angela, Hana, and Brigitte was accomplished without anything aside from her basic peripheral vision. Upon entering the lab that was guarded by a singular door, the detective stopped dead in her tracks.

“It’s - fucking amazing!”

Fareeha slapped a hand over her mouth in fear that she’d let her awe get the best of her and release a stream of enthralled cursing, but when the words kept on coming out she sighed and she realized it was Brigitte and Hana who spewed the candid complement at the exact same time.

Angela had taken refuge farther away at another side of the lab, and turned around near the end of Brigitte and Hana’s approbation to smile bashfully, tucking yet again another loose strand of hair behind her ear. She seemed a bit frazzled this morning. Fareeha had made the comment known only to herself as she digested each observation of Doctor Angela Ziegler, hoping her hypothesis wasn’t a mere impression.

“Ah, why thank you, girls. I do have quite a lot in here...it's easy to get lost sometimes,” Angela added as she tapped away on the screen poised next to what appeared to be a large, telescope-looking contraption.

Hana was being followed around by a paranoid Brigitte, who had just caught a multi-purpose tool of some sort after its descent from a counter (the incident instigated by a particularly careless street creeper, of course). When she sidled up next to the doctor, mouth agape in pure astonishment as Angela pulled out the screen to give it hologram form, both Brigitte and Fareeha were itching to keep their hands behind their backs in lieu of grabbing Hana and dragging her out of the doctor’s laboratory to prevent further chaos.

With her back turned to the three of them, Angela struggled to breathe correctly. Each inhale and exhale was a rugged process, and what new information she had garnered within the past few hours caused her heart and head to pound, as well as convince a feeble sting in her left arm to return. A shaky inhale, and then she would divulge what she assumed was appropriate for the occasion. There was, after all, much she was still unsure of herself.

“I-I…” Angela took a moment to breathe. Her wavering eyes met Fareeha’s for a second, and her stomach was incited to perform a backflip with the earnest way the detective was looking at her. “These are the nanites from the sample we procured on board the freighter last night.” She zoomed in to a percent similar to what she had set when observing them first herself.

Those little things?” Hana squinted up at the projection displayed in the air.

“Yes,” Angela nodded, “those little things. Don’t be fooled by them though; they’re much more powerful than they appear. These particular nanites are unique specimens; nothing offered now by what current doctors or scientists in the field of nanorobotics have been working on.”

“What are you saying?” Fareeha asked curiously, and stepped forward to study the creatures on the hologram closer. “How can someone not be making these? They’re obviously right here in front of us, if what you’re showing us is the same biotic liquid we found the other day.” Brown eyes flickered across Angela’s blank face, and once again it was impossible to tell what in the world was going on inside Angela Ziegler’s head.

The doctor sighed, obviously somewhat miffed by her choice of words as she took a few instances to start a sentence, decide abruptly that she wasn’t going to actually say it, and then settle on something else. “Well, what I meant to say was that these particular nanites….I’ve done a little work with something similar myself, and with the opportunity to actually meet an array of other great minds, as well as study the various nanites that have been used in society thus far, these do not match with any that are known to the public or the medical field.”

“It’s black market material, what else would it be?” Brigitte shrugged as she glanced over at Fareeha to ensure she wasn’t about to be refuted for a claim she already knew was correct. She’d done her research. All those days Fareeha spent sulking at her desk the weeks before they met Angela and Hana? Other that looking up decent eateries around the area for go-to dinner spots with Fareeha, she’d been sifting through any and all information she could get about NNv incident locations, backgrounds and profiles of those infected, and of course pilfering a generous synopsis of nanotechnology.

“The particular freighter we were on yesterday was known for being a previous breeding ground of deviant behavior; some of the major activities being specifically the illegal procuration and marketing of human body parts, narcotics, and a throng of other nasty things. I’m pretty sure nanite biofluids were a part of that mix,” Brigitte finished, and was awarded with a playful jab to the ribs by Hana. When she looked down, the smirk smeared across her friend’s cute features made the older girl fight to contain a squirm of delight.

“With what we already know, we just need to figure out who made these, right? That’s what it really boils down to…?” Hana asked with a contemplative look on her face as she reflected on both Brigitte’s and Angela’s past input about the nanomachines. Things were quiet for a moment as Hana’s question weighed on their minds, and on one particular individual’s mind heavier than the others. “If what Baguetta says is true -”

“It is true!” Brigitte interjected, obviously slightly wounded by Hana’s remark even though she had a strong hunch the other girl was just being cheeky.

“- then whoever has these nanites is probably a blackmarket individual. Someone who’s working underground. As a street creeper, I know these kinds of things.” Hana puffed her chest out proudly.

Fareeha didn’t know where to go from here, having a shallow experience with the underground narco dealers, enhancement “doctors”, and deadly nanite viruses, to name a few things. It was all thanks to her reluctant attitude the past two years, wallowing away in her self pity. Sense bit at the edge of her brain, startling her out of a descent into another of her more recent trips of guilt.

Running a hand through her hair she sighed deeply. “We can’t just throw ourselves into the sectors again and hope we stumble upon another clue that would lead us to the person or people who made these.” What the fuck are we supposed to do now? We can’t do anything without the right information. We need more. “Angela - what else did you find out about these nanites? Anything that seemed distinct? Interesting? There has to be more.” At least I hope there is….She’s a genius doctor who’s also an amazing scientist. She’s got to know something….Didn’t she say she was versed in this kind of thing?

Fareeha was unsure if she was reading things correctly. Angela looked….troubled.

“Well….There - There was an old coworker of mine. These nanites look suspiciously like something she would have made.”

Brigitte slammed a fist down into her palm, causing the poor doctor to jump slightly. “That’s it! That’s the kind of information we’re looking for!” she exclaimed with a tone perhaps too early to be embellished with what sounded like triumph. “Where do we find this lady?”

“That’s the thing; I don’t know where she is. I don’t even know where to begin looking.” Angela was torn between telling her friends what she knew, or keeping things to herself. Disclosing to them the information of actually knowing someone who made the nanites was a feat enough in itself for her, one that she wasn’t sure she’d end up regretting. She knew for a fact she didn’t want to see Moira again. But if finding her meant saving the city and the people within it, then she would pledge herself to that duty in a heartbeat. She merely needed to remind herself of what was at stake if she didn’t.

“What’s her name?” Fareeha prodded further, and Angela’s head snapped to attention. “Maybe we can find something on her, just to give us an idea where to start looking.”

It was difficult to say it. She hadn't voiced the name aloud in years. “Moira. Moira O’Deorain.”

“Got that?” Fareeha’s eyes were fixed intently on Brigitte, who was swiftly tapping away at her wrist tag. When she enlarged the screen display to become a hologram so that they all could see, the detective’s brows furrowed in confusion. The name at the top of the screen within the search engine’s box was sent through, but the message beneath the window puzzled her.

No results.

“Maybe it’s just a glitch,” Brigitte muttered before Fareeha had the chance to actually say anything about the lack of items that had refused to pop up with the woman’s name. “I mean, I’m just looking on the regular net right now. Maybe she’s paying them to keep her information private, since her work seems to be something far from the limelight as of now. And we don’t know if she’s the one making NNv - it's just a lead, since I assume these are regular nanites. You would have told us otherwise if it was indeed the virus,” Brigitte asked while continuously swiping at her tag, before pulling up the police database. “Right, Angela?”

“....That is correct.”

“Ah! Here we go,” Brigitte, filled with enthusiasm at her valuable find, enlarged the screen of a profile with a young red-headed girl’s photo at the top corner. She couldn’t have been older than fourteen. The words were large enough to be read by the individuals in the room, but Brigitte announced them out loud anyways. “Moira O’Deorain. Age: Approximately 35, Sex: Female….Yadda yadda yadda. Was accused multiple times for theft at a young age and was sent to juvie more than once, but managed to escape somehow every time. Interesting….”

Hana was on her tiptoes, squinting up at the projected image as Brigitte scrolled through. “Hm - does it say anything else?”

“Nothing else. Which is really strange.”

“It’s like she fuckin’ fell off the face of the Earth, except Angela says she didn’t,” Hana breathed out ominously, and everyone looked at her while the same thought churned through their minds.

“She’s got to be underground.” Brigitte whispered the comment more to herself than to anyone else as excitement began to build up within her.

Images of herself walking across a ceremonial stage (she had no idea how the process worked, but it just seemed right for it to be made a public event filled with rousing cheer and nerve-driven actions) to receive what she had been looking forward to ever since she joined the police force.

When they would call her name, a parade of chills would march up and down her spine, and with a deep, strenuous breath she’d force herself to move forward, step by step until she reached the omnic at the podium in the middle.

The badge placed in her hand would feel as light as a feather, but to her would mean something much more valuable.

Her ears would strain over the sound of the cheers and thunderous clapping to find the one voice which she yearned to hear shout her name in a way that wasn’t angry because she had been fiddling with his tools again, despite her adoration for tinkering. It’d be pleasant this time, and wavering from the sentiment that was clearly overpowering enough to move even herself to tears.

It’d be her father. Cheering for her.

The only thing she ever wanted.

….And solving this specific case could take her there.

Ughhh , this is so frustrating!”

“Hana, you’re not even the one doing the detective work.”

“I know, but I’m helping you guys out! And I live on the streets, so I feel like I should be of more use when it comes to this kind of stuff….”
“It’s alright, we’ll think of something. We can’t give up yet.”

So Brigitte put to use the first idea - which, she personally thought was quite brilliant if she said so herself - that popped into her mind. “Hey….Have any of you ever been to a soirée?”

 

Chapter Text

Her skin felt itchy. Agitated. Hot - perhaps not as warm as she knew her cheeks were burning, but a temperature similarly high nonetheless.

Standing there at the top of the stairs put her on display to an audience she wasn’t sure she enjoyed, and forced attention onto her which she was curious if she even deserved. The dress, a tad loose but succeeding in clinging to all the right places, made her feel simultaneously like a million bucks and an unworthy pile of steaming crap (yes, Hana was quite conflicted if one couldn’t tell), and wasn’t hers, obviously.

But then there was the girl at the bottom of the stairs with a face depicting the epitome of pleasure, served with a side dish of pride. She owned the sparkling eyes that goggled her, as well as the wide smile that displayed a set of flawless pearly whites. And those freckles. Goddamn, those freckles - the way her auburn hair brought out their audaciousness even more sent Hana's heart kicking away, threatening to escape the confines of her chest.

If she fell down the stairs in a ill-stricken moment of a sporadic heart attack and landed limp in the burly arms of this donut-loving goddess, despite only having lived the short lifespan of 18 years, she would be fine with it.

Hesitation was her only weapon to combat the nervousness. “Um, Baguetta - are you absolutely sure I can wear this...? Like, your family isn’t going to get mad if they see me in this dress?” She was frozen there on the stairway’s pinnacle, fingers gingerly dancing across the lace that spun its way around her thighs.

Below her, the aforementioned perfect specimen of a girl sighed. The smile that caressed Brigitte’s face and forced such adorable dimples hiding in her cheeks to dip in playfully was impossible to erase, and something tickled her throat - a giggle nestled at the base of it was begging to escape at the street creeper’s hesitation. So high on a pedestal was Hana, on display for a world of one to see….This was a different light she was in, to say the least. Maybe it was true anyone else would have seen the scrawny girl out of place amongst the lavishness she found herself unapologetically thrown into, but to Brigitte, she found every inch of Hana charming to some capacity.

As of now, Brigitte was struggling to refrain from patting herself on the back. Hana frowned at her with a pair of the biggest, brownest puppy-dog eyes she’d ever seen, and nothing in the world could have taken away the surge of contentment that washed over her in that moment.

“Who cares what my parents might think. You look amazing, trust me. As my guest tonight, I can’t have you coming to the soirée in your usual baggy cargo pants and sweatshit - I mean, sweatshirt .” The grin that tugged at the corner of her mouth was toxic, and she pivoted on her heel toward the door before Hana could piece together the words that had just slipped out of Brigitte’s mouth.

“Wait - did you just call my sweatshirt a ‘ sweatshit ’?”

“I don’t know; you’re probably hearing things,” Mischief had made itself at home amongst her crooked smile, and when the omnic at the lobby’s front desk offered a jaunty farewell, Brigitte waved back goodbye and darted out the door with Hana’s disgruntled cursing following close behind.

A black hover car awaited the two, with the sole purpose of providing comfortable transportation to the location of the social event. As the rain beat down, forever and always as relentless as it always was in this god-forsaken city, Brigitte’s mind raced miles ahead, faster than her feet could follow. She was never one for stuttering in thought; Fareeha knew this better than anyone at the police department. But unfortunately, Hana wasn’t as familiar with the fact.

So when Hana stood at the mouth of the doorway perplexed, eyes glued on the sky above as rain poured down and she racked her brain for a way to make it through this wretched weather without mutilating herself enough to be confused with a wet poodle, she was definitely not prepared for what happened next. In an instant she was swaddled up in Brigitte’s monstrous, delightfully warm tweed overcoat (Brigitte had a soft spot for all things old, which she blamed on her father), and began ushering her over to the car pulled just a ways ahead.

With no time to add a interjection of refusal or instigate another bout of reluctance, Hana realized that maybe being bundled up against Brigitte’s torso wasn’t the worst thing that could possibly happen. It did save her the expense of ruining the dress and revealing the horrendous blush she was absolutely positive was prosecuting her cheeks, forcing the usual bright pink of her cyber tattoos to succumb to a darker, more fragile shade that said more than she desired.

Pushed through the back passenger door with impeccable timing, Hana found herself sandwiched between a fogged window and the gentle giant Brigitte, her smile as bright as the sun despite the weather of the evening.

“Whoahhhh, we made it!” the older girl laughed, and leisurely began to untangle the symbiotic relationship of herself and rain-spattered coat from around Hana.

The familiar face of Fareeha Amari peered over the edge of the driver’s seat, with her signature golden beads clacking gently as she did so. “I thought you two were never going to show up. I left the apartment almost half an hour ago.” The detective lifted her hand to study blinking numerals emblazoned on her wrist tag, and without making another comment centered around the two girls’ tardiness began to pull away from the curb.

Brigitte was of course unswayed by Fareeha’s monotonous critique, and waved a hand as she settled into her seat and allowed the autobelt to snake over her waist and click into place. “I was trying to get Hana to hurry, but she was having some second thoughts.” Her voice was warm, non-judgemental. Nothing varying from what Hana normally heard. Brigitte was hoping that her friend understood she brandished no anger in response to the claim, but when she leaned to her left to gently prod the street creeper in the ribs, found that Hana’s eyes refused to leave behind the act of scrutinizing every passing building and car. “You’re okay now, right Hana?” The question was carried along with the pleasant hum of the car’s engine, just loud enough to be heard by the girl beside her.

There was no reply to the question, except for the glow of bright pink blaring a silent greeting back at her in the glass.

Hmm, maybe she’s still a bit upset about this whole thing. With me telling her she should wear my dress, and going to see my family, and all that. Have I….Have I pushed her too far? “Thanks for waiting for us, Fareeha. I really appreciate it.”

“Not a problem.”

It was quiet, and Brigitte was uncomfortable with the lack of conversation. She had been hoping, ever since she brought up the idea a few days ago, that this gathering be something the four of them could bond over while they continued to seek clues to fuel the investigation.

So far things didn’t seem to be going exactly as planned. But who knew? The night was still young. She would disregard this as a minuscule adversity among the grander scheme of things.

The preparation for tonight, alternatively called finding and actually being satisfied with something to wear, was definitely a sight to see.

Fareeha, like normal, had been fretting over trivial details such as attire, and if the three of them aside from Brigitte were invited (which technically they weren’t, but Brigitte had a brisk talk with her parents about the guests she was intending to bring along. There were no qualms there, luckily). With her partner’s help, the detective settled for a navy blue pantsuit which revealed her toned figure rather nicely, and after a little pep talk with the younger girl, was reduced to what Brigitte would like to call a confident but soft spoken “tall drink of water”. At the compliment Fareeha swiveled around to disguise the shade of red that invaded her cheeks, and the youngest Lindholm awarded herself with the generous suggestion of a possible hobby as a fashionista.

Hana, on the other hand, was another story. While Brigitte did all the work of delivering gentle commendations and pressing Fareeha to try every single piece of formal attire in the closet, she watched; from her spot on the detective’s spacious bed amusement glazed over her wide eyes, and curiosity forced her lips to embody the perfect example of a devilish grin. When it was her turn to become the dress up doll, Brigitte was more than happy to confess that she retained a substantial amount of clothes from prior years. Of course it would only make sense that she had been smaller - less brawny and lengthy, at some point in her life, and the clothes she could no longer slip into she determined would fit the tinier girl. Hana was both blown away with her friend’s magnanimity as well as a bit flustered that she’d have the honor of wearing something belonging to the daughter of a city official.

A city official . Hana repeated the words inside her head, itching to roll them around on her tongue and palpably feel the foreignness. What stopped her from doing so was the fact that she knew Brigitte would only laugh and claim that the word, the idea, the meaning surrounding those five syllables, was no big deal.

But really, it was. It truly was.

No one had ever gone so far as to lend her clothes (well, if one doesn’t count the times she snuck into other street creeper’s homes to take something she liked). Nobody like Brigitte had ever befriended Hana either. And if she was being honest with herself, the surrealism of the situation was a bit overbearing, more so than she would like to admit.

All the innocent side glances and smiles the tall, freckled girl would send Hana’s way meant so much more than Brigitte would ever know. They were different than the laughs she shared with Sombra the time they traded secrets over breakfast, and strayed from the timeless conversations about omnic and street creeper rights she carried with Zen.

So what was it that made all those little gestures feel like falling streams of sunshine that marinated her with convivial tenderness? She wasn’t quite sure about the answer to that question.

Neither girl was.

Hana was mindlessly listening to peppered conversation between Fareeha and Brigitte as they drove. When showering rain from the passing clouds weakened into a soft drizzle as a fragment of sun poked through the hills of fog surrounding them, the car finally came to a halt.

Hana blinked, and removed the hand she was currently using to prop her chin up while she peered out the window. “We’re here?” The question was directed toward no one in specific, but stood as the vocal materialization of her muddled state of mind.

Car doors slammed, and although Fareeha and Brigitte were already removing themselves from the shelter of the vehicle, an immobilized Hana remained glued to her seat.

Through the glass another world loomed. A mansion manifested through the wavering fog, with peaked roofs and expansive, magnificent windows surrounded by a mosaic of mottled stone and brick. It was preluded by a forest of mixed, moss-ridden sculptures and evergreen shrubbery that smeared the open space with an aura of wilderness. The sun, always so shy at this time of the year, was just beginning to dip below the clouds that blanketed the surrounding garden and home. A symphony of orange, pink, and purple was conducted by the setting heavenly body, and for a moment every worry, every fear, every reality - seemed lightyears away. Never in Hana’s life had she seen something so superb. It all seemed impossible to one who had spent her entire life in the dystopian wasteland of glowing skyscrapers and graffitied streets.

She would have stayed in the car for the remainder of her days had it not been for the daughter of the individuals who lived here.

“Hana.” There was a gentle tap on the window blanketed by evening condensation, but the sound was nowhere near enough to shatter Hana’s captivating reverie. “ Hana..?

Fareeha was waiting, and was weak to alleviate the impatient thrum of her stiletto heels on the pavement.

Feeling as helpless as a baby lamb Brigitte shot a desperate look her the older woman’s way, and although no words were passed between them something in Fareeha’s dark eyes prodded her into a decision she knew she had to make. “Give me a moment, Fareeha.”

The tattooed woman cocked her head in the direction of the mansion. “I’ll wait for you by the entrance?”

“Will do.”

A hard light key was tossed into the air, carving a perfectly seamless arc, and found comfort within the open palm of Brigitte. She tucked it away within her coat’s pocket for further use, and gulped as she heard the heeled clacking of Fareeha fade into the mist with each passing second.

What….do I say to her? She’s been acting kind of strange. I just wish it wasn’t me who did anything wrong.

Opening the opposite car door where she had been previously seated, Brigitte slunk back into her seat as nonchalantly as she could manage. The tweed fabric of her jacket folded into layered clumps beneath her that she struggled to press down, just like she was attempting to do with the distortion saturating her mind.

Through her peripheral, she saw Hana reduced to a crumpled diminution. Knees pulled tight to her chest, only Hana’s messy brown hair was visible. Caved between the folds of her elbows was her face, something Brigitte desperately wanted to see as she feared the burden of fault for some ambiguity she knew nothing of.

And then, sniffling. Very lightly, but just loud enough to tear through the muffled slams of other car doors shutting as more guests arrived. And the sound, although Brigitte was still left in the dark as to what was its root, ripped her heart in half as easily as if it were made of paper.

“Hana?!” The lack of distance between them would have been concerning in any other scenario, but right now it wasn’t what was occupying the entirety of her brain. This girl sitting next to her was. “You’ve got to tell me what’s wrong - i-if I did something bad, please tell me. I never meant you any harm -”

Brigitte almost missed the sound that came next. It was unexpected, as was everything else so far that included Hana this evening. A laugh, smothered in intensity by the thin arms that concealed Hana’s face, trickled into the small space between them.

“I-It’s not you….Not really.” There was a lilt in her voice; somehow always hidden no matter the situation.

Brigitte’s eyebrows careened together. “What do you mean?”

“You’re….You’re just a really awesome friend. I’ve never met anyone like you.”

The heater within the car might as well have been turned up ten degrees higher than what Brigitte was currently feeling, and she debated either peeling herself out of the shell of a coat that rested on her back or opening the door to allow frigid night air to grant her some physical peace. She wanted to say something, and it was stranger than strange, for once in her life being at a loss for words. Perhaps it was because no one had ever said something as sincere.

A fist socked her in the side of the arm, and the bulky girl recoiled with shock rather than pain. “ That’s for making me look like a fucktard,” Hana caviled, wiping the tears she would have declared were nonexistent from the corners of her eyes while Brigitte retreated to grabbing the assaulted portion of her bicep.

“I-” But before Brigitte was able to weave into the one-side conversation a comment of her own regarding Hana’s thoughts, something slipped into the hand belonging to her resting arm. Shy, warm fingers cradled larger ones, rendering the freckled girl sitting (probably too close) to Hana speechless. Swathed in a feeling she couldn’t decipher aside from the typical feelings of nervousness and trepidation, Brigitte could have sworn she’d been doused in gasoline at some point that evening, only to be set on fire here in the suddenly claustrophobic car interior.

“Thanks….For everything else.”

The car door across from Brigitte opened, and a blissful breaker of chilled air rushed in to kiss her cheeks and rescue her from the phantom fever. The solidarity she was granted could only amount to a privilege, harbored for these exact, rare instances where she somehow found herself outside the realm of standard sociability. Her face tingled with a sensation she wasn’t sure was hot or cold, but at this moment there really was no hope for her distinguishing anything as trivial as her left from her right.

What she did know, despite her body surrendering to the numbness delivered by a hundred mysterious prosecutors, was that she was smiling.


 

She should have known the snickering would be inexorable.

Brigitte managed to track down Hana’s lithe form dancing amongst the glowing amber lights guarding the entrance to her parents’ home, and the smirk engraved deep into the street creeper’s face told her Hana had moved on well past the event that had taken place in the car mere minutes ago. With a patchwork of relief and neglect stitched across her features, Brigitte spun the ring of the hard light key on her index finger and sauntered toward Fareeha, getting ready to toss them the detective’s way.

Fareeha’s grin stretched knowingly, and with the way her hands folded over her chest, squaring her shoulders and causing them to appear wider than usual, Brigitte craved to thrust the attention onto someone or something else.  

The universe must have seen something worthy in her inward plea, because at that instant Fareeha’s attention was vacuumed by what she thought was an angelic being merciful enough to grace them with her presence.

“Sorry if I’ve kept you all waiting,” Doctor Ziegler tried, searching the surrounding margins of her face to capture loose flyaways (it was an ongoing battle) just as the keys left Brigitte’s finger and connected with Fareeha’s slack face.

Brigitte was lifting a finger to deliver an apologetic soliloquy when she felt weight on her arm; it forced her limb back down, although she was convinced if she didn’t at least mumble a curt “Sorry”, she’d find herself pumping iron at the gym three times more heavy than she was used to, thanks to a vexed Fareeha.

There, hanging from her arm, clung Hana, both of her arms grappled tight around Brigitte’s arm - it was the second time that day that she’d involuntarily attached herself to the other girl for reasons that her friend couldn’t quite yet unscramble.

“Look, look!” The whispers were hot on her cheek as she watched a finger tipped by chipped black nail polish hover in front of her eyes, gently tracing the pathway made by the woman in glimmering white. If she didn’t know any better, Brigitte would have assumed this event the deciding factor of her being off in dreamland, tucked away under the layers of quilted blanket back at her homey apartment within the city.

Angela was unaware of the promenading she advertised, her legs covered within the silver sheath of a dress that sparkled like a closely-knit dreamcatcher secreting together a thousand stars in the sky. The garment flowed up her torso with ease, relinquishing a generous space of fabric around the sides of her neck to display an incredibly defined collarbone. The creamy white of her skin, dotted by what Fareeha witnessed were adorable little beauty marks, was covered by the doctor’s shaky hands as she pulled the black cardigan donning her tighter around her shoulders. It almost seemed as though just as quickly as a portion of Angela’s flawless beauty had been exposed, it was gone again, and Fareeha had to slap herself mentally a few times before she was capable of delivering the other woman a suitable response.

Fareeha cleared her throat roughly, cheek stinging some with the impact of the keys. The knot in her throat remained, and beneath her insulated leather jacket her heart crashed against her chest. “N-No, not at all. We just got here ourselves.” And then, something else escaped from between her lips that she wasn’t entirely expecting herself to say, but found she didn’t mind it nearly as enough as she assumed she would. “You look beautiful.”

Whoop, there it is. The phrase was burning its way around the interior of Hana’s skull, and she would have said it out loud were it not for the reaction from Angela Fareeha received following the authentic compliment she was gifted.

She clambered up the human ladder of Brigitte, arm swung cleverly around the thick neck adorned by flowing auburn, to allow a few more secrets to pass between them. A hand planted itself on her waist to steady her, but her heart was already too filled to the brim with the sight of a flustering Fareeha desperately trying to continue the conversation in a casual manner and a grin-stifling Angela nervously twisting a loose lock of gold around her index finger.

“Holy shit, would you look at that! She’s totally whipped, I tell you.”

“H-Hana! You can’t say that, the-they’re right here…”

“I’m fucking whispering it to you, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Baguetta. Listen to me . There’s some hyper-sexual activity going on here-”

Brigitte was lunged forward without warning as the girl who had been literally tied around her neck scampered off, leaving her in the wake of more straggling guests probably more than a bit confused as to why the youngest Lindholm daughter previously appeared to be strangled by a tiny street creeper ( groundlings , some people called them - those who were bourgeois enough to spend their entire life up here amongst the clouds, which they thought subsequently claimed their divinity).

“Wait up, you cowards!” Hana’s shadow called out into the evening air as it chased after the doctor and detective. Pink cheeks flashed for a second as she spun around, and Brigitte was already sorting her way through the crowd after scooping up the keys, acting as a sort of brief, flushed beacon that begged for her friend’s attention. “Hurry up, Baguetta!”

The tango she led through the conjunction of bodies and around meticulously trimmed spruce was difficult, and the more she thought about Hana frisking her way over, under, or around any obstacle that was in her way, the more she thought about her friend coming to an untimely demise after artlessly bumping into her parents.

And of course she hadn't lied when she said to Hana that she didn’t care what her parents thought about having her friend there; it wasn’t like one of the playdates in those girly, cliche movies she watched on the web as a child (it was only a few times that she’d admit to watching, their provocation usually being loneliness), where the foolhardy parents would invite their daughter’s friends over without hesitation to create the ultimate birthday sleepover. Brigitte would have been stupid to even assume those naive dreams actually existed.

No, she knew there would be hesitation, lengthy side glances, and maybe even a bonus chat, shouldered away from the migration route of the party guests orbiting themselves around the Lindholm mansion. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but deep down, nestled snugly at the pit of her stomach sat the dread of acknowledgment, for she knew it was mostly inevitable.

Not in the least surprised that Hana had managed to weasel her way around the security outside the main doorway, she hustled in, hazel eyes zooming around the home she always felt misplaced in.

“Ah, Brigitte is here!”

“My, you’re looking well, darling.”

“In a hurry? You should stay and chat with us for a while!”

The invitations and greetings were empty to her, and she dismissed them with a polite smile and wave of her hand, adding a penitent turndown when she saw fit. Her parents were around here somewhere, and for some half-baked reason Hana had decided to scamper away after Fareeha and Angela without waiting, and all Brigitte wanted was to find her friend before something unfortunate happened.

Turning to her left she caught sight of the flowing, rich, mahogany cloths running up and down the length of an appetizer table, and as her fingers pinched at the fabric of her coat so harshly her fingertips turned white, her eyes latched onto a pair of bright pink triangles.

The owner of said cheeks was working overtime stuffing into her mouth each and every edible thing on the table that she could, while piling a small plate not nearly large enough for her appetite chock full of more goodies. Angela and Fareeha were in front of her but also farther down the table, serving bubbling drinks for themselves.

I can’t believe they all just ditched me.... “What do you think you’re doing?” She wasn’t about to pull the plate out of Hana’s hands - she’d never do that; after all, having a little bit of fun was part of the reason why they were there - but Brigitte wouldn’t deny that she was somewhat hurt. “We still have to go over the plan one more time!”

Crumbs sputtered out of Hana’s mouth, and she reached up her hand in time to catch some falling spinach and bacon quiche fragments as she shoved in another savory pastry. “Wha if looh lih I’h doin’?”

A couple of other guests waddled their way around the two girls, and when the realization hit Brigitte that Hana would most likely spend all of her time here at the food table unless she could rally her friend somewhere else, she sighed, grabbed Hana’s arm, and began dragging her over to where Fareeha and Angela were.

Orchestrated classical music echoed around every corner of the mansion, each room, each nook, and each cranny; tiptoeing over the chatter and bustle of other guests it sank into the background and provided a segue to all occurrences within the household with impeccable ease.

Brigitte’s disruption of Fareeha and Angela was slightly less fluid than she had hoped, with Hana leaving a trail of food and crumbs in their wake as the two stumbled their way down to the other end of the table.

“Guys - we still need to talk.”

Angela’s fingers slipped around the neck of her champagne glass as she lowered the drink. “I’m sorry Brigitte; Fareeha and I were a bit parched so we thought we’d get a drink before we began our search.”

“Thirsty ga-”

Brigitte’s elbow inserted itself into Hana’s ribs, and a crushed cherry tomato popped out of her mouth instead of the somewhat hushed words she was opposed to having been expelled into the presence of the doctor and detective. “It’s alright,” she mumbled, as her head swiveled around the vicinity for someplace suitable for the recollection of tonight’s plan. Fuck it , she thought, and relented to the fact that the plan wasn’t anything top secret, despite her impulse to act covert and relive their adventure of the night on the freighter. I’m just going to say it right here, it's fine. Nothing special. We’ve just got one thing to do. “Alright, so tonight there’s lots of people here from pretty much everywhere - someone’s bound to know something about Moira O’Deorain. The plan is to ask people about her to see what they know. We’ve got doctors, security personnel and public heroes here tonight...even other city officials and political candidates for the upcoming election.”

“Who thought it’d be smart to have all those jackasses in the same place?” Hana mentioned impassively, shoving a crostino into her mouth.

“Papa knows it’s not the best idea….” Brigitte appeared nervous, and continued hesitantly as if she was scared of accidentally stepping on some metaphorical toes. “But he does it because he wants to respect the opposing sides; y’know, acknowledging people who have different views as him. Especially with this upcoming election - one of the major candidates trying to work his way up to a level above Papa would be Jack Morrison. I’m pretty sure he’s here today, but I don’t know if Papa has talked to him yet.”  

“More like Jack Whore isson,” Hana studied her crumb-dusted fingers precariously while the three other women digested her comment, and both Angela and Fareeha almost spat out their drinks. “That piece of shit’s the reason why Zen goes out every week to risk his shiny metal butt.”

“What do you mean?” Brigitte was the only one capable of forming a coherent sentence, seeing as how the other two were struggling to recover from the small street creeper’s derogatory mention.

“Well, don’t get me wrong here - I’m not an expert or anything - BUT my friend Zen is definitely the most knowledgeable person about this, and I’ve talked to him more than a few times so yeah, maybe I’m like the second most knowledgeable? So -”

Fareeha motioned with her cybernetic hand to signal for Hana to get to the point, and the girl rolled her eyes. “Okayyyyy, so what I’m saying is - Morrison hates street creepers. But if there’s one thing he hates more than that, it’s omnics.” Hana eyed a baby carrot in her hand topped with a crown of some kind of delectable spread, envisioning it as Morrison’s head before severing the imaginary political figure/carrot’s noggin from imaginary torso with her teeth. “That’s why I’m always on Zen’s ass for going out to lead rallies and protests. He can get into lots of trouble….worse off, he could get killed. Like Mondatta.”

At this point Angela had regathered her ability to speak. “Morrison loathes street creepers and omnics….Interesting.” A sparkling in her blue eyes suggested that perhaps she was stitching together some hunches inside that brilliant mind of hers. “Well!” She set her empty champagne glass on the passing tray of a white-adorned server. “ That’s something we could definitely look into, could we not? Morrison and O’Deorain sound like they’re both worth investigating tonight.”

“I second that,” Fareeha followed in unison, discarding her glass as well. She’d rather be as open-minded as possible for whatever unfolded this evening, and second thoughts about drinking forced her to stray from the desire of participating in the social activity she usually reveled in.

Brigitte grinned, obviously hyped with the quick but meaningful conversation that had just ensued between the four of them. “Split off into pairs? We’d work faster that way, and won’t have to be alone.” Thinking about working together with Hana and Hana alone sent a shiver tickling the length of her spine, and maybe even a spurred burst of warmth to her cheeks that she blamed on the adrenaline simmering within her veins.

“Good idea,” Fareeha nodded, tugging at the hem of navy blue under her leather jacket. “Angela and I will ask around to see what we find. You and Hana do the same. Let’s meet up again here in a couple of hours to share what we uncover.”

“Okie dokie!” Brigitte saluted, and taking the reins this time grabbed Hana’s elbow (but not before snagging a thick slice of her favorite cardamom braided bread from the table) to drag her away into the depths of the crowd.

The taste of the subtly sweet, soft-as-a-cloud pasty was heaven in her mouth, and just like any other dessert, the sugar bolstered the abnormally high amount of enthusiasm she had, churning her ambition into physical action. Hana’s surprised squeals echoed behind her, and ahead, where her thoughts were unwavering, a drive unlike no other propelled Brigitte forward.

We’ve got some work to do.


 

Sombra, latched onto the normally purple arm like a leech, was relishing the skin on skin contact. It was nice. More than nice, actually. Never had she felt so blessed, and the face-splitting grin across her features said it all.

It was a considerable contrast to Widowmaker’s displeased countenance, which was another story. She was wearing the adapter which pulsed fervently against the temple near her left eye. It sent out electromagnetic signals to the other stationary markers on various areas of her body to keep intact the mirage of a normal human’s fair skin tone, and if it were to fail in its function she would gladly grapple hook away to somewhere farther than a ten foot radius from the hacker. It was too bad she had to remain within the role of a mundane civilian - it was for the success of the mission, after all. And to be clear, physical contact wasn’t exactly her favorite thing ever. A warm hug or tender pat on the cheek wasn’t entirely out of the question when she was around Sombra. But this . This was a little much.

A squeeze, followed by the infuriating massaging of her arm much friendlier than what was appropriate for two individuals who rarely hung out (could this really be considered “hanging out”? The whole entire ride here Sombra had been joking that it was a date, and Widow held in putrid bile from creeping up her throat each time the word entered her ears), disrupted her nagging thoughts.

Araña, aren’t you excited? This is going to be the first time we’re actually going to be working so closely together - y’know, side by side, as partners!” Sombra’s usually prominent, dyed hair was swept to the side in a manner that wasn’t entirely unattractive, Widow thought. The new dark brown suited her, and she tried not to stare at her friend’s locks for longer than originally intended. It was inevitable that the other woman would get the wrong idea. “And I’m sure we’d make good partners in other ways, if you know what I mean,” she winked, magenta irises sparkling.

Widow blew a lethargic raspberry, just long enough to cause Sombra’s nose to wrinkle for a few moments at the sound. They were coming closer to the entrance, and cocking her neck to each side to hear a series of soothing cracks that immediately induced relief, she did her best to smile. Getting into character was hard - especially for her, considering she was void of most emotion - and with Sombra here, it made the process that much more difficult.

“Tai-tois. You have the invitation, no?”

“Aquí, no te preocupes!” the Latina laughed and waved her left arm, the one currently not fastened around Widow’s taught bicep, in front of the two. Her wrist tag flashed a light purple, mimicking the excitement she felt. In a moment she extracted the invitation she illegally forged just a couple of hours before the mission’s embarkment, and the document hung in the air above her wrist like a blaring cyber ad, petitioning for something as obtrusive as those flamboyant eateries on every corner she knew Widow absolutely hated.

As soon as the security at the door scanned in the barcode, which of course was nonexistent two hours past, they parted before the pair in what Sombra imagined within her mind’s eye (which, often dabbled in stretching the truth to something more of her liking) to be reverence, and found themselves within the Lindholm mansion.

Farther down the already sizable corridor, the hall expanded in an almost nebular manner, with rustic, polished granite of varying shades quilted across the floor. The home was a relic; every overhead beam of timber, the odd yet curiously intriguing conundrums of warped metal that Sombra assumed were mistaken by some as abstract art, and the almost Renaissance-style oil paintings dotting the home’s landscape as far as her eyes could see were sights to behold.

Sombra was halfway to cutting off what little circulation remained in her partner’s arm when Widow seized her cheeks in a way that both frightened and aroused her (though she’d rather cut off her own tongue than admit that out loud, especially with the way her friend’s eyes were flickering like a maddened creature that had been provoked).

“You remember the plan, exacte?”

Fingers far too cold to belong to a truly living human sunk deep into her skin, forcing a dull ache to creep around the lower half of her jaw where she was held in a grip as strong as iron. Licking her lips, Sombra responded. “Por supuesto.”

The hold, along with her short-lived fantasy of initiating risqué contact with the other woman, vanished within the next second upon hearing Widow’s words. If the hacker tried sweet-talking her way around this to spend a few more minutes in the arms of the woman, that could possibly mean jeopardizing not just the mission and the fleeting moments enwrapped within, but her face as well. She wasn’t sure her cheeks could take another sultry compression of the likes the kind Widowmaker bestowed.  

Widow pushed aside a few of her cabled tresses around the tight black of her dress and forced her golden eyes ahead, somewhere not on Sombra. She didn’t have time to be playing games. “We need to keep them separate. You distract the juvéniles - I will take the detective and her friend . We regroup when I have the doctor.”

Sombra was already halfway through a pool of guests, no doubt possessing the single thought in mind of seeing her little street creeper friend again. Heh, esto va a ser divertido. “Hasta luego, Araña.”

With a pesky flourish of her clawed fingers, she was gone.


 

“Where do we start, Baguetta?” Hana managed to grab some more goodies from the appetizer table, as well as a handful of others from passing caterers, before her friend had seized her by the hand and began dragging her across the Lindholm foyer. With every passing second the crowd grew larger, and Hana realized that she was actually thankful to be tethered to the giant of a girl before her.

“For starters, I think we shou-” Brigitte didn’t finish, seeing as how a deep voice, one which she immediately froze upon hearing, called out to her.

“Ah, Brigitte! I’m glad you were able to make it!”

The older girl turned around slowly, a shy wave offered as someone of (Hana tried not to stare) almost surprisingly short stature worked his way through a bushel of guests, excusing himself as he did so with jovial pats and hearty laughter. “P-Papa! It’s good to see you,” she tugged Hana’s hand closer, and maybe just a little too strongly because the street creeper collided into Brigitte’s side for what felt like the umpteenth time that day, castigating herself when she noticed the lighting from her cheeks brighten.

The miniature but husky man positioned himself in front of the girls, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as Brigitte’s mother followed behind, along with a man whom both Brigitte and Hana had seen before on countless posters and net ads playing across the city. “I see you’ve brought a friend.”

Brigitte coughed, feeling more than slightly uncomfortable under the triad of discerning eyes across from her - but mostly from her father’s eager hazel and cybernetic visual enhancer which felt like they were boring holes into her skull. “Mama, Papa, meet Hana.” She prodded the other girl forward, and Hana shrugged sheepishly. She’d never been introduced to anyone else before, and especially not in such a gaudy environment amongst a population she didn’t associate with, if she could help it. “She’s helping me and Fareeha with the NNv case.”

Torbjorn rubbed his rugged jaw again in what Brigitte thought was contemplation, and she imagined him to be scrutinizing her friend with what possible aspects he could to decide on an attitude toward Hana. She knew one of the thoughts surging in a perpetual loop through his head was that she was a street creeper. Anyone knew just by looking.

To her relief, the city official said nothing more on the subject of Hana, and instead forced a dissociated smile, one that contrasted quite noticeably from the gentle one that Brigitte’s mom carried upon Hana’s introduction. “Glad to have you here for the soirée , Hana.”

“Th-thank you very much, sir!” Never in her 18 years of life had she ever uttered the word “sir”, but in the presence of this man it felt necessary.

The individual at Torbjorn’s right coughed into a balled fist.

“Oh! Where are my manners? I must be getting old, haha!” Torbjorn stifled a hack of laughter, and the sound prompted Hana to crack a smile and forget her previous case of unusual nervousness. “Girls, I’d like to introduce to you Jack Morrison, one of our upcoming election’s political candidates.”

Morrison’s head bowed for a brief moment, but the dutiful display of courtesy wasn’t nearly enough to bribe Hana away from her views of the man. She didn’t bother hiding the scowl that started to form on her face. “A pleasure to meet you, girls.”

So this is the guy Hana hates - maybe it’s a good thing Papa stopped us from heading elsewhere. Talking to him could possibly give us some leads, clues, anything…. “Thank you for joining us tonight; I hope that you enjoy your time here.” Brigitte’s words were hollow, but she attempted to make them sound like she was truly interested in his well being. It wasn’t something too hard to do.

Morrison grinned, and beside her Brigitte felt Hana grip nervously at the back of her coat, just like she had done before the night they explored the freighter. The sudden need to protect, upon receiving the physical contact from Hana and partnering it with Morrison’s question-raising smirk, was flooding her mind with ways to play this situation out safely.

“I intend to do just that, thank you.” His blue eyes, piercing in a manner much different than Doctor Angela Ziegler’s crystal aqua orbs that examined everything with a curious tenacity, drilled into Hana unexpectedly. If at all possible, she would have gladly allowed a sinkhole to swallow her up, right then and there. She felt stupid, feeble, hiding behind Brigitte - but the instincts within her, the ones she honed after spending her entire life on the streets, told her she needed to be afraid.

Zen was right. About everything.

“So what brings you to this gathering, Hana? You don’t seem like the kind of girl who would show up here just because,” Morrison inquired, tugging on the sleeve of the crisp white shirt which peeked out from beneath his tux.

Words were far-flung for a moment, much too distant for Hana’s grasp. She already knew she hated the man, and actually processing the fact that he was speaking to her, induced a sort of xenophobic aftertaste within her mind while she fumbled for a way to reply to his uncultured prying. “I-I’m just here with Bag-Brigitte. You know, having fun? Getting to know one another, and spending some quality time together while we take a break from the case for tonight.”

Morrison nodded, but by the way he continued scanning Hana (she swore he was just doing it because he knew she was a street creeper), she knew he didn’t buy the reply. Of course whenever someone saw an individual like her they automatically assumed the worst. “Ah, that makes sense! The NNv case, correct? Your friend mentioned it, if I heard correctly. How is that coming along?”

And then, everything here at this party aside from the three women she came with, triggered the overwhelming revelation that she was surrounded by people and things of a world she didn’t belong to, and it felt bone-crushing. The tinny wavering of the waltz in the background grew distant, the chattering grew louder, almost to a deafening level, and she was dead certain the eyes of three people she hardly knew were trained on her in an almost judgmental manner, waiting for the exact second she might slip up.

Why is he asking me all these questions? Why me?

He’s testing you, Hana. Don’t let him see you scared. Just answer his question - it’s not that hard.

The taut back sanctioned directly beneath her white-knuckled hands pushed up against her palm, and then she remembered she wasn’t alone.

“It's coming along great. We’re making progress -” A bubbling bravery stirred up within Hana and thrummed against her ribcage, egging her on to inject her own spin to the conversation instead of allowing the man before her to run everything. It’s what he always did, and he was (whether it be purposely or inadvertently) destroying not just street creeper, but omnic lives, with the heights he was using to secure his political campaign. Hana knew this firsthand more than anyone else here tonight. “Y’know, you’re probably a bit happy about this whole NNv thing, aren’t you? Omnics and street creepers are dropping dead left and right like flies. The virus is basically doing the work for you - you got lucky with the timing and your campaign to rid the city of lowlifes like me, huh?”

It was as if the air between the five of them dropped to a chilling 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Torb’s mouth was hanging open, agape with the shock of the accusation which was thrust effortlessly from this girl’s lips. Within the few lingering seconds that passed, he was unsuccessful in coming up with a means to protect his guest. Torbjorn wasn’t dense; that was the whole reason why he had invited Morrison to his home tonight. The opposing views the two of them carried were as clashing as water and oil - and the man of course wasn’t volunteering himself to side with the street creepers and omnics. He just wanted their respect, and did what he could as his time as a city official to remain within the lines of admirable morality (both for others to see, as well as to serve as a playbook for himself) to be a figure the city could trust, and believe would best represent them.

In short: Hana had refrained from beating around the bush of what he’d been wishing to say to the grizzled man beside him for what seemed like years.

“Uhh….what do you all say to some food, eh?” Torbjorn waved around the clawed prosthetic which claimed his left hand, and the metal extensions twisted into a somewhat comical attempt of a pointer, obviously motioning back to the appetizer table Brigitte and Hana had strayed from not long ago. “Maybe some traditional Swedish meatballs - I made them myself, haha!”

If Morrison was about to reply he was denied the chance, because Torbjorn had secured himself to the taller man and began dragging him away in search of the legendary, home-cooked meatballs he was so proud of. Also to avoid any sort of fuse being blown by the one guest he was struggling to keep entertained for the majority of the night.

Within moments the three adults were gone, leaving Hana and Brigitte to their own devices.

“What was that?? ” Brigitte’s honey eyes were wide as saucers, and although the distance between her and Hana was again noticeably nonexistent, she didn’t seem to register.

Hana’s cheeks flushed for the umpteenth time that evening, and she shoved Brigitte away slightly, just enough to give herself some breathing room and assemble a reply that actually made sense, instead of the jumbled babbling she knew would spew out of her mouth if she didn’t allow herself enough time. “I couldn’t keep it in, okay? That guy’s a complete dick, and what I said was true! Your dad didn’t even try to defend his ass; proves that I was right.” She crossed her arms over her chest as Brigitte contemplated, the vigorous beating of her heart on an adrenaline high still refusing to subside.

If Brigitte was praising her or lecturing her, she didn’t know.

Something had caught her eye.

The familiar, cheeky smile of someone she didn’t expect to see there in a billion years was flitting across from her, taunting the girl in the playful manner it always did. A slender champagne glass raised to deep purple lips, and they curved upwards further when Hana took a precarious step forward.

“...Sombra?”

 

Chapter Text

The sensation crawled along the lining of her stomach, teetering along the boundary of teeth-gritting agony and a dull, throbbing ache. The monster of a man loomed before her, and his booming laughter ricocheting around inside the pressured containment of Angela’s mind like a pinball.

“Good one, Reinhardt!” Fareeha slapped the man on one of his boulder-sized biceps and glanced back toward Angela after a brief moment of chuckling, just in time to catch the doctor’s waning smile. “Angela, are you alright?”

The concern within Fareeha’s eyes was overpowering, and mixed with the raging heat that was eating Angela alive, she felt like crumbling down right then and there.

But she wouldn’t, not now.

She used the napkin she had previously tucked into her clammy palm to dab away what beads of perspiration she imagined were adorning her forehead. “I’m just feeling a bit queasy, Fareeha, don’t pay me any mind…” Angela desired to avoid the detective’s gaze, but she couldn’t escape the dark brown that jumped left to right in a skittered frenzy. “I’ll step outside for a moment to get some fresh air; if you’d please excuse me.” She was in no rush to hear their hums of approval or agreeing head nods, but felt the eyes studied on her retreating back as if they were pinpricks, prodding at her skin for something more than a brief goodbye.

The good doctor remembered seeing a hidden hallway dotted by bristled evergreen pygmies near the buffet-style paradise of traditional Swedish horderves, amongst an uncanny amount of other appetizers. As she darted through and around each individual that crossed her path, a dejected Fareeha floated into the already too tight confines of her headspace. She didn’t have to see Fareeha’s face to know what the other woman was thinking or feeling. She just... knew . The action of her leaving was unexplained, but also translated to Angela as a dismissive gesture, whether she had meant it to be purposed to that extent or not.

And so as the chilling night air bit and scratched at her cheeks, she released all concerns and sorrow at the regretful thought of leaving her friend so suddenly, and beelined for a circular arrangement of deep verdant bushes, sculpted into towering geometric perfections. Breathing hard as if she had recently finished a 10 kilometer run (the activity of running, of course, had always been something she came second place in), Angela pulled her napkin out once again and coughed into it, her lungs simultaneously begging for air as well as blistering at the very touch of the frosted oxygen.

The hacking went on for nothing short of an eternity, but Angela refused to allow her consciousness to surrender to the darkness that overtook her just a few days prior. What truly bothered her was that now, of all times, the nanomachines had banded together to deliver another life-threatening scare -- only this time it was at a prestigious social convention.

I thought that this was over…? Why is this happening still? She pulled the napkin away from her mouth and almost doubled over when she found her hands stained red, and the once snowy towelette was too dribbled a dark crimson.

Something cold seized the nape of her neck, and a split second later she felt a series of consecutive pinches squeeze the tender skin directly beside her jugular. Angela stiffened, her back ramrod straight.

Someone was pressed up right behind her; fingers practically claiming her neck as their own as they curled around her jawline and forced the doctor’s mouth to remain shut. Whatever had been introduced into her system left what felt like the aftermath of a branding iron on the surface of her skin, and with a past tied to the procuration of occasional narcos and other products, she knew by the tingling in her veins that she had less than a minute to try and escape before she was out cold -- lest what had entered her was a killer poison.

“You weren’t supposed to survive, Dr. Ziegler.”

...What? Angela’s heart threw itself against her ribcage, slowly at first, and then harder and harder as she processed the words, rioting for a chance to be free. It almost seemed to want to escape, which is perhaps the exact thing she should be doing at this moment….

Fingers caked in blood clutched at the sides of her dress. She coughed once more before nodding as bile and more blood clawed up her throat and bubbled at the corners of her lips, and with what strength she had she jerked her head to the side and croaked out a question.

“Who are you and what do you want?” Her voice was not her own, and it felt as if she were speaking through a mouthful of sludge she wished not to digest. As she craned her neck and her veins burned against feverish skin, her eyes hungrily took in what she could of her captor.

Behind her stood a woman she’d never seen in her entire life, but from what she was able to glimpse, Angela knew her chances of escaping were slim. Cranium extensions, implants that were a more rare luxury these days for those who could afford them, slithered their way down the woman’s shoulders. The way her lips, painted a rich purple, twisted into a crippling smirk that revealed nothing of what intentions were hidden brought back flashes of the same treacherous grin a friend she once knew used to wear. But the worst thing of all, the piece that cemented Angela into place there amongst the garden’s allure, was the piercing yellow eyes. They burned in the dark and seared Angela’s soul, chasing away the idyllic moonlight that poured over the entire Lindholm estate and dashing the doctor’s hopes for a successful rescue.

The woman’s smile stretched as she pressed closer, and the grip around Angela’s jaw tightened once again. “Let’s just say I’m here to collect you….You’ve been dearly missed.” The whisper was that of a chilled curse, riddled with lies and deceit. “Don’t fight the soporific injection and you’ll be fine. If you try too hard you’ll make it more painful, ma chérie.”

As if attempting to cut off what little oxygen Angela was indebtedly blessed with considering her current situation, the hand under her jaw slid down and pressed hard around the base of her neck where she felt full-bodied pressure threatening to crush her windpipe. Although she twisted and writhed as much as she was physically capable, it wasn’t enough to break free.

Darkness began eating at the edges of her sight, and everything suddenly backtracked to occur at half the speed she knew it was happening in real time. Breathing was becoming a chore, and her hands, placed around the forearms of the mysterious woman behind her slackened in their grasp. Someone...Help me….

“Get the fuck away from her!”

Air tunneled into Angela’s lungs as her prosecutor took a direct blow to the side of the face, courtesy of detective Fareeha Amari. Normally Fareeha would have full-on tackled the other individual, whoever it would have been, but she was afraid of hurting Angela by going in full-force. Even so, the material of her prosthetic provided her with supple strength, along with the ability to issue and take hits without the consequence of pain or broken bones.

Widowmaker toppled over for but a moment, quickly springing back up to her stilettoed feet as she wiped a dribble of blood away from her split lip. Glistening lemon eyes, bright and haunting like the waxed yellow of twin harvest moons, peered back at her with seething anger.

It was now that Fareeha realized she wasn’t dealing with just anyone -- the woman who had tried attacking Angela was now slowly flickering from gently sun-kissed skin to soft purple, and the sight was enough to stall Fareeha for a mere second.

Fareeha lunged forward, her prosthetic fist already extended to yet again connect with the mysterious woman. In any other situation she would have landed another significant hit, which would normally put her foe out of commission for some time; yet this was no ordinary enemy, that much she could assume. The woman dodged Fareeha’s second punch with a simple sidestep, ducked under the arm as it extended to full length, and drove her knee into the detective’s stomach. Fareeha doubled over in pain, but refused to allow herself any more than a split second of rest before she retracted to nearly her full height, this time with her arms held up in a protective manner.

“Angela, call someone for help!” Fareeha grunted, and whether Angela was conscious enough to listen to her friend’s plea, she was unsure. As of now she was far too occupied trying to avoid this frightening woman’s well-timed punches and kicks, but whenever possible she threw glances Angela’s way, hoping the doctor was alright.

Fareeha tried again, her voice cracking this time as she desperately fought both to force down a sour knot scorching the back of her throat and the fatigue that desired to overcome her. “Angela, get up!”

Angela…

Angela…

Angela….!


 

“Outta my way.”

Hana, if she held any esteemed thoughts of those attending this party before (which she didn’t really, truth be told), threw whatever few scraps of respect she garnered out of her mental window like one would the contents of a pitcher with dirtied water.

It puzzled her -- bamboozled her to no end, really. What was Sombra doing in a place like this? Things didn’t add up. At least not now, anyway.

Question upon question tumbled through her mind as violent as a landslide tearing across one portion of land to another, each answerless statement bringing their own pang of dread. They stacked up, one on top of the other, towering into an inky shadow of doubt that hurried alongside Hana as she weaved her way through the Lindholms’ guests.  

Words both warm and relatable snuck into her mind, along with the setting of Mr. Jack’s breakfast house where she had spent a morning chatting with Sombra.

“Nah, I just figured all adults like coffee. They’re serious and shit, and only wanna do adult things like go to meetings and talk about bills,” Hana muttered effortlessly, as if she knew the secrets to the mundane life of every metropolitan adult who hefted a briefcase to work every morning.

“I’m not like that,” Sombra uttered quietly, pouring a bit of creamer into the coffee that Hana had ordered for her. “I’m part of a gang, remember? Those are the kinds of people we like to mess with.”

The smile Sombra had given her was reassuring, and Hana decided that she liked being around the older woman. They two of them shared similar priorities. Or so that’s what she thought back then.

But....If Sombra was here, now , and Brigitte of course had no apparent idea who this gang member was, seeing as how they never had the opportunity to meet, something was amiss.

Hana pivoted on her heels to make sure Brigitte was following, and when she saw the older girl within the boundaries of her cozy radius, snatched her hand and tugged. The incoherent babbling from behind her was just the right kind of encouragement she needed to steel her nerves, and she kept her eyes fixed on the woman ahead. Their target was flitting around a towering metalwork tree stretching toward the skylight of an alcove further down the main hall.

The sudden halt from Hana a safe distance away from the hacker forced Brigitte to plow into her friend, and she hastily scrambled to look like she wasn’t the complete dork she sometimes was, especially at confusing times such as this. The way Hana and this other woman were staring, Hana with her eyes half-lidded in a suspicious expression and the other woman with the sideswept mohawk’s a twinkling purple, shut her up immediately.

“Sombra…” Hana began, stepping forward precariously, her free hand reaching forward ever so slightly. The other remained wound tightly around Brigitte’s. “What are you doing here?”

Sombra swigged down the remainder of the sparkling champagne she had procured a few minutes prior. “Oh, just the same as everyone else -- enjoying the party, amiga,” she winked, and Hana bit her lip in frustration.

Brigitte almost winced when nails dug into her palm, but she bit back the whine of discomfort part of her wished to release. She really wanted to be present, as well as alert, for this unique exchange.

“Even I know that’s a lie. You wouldn’t come to a place like this willingly, and neither would I, unless there were a reason.”

The hacker glided forward to place a purple-tipped index finger on Hana’s nose, which made the younger girl unapologetically sink back into Brigitte. Strangely enough, the Swedish girl found it something she definitely didn’t mind, especially with this other strange woman around. It was almost like….she wanted to make sure Hana was safe, and if she was physically close, that made the task even more attainable.

“Oh Hana, ¿estas muy inteligente, tu sabes? I’m here for a reason, if you so insist on knowing what it is.”

Hana’s words were rapid-fire, never missing their desired target and never once losing their ferocity. “Get to the point.” Her mind harked back to the conversation she and Brigitte had had moments prior with Jack Morrison; tonight her emotions were everywhere, really, when all she wanted were answers that aided their current progress on the NNv case. She never asked for the tearful heart-to-hearts tucked away between the leather cushions of a car rental, or her unexpected anger-driven comments to cut like knives against someone she believed was a friend.

Sombra’s soft brown hair flailed side to side as she touched her jaw, eyes performing a similar whimsical movement while pretended to mull over the other street creeper’s comment. “Hmmm….You know, I really would love to tell you, chiquita, but I don’t think I can do that. At least not right now; I gotta let some time pass by.” She finally shrugged, adjusted her dress, and marched over to the tree she had been wandering around earlier like a curious child would.

“Hey, wait! What’s that supposed to mean?” Again Hana pulled on Brigitte’s hand as they shuffled around a pair of passing guests, and this time Brigitte was too late in concealing the muffled grunt of discomfort when she lurched forward.

Sombra’s head lifted from studying the silver plated trunk that tunneled out of the floor as if it had grown there naturally. “Exactly what it sounds like it’s supposed to mean. I need to wait for time to pass by before I say anything important.”

She eyed Brigitte for a moment. The freckled probationary officer was shuffling nervously alongside Hana, and froze when Sombra broke into a toothy grin. “Aye, ¿cuál es el problema, princessa? You’re looking a bit worse for wear. Hana’s treating you alright, I hope? If you’re going out, I mean.” It would be an understatement to say she hadn't already registered the joined hands of Hana and Brigitte, considering how attentive she was in every situation. It had caught her attention from the very moment they began speaking. “You are going out, aren’t you?”

Flustered, Hana was plagued by a series of disconcerted words and impossible retorts that she was unable to sift through in time to give the Los Muertos member a legitimate reply. The lapsed period in which Hana could not develop a response caused the grin already on Sombra’s face to stretch wider a good two inches.

Detaching herself from Brigitte (she was planning on, perhaps, if she did so in an innocent fashion, reaching for her hand again sometime when Sombra wasn’t in the vicinity) and her cyber tattoos now a delectable shade of bright pink, Hana finally mumbled out what would have almost been a complete sentence. “We’re not dating-”
“Yep, definitely not going out!” Brigitte added, laughing off the misunderstanding with a wave of her hands. “That’s silly, hahaha-”

Very! Couldn’t have said it better myself, Bagu-”

“If it’s so silly then why are you both beet red?” The words danced in the air around Brigitte and Hana’s heads for a painfully prolonged moment wherein the girls were unable to come up with a believable quip, until Sombra finally cackled and swatted at the space between the three of them. “As much as I’d enjoy hearing the details, if you don’t want to tell me that’s fine.”

“I-” Hana raised a finger as she felt the heat within her cheeks slowly start to subside. “You’re changing the subject.”

“¡Maldita sea, I was hoping you wouldn’t catch on!” Sombra dipped around the back of the handcrafted tree to run her fingers over each dimple and crease within the metal trunk. Araña should be done by now. I’ve given her plenty of time. But then again, she was supposed to tell me when she had the doctor….

Skittering to the oasis of champagne, more formally known as one of the many bubbling alcohol fountains scattered around the main foyer, Sombra dipped her empty glass under the free-falling liquid, and once the contents were up to her desired height, busied herself with another lengthy drink. As much as she liked liquor, she rarely drank. It was a bit of a missed opportunity at those times, because more often than not she hung around Widowmaker. Who else liked to drink more than the French? Each time she had made that excuse (or stupid joke, her friend called it) to weasel Widow into drinking with her, she’d earn herself a painful whack on the back of the head.

Something tugged within her chest as she watched Hana refrain from grabbing Brigitte’s hand again, and the taller, surprisingly muscular (if Hana indeed fancied this “Baguetta”, then she could totally see why) girl obliged as the little street creeper urged her companion to follow. It was easy to see that Hana cared a lot for her friends, especially this particular individual who was clumsily bumping into individuals and blathering out polite greetings and apologies.

Suddenly, she was aware what she was witnessing: seeing Hana happy. The hacker hadn't known the street creeper for very long, but for the time they they had spent together, it occurred to Sombra the instant they met that they were alike in countless ways. Perhaps in another life they could truly be friends. But for now….Maybe watching the girl laugh and smile from a distance was what was the best for both of them.

Raising her arm, Sombra wiped the straying beads of liquor from her lips before breathing out a sigh. She lifted the now empty glass, and got a kick out of the way the curvature distorted the figures of the two girls scampering toward her, as if they were standing in front of a funhouse mirror. “Why don't you girls go outside, get some fresh air, ¿sí? I think it could be good for you.”

Hana blinked at her a few times, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she nodded slowly, digesting each word Sombra had voiced with a scrutiny to be rivaled with that of a historian agonizing over an ancient text. She reached again for Brigitte’s hand, and together the two of them began their trek to Sombra’s suggested destination.

“I-It was nice meeting you,” Brigitte managed to blurt out, her hazel eyes catching Sombra’s purple ones before she was torn away by another tug from the girl leading the two.

Sombra waved, and as soon as Brigitte and Hana had disappeared back into the ever shifting crowd, placed a finger carefully on the touch-sensitive communicator pad pressed up against her temple to turn it back on. Within her ear she heard faint French cursing, and struggled grunts from someone she knew was not her partner, being deeper in octave and sounding farther away.

So Widowmaker hadn't captured the doctor already. A stroke of luck.

I hope you make it in time, chiquita.  


 

Hair knotted between her fingers and wound tightly around bruised knuckles, Fareeha though deeply, fretted. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so concerned about something or someone, and the only memory that could compare was when she was told her mother had died out on a case one night.  

Brigitte and Hana sat on stools pulled up from the bar in Fareeha’s kitchen, the one she never served drinks at because no one ever came over. As of right now, she wouldn’t be calling herself lucky even though her apartment was filled with a surplus of three other individuals; what brought them together tonight was an extremely unfortunate circumstance.

And once again, Fareeha felt at fault, like she always did when things went even the slightest bit haywire. Wasn’t it her fault? She was the one who had decided to rope the gentle doctor into this mess.

Fareeha sighed deeply, feeling her lungs deflate and inhabit the feeling of dismay she was experiencing currently. Then, carefully pulling away a lock of loose black hair from her downcast eyes, she finally looked up to the individual laying in her bed.

Doctor Angela Ziegler had never looked more peaceful. If the three women surrounding her didn’t know better, by now they probably would have contacted the hospital, and possibly even a mortuary for a future confidant. But tonight Angela was still here, still breathing. What startled Fareeha and her two young friends even more so was that their angel could have possibly been taken, and by someone they knew nothing about. If that were to have occurred, what then would have happened to Doctor Ziegler? And if Fareeha were to think even further down the line: what then would happen concerning the NNv case? Angela was irreplaceable.

A sleepy groan sounded from Angela, and both Brigitte and Hana jumped in their seats, Hana’s eyes wide with disbelief as the woman before them twisted subtly beneath the navy duvet.

“She’s waking up!” Hana leaned forward on her stool, and her seating wobbled some on the wood floor. She grabbed onto Brigitte for balance, and although her fixed grip was that of a snake wound about its prey, neither registered the misdemeanor. Their eyes were solely fixed on Angela, as so were their hopes.

Fareeha, particularly the closest to the doctor and having dragged up one of the dining room chairs to the bedside, held bated breath as she watched the blonde woman’s head shift from side to side. Her heart leapt up to her throat when Angela’s full lips twitched.

And then, just as she had been hoping, bright blue eyes blinked open, groggily at first, and then they jumped everywhere centimeter by centimeter until they came into focus, their final destination Fareeha’s exhausted yet smiling face.

“Fareeha….” Angela made an attempt to move her right arm from beneath the cover to place it near the other woman, but it refused to obey her wishes and remained huddled underneath the covers. A resolve within her snapped as she formulated the solution for losing function of the appendage, and she grimaced, hoping the expression would appear to those as one of pain instead of annoyance. They’re going to have to know sooner or later. I need to tell them.

Instead of moving her right arm, she maneuvered with her left, and was mildly delighted when it appeared over the dark blue covers to rest casually over her stomach. “H-How did I get here?” She looked around, this time making sure to give careful attention to detail of the room she was in. Pleased to note that Hana and Brigitte were here was well, also still dressed in slightly ruffled party attire, she gave them a weak smile and followed up with another question. “This is your room, isn’t it, Fareeha?”

Something warm and red spread across Fareeha’s cheeks, like a shy wave of crimson tide washing over the sea’s shallows. Although Angela found it somewhat adorable seeing the usually stoic detective appearing for once a bit embarrassed, she made no mention of it and only stored the image of this hesitant Fareeha into her mental filing cabinet.

“You were attacked at the mansion by someone,” Fareeha started, wringing a tight bunch of the bed’s duvet between her cracked knuckles and kneading it as if it were dough. “I still don’t know who exactly the woman was….She got away right when Hana and Brigitte arrived, and started calling for help. I was too worried about your condition to go after her.” She stopped, and Angela wondered why. Fareeha’s eyes were sharp despite her weathered appearance, and her brows knitted together in concern. “There was blood everywhere, all over you. What happened?”

Oh….I forgot about that. Angela swallowed, and the air scraped against her dry throat like sandpaper. It hurt to breathe now, and just thinking about what she knew she was going to disclose here, now, in Fareeha’s bedroom to these three absolutely beautiful people who had taken to her like moth to a flame, killed her inside just a little bit more.

A voice, soft and scared-sounding, as if the words belonging to it were voiced too loudly would somehow make Angela spontaneously combust, drifted over the bed and into her ears.

“We were so scared,” it confessed, and Angela turned her head to the left to see Brigitte’s honey eyes focused intently on her. “I-I thought that maybe you’d been stabbed. I’m just so relieved it was a sleeper nano injection, but it could have been much worse if the security at the estate wasn’t so high. Whoever tried to hurt you probably knew that they wouldn’t be able to bring in any weapons or firearms, although I’m still surprised they were somehow able to smuggle in that injector….” she trailed off, partially consumed by her own trail of thought that she had obviously been pondering during the time that Angela was resting, and partially because she didn’t want to overwhelm the doctor with information she wasn’t sure she needed to hear right now.

“You….You all rescued me,” Angela rasped, and with uncoordinated movements to be associated with that of a person who previously went through a traumatic experience, gathered what strength she had within her left arm to clutch at the blanket. The right one rested loosely against her side, hidden beneath the covers. “Thank you. You saved my life.”

There was silence, and no one spoke. It was almost as if they were waiting for something more, something they each knew was buried, untouched, concealed by the good doctor herself for a reason they did not know. Their silence was their plea, and the absence of any more words and polite conversation broke Angela. She too, although wrestling with every fiber of her being like she had for more than half of her lifetime to keep what she was about to say dead, knew this was something that needed to be revived.

If anyone deserved to know, it was these three individuals right here.

And she trusted them, just like they had her.

“Listen….” She wanted to come across as confident, but her shaky voice betrayed her as she gave a final heave and propped her back up against the pillows behind her. “There’s some things I need to tell you all. About….About me.”

Hana, although Fareeha and Brigitte were all for listening to the proclamation about to be delivered before them, was the only one brave (and maybe slightly foolish) enough to interfere with a reassuring question. “....About the blood too?”

The comment brought another small smile to Angela’s lips, and she nodded. “Yes. About the blood too.” One breath. One conclusive breath, egging her on to reclaim the honesty she knew she had lost somewhere along the way, in the middle of this particular journey. “....I used to live on the streets. Although people see me today as the prestigious cybernetics genius and medical practitioner Angela Ziegler, I wasn’t always where I am today. Where you found me. I was a street creeper, just like you.” Her smile, as well as the latter half of her words, were addressed this time toward Hana. The girl only stared, most likely far too taken with the revelation of the emergence of Doctor Ziegler as she disclosed her origins, to say anything.

Fareeha shook her head. “Wait….You were born in Switzerland though, weren’t you?” There was a heavy feeling sitting in her chest, and she somehow knew it was going to fall deeper and deeper, sinking agonizingly until it reached the bottom of her gut, like a boulder trapped in unforgiving mire.

“I was. But as soon as my parents died, I was sent to live here in the States with my only living relatives. I was a very unfortunate child….They passed away a few years later after my arrival, and I was left with no one to take care of me. So I took to the streets.”

“I never would have survived alone if it wasn’t for the people I met. Particularly one individual….” Angela’s eyes glazed over for a second, and she hated herself for having fed to the others the half-truths she did earlier. “Moira O’Deorain. She was my friend.”

Hana leapt up from the stool and the piece of furniture collided with the flooring, sending a trenchant sound echoing throughout the bedroom that made everyone except Angela wince. Angela had expected this kind of reaction. “Are you kidding me?! That woman you told us about is your old bestie?

Without a word Brigitte picked up the fallen stool and placed it back on its legs, right before Hana took a seat in midair. The smaller girl was fuming with arms crossed and tattoos blaring, back again safely in the same seat. Brigitte breathed a quick sigh of relief beside her, but the action was preconceived.

“I thought this lady was your rival or something. Some work-related kind of shit. At least that’s what you told us.” Hana huffed, refusing to meet Angela’s eyes. “Or maybe now I should disregard that? What’s next? The two of you joined a traveling circus and were trapeze artists?”

Angela developed a peculiar fixation on the stitching holding the cloth of the duvet together, and as she twisted the cover between a white-knuckled hand her heart pounded louder in her throat. “I...I was not entirely truthful with you back then in my lab. And I sincerely apologize.” She would have raised both hands if she could, but was only able to settle for one. It obviously appeared silly, but this was her own valiant surrender. “I promise that from now on I will only be completely honest with you, and Brigitte, and Fareeha as well. Keeping things hidden before was a mistake, and I’m foolish to only realize that now. I hope that you will be able to accept my apology.”

Fareeha felt the veins in her neck tighten. Her teeth gritted together with an intense fierceness, and she recoiled at the frustration welling up inside of her that was as sporadic and violent as a natural geyser almost ready to burst. Fareeha never lost her cool. It simply wasn’t her. And although she felt as though she could now, she wouldn’t allow herself to drop that low.

Still, that did not alleviate the irritation she felt, hearing that Angela before had only been spewing half-truths from her mouth; a highly reputable, mind and heart provoking element of the doctor, one that had captured Fareeha’s attention in more ways than one. She had truly believed that Angela was better than that. Of course she didn’t know the doctor very well….the two of them were still just getting to know each other. But Fareeha wanted to believe she knew a true Angela.

She really did.

“I was victim of an accident caused by Moira when I was younger, which made me lose control over a majority of my right arm,” Angela continued, and whether she knew that she had successfully ruffled Hana and Fareeha to a troublesome degree, she either ignored or didn’t notice, and continued on with her disclosure. She pulled down blue covers as soft as a tender, halcyon cloud on a summer’s afternoon, and there rested her arm, reduced to a practically lifeless appendage. “It seems as though the sleepers have affected my cybernetics, ultimately blipping the performance of my arm.” She prodded her right arm with a finger, and watched unsurprised as it wavered for a moment from the push before pulling it into her lap.

“After my accident I was taken in by a kindly organic and mechanical tinker; his name was Winston, and he helped me regain consciousness within my arm by the addition of cybernetics. He provided for me a roof over my head, food, and was kind enough to allow me a job helping out in his store.

It was a good change of pace for me, and I felt like I finally had a stable home. Being in the presence again of such an innovative individual convinced me to return to my own medicinal preoccupations, and I began dabbling in nanotechnology. I though, perhaps, if I was able to create a nanite that could repair broken tissue and heal ailments -- essentially recreate and rejuvenate -- I would be able to have my arm back. The arm I lost.”

Fareeha was unsure of how to proceed with her feelings. The more she thought, the faster they were left behind a thousand paces while her mind raced farther ahead. A subtle, throbbing pain stretched across her right shoulder blade, itching around the bone in an abrasive miniature wildfire. She looked down, and within her lap, stretched out across the blue of her pantsuit leg, unfolded her metal hand. Without a doubt it was an augmentation she didn’t enjoy, and a million times over she would have chosen her regular, flesh arm over this one, just like Angela had hoped to do as well.

But sometimes life didn’t give you a choice.

Angela desired the same thing I did…. Fist closing before her, she bottled up her thoughts, just for a little while longer, so that she would be able to hear the rest of Angela’s story with an unbiased outlook. She wasn’t sure if the plan to do so would work, but it was worth a try.

“It turned out the nanites I created only repair damage caused after their injection, not incidents or injuries from before….My arm remained the same, only able to properly function with the augmentations Winston helped install, and I continued pursuing my dream of becoming a doctor and someone capable of forgetting a luckless past.”

Angela shrugged, and a hollow chuckle swept through her dry throat. “And here I am now! You three found me in one of the only eras of benison I’ve ever been graced with, and I cannot tell you how much more of a gift it has been getting to know and work with you all than what I had before. Truly.”

A disturbed grunting sounded from Angela’s left, and everyone turned to face Hana, who was quite clearly fighting with her own thoughts and feelings on the matter of Angela’s past. The tattoos on her face flashed, flaring erratic signals like a baffled stop light struggling with the next decision it would make to direct the incoming traffic. Brigitte could have sworn, since the moment was right, that seeing smoke leak from Hana’s ears with all the girl’s exertion wouldn’t have been impossible to witness.

“Grahhhhhhh….Yeah yeah, don’t go getting sappy on us Doc. I might actually shed a tear or two, if you’re not careful,” Hana groaned, and pushed the heels of her hands into the slightly damp pockets of her eyes, just hard enough to draw away any tears traitorous enough to show themselves. She leaned forward again after, holding a somewhat embarrassed Angela Ziegler’s gaze tight. “So what about the blood? You were gonna tell us about that.”

The stinging worming around Fareeha’s shoulder blade picked up in speed at the mention of blood, and she hated herself for recalling the image of a crimson-covered Angela, lying helplessly on the ground. I don’t want to see her like that ever again. Ever.

“Ah, yes. I believe my nanites are malfunctioning, but the cause is unknown currently….I haven’t performed any study on myself so far that would allow me to effectively diagnose the problem, although I most likely should have. It’s just….”

“Just what?” Fareeha inquired. If there were a reason why Angela was keeping herself from initiating self-maintenance, she wanted to know why. Her life was technically hanging on the line if this periodic event of discharging copious amounts of blood orally (and other important vital fluids, if it was more than that. She really didn’t know much, but she was driven to learn more.) happened often.

Angela’s frosty eyes bit into Fareeha’s cozy brown ones. “I thought it was a one time deal, with my nanites malfunctioning and causing a health hazardous complication. It….It happened the first time on the night we ventured to the freighter. I passed out in my office after you left. I thought I had seen the last of it then.” She nestled her right arm closer to her middle, and Fareeha noticed how the frustration she had felt initially upon learning of Angela’s old lies was enervating into something more along the lines of sympathy.

“At the Lindholm mansion I had to leave because I knew it was happening again….And I didn’t want you all to worry about me.”

“And that’s how you almost got yourself killed!” Brigitte huffed in irritation at the doctor’s somewhat unwise thinking (in most cases Angela was mature beyond her years, or at least for someone the same age as herself). “If something like that happens, we need to know. We’re a team, and we care about what happens to you and what you’re going through.” A stop, one that created the right kind of atmosphere to prepare the other three women for what she would say next. “We can’t do this without you.”

The room settled into a sincere silence that tugged on Angela’s heart, and similarly prodded at unfallen tears. “Thank you….I really appreciate that.”

Metal scraping against wood echoed through the room as Fareeha stood up quickly, causing the three others to jump an inch out of their seats. There was a dangerous look in her eyes, but hidden behind them was a fire that burned with a hunger to do whatever she could to help the doctor. She was proud of herself having decided to listen to the entirety of Angela’s past without allowing her previous feelings of anger to exude through, but more than the feeling of pleasure she had in herself lay a desire to protect.

Protecting the city and its people was her number one priority. But now, she etched into her vow that meant protecting Angela at all costs as well. The doctor deserved that much.

“What can we do to help you?”

Angela, slightly taken aback and surprised by the authoritative tone within Fareeha’s deep voice, stuttered before the words pronounced themselves smoothly. “I-I believe it would be best to visit Winston, my good friend and old provider. He would know how to properly diagnose and fix whatever may be wrong with my manual system and inner circuitry.”

“And where does he live?”

“On the other side of town….Third floor of The Layers.”  

The Layers? I haven’t been there in the longest time. I can’t believe Angela went that far by herself to get away from Moira, after her accident. Fareeha’s metal hand sought the back of her neck, where she pressed at the tension soaking into her muscles and dancing around her shoulder blade. “Alright, not a problem. We’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning to get help from Winston. You can stay here for tonight -- it’s best that we all get some rest so that we’re energized for tomorrow,” she delegated with ease, and began making her way out the door slowly, as if she were waiting for someone to say something about the current plan.

“Does that mean we can stay here too?” Brigitte called after her, obviously unsure if Fareeha was solely speaking to Angela, or rather the three of them collectively. There was a hopeful lilt in the way she spoke, and Fareeha found herself smiling as she stopped in the doorway.

“Yeah, you too.”

“Hell yeah! Sleepover time, Baguetta!” Haha cried, jumping into Fareeha’s bed and clambering over to snatch one of the many pillows propped up against the bedrest.

Fareeha became immediately concerned when Angela slumped to the left with Hana’s cannonball into the covers, and she rushed back over to the bed to deliver another command. “Hana, you and Brigitte will sleep in the living room, okay? Angela needs her space, so she’s going to stay in this room.”

Brigitte patted one of the fluffy, cream-colored pillows that Hana had passed over to her. “But then where are you going to sleep?”

The detective forced a cough out of her throat, and puffed out her chest some to reinforce the confidence she knew was withering the more she considered the question. “I….I’m going to stay here with Angela. Um, not in the same bed, of course!” she bumbled nervously, also entirely missing the shared knowing glance between Brigitte and Hana. “I’ve got a sleeping bag in the closet, I’ll just make myself comfy with that somewhere here. I thought I should stay just in case Angela has another emergency again.”

The palpable awkwardness drowning the room abated with Fareeha’s sincere reasoning, and although Brigitte would have liked to add her two cents in on the matter (she approved, and was quite astounded by her partner’s genius), Hana shrugged and latched herself onto the ponytailed girl once again to drag her out the door before she was given the chance.

“U-Uh, goodnight!” Brigitte’s farewell for the night wafted into the room, finding both Angela and Fareeha’s ears and causing the two of them to break into a tiny but canorous laugh.

Why does it suddenly feel so warm? Shit, I better say something. “I -- Uh, I’m sorry if this is all really strange to you.” Fareeha sat herself once again on the chair she had placed near Angela’s bedside.

Such a shy smile graced the doctor’s features, pleasant and welcoming enough to make Fareeha feel as if she had nothing more to worry about. “No, I don’t mind at all! You saved my life, and I am forever grateful to you for doing so.” There was a hesitant pause, and Fareeha straightened on her seat, eager to discover the source for Angela’s discontinuation.

“Although….Could I possibly ask you for a couple of favors?” Angela winced, despite not being in physical pain, and when she looked up to Fareeha blue eyes sparkled almost mischievously.

“Of course! Anything,” the tattooed woman announced perhaps a bit too quickly, although there was no reason for her to ridicule the abruptness of her response. Her heart was in the right place, and all she desired tonight was to help Angela with anything she needed or wanted.

“My throat is painfully dry….Turns out coughing up an unhealthy amount of blood really takes a toll on you….” Angela’s following chuckle turned into a bout of hacking, and she scorned herself mentally when Fareeha tore a fistful of tissue from the box stationed on the nightstand to hold them up to the doctor’s mouth.

Fareeha’s warm fingers brushed her cheek and the tissue tickled her lips while Angela prayed she would not fall into another spell of blood spewing once again. Luckily the coughs were mild, and only a few splotches of red stained the white tissue when she pulled them away. It looked like the nanites had settled for now.

“Thank you again,” she smiled weakly, but was attentive in noticing just how close Fareeha was to her; she was hyper-aware of the gentle but quickened breath that spread across the skin of her motionless right hand, of the way Fareeha’s lips were parted slightly in eager anticipation, and of the way her eyes studied Angela fervently for an answer only the doctor could present.

Something strange within her almost wanted to caress Fareeha’s face, to tell her that she was going to be fine as soon as Winston fixed her up, and after that then there would be nothing to worry about. The concern was visible on the other woman’s visage, like a water-laden fog dusting the land and veiling everything usually prominent that was once in sight.

But, she refrained.

“I better go get your drink.” Fareeha was once again almost out the door, but not before Angela stopped her.

“Ah, Fareeha!”

“Yes?”

“I hope it’s not too much to ask for….but would you mind terribly if I borrowed some attire to sleep in? As much as I love this dress, I do feel somewhat chilly.”

A shade of red creeped up Fareeha’s cheeks yet again, and she cursed under her breath before replying courteously. What the fuck is wrong with me? “Yeah, of course.” She hustled over to her dresser, pulled out a pair of sweatpants and a tee that were two sizes too large for Angela (it was the best she could do, there was nothing smaller), and held them out to display to the other woman. “Are these alright? I don’t think I have anything smaller, but you’re free to look and wear anything else if you’d feel more comfortable in something different.”

Angela scooted herself over closer toward the edge of the bed, and pulled away the cover with her good hand as she gave Fareeha a nod. “Those should be fine, thank you. I really appreciate it.”

Fareeha just grinned sheepishly, and placed the clothes on the side of the bed before rubbing the hot, biting area between her neck and shoulder once again. “No problem….I’ll uh, get out of your hair while you dress. Be back soon with your drink, okay?” Closing the door behind her she left, part of her relieved to be out of Angela’s presence. This clearly wasn’t the first time she’d blushed or prattled in front of the doctor, and for some reason now she was acutely aware of that. The thought of loaning her bed and clothes to such a woman as Angela Ziegler was a bit hard for her to wrap her head around, and she felt utterly stupid because of it.

She shook her head, and beads clacked against each other in a hushed clatter. Go get the drink Fareeha, go get the drink. It’s super simple. A deep breath, and off she was down the hall.

“Going somewhere, ‘Reeha?” a boisterous voice called over the din of controlled, perfectly synchronized laughter, the kind you hear on reruns of comedic television shows (over)played every evening. “Thought you were gonna get cozy with the doctor in your room, eh? Maybe you’re grabbing some candles to make the atmosphere a bit more to your likin--OUCH!!”

“Shut up, leave her alone,” came a more tame comment, obviously hoping to smother the ridiculous behavior stemming from the little street creeper. Fareeha couldn’t see, but Brigitte was somewhat flustered with Hana’s rude questions, even if she was pretty much sold on the idea of Fareeha having a crush on Doctor Ziegler. The detective was so gracious as to let them stay the night, after all! There should be more aspiration to remain grateful, and with that, naturally humble.

Fareeha stopped behind the couch where Brigitte and Hana were sitting. A conglomeration of flashing hues from the holographic television splashed over her face, ultimately hiding whatever self-conscious facial expression she bore at the moment. “I’m grabbing something for Angela to drink. After she’s done getting into more comfortable clothing, the two of you can grab something of mine to wear to sleep too, if you want.”

Without waiting to hear a response, she disappeared into the kitchen. There wasn’t much she could say to alleviate the sultry, wisecrack comment that Hana had made so easily, as innately as if she were simply taking a breath. Fareeha was sure that if she had tried to shoot back a remark, her response would have tangled her indecipherable feelings even more, and she didn’t want that.

With a glass of chilled water in one hand and a small plate of saltines in the other, Fareeha hustled her way back to her room, making sure to keep an eye on the cup so that it wouldn’t spill.

The door was closed, since Fareeha believed the doctor took the opportunity to undress and put herself into the detective’s more comfy lounge wear while Fareeha went to fetch refreshments.

Fareeha leaned in close to the door to see if she could hear anything. “....Are you done changing? I’ve got your drink, and I brought some food just in case you were hungry….Not sure if you’re able to stomach anything solid, but I thought maybe some crackers might be good?” The question sounded almost irrelevant, and a sense of inadequacy washed over her when she didn’t get a sudden response.

It was only until after she heard a muffled grunt from the other side of the door, followed by a couple of thuds, that she picked up something from Angela: a timid string of incomprehensible words, which sounded an awful lot like cleaner, more kid-friendly versions of obscenities.

“...Angela? Are you alright?”

“Oh! Uh, Fareeha -- come in!”

The detective gulped, unsure of what she was about to witness. “Athena, open the door please.”

“Of course,” the home AI responded, and the door swept inward without delay.

In front of Fareeha stood a red-faced Angela. One of the straps of her starry dress hung loose off her pale shoulder, and the lamp on the nightstand beside the bed was toppled over onto its side next to a now crooked chair, the one Fareeha had been using to sit earlier.

Angela grabbed the side of her right arm with her left and rubbed nervously before muttering an apology. “I….May have forgotten that my right arm isn’t exactly working at the moment….” She eyed the fallen lamp and the chair learning against the nightstand worriedly, as if the two objects had decided to fling themselves in sporadic directions on their own. “I’m sorry I bumped them, I had some trouble undressing. I, uh, can’t quite reach the zipper at the back of my dress.”

“....” Fareeha didn’t know what to do. For whatever reason, all she found herself physically capable of doing was standing there in the middle of the doorway, a plate of saltines in one hand and a glass of water in the other. It was as if her brain had decided to initiate a momentary lockdown.

“Could you maybe help me unzip the back of my dress? After that I promise I can finish dress myself, but I feel so embarrassed even having to ask you, I’m sorry….”

“....I-It’s alright. I understand….I can help you.” It was almost a struggle forcing her feet to move toward the slumped doctor -- like she was dragging her legs through a blanket of snow reaching three feet high -- but somehow she managed. The glass of water and plate of crackers were placed on the empty space of the nightstand, and then Fareeha reinstated the original position of the lamp, carefully re-adjusting the crooked shade, before finally moving the chair aside. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to delay things by filling in the time with meticulous tasks such as the previous ones, but part of her wished there was more to do while another was anxious to rush to the doctor’s aide.

Deep breaths Fareeha, deep breaths -- wait a minute, why the fuck am I stressing so hard over this?! I literally just have to unzip her dress. That’s it. Then I’m out.

She turned to Angela, and the blonde haired woman replied in stride by tucking one of the relentless flyaways behind her ear as she offered Fareeha a timid smile. Timorous blue eyes fluttered left to right, up and down; anywhere aside from Fareeha’s face, and then, as if it were finally too much, Angela turned around, her back now to the taller woman.

There was a moment of heavy silence between them, crushing Fareeha’s ability to function for a few expansive seconds. The sound of her heart beat against her eardrums, and if the blood-pumping organ somehow managed to clamber all the way up into her throat again as it had before to do so, she would have believed it.

She took a deep breath, and placed her left hand on Angela’s shoulder, touching bare skin. It felt exactly the way she thought it would; smooth, immaculate, warm. The metal fingers of her right clumsily grasped for the zipper of Angela’s dress, and thanks to her absurd behavior, she fumbled once and ended up lightly poking at the skin between the doctor’s shoulder blades.

There was a sudden inhale from Angela, and Fareeha’s heart threatened to jump even higher into her throat (if that was even possible), perhaps making an escape so that it would not have to endure such emotional and mental torture anymore.

“O-Oh, sorry -- Your hand was just a bit cold, don’t worry -- no harm done, haha.”

Fareeha nodded to herself, churning Angela’s words over in her mind to reassure herself she hadn't inflicted any harm on the woman before her, and continued on with the task of unzipping the dress. It was arduously painful, not because it was physically difficult, but because a very genuine thought had begun to reveal itself to Fareeha in an attempt to disclose why she struggled with something so simple. She was positive Hana or Brigitte could have performed the same job in a tenth of the timespan it took herself to do so. So obviously, this reason only applied to her.

Standing her, alone with the doctor, she could not deny what she saw. She recognized that Angela was beautiful. Perfect, even.

But now she realized that all her responses, whether they be verbal, physical, emotional, whatever the heck it was -- were quite possibly because she fancied the clever and undeniably mysterious Doctor Angela Ziegler.

What else would cause her to act like an old, rust-ridden omnic high on cyber narcos? It only made sense.

She finished unzipping the remainder of Angela’s dress, and hurried to the door once again. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”

Laughter reverberated from the living room space, a telltale sign that Brigitte and Hana were quite enjoying themselves, and seemed to have made themselves home in a record amount of time.

Oh, and what was that? Along with the new (but welcome) sound of hearty giggling, it smelled like someone had begun cooking, despite the late hour. The clatter of a metal utensil against a pan reached Fareeha’s ears, and she crossed her fingers that it was Brigitte making something, and not Hana. Although it was the first time having the street creeper over, something just told Fareeha that giving Hana a chance to demonstrate her culinary skills would not end well.

A gentle humming came from the door behind her, a tune that whispered of clear sunny skies, the joy of jumping into a mountain of autumn’s fiery leaves, and tender hugs on a cold December night. She had never heard the song before, but in a way she couldn’t explain it felt like she knew it, every note, every rise, and every fall of the tempo. It planted within Fareeha’s mind the image of her mother, smiling down at her while a younger version of herself sat at the stained dinner table, doodling with crayons too large for her hands to cradle. If she was recalling things correctly, Angela’s song reminded her faintly of a tune her mother would sing to her before Fareeha would go to bed. And quite rightly, it was a piece of her past that she had forgotten for more than a mere night.

Things suddenly felt different, felt snug. With an addition of three more people in her normally empty apartment, instead of feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable, Fareeha acknowledged the pleasant sensation welling up inside. Something about all of this just felt….Right.

The light from inside her room leaked under the gap of the door to wash over her bare feet, and she smiled knowing that she was not alone. Not anymore.

If she wasn’t sure where she belonged before, she knew now.


 

The lights of the screen before blank purple eyes flickered and wavered every few seconds, as if at any moment the fictitious world they made up would collapse into the endless expanse of black that was the computer monitor.

Sombra shoved another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth forcefully and sniffled. She wasn’t expecting Araña to be so huffy after the mission, especially when everyone, even the assassin herself, claimed that she carried hardly any emotions. It was basically her fault their task wasn’t carried through successfully (and Widow had narrowly escaped with a black eye, a swollen cheek, a split lip, and various bruises and cuts over her body…. “Ne me touche pas, je veux être seul,” Araña had said upon their return), but she wasn’t about to tell anyone she had caused the intervention. It may have been a stupid choice, but it was one she wanted to make, and outside of the organization at that….So while she felt somewhat accomplished, she also felt dejected because she ended up hurting Widowmaker indirectly, and the latter feeling outweighed the first.

The hacker tasted a pinch of salt with the next bite, and she quickly reached with her free hand to swipe at the bottom of her eyes. When she pulled it away the back of her hand was damp, but she forced her gaze back to the telenovela playing before her and ditched the unfortunate reception she had received with her partner earlier that evening.

Sombra almost missed the soft knocking at the door at the exact moment the woman on screen began to bawl her eyes out, causing the gang member to hold back a bout of tears she didn’t feel like unleashing. Te siento, amiga.

“C-Come in, esta abierta,” she called over her shoulder while shoveling in another scoop to cover up the sounds of her muffled crying.

The door creaked open, and Sombra was surprised that the individual who had entered was someone she wasn’t expecting to see, yet realized she probably needed to talk to, even if it may be for a few minutes, for emotional reasons. Ana always had a way of making her feel better, and Sombra liked to attribute that to her elderly, motherly charm.

“Ah, Abuelita, I haven’t seen you in a while…” She sniffled again quickly and wiped at her eyes to make sure it didn’t look like she was sobbing about something stupid while trying to eat away her sadness with a tub full of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “¿Qué tal? Thought you musta been MIA or something.”

Shutting the door carefully behind her, Ana removed her glowing shrike mask and crossed the distance between herself and Sombra in a way that said she had deliberate reason to be there. The bawling on the computer monitor only grew louder, and more drama was added to the mix when another woman walked on screen to begin shouting angry Spanish at the main character. Ana took little notice of what was playing, but from what she could hear, she figured Sombra must have been in a really bad place to actually find herself sitting through this kind of show by choice.

“I was detained for a few days. Gabriel was upset with my performance on the freighter earlier this week,” she answered monotonously, gaze fixed somewhere far off.

Sombra pondered the thought for a little while, as if she had forgotten all about the events of a few days past. Truth be told, she had been busy following Hana and the rest of the gang around to find out their next step and location, which subsequently turned out to be the soirée held at the Lindholm estate. “Oh, right! You were supposed to kill them all then, right? But you only infected the pretty doctor. Ha, yo recuerdo. I’m sure you got a scolding, since you weren’t able to carry out the task….I guess we’re both in the same boat now….Qué lástima.”

Ana’s voice was low, strained. Searing pressure pushed against her skull and creeped into her eye socket as she recalled the night she was told she failed. It was a failure in the organization’s book, but to her, it was nothing short of a personal success. She hated who she was now anyways, and this was a step in the right direction. “I couldn’t….I just couldn’t….”

“You couldn’t kill your daughter. Don’t worry, I understand,” Sombra finished for her almost automatically. The way her hand trained the spoon to circle the inside of the ice cream container aimlessly, scraping for any hint of minty chocolatey goodness it could get, told Ana that Sombra wasn’t exactly taking her seriously yet. It seemed as though she was still quite invested in her own little pity party.

“....Yes. I couldn’t, and I still -- I still can’t.” There was a sharp intake of air, as if what was coming next would hurt the both of them, something secretive and high-risk. Which in reality it was.

Sombra was about to find out.

Ana leaned down, her hijab and cloak somewhat encasing the two of them in an eerie manner that made Sombra almost choke on her next spoonful of dessert. The grip the older woman had on the chair’s handle almost frightened the Latina, seeing as how it was so full of vitality, and it meshed spotlessly with the blazing determination that filled Ana’s good eye.

The hacker dropped her spoon into the tub of ice cream, and the exaggerated wailing partnered with the cringey fist-fight on screen between the novela’s two women had become mere background noise.

“Sombra. Listen to me carefully….You’re the only one who can do this. I need you to help me send a message to Fareeha.”

Chapter Text

“Momma....why don’t we see Dad anymore?” Fareeha asked. There was a half-eaten cookie in her hand, and surrounding the edges of her mouth were crumbs, proof of her pastry massacre.

Ana inhaled sharply. The question was sudden. Here she was, reading the daily news via her tag, while she and her daughter enjoyed a mid-morning snack. It was a fantasy she looked forward to every week, to the time when she was off-duty for the weekend and Fareeha was declined the opportunity to go to school. Now, she was faced with the dilemma of delivering her child a truthful but disheartening answer, amidst the idyllic mornings the two often shared.

It wasn’t a bad question, per se. But nonetheless it still rattled her, and she placed her mug of pitch black coffee beside her portion of cookies on the table. “Fareeha, alhabiba….You haven’t seen your father at all to begin with.”

Fareeha stared at her cookie. It didn’t look so appetizing anymore. “I know...but I want to see him. I only know him from pictures.”

“There is nothing to miss. Your father and I decided that --” How would she continue on with this? “-- decided that it would be best to stay apart. It wasn’t a good idea to stay together.”

“Why?”

Oh, how innocent she was. How sweet, how pure...like a snow white fledgling; small, needy, but then also so eager and curious, and wanting to take on the world as she began spreading her underdeveloped wings. There was nothing Ana would let her daughter come in harm’s way of. She would do all she could to protect Fareeha, her alhabiba.

“Your dad and I had different priorities. His was his work, mine was you. You are my world, Fareeha. You always will be.” She wasn’t sure why she was tearing up. Ana assumed Fareeha was too young to notice the sentiment that struck her mother like a bolt of lightning, something so powerful that it moved her usually serious self to smile fondly, in the way she shared only with her daughter. Fareeha would see it as something of the same origin, something commonplace and insignificant.

But that was alright with Ana. Fareeha was still young. She would come to notice these things in time.

A finger stroked the side of her cheek, and Ana, so submersed in her thoughts, was too surprised to flinch back in shock. The warm touch of her daughter gently traced the wadjet and the tear that streamed down the black marking, and the feather-light touch attracted Ana’s own hand to clasp itself around the smaller one, grasping it like it was the only thing left attaching her to this world.

And truly it was.

“Don’t cry, Momma. Please don’t cry.”

And then Ana laughed, tears streaming even harder down her face. Through the sadness she found joy, and realized that Fareeha was smiling back at her, her chubby, crumb-ridden fingers causing her heart to swell in a way it would for no one or nothing else.

“Oh Fareeha….I love you so, so, so much. Do you know that?” The fingers curled around her hand, across her palm like a small bandage, desiring to patch up what they could of the broken heart they found.

Fareeha nodded. The cookie, her cause of delight a few minutes prior, was now discarded and lay on the table beside a milk-stained napkin. She crossed the short distance between herself and her mom, and enveloped the sobbing woman in the biggest hug she could.

Who cared if she didn’t have a dad? She had a mom. Someone who loved her more than anything.

And this Fareeha understood.

“Yes. I love you too, Momma.”


 

Sleep lay over her eyes like a cozy blanket, heavy, but desirable. She almost didn’t want to wake up, but the internal clock was kicking her awake and it was definitely something she couldn’t ignore for much longer.

Fareeha groaned, and upon stretching, her arms found freedom from their agreeable cavern of warmth, also known as her trusty sleeping bag. Blinking a few times she processed the fact that it was still very early in the morning, and Athena had still yet to wake her up. It was only rarely that she arose before her home AI forced her to begin the day, but today Fareeha found it easier to move, despite the cold air weighing her down and making her feel sluggish.

Of course it was because she had guests. But also because of one particular thing she had made note of the night before, something that she began to wonder when its conception had taken place.

Her fascination -- correction, attraction -- to Doctor Angela Ziegler. She highly doubted that it was anything else, and if her past two years as a detective for the local police department had taught her anything, it was that if you had a strong feeling about something, you were probably right to trust that feeling.

Moving aside the pillow she had placed on top of a layer of blankets, Fareeha heaved herself up slowly, and with each inch that she moved herself higher, timidly scanned with languid brown eyes the dunes and mountainous terrain of the bed where Angela slept.

Should I wake her up? Is she awake yet? Would that be awkward? Wait, no, of course she’s not awake -- she got ambushed last night and her life was in danger. She’s probably still sleeping off the stress and anxiety from everything that happened. Not to mention it’s not even 5:00 am yet, because if it was Athena would have said something by now. I better let her sleep a bit longer.

Fareeha took a glance at her left wrist, and noticed her tag was blinking a bright blue. Aside from the prominent, hot-white numbers that blared 4:27 am back at her and attempted to coerce her into resting at least another half an hour, a light blue bar flashed even more vigorously and ultimately stole Fareeha’s attention.

1 New Message. Unknown Sender. 3:35 am.

The heck…? Maybe Reinhardt sent me something. He would have called me though, if it was an emergency, considering this was sent literally a fucking hour ago. The time most people are usually sleeping.

….And then there’s me. A short chortle at her own ironic joke, and then a roll of her right shoulder to make sure the pain from the night before had dissipated. I’ll just see what this is, I guess.

A simple touch of the screen where the the sky blue bar had been blinking aggressively turned what was once restricted to the enclosure of the tag into a sizeable hologram, large enough for Fareeha to see the lettering without having to squint or expand the projection.

Protect the doctor. Talon wants her. I’ve got your back, alhabiba.

Ominous mystery riddled hole upon hole through Fareeha’s brain without consent. She was digesting it all together, striving to swallow everything at once. Fareeha was too concerned to take things piece by piece; the adrenaline was already racing through her veins at the thought of a possible hacker infiltrating the cybersecurity system of her tag.

Talon? Who was that? For all the years she had served within the city’s police department, never before had she encountered anyone by the name of “Talon”.

Protect the doctor. Of course that was referring to Angela, and considering what had occurred the night before at the Lindholm estate, whoever had sent this message knew that Angela was in trouble, and quite likely a target for a phantom proprietor. Seemingly “Talon”, whoever that was.  

What stood out most to Fareeha was the closing. The last word, something akin to a far off memory of days that no longer existed, seared itself into her heart, branding the nostalgia there for safe-keeping.  

Alhabiba.

Mom.

Fareeha must have looked like a caterpillar as she wriggled her way out of her sleeping bag, but nevertheless, despite the struggle, she managed to make her way to Angela’s bedside and desert her previous spot a few feet away. Slinging her metal arm over the mattress and heaving herself upward, she shook Angela with just enough force to agitate her into consciousness since she was aware it was still very early.

“Angela, I need to show you something!”

There was a moan, and then a rolling motion as something beneath the covers shifted toward the detective. A fluffed portion of duvet lifted, and Fareeha was met with half-lidded eyes and a possibly even more impeccable depiction of exhaustion (as compared to herself, previously) splayed on Angela’s face, which was wholly an adorable combination of curiosity, confusion, and of course, sleepiness.  

“Mm….What is it, Fareeha?” she replied, and immediately the question was followed up by a shy yawn that made Fareeha weak to resist cracking into a small smile.

As much as she was excited, Fareeha was also somewhat intimidated by the message she had received, and although she was about to share the information contained within said message with the doctor, she was also hesitant to reveal the not-so-pleasant contents. The countering embodiments of her psyche raged against each other like rivaling wolves, but were beaten out by the wise thinking that followed. Perhaps it would be better to share the message with her now, to avoid any trouble that would arise later, if this “Talon” was to make a move.

She wasn’t about to let another replay of the previous night occur again. Not while she was alive.

Fareeha leaned in closer, unabashed at the lack of distance between them, for she was far too enthralled in the development just discovered. The feeling was unique, nothing like she had ever experienced before -- there was a heated need for timely delivery that paired with the portentous message, but wrapped around it all was the closeness that she suddenly felt.

And that closeness was sharing this secret with Angela. Perhaps it was silly of her to think that they had become more firm, just because the two of them shared similar troubles with their right arms, or just because Fareeha had practically saved Angela’s life and tended to her needs within the gracious walls of her humble apartment. Even if it was foolish, even if it was pretentious….Fareeha thought the moment a pivotal one, and she settled on acting upon it.  

“Here.” She posed the screen of her wrist tag in front of Angela, and the doctor’s sleepy eyes squinted and widened a few times repeatedly to focus and gather the white light which emanated from the small frame. “I received a message around an hour ago from an unknown sender. I think this could mean something really important.”

Angela took a moment to examine the hologram that Fareeha had re-projected for the doctor’s sake. Part of her felt like she was still dreaming, but as she went through the words, the sentences, once, twice, three times over -- she knew that this in fact was indeed reality, and the message that Fareeha had received mentioned herself . Herself being in danger.

Which was nothing new. She wasn’t thoroughly surprised, seeing as how she was almost abducted less than twenty-four hours ago.

No, what really caught her attention, much like it had with Fareeha, was the seemingly ubiquitous entity, the one who vowed to watch over the woman by her side as the detective in turn protected Angela.

Who is this individual….?

Fareeha couldn’t explain how she knew, but the helpless, grasping look in Angela’s eyes was enough for her to make an estimated guess and procur the correct answer to the unasked question. “My mother. She always called me alhabiba. It means sweetie .”

Fareeha’s mother. I think she’s only ever mentioned her one other time...The time she and I were studying the body of the young street creeper girl, at the city police’s mortuary. I wonder why she’s never spoken about her much before?

And now Angela was extremely interested. The prospect of Fareeha’s mother possibly being alive, somewhere here, in the twisted, ever-changing city that housed an equal amount of shadows as it did sparkling lights, forced her to remove her head from the pillow and rest on the platform of her left elbow.

There was still so much more she wished to learn about Fareeha. As she had thought before, the tattooed detective had been a closed book for a majority of their professional relationship together. But being the scientist she was, Angela intended to break down the walls that Fareeha had either willingly or subconsciously built, and the night that Fareeha had disclosed the loss of her arm, things seemed to have begun heading in the right direction. This situation, the one unfurling right now before her once groggy self, was something she did not want to miss for the world.

“You believe your mother was the one who sent this?” Angela’s words were hushed, but she was barely able to conceal the rising elevation in her voice as she finished her question.

Fareeha nodded, completely solemn. “I do. I don’t know who else was able to hack my tag to deliver this message; I shouldn’t be able to receive things like this unless someone knew how to successfully disable the cybersecurity of my tag.”

“So you’re saying your mother knows how to hack…?”

Fareeha sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Ugh, no, not really….I mean, I don’t know if she can, or where she is? I thought she was dead. But maybe after all these years, she could have gone somewhere, joined some people? Maybe it’s this Talon person/group/thing that we don’t know about. How else would she know they’re after you? If she did, maybe she learned how to do a few things while she was there.” She wasn’t sure if her answer sounded stupid or naive, or both, but she would let Angela decide.

Angela’s lips maneuvered themselves to form a delighted grin, one especially enamored with the detective’s passionate reply. It was a reply that strained to hope and dream for something they didn’t know was permissible by life’s unbiased regulations, and seeing Fareeha’s fresh, eager lightness, Angela wanted this to be a more common sight.

“Anything is possible, I assume.”

“Exactly!” Fareeha was on her feet within a split second, but in doing so teetered precariously over Angela while she wrestled with her cocoon-like enclosure for freedom. The good doctor seized what blanket she could with her working hand to pull over herself, and was helpless to allow a giggle tickle the back of her throat watching Fareeha’s hilariously charming antics.

Fareeha’s energy was contagious, and despite her literally having woken up less than ten minutes ago, she was convinced she was fully prepared to begin the day here and now. “We’re going to find my mom, and whoever this Talon person/thing is as well.” Her hand stretched out towards the doctor. Fareeha didn’t consider asking Angela if she would like to begin the day as well, half an hour before 5:00 am and the consecutive rising of the sun, but with the way that Angela’s eyes sparkled in admiration at Fareeha’s energy (or maybe it was endearing magnetism), she knew the other woman would be on board with whatever the two decided to do.

The open palm lingered before Angela patiently, like a mousy yet hopeful bystander approaching a circumspect animal, both with yearning desire to come into contact but prepared for the possibility of disapproval. It reminded her of an event with a similar soul, one who dared to do what no one else had but ultimately dissolved the friendship between them because of differentiating beliefs.

The individual this hand before her now belonged to, she knew she could trust. They were fighting for the same cause, and quite honestly, fighting for the safety of each other.

Fareeha’s hand sagged slightly, but refused to completely give up its outstretched effort as an invitation to the reclining Angela. “....I know this whole thing is a bit obscure and I honestly don’t even know what I’m doing half of the time, but I do know that whatever happens, I’ll protect you. I promise. We’re going to solve this thing together.”

And those were the only words she needed to hear.

Without another moment to lose, Angela gathered up her strength and offered detective Fareeha Amari a sincere smile and her left hand, closing the distance. Whether it be the secret the two of them had just shared, faint but precious like the aroma of blossoming flowers on a vernal midmorning, or the promise Fareeha pronounced like a commandment she was holding herself true to, it felt honest, and Angela wanted a lasting truth; she very much believed with all her heart that this was something Fareeha could give her.


 

Hana waved a hand dismissively while Brigitte watched her, mildly amused. “You know, even though I’m a street creeper and all that and take pride in the absolutely badass skills I’ve earned on the streets, I’ve never actually been to this part of the city.” She looked up, recognizing that this would be one of the last moments, filled with peak morning traffic and rude civilians, in which she would be able to catch a glimpse of the hazy, overcast sky.

“Would make sense,” Brigitte replied, grabbing Hana by the arm while a group of cultists scurried by them, hidden by their dark robes as they traversed up the ramp leading away from the first floor. Judging by their shady appearances and the way they were huddled together like a flock of lackluster pigeons searching for shelter, one could only assume they had recently finished some underhand business somewhere in one of the multiple layers they had just ascended from.

Fareeha was leading the four of them with confident strides, those of which Brigitte made notice of contained some sort of new vitality, and a hand placed protectively at the small of Angela’s back. Brigitte wouldn’t consider herself the brightest pupil in her probationary officer class, but she didn’t need a professional’s skills or knowledge to know that there was definitely something budding between the two women, something she hadn't been officially informed of.

The sky was quickly swallowed up by mottled cement and steel rods as thick as the trunks of redwoods, and Brigitte found herself missing the open air and bustling streets which she so often took for granted. Never before had she been to The Layers, and although she assumed she’d find some comfort in voicing that confession to Hana and the others, she thought it better she remain silent.

From what she had heard around the department, The Layers were dangerous territory. It was a portion of the city that was created underground in a series of levels, to make for a larger interior below the surface. Although each level didn’t stretch toward the outskirts of the city that resided on top, they were all around a diameter of at least five or so miles wide, and retained a population rivaling that of the surface, when pulled together collectively. Brigitte was told that the deeper you went, the more questionable things became, and she believed it, despite not actually having seen the area herself.

But now here she was, diving in head-first somewhere she had been hesitant to venture into for the entirety of her rather spotless career in law enforcement. Wait till Papa hears about this! Me actually making my way over here to this part of the city….Man, I bet he’s going to be astounded -- Mama too! she thought to herself as she held out her wrist and let go of Hana momentarily to solicit for clearance at the security checkpoint for Layer 1.

Traveling by vehicle in The Layers wasn’t unheard of, but Fareeha had discussed with Angela that morning over pancakes and multiple cups of coffee while Brigitte and Hana slept unawares, the two younger girls cuddled up together on the couch in the detective’s living room. Any type of vehicle transportation that wasn’t the universal elevators or the underground tram which traveled the layers as easily as a spider scaled walls was something noticeable. A majority of the people who lived down here weren’t as well off as their counterparts who lived on the surface, and thus a generation of lowlives and those who were stricken by poverty wandered aimlessly below in the darkness. Anything new, anything valuable and able to be sold off to a pawn shop owner was scoured after, and Angela thought it best to relieve themselves of that fearful possibility.

And so they traveled on foot. It wasn’t far, going down to the third floor, if you knew where you were going and were familiar with the layout of the buried society that lay beneath the surface dwellers’ feet. Aside from the slightly uncomfortable near-encounters with lower street creepers, modified thugs, and the undesirable, waning cries of beggars and pitiful vendors, the trip to Level 3 was successful.

Both light and confidence dwindled the deeper the four women went, but Angela was stern in her and Fareeha’s decision to locate Winston, and reassured the taller woman beside her occasionally that they would be fine getting there.

Her sigh of relief was concluding proof for her confirmations of assurance when she spotted a unkept doorstep, dusty and cracked at the corners, illuminated by a bright neon sign that incited a similar glowing warmth within her chest. Organic And Technical Tinker it read in flickering yellow, with Medicines And Mods For Your Everyday Needs scrawled out beneath it in a faded orange, with a few LED letters of the words “medicine” and “everyday” having retired for good.

No one dared to move. Angela thought it was because perhaps they were waiting for her to take a step forward, maybe knock on the door to alert the shopkeeper of their arrival.

It had been so long that she found herself a bit nervous. And so as she climbed up onto the distraught doorstep with Fareeha by her side and the girls behind, arm raised and hand curled into a fist to deliver a rap to the door, she was thankful that the detective’s prosthetic was supporting her when the door flung open without warning to reveal a cheery-looking woman with messy brown hair.

“Oi! We haven’t have visitors in a while; come on in!”

Angela thought she should have been alarmed when the girl yanked her through the doorway and spun her into the front lobby, but something about her reeked of innocence and a friendly orientation, and she was immediately put at ease. Winston knew who he kept around, and if this freckled girl dressed in creamy orange and earthy browns was here, it was for good reason, and she respected that.

Fareeha remained glued to Angela’s side, and as the door slammed shut behind them with a loud ‘thud’, the individual with hair that looked like she had just woken from bed (which wasn’t a farfetched idea, considering it was still somewhat early in the morning) rocked on the balls of her feet in front of the four.

The whole shop felt like another world within this new subterranean universe forever shrouded by a depressing layer of darkness, and here, among the glowing fluorescent liquids, strange, potted plants flowering beneath fabricated light, and assortment of mechanical contraptions and cybernetic displays, everyone aside from Angela was taken by surprise.

“The name’s Lena,” she mentioned, upon realizing the three woman who came with the blonde had been shocked into what she thought was either a stupor of surprise or curiosity. There was only one question going through her mind, racing around over and over again like a race car on a track -- and to be more precise, it was: What had caused the four to come? She and Winston didn’t receive many visitors nowadays, considering that their level had, over the years, been decaying into shambles as chaos bulldozed the surface. It was almost like the Layer dwellers were being forgotten.

Lena adjusted her tattered bomber jacket in an effort to look spiffy, and perhaps just a little bit professional. “Sorry if I scared you loves, with me popping out the front door like that! I saw you through the one way, but you seemed a bit hesitant, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t think we’re closed despite the shabby appearance of the front….” Finding herself rambling, she winced and threw out a laugh directed at herself. “Any who, now that you’re here, what can I do for you today?”

“We’re here to see Winston,” both Fareeha and Angela blurted at the exact same moment, and upon hearing their accidental synchronization exchanged subtly embarrassed smiles.

“Ah, Winston!” Lena dashed behind the counter with alarming speed, that of which Fareeha was unsure was even human (could it have been? The girl must have been adjusted with mods of some sort; it was the only explanation, taking into account the strange beam of light that followed her hasty movements).

A thick book was thrown down onto the wooden counter, and wanting to be near to the action, Brigitte and Hana, who were unfortunately too close now, hacked out the dust that arose from the pygmy mushroom cloud of grime the book had caused. “Did you have an appointment?” Lena asked absentmindedly, flipping through the pages and sending more dust Brigitte and Hana’s way. The two continued hacking and had to turn around in order to properly breathe.

Angela frowned. Was Winston busy? Out of town? She hadn't been here in ages, but if they couldn’t see him today then she wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen…. Talon was after her, whoever they were, and being in this state (with her arm) didn’t make things easier. “No, we don’t have an appointment. But it’s crucial that we see him; tell Winston Angela is here.”

Lena’s scanning eyes froze, and the flipping of pages ceased (to Brigitte and Hana’s delight). “You’re….Angela?” Her question was one of reassurance, as if the name she had just pronounced was something more of a figment of the past, someone she had only heard about in rumors but never had the actual opportunity to see or meet. “You’re the Angela Ziegler….The one who used to live here? You’re a famous medical practitioner, aren’t you? On the surface, right?”

Feeling the tips of her ears warm at what she assumed was praise from this strange girl (she wasn’t used to receiving compliments in the presence of friends, seeing as how it had been an eternity since she was surrounded by individuals she considered close), Angela slowly nodded and rubbed the side of her left arm while it remained unmoving by her side. “Yes, you are correct.”

Lena couldn’t hold her excitement, and the feeling prompted her to waddle from side to side on her grimy running sneakers, arms pulled up tightly to her chest in barely contained exhilaration. “Oh man oh man oh man , I can’t believe this is actually happening! This is bloody blinding -- I need to go tell Winston -- I’ll be back in a jiffy, loves!” A flash of blue lit up the room for a split second, and then Lena was gone, having disappeared somewhere into the back room through a cluttered doorway littered by random pieces of junk and sacks of high-grade potting soil.

Hana brushed off some dust from her oversized jacket and coughed one last time into her hand. “Well. That was interesting.”

“Sure was….” Brigitte conceded without any hesitation, voice still low in fear that the strange shopkeeper would come zooming back into the room with an even larger dust cloud trailing behind her. It was the last thing she wanted as of now, finally having just relearned how to inhale and exhale.

Fareeha’s eyes wandered for a few moments, taking in the layout of the shop they had just stepped into. She was creating in her mind possible uses for the menagerie of items that were on display and subsequently for sale, and found the task quite entertaining. This was the first time in her life she’d ever been in a medicinal/mechanical store such as this one, but the whole place reeked of an environment she knew Angela felt most comfortable in. This place had been her home and inspiration for quite some time, based on what the doctor told them the night before.

The dull echo of what sounded like padded feet cantering across the smooth floor grew closer, and Fareeha cocked her head toward the doorway again just in time to see a small burst of blue light followed by a humongous black shadow filling the entryway to the other area Lena had previously disappeared off to.

And apparently here he was.

In the doorway, hunched over because he couldn’t quite fit due to his mammoth size, stood a gorilla.

Fareeha could barely believe her eyes, and although she swiftly drank in the sight of the wires protruding from his back like stray threads on a worn coat, the vest around his torso that sewed in other tubes connected to his limbs, and the hilariously small pair of glasses perched on top of his flat nose, the ginormous being seemed almost unreal.

His voice was deep, and almost touched the genre of a growl, but within his words was a tangible, heartbreaking concern. It was like a father seeing his child again after so many years of being separated. “Angela. You’ve come back.”

“Winston,” the doctor choked out, right before Winston paused warily for a moment and then lunge forward to engulf the blonde woman in a monstrous hug. Angela practically vanished into the thick, furry arms that cradled her, and when he finally pulled away she stepped back just enough to wipe a few tears from her eyes.

“It’s so good to see you again,” his pointed smile was infectious, and through watery eyes he turned toward the remaining guests, who, somewhat awkwardly but with entirely good intentions, found themselves returning their own sheepish waves. “Things have settled down since you left. How’ve you been? You’ve grown so much….And it looks like you’ve got yourself a nice group of friends now too, haha! I couldn’t be more proud.”

The doctor waited for a moment to let the words sink in. Hearing his voice was a soothing balm, but as much as she wished to spend time catching up, there were things to get done. “I’ve been well! Things are busy on the surface; I’ve recently been asked by my dear friend Fareeha here,” she took the chance to introduce the detective beside her, and Fareeha nodded politely, “to help her and our friends Brigitte and Hana” again here she gestured over to the two girls gawking open-mouthed at Winston’s massiveness, “solve the NNv case.”

Winston slunk back to rest on his haunches, and Angela, remembering it as clear as if it were yesterday, was able to identify the look on his face despite having not seen him for more than ten years. It was the one donned when a storm cloud of thoughts began forming within his mind, the expression he adopted when he really began pondering something. “Oh, yes….I know it’s been running more rampant on the surface, more so than it is here. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Grabbing the side of her left arm again gingerly, as if holding it too tightly or pulling too fast would somehow damage it even more, she extended it out to the creature before her. “I was attacked yesterday at a social event and the individual got away, but not before injecting me with some sleeper nanos. I think they’ve somehow corrupted my internal circuitry. On top of that, my original nanites seem to be malfunctioning and I’ve been experiencing some, uh, side effects….I know it’s out of the blue, and maybe a bit demanding….But would you mind performing a diagnosis on me, and getting my arm working again, if you’d be so kind?”

There was no problem here; the gorilla was over the moon being able to see the woman again, especially after so long. Winston fumbled for a second as he tried adjusting his glasses, and leaping off of his haunches he nearly crashed into the ceiling. A miniature earthquake ensued as things along the walls and on top of shelves rattled. “Don’t say that Angela, I would be more than happy to help, as always. Right this way; your friends can come too!”

Winston slunk back into the depths of the shop, once again making a turn around the corner of the entryway in which him and Lena came. The backroom was filled with plants sunbathing beneath heated lamps, scraps of various metal, old omnic parts, tools and equipment for putting them together, and a million other things Brigitte could and couldn’t name as she struggled to contain her delight. It reminded her of her father’s workshop back at the mansion, the only place she was lectured to stay away from at an early age but did so anyways because she loved to tinker.

To drag her out of the room Hana had to pull her by the arm. They descended a flight of stairs, and the jumbled bustling that occurred at the bottom as Winston worked with the security interface was worth the extra few seconds Brigitte got to glimpse the workshop up top.

“Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” the gorilla chuckled having taken notice of her goggling, and Brigitte’s head turned knowing he was most likely talking to her. “Where we’re about to enter is where I do all the important things.” He turned to Lena, and the girl slapped a hand to her forehead to deliver him a salute. “Lena, you locked the front door?”

Lena pursed her lips together, obviously contemplating her slip-up, and then she was no longer there, instead bursting back up the stairs with another cerulean explosion. A few seconds later she was saluting again next to Hana, who was staring dumbfounded at the girl next to her.

“Yes sir, I just did!”

“Wonderful.”

A gentle hiss sounded as the pressure lock released on the door at the bottom of the staircase, and Winston pushed it open with a mere graze of his gargantuan hand. Stepping aside for the other women to enter, he padded over to a control panel on the right side of the room. In the center rested a work table littered with random odds and ends, and somehow Fareeha felt that was where the magic happened.

Fareeha followed Angela in cautiously as her eyes wandered everywhere yet again. It was impossible to keep herself from staring at anything and everything around them, and she found herself wondering where exactly Angela worked, when she had lived here? Was this cluttered table where she created contraptions, or scoured over different pieces of mechanics to find the right equipment to develop her nanomachines?

“Fareeha. Can you...Can you help me up?” Angela had moved aside tools and scraps, and was now struggling to heave herself up onto the surface of the work table while Winston flitted about gathering different cables and attaching them to the outlet hovering above them.

Fareeha’s heart jumped into her throat again, something which she assumed was becoming her muscle’s favorite pastime, and nodded at Angela’s request. The other woman had given up on trying to scale the table’s height with just her right arm to help her (it didn’t help that a majority of the things in here here Winston-sized) and turned to face the stoic detective, eyes searching Fareeha’s dark face for a sign of flustered embarrassment similar to the one she had witnessed the night before.

Fingers danced at the sides of her waist for a moment, unsure if it was appropriate to touch Doctor Angela Ziegler anywhere other than the forearm or shoulder. And then, a few lingering seconds after they paused in their hesitancy, Fareeha’s hands made up their mind and picked the doctor up, as effortlessly as if she had been nothing more than a young child.

“Thank you,” Angela uttered softly, and Fareeha had a difficult time finding any verbal reply to the doctor’s appreciation. “I hope things go well here….I-I am somewhat anxious to discover what exactly is happening inside of me. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s good.”

Fareeha opened her mouth to say something; she wanted to reassure the other woman that things would be fine, just as Angela had been doing with her earlier on their journey here through The Layers. It was unfortunate that Winston swooped in at that very moment with a cable very similar to the one Angela attached to herself earlier that week in her lab to attempt a self-diagnosis, effectively eradicating any chance of Fareeha stuttering out even a single syllable. His entire bulk was quite oppressing even if he didn’t mean it to be.

“Angela, I’m going to run an electrical charges through your port, alright? It should reboot the inner circuitry, kickstarting your cybernetics and causing them to work again. As for the side effects you’ve been experiencing that you believe are due to the malfunctioning of your own nanites; can you tell me more about them? That way I’d know how to diagnose the problem.” Winston handed her a thin cable connected to a larger one, both of which he had successfully snapped together to the power source above the table.

“Blood. Upheaving of it at sporadic moments. Lots of pain in my stomach.”

“When you put it that way, kinda sounds like a reverse period where blood comes out the other e-OW!” Hana winced as an elbow (Brigitte’s, of course) was driven into her ribs, and she whined softly, curling up into a standing fetal position while Lena looked on at her with raised eyebrows.

“Alright, I see….” Winston, obviously having blocked out the street creeper’s repulsive comment, rubbed the bottom of his chin in thought. “Sounds like an extraction might be the best way to go. We’ll start off with rebooting your arm though, of course, and then move on to the nanite issue afterwards.” He pointed to the cable that Angela held within her hand loosely, and the doctor gulped. She knew what was going to come next, and to be brutally honest, this was never her favorite part. “I’ll need you to touch that to the back of your neck for me, okay? I’ll tell you when I’m going to send the charge through.”

As Winston trundled away to another part of the room where the correct power switch was, Fareeha saw this as her chance to move in once again and close the gap that was created during the gorilla’s presence. She wanted to be here for Angela. And if she couldn’t quite find the right words to comfort her, she very much wished that her remaining by the doctor’s side would be enough.

A shaky breath escaped Angela’s dry lips, and she was sure Fareeha was probably able to hear the heavy drumming of her heart pounding away in her chest like a sledgehammer crashing against a brick wall. She rolled the small cable between the index and thumb of her left hand. “I….This part always hurts,” she muttered in a half-hearted chuckle, eyes floating over to Winston for a second to make sure he wasn’t completely aware of her reluctance.

Fareeha nodded. She knew pain. Perhaps it wasn’t as deep or ragged as Angela’s, but she knew pain. She understood that it was something irremovable in life, but maybe for these two women, was something more than an unpleasant experience.

It had brought them together, helped them understand one another in ways others couldn’t.

And so Fareeha did what she thought was best. Removing her prosthetic from the cozy pocket of her overcoat, she took Angela’s hand, the one that was sitting limp by the doctor’s thigh. “You can do it. I’ll be here with you.” She gave the lifeless hand a squeeze that Angela couldn’t feel, but the action itself warmed the doctor’s heart, and suddenly determination filled her blue eyes.

She was going to do it. Fareeha was going to be there with her. And so was everyone else; Brigitte, Hana, Lena, Winston -- they were all there to support and help her. Everything would be fine.

Carefully, slowly, Angela reached up to attach the cable’s end to the back of her neck, where the barely visible port was located. It was cold against her skin, but barely a tickle compared to the sensation she knew she was about to receive in the next minute. Although still a smidge frightful about the pain, she gave a strong nod Winston’s way, and he met her gesture with soulful black eyes that connected with her on a level deeper than the surface.

The switch within Winston’s hand was flipped, and no more than a hundredth of a second later Angela gritted her teeth while a bolt of piercing white-hot electricity channeled through the port on her neck and zapped its way through the rest of her right arm. The intensity lasted just as long as she could handle without her keeling over in pain, and as she winced, opening her shut eyes after the worst had passed, glanced down to see that her right hand was gripping Fareeha’s left intensely.

The detective let out a strained laugh, one that attempted to cover some slight discomfort with forced hilarity, but Angela saw right through it and immediately loosened her snake-like hold on Fareeha’s only flesh hand. “You -- haha -- sure have a strong grip there, Angela.”

Red-faced and still fully trying to comprehend the fact that her arm was indeed working again thanks to Winston’s genius and clement assistance, she tried stuttering out an expression of regret. “My apologies, Fareeha! I didn’t mean to --”

“It worked!!” Winston came bounding over on all fours back toward the table, obviously more blown away by his curated knowledge of hypothetical situations than anyone else in the room. His breathing was heavy and enthusiastic, contrived through wide nostrils almost laboriously. “Move your arm. How does it feel?”

Fareeha didn’t want to admit that she somewhat missed the the feeling of Angela’s hand within her own, especially after it’d suddenly been given life and had been desperately clinging onto her own set of fingers like a young bird to the branch of a tree, afraid to let go and meet an unfortunate demise. But she smiled nonetheless, when Angela’s palm unfurled itself cautiously,  and she stretched her arm out to its full length. Then she tested out the fine motor skills, clenching and unclenching her hand again and again, as if she were using it for the very first time.

“It’s wonderful. My arm still feels tingly, but I assume it’s an after effect of the startup volt you sent through my port to charge the internal system and get it working again. Other than that, I think it’s safe to say you’ve returned my arm back to normal.” The smile she gave Winston was equivalent to a thousand thank yous, folded up together in one perfect, tender curve of rose pink lips. “Thank you so much….And since it looks like my arm has been fixed, are you still able to perform a diagnosis on my nanomachines?”

The gorilla leaned back a moment, as if he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to continue and would rather spend more time testing the rebooted system of Angela’s cybernetics. To be truthful he was afraid, dubious to discover what exactly had troubled his friend’s nanites. Never before, as long as he and Angela had been together, had a series of events like this one occurred. But for her sake, and because time was very likely of the essence, he decided to continue.

“Yes, I’ll be back. Give me a moment to grab my extraction device.”

A sharp intake of air cut into Fareeha’s farouche thoughts like a hot knife through a stick of butter, and just as she was about to face Angela again to maybe deliver a few encouraging statements, she felt the doctor’s hand back within her own, and it was more than enough to soothe her troubled soul.

Winston returned with a large, needled contraption, most likely gorilla-sized again since Fareeha, throughout her entire existence, never witness something so ostentatiously horrifying human-sized which looked the same. Either that, or this was one of many very unique tools Winston housed here.

Apparently Angela had seen this particular piece of equipment before because when the gorilla asked her to hold out her left arm so that he could procure a sample of blood, she wordlessly obliged and within no time the canister rammed into the extractor had absorbed a decent amount of crimson liquid.

Retreating to a different corner of the underground lab while Lena slapped some antiseptic over Angela’s arm and wrapped on some gauze, he called over his shoulder and the blonde doctor’s ears perked. “I’ll be identifying the components within your bloodstream now; this should tell us what’s going on within your body and what exactly is causing your nanomachines to malfunction.”

There were a few moments of silence as Winston stood in front of his holographic monitor while colors popped and shapes exploded within the enlarged graphic that was the components of Angela’s blood. Fareeha and the doctor couldn’t quite see what was happening, couldn’t quite tell what was unfolding….but when Winston stifled a cough and Hana and Brigitte deserted their conspicuous meddling with unused equipment to flock to his side as Lena had done earlier, the two of them knew something was up.

“Angela, I think you need to see this….”

Angela practically flew from her seat on the operating table towards Winston’s monitor, Fareeha close behind her. Projected in the air was a view not unlike the one she had discovered in her lab with the sample they had collected from the freighter, but more importantly Angela was astounded to see specks of indigo, timidly peeking out from behind the normal miscellany of larger red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and the familiar appearance of her own nanites.  

She stepped closer, blue eyes straining to identify the alien component. Her brain latched onto images of the day where she first met detective Fareeha Amari and her probationary officer Brigitte Lindholm, the day when they had just begun to become acquainted, and uncannily decided to do so within the seclusion of a morgue. She remembered what she had collected on her medical scanner from an innocent little street creeper’s dead body.

Winston’s equipment and high-order thinking didn’t stray too far from her own, and although the color-coding of the view before them might have been confusing for one unfamiliar with medicinal technology, Angela knew what blue meant. She always set blue on her medical scanner settings as something external to the body’s natural constituents.

Foreign nanites. The pieces were falling together so quickly -- how could she have not seen it before?

“Parasitic nanites,” her tight lips drawled the phrase. “I’ve had parasitic nanites inside me this entire time. That would explain why I was reacting so badly, and retching blood everywhere….They must have been --”

“Interfering with your own nanomachines,” Winston finished for her, eyes still glued to the holographic projection. A column along the left side of the view had opened up to list components of the blood sample, and sure enough, a second row of nanite types was one of them, the percentage mercifully close to 12%. There must have been, without a doubt, more of them at some point….possibly on the night Angela spent within her lab, unconscious within a pool of her own blood harvested by these little monsters.

Angela reached up and double-tapped on a blue dot to enlarge the image, and the discovery that breached her mind was on par with the same force as her getting rammed by an incoming train. This one looks almost exactly like the sample gathered on that ship, if not exactly the same. But this one is parasitic….It’s the same kind that killed Ava, the little girl I performed an autopsy on. And that one was NNv. “This is NNv. I know it is. And I know who made it.”

Again silence consumed everyone’s ability to speak, until Fareeha, somehow miraculously able to break free of the spell, directed a very significant, very plausible divulgence to the woman beside her, loud enough for everyone to hear. The thought she was arriving at could very well change the route of their whole adventure, and perhaps even save the city.

“Angela….You should be dead if this is NNv.”

There were those words again, reminding her of cold, dead fingers prying at her neck and a breath icy as winter wind slithering across her cheek.  

“But, since you aren’t dead….Maybe you have something everyone else who’s been infected doesn’t, and that’s why you’ve survived. Which would be --”

“Her nanites!” Hana and Brigitte, of course without meaning to, exclaimed at the same time. Excitement lit up their eyes even more so now compared to the first few minutes when they’d descended into this mechanical paradise, and Fareeha nodded at the two girls as they came to the same conclusion she did.

Winston laughed, and the sudden noise was loud enough to topple over an empty peanut butter jar on the work table where his projection originated from. “Haha -- you’re all so brilliant!” He adjusted his glasses excitedly. “Angela, I think there’s a very high chance that your friends are correct. I think the only reason why you’ve survived -- having been infected by these parasitic nanites that are obviously coursing through your blood but seem to be contracting -- is because your nanites are an effective combatant. In short, your nanomachines are a feasible cure to reject the virus. With a few adjustments, making some tweaks here and there to increase their effectiveness, nanites with an improved build and functionality of your own could eradicate NNv once and for all.”

“And save hundreds upon thousands of lives,” Lena added while Angela stood there, dumbfounded at all the information being tossed around. I can save lives…. We can save lives. My nanomachines….They’re a cure. We can stop Moira.

“Winston.” Angela grabbed the gorilla’s shoulder, tufts of his fur clutched within the renewed vitality that coursed through her hands. “Will you help my friends and me? For as long as I’ve lived on this Earth only you and one other individual aside from myself are capable of making incredible discoveries and creating life-changing innovations such as these nanomachines and much more. I need you to help us win this fight. She’s still out there.”

“She....She is?” Winston reiterated worriedly before furrowing his eyebrows together. He had never met her , of course, but anyone who harmed Angela, the first and only child he had taken in at a young age to raise into an irreplaceable, astounding individual, automatically wrote up a death wish.

And Moira was definitely one of those people.

“Let me know what you need me to do, and Lena and I will get it done.”

“We’re going to look for Moira; I know she’s the only one capable of producing these nanites with a mission despicable enough to kill thousands.” It sounds implausible she’d be doing this on her own….But then again, we don’t have too many clues.

It was if Fareeha had read her mind again, like she had earlier that morning. “Maybe we should combine the search for Moira O’Deorain with our search for Talon.” The detective was still staring at the screen, although one could clearly tell she was deep in thought by the knitted brows twisting over stern brown eyes. “It’s possible that they’re working together, although we don’t know much about either aside from the facts that one has bad blood with you and the other is out for your throat. I doubt one individual would have all the resources and technology, especially if they’ve lived on the streets for most of their life, to sufficiently produce the large quantities of NNv it does to infect citizens far and wide throughout the city.”

“Talon?” Lena was standing aloof off to Winston’s side, wishing to maintain a respectful distance from him, Fareeha, and Angela while the three of them, with Brigitte and Hana’s spotty input, contributed to a patchwork plan. “I’ve heard that name before.”

“Where? What do you know?” Fareeha jumped onto Lena’s comment like a lion onto a gazelle, her ravenous hunger for rare knowledge overtaking the necessity to be polite. But she couldn’t help it. She wanted to know, needed to know -- Talon had ties with her mom somehow, and maybe if they could find Talon then they could find her mother.

“What’s “Talon”?” Hana voiced nervously, the question a shrill whisper that no one beside Lena at this moment could answer.

Lena swept a hand through her unruly hair and shook her head. “Well….Don’t get me wrong loves, I don’t know exactly what “Talon” is. But I do know a few people who do. There’s a bar down on Level 4 called The Siberian Bear . Two blokes down there know a thing or two about the name; I’ve heard them toss it around once or twice. They’re there almost every bloody time I visit -- Junkrat and Roadhog are their names. Blighters run a blackmarket weapon shop not too far from the place; my guess is if you ask for them, they’ll be able to give you the full monty.”

Cocking his head Winston glanced at Lena in disbelief, almost as if a third arm had sprung out of her side, and she stared back at him, frowning.

“What?”

“I didn’t know you liked those kinds of places.”

“I-I!” she pouted, cheeks gathering a shade of red in protest as she fumbled with her tongue and the words rolling on top of it. “There’s just a cute bartender I like who works there, okay? That’s it.”

“So we’re heading to The Siberian Bear then to search for these two dudes who know whatever this “Talon” shit is, right? Sounds legit, I could get into that.” Hana, with some effort, slung an arm around Brigitte’s neck, and although it was meant to look like she was relaxing, she somehow managed to make it look like she was hanging on for dear life. It was a very drastic height difference.

“No drinking for you, young lady,” Fareeha gave the behest authoritatively without batting an eyelash, successfully dashing Hana’s dreams of getting wasted (and maybe just a teeny, tiny bit frisky with the girl she was currently holding on to). “This is serious business, and the fate of the city and the people within it are at stake.”

“Right…..” Hana groaned dejectedly, causing Brigitte to laugh and tousle the street creeper’s short, spiky hair.

“What can I do for you before you go, or while you’re looking for the two Lena’s informed you about?” Winston inquired. He was serious about helping Angela, and nothing would ever stop him from trying to come to her aide. Seeing her here, smiling and healthy -- she looked happier than he had ever seen her, especially when she was next to the tall woman with the tattoo under her eye -- brought back memories of a time where Angela would watch him weld for hours on end as she scooped spoonfuls of peanut butter into her mouth, and when he needed her help she’d come running to his side with a screwdriver, fuel canister, or whatever he happened to seek. She had always been eager to help, willing to learn; and when she finally started to draw blueprints and bring them to life after a time where she was distant from actually making anything herself, he let her take the reins of her own projects, and was more than content to see her so involved in something she found important.

Now Angela had found something special to her again, a new task, something only she and her friends were capable of accomplishing. And Winston wanted to help, and put to an end whatever Moira had done to Angela, as well as what she was possible (or probably) doing to the city.

“If you could begin refining my nanites and improving their infrastructure that would be more than amazing -- I will help you with them of course upon my return, but I think I need to go find these two individuals Lena speaks of with Fareeha and the others to see where this information is taking us. Keeping in correspondence will be necessary, and I believe you will be needing a better sample of my nanomachines, so that I can give to you before I go.”

Winston balanced himself on his haunches once again, and adjusted his glasses before nodding. “Of course! I can do that without a doubt. Anything else?”

Fareeha’s hand skimmed along the inside of her coat, tracing the edge of her belt with ease. She couldn’t feel the buckle or the long strip of leather that was attached, but she knew it was there, keeping her attire in place and helping her retain her professional appearance. She didn’t like how her cybernetic arm denied her of opportunities a flesh one allowed. Ever since the accident it was what she most hated about herself, the cause for all her insecurities.

But now, she knew she wasn’t the only one. Maybe there was something she too could do to contribute to the NNv case on another plane, in an entirely different way than Angela had. It might not be as savior-like as unwittingly developing a probable cure for a disease that was eating through the city as easily as acid razed through an organic substance, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She’d been stuck in the mud of her self-pity for too long.

Maybe she could turn her weakness into a strength.

And so she raised her right arm, pulled back the sleeve of her thick winter coat, and flaunted it for all to see. “Winston, you do mods, right?”

The tinker pushed back his glasses up the wide bridge of his nose to ensure they wouldn’t slip, and his eyes lit up like the glowing lights of an heavily adorned Christmas tree. Now this was his forte. “What did you have in mind?”

Chapter Text

“Well, here we are, loves!”

Lena’s chest was puffed proudly as she stood before the looming bar. It was shrouded in a cloak of thick shadow, impenetrable to any light aside from the crackling neon tucked away in the peripheral of one’s vision. With Lena being there, hands on either of her hips and a haughty grin splitting her soft features, the darkness almost seemed to lighten just a smidge.

Hana had somehow maneuvered her way to the front of the pack to flaunt her own non-existent bust, and Brigitte lurked behind timidly, mumbling a few soothing words to herself. “What are we waiting for? Let’s head on inside! I can’t wait to meet these guys,” the little street creeper marched forward sure-footedly, but not before Fareeha snagged the pocket of Hana’s hoodie to desist her from entering alone.  

“Hold it, kiddo. We’re going in together,” Fareeha reiterated for what felt like the hundredth time. It probably was somewhere near that number, but she had given up on counting long ago. The trolley ride to the floor beneath Winston’s level had felt eternal, listening to Hana, Brigitte, and Lena chat about life in their respective environments, and also simultaneously transient as she was settled next to Angela, who hummed a foreign tune just loudly enough for the detective to hear. There were a few times when the tattooed woman had drifted away, unbeknownst to herself, in thought, like a leaf blissfully swirling down the rapids of a shallow stream; thus she traded concentration for the privilege of studying the gentle dips and shy curves of Dr. Ziegler’s face while the woman smiled, and was completely convinced that angels themselves must have sculpted this woman after their own appearance before they parted ways and Angela settled amongst a disgruntled humanity.

Her fill of admiring Angela, she found, was somehow agonizingly difficult to quench, and amidst her scolding of the youngest member within their group to remind her of the rules and boundaries they had pre-established, side-glancing the blonde’s way was the second favorite pastime during the ride.  

Everyone was aware that Fareeha desired for their crew of five to sidle in ceremoniously, without raising a red flag and drawing attention to those who dwelt in the inky, smoke-infused taverns such as this one they would be visiting. They were there on a matter of business, and were confident that they would be able to accomplish their mission in locating and receiving aid from the individuals known as Junkrat and Roadhog. They just needed to fly under the radar.

Perhaps it was impossible. Perhaps it wasn’t. Whatever the answer was, the next five minutes would dictate the path their road would take.

Hana slumped in Fareeha’s grasp, and the woman let go when she realized that Angela was chuckling into the closed hand of her revived arm at the sight of the street creeper going immediate ragdoll.

Fareeha coughed once and clenched her fist, watching through a cracked eye as Lena gave her a thoroughly curious look, one that questioned the tedious time spent lecturing Hana. “I’m sorry. I just want to make sure nothing bad happens.”

Lena’s hand found its way to center of her chest, where it spanned open in a pleading manner, aching to share with Fareeha the sentiment and promise of safety her words would ultimately claim. “Nothing bad’ll happen if you stay close to me, loves. I swear, things will work out fine. Just follow me, ‘aight?”

No one volunteered to speak, rather nodding their heads furtively while the girl with spiked brown hair swept a discerning glance across them one last time. “Aye. Let’s go.”

Heightening Fareeha’s anxiety, their fearless leader Lena pushed aside the metal door in one unceremonious movement that splayed the visual composition of herself and the four nicely dressed (for the most part, aside from Hana) individuals quite nicely, but for their sake brought a few degrees too much attention, and several heads turned their way.

A frightening arrangement of glowing optical lenses of various sizes adorned the face of a very sizeable, dark man dressed in a somehow even larger trench coat, and although there was no telling exactly where his modifications were staring, Lena was familiar with the way he towered over them in suspicion. This guy was all bark, hardly any bite.

“They’re with me,” Lena shot a series of finger guns at the man, and Fareeha wasn’t sure if it was because (Lena couldn’t possibly do this every time she came to visit this bar, could she?) the security was fed up with the nonsense gestures or perhaps he’d rather not cause a scene and instead watch them from afar. Either way, he let them pass with nothing more than a disgruntled mumble of approval.

Once they had safely bypassed the man at the entrance, there was ample opportunity to explore the alien aesthetic within. Surprisingly, Fareeha had never seen anything like it. If she had thought that The Layers were their own planetarium of fatigued lights and thrumming generator cores, she was convinced that each place she had visited today, this one especially, could be compared to an entirely unique heavenly body teeming with life.

There were no lights aside from the decorative, blaring beams of LEDs that hung overhead like forgotten phantoms and flickered in and out of reality on their own whim. Their glow seeped through the smell of heavy liquor and narco whiffs; the odor was just powerful enough to distract the mind from the danger that permeated every square inch of the area. Pulsating bass mingled flirtatiously with an equally forward synth, and the beat pushed against Fareeha like a tangible, oversized palm that prodded her to wrap an arm around Angela’s shoulders and steer her through the crowd of thugs and lowlives that mingled.

The relationship with these considerate urges was love/hate, and she wrestled with the deep, warm sensation that had begun to pool in various areas of her being. Maybe it’s best that she didn’t envelope Angela in the safety she desired to give because everyone was looking at her, and each breath exhaled she swore she could hear, and maybe she was being a bit paranoid about this whole thing, but then again that large man at the entrance with an entire optical enhancement installed into the front of his skull had eyed her like a cat watches a mouse…

Fareeha was grateful when another noise interrupted her train of thought, the one attempting to drag her into a preliminary state of psychosis.

“Oi, Emily!” Lena waved to someone, and the spell of uneasiness that had settled over Fareeha dissipated just enough for her to register the woman with red hair across the bartending counter shout a cheery greeting back.

With adept skill as natural as if it were second nature, the girl on the other side of the counter tapped a frothy drink for an individual who sat across from her. Her movements were fluid, just like the refreshments she served. “Lena!”

A blink of blue light chased behind Lena like a second, phosphorescent shadow and within a split second she was up against the stained titanium, a suave smile curving her lips. “Say love, are the boys Rat and Roadie here today? I’ve got myself a few friends who are looking to speak with them on business matters.”

The girl, whom Fareeha and the others had just pieced together was named Emily (and thus probably was the same “cute bartender” that Lena spoke about back at Winston’s), wiped her hands on a ratty towel before leaning over the bar slightly, just enough for the LED above to illuminate a smirk that seemed more intended for Lena than for anyone else. “Hm, they walked in a while ago? Back there in their usual little hideout, like normal.” The nod of her head to a deeper portion of the bar made Fareeha’s heart crash harder against her sternum, but she knew this needed to be done.

“Want a few drinks? I could whip you up a couple before the boss gets back; she’s pretty chill about me doing that kinda stuff on the house, but then again she knows who my favorites are and how I treat ‘em.” There was a wink and the twinkle of bright green eyes, and Lena immediately turned a shade darker.

A nervous laugh escaped Winston’s assistant, and pushing herself away from both the bar and the beautiful girl who tended from behind it, she ran a hand through tufts of unruly hair. “U-Uh, I’ll have to accept that invite at another time, haha! Maybe later? Promise I’ll be back before we leave.”

Emily shrugged. “Good enough for me. Have fun talking to the boys; let me know if there’s anything I can do for you and your friends, alright?”

“Thank you.”

Then they were off again, following the girl with brown hair once again and weaving their way around people, omnics, and beings somewhere in between the two. The bar itself was not too large, which Fareeha was yet again internally thankful for (it made things easier for her to keep an eye on Brigitte and Hana -- Angela too, for that matter), and veering to the left no less than a few seconds later after their departure with the redhead at the counter, came to a halt in front of a circular booth.

Between the ragged cushions of ripped leather stitched together by scraggly string, the circular hideout cradled two men of peculiar nature. One, sporting a respiratory modification, was incredibly robust, and his heft spilled onto the table slightly in front of him. His friend on the other hand was a much smaller man with tufts of unkempt straw-colored hair and feral eyes, and with the way his ribs prodded against his naked chest Fareeha was reminded of the stray dogs she’d often see wandering the streets.

The smaller of the two released a rather ostentatious burp that erupted as sporadically as an exhaust fume bursts from the maw of the grills lining the streets. It owned a somewhat weighty odor, resembling to Fareeha what she imagined would be the consequence of not brushing one’s teeth for at least ten years.

A haughty laugh perked her ears and drew everyone within their close-knit group’s attention to the opposite end of the table. “Aye, aren’t you a cheeky bum? I wouldn’t ‘ave ever thought about that before, Roadie!...I’m a wonderin’ if we somehow got our paws on a conny license, we could manage a purchase for a storefront above The Layers...” The hushed bumbling came to a halt when the individual the squeaky voice belonged to realized there was an audience, and another belch, this one somehow louder and longer than the other, rang through the air before a half-empty glass of beer slammed onto the table.

“And whaddya you lassies want? Anything we can help ya with? If not, better bes on your merry way; me and m’pal here are busy thinking.” The scrawny man took another swig. “Thinking and drinking.”

Finding herself just a pinch nervous, Lena struggled momentarily with the right words. She knew that getting these men on their side was essential, particularly for the safety of the entire city. Whatever she would say next had to cinch them, grasp the two men sitting tight behind their seats like a snake within a meadow mercilessly clutches a mouse. She was with Angela Ziegler, for crying out loud. The Angela Ziegler.

Lena would make this work. She’d spent her entire life down here in the shadows; having a spare trick up her sleeve was nothing more than everyday habit. “Me and the girls had a proposition for ya.” She watched, brown eyes bouncing back and forth between the lanky individual and the mountain beside him, noting every single tilt of the head, twist of the lips, and squint of the eyes as, namely, the smaller of the two, began to think over her initial greeting.

“‘Aight, mate. Go on.” The shorter man raised a scorched brow, and wrapping a mechanical hand around his beer glass, tapped on the material in a rhythm similar to the quintessential ticking of an antique metronome.

Lena leaned in closer, hovering her weight over the table in an effort to pass the words over as the least distance possible, lest they be heard by any other passerby. “We’re looking for a group called Talon . Thought maybe you could help us?”

Golden eyes, eerily similar to the ones that scratched against Fareeha’s brain in the memory of the night before with Angela’s attack, narrowed and secured themselves to Lena with tenacious force. “You lassies want to find Talon, eh?” There was a rough jab to the stomach of the monstrous man that sat beside the one with bad breath, and a muffled grunt sounded before the individual with the scrapped arm wiggled excitedly in his seat. “Take a seat! Move over Roadie, the girls are gonna join us; we’re talking business now, I assume?”

Lena, being extremely (and perhaps overtly?) used to lounging within the presence of such individuals as these two men, despite this being the first time she actually tried to start a conversation with these particular people, took the brunt of the situation by sitting beside the person Fareeha took to be Junkrat.

Fareeha and Angela had sidled in alongside Lena at the side where Junkrat sat, but unsurprisingly there remained hardly any room for both Brigitte and Hana within their realm of the booth. The disbelieving stare that Brigitte gave Fareeha translated to the detective as a silent plea rasping in futile strain for help, since the only seating available within the booth was next to the unbelievably large, bulbous man with a ponytail and facial mod. Brigitte gulped, and this time, fracturing the invisible guidelines of society’s norm concerning personal space, reached for the small street creeper’s hand, clenched it tightly between her fingers, and dragged her into the booth alongside Roadie.

Once settled in amongst the leather to the extent where Brigitte was neither too uncomfortable by the towering man’s heavy breathing or the feeling of Hana basically clinging to her (yet again) for dear life, Roadhog heaved a breath that caused the whole table to shake just enough for the salt and pepper shakers on the top to clatter.

Everyone paused for a moment, recognizing that they had all somehow miraculously managed to fit within the booth, and when Lena was just about ready to begin expressing further detail on the reason as to why she and her new friends were there, the scrawnier of the two men spoke up again.

“Alright, I wanna make sure I’ve got you pinpointed down on what you want from me and my partner Roadie ‘ere”, lifting his half-empty glass of beer again he motioned to the larger individual beside him, and then gestured to himself. “I’m Rat, by the way. Junkrat. If anyone comes to us it’s because they need us to do something stupid, illegal, dangerous, or a combo of all of the three. Your task falls in one or more of those categories, doesn’t it?”

Fareeha stumbled over nonexistent words as she held her mouth slightly agape, hoping that something which actually made sense would present itself in statement form to the weapon dealer before her. Her eyes flickered just long enough over Lena’s face to see that the girl was about to fill in for her, but she held out a hand, and Lena fell silent against the tattered seating.

“It does fall into some of those categories. It’s probably stupid and dangerous and maybe even illegal; heck, probably all of the three like you said. But we need your help. I need to find my mom, and saving the city is something I hope to do along the way. Both of them are connected to Talon somehow, and we need you to help us find them.” Her throat was dry and her eyes stung. The stench of the man before her should have frightened her away, but she had been swallowed alive by the issue that presented itself to her the day before and it was far too late for her to try and claw her way out. She was going to solve both problems which had been haunting her for longer than she desired.

Roadhog grumbled something into his mask, and Brigitte immediately bristled as his ginormous meaty arms lifted from their rest against his stomach, pushing against her just enough that she felt like she might suddenly topple out of the booth, Hana in tow.

Junkrat folded his crazed brows into a contemplative position, stuck a metal finger into his mouth, and began crunching on rusted metal with mottled teeth. “Hmmm. You’re right Roadie, we don’t get too many offers for such a tempting job as this….They seem serious enough. There’s only one way to find out though!”

Another muffled grumble from Roadhog, this one somehow curiously embodying the side of agreement.

“What are ya willing to pay, might me’s ask before we decide if we’d like to entertain your offer?” Junkrat nibbled hungrily at his finger again, and Fareeha almost asked him to name his price before reality slapped her face hard enough for a mastermind idea to break through the surface of worthless thoughts.

Fareeha reached into her coat again and felt around for the pocket on the inside, the one that rested against her chest and always presented a comfortable, assuring weight. Between her fingers she grasped the cool plate of her police ID, and whisked it out, curling her fingers around the frame just enough that it was visible for their little group to behold yet still remain invisible to other outsiders. “I work for the city police department. My name’s Fareeha Amari.” A short breath escaped her, and then something else she’d never thought she’d say in a million years. “Detective Fareeha Amari.”

There was a sharp hiss that sliced through the air as Junkrat recoiled and beer sloshed onto the spotted wooden table. “Blackmail, ‘ey? Gonna put me and the mate in jail unless we don’t help ya out, missy? Mighty fine move right there…”

Fareeha tucked her badge back into her coat, a bit flustered that her ruse had actually worked. Watching Junkrat’s psychotic eyes dart about for any sort of escape was somewhat entertaining, but if she didn’t clear up the misunderstanding soon there could be undesired commotion (and maybe even violence) on her watch. “No, it’s not blackmail at all! I thought I’d mention my status because I realize there might be something you want. I heard you talking about a license to a weapons shop above the surface. I could help you get one.”

Lena watched, deeply engrossed, as Junkrat turned the wheels in his mind for a minute. She could have sworn that there was smoke seeping from the top of his frazzled hair, climbing the dark atmosphere of this portion of the bar.

There was no response from either Junkrat or Roadhog.

Shit. I’m losing him. “It might seem like an abuse of my power, but I am serious as a heart attack about this. I am willing to do anything I can to figure out what happened to my mom.”

And save the city. Don’t forget that,” Brigitte piped up for the first time since they had entered the building, and it was now that she had felt an inkling of ease nestle itself around her being. Perhaps it had something to do with the way Hana’s arms grappled around her waist. She could feel the small hands tease her abdomen through the fabric of her shirt, and for some reason it sent delightful bursts of warmth twisting and flipping around her insides.

“That too,” Angela agreed, and Junkrat’s eyes floated from face to face to reassure himself that everyone was indeed telling the truth.

There was one final place his gaze rested; the frigid, intimidating yellow that screamed for an opportunity arson and the chance to see something explode into a thousand pieces finally found rest on the rotund, grizzled face of the largest individual in the booth.

And there was nothing from Roadhog aside from a singular nod, the lonely prompt that suggested for their partner to drive the bargain deeper. He was not complaining, and Junkrat could see this. If there was anything that ever was bothering Roadie, he knew.

But this group of women proposing them an offer that even the devil’s spawn himself   was undecided in taking (yes, occasionally Junkrat called himself that. It helped alleviate his suffering in the times when his spirits were down), was something that didn’t flip the emergency alarm switch off in Roadhog. And this was a good thing.

“We’re in.”

Fareeha released a breath she wasn’t even aware she had been holding. “ Really?! ” The words came out more enthusiastically than she intended, so she coughed once and repeated. “I mean -- really?”

Somewhere beside her Angela smirked and covered a grin with her hand.

Nodding, Junkrat slammed his mug down on the table for the umpteenth time, but thankfully there was hardly any more alcohol to waste, considering it had been generously applied like a layer of varnish to the table long ago. “But only on one condition!”

“And what’s that?” Lena fidgeted with her fingers beneath the table in an effort to hide her anxiety. The fact that her feet were already bouncing against the floor as if she were preparing for a race was telling her that she was getting more worked up than she knew she ought to be.

But maybe there was good reason.

“Your pals and I have a lil’ bit of friendly competition.”


 

“Remind me why I’m doing this again.”

Here they both were, an overly conscious detective Fareeha Amari and her designated medical practitioner Angela Ziegler, crammed like sardines in a tin can somewhere in an even further subterranean level of The Siberian Bear. There was literally no knowing what to expect in here in The Layers, she had decided. Who would have guessed there’d be an underground fighting ring beneath one of the raunchiest, dingiest, dankest pubs on the lowest level beneath the city? Certainly not she.

But then again maybe it was because she was not from this particular world, as Angela and Lena were.

Angela shuffled Fareeha’s thick coat between her arms for a few moments, as if mulling over the thought to formulate a suitable reply. She knew her answer, and so did Fareeha, but she wanted to make it seem as though she were deeply considering again, because maybe that’s what Fareeha needed, someone who would reassure her of decisions that impacted a trillion things at once. “You’re trying to find your mother.” Setting the coat down on a chair she snuck in a thrilled breath, one infused with the odious mixture of sweat, blood, and excitement. “And if we can win, we’re one step closer to saving the city as well.”

Fareeha rolled her shoulders, the most foolish part of her brain somewhat hoping Angela was taking notice the broadened, toned muscles that rippled across her back. If now weren’t the most unreasonable time to be thinking about looking attractive, she wasn’t sure when else would be worse. Her cybernetic hand flickered under the whispering lights that crackled every few seconds like a dying fire, and it glinted back a dark blue. Now, atop the surface of her arm there were the occasional streaks of black, and somehow they frightened Fareeha, forcing a troublesome lump to form in the pit of her stomach.

Was she right to ask for Winston to update her with mods so spur of the moment? Although she was grateful for his gracious service and proactive will to assist, she wasn’t sure if what she had made was the right decision.

Warm fingers touched the base of her neck and pulled her back into the present.

“Fareeha.”

She could feel Angela’s grip, tender and benign as a more fingers laid themselves against her feverish skin. The clear blue eyes she often admired from a safe distance were now invading her personal space and stationed themselves directly in front of the unsettled cop, darting to and fro in the most minute manner which declared they were searching for something much deeper than what appeared on the surface.

A thumb ran itself across the bottom of Fareeha’s jawline, and freezing pinpricks scattered themselves along her spine like a pelting of hard winter rain through her clothes. “You’re going to be fine. Remember why you’re doing this. Remember who you’re doing this for.” Angela’s lips curled upwards slightly. “I’ll be there the entire time if you ever need me, and even if you don’t I’ll still be there,” she chuckled, and found her hand sliding from the back of Fareeha’s neck down to her wrist in a trail that the detective wished would drag on just a bit longer. Angela’s fingers lingered around the base of Fareeha’s hand, and she wondered if perhaps seizing the whole thing would be inappropriate at a time such as this.

If there was doubt biting at the inside of her mind in an attempt to be recognized, she kicked it away. Angela’s smile grew wider, and utilizing its brilliance to catch Fareeha off guard she slipped her hand into the palm of the detective and laced her fingers tightly between the other woman’s. “I believe in you.” She tugged, not surprised to find Fareeha anchored to the exact same spot she’d been for the past five minutes, unblinking with her bronze face dusted in the most adorable shade of crimson.

The door ahead of them hung by rusted hinges that groaned in exhaustion as the doctor touched the handle. “Now let’s go; the sooner we win this, the faster we’ll be out of here.”

Fareeha’s confidence rebooted when Angela pulled her to the door; the crystalline sincerity from Angela’s gaze was a phenomena she wasn’t yet used to, but was hoping she’d become more at ease under.

The door opened, and immediately its ancient creaking was overwhelmed by a cacophony of churlish hollers, deafening banging on chain link fencing, and the unanimous roar of everything in between.

Blinking a few times to adjust her eyes to the brazen glow of a cleverly strewn together comb of extinct incandescents, Fareeha convinced her knees to not buckle beneath her at the sight of Junkrat on the opposite side of the ring, perhaps thirty feet away. Settled at his feet stood what appeared to be a tire, studded with sharp, pointed scraps of materials Fareeha could not identify. All she knew was that the whole contraption looked dangerous.

It was the twisted smile stretching across Junkrat’s face that dropped a ten pound weight of cold lead into the pit of her stomach. “Looks like the two of you are finally done with your grand heart-to-heart chat, haha! I was about to say it’s about time! Was gettin’ bored over here for a while….You wouldn’t want me reconsidering our deal,” the scorched man hefted his weight onto the metal peg that substituted for his right leg and guffawed loudly, as if unable to contain his poorly-held anticipation.

Fareeha’s fist clenched as metal scraped against metal. “You’re right, I don’t.” There was nothing else she had to say to him as of this moment, and through the howling of the crowd and suffocating warmth that simmered down from the lights above like a summer heat wave, she siphoned her world to the containment of the ring.

There was a second of hesitation as she debated letting go of Angela’s hand, and when she knew she could hold on no longer her grip faltered and the doctor faded into the background like everything else.

She was the only one who could do this.

She had to do this.

Fareeha raised the forearm of her cybernetic in front to replicate a defensive position, and with a small flick of her wrist there was a timid hiss which sent her heart churning against her chest. Twin lacerations imprinted themselves along the width of her prosthetic to allow for a serrated blade to emerge, and the titanium scythe extended just enough that it lay perfectly parallel to the metallic appendage beneath it.

Uneasiness begged for her attention. I…..I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve never used this thing before!

A recent memory harked for her sanity, calling her back to the finalization of the offer she had presented to the two weapon dealers no less than an hour before.

“Your pals and I are gon’ have a lil’ bit of friendly competition.” Junkrat’s efforts were futile in hiding an entertained smirk behind the crusted metal fingers that scratched incessantly along his jaw. “I want to make sure you’re serious or not about me and me mate helpin’ you out. If you can beat us, you can take Talon!” A violent guffaw penetrated the air. “With our help, of course!”

“So the “friendly competition” is basically to see if we’re real badasses or not?” Hana was quite enjoying the arms that were unintentionally cradling her waist. “Sounds like fun. We could totally whip your hides.”

Brigitte’s arms, blissfully ignorant of their precious cargo at the moment, careened together under the pressure of Hana’s claim, and she apologized for a solid minute and a half until the wheezing and blushing Hana assured for the fiftieth time that she was indeed unharmed.

The freckled girl forced her eyes away from Hana’s spiky cropped hair, despite her being very concerned for the street-creeper’s well being. “I don’t want to be a party pooper, but Hana, I don’t think you should say something like that so nonchalantly…”

Perhaps karma was simply repaying her, because Brigitte felt a hand the same width as an extra large pizza strike her back. She went flying forward and sandwiched Hana between herself and the table, and lo and behold another bout of concern erupted.

Roadhog’s laughter was deep and thorough, like the rumbling of an approaching rainstorm, and there was a layer of hilarity within his chuckling and clapping of Brigitte’s back, as if someone had just voiced in his ear the best joke he’d heard for a while.

“....Why is he laughing?” Lena asked, voice an incomparable murmur to Roadhog’s innocuous glee.

“Bloke’s got a game of his own he’d like your friend’s to participate in, just like I do. It’s a ritual of sorts -- think about it as a way we weed out the shammy customers, hahaha!”

“And if we can beat you in these….. competitions ….you’ll help us find Talon, right?” Fareeha was unwavered by Junkrat’s condition. She had set herself a purpose, a goal which she needed to fulfill; it was one she never had any interest in over the past two years, until recently.

Junkrat’s finger tapped the side of his empty glass. “Aye, that’s how it’ll be! If you and your mates have what it takes, we’ll proceed with the deal and help ya find Talon.”

Something ripped a violent tear into the flashback. It was the sound of a roaring tire screaming through the air, eviscerating the screams and shouts that were carelessly flung into the ring and tossed against the chain link fence in a collaboration which grated one’s ears in the most agonizing way.

What once appeared to be hazardous prongs of metal protruding from the black rim previously under Junkrat’s greasy hand were now blended with the rubber material in a spiraling blur, one that quickened its pace with every millisecond that passed.

And it was headed straight for Fareeha.

Rearing her right arm back just slightly she took a deep inhale, and everything melted away. The blade jutting up from the sheath of her prosthetic flashed under the heavy liquid gold radiating down from the lights above, and perhaps it was just a trick prompted by the current adrenaline rush, but a stream of soft words, gentle ones crafted for her and her alone, wafted into her ear as if the individual speaking them were directly behind her.

It was Angela’s voice.

“I’m right beside you.”

And please, don't ever leave.

The growling black hole rushed at her with the ferocity of a starving lion, and Fareeha charged against it head-on, cybernetic arm raised.


 

“H-Hello.” Was she even trying to sound like she was brave? Because if she was, she was utterly and miserably failing. There were few things in life that scared Brigitte Lindholm, but this was nowhere near the absolute terror of prying open the refrigerator door and finding there were no more remaining slices of blueberry pie.

This, this -- was something much bigger. And much more pink.

“Privet!”

Hana was practically hauling herself up Brigitte’s toned back, using the holster around her friend’s midsection as if it were the rung on a ladder. Then, a prominent hiss entered her ear, hot and anxious against her skin and making Brigitte feel rather flushed. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. She’s like, ten feet tall! And holy shit, look at those mu--”

Brigitte reached over her shoulder to grab at Hana’s mouth, and although at any other time she would most likely be blushing at the lack of personal space with her palm clamped tightly over the street creeper’s lips, she dared not let another spoken word escape from the smaller girl.

There was an astounding race of Goliaths, Brigitte resolved in that exact moment, that were developing, thriving, succeeding in ruling the underground world of The Layers. For some reason she had been blind to the fact before, but it probably had something to do with it being her first time visiting the subterranean sanctum that supported any and all beings normally threatened on the surface.

The giant with the pink hair extended a hand toward Brigitte, and the latter felt her brain buffering while it attempted to process the social gesture for a couple of seconds before finally kicking back into normal speed. “I’m Zarya, owner of The Siberian Bear . Pleased to meet you.”

Her arm was still crossed against her chest while she creased Hana’s cheeks together in an effort to rebuke any other rude comments, and she extended her other one, this hand free, and closed the gap.

“Brigitte.” Perhaps her brain still needed a bit of catching up to do, because the thought that Hana still hadn't introduced herself yet barely catapulted to the front of her mind only when Zarya’s bright green eyes shimmied sideways to spy the flashing pink cheeks of someone literally being pressurized by the simple force of another’s nervousness.

“Aha, um, this is my friend!” Brigitte announced, and the weight on her back lifted as Hana dropped to the floor, testing out her jaw’s hinges to make sure nothing was broken.

“Hana.” It was the only word that she spoke, shockingly, and Brigitte believed she was nimble on her toes for the moment her friend would inevitably slip up and disclose another offensive comment (she hoped she was wrong, but it was better to be safe than sorry). But then, before Brigitte had enough time to react: “You’re pretty big for a woman.”

It was as if the entire bar had been obliterated by a reverse sound grenade which had detonated and absorbed whatever noise was tornadoing around the vicinity, and Brigitte swore that if she dropped a pin, everyone would have been able to hear it clattering away like a hammer on a gong.

No no no no please don’t sucker punch her, she really isn’t that bad I pro--

“Bahahahahaha!”

Everyone, Brigitte figured, was originally waiting with bated breath to helplessly witness the murder of the cyber tattooed street creeper who had lounged in the pub for less than an hour, but when deep, hearty laughter belted out from the woman in front of them, the world finally began to rotate once again.

For the second time that day Brigitte was thrust forward, and it took all the strength she retained in her sculpted calves to prevent herself from greeting the dirty ground with her face.

“Hahaha, I love this little friend of yours, Brigitte!” Zarya’s thick accent was overcome by the sheer pleasure within her voice, and as Brigitte braced herself against the pounding of Zarya’s massive hand, the crease of bright pink lips a couple of shades lighter than the hair on the head they belonged to turned into an infectious smile.

So…You’re not going to kill us? Brigitte wanted to ask, but again there was no place for words on her tongue, and instead she could only laugh half-heartedly, not quite believing the fact that she was still standing here in the bar, alive and in one piece.

Zarya planted her gloved hands on her hips, sizing up the girl in front of her. Their surroundings were layered with intrigued whispers and stifled breaths tucked away inside their respective owners who feared what was coming next. “I take it you are the one my friend Roadhog told me about? You are the one assigned to the challenge, net?” She nodded at the giant of a man beside her, and Roadhog grunted through his mask as the mangled jungle of chains looped around his waist clanked together while he swayed.

Brigitte furrowed her brows in confusion, very unsure what this “challenge” consisted of that Zarya was mentioning. She had, of course, been listening with ears perked and mind reeling as she sat in the booth with what she conceded was too close proximity to the large man, but she remembered Junkrat did bring up something about a challenge, yet although she scrounged the outlands of her mind, there was nothing that detailed what this would entail. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t have any idea what this challenge is you’re all talking about.”

Again, laughter burst throughout the bar like the bright explosions of fireworks that sometimes erupted over the city in times of celebration, claiming the night as their own for a rare moment in lieu of the dazzling neon lights.

Zarya wiped a tear from her eye when the laughter was finally starting to settle, and finding the small of Brigitte’s back, she began shoving her across the floor and toward the front of the bar where Emily was busy wiping glasses and Lena languidly hung around. “Oh, my darling! You are in for a treat. There is nothing more fun than this challenge; a test of endurance and might between the strongest of us individuals.” She clapped the seat of torn leather and polyester stuffing beside her, and Brigitte had no choice but to slide in next to the titan of a woman. Roadhog took a seat on the opposite side of Zarya while Hana rammed into the counter and shoved someone off the stool to the right of Brigitte, claiming it as her own.

“Emily!” The Russian accent was heavy, but even so carried with it the promise of what Brigitte assumed were good intentions. “Three shots of vodka, plēz .” Green eyes captured Brigitte’s quivering amber ones, brimming with an excitement that the younger woman lacked.

The only things Brigitte could hear were the hammering of her heart, now having invaded the confines of her skull to annihilate what reason remained inside, and the mixture of bellowing laughter and thunderous, throaty grumbling as both Zarya and Roadhog picked up their dainty shot glasses. Oh fuck is this really happening? I’m about to enter a drinking contest with Ares the God of War himself and Reinhardt’s younger, female counterpart--

“Hey.”

What?

“Hey.”

Her head spun on her shoulders in the same manner an owl’s would for a few seconds as she tried identifying the direction of the rouse for attention, and perhaps it was the suffocating smell of the narcos which she had inhaled since their arrival or the way the world looked like it had been thrown into a blender, but something affixed her back to reality.

A cool sensation pressed against the inside of her sweaty palm, and turning to her right, her head having finally overcome the spinning of every sound, LED, and smell meshed together in an inordinate summation, she realized there was one thing that remained the same.

Hana’s small, calloused fingers squeezed Brigitte’s hand tightly, as if by mere physical contact she could share an ounce or more (she hoped for the latter) of the confidence she retained for her friend. Her crooked yet charming smile was infectious, and Brigitte found herself attempting to recreate the expression before her, although it was somewhat of a challenge in the midst of her colossal anxiety.

“You’re gonna do fine.”

A splash of vodka sprinkled Brigitte’s hand as a shot glass filled with vile clear liquid was placed before her, and she gulped, struggling to swallow a sour knot at the back of her throat. “H-How do you know…?”

Hana smirked, and the sudden backflip Brigitte experienced of the muscle within her chest drove her to wholly believe whatever words would flow from the street creeper’s mouth, no matter how ludicrous they might seem at any other place in time and space. “Because you’re Brigitte, and you’re brave and selfless and smart and you never give up before the fight starts, even when the odds might not be in your favor.”

A crowd had begun materializing behind the four seated at the bar, and the sea of sweaty, stinky individuals piled up behind them like a rousing wave gaining strength and height as it neared the sea shore.

There was no escaping.

“How come I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere before?” Brigitte wondered aloud, shouting over the din while Zarya and Roadhog balanced their glasses between fingers the size of bratwurst links and waited for Brigitte to take up her own and join in.

Hana laughed, and it was a short, haughty celebration that clambered up and out, meeting Brigitte’s ears in the most pleasant way. “I mighta-coulda-sorta pieced together quotes from various superhero movies I snuck into theaters to see here and there, but it’s mostly my original composition of a collection of those works of crap.”

“It was beautiful.”

“Thanks!”

“I’m gonna try and remember that while I drown myself in alcohol -- please tell Fareeha I did my best, if I end up dying in the process of this challenge.” Brigitte was mostly joking, but there was a large portion of her that believed in the worst possible outcome, and the roiling within her gut was not helping that unfortunate premonition.

“Will do, Baguetta.” I know you can do this. A salute, like the final wave of respect between departing soldiers on their way to war, was issued by Hana, and she watched, wide-eyed and heart skipping against her ribcage a mile a minute when Brigitte lifted up her vodka with a shaky hand.

Lena, obviously quite stricken by the sudden absorption of her interest in the drinking game, vaulted herself over the barricade of shiny, stained metal, the only obstacle that separated her from the cute bartender she sought to visit as often as she could when given the opportunity.

The crowd on the other side of the counter cheered when the three individuals seated at the center of the bar downed their first glass, immediately slamming down a trio of tiny, empty, cups for more.

“Pass me an extra bottle, will you?” Emily satisfied the emptiness of the glasses with the downpour of more alcohol, and again the drinks left the counter, flying upwards to the open mouths of Brigitte, Zarya, and Roadhog (he somehow was pouring the liquid down the strategized gashes of his facial mod in a way that reminded Lena of rainwater seeping down the gutter, and she watched in fascination).

Lena blinked quickly a few times to eradicate the clouded vision which had emerged mere moments ago, limiting her sight and attention to the competition unfolding before her very eyes, and she scrambled for the back of the bar to root around the inside of the stock cabinet where she located an unopened bottle of vodka.

Clattering glass against metal rang through the air again, and Emily filled up the containers for another round right as Lena slid into her side, vodka in hand before she deposited it straight onto the counter top with a mile-wide grin plastered to her face.

“What is it?” The vodka was being downed just as quickly as the redhead could refill, and although there was the attentive thought that marveled at the ferocious tenacity (as well as ability to hold liquor) the three rivals were showing, Lena could not shake the rivaling notion that here she was, behind the counter of her favorite pub, attending the needs of her long-time crush.

Adventurous crimson strands which had departed from the safety of side-swept bangs stuck to the cute bartender’s forehead due to the birth of light perspiration, and Lena just stood there aimlessly and with the most endearing, useless smile on her face as she watched Emily on autopilot.

“Nothing,” Lena communicated over the din, feeling herself grow a few degrees warmer than she had been a mere ten minutes before when she was resting in the sheltered confines of Junkrat and Roadhog’s signature booth. “It’s just you --” Look beautiful. Like always.

Emily’s bright green eyes flew back and forth between the yet again empty shot glasses and Lena’s flirtatious smile, obviously ambivalent with whom or what she should lend her time to. The weightless bottle within her grasp decided on the outcome for her, and Emily advanced toward the spiky-haired brunette, taking into full consideration the lack of distance between the two of them as she snaked her hands around the vodka Lena carried. Just to be a little extra, she pressed forward to lend a tender, sultry whisper to Lena’s heavily-pierced ear.

Whatever self-restraint Lena had been attempting to maintain withered, and she bit her lip as heat seeped into her. Manipulative fingers wormed their way around her grip securing the new vodka bottle, but the only thing she was registering was the sensation of Emily close, flush against Lena’s being as she was pushed into the counter and metal jabbed the center of her back.

“Just I what ?” Emily waited the shortest fraction of a second for a reply, and predicting she would not receive one due to Lena’s discombobulated state, pulled the vodka closer to herself right before finishing with a final, departing comment, one that sent miniature shockwaves rippling through the other girl. “Tell me over dinner sometime, yeah?”

And then Emily was gone, grinning impishly as she pulled away, the grip of the vodka bottle yielded by Lena’s limp arm as she stared back in wonder while Emily twisted the cap off of the container in one clever movement before refilling the three shot glasses.

Lena slumped against the counter, raising her arm weakly to clutch at the hiccuping heart within her chest through the layer of hoodie. She felt her bottom make contact with the cold, wet floor, most likely having been the battleground of bartenders wrestling with stubborn bottles and the overflowing of spilt drinks, the liquid remains of their confrontation proof in alcohol puddles splayed across the ground.

Wow… She shook her head in hopes she could clear the lightheadedness that had descended upon her being like a prominent fog. Well I’ll be darned.

Brigitte’s hand shot through the air in triumph, driving her glass again into the body of the counter and nearly smashing it in the process, a strangled cry of celebration fleeing her lips. Emily laughed, and within that moment it was the only sound Lena heard.

I’m bloody whipped.


 

“Stop moving y’arse and stay still already!”

Another fiery orb launched itself at Fareeha, crackling and spitting sparks as it bounced on the ground and flew directly at her before another of its kind did the same, and then another, and another.

It was never-ending.

She wasn’t sure if Junkrat was taking this certain “contest” as real, legitimate competition, or if he was merely entertaining himself with the incredulous (yet unquestionable) offer of a bargain with life and death.

The howling tire, once alive with screaming metal shards that sliced as effortlessly as a sushi chef diced cucumbers, had withdrawn from the epic rivalry and now rested in a collection of maimed scraps to Fareeha’s far left. It was definitely a sight to behold when she charged full-speed ahead in an adrenaline-fueled burst, and with the retractable scythe Winston had equipped her with earlier that day, the detective had escaped a collision by straight macheteing the nightmare in physical form.

The action was enough to nearly bring Junkrat to tears, but instead of giving up the fight within the first five seconds of it starting, he had whipped out another contraption, this one gun-like, and initiated what felt to Fareeha like a life-size version of pinball.

And she, of course, was the bumper within the machine that did not want to be hit.

Something whizzed by her ear. She wasn’t quite sure what on Earth these rounded spheres were, but whatever they were made out of caused them to explode upon impact after the third bounce -- she had been counting, her brown eyes darting nearly everywhere around the ring while she sieved out the hyena-like howls of Junkrat and the ticking of the strange, rounded grenades.

He’s doing everything he can to keep me away. Fareeha sidestepped as another explosive nearly connected with her bicep, and instead it bounced away on the ground once more before shattering into a ear-splitting crackle of heat and shrapnel. A bead of sweat wandered down the side of her face. Makes me wonder if he’s avoiding hand-to-hand combat because he doesn’t have what it takes for that type of fighting…If so, it could be why he’s resorted to attacking from a distance.

The cogs and gears within her head were turning at a frightening speed as she continued to weave away from his launched ammunition, but it was all to keep her alive, and thus she desired for a quick end to the exhausting throb of adrenaline rushing through her. She knew as soon as she stopped moving the beneficial pumping of the hormone within her veins would slow its procession, and within less than a minute she would inevitably be struck by one of the objects she was trying to miss coming into contact with.

And if that were to happen, she didn’t want to know how grim the consequences would be.

A thought swerved to the forefront of her mind, and she acknowledged it as a brilliant idea birthed from her fruitful observations. Let’s see how he likes a taste of his own medicine. Fareeha grinned, meeting Junkrat’s wildfire eyes in the brief moment that he lobbed another sizzling piece of explosive material, and she watched as it soared through the air in slow motion. Her feet moved without her need to inform them of the direction; all they knew was that she was to be positioned directly under the exact area the grenade would land for its first bounce.

“Aye, finally! ” Junkrat screeched as Fareeha’s boots skidded to a halt atop the grimy floor, and although a part of her was bellowing at what remained of her common sense to convince her to move the fuck away , she did not listen.

She flicked her wrist in an upward motion and the elongated razor disappeared into her arm within a split second, and in exchange she opened her cybernetic palm toward the incoming grenade, holding it eagerly above her head like she were simply awaiting the sudden, innocuous convergence of a baseball with a glove.

I’m sorry Angela. I know I messed this hand up already. The clank of hot metal smashed against her open hand, and as soon as it made contact she clenched her prosthetic fingers around the black, sparking sphere tightly.

There was no time to consider if her arm had been blown off or not, but judging by the sudden veil of silence that had descended upon the crowd and the lack of an explosion or other similar expelling of heat and chaos, she knew that she was fine. For the time being, that was.

Get rid of it!  

Her eyes found Junkrat yet again. He was standing on the opposite side of the caged ring, the launcher within his hands drooping as his facial features fumbled between disbelief and anger.

Before he could let out another squeal of disappointment she spread her legs, drew her arm with the grenade back, and wished for the best as she slammed it against the floor a good distance a ways toward Junkrat’s vicinity. This constituted as the second bounce.  

Please please please I just need it to hit--

Perhaps an angel had heard her urgent prayer, because the ball was guided right where it would hurt the most as it jumped back up off the floor during its second leap. Based on her calculations, Fareeha knew upon the next meeting of impact with another object the sphere would combust.

“Sweet mother--” The grenade flew straight for the area between Junkrat’s legs, and burdened with no time to do anything but almost finish a strained comment of disbelief, the loudest, most pained howl Fareeha had ever heard rang throughout the underground stadium, thus simultaneously signaling her triumphant victory.  


  Hana was dumbfounded. With each hoot and holler that echoed around and jostled her ears she felt herself grow in excitement, and there was no chance she’d plan on tearing her eyes away from the scene before her. A line of empty vodka bottles was strewn about the bar counter haphazardly, and if she were at a pub under any other circumstance she would most likely have used the opportunity to interest herself in a free drink, no matter what little liquor may have been left.

But something more enticing was calling her attention, and that was the bellowing Brigitte beside her as she swallowed yet another shot of vodka. Clear strands of the drink ran down her chin, and the probationary officer wiped them away with the back of her hand before releasing a large, contented sigh.

“Haha!” The large Swedish girl fearlessly stuck a finger in Roadhog’s emotionless, mechanical face in what Hana could clearly tell was pride (and for good reason) before hammering down her small cup yet again on the wet metal countertop. “That’s my--” she took a moment to pull back her hand and count her fingers, mumbling strange words or phrases that Hana assumed were most likely numbers spoken in Brigitte’s own tongue. “Thirty-fourt-- no , my thirty- fifth! Thirty-five shots, pig man. Beat that!

A struggled grunt resonated from Roadhog’s mask, and Hana dared not blink lest she miss something monumental. He reached forward with his monstrous hand as Emily pushed a newly-filled glass of vodka toward him, and he clasped his thumb and forefinger around it. The journey to his facial mod was a shaky, uncertain one, and the shot quivered just enough for everyone witnessing to hold their breath in agonized excitement, before he thrust it against the grating of the front and it sloshed down his throat, followed by a labored swallow.

Roadhog’s glass slipped from between his fingers on the way back down to the counter, and as it clattered against the metal Zarya raised her incredibly muscular arms to loop them around both Brigitte’s and Roadhog’s necks, pulling them in for something akin to a group hug and a chokehold.

“I just love you both...I don’t know what I did to deserve such wonderful drinking buddies,” Zarya drawled, her accent having took a more sharp turn somewhere around the twenty-second shot.

Hana glanced at Lena, who was busy on the other side of the counter juggling the tasks of retrieving new vodka bottles and keeping tally of how many shots were downed by each individual. She was currently scrawling another tally on Roadhog’s side of the projected screen Emily had pulled up for their sake, sealing a cluster of four with a final fifth line that penetrated the core of the seventh bundle under his name.

Lena looked up from the screen and made contact with both Emily’s and Hana’s gazes apprehensively before biting her bottom lip. “It looks like Zarya’s down by two…Brigitte, you and Roadhog are tied.”

A unanimous cry of disapproval sounded from the crowd, and Brigitte straightened herself up, rolled her shoulders, and squared Lena with eyes squinted into deep, lashed lines that nearly peered into her soul. “Are you sure?”

“I’m positive,” Lena’s fingers flew over her chest quickly, as if the gesture were the only thing protecting her from an encounter with Brigitte’s prodding finger, the one on the hand which Brigitte was using to push away Zarya’s red-dusted face. Lena watched fascinated as other girl narrowly missed a thread of drool colliding with her shoulder. “One more drink should do it, I think?”
“One more drink…” Brigitte repeated the words like they were a thousand year old incantation, and Hana watched as her friend pondered what was not much the quandary, but in this instance was the dubious climax: the most crucial moment of the challenge.  

Roadhog’s heavy, tired breathing crossed the distance between the four individuals seated on the bar stools, startling Brigitte from her small moment of mental hesitation. There was the turn of very squeaky, unoiled hinges that nearly caused Hana to flinch, and as she did so was surprised to find herself caught between Brigitte’s strong, warm hands. Hana’s shoulders heaved upwards at the light pressure of the other girl seizing her arms, and Brigitte held her tight, fixing the street creeper in place not just with her strength but with soft, honey eyes that Hana would gladly drown in.

“Hana...Do you think I can do one more?” Brigitte’s breath was hot, and the freckles against her skin stood out harshly under the contrast of the LEDs shining above. Hana couldn’t tell if the other girl was quite as intoxicated as she seemed, and if she wasn’t, how she possibly was holding her liquor so well? It was a dramatic comparison to the bumbling Zarya, who was nearly three times Brigitte’s size and was peacefully dozing off, collapsed in a disheveled pile of cropped pink hair, bulging biceps, and empty shot glasses.

Hana felt something burn against her cheeks, and although Brigitte’s gaze refused to stray a few inches lower to inspect the change in tint on the lower half of her friend’s face, she knew that her tattoos had betrayed her yet again and crossed over to the dark side. Even so, she forced down a gulp, and nodded in time to the beat that was drumming away in her chest. “I do.” Why the fuck am I automatically thinking of wedding vows when I say that phrase?! Chill Hana -- she just wants your encouragement, not your virginity.

The two words must have been enough to pacify the storm of insecurity Hana had seen swirling in the depths of Brigitte’s kind eyes, because at that instant her shoulders were released, albeit tentatively. Similarly, her friend withdrew her gaze and instead focused her attention back to the lone shot glass positioned before her.

“Another, please,” Hana’s auburn-haired goddess commanded, and was answered by the gentle clattering of the vodka bottle as it married the rim of shot glass resting between Brigitte’s curled fingers. The man beside Zarya gave a deep grumble, and although Hana could not tell if it was perhaps he too wanted another glass, or maybe he was experiencing some gastronomic upheaval. Either way, Emily did the same for Roadhog’s own glass as she did for Brigitte’s.

The two shots sat on the counter mockingly, conniving new plots and jaunts to intimidate the pair of remaining contestants who sat across from them on their rusted stools with their insides burning.

Brigitte’s hands were already choking the vodka between their grasp. If only she could silence the visual jibing as is sloshed away within the glass walls with one singular, final method of ultimate judgment. The ability to do so was in her somewhere, she knew it was. But with thirty-five servings of something so powerful and influential despite the flawless, crystal-clear appearance, inklings of doubt had begun leaking into her mind, telling her that one more would be the breaking point.

And then she remembered Hana, and the satisfaction of a familiar, adorable face treating her to the promise of confidence she had possessed since the beginning of the entire endeavor, and Brigitte was almost ashamed that she had nearly forgotten something that had occurred no more than a minute before.

It was the alcohol. It was starting to get to her.

Brigitte’s fingers tightened around the miniature cup as a mixture of courage, adrenaline, and the elated feeling she earned being around Hana flooded her being. I can’t forget about her! She believes in me!

There was the tilt of the container as it overturned and released its contents into the young woman’s mouth, scorching the back of her throat for the umpteenth and last time.

Tears prickled at the back of her eyeballs in anticipation of the chance to be released from their prison, but Brigitte forced them back, waiting for any sort of response from Roadhog as he sat motionless next to a tranquilized Zarya.

Another grunt, this one barely heard, escaped his mask, and everyone watched as his giant fingers wrapped once, twice, three times around the diminutive shot glass in his clutch, each time relenting in picking it up and tossing the fiery liquid into the opening of his facial modification.

And yet nothing of the sort happened.

“...Pig man?” She muttered the words as if she had found her closest friend lying helpless, bloody, mere seconds away from death in a deserted alleyway, but she truly was thoroughly invested in the silent but civil rivalry that had ensued between the two of them and the owner of The Siberian Bear.

There was no immediate response, but slowly Roadhog began to gravitate toward the glass on the counter, and at the moment where the distance between himself and the vessel were a mere couple of centimeters apart, Brigitte’s heart lurched into her throat, suspecting the man to pick up the shot with shaky fingers and manage another downing of vodka.

But there was no such thing.

Roadhog’s fingers fluttered weakly, like he was sending off someone very dear to his heart in a final closing, one sad and powerless.

Emily leaned forward carefully, just enough so she could hear the repetitions of his strained breath, and it rang like subtle thunder rumbling away in the distance. Her fingers flicked upward, each one representing a number from one through ten in a sequential order, much like in the same manner the referee of a boxing match would count down a plausible knockout to announce the justified champion.

There it was. The tenth and final second.

“Aaaand I think we have our winner!”

Flurried messages of congratulations and the groans of those who receded to gambling losses filled the room, creating a much more animated atmosphere than what was present before, and Brigitte, caught up in the victory of her win let out a celebratory shout, punched the air with both fists.

Hana laughed, much too pleased with the accomplishment of her friend to notice the wholesome chaos ensuing, and it wasn’t until she was more than a few seconds in that she finally registered the lips on her own and the familiar warm hands pressed up to either cheek, capturing the flickering pink that usually exposed her emotional state.

Perhaps it was a good thing that her cyber tats were covered by Brigitte’s large hands, because Hana was sure her entire face was a scorching red. She wasn’t sure whether to reciprocate, enjoy, or maybe return the gesture with a mixture of both, but the moment was salvaged, and she wished to keep it sequestered in her heart and mind for as long as she lived.

A wave of doubt reared up against the lining of her stomach to warn her of the repercussions, that Brigitte was most likely very much drunk and the liquid courage had literally been injected into her veins considering how many shots her friend had taken, but Hana didn’t want to acknowledge what was.

She only desired that which might be.

And maybe, just maybe , Brigitte felt the same way about her.

Chapter Text

She had wandered home alone with the pink rainbow and flower-littered backpack slung over her shoulder, mind completely numb aside from the swirling thoughts of Angela. They flew about the inside of her skull like a frenzy of wild pigeons, scratching and clawing against a barred cage, but the horrendous aftershock of senselessness was unable to sedate her vivid memories.

There was no need to run anymore. The men that had been chasing her less than an hour ago had given up, and although her calves burned and something seared her heart, eliciting white-hot pain that somehow felt unbelievably more painful than the ache in her legs, at the remembrance of her friend’s agonized cry she felt no need to turn around. No need to follow after Angela despite the relative safety of their old situation.

Snow crunched beneath the torn soles of her sneakers, attempting to worm and writhe into the bottoms of her heels with every step. The walk back to the place she and Angela had called home seemed much longer than usual, and much quieter. When she arrived at the rundown, forgotten apartment the sun had already set and night was blanketing the city in a curtain of hazy, star-speckled navy, and a noticeable plummet in temperature seized Moira by her scrawny shoulders; she dismissed it all negligently.

She stopped by the back doorway, and with a strained groan shoved aside a couple of empty trash cans and black waste bags which had congregated in front to hide the entrance. The door, thanks to the combined effort of Angela and Moira a few years back, held together in a collection of splintered, rotten wood and patches of aluminum sheets, and it remained steady with the help of a singular printlock that latched onto the hook on the side of the doorframe. Powdered white carpeted every square inch of what had once been visible before the sheath of frost, and with red-tipped fingers Moira grabbed the printlock, smoothed away a thick layer of snowflakes, and rested her thumb on the pad until she heard a click.

The door gave way when she threw herself mildly at it, just enough so that the swollen wood could squeeze past the frame and welcome her onto the other side. An empty room lay before her, and for once it suddenly felt too large, too spacious, for just one person. Her mismatched eyes wavered over to a pair of shoes, these ones a gentle, sunshine yellow with a couple of gouged holes at the very top of each where the big toes would have been, proof that they were perhaps too small for their owner. They were not hers, and initially Moira would have assumed seeing them might cause her mind to wander in a more pleasant direction, but they did nothing to alleviate the feelings which surged within her chest like the rising tide that chased after a full moon. If she were to think more realistically, a distinctive trait of hers which she rarely abandoned, there was little evidence supporting the possibility that the shoes’ owner was coming back, considering what had ensued less than an hour prior.

Something clattered to the floor, and Moira did not need to look down to know it was the vial she had viciously been clutching within the crease of her palm the entire way home.

She did not want to pick it up. What was the use? It was empty.

Her weight smashed against the door behind her while a few stray snowflakes rode the gust of wind which swept under the crack partitioning the door and ground, and Moira was temporarily surrounded in a sporadic flurry very similar to the one raging inside her chest at that very moment.

She did not want to feel. She did not want to think. There were much better things she could be doing instead of wasting her time on petty tears and foolish memories.

But she could not help it.

Moira slid against the door, allowing a series of heaving sobs to demolish her into a cold, white-dusted, sniveling mess; the backpack slipped slowly from her shoulder until it too had retired to the floor, and there it laid useless and forgotten, just like the empty vial.  


 

There was something radiant about being able to travel everywhere without being noticed. To do so was her means of escape from the world she was bound to, a vanishing act which opened equivocal options for her to embrace with outstretched, eager arms which yearned for a true freedom she knew she would most likely never experience.

Because of this, her nearest solution, one so easily accessible that all she had to do was wave her hand and an extramundane shower of violet flecks would spawn and burst like miniature firecrackers to eddy around her body, was simply to turn invisible.

Sombra rounded the corner of the corridor, hands clasped together astutely behind her back as a couple of grunts waddled their way down the hall, throwing back and forth imprudent bavardage about something relating to Gabe. Normally she would have followed the ignorant pair for the entirety that her interest was piqued, digesting the amusing comments and backhanded remarks in hopes that she could reiterate them for her own enjoyment.

But now was not the time. Today she had somewhere to go, and people to see, those of whom were much more intriguing than whatever snide remarks were passed between the two men as they strode toward Sombra, completely oblivious to her presence less than five feet away and stealthily closing in like a cat cornering mice.

A cruel grin split her lips and she paused, lounging against the corridor’s wall to stick out a leg, and when the grunt nearest to her connected with her foot and fell sprawled against the floor she decided it was time to depart, seeing as how she could not succeed in holding back a concatenation of brash guffaws.

There were more easy targets for her to poke fun at on her way to her first destination, yes, but she convinced herself she had had her fill of amusement for the time being, and concluded that there would be more time perhaps another day for more hilarity.

And besides, she couldn’t remember when the last time was that she had visited her favorite redhead.

Sombra continued walking. The path’s lighting diminished into darker hues, embracing existing shades of gray and departing from the white, fluorescent sources which usually provided the corridors with such forceful visual clarity that it hurt to look up sometimes. It was only when her surroundings had finally withered into a muddled assemblage of monochromatic tones that she paused before the wide maw of black doors before her.

Sombra’s finger flicked back into existence as she touched the dual-memory security system beside the doors, and the bunker’s sleeping AI was wrenched back to life as it greeted her with the usual overly-enthusiastic welcome. “Hello, Sombra. Good morning -- have you come to see Dr. O’Deorain?”

A puckish raspberry escaped Sombra’s lips, and she briefly debated tossing at Athena some snarky, ironic remark, but at the very last second resolved against it because she wasn’t looking forward to hearing the AI’s attempt at a snicker. “Yeah, came to visit that poor lady you keep locked up inside everyday. You sure she isn’t turning into a vampire in there? Considering how she keeps herself quarantined, I’m sure that if she got put into sunlight she’d disintegrate in a matter of seconds.”

There was no response, and Sombra sighed, turning to the camera bulb that protruded right above the dual-memory system with an annoyed look. “You know I’m out here and I could just let myself in, but I know Athena’s already judging me right now for that lame joke I just made.”

When she thought the silence couldn’t possibly be any more suffocating and her hand almost submitted to the itch of flying up from her side to hack her way in, there was the roar of metal grating against metal followed by a faint hiss as the ebony gateway before her parted.

“Finalmente!” Sombra cried, scampering into the room on feet hounded by a fake lethargy she was hoping she could pull off to convey her tired state, fed up with waiting.

Moira’s lab could have been described as a labyrinth of sorts; high metal counters resting on lightweight aluminum stilts were strewn about in various parts of the sizable room, each table with a unique purpose and sporting related artifacts, whether for study or experimentation, which the scientist had procured over the years. Sombra had never been to another laboratory in her entire life, partially because she did not know any other individuals aside from Angela (who she had yet to still meet in person, and was rather observing from a distance but knew had one within the city’s medical building) who had one, nor possessed the desire to peer into another’s aside from Moira’s own. Still, this particular room would always continue to astound her; besides the experimentation area which Moira spent a majority of her time flitting around metal tables to observe things the naked eye could not see, there was a convenient miniature kitchen to the left where the coffee maker burbled perpetually, a small but suitable restroom, and lastly a lounge area, tucked away behind a jungle of cables which hung down from the ceiling.

And there, hunkered over the side of a counter and most likely studying something on the macroscopic spectrum, was Moira. All attention was compiled into the minute task she was performing, and mechanical gauntlets donned her hands to provide her with extra flexibility and precision incapable by mere human fingers. A glowing pool of yellow waited patiently before the doctor as she hovered over it obsessively, and the metal digits of the gauntlet extended ever so slightly above the dish containing the liquid which Sombra looked eerily familiar to the fluid injected into Ana’s sniper bullets. With the most delicate movement Moira dipped the extractor belonging to the left gauntlet over the liquid and removed something Sombra could not quite see, right before plunging it into another dish, this one filled with a clear, gelatinous solution.

“What brings you here?” Moira asked, voice faint yet filled with the assertive quality she always owned, one that Sombra could not master no matter how hard she tried to hide her jokester persona. “I can’t recall the last time you visited me.”

Sombra scoffed, carefully pushing away a few things on the opposite counter which weren’t in use at the moment so that she could prop herself up. Her legs swung beneath her, and she kicked them to and fro while she tried formulating another of her signature malapert remarks. “And I can’t remember the last time you left this dungeon of yours.”

Touché .”

There remained nothing between them aside from the gentle clicking of Moira’s mechanical gloves as they fidgeted, twisting, elongating, and shrinking into delegated utensils that served the purpose of studying the extremely small thing (if Sombra was to guess, she assumed it to be a nanite) within the dish it had been recently placed in.

Pienso necesito hablar con ella -- ella no va a hablar conmigo primero. Debería saber esto por ahora. “So!” Sombra’s violet eyes followed the intricate movements of Moira’s hands as she guided the metal fingers floating over the dish, and she thought it almost looked like a futuristic version of a witch or alchemist performing the steps of some bygone ritual. “What’re you up to? I thought I’d come see how you’re doing, since -- you know -- you don’t seem to be getting out a lot.”

“It's what happens when you seclude yourself and devote your entire life to science,” was Moira’s emotionless reply, and Sombra’s features contorted as she made a face at the brash comment. Usually she was the one, who, in the right kind of circumstances, would toss back a response at another as adeptly as she flicked her wrist and dissolved into oblivion. “I’ve been spending more time perfecting my NNv strain...There is no time to lose.”

Huh, interesting. I think there’s something here. “...You mean you’ve gotta hurry since Angela and Ana’s daughter are on the case, ¿sí?” The grin creeping upon her lips was impossible to quell, and if it were not that Moira was still focusing on her work on the table, Sombra would have forced back the surge of satisfaction she felt upon striking a nerve in someone else.  

And then, a few seconds later, the reaction she was waiting for; the clawed digits of the gauntlet curled into something cruel and menacing as Moira pulled back the instrument, leaving behind the nucleus of her attention. “Angela’s attempts to fight the virus will not prevail.”

“But she didn’t die like she should have, y’know,” a lilt in the hacker’s voice caused Moira to visibly prickle, and suddenly sharp heterochromatic eyes abraded their way past Sombra’s cheeky smirk and bombastic attitude, prying with invisible, icy claws that desired to tear her soul apart.

The temperature in the room dropped. “You don’t think I know that?”

Haha! I knew that would work! Sombra, feeling slightly intimidated by the daggers Moira was glaring her way, slid off of the counter top and shrugged, making sure to space herself a safe distance away. “Hey, I’m just saying you could probably do your job a little bit better...But it’s not your fault. That doctor has a few tricks up her sleeve -- typical street creeper.”

“Really?” Moira had removed the mechanical gauntlets and now crossed her arms over the lab coat spanning across her chest, the one precariously hiding a black, collared dress shirt and a tie the color of ripe, summer-infused boysenberries. “And what might those be?”

The data processing behind Sombra’s eyelids raced at a speed ten times faster than lightning, and the procedure left a very narrow selection of possible responses from which she could choose from to bend into plausible conversation routes. She ultimately decided to go with one which she believed had the least repercussions, something more open-ended. “Es sencillo. She’s made adjustments to the biology of her own being. I’m pretty sure that’s why she wasn’t affected by your virus as much as we all hoped.”

The woman across from her looked unamused, and instead of delivering Sombra with an appropriately-timed response to follow up on the details the hacker was willing to share, she sauntered over to a thick, bubbling serum that Sombra sworn could have been the liquid embodiment of evil. There, she procured a few drops of the viscous substance with a new extractor. “You’re telling me information I already know,” Moira claimed sure-footedly, her back turned towards Sombra. “If there is nothing important you have to tell me, I suggest that you make better use of your time elsewhere. I have much to continue working on.”

…Fine, I’ll go with a different approach. It’ll probably be a hit or miss, but I guess there’s only one way to find out. “Do you think they can do it?”

The extractor filled with the vile, swirling liquid was mid expulsion mode as Moira, having returned to the dish she had been working on earlier, positioned the tool over what the hacker believed was the single nanomachine from before.

Perfect. She had recaptured her attention.

“Do you think who can do what ? Be more specific. You know how much I loathe indecisiveness.”

“Do you think Angela and Fareeha can solve this case? Can rescue the city from us?

Moira’s chuckle sent shivers zipping down Sombra’s cybernetic spine in a parade of uncomfortable, needled shocks, like the unanimous sting of a million little bees that ignited the skin on her back with acute yet momentary pain. “Angela is naive. She doesn’t understand the importance of putting herself and her priorities first, and so she’s always falling prey to her weaknesses. It will inevitably lead her own self to destruction, and I believe that this attempt at her idea of a “national rescue” is incredibly foolish.” And then, more softly in a string of words which seemed to be announced just loudly enough for only Moira to hear, “She has no idea who she’s dealing with.”

Sombra did not quite understand why she was getting so riled up in a way she could not describe. It was as if Moira’s words had set fire to something -- a curiosity, agitation, anger, whatever it was -- that brushed up against the inner walls of her stomach, unsettling her just enough that she found herself inquiring about a person she cared for next to nothing about. “You really hate Angela, don’t you?”

“...”

Silence spoke louder than words at that exact moment, and even though Sombra was dying to utter yet another crude remark about how Moira didn’t care about anyone or anything other than her work, she held her tongue, albeit objectionably.

A soft clanking echoed through the lab as Moira rested the extractor on the cold metal of the counter, signaling the surrender of one desire to another. “I don’t hate Angela. I never did. I just hated that she was never like me, when even though she was absolutely enthralled by science and the mysteries behind it she always seemed to put something petty and insignificant first.”

“...You’re different people. You couldn’t have expected her to have the same wants and needs as you did -- do you know how ludicrous that sounds?”

Pale, white-knuckled hands gripped the edges of the counter, strangling the metal top with an indescribable urge to keep the feelings she had repressed for years deep within, away from the surface, and Moira breathed out between clenched teeth. “But you don’t understand! Her potential . I’ve never met another mind so provocative, so fresh in the way that there were billions of world and society changing ideas always actively bursting forth it, like an endless fountain...She is my equal. I just wish she would have realized that.”

Sombra frowned. The circumstance involving Fareeha and Angela had unearthed more about a few individuals she worked with than she could ever have imagined. There were some things she was able to discover by using her honed hacking skills, a talent not many beings had on the scale of being able to intervene with various systems on exigent levels, especially with as much aptitude as Sombra could. She was a unique combination of years of practiced experience and body modifications, those which allowed her to immerse her nigh her entire conscious into the digital cyberspace of practically anything.

But this -- this kind of information wasn’t something you’d typically find on file. It was the kind of secret one earned, or fought, to discover. Right now, she was lucky enough to find herself on the former half of the possible outcome options.

Sombra fiddled with the darkened chopsticks resting on top of a discarded ramen cup that couldn’t have been sitting on the counter for more than a few days. “She realizes that now, amiga. If she didn’t consider herself your equal, or at least somewhat capable of stopping you, she wouldn’t be helping Ana’s daughter out.”

Moira’s eyes had fallen, scrunched into tightly-shut slits that desired no visual stimulant from the world at the current moment. “Perhaps you are right.” The background noise of a generator humming in the corner of the room mingled with the gurgling of the coffee maker, and though the noises easily penetrated the air with their animated behaviors, neither woman in the room acknowledged their existence. “But now it is too late.”

There was the desire to open her mouth, to say something that strayed from the usual flippant dialogue she loved to provoke, but fear held her back, and instead Sombra watched as Moira straightened herself up, raised a hand with etched, lilac pathways over the top of pallid skin, and slipped on her tool gauntlet once again. It was apparent Moira felt the need to discuss no more, and thus was satisfied with authorizing herself, despite the curious presence of Sombra, to return and immerse herself within the work that was her life.

Angela needed to be stopped, and someone had to do it. There was no one she could count on to trust, not even those who thrust every ounce of belief they carried on her to fulfill the duties which she was presented. She wasn’t working for anyone, despite what they all said. She was doing this for herself. There was no other reason why she did things, unless she got something precious out as a personal reward for her toil.

Angela needed to see the truth, whether it be ages too late or not.

Moira would make sure it happened one way or another.

“Now if you please,” Waving taloned fingers Sombra’s way she sent off her regards, as did she the poorly-hidden message that she had more important things to do than waste her time chatting when she could be evolving her exquisite plan of destruction. “I must be returning back to my work.”


 

Out of all the memories stored in her eidetic mind, there were a few special to her, each perfectly preserved, which flawlessly detailed every single ongoing second during the installments of her various modifications. Just like how some individuals craved cyber tattoos and relished in the glowing flamboyance they provided, she revered the augmentations which crawled up and down her warm, mocha-colored skin. To Sombra, they were a form of self-expression, as well as an attempt to reach beyond the physical boundaries assigned to the unlucky population cursed with mortality. If there was any way to submerge herself into a more ethereal dimension, one where she could control whatever occurred on her own whim, she would be content.

Ever since she was young she hated the fact she could not control a single thing in life aside from herself; it was sickening. Being tossed around from one orphanage to another like a tin can in a casual street game roused by children had galvanized her into action. The more she thought about the dilemma, the more she craved a release she knew she would not receive in an un-augmented body, and when Sombra had finally weaved her way into a group of street creepers who took an instant liking to the saucy girl, they made her one of their own.

After that, everything else just sort of...fell into place.

She liked what she did now. Or at least that was what she told herself.

She wasn’t quite sure, to be honest.

And this was exactly why she had scrambled away in unseen hast, passing an assembly of grunts, an eternally-irritable Gabe grumbling to himself about something the boss had disclosed, and a troop of hired black squad members sauntering down the flickering hallways. None had noticed her, and a subtle thrill of avidity coursed through her veins as she teased the digipad plastered onto the wall of the tunnel exit, discreetly easing herself at last into freedom.   

A moist wind kissed her cheeks in welcome, as if it had known she would arrive and was eager to reconnect with the woman who always felt so at ease among the ghostly embrace of its welcoming arms. Sombra looked up at the sky and it glared back at her, an angry cluster of non-discernible grey and dirty white puffs, like the rotten smokestacks from the raging chimneys of a sweatshop. It was as if the sky had taken a peek into her soul, and reconfigured the emotions into a perceivable masterpiece, one complete with swirling, melancholic clouds amidst an array of harsh skyscrapers that perturbed the heavens.

Sombra shivered, pulling her hood closer around her neck to stave away the chilled wind which wanted to play. A blistered creation of frozen breath condensed before her eyes, and she disregarded the frigid temperature. Under the thick leather hood of her worn jacket she opted instead for running her numb fingers through a freshly-dyed mohawk (she had traded the raging magenta for a modest dark brown a couple of nights ago for the Lindholm s oirée ), and watched as the tattoos trailing down her fingers flashed an ostentatious neon green.

The city streets, as always, were congested with the roiling sea of both omnics and humans. It was during the times when the two groups were minding their own business that they were somehow able to comply with each other in a peaceful coexistence, but at frequent intervals initiated by an accidental shoulder bump or mistaken glance, the execrating fires of detestation were ignited. These, Sombra thought to herself as she watched a group of street creepers forcibly shove an omnic against the wall of an alleyway, were the times when she detested her association with current society.

Why am I even doing this? The notion flew into her mind like a bird through an open window, and just as quickly as it had arrived, it disappeared. It was if her mission were attempting to stir her from the traitorous thoughts which were plaguing her mind more often than not, and the reason she had already identified but wished to condemn.

A tingling sensation pulsed against her wrist and she lifted her arm to find a message on her tag.

Here by the old hotel. South Windstrom 77.

There was no mention of South Windstrom 77 before Sombra slipped out of the bunker on spectered feet. Even so it was no real problem, just a father walk than she had originally anticipated. If she could recall correctly an ancient AI hotel sat lonesome and unperturbed at the street corner her friend had mentioned, and in retrospect provided a safe haven for anyone who desired solitude, somewhere recollective of things of the past.

The edges of Sombra’s lips pulled upwards, curling into the model depiction of a delighted smile. Of course this would be the perfect place.

Once over-populated streets faded into less frequently roamed paths as she continued downtown in the direction the message had prompted her to go, and the hand squeezing her heart each time she witnessed the horrific actions of injustice everywhere she looked had finally loosened its violent grip. By the time she reached South Windstrom 77 and the respective hotel that sat at the corner, a strange mixture of security and isolation rippled through her, only to be soothed by the visual balm of the old woman sitting on the hotel’s front door steps.

“Hello.” The voice was warm, and alerted Sombra of the cozy feeling that began seeping into her heart in the most pleasant way, like a ray of sunshine peeking in through slitted blinds.

“Hola.”

Ana stood up, dusting the back of her black cloak, and the frigid teal of its underside flared at Sombra for a moment. “Care to step inside for some tea? It’s a bit chilly out here.”The old woman laughed softly, pulling her hijab closer to her chin and half-hiding the generous smile shared with the woman across from her.  

The wind, also enticed by the invitation, threw itself against Sombra’s back to rustle her jacket, and she pulled it closer and nodded as the cold razed her bones in an algid assault. A cup of tea sounded nice right about now, especially if that meant they would be able to talk inside. “Si, me gustaria eso mucho. Gracias.”

Sombra followed the older woman up the stairs, taking precaution not to slip on the slightly damp cement. The door before them was an extravagantly carved masterpiece, although riddled with scratches and chipped away in some areas; despite the elegant but weathered appearance, Sombra was eager to explore the inside of the building.

Ana pried the door open to reveal a checkered lobby glazed with deep brown and cream tiles, those which matched effortlessly with the mahogany desk that sat in the exact center of the foyer, and nestled in the midst of the check-in a rather robust yet gentle-looking omnic stood.

The creature raised a thick, four-fingered hand, and wide eyes twinkled as they creased together for a moment as the omnic smiled, delivering a wave to Ana and Sombra as they retreated from the harrowing weather. “You’re back! Welcome.” The voice was clearly feminine, one with an accent Sombra couldn’t quite identify off the top of her mind without scouring through audio file samples within her database for a plausible match. Instead, she settled for goggling the creature in a subtle manner as best as she could, and realized that the omnic appeared to be something of a re-configured war machine, particularly of the model OR15.

How interesting. Whoever had made it had done an astounding job; the amount of new additions as a surplus to the older parts remaining was something staggering, but chiefly well carried out.

The omnic blinked a couple of times as Ana and Sombra neared the desk, curious as to whom exactly the new stranger would be, and thus she voiced her interest, causing the two women's footsteps to pioneer a resounding echo around the empty lobby. “Is this a guest of yours, Ms. Amari?” Her large, horned head quirked to the side, and Sombra imagined the action to be very much like that of a dog attempting to listen to someone speaking to it. It was...cute.

Ana simply smiled like she always did, but felt within her chest a twinge of delight at the mention of a guest. It had been far too long that she had enjoyed tea with no one other than her lonesome self. “Yes, Orisa; she is my guest.” The omnic, upon hearing this, turned their head again in Sombra’s direction as if subtly hinting for the new individual to present a greeting which hadn't been initiated yet. “Sombra, introduce yourself please before we head upstairs.”

The Hispanic woman had trouble biting back the sly retort of “Yes, mom”, but there was a part of her invested in the trust that Ana showed by bringing only Sombra here. It was a smart decision; the hacker, over the past minute, had simultaneously performed an info scan of the inner foyer and compared the interior and omnic attendant with past files...Surprisingly there was a peculiar time gap and lack of existing models for this altered version of an OR15.

In short, here there was no distinct cyber connection to the outside world.

This AI hotel, the gothic stone building sitting on a forsaken street corner of the outer edge of town, was predominantly offline, as well as for the omnic who ran it. But how was it possible that there existed such a place lurking right beneath their noses? For all the nights she had spent dabbling in mischief, running amok parallel to the shadows that grazed graffitied walls and flashing ads which demanded attention from any and all passersby, she was now somewhat reluctant to say that perhaps she didn’t exactly know the city like the back of her hand like she assumed she did before.

Ana was full of surprises, and she never ceased to nonplus Sombra with a new, and more often than not -- rebellious -- idea, though the characteristic itself was something undeniably gripping, as tantalizing as a homey street taco shop opening in the city (Sombra always loved those). Overall, this spontaneous rendezvous was a genius choice for anyone who was attempting to lie low, and this was exactly what Ana Amari was trying to do.

“Sombra, at your service.” The hacker ended her introduction with a quirky little flourish for added flair, watching as the omnic cantered in place delightedly for but a moment, and immediately Sombra’s smile grew wider. Where did you come from, amiga?

The sockets housing Orisa’s kind golden eyes receded into darkness as she again blinked, something that Sombra was noticing she did often; it gave the creature a more lively feel, an organic dimension most omnics did not possess, since the addition of optical actions was a feature reserved for only those omnics whom were specially crafted. “Nice to meet you, Sombra! I do not get many visitors here, sadly. It is always nice to have extra company. You should stay for a while.”

Ana chuckled and grabbed a hold of Sombra’s shoulder as the younger woman noticed herself drawing closer and closer to Orisa out of pure curiosity (and maybe something a little more self-driving); a blackmarket bot, one specifically with no connection to the digital spider web holding society together, could be useful for a variety of things. “Orisa, I know you mean well. Unfortunately today she will be staying for a short while to chat with me about personal matters, but perhaps she may visit again, if need be.”

Orisa remained paralyzed for a brief second, as if the circuitry within her mind was plugging away all the information dispensed and concealed within Ana’s words, and after the moment was over she gave a curt nod. “Understood. Please let me know if I can be of assistance in any way.”

“Absolutely.”

Sombra allowed herself to be dragged along the side of the check-in desk and further down the hall where white and black geometric shapes littered the floor and accentuated the deep frenzy circulating within her veins. The two of them headed up a set of beautiful wooden stairs; Sombra figured they had to be at least three hundred years old, or at least recreated in an absolutely immaculate state akin to that of the height of this particular fashion so many years ago.

They reached the second floor where rich cherry doors lined the halls across from each other at exact intervals, and right when Sombra desired to admire the carefully carved fleur-de-li grafted into one of them, Ana opened the door suddenly and hustled the hacker through, shutting it quickly behind.

Sombra was about to complain about her inability to view the hotel artifacts with a more relaxed nature, but when Ana had moved away to the small stove in a distant corner of the room her vision was interrupted by the breathtaking quarters which lay before her.

Taut against the wall at the center of the room rested a large king-size bed with towering bed posts that supported a velvet threshold, its curtains tied back against the wooden poles in a way that boasted of ancient upper class. Sheets swabbed in an earthy, warm brown draped themselves over the edge of the mattress while a large dresser adorned with a tortoiseshell lamp cast a glowing, welcoming hue. Along the floor maroon carpet stretched languidly, yellow ochre tassels rounding the edges with enthusiastic energy. To Sombra’s left Ana busied herself in what was a small, more modern kitchen complete with an electric stove where a silver kettle gently whistled. And finally, across from the main entryway which Sombra was itching to study more intimately just a minute before, lay the clear glass doors of a balcony that beckoned her out into the gloom, though she had to refuse the silent offer at such a time as this.

There were more pressing matters at hand, such as the necessity of a warm, liquid sustenance to be cradled by her insides and subsequently hush the irascible grumbling resounding inside her stomach.

Ana must have had sharp ears, because no sooner had Sombra placed a hand over her abdomen in a futile attempt to silence the roars she had been absolutely positive only she could hear, Ana called her over to the small wooden table sanctioned within the kitchenette. The kettle within her hands bowed before Sombra as Ana filled an empty china cup with steaming water, and placing before the younger woman a variety of loose teas and the husk of an infuser she hummed a soft melody, one which Sombra could not identify but felt was somehow welcomingly  out of place within their current predicament.

“Thank you,” Sombra sifted through the tiny mountains of leaves which had been placed before her, settling for the ones she thought smelled like chamomile (it had been ages since she had sat down to a cup of warm tea, even though she had begged Araña to come with her to almost every single cafe that lined the city streets. She had been turned down more times than she had hoped, much to her demise.).

Should she mangle this tranquil moment for the trade-off of a more serious matter? Sombra asked herself as she filled the infuser with chamomile leaves, making sure to add just enough for blatant yet not overpowering flavor, before dropping it into the hot water within her cup. She had never been one for seriousness, and still there was a shard of her which implored for some sort of explanation, for more information than she had been previously granted due to the omniscient eyes and ears hovering like duplicitous ghosts around their Talon bunker. Their original hideaway had been forgotten for now, due to the fact that Sombra and the others had a duty to follow Fareeha and her friends as she roamed throughout the city in search of any means to combat the NNv.

Yet here Sombra was, a cup of piping hot tea nestled on the extravagant, lace doily before her, inviting the hacker for once to set aside her apprehensions and enjoy the opportunity for ease which had presented itself, no matter how short-lived it may be.

Thinking for no longer than the span of a heartbeat she took a quick sip, relishing the warmth that spread across her tongue like a benign wildfire, and when her cup had been set down with a small clatter against the china plate, she spoke of the first thing that came to mind. “Who made her?”

There was no “Excuse me?” or other spoken affirmation of uncertainty, but rather being on the same wavelength, Ana pulled out the wooden chair opposite Sombra and took a seat of her own, placing down a bear-shaped container of honey and a plate of cookies. She knew whom Sombra was referring to. “Efi Oladele. Many, many years ago, when you were still just a child or perhaps still among the clouds waiting for your turn to join us here on Earth...She was an inventor, someone with a brilliant mind who desired to create a being who would benefit this world for good. Orisa was the first and only being whom Oladele was able to bring to life before the rise of the omnics, when people began to loathe and fear them due to their increase in number. Of course this was also before the omnic crisis which took place a few years back; that, I am sure, is still fresh in your memory.”

Sombra nodded, eyes glazed over as she gazed into the honeyed tones of the liquid that filled her china cup. Of course she remembered. It was something she didn’t quite like to think about; it had been a time where she again, like so many years before, had felt as if she had no control over anything, and it scared her. “I do remember, yes.” Her stare wandered over to the plate of cookies Ana had set down on the table earlier, and she plucked a shortbread from the stack to break off a wedge between her teeth. It was subtly sweet and carried with it a buttery, dry crunch; in short, it was a nice complement to the smooth, hot tea. “You never fail to surprise me. You know that, Abuelita?”

Ana’s wrinkled visage creased, the crows feet at the corner of her good eye etching across her temple to withdraw behind the curve of her hijab as she smiled again, and Sombra’s heart lifted just enough for her to feebly grin back. “What can I say? I have a few tricks up my sleeve. You never know when you need one.”

A throaty laugh perturbed Sombra’s throat as she shook her head, watching Ana take a bite out of the thumbprint strawberry cookie pressed between her fingers. It was cordial, vibrant, filling, and woefully cut shorter than she would have liked, and although the tea was delicious and the desserts absolutely scrumptious, there was only one more question she wanted to ask. “What are we going to do now, Abuelita?” It was a statement robbed of hope, something which caused her physical pain, an aching gripe which had tugged at her chest for the past couple of days.

Sombra truthfully did not know what she was doing more than half of the time any more. If she was being completely honest with herself, here she was again, spiraling out of control of her own life, just like she had before a number of times that forever haunted her memory and sometimes prodded her to waking up at night, drenched in a heavy layer of cold sweat.

Ana sighed. There was much to tell. And here, in the hidden sanctuary of this building, she had a chance at answering all that she possibly could for Sombra’s sake. She had been the one who dragged her into this mess, after all. “Fareeha received the message, I assume?”

“S í . I followed them into The Layers the day after. They decided to find individuals who would be able to lead them to Talon, and so far they’ve succeeded in securing the appropriate companions to do so.” Sombra hesitated for but a second, yet it was long enough for Ana’s breath to catch within her throat. “They will be one step closer to finding us very soon. Are you...Are you ready for that?”

Ana shrugged and focused on clouded bottom of her own cup in an effort to hide her uncertainty. “I...To be honest, I don’t think I will ever be ready. I’ve done to her what no mother ever has, and although I will continue to support and look after her, I only feel it is appropriate for myself to do so from afar. If I were to return into her life I am sure it would ruin a number of things.”

A warm hand reached out across the table to place itself on top of Ana’s own, and the older woman’s single, functioning eye caught sight of Sombra’s vibrant purple irises, bleeding out comfort she would not receive elsewhere. “Abuelita. You are protecting her. If it weren’t for you, your daughter would most likely be dead by now; you do understand how she is rising in terms of a threat to the organization, don’t you? You need to be there for her in any way that you can.” The fingers wrapped around Ana’s own, something she hadn't felt in so long although remembered the precious sensation of for all eternity, slipped, and in their place an invisible imprint remained. “I’ve never had anyone looking out for me, ever. It was always me struggling to find a home, a meal, someone who’d find even just the slightest interest in me so that I wouldn’t have to spend a night alone. But you -- tu eres mi familia . You’ve shown me kindness when others haven’t, and you genuinely care about me. You genuinely care about your daughter . And because of that, I want to help you however I can.”

A stinging sensation, hot, prickled, and anxious, clawed at the crease of Ana’s eye, and she quickly pressed the side of her finger to the wetness which clung to her lashes. “They will not allow us to come back. If we’re found they will get rid of us.”

“I know,” Sombra’s voice cracked, whether it be because of fear or sadness she could not decide. “But these are people I am starting to believe are worth dying for.” Aye chica, ¿realmente acabo de decir eso? her mind shot back, and then again, like rapid-fire opinions which continually rivaled one another, she remembered Hana and how happy the small street creeper had looked when Brigitte had won the drinking competition at The Siberian Bear less than a day before, and the adorable grin plastered on her face for the remainder of the evening after she had been kissed.

Sombra wasn’t sure if she’d ever have that. But if Hana could, she’d do all within her power to make sure the younger girl was presented with the opportunity to live the life she wanted with someone she loved. Sombra had spent too many years doing everything for herself; and before it had been what she wanted, the overpowering urge to control people and things on her whim. And now she was starting to realize that despite her stellar modifications and heightened ability to manipulate anything with inner circuitry, people she (now realized) cared about was the only thing she did not want to orchestrate. She would assist, yes, but she would not exploit.

Exploiting was what Talon was doing -- had been doing -- for more years than she could remember. She understood that then, just as she did now, but today there was something she felt an urge to protect, and it was the happiness of those she cared for.

And she would not let Talon take that away.

“We need to help them when they come.”

It was the only practical solution; without the aid of Ana and herself, Fareeha and the others didn't stand much of a chance of finding what they needed and leaving unscathed. Moira was relentless in her compulsive hunger to destroy the city and all who lived within it, Gabe was a questionable invert who took orders from an unquestionable individual, and Araña, Sombra felt, was one who had no choice but to do what she was ordered. The hacker knew the unspoken truth about her friend, although whenever she tried to bring it up Widow threatened to censor her with a swift karate chop to the neck. Of course the hacker didn’t want that, and despite her heart aching with each perfect chance that slipped by like untouchable rain on the opposite side of a window pane, she let the opportunities pass without utilizing something she realized was not her business to force on someone else.

Perhaps Araña would always remain bound, constricted, in the manner that she retained no definite control over things that were to come, since her past had been wiped clean and she had been branded by the mental sanitation which Talon performed upon a select few of its individuals.

With the scraping realization of her own abrupt independence scuffling against the inside of her skill, Sombra’s decision had been made.

She did not want to be controlled anymore. Maybe Ana was being a bad influence on her, but then again Sombra had always deemed an insurgent streak to be more exciting, and definitely worth employing to butt heads with those in charge.

“I’m with you, Abuelita. We will do this together.”

Sombra never had a mother. For as long as she could remember the figment of the maternal parent was a blurry face, one that changed every few months, as she scrambled in and out of poor houses and orphanages that did not suit her liking. More recently, she recognized, the empty position which no one previously held title now pertained to the woman before her, the elderly individual whom always turned to her with a sun-kissed smile upon her face and the honeyed glow of a single amber eye that twinkled like the far off halation of a star burning in the night sky.

She would not let Ana do this alone.

“...Thank you.”


 

A foggy sky had succumbed into something more dreary, less friendly, and significantly more wet than it had been a couple of hours before when Sombra had trekked her way from the secret bunker to the hotel on South Windstrom 77. The heavens wept in a natural manifestation of inevitable events, those of which for once Sombra seized some control over, and although her conscious interrupted each footstep she plodded into a murky puddle with the foreboding of a suicide mission, there was an overpowering song in her heart which swept away a majority of the unease.

Widowmaker, for once, had accepted her invitation to enjoy a casual meal during the coincidental spare time they fervently clung to, and Sombra peppered ideas to herself here and there as she muttered over and over again in hushed tones, pushing her way through the masses on the streets.

Araña might still be mad, but she can’t be that mad, right? If she was, she wouldn’t have decided to meet with me.

Having dinner together, just the two of us -- does that seem too romantic? Not that I mind.

Maybe she’s finally done with her little tantrum...I wouldn’t blame her if she wasn’t, Fareeha could have broken her nose. It’s kinda my fault that happened.

A tightly bound assortment of crimson flowers, roses, to be exact, were sheltered against her chest as it drummed with excitement, and hurrying along the slippery road she did her best to avoid smothering them.

Today was unique; so many encounters, and noticeably polar responses from the individuals she had went out of her way to connect with. There was a time, a time long before the previous weeks, which had been accompanied by bouts of frustration stemming from the rebuffed advances she had put both subliminal and apprehending efforts into. Back then she admitted there would be nothing between herself and Widowmaker aside from meaningless, one-sided flirtation.

Today she held prominent within her soul the acknowledgement that time was narrowing on her occasions to present to her friend her feelings, bare and true, in a way desiring nothing more than a meaningful companionship on a level deeper than just mere friendship. Thus, she did not want to pass this dinner up, and away she hustled through the pelting rain and barking street vendors, wandering her way through clouds of expelled steam through grilled vents that threatened to toss her bouquet to the dirited floor.

She clutched the flowers closer.

Bright letters which blossomed a halo of red and purple reflected a mosaic of glimmering stains against the wet pavement, and Sombra looked up from her fixated gaze on the ground below her, lifting the hood of her cloak enough to allow herself to read the name of the neon sign blinking away in the darkness. Rain droplets leapt into the edges of her vision as they tumbled off of her cloak’s cavernous overhang, and through a fog-smeared window she caught sight of her dear friend, intense golden eyes turned downward as she studied either her nails or the menu, and a waitress walked by to ask something but was lethargically waved away with a slender, pale hand.

Widow had opted for utilizing the adapter which warped her skin tone into something more human, although it was not a completely rare sight witnessing someone with a complexion other than a tone of peach, tan, or deep brown nowadays. What Sombra had imagined were once luxurious locks, in a past life probably smooth, flawless, ebony hair, was the sniper’s usual ponytail of bundled cables, jet black and intimidating, yet in a way which both frightened and intrigued the former individual. The particular hairstyle had always made her friend seem taller, and although Sombra would never admit it out loud, she was familiar with the interest she displayed for woman of notable height, especially the very distant woman she had the pleasure of working with.

Instead of standing aloof outside of the restaurant in the pouring rain to admire her longtime crush, she inhaled deeply, cold air scathing the inside of her throat as it barreled its way down into her lungs, smoothed her hair back as she ran a hand under the hood of her cloak, and made her way toward the restaurant door.

Despite the fact daylight had long ago waned into the inky confines of evening, the aroma of ground coffee beans assaulted her nose in a strangely pleasant way as the door slid aside and allowed her to enter. She glanced toward her left, where she had spied Widowmaker sitting alone in a booth, and watched as her friend lifted up her arm to flick piercing eyes at the tag on her wrist.

Sombra was late, yes, but sided with believing it was more of a fashionable means of entry when meeting up with another. Her feet did not move, but rather she remained fixated, dripping onto the carpet, both hands violently seizing the bundle of flowers underneath her Los Muertos cloak. Another deep breath, this one rejuvenating and carrying with it the scent of spiced beverages and hearty soups, filled her with enough courage to push aside her hood and let it fall against her back, and she placed a foot forward, then another, and noticed herself in what felt like slow motion approach the woman sitting alone at the booth against a dreary window.

“Hola, señorita .”

Her tanned arm protruded from the depths of her rain-splattered garment, and her heart beat wildly against her ribcage in an attempt to break free, possibly to present itself as another gift in companion to the roses which she held out to Araña. A grin, playful and just a slight bit nervous, eased its way onto her face as Widowmaker looked up.

“Is this seat taken?”

 

Chapter Text

Multiple wavering individuals, teetering around on unbalanced soles as they stumbled down the steps of The Siberian Bear, sought help from sturdier, more trustworthy friends. 

Hana would have claimed, if anyone asked her to recount her nearly repugnant, erratic adventure the evening she and her friends had taken a detour into Zarya’s infamous Level 4 pub, that she had single-handedly carried Brigitte Lindholm down the dark, slippery streets. It was, of course, not entirely far from the truth, but in reality as soon as Brigitte had claimed victory of the drinking game, she precariously slipped into a deeper state of discombobulation, and when Fareeha and Angela had returned from their own challenge within the basement of said bar, Fareeha hoisted her auburn-haired partner over her shoulder, and barked an order to an extremely drowsy Roadhog. Everyone except the detective had assumed the ginormous man had been down for the count, but they all watched in amazement as he hoisted up Junkrat (who had been semi-crawling along the floor from the pain in his loins) like a mother would a crying baby, and then pave a route for Fareeha and the others through the drunken stupor of the crowd. 

Lena had chosen to remain behind a while longer and spend some time with her endeared bartender friend, but Fareeha could have sworn she could still hear the chipper girl’s hearty cackling, along with the warbling, slurred bar chanties of those who had stayed behind. It...It’s all still so fresh in my mind , she figured, brows furrowed in deep thought as she took a moment to readjust Brigitte’s arm over her, and her ears picked up her partner mumbling something about donuts before being followed with sleepy laughter.

“Are we almost there?” The words had been on Fareeha’s tongue as well, but it was Angela who beat her to voicing the thought aloud. Amidst the gentle blaring of flickering lights Angela had attained a sort of ethereal feel, Fareeha mused, and the latter was much too fascinated to silently chide herself as she normally did, instead opting to admire the realm of stray gold that drifted about the doctor’s head like a forgotten halo. 

I don’t know if I would have been able to win that fight if it wasn’t for her. She...She knew exactly how to encourage me, how to give me strength in a time where I felt I had none. 

Roadhog grunted something in response to Angela’s question, gesturing with a meaty hand in the direction of a street upcoming to their right while Junkrat moaned pitifully over his back, legs twisted together in a contortion of pain. Angela smiled and returned Roadhog’s indecipherable reply with a polite “I see, thank you,” ( Does she really understand? Fareeha wondered), and the fraction of a smile she was able to catch between the frequent flopping of Brigitte’s arm and Hana’s attention-nabbing comments was enough to ignite a fuzzy warmth in Fareeha’s stomach. 

She is much more than a doctor. 

In tandem with the bestial grumble from Roadhog and his exhausted gesticulation to a street not far off, within the next few minutes the six individuals arrived before a very skeptical, very rundown shack; a conglomeration of singed together metal sheets, holed wooden planks, patchy stucco, and a decorative sign of yellow and orange swatches, painted by whom Fareeha assumed was Junkrat, reading “ Junkertown 2 ”. 

Angela stood there for a moment, as did the rest, simply staring at the sign everyone could see was due for a paint job. “What happened to the first Junkertown ?” she asked as Roadhog fumbled with a small ring of keys that had been attached to his belt, and Junkrat wheezed again in agony before looking down at Angela from his lofty position over Roadhog’s back. 

“Oh, she --” A wince and strained, unique cursing as he squeezed his legs together once again, “ sweet mother of sulfur and brimstone -- she’s, uh, she fell prey to our rival’s hands, I’ll say…? Not that we owned ‘er in the first place anyways. The original Junkertown was ne’er really run by me n’ Roadie. We wanted to run ‘er though, and because we couldn’t and our boss always had a stick up ‘er arse about it we decided to make our own Junkertown, this one new and improved! Junkertown 2! ” The jangling of keys stopped and Roadhog gave a gentle shove of the front door to open it, and wild, somehow overly excited hands than what seemed possible from Junkrat at the moment stretched forward in a display of presentation to the now open entryway. “Ta-daaaaa! Feel free ‘ta make yourselves at home!”

The light switch was flipped and bulbs crackled to life. Their glow stifled the sputtering complaints, evidence of their strenuous effort to remain on. Junkrat, now cantering across the floor backwards as to remain with his front to the four girls trundling behind him and Roadhog, performed a pirouette oozing with theatrical flair. Ever since the first mention of this “blackmarket weapon shop”, Fareeha had been entirely convinced that as soon as she’d enter the place she’d come face to face with rows of artillery lining the walls -- heck, maybe even some explosive if they were lucky. These could have also been hunches based on overexaggerated speculation, birthed after her little fight with Junkrat.

But that was the optimistic side of herself, one which near never emerged due to her more realistic outlook on life and which claimed a majority of her thinking and rationality. If that were the case and weapons really did line the walls in every size, color, and shape imaginable, how easy it would have been for anyone to whip handcuffs and slap them onto Junkrat and Roadhog’s wrists. 

Fareeha grunted and heaved Brigitte up again once more, this time to heft the girl onto her feet and wipe a string of drool from her chin. She nearly stumbled when Hana separated herself from Brigitte’s side to shower Junkrat in a series of complaints. 

“What is this? This isn’t the blackmarket place Lena told us about.” 

Junkrat, looking sheepish for a moment from the harsh words that spilled from Hana’s mouth, pursed his lips together while his crazed eyes wandered over the crooked desk that stood guard to a small but proud array of firearms tacked onto the back wall. Bushy, flame-singed brows careened together, and with one cybernetic hand on his scrawny hip and a flesh one on the other he took a breath of the foul-smelling air, blinked a few times indiscriminately, and cleared his throat. “Excuse me missus, but this is just the front.”

Hana balked, tucking herself under Brigitte’s thick, muscular arm again as Fareeha sighed in relief and the weight of her friend shifted some over to the street creeper’s side. “ I know this is just the front.” 

“No, this is the front front.”

Front front?”

A tired sigh from both Junkrat and Roadhog, and the smaller of the two lifted a bony finger. “Listen. The only reason why we’re showin’ you our secret place is ‘cause you told us you’d help us get our hands on a conny license if we help y’all. I hope it’s a promise ya intend to keep.”

Fareeha’s gaze latched onto Junkrat’s with lethal accuracy, and judging by the way he didn’t flinch she too knew that he would not back down on his chance to entertain a reward of sorts once they had both followed through with their end of the deal. “It is. I keep my promises.” 

The four women followed Junkrat and Roadhog behind the desk, making sure to stand off to the side just enough when Roadhog seized a towering shelf and pushed it to the away as effortlessly as if it had merely been a plank of lumber. Beneath the shelf a tracing of slivered wood, a hatch of sorts, rested on the floor, and with another lift undemanding of Roadhog’s demigod-like strength, the door was lifted, and behold, down a flight of stairs and beyond what Junkrat had reiterated as the “ front front” rested an expansive garage of sorts, littered with all sorts of mechanical equipment: welding guns, cracked helmets, monstrous piles of scrap metal, loose tires, and lo and behold, just as Fareeha’s optimism had ignorantly predicted, crates stacked high enough to scrape the lofty ceiling. 

“And this is where the magic happens,” Junkrat laughed giddily as he clambered down the stairs and a chuckle escaped his throat, no doubt his ego swollen with what Fareeha was trying to decide was either well- or incorrectly-placed pleasure. 

The crew all descended, and miraculously now was the time that Brigitte, albeit groggily, removed her arm from over Fareeha’s shoulder and yawned, using what strength she still retained to stand herself up, and everyone’s attention glided to the girl as she batted her eyelids a few times. “Wha...Where…” she mumbled, but finally settled for the superlative statement of “This is one sick kitchen,” before sinking back into Fareeha’s side yet again, and the detective fought back a flustered look while she pushed and prodded her probationary officer and the rest offered her honest laughter. 

They spent a few minutes exploring the various pieces of equipment, almost everything blackmarket, as Junkrat and Roadhog pulled out items and motioned to carts and boxes in their roundabout, clipped tour of what was supposedly the two men’s “garage”. There was even a particular creation wrapped in contrasting hues of both inky shadow and dim, fading umber, something imposing and intimidating, yet with its gentle dips and curves and the addition of hind feet giving the appearance of a hefty but benign creature, one that attracted Hana’s attention enough that the good doctor Angela had to pry her away when Fareeha mentioned it was time for them to move on. 

“I think we all need some rest,” Fareeha had deposited Brigitte into the sidecar of a rusted vehicle near the entrance of the garage, and with Hana nestled snugly beside the older, snoring girl, she hesitated with the idea of waking up her snoring partner yet again. “Do you h-”

“I’m sorry, but I must be going back to Winston’s,” Angela interrupted, voice curt and low, and all heads turned in her direction save for the two girls’ curled aside one another in the sidecar. “I told him I would be back to help with the nanomachines, and knowing that we will be leaving to find Talon soon I think it’s imperative that I aid him as much as I can before that happens.”

Fareeha’s next words were immediate, absolute. “I will accompany you then.” She was quite amazed by the way her face did not burn this time at the thought of remaining by Angela’s side, and she concluded that perhaps this was because although she was interested in the doctor, she was also heavily inclined to her work, and perfecting the cure to NNv in order to save the city was one of the most important things she could possibly do, despite it escaping her job description. 

“It is fine, Fareeha, I will be alr-”

Fareeha raised a hand, and immediately Angela fell silent. “No. I am going to come with you whether you want me to or not. I...I want to make it my duty to protect the person who is helping me save the city, and if there is any way I can possibly help you refine the virus, I will do so.” She faltered, but the thundering of her heart did not as she pulled in Angela’s surprised, bright blue irises. “I want to be useful to you, Angela. You’ve helped me enough in so many ways that I cannot fully express my thanks...So please, as a start, allow me to come along and assist.”

Angela simply smiled; a gentle, understanding curve that pulled upwards, hinting at her amusement, while something fluttered away in her chest at what she liked to think was Fareeha’s ceremonious chivalry. “Then I will not turn you away, if that’s the case.” And then a finger flew to her lips, lingering there while the rest looked on in curious speculation, aside from the two subjects she was about to touch on. “What about Brigitte and Hana though? They’ve...Well, Brigitte at least, has fallen asl-”

“Not to worry!” Junkrat’s peg leg shot out forward perhaps a bit too quickly, because he immediately scrunched his lanky, skeletal form into a fetal position with arms tucked between his legs for a few moments, and everyone waited while he whimpered, regained his composure, and straightened himself up to continue. “The girls are welcome to spend the night ‘ere with me and Roadie; we’ve got a spare room up in the loft!”

“Yes, I love sleepovers!!” Hana punched a fist into the air, and then grabbed a slumbering Brigitte’s own arm to try and heave her friend’s up as well in a display of enthusiasm. “I promise I’ll take care of Baguetta. Nothing bad is gonna happen to her, don’t you worry. You can count on me!” 

Fareeha’s mind was on the verge of interceding, to introduce another idea, something better, more preferable, but nothing came to fruition. The adrenaline coursing through her veins had worn off sometime within the past half hour (aside from the frenetic pulse within her chest), and she had no more energy left aside from that which she told herself she would spend helping Angela. 

They circulated out of the secret garage after the decision had been made and a mumbled confirmation of agreement was procured from Brigitte once she was informed of the situation. After, Fareeha and Hana, the latter using every ounce of her upper body strength, successfully made their way up the stairs on the store level and dropped Brigitte into a semi-dusty mattress lying on the floor of the mentioned spare room, and then Fareeha and Angela bid their goodbyes for the night, and took their leave. 

Time, in a way, was nonexistent, Fareeha realized. Beneath the ground The Layers only knew darkness, eternal twilight; this world resting below, restless and undisturbed, having never seen the face of either the sun or moon, never ceased to lessen its secretive liveliness. Because of this, everything, to a certain degree, functioned without the careful ticking of a clock, and street lights flashed, vendors hollered, and gangs hustled through the streets, even if to a top dweller it may have been an ungodly hour. 

The needlessness of time was a benefit in a way, and Angela and Fareeha were thus able to catch the trolley without much delay. Fareeha found it a bit difficult, yet again, to keep her eyes from flickering to Angela’s face when the doctor looked in another direction rather than head-on, and every now and then when the trolley hit a bump the two would jostle together inadvertently. Once, due to an especially powerful jolt of the trolley’s chassis, the two women's heads had bonked against each other and they both clutched at their temples, embarrassed laughter and slight blushing shared between them. 

Fareeha didn’t admit that she wished the ride to Winston’s could have lasted a few minutes longer, but within her breast a tumult of excitement, one she knew would grow increasingly more energetic with a mug or two of coffee, had begun, all thanks to Angela. The detective promised not just herself, but the doctor as well, that she would do whatever she could within her power to assist with the cure for the virus, and she sincerely meant it. 

“Winston, we’re back!” Angela called, her voice resounding against the walls of the store room. The door, unlocked and unguarded by the attentive Lena who was still enjoying her time a level below at The Siberian Bear , had obliged when Angela gave a turn of the handle and gentle push. But inside there was no Winston in sight, and fright quickened the beating of her heart when she allowed her gaze to scan every single object in sight, over pots of luminescent plants, stacks of books, and the odd forgotten piece of machinery the gorilla must have been tinkering with earlier.  “...Winston?”

A sound similar to the rumble of a thunderstorm encroaching echoed throughout the room, softly at first, as if far off in the distance, and then it grew louder, a drumming that pounded fervently, with more strength in each beat than the one before until a hulking figure burst through the doorway from the backroom, startling both Fareeha and Angela out of their socks. 

“Angela, you’ve returned!”

Angela, having found her way into the strong, protective arms of detective Fareeha Amari, struggled to compose herself without seeming too upset over the gorilla’s abrupt appearance after his catapult through the entryway, and somewhat sheepishly (with a twinge of reluctance) separated herself just enough from Fareeha so she could not feel the strained pounding beneath the other woman’s collared shirt. “Winston -- don’t scare us like that!”

“My apologies, but I was too excited hearing you’ve come back!” Winston’s nervous laughter evolved into a bright smile which similarly lit up his dark eyes, and he pushed the pair of minuscule glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I’ve made progress with the nanites you provided me before you left, but I think it’d be best for you to help me with the rest.”

“That’s what we are here for.”

“Wonderful!” The joyful excitement within the gorilla’s voice was visually noticeable in the way that he bounded across the creaky floorboards, every now and then toning down the jaunty liveliness which haunted each padded foot step. 

No time was wasted aside from a gentle, yet somewhat bashful smile, passed from Angela to Fareeha at Winston’s elated behavior, one Fareeha assumed to be spurred on by the rare behavior of one’s close family. Family… Thoughts of her mother wafted into being, materializing memories long past. The path Winston led the two women down to his workshop on was a dutied one, filled with purpose and a drive to accomplish whatever Fareeha could do to help not just Angela, but hopefully her mother as well. 

“How did the mod treat you?” Winston, hunched over at the holographic screen he had displayed an enlarged version of earlier that day, called over, voiced slightly muted by the whirring of something buzzing within his giant hand. 

Fareeha took a moment, eyes wavering back and forth between the silent, dedicated ethic of the other two individuals (Angela was already strapping on a pair of synthetic rubber gloves which she had acquired from somewhere amongst the ordered chaos which was Winston’s work area), wondering where she should begin. “I’ve never been modified in terms of weapon-related augmentations before, so I was a bit uneasy at first…” She lifted up her right arm to glance at her hand, having forgotten about the incredible catch of Junkrat’s grenade within her palm and how she dreaded the mangling of her prosthetic yet again. It glinted back at her in the sterile glow of the overhead LEDs, marred by a few scratches and nothing else. 

Perhaps her angel really had been watching over her. 

“But it all went well; your mechanical handiwork is incredible, Winston. It makes sense to me that you and Angela found each other, you’re both brilliant beyond words.” 

There was a delighted chuckle from the large ape, and for some reason Fareeha blushed, worried that perhaps she had been too honest in her reverence toward both individuals. Flicking her gaze to Angela studiously posed beside Winston, the detective was relieved when they both turned to face her with matching smiles. 

The doctor had an extra pair of gloves in her hand, and they lingered there for a few stray seconds without intent while Angela reached up to tuck a golden lock behind her left ear, the absolutely adorable mélange of appreciative embarrassment and something else Fareeha couldn’t quite pinpoint on her fair countenance. And then, after just enough time had dwindled for the detective to lionize the other woman again for what had to have been the hundredth instance (it was a never ending, recurring cycle, that much Fareeha would admit), Angela offered the gloves to Fareeha. 

“And you are brilliant as well. Don’t ever forget that.” 


 

Brigitte dreamed. 

She dreamed that she, a knight in shining, proverbial armor, the kind you hear about in over-dramatized fairytales, had contested two giants, both incredibly large and burdened with thick sinews and matching, pitiless scowls. Neither was quite fearsome enough to strike unparalleled fear into her heart, but they towered over her just so, to pose a challenge worthy of the fearless knight Brigitte Lindholm.

A challenge she could face with a charismatic, electrified grin, nonetheless...And upon defeating both giants who had been reduced to dozing piles of hunkered muscle amongst a crowd cheering for their new champion, she had been able to secure the heart of a princess, and the two had shared their joy in the form of a passionate, tender kiss.

….Wait. 

What?

 The inviting smell of a meal, warm, savory, carrying with it the rich scent of mapled bacon and cooked eggs, sauntered into Brigitte’s nose, immediately eradicating any hints of an overhang she may have retained from the night before. 

Yet, looking out the window -- wait, there was no window, and where exactly was she?? -- there was nothing but darkness surrounding, and for a split second terror ripped through her being before she felt something beside her, heaving gently, and discovered the faint pink glow of familiar tattoos. 

“Pssst, Hana! Wake up!” 

A thin, tattered blanket that felt much too similar to the cloth belonging to a potato sack covered both girls, and Hana squirmed listlessly against Brigitte’s side in response, unbeknownst to the small street creeper causing Brigitte’s already reddened face to flush even deeper. 

Thank goodness the room was dark; it was a mediocre yet suitable salve for the pounding deep within her skull, and with the added impression of the dream, the one which somehow seemed more realistic than others that had swarmed her mind as she dozed off night after night, Brigitte was unsure if the pressured feeling in her head was a combination of both dilemmas. 

Did that -- did that really happen? I don’t really remember what happened last night, except that I think I entered a drinking contest with those two really big….really buff people….God, I think it really did happen. 

Hana rustled again, this time burrowing herself into Brigitte’s side, and the older girl immediately froze, her respiring and thinking put on hold by nothing other than the subtle breathing of Hana and her small fingers curled lazily around the other girl’s bare arm. Maybe it would be better if she didn’t wake Hana up; something told her that as of this moment with the recollection of blurred, slow-motion memories which were slowly piecing themselves back together in her brain, a little space to clear her mind would be favorable. 

Brigitte struggled trying to detach herself from the clutches of the slumbering girl for what felt like an eternity, but as soon as the warm, pink and black-painted fingernails had released her from their antagonizing grip, she slunk out of the potato sack sheet, found solace on the ground beside the mattress she had been on, and stood up shakily. 

8:34 am , read the blinking words on her wrist tag. So it is morning, like I thought. 

Before her a sliver of light presented itself, seeping through the crack of the door which separated her from the outside world, and whosoever’s home she was in (something told her it was the two capricious men they had met the night before, and she half-wondered if maybe something bad had happened to Fareeha and Angela to cause them to leave her and Hana there, before she distinctly remembered in a fuzzy, mental apparition that no, Fareeha would never do such a thing without consoling Brigitte first). 

Hands clumsily reached across her chest for the holster that normally sat taut around her abdomen, though despite the effort there was no such thing, and Brigitte chided herself for the disarming of her weaponry while she was under the influence. Taking up a defensive stance she inhaled, the breath tunneling down her lungs, and she fought to regain her confidence and composure just in case this was a situation she needed to handle. She would protect Hana (and herself) at all costs. 

Thus, Brigitte made her way to the door, pulling it open carefully as so not for the hinges to squeak her arrival and ruin the element of surprise she was attempting to induce on the people whom were somewhere around the place…There was no light down the hall, save for the solitary blaring of one farther down the cramped, tunnel-like walkway, emanating from the same place she believed the delicious smell of breakfast was coming from. 

The clattering of pans, popping of sizzling bacon, and deep yet lighthearted humming grew louder, stronger, and just about when she was going to hop into view of the open doorway and surprise the individuals who she assumed had stripped her unwillingly from her artillery, a bold cackling called out, disrupting her planned entry. 

“Aye, lookie ‘ere Roadie; the drinking champ lives!” 

Brigitte, addlepated by the surreality of the situation which was shifting more and more into actuality, lowered her raised, white-knuckled fists. “...Uh…What’s going on?” she muttered, albeit somewhat dazedly as she took in her surroundings. 

In the middle of the room Junkrat sat, legs crossed on top of one another and splayed haphazardly over the edge of the table and a mug of something warm in his metal hand. Over to the side where there seemed to be an ancient stove, the kind where embers crackled beneath the iron grill tenaciously, Roadhog stood with a spatula in hand and an extra-large apron with the words “Kiss the Cook”. He hung over a combination of steaming pancakes, oil-soaked bacon, and swirled, fluffed eggs, shuffling to each when a stir or flip needed. 

Roadhog grunted something incoherent, gesturing to the feast in front of him, and Brigitte balked, failing to decode yet again the other man’s nonverbal communication as she sidestepped awkwardly into the kitchen doorway. 

 Scorched, bushy eyebrows shot into Junkrat’s hairline as he slammed his feet on the table in delight, and Brigitte, entirely unexpected of all this cacophonous grunting and body language, refrained herself from setting off in a startled jump. “Oi, why didn’t I think of that before? I’m sure she’d love some! Better make some extra though, her friend’s probably gonna wake up soon, mate.” 

The larger of the two men motioned toward the table in the center of the room, carefully making sure not to whack his giant fist into the overhead lamp that swung to and fro above. Brigitte eased herself into a chair, her amber eyes warily scanning everything a second, then a third time over as her somewhat still hungover mind attempted to process what was happening.  

She, of course, wasn’t quick enough despite her effort, and amidst Junkrat’s consistent howling about how pleased he was to have someone aside from Roadhog sitting at his table for once, the probationary officer found herself staring at a delicious, perfectly portioned plate of fluffy flapjacks with a side of bacon, dripping in liquid umber, and finished off with a generous share of scrambled eggs.  

“...” The fork and knife in her hand -- she was unsure when they had made their way into her grasp -- did not move. They...These guys made breakfast. And it smells amazing ...I guess I wasn’t abducted against my will after all. 

And then, like she hadn't eaten in a hundred years, Brigitte tore into the meal, slowly at first, timidly, as if she were trying to gauge the flavor, and when she was satisfied with the taste, began scarfing down the rest. With the sudden intake of food brought an excitement bursting forth with the renewal of her energy, and a tumult of questions too, those of which she tried to mouth over the gobbling down of her breakfast. “Oh my God -- this is delicious -- you guys made all this??” A long gulp from the glass of milk Roadhog set down just mere seconds before. “It’s unbelievable!”

Junkrat waved a hand nonchalantly, although his nervous laughter delivered a different message. “Ehhhh Roadie is the one who made it all -- bugger won’t let me near any of the cooking pots or the stove; thinks I’ll burn the place down!” He stared into his mug forlornly, and Brigitte was silent, eyes wide and ears open to hear what verdict would elicit such harsh punishment. “...He’s not wrong though, I burn everything, even water, haha!!”

The three continued chatting, their varied comments and questions ranging between throaty, guttural mumbling, maniacal chortling, and pancake-stuffed mutters of pleasure, and between spoonfuls of egg Brigitte found out quite a few things by speaking with the two men: she and Hana had been left with them overnight, as Fareeha and Angela were back at Winston’s working on the NNv cure they would undoubtedly bring with them on their Talon mission, Brigittie’s gun had not, in fact, been taken, but instead removed from her person before she was completely asleep (and was actually hanging on the back of a chair in the guest room), and that today their goal while Fareeha and Angela were gone was to procure a mass of different weapons which would assist with their Talon break-in. 

It was more than enough to take in, to say the least, but it was done so in the most pleasant way possible: over a hearty breakfast and among surprisingly hospitable company, despite what had ensued the previous night (it was “all in good fun”, Junkrat had assured her while taking a sip of his coffee, and Brigitte just shrugged, shoving down another massive cut of pancakes). 

Brigitte was in the middle of finishing what must have been her third plate of pancakes when Hana strode in, rubbing her eyes, hair a ruffled muss of spiky brown, and yawning something unintelligible, but which the older girl assumed was something along the lines of “Mornin’, binches”. Hana, Brigitte thought to herself as the other girl smiled wide and allowed Roadhog to place a heaping plate in front of her, was acting nothing but normal, and this frightened her somewhat. 

I must have kissed her last night! I just...don’t remember it very well. And...I don’t know if I should ask her about it, that might be weird. Maybe she’s only acting normal because she doesn’t want things to get awkward between us. 

For the young Lindholm, training at the police academy had helped immensely; when plunged into some of the most dire circumstances imaginable, Brigitte had retained her ability to think level-headedly among a cohort of other trainees who were more likely to stress out, and thus it was only natural for the girl to graduate at the top of her class and become Fareeha’s subordinate (with Reinhardt’s help, of course). And here, somehow, some way , her pre-manufactured mentality had proven once again to grant her peace of mind, albeit only on the surface. 

There was time enough for breakfast, and when both Hana and Brigitte had their fill and declared that if they inhaled any more a food coma was bound to happen, Junkrat and Roadhog proceeded in carrying out their end of the deal. The four hustled back down the stairs of the tiny yet snug loft, moved aside the shelf, lifted the trap door, and sank beneath the wooden timbers to begin scouring the garage for any weapons or equipment needed. 

“Y’know, this ain’t really part of the deal but because your copper friend promised us help gettin’ a weapons shop above The Levels, I’ll help ya out with weapons. Since that is me n’ Roadie’s specialty, after all.” Junkrat was submerged into a crate nearly the size of Roadhog, scrounging around for something among a sea of crisp, brown, paper-wrapped objects. The strong smell filtering into the air suggested the possibility of explosives into Brigitte’s mind, and she quickly scampered off to leave Junkrat and Roadhog to their own devices, heading deeper into the garage when she realized that Hana had disappeared as well. 

“Hana…?”

There was no reply, and worry clawed at Brigitte’s heart as she wandered around broken machinery, stacks upon stacks of more crates, and piles of rubbish. She could have sworn something scurried past her feet and behind a heap of rusted hover car scraps, and she was about to turn tail and beeline her way to the Junkrat and Roadhog’s sides when she noticed Hana. 

The same machine that had called to Hana’s attention the night before loomed ahead, majestic and brazen in all its glory; upon two legs as thick and powerful as tree trunks stood a pod. It was a strange sort of capsule with a pair of twin revolvers on either side, and although nearly every spare inch of the machine was covered in ruddy, discolored patches while screws pushed forward and metal plating peeled, Brigitte could tell that Hana was wholly and completely taken with the...whatever it was. 

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Huh? Oh shit, she’s talking to me.  Brigitte coughed into a closed fist, clearing her throat. “I-It’s amazing.” She took a step forward, disregarding the shifting shadows that hovered around the poorly lit space like creatures making futile haste to escape an inimical confine. Her fingers grazed the surface of the machine, and beneath them it felt cold, gritty, coated in years of dust and erasure. “It looks like...Some kind of combat bot? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Do you think it still works?” Hana asked, voice soft yet full of hope that Brigitte did not want to abolish. 

“I think so.” The older girl circled around the machine, carefully stepping over various odds and ends. The engine should be in this part back here… Brigitte, finding herself below the hull of the pod-like area, traced her hands over the dirtied metal until she felt ridges, and when her fingers sank into a groove she pulled back. There, inside the metal casing, was essentially the organs of the mechanical beast, and Brigitte grinned, pleased with her attentive assumption. “Ah, here we go!” 

And then Hana was beside her again, just like she had always been so many times before, breath hot and playful against the nape of Brigitte’s neck, but somehow now it felt slightly different. “Whoah! So this is the inside of it, huh?”

“Y-Yeah,” Brigitte coughed again, pretending that the dust was responsible for her sudden respiratory issues, and Hana seemed to pay little attention, instead fawning over the loose wires and rusted gears within the hull. “I’m sure I could fix it and get it working again, I’ll just need to spend a bit of time with it.” 

Hana’s arms tightened themselves around Brigitte’s neck as she pulled herself closer, and Brigitte yearned for someone to aim a fan at her on full blast because suddenly the heat nipping at her cheeks was burning her alive. “You’d really do that, Baguetta? Ah geez, you’re the best!” Hana did not allow Brigitte enough time to croak out a reply; she had given her friend one last, departing, incredibly strong bear hug (around the neck), and left a trail of havoc as she zoomed somewhere back into the garage’s center. “I’m gonna go tell Junkrat and Roadhog you’re gonna fix it, I’m sure they’ll be super hyped to hear! Maybe we can even bring it with us when we go find those Talon scumbags! With this baby I could bust their asses so hard--”

The rest was white noise to Brigitte. As she stood crouched just slightly underneath the body of the machine, the only thought disseminating within her mind was that Hana was happy, and it was because of herself. The fiery sensation burning within her, she was sure, was simply a side effect of her happiness. 

She discarded the off-white sweater she had been donning for the majority of the morning in preparation of the serious work she was about to do, leaving herself in a simple black tank top for ultimate comfort and flexibility. The less hindrances the better, she had learned. A flood of nostalgia coursed through her when she submerged herself into the bowels of the sleeping, mechanical creature and began poking around, grasping at cables and shining the light of her wrist tag as a makeshift flashlight for the time being to examine what needed to be fixed.

It’s just like I’m back in Papa’s garage, she thought to herself with a smile, one which the exact origins of eluded her. 

Hana returned a few minutes later with Junkrat and Roadhog by her side, and while Brigitte wiped at her jeans and pulled back her hair into an even tighter ponytail Hana deposited a bulging toolbox by the feet of the machine. The two men gave a short yet much needed spiel of the towering beast’s history: according to Junkrat the machine, appropriately named a meka, had been found in a junkyard within the city after some hapless scouring among trash. Hoping to get the meka working again they had fiddled with it some, but were unsuccessful in bringing it back to life for longer than a few seconds. 

Brigitte rolled her shoulders before another smug grin danced over her lips, and her knuckles cracked effortlessly as she wrung her hands together. “I’ll take care of it. Just give me a little time and I’ll have this meka up and running before you know it.” 

Junkrat and Roadhog were content to let Brigitte unravel the mysteries of their fruitless labor, and she went back to work without a word, pulling the toolbox which Hana had delivered closer toward herself. Brigitte had registered the small girl settling down among a pile of empty beer cans (which she was sure must have only been the doing of Junkrat), the street creeper’s eyes firmly trained on the part-time mechanic as she delved further and further, grabbing for wrenches, screwdrivers, and even welding rods every now and then when wires needed to be secured back together or something had fallen out of place. 

Brigitte was not sure how much time had passed, but when she lowered herself down, arms just the tiniest bit sore from holding them above her head for so long, she sighed in relief, wiping a bare arm against her forehead to drag away a layer of well-earned perspiration. 

To her side Hana remained, legs curled up and tucked into her chest while she rested her chin on top. The street creeper smirked, sending Brigitte’s heart pouncing up her chest and into her throat, and when a light, tinkling laughter escaped Hana’s mouth, Brigitte’s body temperature was compelled to heat up again at the sound. 

“What is it?” Brigitte wiped her hands against a rag she had tucked away earlier into one of the belt loops atop her jean’s waistband, watching as Hana’s head lolled to the side, cheeks flashing a fervid pink. Gosh, she’s so cute it’s making me nervous. 

Hana’s giggles wriggled under Brigitte’s skin, and she bit her bottom lip, eyeing the other girl and taking in as much as she possibly could of Brigitte’s muscular biceps. “Nothing! You just got a little something on your face, that’s all.”

She’s looking at me, gah! “I have something on my face? Where?” Brigitte, albeit aimlessly, swiped yet again at her forehead with the back of her hand, and when Hana laughed again she knew she must have not erased whatever it was and tried for her cheeks, then her nose, then her chin.

The street creeper had relented to the chuckling that swept her away like the fierce current of an ocean riptide, but after a lifetime of watching Brigitte rub at her face and always (it was unbelievable how it eluded her every single time ) miss her target, Hana finally stood up and made her way over. “You dork, you literally missed it like, ten times…” Hana whispered as she pushed herself up on tiptoes, wetting her thumb briefly on her tongue before placing her hand on Brigitte’s cheek to usher away the ebony grease mark that had been sitting atop the other girls’ upper lip. 

It was then that suddenly she was able to perceive the lack of distance between herself and Brigitte, and although her mind was screaming at her to pull away, that this was way too close and Brigitte was sure to get weirded out, she…just couldn’t. 

Soft, amber eyes the color of warm honey held her in place, and the thundering of Hana’s heart echoed in her ears, preventing any thoughts from transcending into consciousness. 

And Brigitte, unbeknownst to her friend, experienced the exact same repercussions. And yet once again her heroism and clear mindedness in the face of danger prevailed, although this time it was an entirely new face, one round, smiling cheekily, and adorned with twinkling rose-colored tattoos. Hana stood before her with a wavering chocolate gaze, one which appeared just the slightest bit uncomfortable but in the most adorable way possible, her palm still pressed against Brigitte’s cheek and coaxing the older girl into doing something entirely unexpected. 

I think...I feel like kissing her. And before Brigitte even knew what she was doing she had leaned in, hands having planted themselves on Hana’s hips at some point during their interaction, and closed the distance between herself and the street creeper. 

The kiss was timid at first, wary, and light on Hana’s lips, and Hana relished in the sensation once again; it was different than the night before, when she had tasted Brigitte in a mixture of alcohol, sweat, and surprise in the span of a few seconds. Now the kiss was sweeter; the soft lips pressing against hers ushered in a combination of lingering syrup, the smell of engine oil, and Brigitte’s own natural musk from her hours basking beneath the mechanical creature she had been working so hard on for Hana’s sake. 

And then Brigitte lifted her head, and their mouths parted just enough for the two of them to break for air; surprisingly, it had been a wise choice because Hana was having difficulty keeping her lungs from deflating with the bouncing around of the muscle inside her chest. There was a look of confusion on the younger girl’s face, and Brigitte immediately felt guilty for indulging in an act she knew not why she initiated, except that thinking before about kissing Hana somehow felt right

“What...What are we doing?” Hana whispered. Her gaze had slipped to Brigitte’s side, too nervous to actually make eye contact, while the hand against Brigitte’s cheek had slid down to rest against the nape of the engineer’s neck. Hana’s other hand had timidly snaked around to rest against the toned muscles that were the Swedish girl’s back, and their strength she could feel bristling just beneath the thin fabric of Brigitte’s tank top, for she had been (and still was, truthfully) too shy to run her hands over smooth, fevered skin. 

Brigitte blinked, somewhat taken aback by Hana’s question. “I’m...We’re kissing…?” And then it struck her. “Oh, I-I’m sorry! I totally didn’t think about if you’d want to kiss or not, it kinda just felt right in the moment and maybe I was reading into things too much but I thought maybe you’d want to too an-”

“Shut up and kiss me again.”

Brigitte did not need to be told twice. Craning her neck down just enough for Hana to meet her with the extra height of tiptoes their lips met yet again, and the apprehension driving them before quickly morphed into a more voracious urge. Short fevered breaths beat against Brigitte’s skin, and she took Hana as placidly as she could before she could not deny wanting more of not just the feeling but Hana herself, and pulling the other girl closer Hana hummed pleasantly into the kiss. 

Something clattered by their feet, and the tool bag fell over.

The two girls froze, frightened by the unknown (which was pretty much everything within Junkrat and Roadhog’s expansive underground garage) that pulsed around them; particularly whatever had been the cause of the toppling tool bag.

“What the fuck was that?” Hana whispered into Brigitte’s ear, as she had somehow managed to close the distance between them even further by tossing herself into the other girl’s arms when the sudden clanking of equipment rattled them to their bones. 

Brigitte, still a bit breathless from what she was sure would have been an incredibly enjoyable make out session (had it continued), clutched Hana tighter to her chest. “I don’t know...maybe the boys?”

“Wait! Look, over there!” Hana was pointing to something in the ominous shadows not very far off, and just as she had called to attention, the glinting of twin irises shone, beady and abysmal, swallowing everything up expect a speck of light within each. “It’s-It’s-”

The eyes drew closer and closer as Brigitte did her best to hold her ground; she really would have liked to put Hana down and perhaps grab a trash can lid or maybe even an extra large wrench to protect themselves, but Hana’s grip was impossible to break. 

And then the creature jumped out, startling both girls out of their skin.

“...” And to be frank, they were quite unsure what to say. 

The creature before them, rather small, fluffy, and sporting ears that looked a bit too large to be natural waddled up to them in friendly greeting as it elicited a good-natured squeak. It stopped briefly at Brigitte’s feet, and sniffed her boots for a few moments.

“Don’t...move…” Hana whispered. “It can smell your fear!”

Brigitte obeyed despite her unbelief in the street creeper’s words of advice, but because a fragment of her being screamed yes, perhaps the cute and cuddly creature could be rabid or some bizarre mutant raccoon or evolved sewer rat, she remained glued in place, and watched as the animal nabbed the six-sided revolving driver she had been using, stuck it between its pointed teeth, and scurried off back into the shadows.

An empty fuel canister hurtled past Brigitte’s head, barely missing by a few inches, and landed in the pile of scrap where the small creature had disappeared. The rattling, uneven clopping of a foot and peg-leg belonging to the one and only Junkrat grew louder until the man was right beside them, hurtling profanities and other foul comments. “You better run, that’s right! Don’t think you can just come and go as you please, you bloody lil’ shit! Stop stealin’ me tools! Keep it up and I’ll put some more extra large mouse traps out, just for ya!”

Junkrat was panting by the time he had finished his murderous heckling, and slapping a hand on his thigh he inhaled deeply, as if gaining his composure, and turned to face Brigitte and Hana. The two were still gripping each other violently, eyes wide and either refused to do so much as move a finger. “Sorry about that, y’all -- we’ve got ourselves a little house guest who seems to think he can take whatever he damn wants , and it’s annoyin’ as hell...Didn’t scare you two, did he?” 

It took Brigitte a couple of seconds to regain a fraction of her senses, and she shook her head in response. “N-No, not really, just caught us by surprise is all, haha...” 

“What was that?” Hana blurted out, eyes wide as her head swiveled back and forth between the place where the creature had disappeared to and Junkrat’s quizzical face. 

“Eh, just a giant good-for-nothin’ freeloader, that’s what! Mebbe an overgrown guinea pig, I dunno. Roadie affectionately calls him “Hammond”, but I just call him a bloody lil’ shit cause that’s what he is,” Junkrat growled, brows furrowed together in anger as he turned to glare at the same area Hana was watching like a hawk. “If ya girls see him again give me a holler; I’ll whack him a few times with a hammer if I’m fast enough.”

“...Dang,” Brigitte kept her voice low and watched carefully as Junkrat hobbled away again, the scrawny man mumbling to himself still more obscenities curated for the phantom rodent. “I had no idea tha--MPH!”

She was silenced by Hana seizing both sides of her face to deliver a surprise smooch, effectively shattering the cool facade the other girl had believed she had prepped well (yet it was not well enough, she now realized), and a rush of heat scorched up Brigitte’s neck to convene beneath Hana’s palms. 

Brigitte was not at all bothered by the fact that the smaller girl had taken the lead, and rather transferred a majority of what strength she retained to her knees to keep them from buckling beneath her, as well as to her arms, which she seized together beneath Hana to keep her propped up. Her mind was reeling with the sheer happiness she felt within the duration of the kiss, Hana flush against her skin and eagerly absorbing whatever physical contact she could from Brigitte. When the street creeper finally pulled away in an agonizingly slow partition dotted by labored breathing and a telltale smirk, Brigitte almost whimpered.

“Sorry, but I just couldn’t leave things unfinished,” Hana chuckled, and the sound made Brigitte’s heart flutter. 

“It’s okay. I...I kind of wanted to continue anyways.” A shy, embarrassed smile, one that confirmed the shared fantasy of something more intimate, more daring, and then the worried tilt of gentle amber eyes towards sparkling brown ones. “Hey, um, this might be a weird question but uh...Did we make out last night?” 

“I dunno...I mean, I guess so if you count kissing people while you’re drunk as making out.”

Something twisted within Brigitte’s insides as she felt the latent bite of indignation trail from Hana’s words, and she thought about things for a moment before hefting the smaller girl up again, balancing her atop her firm forearms with a cheery laugh while Hana let out a yelp.  “Well I’m not drunk now, I promise. I think those pancakes really helped ease the hangover I should have had this morning...”

Hana narrowed her eyes. “So what are you trying to say?”

“I would like to make with you out -- er, I mean, make out with you -- ugh -- kiss you! ” Brigitte fumbled precariously with her words in an attempt to convey what she felt, and although it was messy and convoluted to an irksome degree, Hana’s smile grew with every passing second. “What I’m trying to say is...Can we kiss?” 

The joy flowing from the lowest part of Hana bubbled up, higher and higher, threatening to spill over in a mess she knew could rival Brigitte’s bashful state. Even so she reeled the excitement in, and promised herself she’d pour every ounce of pure bliss she hoarded into what would come next. “Of course.”


 

Fareeha was trying her absolute hardest to focus on the tasks at hand. 

It didn’t help that she knew next to nothing about nanomachines and biotech circuitry, and she spent a sizable portion of her time hovering around Angela and aiding her with whatever needed assistance at the moment, all with the doctor’s meticulous instruction. She had, like she meant before, wanted to help in any way possible, and Fareeha never went back on her word. Skittering around the underground lab was nothing short of a challenge as she gathered tools and such, but she did so gladly with the thought in mind of her promise before. And strangely enough, the more time she spent conversing with Angela about the progress of the nanomachine improvements, the more her mind wandered toward the undeniable fact that the blonde woman was utterly and completely fascinating, and spent less time on devoting herself to the scientific matters presented. 

So yes, she was in a bit of a bind, to say the least. 

“This should provide the utmost healing if any of us are to be infected,” Angela proclaimed, raising a liter-sized flask filled with gleaming golden liquid. The team of three (well, more appropriately, the team of two, but with Fareeha’s unwavering support and sporadic input) had succeeded in bringing forth a small yet game-changing amount of nanomachines, and the little creatures bathed unseen in the shining fluid. “Right now what we’ve produced should be sufficient for our party; with the sample I gave to Winston we focused on replicating the nanomachine’s skeletons and programming, in particular targeting the reaction of these nanites to foreign ones such as those in NNv. Now they should act as a more secure, safer version of what I was able to insert into my system years ago,” she finished off, setting down the flask on the main examination table before Winston hustled over and carried it off to a thermal storage unit. 

The doctor peeled off her gloves with an exhausted sigh. The process of producing the nanites was demanding, but they pulled it off with the assistance of caffeine and banana and peanut butter protein shakes. “What time is it?” Angela looked around warily, and Fareeha fumbled for a second with her own pair of gloves before glancing at her wrist tag. 

“It’s -- It’s nearly lunchtime. 11:03.” Fareeha’s eyes widened at her own declaration, completely astonished with the fact that nearly half a day had passed by without her noticing. It didn’t help that within The Layers everything always looked the same no matter what time it was when one glanced out the window (if one’s house even had windows, that was). 

“Preferable. It would have not gone by so quickly were it not for your help, Fareeha and Winston. I think now I’ll have a snack and then, if it’s not too much trouble, I’ll take a much needed nap.” Angela had already glided across the lab, though it was done in a dog-tired manner, and she smiled wearily at Fareeha as she posed by the entrance that led to the staircase. Her blue eyes retained an ambitious glint that somehow managed to thrive under the continuous strain of their work, and Fareeha felt herself drawn once again to the woman in an almost magnetic compulsion. Fareeha’s feet began moving on their own. 

“Care to join me, detective?”

“It would be my pleasure.” 

With similar coos of appreciation in Winston’s direction they departed back up the stairs, one behind the other, Angela having taken the lead with the utmost hospitality as she guided Fareeha through the curious sanctum that was her old home. The kitchen was littered with peanut butter jars ranging from empty to half-full, just as many other areas of the house were, but without much trouble Angela had managed to find a few packets of shortbread cookies, those of which she assumed belonged to Lena. 

Handing one of the packets to Fareeha they exited the kitchen, and when Fareeha drawled out the timid question of where they were to relax for the next few hours, Angela’s signature smile, gentle and curiously enticing, suffused Fareeha’s vision once again. “In my room, of course.”

Fareeha lurched forward as Angela tugged on her hand with surprising strength, and her heart did the same as the doctor pulled them up the steely, spiral staircase to a realm Fareeha had not known she would be fortunate enough to see until now. Thoughts were ablur within her mind, questioning why exactly Angela had decided to bring her here and what was about to unfold. 

They reached the top of the staircase, hands still clasped together. A door stood before them, closed, and Fareeha’s ears picked up the deep intake of breath Angela suctioned in. She was nervous; Fareeha could tell -- but so was the detective herself. 

“I haven’t been here in years ,” Angela muttered in a half-whisper as she ran a finger over the chipped, cracked paint which coated the door, the packet of cookies grasped tight within her palm. “I wonder if it looks the same way as it did when I left it.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Fareeha quipped with a grin as she wrestled with her quivering emotions for an ounce of courage. She’s nervous too. This must all be so nostalgic for her. 

The doctor’s bottom lip sunk beneath the top one as she bit it, and squinting her eyes she nodded in a purposive way Fareeha found extremely cute as her blonde ponytail bobbed for a second. “You’re right, Fareeha.” Angela’s hand grazed the knob. “I’m being ridiculous; me, fretful over something that I needn’t worry about.”

“Exactly.”

Angela twisted the knob within her hand, and the door creaked slowly on its unoiled hinges, exposing the minimalist room within; to their left a bed, no larger than one Fareeha was sure she owned as a child, pressed up against the wall, and to the right of it a holodesk. Hovering above them a light hung by wired threads that tunneled through the ceiling, and scattered around the desk lay an assortment of scrapped material ranging from mundane, crumpled papers of discarded sketches and diagrams to the more intricate, half-formed metal shells of forgotten ideas. 

The room was Angela’s; it could be no one else’s, and Fareeha smiled to herself as she pictured the day she first met the other woman and visited her office, finding another room riddled with precisely the same ordered chaos. 

“It’s exactly the way I left it,” Angela muttered as she stepped forward apprehensively, still attached to Fareeha by the hand. They stepped into the center of the room, and Angela stood speechless, basking in what Fareeha assumed was the heavy air of nostalgia and evocation. 

The detective was unsure whether she should say anything, but settled against the idea of throwing out a comment as Angela stood beside her, fearful that perhaps she’d ruin the moment. 

Then Angela’s laughter, clarion enough to startle the both of them out of the peaceful ambience which had settled, echoed around the room as she pulled on Fareeha’s hand once again, and Fareeha stumbled forward with less grace than she’d hoped, nearly dropping her packet of cookies and smashing them to smithereens with her boot as Angela dragged her onto the bed. 

They settled onto the creaky mattress with the rupture of miniature, dusty mushroom cloud, and their giggles and coughs bounced off the walls around them until finally the women settled down, debilitated, content, and eager for what was next. 

The cookies rolled out of Fareeha’s hand, but she wasn’t as hungry as she thought she would have been, instead focusing all of her remaining mental energy on the moment and what it entailed. She wanted to capture it, seclude that exact portion of time, and tuck it away inside of her heart for safekeeping. 

“Thank you again, Fareeha.” Angela’s words were muffled by the obstruction of a cookie, and Fareeha did all she could to suppress another grin as she sorted through the hilariously adorable antics of Angela. 

“What for?” I don’t know what I’ve done that deserves much praise. If anything, you’re the one...You’re incredible. Smart, brave, beautiful...perfect.

“For being here. For helping not just me, but everyone else.” There was a pause in which Angela swallowed, grabbed for another cookie, and inserted it into her mouth to begin chewing anew. “There is much about you that I -- I appreciate…”

Is this...Is this really happening?

The drumming in Fareeha’s chest increased. 

“...It’s refreshing...I want to know-”

Know what??

“I want to know you...know you better…”

Of course. Anything you want to know I will share with you. 

“...If you’d let me…”

Angela’s light snores permeated the silence, and again the biting desire to bound back with an overly-ambitious reply was tempting, but Fareeha refrained, and instead turned to wipe the loose crumbs of shortbread off of Angela’s chin. Her fingers lingered for a moment longer than necessary when her eyes caught onto the doctor’s full, pink lips, and Fareeha’s own features broke out into a compassionate smile tinged with something deeper than mere adoration.

She knew what she was feeling, and she knew what she had to do. 

This was her last lingering thought, and within a few euphoric minutes the lulling tune of Angela’s breathing soothed Fareeha into a deep slumber, and with it carried dreams of worriless, sunny days and the startling, azure eyes of a blonde doctor.