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[AO3 link]


Mercy sat, shaking, alone, at her desk, her composure collapsing the moment Lena Oxton had walked out the door.

Mein gott, had I not known, and had I needed to revive her...

She shuddered, and swallowed, hard. She did not like thinking about what might've happened. Not to anyone. Particularly not to Lena.

But now, I do know.

Lena Oxton never really did really read medical documents she signed. In this case - as far as Dr. Ziegler was concerned - that was a very, very good thing, and she pulled up files from the deep scan which had been triggered as soon as Venom acknowledged that the previous documents still applied.

Now, thought the doctor, let's see how you are made...

Her hand stopped, just above the console surface, just above the file. ...No, she thought.

She blinked, surprised at herself. I've done this with everyone else, she thought. Why not her?

No, her mind insisted, again, at war with herself. This is different.

God, she wanted to. So much. So very, desperately much. It was all right there, flagged, sorted, available, ready to open, ready to be known. But...

She would be so angry.

Angela Ziegler leaned against her desk, hands over her eyes. Do not be foolish, doctor, she told herself. She's a patient. She can not be anything else. Your job as a combat medic is to keep her alive, whatever it takes.

And yet. No.

If the not knowing ached - and it did, viciously - the unreadiness for disaster ached even more. Losing Lena, or Tracer, or Venom, or whatever she called herself today? She shook her head, firmly. I can't. I won't. It is unacceptable.

And so, she took a deep breath, and compromised with herself. She pulled the dataset off the scanner, onto a small card, securely deleting the original. Then, she physically moved the card over to the nanosurgeon programmer for her Caduceus staff, and inserted that card into a small slot, compiling the deep-scan data set into the knowledge base for the Overwatch agent known as Mockingbird.

Compilation completed, she looked at the card, now removed, sitting in her hand. The original data, the raw scan, not the abstracted assemblage merged into so much other data, unrecoverable - or essentially so - from the nanosurgeons, and even then not comprehensibly, at least not to human minds - available, intact, only here, in one tiny chip.

So much I could learn, she thought. They'd done impossible things at Talon, and the key to it lay in her hand.

She slid the small protect tab along the edge of the medical data card, and firmly pressed her fingers against the centre. The chip briefly glowed, hot, as it destroyed itself, and then, she threw it away.

As long as they know, she thought, putting her hand gratefully on the nanosurgeon farm, watching as it built a special nanite cluster just for the Talon sniper, that is... good enough. For now.

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This chapter contains events which might end up making me setting a couple of content warnings on this story on AO3. Accordingly, I an putting the story behind a fold, here, as well.

[AO3 link]

Cut for content )
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I was in Oregon, in the totality zone, for the eclipse; this is more or less my trip report, written as fiction in the Fear of Spiders/Overwatch universe. The eclipse really was indescribable - you have to be there - but this is my best attempt to relate what I saw and how I felt.

All the locations are real world locations, accurately described, and specifically relate how I got down to Shiniko, Oregon for the totality, and back, after crossing the Oregon border from the north. All of Venom's and Widowmaker's lines are basically my commentary while being the one driving... inappropriately quickly... with my road trip crew down a surprisingly empty Highway 216.

[AO3 link]


"I loved it," said the Widowmaker, her voice fluid, "when the spider ate the sun. Slowly dimming light, then sunset all around, in all directions, and then - gone, but for the corona. Exquisite."

"That was wizard!" agreed Venom, speeding along Highway 216 west from Highway 97 to Highway 197 in the Oregon high desert. "The sky went violet! Blue, dark, rich, with extra violet, somehow. The pictures always made it look black, but it wasn't! So intense!"

"I think that was partly ultraviolet, from the corona," suggested the elder assassin, as the old-style automobile - a Spider, appropriately enough - barrelled down the road into the canyon, chasing the water. The speed limit sign said 55kph. She hit it at 120. "The light had such intoxicating depth."

"Felt like time just stopped! And I know from time." She giggled at little at herself, and shook her head. "Pictures just can't tell the story, can they?" said Lena.

"Not at all. One cannot even describe it, one must experience it. The changes in the air, the blue and violet glow, the heat vanishing with the sun..."

"And then, and then, the last bit of the sun goes out, and you look past the glasses, and - wow! The sun is, like, whole different star! And the sky is a different sky! It was like - it was like bein' in space, like being on a whole 'nother world!"

"The black hole sun, the streaming flares of fusing hydrogen writhing in the sky, the glowing colours - I never imagined the colours would be so intense." She sighed, wistfully. "I do not think my cameras captured the violet, only the blue."

The tires screeched at the first downhill hairpin turn. The road carried with it no forgiveness, no margin - cliff wall to one side, sheer drop to the other. A few guardrails buffered against the worst of the turns, or, at least, the first couple, and then not the next, and not the one after that. The Spider held the road, if barely, as the Talon assassins drifted in their vehicle, across the road, into the opposite-direction lane.

"I remind you," said Amélie, "despite having applied to the Commonwealth, this country is still right-hand driving."

"Yeh, yeh. Curve speed signs are for wankers."

Widowmaker smirked. "That one, if anything, seemed overly permissive."

The junior assassin slowed the vehicle, but not much, and sped it back up at every opportunity. "Nobody's usin' the other lane, I might as well."

It was true. Even with the tens of thousands of tourists flooding back from the zone of totality, Highway 216 sat empty of traffic, out in the high grassy desert, barreling down towards the Deschutes River, splashing and rushing at the very bottom.

"Even so," said the spider, "this road does not seem very forgiving."

Venom chuckled, and hit the accelerator again. "Feeling nervous, love?"

"Feeling impressed that the Cascadians do not seem to care about guard rails, perhaps." The car's right mirror - still just within its lane - came within a few centimetres of the cliff wall. "Or margins for error." She looked out over the cliff the road hugged. "This countryside - it is almost painfully beautiful."

Off to the left, a series of canyons, or one long, split canyon, almost cartoonish in perfection, stepped down towards the water, a mix of steep rocky slopes and bare basalt column cliffs, volcanic, spotted with the occasional first-coloniser plants, mostly gold, some auburn, some ash, and, almost inexplicably, splashes of dark, vivid green, the green becoming dominant the further down towards the river, but really, anywhere water might run or pool or even be slowed down, even a bit, for the thirsty plants to grab it up.

"Whole bleedin' country's a bunch of picture postcards, innit?"

"Truly."

"Glad they had the sense not to muss up the view with fences." Venom floored the antique Sypder into the next hairpin curve, not quite fishtailing, not quite sliding away and to oblivion. "I can't believe we're the only ones on this road. Look at what they're missing!"

"It's not the eclipse, but it is fascinating. Perhaps the tourists are afraid of the heights," said the spider.

"You mean, it's just us 'cause they're too scared?"

"And therefore, do not deserve to see this."

"Fair cop," said the younger assassin. "Woah!" she said, surprised by the severity of yet another hairpin. "That was a tight one!"

"Be careful, we cannot crash this vehicle here - we might start a fire."

"Blimey, that'd be a right cock-up," the junior assassin replied in all sincerity. "They have fires all summer already, don't they?"

"It seems so," the senior assassin said, gesturing back towards a burnt out patch they'd driven by, some 30km before.

"Well, good thing we've got that car park all lined up."

"Indeed. Just be sure not to hit the river. Fish and gasoline do not mix."

"Easy peasy. Reach 'round, pull the body forward, will ya?"

"Certainly."

She pulled the middle-aged man forward, from the - well, it wasn't really the boot, not one worthy of the name, not in an F430 - and propped him up against the centre console, between their individual seats.

The Ferrari flew over the first river bridge, as Venom let the engine really open up. "May as well go out in a blaze of glory, y'big ugly monster," she said, made the final turn at a desperately dangerous 220kph. "Good handling, I'll give you that. Right! Whenever you're ready, love..."

"Grab hold, cherie, and ready your grapple," the Widowmaker said, grabbing her lover and launching the two of them out of the automobile. Venom kicked the wheel hard to the right, and the Spider flipped over, briefly flying, then bouncing down the road, hitting once, twice, a third time, and skidding into a gravel parking lot before bursting into flame. Widowmaker's chain retracted, pulling the two Talon agents high into the air, and just short of apogee, Venom launched her chain, and up they went again, a second arc, and again, at apogee, Widowmaker's grapple made the top of the butte, where their ship sat, concealed, and waiting.

From atop their high vantage point, they could see the local wardens rushing forward with emergency fire suppression, the wreckage of the convertible already burning itself out, the body of Roger Müller - well-known multi-millionaire playboy and less-well-known deep financier of ultra-nationalist media and neofascist politicians - already well-crisped. His remains would show a blood alcohol content well above 0.17, over twice the legal limit, but entirely in character.

"And that's why y'don't drive pissed." Venom said to her partner, cheerfully.

"That was magnificent."

"Such a shame when people overindulge, innit, love?"

Widowmaker spun on her lover, pulling her abruptly, roughly, against her own body, eyes wide and open. "Yes. Let's balance it by overindulging ourselves."

Venom shuddered with quick arousal. "Fast cars and fast kills? I like the way you think, sweet. But let's move the..."

"Now."

"So now I'm the sensible unf " - she said, as Widowmaker bit into her neck - "...we can't stay here, love. Somewhere else. The way we went south. Nobody's on that road, either."

"Fine. Bakeoven, then. How quickly can you fly us back?"

"You just saw how quick I got us here in an antique, didn't ya?"

"Point made. Go."

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This chapter is below a cut because the rating on this story has been adjusted upwards, and this chapter is NSFW. It's not particularly explicit, either, but still. As I said on AO3, I have not been flagging this story with archive warnings, but I will say that I categorically do not write non-con and I do not write underage. Those will not appear in this story. Continue reading (NSFW) )
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Fuck me. What was I thinking? Venom thought, throwing up the throttle on her aircraft. How'd I ever think this could work? Why can't that bastard just stay dead?

A couple of years of therapy and liberal use of the web spread across and through her brain had helped. She didn't wake up screaming any more, at least, not often. But the rage - the rage that still laced through her being like the chronal accelerator which kept her in place in time - hadn't gone anywhere.

I should've known. I shoulda known, she thought, as her craft jumped high towards suborbital space. The old guard had to start showing up. Just bloody had to. And ruin everything.

She'd thought she was okay with Reyes's return. She liked the Angelino, and they needed a strategy expert. Amélie was not exactly thrilled, but then, she wasn't the liaison, and she wasn't going to break the project over it. But this, she thought, this... no. No more. We find him, we kill him, we fix it.

Her thoughts had mostly turned to a stream of comfortingly creative swear words by the time her ship's comms board lit up, with Amélie and Winston both, trying to make contact. She took Amélie's signal at once.

"Cherie, are you..."

"Jack Morrison is alive."

"I've been talking with Winston. I know."

"He doesn't get to stay that way."

The spider hummed a little; Lena could see in her mind the little smile that went with it, and it calmed her just a bit. "I think I agree," the spider said. "Winston does not, yet, but that is not important. Regardless, there are times and places and ways to consider. Please return to base. We should plan."

"Don't worry, sweetie - I'm not flyin' off to Mexico half-cocked. I'm already a third of the way home."

"Good." A moment passed. "I have missed you these last few days."

"I've missed you too, love. How was Calgary?" Calgary, and a minor target. Normally, beneath Talon's radar, but something twigged in the spider's web, and so, off she'd gone.

"Magnificent," replied the spider, warmly. "Not the town, of course, it is provincial in all of the worst ways. But the shot," she continued, voice liquid, "ahh, that was exquisite. I missed you all the more for it."

Venom smiled and relaxed a little more at the tone of her lover's voice. Reunion sex was always good sex, but reunion sex after a kill that made her spider's voice do that? Magnifique, as she would say. "J'ai hâte de t'embrasser encore."

"Très bien, mon bien-aimé," the blue woman replied. "Ton accent s'améliore."

"J'ai étudié beaucoup."

"Ça se voit. C'est merveilleux et je t'aime."

Lena flipped briefly to autopilot, closed her eyes, and breathed. "You're calming me down on purpose, aren't you?"

"Of course. But nothing you've said was wrong. Not even in French."

The younger assassin laughed a little, nodded, then laughed a little more at herself - nods don't make sounds. "Merci." She opened her eyes again, and took the little ship back off automatic. "Love you. Be home soon."

"I'll be waiting. Widowmaker out."

"Venom out."

Winston's hail still blinked on the comms pad. Hoo, do I wanna take this? she asked herself. It took a moment. ...yeh, I need to. She punched the acknowledge signal. "Tracer here. Sorry 'bout that, big guy. Got myself into a bit of a race."

On the other side of the signal, Winston slumped in his chair, relieved. He looked over at Angela and Gabriel though the office window, and motioned for them to come in. "It's okay, Lena."

"Nah, it's really not," replied the pilot. "I should've reined myself in, and I didn't. No excuses here, I've got the tools, I didn't use them, it's my fault. I'll do better next time, promise." Gabriel nodded a small silent approval, hearing that.

"Where are you?" asked the Lunar Ambassador.

"Sorry, luv. But nowhere you'd mind."

Heading home, then, he thought. Good. "Our new friend has some more information for you. I'll put it in the expected place."

"Righto, thanks."

"Talk to me later?"

"Will do. Tracer out."

"Winston out."

"Well," Gabriel said, "at least she owned up to it. That's something."

Winston and Angela both glared at the former Blackwatch lead, but it was Angela who spoke first. "Do. Not. Dare."

Gabriel raised his arms in a shrug. "Hey, I'm not the one who charged out of a staff meeting just because..."

"No," said the doctor. "Do not. This isn't your Overwatch either."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, doc, this isn't a power play..."

"I know you, Gabriel. Yes, it is."

"No, it's... really not," he insisted. "I'm not a senior officer anymore. I'm done with that."

"Then don't act like one," replied Dr. Ziegler. "You are not her CO, and you are not her father."

"She was already on edge about letting the old guard in at all, other than Angela," Winston said, quietly. "She bought in with you, because she likes you, and she respects you - but I'm the one who really wanted you onboard."

"But Winston, she can't do things like that, not in her position. I'm not a senior officer here, but she is."

"Then tell her that, to her face," said Angela. "Not to us, behind hers. You may say she's a senior officer, but you are not acting like you believe it..." She frowned. "This is not the old Overwatch. Do not bring in its baggage."

Gabriel slowly nodded, and his eyes narrowed. "...damn, doc, you're good. This'll take some serious getting used to, won't it?"

Mercy smiled and let herself look a little smug. "At least you owned up to it."

Gabriel laughed, something he rarely let himself do in the old days, and said, "I deserved that," and the tension drained from the room. "My CO is half my age," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I must be getting old."

Angela chuckled. "She's not really your CO."

"No, but you can't take the Army out of a man. Let me think of her like that for a little while, it'll help."

"As long as it's old Army, and not old Overwatch," insisted Ziegler.

"It is," answered Gabriel, chuckling, and shaking out his arms. "I feel like a First Lieutenant again, showing up, screwing up, getting my ass in trouble... Ana would have a field day if she ever heard me say that."

"Let's not bring up any more unpleasant stories right now," said the doctor.

"Agreed," said Winston, bringing the Morrison dossier up on his displays. "We have enough old soldiers to deal with already."

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prelude
[2076, autumn]

"Why'd you do it, Gabe?"

"Do what?"

"Send those killers to her house."

"Lena, I don't know what you're talking about. Fill me in."

"Why'd you send those idiots after Gérard Lacroix?"

"I didn't! Hell, they weren't even field agents. It never should have happened. Not the way it did, anyway."

"Amélie doesn't know that."

"Amélie should know that, she has the logs. She just doesn't want to."

"Wot? Why not?"

"As long she doesn't know that, there's someone else alive to blame."

"That's shite, Gabriel."

"Is it?"

"It is, and you know it. She blames herself. Always has."

"'Course she does, girl. But she also blames me. I was head of Blackwatch, so she's kinda got a point."

The younger assassin just grunted, a "huh" sort of sound.

"Trust me here, having someone else to blame? It helps."

Venom thought about that, for a moment, sizing up Gabriel Reyes through anger-narrowed eyes.

"I'm not so sure it does."

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I've posted chapter 29 of 32 of "on overcoming the fear of spiders." (Link goes to the version on AO3, which has comments and chapter titles and so on.)

There are only three more chapters. Two are complete. The third is complete enough that I could post it as-is, but I'll expand it, I know, before doing so. But posting Chapter 29 really locks it down, because at this point there's really no changing course. The ending will work, or it won't. People will buy it, or not.

[personal profile] annathepiper has read it. She thinks it works. I hope it works for other people.

I wish this was a thing I could do more regularly, more intentionally. At roughly 35,000 words, it's more words of fiction than I've written, combined, my entire existence. I've never had fiction just flow out of me like this before, and I don't know that I ever will again. It's almost painfully close to a novel, but there aren't really other parts that should be part of it so I suppose I must live with that.

Spoilers, thematic, and possibly otherwise )

2075

Jun. 11th, 2017 01:46 pm
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[The twenty-ninth instalment]

[London. MI6. November.]

Video from the Humanity First strike in Naples rolled on the large screen, as the analyst section scribbled notes. Key sections were framed and elements highlighted from the incident which took place the week before.

"Now, until this moment, in minute 44," said the presenter, "the attack appeared to be going as we think they'd planned. They were moving through the arcade, here, in a sweep formation, when their progress forward suddenly fell out of good order. You can see the confusion, particularly these two figures, reacting to... something. We don't know what. Local police rapidly found themselves doing cleanup duty."

"A good thing, too, with the payload they were carrying," said the head of the table. "This sort of sudden breakdown - is it just me, or is it becoming a pattern?"

"The best kind of pattern to my mind, ma'am," said the woman in front of the large display.

"Yes, but only if we know why. Do we?"

"Generally? No. In this case, we think they lost comms, and fell out of sync. But we've no idea why that would've happened. And they certainly won't be telling us."

At the far end of the table, the less annoying American analyst flipped through photograph after photograph. She'd seen something, in a still photo. What was it, she thought, what was it, something faint...

More photos and video, now from minute 44, as the room discussed comms failures, a discussion she largely ignored. It's in here, somewhere, I saw it... there. What am I seeing here? She wasn't even sure herself.

"Excuse me, but... could we have item 59 from minute 43 on the large screen?" she asked, breaking into the room's conversation.

The collection of specialists present looked over, "Sorry, Agent...?" The presenter fished for the American's name, but she couldn't bring it up. "Um... certainly. Minute 43, item 59... here..." she put it on the large screen. "It's... the side of a building."

"How far in can we zoom on that second window from the left?"

The image enlarged to show the entire window frame.

"Lower half, please? Contrast enhance, gamut expansion?"

The presenter flicked controls. "Now... oh! Now I see... what the hell? Is that... someone's... back and head?"

"Someone aiming a rifle, looks like," said the tactics desk. "Someone not in our accounting."

"Is that colour correct?" asked her second. "Verify against reference." The tint shifted, brickwork used as a standard, and the Talon desk erupted in shouts as the presenter continued, oblivious to the noise, "That's... is that hair? Is it blue?"

"That, that, that that can't be her," the Talon desk second broke in, as the lead followed with, "We need that photograph and every picture of that window, and we need it right now. Do we have the other side of the building?"

"Someone verify the colour of the glass in that pane. Get someone out there to look at it, in person, we need a hard reference."

"Who is she shooting? Can we get any kind of interpolation on that?"

Systems brought up a three-dimensional rendering of the scene at that moment, and added a series of possible locations for the new actor, and possible targets, based on the one image obtained.

A small square device with a collection of protrusions hung off a nearby rooftop, at minute 41, visible, and intact, and at minute 46, visible, and destroyed.

"That," said electronics, "would be a tactical comms relay. Probably one of two. We should look for a second."

"What bet it's also smashed?" asked the tactics desk, excitedly.

As the room as a whole proceeded to tear through every photo and video segment with renewed intensity, the two reps from the Talon desk just stared at each other. "My god," said the lead. "What else did we miss? What the hell have we found? "

[Naples, a week earlier]

Kate checked her position and counted heads. Everyone who's supposed to be here, is here, in place. This'll show those fucking species-traitors. "Ready one!" she shouted, as as her team ducked behind columns and walls, and she pressed the outer ring detonator. Her team braced, ready for the impact of the explosions.

Nothing happened.

She pressed it again. Nothing continued to happen. No. No. Goddammit, Len screwed up the detonators.

"Ozzy, round one bad! Fire round two!"

"Len and Charla aren't out yet!"

"DO IT OR THIS WHOLE THING FAILS. DO IT, NOW!"

"Give them five more seconds!"

Kate would've shot Ozzy, and frankly wanted to, but he was too far away to make up the lost time. "DO IT OR I WILL SHOOT YOU MYSELF," she shouted anyway, aiming her pistol.

Ozzy was on comms, trying to raise Charla. "Shut up, I'm trying to ... god dammit! Now comms are out?!"

"NOW! THEY'RE MOVING ON US! DAMM YOU TO HELL, NOW!"

Ozzy swore, and thought, sorry, guys, and pressed the second ring detonator.

Nothing happened, a third time.

"DO IT!" shouted the team leader, enraged.

Ozzy pressed the trigger again, and again, useless. "I AM! IT ISN'T WORKING!"

Kate shrieked. It's those damned Aussies, they sold us shit goods, she thought. Shouting again, "Ozzy, try to keep the team moving forward, get the fourth ring set up. I'm going back to the second, try to reset the charges. Blow them in two minutes whether I'm here or not!"

"God speed!" shouted Ozzy.

Kate retreated around the corner back out of the arcade. Three steps out of sight of the rest of her team, there was a flash of light, a single round of automatic fire, a second flash, and she was gone.

They found some blood, a bit of flesh - more than enough DNA to identify the team leader - but they never found her body.

[Alicudi, six months earlier]

"Woah, what a mess," Lena said, looking at the latest eruption of violence - this time, in Korea.

"I know," Amélie said sadly, "Even acting as quickly as we can, everywhere we can, we can only do so much."

"You know we could step in more often," said the junior assassin.

"Certainly, in retrospect," agreed the senior assassin. "It's not so simple, in the moment."

"C'mon, love, maybe for most people," Venom countered. "Not for us."

"But that's not the difficult part," insisted the Widowmaker. "Getting there, creating a plan, executing it in real time - that is not so easy."

"Sure. We can't always act. But when we can, I want to try."

Amélie smiled. "You want to become a sort of... International Rescue, but of assassins?"

Lena laughed at the thought, and said, "Aye aye!" enthusiastically.

"But it will not change history," said the assassin, reluctantly, "at least, not often, if ever. Not as we've always measured it."

"It'll save lives," said her apprentice. "Isn't that enough?"

"Lives that do not change history," insisted the spider.

"Lives nonetheless," said her lover. "Besides, fewer deaths mean fewer relatives vowing revenge and voting for demagogues. It's got to help."

"At the margins, perhaps," the spider calculated. "It is a risk. Each time, a possibly fatal risk. Stepping in improvisationally to complex situations with live fire is not a step to be taken lightly."

"I'm good at risk," retorted the test pilot. "Won't be a problem if we're careful."

After a year and a half together, Amélie Lacroix had learned when Lena Oxton's mind was made up, and turned to face the inevitable. "You're going to do this whether I help or not, aren't you?"

The inevitable replied, "I'd much rather not have to decide 'bout that, love."

"I have two counter-conditions," said the woman of blue.

The pilot smiled. She'd won, and knew it. "Name 'em."

"First, our primary mission is always paramount. Nothing may affect or endanger that."

Well, that's easy, Oxton thought. "Goes without saying," she said. "Didn't even consider it on the table..."

"Second," the spider had started, when Lena interrupted. "No, no, love, wait. I need to make that clear: I will not risk this project. I just won't. I might argue..."

"...might and have done..." noted Amélie.

"...yeh, and likely will again. But once it's sorted? Never. I swear."

Amélie smiled, relieved in spite of herself, and reached out to touch her her partner's face, gently. "I did not think you would, but I do not leave such things unstated. Particularly not with you."

"Fair enough," Lena answered, warmly, nuzzling Widowmaker's hand, and taking it into her own. How did I get so lucky as to fall into you? she asked herself, as she did every time they fought. "Hoo. What else?"

"Second, we move only if I think it is safe and practical. I will not endanger our organisation, or myself, or you." In this, she was an anchored stone, an unmovable object.

Venom laughed again, playing the river, splashing around the rock. "I'm never in danger, love."

Widowmaker gave her a most sharply pointed look. "We are always in danger, ma chérie - do not forget that."

"Sorry, sweet," she said in reply. "Not the time to be flippant." A small surrender, wrapped in affection. "I don't forget."

"Then that is all," said the Widowmaker, lightly, relaxing. "It is acceptable?"

"More than that," said Venom. "It's a deal."

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[the twenty-eighth instalment]

"I see you've been racking up quite the kill list," said Winston, a second and a half before.

Venom frowned. "Ah, c'mon, luv, do we have to talk about work?"

"It's just a job to you, now?" asked the scientist on the moon.

"No," replied the assassin, "but we're just gonna have another fight." The last one had been a real row; they hadn't talked for a month, and Winston seemed intent on picking up where they'd left off. "Let's not do that again."

Winston shook his head, no. "I'm sorry, Lena, but - fifteen kills in five months?"

"Only twelve," Lena retorted. "Six by us, six by other agents, some of which never made the news. Anyone else wasn't us at all."

"Six, then," he conceded. Like that isn't enough.

Fine, she thought. Let's not pretend. "Yep! All good ones. Clean. Fast. Sharp. We've never been tighter, and it's exhilarating." She put on her best wicked smile, the one she knew sent a bit of a shiver down Winston's spine. "Each one moved the war another step back. We might not be getting ahead of that curve, but we're doin' the best we can. No regrets here."

"All on Amélie's word," he said, stiffly. "Just whatever's in her head."

"Nah," said Venom. "It's not that simple, mate. Even she doesn't trust herself that much. There's a consensus system - won't describe it, sorry, secret - and a lot of deep analytics. And..."

"Just please tell me Katus Varga wasn't one of yours," he broke in, expecting the worst. "Please tell me you aren't starting into world leaders, are you?"

Venom blinked at the unexpected question. "It's got bad enough we might have to. And I wouldn't hesitate, if that's what was needed. But... if it makes you feel any better, Katus Varga? That wasn't us."

"With her politics and that M.O.?" he asked, "It screamed Talon."

"Really! Not us." She affirmed, holding up her hands. "See? All clean. We think it was domestic. Someone who wanted to make it look like us."

"I'm a little surprised," he said. Also a little relieved, he thought. Something about the timing had felt almost sadistic, and for all Widowmaker and Talon were, they did not appear to be sadists. He did not want to see them becoming such.

"We were looking at taking out her Omnics advisor, though. Lower profile, more actual impact."

"I... don't know who you mean, offhand..." the scientist said, punching up a search on the panel to his right.

"Sándor Farkas. An academic - I think he's a crackpot, really - with some wicked nasty supremacist ideas. Also, daily access to power. He needed to go."

"Mmm," said the gorilla, having pulled him - and his troubling history - up on his own displays.

"But not her. She was too popular! Whoever did it created a martyr. Made things worse. If we find them, we will kill them."

"For killing her?" he questioned distractedly, still reading.

"For making it look like we killed her," she explained.

"Ah," he said, glancing sideways as her while reading.

"Don't like imitators in this business, luv. Can't have it."

"I see," Winston said, unhappily. "Business."

An uncomfortable nothing was said for several seconds.

Venom decided to break the silence. "We were in Naples the other day."

Winston scowled. "Taking advantage of the attack?"

"C'mon, luv," said Lena. "That's mean."

"What, then?" asked the scientist.

Lena Oxton rocked back and forth in her chair. "Can't talk about what, exactly. Not even with you. But..." she struggled with it, trying to figure out how much she could but should not say, "go give what happened a good look-over. Carefully. Watch all of it, but... focus about... 40 minutes in. Or so."

Winston hunched forward, just a little. "Ten minutes before the police suddenly cleared them all out?"

"'Bout that," agreed Venom.

"...what did you do?" he asked.

"Didn't say we did anything," said the assassin. "Can't. But..." the assassin tilted her head left and right with a tight little mostly-repressed smile, "give it a careful look. You're good at thinking, so... think about it."

"I seem to recall they had a lot of explosives they did use, didn't they," he proffered.

"Explosives... " Venom tilted her head, pointedly, "that didn't explode. There's a difference."

"Yes," agreed the scientist. "There most certainly is."

"Funny how that happened, innit?" she asked, "subtle" not being her middle name.

"Perhaps even strange," said the gorilla.

"Plans like that, they're goin' wrong a lot lately," she said, looking at her fingernails, then back at her friend.

"Are they?" he asked.

"Sure looks like it."

"Fascinating," said the scientist, remembering a promise made months before.

"Not sayin' anything past that, big guy. Maybe I'm guessing. Maybe they're just gettin' sloppy."

He nodded, understanding - not the specifics, not yet, but most certainly the message. "Maybe they are."

With a small sly smile let free, Venom said, "It's a funny old world, innit?"

A moment passed, a somewhat less uncomfortable silence, before Winston nodded again, this time, in agreement. "That," he said, "it truly is."

solarbird: (tracer)

"None of these are nice people," said Widowmaker.

"Goes without sayin', don't it?" said Lena, popping a bit of handmade picture candy into her mouth, flavoured hard candies with an image running throughout, looking like little round slices of pomegranate, pips and all, made entirely by pulling sugar. "These came out great, love. I thought you couldn't cook."

Amélie raised an eyebrow and smiled. "I have some talents beyond shooting people. But this is confectionary, not cooking, it is different."

"How's that then?"

"Because I am French and know better than English barbarians about food."

Venom laughed. "Oh, right. Of course."

"But - yes, that these are bad people does go without saying. Still, moreso, even than usual, these are not good people." She threw Venom a file from her padd. "Here is a dossier on everyone I expect to attend - you should memorise it."

"Gotcha." Venom slid aside news of the latest anti-Omnic violence in North America - and the latest retaliation from Null Sector - to flip through the pages she'd just received. "Huh... Most of these... they're just ordinary criminals. Bad ones, but just criminals."

"Yes," Widowmaker agreed. "They are suppliers and sellers, not movers of history. They are without ideals," she frowned. "But we need to deal with them, occasionally, and that means dealing with their, um... muscle? Yes. Muscle. Bodyguards. I had to make an example of one, a few years ago."

"That's too bad."

The elder assassin shrugged. "Yes, I'm sure he was an adorable child with a mother, once."

Venom laughed. "And probably killed her."

"I do not have room to talk," said Amélie, pointedly. "But I do not wish to make any further examples. Bringing you, I hope, will help make that less likely."

"Really?" asked Tracer, wondering if Amélie could make these candies with maltose. Chocolate's great, but variety's good too. "Why?"

Widowmaker smiled. "Your reputation in certain circles precedes you."

Venom licked her lips. "Fantastic."

"But behave," said the blue assassin. "I'm bringing you to prevent problems, not cause them."

"'Course, love," said the teleporting assassin, cockily. "Don't I always?"

"Honestly?" asked the spider.

"Never but," said the striped assassin.

"Yes," the blue woman smiled, "You do."

"Aw," the younger assassin pouted, "You're no fun today."

"Should I start lying to you, then?" asked Amélie, amusement in her voice.

"Fiiiiiiine," Venom said, with greatly exaggerated exasperation, "I'll be good."

-----

Widowmaker touched her comm. "McCree, from Widowmaker. Do we have an all clear?"

Over comms, the cowboy replied, "Widowmaker, McCree - I hear ya. All clear. C'mon down whenever when you're ready."

"McCree, thank you. We'll keep you looped in, but otherwise, we'll take over from here. Switching to monitor mode."

"McCree switching to radio silence and out."

The meeting had been scheduled for a large conference room on the second floor of a older, nondescript, and otherwise-empty metal building in Caracas, hosted by a trusted neutral party specialising in such arrangements. "Why are these things always in warehouses?" Venom asked, as she landed their stealthed light flyer on a rooftop two blocks away.

"Because warehouses are boring," replied Widowmaker. "Clients rotate in and out of light industrial facilities like these constantly, as companies build and fail, and so strangers are not..."

Venom broke in, "Rhetorical, love," as she unstrapped from the pilot's seat.

"Ah, of course," the spider said, opening the side hatch. "I will punish you later."

"Ooooh, goodie," said Venom.

"Behave."

"Yeh, yeh."

The two assassins executed their own secondary recon of the facility before approaching, and a second facilities check before entering. "Looks clean," said Venom, from atop a building on one block; her partner agreed, from atop a building the block opposite, and they fell in together.

Most of the expected buyers and sellers had arrived already, a few early, some just entering from the lower level as the Talon pair entered from the balcony entrance above. Widowmaker spotted the Menger Group's muscle as soon as she walked in, but not Javier Menger himself. She leaned to Venom as the two descended the stairwell and said, "Menger Group, on the opposite wall, but no Javier. I am concerned. He does not miss these meetings."

Venom nodded affirmatively, a subtle gesture. Texans, she remembered from the dossier. SIG Sauer specialists and neo-fundamentalist survivalists. "One of the muscle has a much better suit than in the photos," she said quietly to Widowmaker. "Something's changed."

Widowmaker agreed. "Caleb. I've seen him - and his bodyguard - before. Javier kept them both on tight reins."

As the senior assassin side-eyed that new suit, Caleb caught her glance and bristled. "I see you brought your new guard dog," he called from across the room, a bit of extra sneer in his heavy Texan accent. "She better be well-trained."

The room instantly grew very quiet. Other groups subtly edged away from the Menger representatives.

Oh, thought the spider, how tiring. The new boss feels he must establish himself, and has chosen me. "Javier, are you here?" she called, scanning the room for the older Menger. "Is this the kind of help you've resorted to hiring these days?"

"Javier's out," said Caleb. "You aren't dealing with the old man anymore. I'm running the show now."

"That is unfortunate," said the Widowmaker, wondering how recently it'd happened. Enculer, she thought. Bizarre religion or not, he would keep his promises. Aloud, she continued, "Javier was reliable, and often pleasant. I will hope his successors decide to continue that tradition."

"That right?" said the woman with him, Haley, the bodyguard, possibly a new lieutenant, judging from the swagger. "We all thought it was time for some fresh blood. People who won't let themselves get led 'round by a pretty blue face."

The Widowmaker frowned.

Turning to Venom, Haley gazed down at the much smaller woman. "But we ain't the only fresh blood, are we? Careful, little bitch," she mocked, "don't want to get hurt playin' with the big dogs." She pronounced it like "dawgs."

They do not deserve artistic deaths, thought the Widowmaker. But examples must sometimes be made.

"Venom?" asked Widowmaker.

"Yes, love?" asked Venom.

"Sting." said Widowmaker.

"Yes, love." said Venom.

She never even appeared to move. There was a flash of light, which was actually three, and what sounded like a single shot, but was actually two. Both offenders dropped to the ground, dead, individual bullets placed precisely into the centres of their forebrains.

Instant, perfect death. Not as elegant as some, perhaps, but strong lines, and good design, a clean, modernist improvisation. Widowmaker approved. "Nicely done."

Shouts of shock echoed around the room as the bodies hit the floor, not all of those dead. Venom smiled, sweetly, and looked up to her spider. "Anyone else, love?"

"Thank you, no," said the Widowmaker. "I think that should do." She turned her gaze slowly across the room. "Unless, of course, anyone else has additional commentary to bring to the conversation?"

The room became quiet, and still.

"Then shall we get to the tasks at hand?" asked the Widowmaker. Looking past the table, she said, "I'm sure our hosts can handle the mess, can't you?"

A couple of agents in matching grey suits nodded. "Just waiting for your permission to move, ma'am," said the smarter of them.

Widowmaker chuckled. "Excellent. Please do." Turning back to the room, she said, "Why don't we get down to business?"

solarbird: (tracer)

"aaaaAaAAAaAAAAA NO" Lena shot upwards, blurring blue and red, teleporting right and up, across the room, almost into the wall, knocking over a lamp which crashed to the floor before she even knew she'd done any of it.

Amélie, startled in her sleep, leapt out of bed and had her rifle out and scoped before she, too, could fully awaken. But after a moment, she calmed herself, and looked to Lena, climbing down from her terror. She put the Widow's Kiss aside and calmly walked over to her partner. "You're here, ma chérie, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me, not in the airplane, not on fire, you're with me..."

Lena's gaze darted randomly, until she locked onto Amélie, eyes still wide, still hyperventilating.

Amélie put her arms around her beloved. "Now, I have you..."

Breathe, Lena thought, breathe, as her lover took embraced her. Breathe. This can't happen. Breathe. What can't happen? Breathe. She put her head on Amélie's shoulder. That felt right. Breathe. She put her arms around Amélie, pressing against her, that too felt right, and wonderful, breathe, like it felt when... what? Like it felt when what?

Amélie knew these nights well. They were not common, not exactly, but came often enough to have a routine. Doctor Mariani had, at Amélie's insistence, examined her beloved three times now; she'd assured her there was no physical issue either with her or her web, said that while she was not a psychiatrist, it looked to her like classic trauma reaction.

But the spider was not so sure. Something poked at her mind, something vibrated the web, just a little, like an echo of something large, long ago, or something yet to come, far away. "You're with me, you are not on fire, I have you, you are safe, it is over," she kept repeating. It always seemed to help.

"This. Can't. Happen." Venom said, quietly.

Amélie tilted her head, confused. This was new. "What cannot happen?" she asked. "Should I... should I not be doing this? Should I let go?"

"NO!" shouted Lena. Breathe. "No. Hold me. Never let go. But..." What can't happen?

She almost has something, Amélie thought. Something different. Not more of the empty echoes of things that never were. Something more. Perhaps. She held her lover tightly against her, manoeuvring them both back over to the bed, and stroking her hair.

Venom slumped. It was gone. Breathe. Whatever it was, it was gone. "Damn. I... I almost had it, that time. I think. I thought."

"You said," Amélie prompted, "'this cannot happen' ... no, that's not quite right, it's 'This. Can't. Happen.' with little pauses, like that." Amélie thought she could almost smell the scent of burning jet fuel. "The Slipstream disintegrating around you, again?"

Lena shook her head, negatively. "No. Well... not really. But sort of. That, too." And not for the first time, she did not need to say. Breathe. "But... no. The order's wrong, it's back to front. Something else."

"Could it have been triggered by the mission?" she spider worried. "Your first night out, we were successful, but it was new and explosive..."

Lena laughed. "Nah, love. That was great." She smiled, genuinely, the fear and dread quickly dispelling. "Ho, that's funny," she said, relief in her voice. "Just thinking about it, I feel better." Hugging her partner close, as the last of the terror slipped away, she continued, "...yeah. I think about being on mission with you, working together, and it's - the dread, I mean - it's just gone."

Amélie closed her eyes for a moment, and thought, if there is a god, I thank them for that. Opening her eyes, she asked, "You are sure?"

Lena nodded, eyes clear, if all too awake for the middle of the night. "fffft," she said, "I'm not complicated, love. I know how I feel. I'm sure." She looked at the clock. "Great. 3am. I've ruined both our sleeps. I'm sorry."

"Do not let it concern you, I am just glad you are feeling better." She squeezed her partner tightly, and they crawled back under the covers.

"I wish we were back on Alicudi," Lena said, wistfully, curled up with her blue lover. "I'd go listen to the waves 'til I got sleepy again."

"I know," Amélie sighed. " I miss it as well. I would come with you. We could stay out all night and fall asleep under the stars, as far as I am concerned." She frowned. "Sombra's fake listing was a little too inviting."

Lena chuckled. "Booked through August. She thinks the whole thing's hilarious."

"Of course she does," Amélie said, crossly.

"'Look! We have real vacation reviews! Ooh, they're very good!'" Venom liked the hacker, but her sense of humour could be inconvenient at times. There really was no need for registration functionality. Not that actually worked.

"At least tourist season will be over soon," Amélie said, resignedly.

"She wants a commission, y'know."

"Fine. I will charge it back to her later," said the spider. "Perhaps, 'inconvenience fees.'"

Lena laughed. "Nice."

"Roll over," Amélie said. "I'll rub your back until you fall asleep."

"...does that work?" asked the younger assassin, obeying.

The elder assassin nodded, though her partner could not see her do so. "Every time."

solarbird: (tracer)

The first thing Winston said, upon seeing Lena appear on his screen, was, "So, you're part of the Talon team, now. I can't say I'm happy to hear it."

Lena let out a little "heh," before answering, "It's that obvious?"

"Seriously? After London? Yes. It is. I presumed explaining that was what prompted getting me and Widow... me and Amélie to talk, yesterday."

"Yeh," Lena nodded. "I wanted you to know - really know - that she wasn't..." she waved her hands around, "whatever you thought she was. An automaton. A mind-controlled slave. Whatever," she shrugged. "And neither am I. I need to be somewhere I can make a difference. This is what I've got; I'm takin' it."

The scientist on screen nodded, three seconds later. In a thoughtful tone, he replied, "I think I believe her now. In some ways, it's harder to accept than the old neural reconditioning story. I never would have imagined who she really was, back then. The same, I guess," he added, "goes for Gérard."

Lena nodded. "She's real, all right. She always has been. And Talon is doing something, Winston, when nobody else is, not really." She beamed, despite everything. "The girlfriend part, well - that's a bonus!"

"Theoretical goals - and girlfriend - aside, they're doing things in ways I can't support."

"I know," she accepted. "I think I can help them. I think I can improve them. Maybe make Talon something you could support. I do have unique access to the top, after all."

Winston frowned. "I don't see that ever happening."

"Don't count me out, luv," she said, with her half-grin. "I've budged you on Amélie, I doubt you saw that one coming."

She had a point, and even if he didn't want to admit it, his body language did. So he huffed, and said, "You should've radioed me more often. I have some access to resources. Angela could've tried to get you out."

"I couldn't get up in the air. Or, I guess, I mean, I couldn't get isolated enough. Once I started noticing the surveillance, I started seeing it everywhere."

"It couldn't've been that bad," he grumbled.

"It was that bad. I think. They'd been grinding me down for a while, it's hard to be sure. And I wasn't gonna let myself get searched. Any chance they'd take the retrieval beacon was..." she shuddered. "No. I couldn't risk that."

"You didn't seem to have a hard time contacting me from on top of Big Ben, maybe something like that could've..."

She smirked - Elizabeth Tower, you twit, she thought, somewhat crossly - but let it slide. "Sure! When I had my grapple. I couldn't bring that back from the dead with me, now could I?" She bent over and pulled the kit up off its shelf, holding it before the camera and smiling. "Have it back now, though." She slapped it onto her left forearm, all form-fitting black and violet. "Secure. Super light. It matches hers, I like that." She twisted her wrist, completely unimpeded. "Feels nice."

"Still," he insisted, "you should've gone back to Brighton, at least, or..."

"No." Anger flashed into her eyes, hard and quick, a line crossed. "You don't understand. They'd done me in, big guy - I was falling apart."

"But Lena..."

"No. You want to know how I spent Thursday - Thursday last? I spent Thursday last in bed. I couldn't. even. get. out. of. bed," she said, hands in angry fists. "Brighton? Seriously? "

"Lena, I..."

"NO," she demanded, "I can take anything but nothing, turns out. There, now you know too, everybody else does, why not you? They figured that out. They figured it out, and my own Forces used it against me. Then when they'd tipped me over, they brought me in and brought down the hammer, hoping to finish me, and I am not fucking kidding when I say it was either bring in the cavalry or blow up their fucking building, mate, and it was a fucking close call."

"I've never seen you like this, ever," he said, taken aback, "Lena, what's..."

"Aren't you even listening!?" Lena shouted at her friend, rising and slamming her hands down onto the table. "She saved me, Winston. Twice now. Not you, not Overwatch, not the RAF, she did. She caught me when I was falling, both times, not..." Lena vibrated in place, blue and red, and stripes shining through her clothes. "No. No. No," she said, to herself. She put her fists together, at her waist, and closed her eyes, and sat. "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe." she repeated, as the colours faded.

After a couple of minutes of long, silent, deep breaths, she opened her eyes again. "I'm... really sorry about that, big guy. That wasn't just misdirected, that was wrong. I'm not..." breathe "mad at you. At all. You've always been there as best you could," breathe "and without you, Amélie couldn't've brought me back." Another breath. "I had no business saying what I did just now, none at all, and I'm sorry for it..." breathe "I just get so angry, so quickly, right now." Another long, deep breath. "Amélie's trying to help me with it. I'm back to Shambali-school meditation, too." Another breath. "It's always helped me get things worked out. Helped get me under control."

Winston just stared, sadly, and then, carefully, leaned back forward, and said, "I... I didn't understand how badly they'd hurt you. I shouldn't've pushed. I'm sorry too."

The teleporter nodded, and breathed. "Not your fault, luv. They'd've had my psych profiles, Forces and Overwatch both. They," she breathed, "they probably put a team on it. Must've focused right in."

"I didn't think they'd do that," he quietly said.

A little bit of an experienced smile. "Neither did I, luv." A deep breath, and she closed her eyes again. "Guess I was a bit naive."

"I'm sorry."

She exhaled, long and slow, and shook her head, blinking her eyes open. There, she thought. Centred. Much better. "I will kill them for it, someday," she said, cheerfully matter-of-fact.

"I'm sorry for that, too."

"I'm not!" she said, almost brightly. "I'm not that naive, luv. I'm not the first person they've done this to."

"...almost certainly not."

"You know, right? That neural reconditioning you talk about, with Amélie?"

"...yes."

"That they have it."

"...yes."

"That they've used it?"

"...I know."

"Then," she rocked back and forth in her chair, idly, "I guess we understand each other."

He nodded. "I suppose we do."

"Will you still be my friend, though?" she asked, a little hopeful, a little plaintive, a little afraid.

"Always," said Winston, firmly.

solarbird: (tracer)

"Good evening, Winston," said the elder assassin.

"Widowmaker," said the ape, grimly, with a three second delay. "I see you have acquired Lena's prefix code."

"Thank you for responding," she said. "We have not talked in some time."

"Using Lena's code set will get my attention. Does she still have access to it too?"

The spider smiled wanly and leaned out of the way. Lena popped into view, "Hiya, big guy! It's okay, I'm here, she's using my kit."

Winston blinked confusedly. "oh! Hello! Where have you been? I hadn't heard from you in a few weeks, and then I heard about London. What exactly happened?"

"I'll tell you tomorrow, now that I don't have MI5 watching my every breath. It'll be a lot easier to get ahold of you from now on! But Amélie needs to talk to you alone, and I wanted to make sure you'd answer, so... hear her out, will ya? For me?"

Winston did not look pleased by the request. "I... what's this all about?"

this is a long one )
solarbird: (tracer)

A violet sphere of energy burst overhead, and most of the nearby lights went out. Two sniper shots, muffled, but audible to a practised ear, came in rapid succession. A short burst of less-muffled machine gun fire - and then a small armoured ship appeared from overhead, dropping hard and fast to low hover. The large hatch on the side blew open; from inside, a masked figure shouted in a machine-like tone, "GET OVER HERE."

Lena ran. Ran, and dove, reacting, not thinking, onto the platform, and it raised, carrying her with it. As she tumbled to the deck, the masked figure said, "Trafalgar Square?! Points for style, but are you insane?" now with a distinctly Hispanic accent.

"It was either that or blow up Fleet House, mate. I thought this would be better."

"I'm not so sure."

"I could still change my mind."

"Get in the crash chair, we're moving quickly."

Widowmaker appeared at the opposite hatch shouting, "GO, GO, GO," slammed its close button, and dove into a second crash chair as the ship shot forward, horizontally, low, and vanished from sight over a partially darkened Old London.

"Fourteen... thirteen..."

The ship shot west, tilting upwards, pulling four Gs for 12 straight seconds, as it just cleared buildings.

"That... was fast..." said Lena from her crash chair as the retrieval ship broke towards the Channel.

"We've been keeping an eye on you," said Sombra, with some effort, from the pilot's seat.

"Several," said Widowmaker, somehow effortlessly. "No one escapes from my sight. But... Trafalgar? Êtes-vous une folle? Why?"

"I... I'm not even sure. I think I wanted to give 'em the two-finger salute. I wanted them to know."

"Well," Amélie admitted with a mix of amusement and irritation, "they certainly know now."

"Four minutes thirty seconds to international airspace," said Sombra, from the pilot's seat. "33 seconds to cloak recharge."

"I didn't expect you to bring in a bloody troop carrier. How are we not shot down?"

Sombra mocked, "World's greatest intelligence agency! Spycraft is in our blood! And they still rely on CCTV. Pathetic - they won't even be sure you're gone until we're too far away to care." As gravity returned to normal, she turned and tossed the semi-prone Lena a seemingly-random collection of electronics. "Much better. Here, a present for you."

"What are they?"

"CCTV relays, a couple of encoders - it's all stuff they were using to track you tonight. Junk, really." A chime from the console. "Cloak reactivated. 15 seconds, changing course."

"So you knew," said Lena, looking towards, but a little past, Amélie.

"We watched them watching you," said the spider, looking back, "and I anticipated, and made contingency plans. I did not know, until they took you in. I'd hoped, if you came back out, that you'd go out of town to summon us - not go as far into town as possible." She checked the tactical board visible on the wall from her crash chair, and to Sombra, said, "No one is painting us. I don't think we need to use the backup boosters." From the pilot seat, Sombra agreed. "Boosters on hot standby."

Lena's focus moved further out again. "They one-thirty-foured me. And they took my license. Amélie," she said, distantly, as the adrenaline surge faded. "They took my wings."

Amélie reached across the lengthening gap, and took Lena's hand. "That, I did not know. So that is why... all this." She scowled. "I know what it meant to you. I am displeased, but much more than that, I am sorry."

"I told you they were bastards," Sombra chimed in. "10 seconds to full cloak charge..."

"Tactical board still clear. At recloak, bring us down to noise level and evade; we should be able to demicloak the rest of our way out."

"Cloaked... dropping... we're in the muck. Stealthed."

"Thank you," said Widowmaker. But she stayed in her crash chair, counting seconds. Three minutes to international airspace. "Once we hit the channel, deploy the decoy east and drop below Mach 1 - let's take the long way home."

"Got it."

-----

"I want to kill him," the now-signless pilot said, awake again, fury seeping from every syllable. "I get it now. I want to kill him."

"I understand," said the spider, carefully. But it is unnecessary, she thought.

Tracer - no, not Tracer, she'd need a new name - paced around the small cabin, as the ship flew quiet and low over the north equatorial Atlantic, moving slowly towards normal traffic lanes, just another surplus straggler finding its way back to its place.

"I want to kill him," the pilot repeated. "With my own hands. I want it to be close, I want it to be personal, I want him to know why."

"I am hearing you," the assassin said again, soothingly. "I am listening; tell me. Tell me all of it."

The former Flight Officer raged, "They knew I was back. They knew who I was the whole time, toying with me, trolling me even, I see it now. They were watching me since I showed up at the consulate and they cut me off and they moved my friends and threatened the one they didn't and they bled me 'till I almost gave up and died and then they took me and they put me in a box and told me to go do nothing and be nowhere and they took my wings and they took my life and they treated it like some kind of favour and now I want to take them and show them what kind of favour it was."

"I believe you, and I hear you. Keep going."

"Why?!" the flyer shouted, "What else is there? The box, the glass room, it was a bomb chamber, I get it now, I didn't get it at time, they were ready for me to explode, or they were ready to blow me up, I don't even know which, they'd planned it since I reappeared, I am so angry and feel so sick..." Pain and anger radiated from her body, so clearly the assassin could almost see it, as she slammed her fists down onto the flattened crash chair, now a bench, and then sat, face in her hands. "Why?! Why would they do that?"

If she did not want to kill them, I would..., thought the spider, struggling to keep her own emotions controlled. No, she realised, I do want to kill them. Not for history. For her. "I will tear through them until not one is left standing, if that is what you truly need," she said, voice quick with her own unexpected cold fury.

Lena looked up, face wet, and the blue woman thought, She has had no one, for weeks. "I have missed you," she couldn't not continue, aloud, reaching out her hand, "more than I could have possibly imagined. May I sit with you?"

Lena grabbed Amélie and pulled the taller woman down beside her, sobbing as the dam broke, digging into Amélie's shoulder and gasping for air, just holding her, so tightly, "i've missed you so much, it's hurt so much "

"I stayed away," Amélie said thickly, through her own new tears. "I didn't want to, but I did, until you called. It's what you said you wanted." She pulled the smaller woman closer against her, holding on tight in return. "Please say it's what you wanted. Please, please, or I will burst, I..."

"It was..." Lena managed slowly, though shuddering breaths that she fought to control, "...I thought I needed..." another heaving breath, "oh god, Amélie, I was so wrong..."

"Everyone," said the blue woman, finding herself suddenly, confusingly happy, "is wrong. Sometimes. But you are not, for me. Not ever."

"Don't let go. Never let me go again."

Not unless you want me to, the spider thought. Only then. But that is not what you need right now. And the most rational part of her mind raced, I need you with a whole heart, but I need that heart to be whole, and it is tearing...

And then, with the clarity of stars in a deep black sky, she knew.

"Pilot," she said softly, "would you fly us home?"

Lena gasped, eyes instantly wide open. "..."

"Sombra needs a break, she has not slept, and we are not too far away now. Are you cleared on this kind of craft? Could you take us home?"

A final heaving sob out of Pilot Oxton, and then she sniffed and laughed amidst the crying, and for the first time in what felt like years a smile peeked through the tears falling like rain. "uh," she sniffed, and swallowed, "B, uh, B-10M class, right?" She looked around. "Yeah. I can fly her. If... if Sombra doesn't mind..."

"Sombra needs a nap," came a voice from the flight deck. The hacker, being no fool, had already put the ship on autopilot, and stood by the empty flight chair, smirking and motioning towards the empty seat. Lena stepped up to that chair, and looked back to Amélie. "Stay with me? It's been a while."

"Always."

Lena sat down, put on the flight headset, and grasped the pilot's yoke. "Yeah," she said. "Let's go home."

solarbird: (tracer)

"I think it's time," said the Brigadier. "She seems ready."

"I agree," said the Group Captain, "she should be pliable enough, now. Let's bring her in tomorrow."

MI5, Fleet House, London.

Two surprisingly fit but otherwise almost aggressively ordinary-looking people escorted Lena Oxton towards an almost aggressively ordinary-looking private office with venetian-blinded glass walls in a room surrounded on three sides by other surprisingly fit but otherwise aggressively ordinary-looking people at aggressively ordinary-looking desks.

If Pure Gym had a security division, she thought, as she was not quite shoved, but quite briskly moved through the short glass hallway to her destination, this would be it. Crikey, those are thick walls - I'm in real trouble now.

"I'm a British subject, you can't do this. I've got rights." she said to the man at the desk, after the agents dropped her into a chair and exited the room. The man actuated a control, and the blinds closed, leaving them alone. He tapped at the nameplate on his desk - Group Captain Aubrey Henderson - and said, "Salute your superior, flying officer, or I'll have you for insubordination."

Flying Officer Oxton's heart leapt and she snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir! My apologies, sir."

"Much better," said the G/C. "At ease."

"Thank you, sir!" She burst out, too rapidly, "I've been trying to get someone to listen to me for weeks, and I've had a lot of nothing back for it. You're the first person who's even acknowledged who I am! I, I, I, didn't realise I'd been reactivated!" She beamed. At last, she thought, I've got through! "Sir!" She almost saluted again.

The older man glared, and she toned it down immediately. "I know," he grumbled. "We've been following you since you contacted the consulate in Pretoria. Sit." He motioned Oxton back to her seat, and sat down behind his desk. "Quite frankly, some of us have been hoping you'd just give up and go away, back to... wherever you came from."

"...sir?" said the Flying Officer, uncertainty replacing happiness on her face, as Imogen's words spooled through her memory. "I've been missing for..."

"I know the story," he interrupted. "You've told it about half a dozen times at this point, in full, I think?"

"...yes, sir. Before people stopped letting me in. Sir."

"It hasn't improved."

Not knowing what to say, Lena said nothing.

"Look at it from our standpoint," said the Omnic War veteran. "You die in a fighter test flight, killed over Greece. We retire you, with honours. We investigate, we find out your whole organisation was a horror, ridded with... funds abuse, embezzlement, questionable human experimentation, out-and-out war crimes, and even worse. And so, we put it away." He tapped the top of his cold, metal desk. "I put it away."

Oh no, thought Tracer. "Yes, sir."

"And now, two years after we finally had it all sorted, and the press have moved on and the public have started to forget and forgive, one of the few people not implicated shows back up, out of nowhere, outside our consulate building in South Africa, with a story not even a schoolboy would believe - the prodigal daughter returns, and starts poking her nose where it isn't wanted and no longer belongs."

"Sir?"

"What do you expect us to think? What do you expect us to do with you?"

"Sorry, sir," she said, with just a hint too much insubordination, "I thought the military might want to know one of their missing officers was alive."

Cute, he thought. "It was that ape, wasn't it. Somehow, he brought you back. From the moon." He shook his head - it still sounded foolish aloud. "I can't blame him for that - you were friends. But I can blame him for whatever he's built into you."

Lena froze. I haven't been near a military examination room, how did they know? What else do they know? She swallowed. "...sir?"

"You're a not a terrible liar, pilot, but you're not a good one either. Bioluminescent tattoos isn't the worst line..."

"Regulation-compliant within Overwatch, sir, nothing visible in uniform," she interjected, before he sternly continued "...but it's still a line. You're six kinds of wired up, and we know it."

Shite, she thought, scrambling for some way to salvage the story, "Sir, Winston had nothing to do..." That's not better, think before you talk, Oxton!

"I'll pretend you didn't say that," he said, "because the alternatives are far worse. For you."

"...sir." she said, outright afraid now. He's called me F/O, I must have some standing, I can use that, I have rights. "Has my commission been reopened, sir?"

"Not formally," the G/C replied, "which is why you're not in the brig for desertion, first, and more severe charges, later." He sighed, and leaned back off the top of his desk. "I don't think you're a villain, flight officer. The problem is - none of us really know what you are. I've brought you in to offer you a way out. I'm offering you a deal - and I promise you, it was the very best one I could make."

"A deal, sir?" she said, quietly, stalling for time and thinking quickly, I can live without the service, she thought. I can live with that. I can still do good work. There are plenty of other opportunities for a good pilot. Médecins Sans Frontières, maybe, they can always use...

He picked a padd off his desk, and tossed it towards her to catch. "Approve this. We reopen your commission and close it, this time as a medical discharge. We give you five years' back salary - more than enough to get you on your feet. You go away, again, get a job, and and live a quiet life somewhere. You don't talk to the press; you don't write a book; you don't do video; you're Lena Oxton, ex-RAF, not Lena "Tracer" Oxton of Overwatch." He gestured towards the PADD. "Section IV invokes the Official Secrets Act - whether you agree or not."

Tracer shuddered at that, and it took a forceful act of will not to teleport out of the building. "You're one-thirty-fouring my life, sir?"

"No, not your life. Just Overwatch, and Tracer."

"Sir!" the pilot spat out, "This is unfair. This is wrong. You can't do this. Sir."

"Move out of London - preferably, somewhere unimportant - within a week. After that, never get within five kilometres of a military or intelligence base, unless specifically recalled, ever again."

That's a big no-fly zone, she thought. "That'll limit my opportunities as a working pilot, sir."

"Your license terminated with your death, Flying Officer, and you're not getting it back. You've been on every no-fly list in the world since you landed at Heathrow; you are grounded. Most likely, for good."

Horror flashed across Lena Oxton's face, and she bolted up from the chair. "Sir! No, sir! You can't do that to me, sir!"

He barked the words, every syllable a body blow, staccato against her frame, "I can and I have, and if you have any sense at all, your next action will be to sit back down, and your next words will be 'Yes sir, I accept, sir.'"

Lena stopped herself - barely - from screaming at the Group Captain, composed herself as best she could, sat, and managed, shakily, "...but flying... being a pilot... it's all I ever wanted. Sir."

Group Captain Henderson let his expression, and his voice, soften a bit. He remembered that feeling - love of the air, the altitude, the endless sky, the pure speed. "I know."

Flying Officer Oxton straightened a bit, and stood her ground. "I've done nothing wrong. Sir. Except die in an experimental vehicle that exploded around me. It wasn't my fault, I'm pretty sure the record shows that, and I don't see why I should lose my license over it. Sir."

"Your record does show that," he agreed, almost kindly, "and, if you agree, it will continue to do so." Then, with a harder edge, "But if you didn't think we'd find out about that device you have embedded inside you, you underestimated us badly."

Keep it together, Tracer, keep that trim tight, she thought. "I, I..." The jig's up now, but... "I need it. It keeps me from sliding back out of time. Sir."

Thank god, thought the Group Captain, exhaling slowly, she said it. "Good. You admit you know. I'd hoped you finally would." It means if you behave, we might actually honour this agreement,, he did not add aloud. "But we don't know what else it does, and the only way to know, for sure, would be to take you apart, all the way down, and study what was left. The only reason we haven't done that already is that you tried so very hard to get our attention."

"Sir." This can't be happening, she thought.

"Would you rather we changed our minds about that, Ms. Oxton?"

"...no," she said, bitterly, "Sir."

The Group Captain nodded. "Then accept the agreement, and you walk out of here a civilian, and intact. We'll be keeping an eye on you, of course, but stay quiet, let people continue to forget all of this, don't do anything stupid, and we'll leave you alone." The older man - older than Ana, probably older even than Reinhardt - leaned forward, with as much compassion as he could push into his blunt, once-chiseled face, and said, "Just walk away, Oxton. This really was the best I could get you. Walk away, and go live your life."

Lena Oxton sat in the chair, suddenly feeling strangely calm, separate, isolated. This is the second time since the explosion I haven't really had a choice, she thought, as she reached out her hand and pressed her thumb against the acceptance screen. I like it this time much less.

Former Flying Officer Lena "[Redacted]" Oxton left the MI5 building for the first and last time. Money instantly appeared in a bank account, a fair and reasonable sum. Ms. Oxton checked that account, took a little bit out in cash at an access point, and treated herself to a lavish dinner, which tasted like nothing, then box seats at a show at the Palace Theatre, which left her utterly unmoved.

Then she walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, around Old London, past Piccadilly and past St. James and past Westminster and along the Thames and across and past the Tate and past the ruins of the London Bridge and back across the river and past St. Paul's and then she didn't even notice anymore, until hours later, at 3am, when she found herself in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square, carrying a worn satchel popular in South Africa some ten years before, with the remnants of her flight suit, her burnt Overwatch identity card, a fake of her old passport, and a change of clothes, old, but serviceable, from a Lutzberg charity shop.

There, standing between the fountains, from a small, round, metal box, she extracted a smaller, round device. Clicking its power cell into place, she held the beacon tightly against her chest, depressed the second button, the one on the top, until it beeped, twice...

...and waited.

solarbird: (tracer)

"Hey, doc!" The pilot waved her arms, and shouted across the square. "Angela!"

"Lena!" The doctor waved back in response, and walked quickly through the thin crowd. "It... it really is you. You look almost exactly the same."

"So do you!" The two women hugged, close. "Gor blimey, doc, it's been so long. You're the first person from the old team I've actually seen in person since Greece. How's Fareeha?"

Angela hugged the pilot again, and whispered into her ear, "I am certainly being surveilled, we should get to my office at the embassy" before leaning back, taking Tracer's shoulders in her hands as if everything were perfectly ordinary. "On a mission, like always. But we're both very well, thank you. I'll be back home with her again in a few days." She showed a decorated gold band on her ring finger. "It's our second anniversary."

"Oooh, nice," said Tracer, looking closely at the interweaved inlays, the halo and the hawk. "Very nice. I'm not surprised, though - you two weren't exactly subtle." She scrounged her pockets for cash. "Let me grab something from the takeaway and we can head over to your place. You don't mind, do you?"

"Of course not! I have the entire afternoon, go ahead." She gestured to the order window. "So tell me, how is life back in London?"

Tracer frowned, and ordered a vindaloo and joined the short queue for pickup. "I'm not alive yet," she said flatly. "Still trying to get that sorted."

"Still?" asked the doctor, confusedly.

"Yah, that's why I'm doing everything in cash. It's like being a tourist in my own home town. Still living in hostels, couldn't get work if I tried, it's just every-day all-day throw myself at another corner of military bureaucracy."

"That sounds terrible. Have you tried the civilian authorities?"

"Yeh, I gave up and submitted a bunch of forms earlier today. But if I could get the bleedin' forces to pay attention, I wouldn't have to. I'm an officer! This shouldn't be so difficult."

"Surely some sort of official status is better than none," said Angela.

"Not too sure about that, luv." Tracer's curry arrived, and she grabbed it, a couple of napkins, and her tea. Turning to go, she confessed, "Honestly, outside flying, outside Overwatch... I'm starting to wonder if I ever even had a life."

-----

"Sorry if this messes up any of your tests," said the pilot, putting away the last of her second lunch. "But I was ravenous. Happens a lot these days."

"Well, I won't be able to tell you much about cholesterol levels or blood sugar, but that's not exactly why we're here, is it? You look quite fit."

Lena just smiled, happy to be looking at anyone she recognised. "Bloody hell, it's good to see someone I know. Even if you were always just 'the doc.'"

Dr. Ziegler smiled professionally back. "Before you say anything else - anything else - authorise this." She offered the pilot a padd, with forms.

"What is it?"

"It confirms that I'm your doctor. Doctor-patient confidentiality is core to my organisation and we're prepared to defend it. I assure you, whatever I see or record, it will not go to the British - or Swiss - governments. We are on Swiss soil, and I am notoriously prickly."

"Brilliant." Tracer keyed her acceptance. The form even looked like an Overwatch document. It felt like being back at old home, and her heart ached a moment for it.

"And this document," the doctor changed pages, "is not standard. But it authorises me to share your data with Winston. He has legal standing with us in ways he does not in Britain." Tracer approved again.

"Now, we may talk freely. But clothing off, please. Let's get you looked over."

Lena threw her shirt and trousers off, onto the chair, revealing the intricate pattern of bands of light, blue or red or white, flowing across her body, from upper right shoulder to lower left leg.

Angela was visibly taken aback. "Gott in Himmel. It's beautiful. You are living art."

"Clever, innit? I can control how it looks," she said, and faded it to a series of thin lines across her skin. "But I wanted to show off."

"This is what it takes to keep you in time, then?"

"S-," ..ombra, she almost said, but did not quite, "Since I got pulled back, yah. There was an earlier version that just belted on, but it wasn't stable. I kept," she shuddered, a little, remembering the feeling, "trying to phase back out of time."

"One broken strap from vanishing? That does not sound like a good solution, no," offered Angela.

"I'd've lost the plot in a month from stress and lack of showers. Can't lose this, though - it's part of me." She ran the traces through a cycle of soft, calming blues. It reminded her of No, she thought to herself, leave it. "I tell people it's bioluminescent tattoo. The latest thing, in Greece! Everybody wants them now."

"I understand why." Dr. Ziegler selected a pair of scanners. "With your permission?"

Lena hesitated. "You sure this place isn't bugged?"

The doctor smiled, and nodded. "Quite sure."

-----

"Good morning, Winston," said the doctor, a week later.

"Angela," he said pleasantly, sipping at a cup of tea, one and a half seconds ago. "How are you this fine morning?"

"Quite well, thank you. I'm in Egypt; Fareeha's just off to work. I'm ready to transmit the data, if you're set up to receive it."

"Go ahead," said the scientist.

"Sending," she said, pressing confirm.

"How was she, in person?" he asked, as the progress metre slowly climbed.

"Physically well. She's in fantastic aerobic condition. She has some new scarring - in my opinion, almost certainly burns from the explosion. She lost a toe, and broke several bones, but I see nothing to worry about. On the whole, she had to have been remarkably lucky."

"But is she still herself, to you?"

"As far as I can tell, she is. But while were perfectly friendly, before - professional friends, yes? - I didn't know her like you did. I would miss subtleties." She looked thoughtful. "Even so... even to me, she seems very lonely."

Winston nodded, sadly. "I can't even imagine what she's been going through. If I could just get down there..."

"I think that would be good, if only it could be done." The doctor paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. "But to the larger question..."

"Don't say it."

Mercy smiled, as close to wickedly as she ever came, "the ten thousand pound gorilla in the room..."

"For the last time, Angela - I am not ten thousand pounds!" he huffed.

Angela giggled, the Swiss equivalent of a guffaw, and continued, "...the hardware itself. It's extraordinary. The shielding is perfect, and where it cannot be shielded, it is too fine for nondestructive deep scans. I could get nowhere with it."

"Damn," said the ape. "So we still don't even know what it does."

"Not so," she gestured with her left hand, "we know it's a chronal accelerator. Of that, I am sure. We just don't know what else it might do."

He put more sugar in his tea. "Like mind control."

The doctor drew in a deep breath. "No, I don't think so. The brain interfacing is all motor cortex and reflex. It's meticulous work - it had to have been grown into place - and the guiding was magnificent." She highlighted some of the interface points, and at each level further down, the integration became, if anything, more complete. "It is truly a part of her, as much as any other part of her body."

"Huh." Winston peered at data sets as the first files completed upload. "Like your nanites?"

"A different approach, but if anything," said Mercy, "moreso. Whoever did this - it's not new to them. They've been doing this. They have practice."

"You could replace someone's whole brain with these techniques, couldn't you," he said, grimly.

"Certainly. But you can also do that in a chair with a combination of drugs, conditioning, and high-precision electromagnetic fields, and not leave so much evidence." She leaned forward on her elbows, towards the screen. "I know what you're thinking. Amélie had nothing like this in her brain. Whatever has been done to your friend Lena - I think her mind is still her own."

"With respect, doctor, you thought that about Amélie. We all did."

Dr. Ziegler nodded, resolutely. "I still do."

September 2017

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