The string of fancy outdoor lighting that ran the length of the wall dimmed, then winked out when Pritchard pulled one of many cables from the power supply. To Adam, it looked like someone yanking life support away from a fading patient; the Rialto, a place he'd visited many times at the height of its splendour, would never be lit up again.
In the alley, the minivan of Pritchard's possessions idled away, warmed the inside while Pritchard hefted an overflowing gym bag of electrical components into the back. Without a word, he knelt, picked up the escaped micro-storage units from the dirty ground. When Pritchard turned, snatched them out of his hands, he let it go without a fight.
A press of his hand against the van's window, and he broke the thirty-minute long silence between them. “I really owe you one, Pritchard. But I gotta ask, where's your bike?”
“Payment.” The glare could have cut glass, as though he was responsible for Detroit's downfall. Light, blaring out from inside the minivan, caught the sway of a ponytail, the waver of stringy bangs as Pritchard shook his head. “You heard Cali, Jensen – I was on their turf, so that made me a tenant . They knew I was useful, but they also wanted me to join them, and since I had no intention of doing that, what better way to force my hand than to start taking all my things?” The micro-storage units tumbled back into the box. “They would probably have tried to recruit you too. All those augs, you'd fit right in.”
“Yeah, we'd be great pals if I hadn't blown them all up.” Even now the memory of Stacks stung. Should've made the poor bastard go back to Seattle.
“No doubt there's still a few staggering around, looking for the next leader.” Pritchard slammed the minivan doors and turned to face him. Gaunt, half-starved cheeks turned a face into a skull. “Why, Jensen? Why did you do it?”
The kiss he'd stolen in the Rialto wings, Stacks snoring below them and the smell of mould everywhere except Pritchard's skin, lasted all of three throbs of heartbeat. He'd never been impulsive, but being home, and seeing how things changed... how the city rotted in the fallout from the Incident...
“You stayed the same.” He shifted, let the dirty window of the van fill his vision. Pritchard stayed still, a shadow, eyes burning. “Everything else... collapsed. Sarif, his grand vision, the whole damn company. My apartment's non-Augs only. Malik's gone. Megan's gone. The place I grew up is... unrecognisable.” A cautious step forward, but Pritchard didn't back away. “But you're still here. Still scuttling around and surviving. Still a bastard.”
“You wanted familiarity?” Pritchard sniffed, arms folded. He took the hint, stopped moving. “That's an odd way of going about it, Jensen. A kiss .” The driver's door opened under Pritchard's hand, and in a moment Pritchard sat inside, shut the door, but buzzed down the window.
He leaned inside while Pritchard turned the engine over, his hand on the frame between door and van roof. “Yeah. I get it. Not a great idea, sorry.” No reply, but his sigh lasted longer than the kiss. “Look, I know you think I'm an asshole –”
“I don't think you're an asshole, Jensen.” Pritchard belted up, clicked the catch in with a harsh snap. “I think you're a tar pit.”
“A – tar pit?” The bemused smile sprang to his lips before he could push it back down. “The hell's that supposed to mean, Francis?”
Silence from Pritchard, those grey eyes staring ahead through the windshield. A twitch of lips, of cheek, like the covering of an oncoming sob. He almost reached out, as he had back at the Rialto, but kept his hands still. Pritchard's head turned his way, but gaze remained firmly ahead. “You... you draw people in, Jensen. I don't know why. You draw them in, and they stick around, slowly sinking. Then you drown them. Same thing that happened to your friend back there.” A shake of head, and Pritchard finally looked at him. “It's not your fault, but it's something that happens with you. If it didn't, then... maybe...”
“Bullshit.” That stung far worse than he wanted to admit. “That's just... that's bullshit. I'm not a damn tar pit!”
The smile that spread on thin lips softened his anger. Pritchard leaned a little closer, but it was sadness that tinged the next words.“Not even I'm immune. I want to stay, Jensen, I really do. But I refuse to drown.”
“You think I should be alone, that it?” The tremble in his voice betrayed any stoicism he could have claimed otherwise. Pritchard”s eyes narrowed as though afraid he would suddenly lunge in through the window.
“I think whatever you do, you are more than capable of doing it by yourself.”
“So that’s a yes. I get it.”
“Don’t get dramatic, Jensen.” Pritchard frowned, adjusted the mirror. “I wouldn’t say that if I thought you couldn’t cope. Besides, you like being alone, admit it.”
“I have a moody loner thing going on? Great.”
A sigh to match his own. Even pissed he wanted to lean in further and take another kiss. Nothing changed. Everything changed. “You’re not sticking around, are you, Jensen?”
Detroit rotted, crumbled above and below them, and the one thing he’d tried to cling to was about to drive off in a dirty old minivan. “No. I’m leaving. Wouldn’t want to suck you in and drown you.”
His hand squeezed, dented the frame with a scream of metal. “Get out of here, Pritchard. There’s nothing left for either of us. Nothing left to say.”
Footsteps echoed around the alley when he turned and walked away. Behind, a quiet noise, an inhale. And then the push of an engine, tyres churning up the junk and debris. The roar faded, lost in the night, and he was alone, again. As he should be.
Breaking into the Palisade Blade bank wasn’t the hardest part.
All the robots and guards and automated defence systems didn’t hold a candle to the challenge of Pritchard perched on his shoulder once more, nasally voice cutting in when he needed it (and when he didn’t.) You ever think about last year? he wanted to say more than once -- on those downtimes before he headed into the bank, or when he stopped to catch his breath. You ever think about the kiss ?
Even figuring out Pritchard still worked with Sarif hadn’t hurt so much. Safer than alone on the street. Safer than with him.
Something happened to Pritchard in the long months between Detroit and Prague -- the man who popped up uninvited on his TV screen could have been a stranger. Washed hair, groomed with attention, cheeks less gaunt, and the fierce spark back in those grey eyes instead of just the stubborn will to make it through another day.
“You know, Jensen, this may be the last time we ever work together.”
Sucking people in. Dragging them down. Yeah, that was for the best.
“Assuming, of course, that you don’t get yourself half-killed saving the world again and call on me to --”
Emotions rising, and soon something would crack. Come over, come to Prague, be here with me.
“Goodbye Francis.” And stopped them both from sinking with a click of a button. The TVsnapped to black. Last time they’d ever work together, maybe the last time they’d ever see each other. “Take care of yourself.”
Snow circled the roofs and spires of Prague, gave form to the breeze. He watched from the window of his apartment, the warmth of the heating filling the high ceiling and spreading through the rooms. People walked down the street, hand in hand or in a staggering group while torn posters fluttered around their legs.
They celebrated on the 24th in Prague, although for many it wouldn’t be much of a party. The Human Restoration Act passed in a landslide win. Deportation to Aug cities was now a certainty rather than an uneasy possibility. And what the hell would happen to him? Rabi'ah? Golem City? Some other pit they’d built to throw Augs in? Or would Miller’s promise of ‘You’re not going anywhere Jensen’ actually be true?
His augmented shoulder picked up the cold from the glass as he leaned against the window. Abandoned over the couch, his shirt puddled into a pile. Halfway undressed to take a shower, but motivation was a fleeting thing these days, and the view captured his attention more than the prospect of being clean. Snowed like this in Detroit on Christmas a few years back, and he and Megan wandered down to the riverfront to watch the flakes fall and dissolve on the water. Something in his chest constricted.
He crossed to the couch, sat down, hands dangling between his knees. The bottle of whiskey on the side table sat half-empty. At least he had one friend.
Fingertips touched the glass neck -
- stopped at the knock on his door.
His hesitation kept him there for a moment, but the whiskey tempted, and he slid his hand home. Whoever wanted to come and fuck up the festivities could knock until they got bored and wandered back the way they came.
Another knock, this one hesitant.
“Sorry pal,” he swung the bottle up, tipped a generous slug down his throat. “Gonna be a no.”
The sentinel health implant knocked most of the alcohol’s effects down, but old habits were hard to break. He took another swallow, the knocking now a frantic boom behind his eyes. Inconsiderate asshole.
“Hey!” Temper roused, he slammed the bottle back on the table with a clunk. “Trying to celebrate here.”
A few more knocks, louder, like someone screaming in his ear. Hard to ignore, as much as he tried. He stood, didn’t bother to slide on his shirt again. Whoever was out there would have to cope with seeing his bare chest, aug scars and all. He flung the door open, and snow rushed in.
Grey eyes blinked at his sudden whirl of fury. He caught himself, held back, a breath startled from his mouth. “...Pritchard?”
Lips tightened into a small smile. “Not the welcome I was expecting, I admit, Jensen. did you leave your manners in Detroit too?”
“What are you doing here?” Snowflakes melted on his chest, beaded to freezing tiny drops. He let them lie there. “I thought I told you not to contact me.”
“Jensen, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve listened to you, and I’m loathe to add to that number. You can tell me that all you like, but I’ve grown used to pinging you every now and again. Just to check in.” Cold rose Pritchard’s sallow cheeks to a dull pink. A thin coat, not much use in a Prague winter, slightly better than nothing at all. A duffle bag draped over one of Pritchard’s shoulders, and that unkempt appearance had crawled back in, ruffled hair into greasy strands.
“You left in a hurry.” The heat rushed past, eager to empty his apartment, but he stood there, arm against the frame, waiting for something, an answer, a justification. The pink bled a little more under his scrutiny.
“Why are you here? Why my door, Francis? Did Sarif send you, or did he abandon you back onto the street?”
“Sarif has nothing to do with why I’m here!” Fluster yanked Pritchard’s fingers through hair. “Can’t you just make things easier for both of us and invite me in, Jensen? We both know you’re going to anyway. I’m not lucky enough to have a raised temperature like you, I don’t do so well in the cold.”
Tell him no, tell him to go back to Detroit, to stay away from you. He was right, you’re a tar pit, look what happened to Koller, he got attached and then those assholes killed him. Because of you.
But Pritchard was right there , no sneer to mar that face, as close as that second of friction in the Rialto.
Do you ever think about last year, do you remember the kiss-
His feigned snort would have impressed a bull, but he turned away from the open door, wandered back inside. Warmth wrapped around him, even as the little beads of water trickled down his chest and face. Pritchard’s footsteps tapped with a slow deference, crossing the line into his territory. The click of door closing sent a jolt zooming around his stomach, but he locked that down with a shake of his head.
When he reached the couch, he sat back, contemplated the TV as though he’d been busy watching the blank screen before Pritchard arrived. “So what do you want, Francis? Was kinda hoping to do my own thing tonight. You got another bank that I need to rob? Another drunk to intimidate? You’re wasting your time. I’d like a nice quiet evening before I get shipped out of the city to some Aug holding pen.”
The sound of zipper, and the shuffle of material. He glanced around to see Pritchard removing the thin coat, an equally-thin plain black hoodie underneath. “Spending Christmas alone, Jensen?”
“You once told me that I should be alone. Now here you are. Perfect.” He raised the whiskey, tilted it in Pritchard’s direction. “Here’s to getting people killed. Here’s to being a- a tar pit .”
He finished the swig, set the bottle back down. “Can’t get drunk. That something else you forgot, Francis ?” The acid emphasis ate through into a reservoir of his anger. “Whatever you’re doing here, do it, then leave.”
Standing in the middle of his apartment, awkward and lanky, Pritchard fidgeted with the strap of the duffle bag. “I came to see you-”
“You’ve seen me, great, mission accomplished, leave.”
“- and to give you something.”
His curiosity reared its head, but outwardly he sniffed, shrugged. “Give me what?”
The duffle bag hit the floor, and Pritchard fumbled with the string. He waited through long minutes of quiet cursing before Pritchard thrust a data transfer port in his direction. It wasn’t until he reached out for the small plastic rectangle that he noticed Pritchard’s hands shook. From the cold, or fear?
The plastic twisted in his fingers. “You came all this way to give me an electronic Christmas card? Thanks, but you could have just mailed it. After all, you obviously know where I live…”
“No- Jensen, it’s-” Pritchard gesticulated with the frantic waving of a madman. He had to hold out a palm in a ‘take it easy’ motion before Pritchard settled down with a huff. “It’s information. When you cracked open the Blade, I managed to download some useful insights on Rabiyah for Sarif. But that wasn’t all - I found some stuff out about the Human Restoration Act as well.”
“You could have mailed that too.”
The melted snowflakes on Pritchard’s face caught the light, and grey eyes stayed on his face, wary. Like back at the Rialto, he wanted to slide his hands behind Pritchard’s back and press a kiss to those thin lips. Anything to stop feeling so alone, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t.
Koller had screamed his name over the infolink before that last gunshot. Some nights he still woke to it in his ears, those trapped and panicky whimpers lingering in his half-sleep, woke sweating and calling out. If that happened to Pritchard, guilt would burn him from the inside out, leave a hollow shell instead of a man.
“Look, Jensen,” Pritchard said after a moment of uncomfortable silence, “I won’t waste your time. I came to see you. I came because I knew you’d be here alone. Dropping off the information on the rigged vote… That was only half of it, I’ll admit.”
A rigged vote? If that was proof, honest-to-God proof, then maybe someone would listen to him about the damn Illuminati instead of rolling their eyes when he brought it up. “What was the other half?”
“I…” Pritchard’s eyes went to the floor. “At the Rialto…” His heart stopped, quit for one short beat. “When I called you a… a tar pit. I think I hurt your feelings, and I wanted to say that I apologise for that. If there had been more time- or, I suppose what I’m trying to say, Jensen, is that if we worked something out -”
The endearing babble stopped when he shook his head, the lump in his throat turning his voice from gravel to grinding boulders. “Don’t. Don’t apologise, Pritchard. You were right. I should be alone.”
Alarm widened white around grey eyes. “I didn’t mean that- you don’t deserve to be alone, I only said that because-”
“No.” He made the word final, and Pritchard’s mouth shut. “People around me get hurt. That’s a fact. I can deal with that, or I can’t. With you… I don’t think I could, Francis.”
Another silence, even more uncomfortable than the last. Pritchard’s hands gripped opposite shoulders as though hugging Pritchard back into himself. White knuckles. Strained fingers. Outside, another howl of wind-whipped snow against the glass with a faint pitter. Not how he wanted to spend his Christmas. When Pritchard eventually uncurled, red cracked the white of eyeballs. Not crying, but close. “I want to stay here.”
“You can hop your ass back on the plane to Detroit, Pritchard. So I’m a tar pit. Safest place for you is four thousand miles away from me.”
A hand caught his upper arm, halfway between flesh and augmentation. Pritchard’s snarl was a furious, desperate, beautiful thing. “You bastard, you wanted me so bad at the Rialto, now you don’t even care?”
“ Of course I care! ” His shout startled Pritchard back, his arm released. “I care so much that it scares me! You think I want to hear you through my infolink, begging me to come save you before some asshole puts a bullet in your skull?”
The table upended under his hand, the whiskey escaped the bottle and glugged out its last onto the rug. Pritchard’s face had gone from pink to a dead white.
“You think I want to see you dead? You’re right, I’m a tar pit - I’m a fucking tar pit!” His heart raced, breath hard, then slowing… slowing. “And you’re getting yourself sucked in again.”
“And what about me?” Pritchard’s voice trembled, wavered. Made him want to close the distance. “Don’t I get a say at all, Jensen? Maybe I’m tired of struggling. Maybe I just want to give up and let myself drown if it means… being here.”
If he reached out, he would touch Pritchard. If he touched Pritchard, he would kiss Pritchard. His arm stayed by his side. “You’re a survivor, and you’ll do a lot better without me.”
“That’s not your decision to make.” Stubborn Pritchard came back, the one who’d argued with him in meetings back at Sarif Industries, who’d derided his ideas and plans. “I know the risks. I know what the end will probably look like. And it doesn’t matter. You wanted familiarity, Jensen? Maybe I do as well.”
The rectangle of plastic slipped into his back pocket. It was too easy to close the distance, even easier to lean in and claim Pritchard’s lips with his own.
You’re death, a voice whispered in the back of his head, you’ll bring him suffering.
But the thrill of having Pritchard there with him overrode the voice, sent it slamming back into a dusty corner of his mind. Pritchard’s tongue stroked open his lips carefully, as though expecting fangs, and his thrilled groan sounded far too loud in the apartment.
A sob when they broke apart, but he couldn’t tell whose. Their knees met the ground, and for a long, trembling time, he held Pritchard there, tight to his body, felt the shudders that ran through flesh and bone while his chin nestled in the crook of a shoulder. His fingers brushed through hair, touched the rise of a cheekbone, the silky swell of a lip. Staying with him, no matter what. Not alone, not anymore.
“I regretted it,” Pritchard whispered in his ear, “as soon as I said it, Jensen.”
His lips found neck, chin, explored. Fingertips traced his shoulders, the seam of augmented skin and flesh. The next kiss was a slow, warm press. He wiped the lingering drops from Pritchard’s cheek, and nuzzled into the thin fabric of the hoodie. Chilled skin, a full-body shiver. Shit, he forgot.
He stood, took Pritchard up with him. The information in his back pocket could wait for a little while. He steered Pritchard towards the bedroom, snatched a towel from the bathroom on the way past. More than one way to warm a guy up.
The sky outside faded to dark grey, even as the snowfall increased. He lay on his back, the data port catching the lamplight as it spun over and over between his fingers. Pritchard sighed, already mostly into the Land of Nod, nestled closer to his body. No sense in making the guy sleep on the couch. Hell, maybe having someone else in his bed would quit the nightmares.
He rested one arm over Pritchard’s back and held the data port up to his face. A rigged vote. If this thing contained evidence, he could get those bastards this time. Or rather, they could. A team again, together once more. And in more ways than one.
You will hurt him, you will destroy him.
But he would also make Pritchard happy - or as happy as Pritchard could get. And maybe that curse would pass them by, go chase some other poor bastard, leave them together.
Pritchard’s hair between his fingers. Skin under his mouth. Shared warmth in the bed and the snow battering the window. Contentment hadn’t visited him for years, but curled into Pritchard he relaxed fully, body as eager for companionship as his mind.
He drifted, the ease into sleep smooth and comfortable. No anxious thoughts about a squad of mercenaries suddenly bursting in through the window, or grenades hurled through the door.
Pritchard was right, sometimes it was better to let yourself drown.