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breaking the long loneliness

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It took kind of a long time for GQ to get himself back up to par, after Midway.

Or at least that was what it felt like. To hear the doctors tell it, he was doing exceptionally well and shouldn't push himself and blah blah blah. They'd even been cleared to use a couple of the lower-level artifacts from whatever vault ARGUS had stuck them in, stabilizing him and accelerating everything; it was just that they were trying not to rush it, monitoring him for aftereffects. But it itched, every single second of it, being stuck in Medical with nothing to do but watch his scars turn from red to pink.

To be fair, somebody could be forgiven for thinking that had to be enough entertainment to occupy a week or two. He had a bunch of them—burns, mostly, where the water boiling away from the explosion had scalded him, and some others from the shrapnel, chips of stone and concrete; little thick ones where he'd been caught straight on, longer and narrower and jagged where he'd almost been lucky enough for them to miss him completely.

Not his face, though. Flag teased him about that a lot, afterward—that he'd let his hands, his arms, get fucked up but had saved his pretty face.

Which was an exaggeration, obviously, because that had been half up to the dive mask. GQ had seen it afterward, cracked and distorted, half-melted, and it was all too easy to realize that that could have been his head instead.

But Flag was just messing with him, so when GQ punched him in the arm, he didn't do it too hard. "Oh, like you wouldn't if you had these assets," he said, and Flag laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Yeah, you tell yourself that," Flag said, and then he leaned a little closer, tilted his head and lowered his voice and added, "Seriously, everything okay?"

"Yeah," GQ said, before he could think about it too hard. It was mostly true, even. The worst of the pain was over with, and he hadn't been conscious for a lot of it; he'd gotten lucky and he knew it, nothing worse than second-degree. Lots of guys who worked with Flag's unit had had some pretty unusual scars to show for it, even before the Suicide Squad and some dead goddess got involved. Greenberg's was almost half his face, and Lindholm had nearly lost an eye. The tight shiny skin across the backs of GQ's hands, the palms, his forearms, was hardly anything by comparison—something he could've gotten even if he were a checkout clerk at a dollar store, just by spilling a load of boiling water on himself and then getting set a little bit on fire.

No big.

"Sure," Flag said, not unkindly. "And, uh—" He stopped and cleared his throat, lowered his voice. "He's not bothering you?"

"Huh?" GQ said, blank, and glanced left, right, and—

Oh. Croc.

He should have been hard to miss. Killer Croc didn't exactly blend in with the wallpaper, unless you had some really fucking weird wallpaper. The medical wing here at HQ had reinforced furniture, reinforced everything, precisely because nobody knew what kind of wacky shit might be going in and out on any given day; but Croc was still a little too big to fit comfortably in most of the chairs, and he didn't seem to like them anyway. He had kind of a ridge going down his spine—maybe human chairs pressed on it uncomfortably. That was GQ's best guess, anyway.

So, yeah. Standing there in the corner of GQ's stupid bland-ass "recovery room", half-crouched and still taller than fucking anything else in here, scaly and glowering and watching GQ—stupid, that GQ hadn't realized what Flag meant right away. It was just—

It was just he'd been there the whole time. Since Midway, practically. In the water, he—he'd pulled GQ out of there before the collapsing rubble could crush him. GQ didn't quite remember that part, admittedly. But he remembered afterward: the indescribable, incandescent pain in his hands, his arms; hardly being able to see out of what was left of his dive gear, thinking wildly that it was his eyes, that if he lived he really was going to end up with a face to match Greenberg's. And then Croc, Croc and his huge blissfully cool hands. He'd been the one to pry all that hot metal and plastic off GQ before it could melt its way onto his head, the one to carry him out of those flooded tunnels and up where somebody else could get to him.

And Croc had maybe taken a break to go save the world, judging by everything GQ had learned from Flag later. But for GQ, there had hardly been a gap at all, with the way he'd been going in and out. He just remembered—Croc's hands. Moving, how much it had hurt, breathing through it. Somebody touching him, maybe to lift him onto a stretcher; the way he'd gritted his teeth, the noise he'd made, how Croc had crouched over him and snarled at them. Reaching Medical at last, white clean walls and half a dozen armed guards, somebody asking for orders through a radio—and Croc totally ignoring them, silent, still watching GQ.

And then GQ had woken up for real, once they'd mostly taken care of him, and—Croc had still been there. He must have left to eat sometimes. Right? Maybe when GQ had been sleeping. But he'd been there. He'd been there all week; he'd been there yesterday; and he was there today. And GQ was so used to it he hardly even thought about it anymore.

He looked at Flag, who was looking back with narrowed eyes, an uncertain little pinch at the corner of his mouth.

"Nah, we're good," GQ said, on the off chance Flag would be merciful and leave it at that.

It was just he didn't want to explain it. He didn't even know whether he could. He hadn't liked Croc any more than anybody else had, to start with; but in the water down there under Midway, it had been the two of them against everything, against the world—against those shiny black drone-soldier fuckers, against the bomb, against the whole goddamn building falling in on their heads. It was—GQ kept dreaming about it, about dying alone down there in the dark, drowned or crushed, torn apart. But every time he woke up gasping, Croc was there in the corner looking at him, and that made it so much easier to remember: it hadn't happened like that. It couldn't have, because he'd never been alone down there. Croc had been with him, and still was, and that meant he was going to survive it, one way or another. Even if it hurt, even if it broke him a little—Croc had him, and he'd make it.

Flag squinted at him and didn't say anything. For a second GQ's heart picked up, and suddenly Croc was making this noise in his chest, low and threatening, and GQ could see Flag's hand jerk reflexively toward his piece.

"Seriously," he said quickly, before Flag could do anything he'd regret or make Croc leave—try to make Croc leave, anyhow, because somehow GQ suspected Croc wouldn't go quietly. Which was okay, because—

Because GQ really didn't want him to.

"Seriously, it's fine," he said again, and Flag swallowed, shoulders tight, and deliberately didn't look over his shoulder at Croc—eased his hand away from his gun, clear slow movements, and Croc didn't blink but at least stopped making that rumbling sound. "It's under control. Cross my heart."

And that, at last, made Flag huff a laugh and relax for real. "Man, you can't afford to hope to die," he said. "Somebody almost took you up on it this time."

"Fair enough," GQ agreed, and they grinned at each other and bumped fists—carefully, but GQ actually could pretty much close his hands now. Whatever it was the doctors had used on him, it had healed the skin exceptionally fast; it was the tightness of it that was the problem now, needing to stretch all the pale scarred stuff out just so he could bend his fingers.

And then—well. Then Flag left, and it was just Croc and GQ.

Which had been fine before, but GQ sat there not quite looking at Croc and suddenly it felt weird. Just—that Flag had brought it up, even as carefully as he had, seemed to have made it real somehow. Like otherwise GQ could have gone on forever, Croc looming in the corner like a vaguely damp gargoyle, not thinking twice about it. But Flag had tugged the curtain away, had hinted that there was a guy back there. That maybe the emperor was naked, and maybe that was a little fucked up. And now—was it weird? Had Croc stayed with GQ just because he felt like he should, or because GQ hadn't said he could leave?

Not that it was a characteristic flaw of Killer Croc's, being too shy and retiring and considerate, but—

"You don't have to stick around, you know," GQ made himself say. "I mean, if you'd rather not, or—you don't have to. You know that, right?"

Croc stared at him, and maybe Croc looked a little unimpressed or maybe that was just his face. "Yeah," he said.

GQ waited. Croc blinked at him, and didn't move.

And—and that was kind of an answer, all on its own. Croc knew he could leave, and wasn't doing it. GQ swallowed, his throat feeling weird and tight for a second; and then he shook his head and huffed half a laugh at himself. Fucking ridiculous, to look at Killer Croc standing in his hospital room and feel settled by it, comforted.

But a week ago GQ had almost blown himself up trying to kill a goddess. And if Croc wanted to hang out with him while he lay here uselessly and did stretches for his stupid hands and had nightmares, then GQ sure as shit wasn't going to ask him to stop.

 

 

 

It didn't last forever.

Couldn't—the Suicide Squad had done what they were supposed to, and Waller's patience was measured, tactical, but definitely not infinite. The day GQ got out of Medical, Croc got ferried back to prison; turned out there had been special arrangements made, which GQ hadn't realized until he stepped out of the stupid recovery room and saw the half-dozen guards bristling with heavy arms who'd been right outside the door the whole time.

That made GQ feel even more self-conscious about the whole thing than he had been already. It wasn't just Flag who'd noticed; it was everybody, or at least all the staff in Medical who'd had to go down that hallway all week, plus half Flag's unit and Waller. That she'd allowed it said—GQ didn't know what the fuck it said, except that maybe she'd figured Killer Croc's good behavior in Midway had earned him a single don't-get-shot-in-the-head-free card. He'd proved he could be a useful asset, and if he wanted to spend a week locked down in Medical instead of locked down in Belle Reve, it was probably no skin off her nose.

But small mercies: nobody tried to talk to GQ about it. He got a few too-long looks, a couple jokes about whether it was okay to shake his hand, if Killer Croc was going to jump out of anywhere and rip their arms off for trying it—he did his best to laugh and then let it slide. It wasn't anybody's business anyway. Croc had stuck with him when he'd needed sticking with, and now it was over.

Besides, he had plenty of other shit to worry about. Obviously he had to go through a whole battery of psych exams, get recertified at the range and on all his equipment to prove his scarred hands were still up to the job. Which they were—if anything, the ancient voodoo mumbo-jumbo that had healed him up had made them stronger, steadier. They looked unfamiliar, too, with the scars starting to pale to white already; sometimes he thought of Moone and wanted to throw up a little. But they still felt like his underneath, the bones his own. And if they turned out to be possessed or tried to strangle him or something, well, then at least Medical would know not to try that shit on anybody else.

He was almost back up to snuff by the time Quinn busted out. Which was lucky, because Waller wasn't inclined to take that lying down, and she was almost as intent on proving the Squad could still be useful as she was on figuring out how to get Quinn on a leash again. It was hardly another three days before Waller had come up with something new that called for the Squad.

And wasn't GQ the luckiest man in the world—there was a water approach this time, too.

He spotted it pretty much as soon as he stepped into the briefing room, the layout of this base they were infiltrating already displayed on a screen on the wall. Flag didn't start off talking about that part, but they had to be sending Croc in, right? Maybe to cause a distraction while Lawton slipped in to snipe people, or Katana sliced her way in—or maybe Captain Douchebag blowing things up would be the distraction to let Killer Croc get in unnoticed.

But one way or another, they had to be sending Croc in. And GQ wouldn't be here if he weren't going, too.

He managed to keep a pretty good grip on it during the briefing itself. And for a while after, too; getting one last review from Medical, and checking in with Flag, all that stuff. But then—

Then it was time to gear up, and it felt like before GQ even knew it, before he was ready for it, he was stepping into the same room as Croc again.

For a single frozen instant, he felt so fucking weird about it that he could have blown himself up all over again: he looked for Croc right away, couldn't stop himself even as his face went hot. He was fine, now. He'd even mostly stopped having the nightmares. But when he did have them he still woke up looking for a looming scaly shadow, feeling cold and shaky and sorry when he didn't find it, and what the hell kind of idiot did you have to be to have Killer Croc as the psychological crutch you couldn't make yourself let go of? Jesus.

But Croc was right there. Right there, and looking straight at GQ—his head had come up the moment GQ walked in, pale eyes fixed immediately on GQ's face. GQ walked straight toward him, couldn't help it; and Croc didn't like people, didn't like being crowded, but he didn't move or look away even with GQ coming to a stop barely a half-stride from him.

"Hey," GQ said.

"Hey," Croc said. "Okay?"

"Yeah, I'm all right," GQ said, and Croc looked him over, head to weird scarred hands to feet, and breathed in deep—he had a ridiculous sense of smell, GQ recalled—and then his eyes went half-lidded, satisfied.

"Okay," he said.

They had like five spare feet around them every direction, everybody else leaving a nice clear blast radius around Croc, and for a half-second, GQ thought—he should probably walk away.

But he didn't do it, and Croc didn't walk away from him, either. Croc was—he didn't have any gear to put on, not really, but it didn't seem to bother him any; he just crouched next to GQ and waited, glowering at anybody who looked at GQ sideways and placid the rest of the time.

It should have freaked GQ out, probably. But all he could think was how lucky it was, that if he was going to get all weird about Croc like this, at least Croc seemed willing to let him.

 

 

 

He'd have to try to decide, later, whether it had been bad intel or bad luck or some kind of unholy combination that screwed them over.

In the moment, it was pretty hard to say, because everything seemed fine right up until it wasn't. Being in the water with Croc again was the best GQ'd felt since—since before Midway; it fucking sucked having to split up when they reached the base, each of them assigned to their own route, and in a way—

In a way, it wasn't even a surprise, that he'd leave Croc behind and everything would go to shit. GQ made it in, dragged himself up out of the water, and got about fifteen seconds to take stock before somebody came at him.

He didn't have time to go for a weapon. He hit out hard and got lucky, caught the first guy in the throat with an elbow, but there were two more, maybe three, and it wasn't too long—fifteen seconds of furious blows, maybe twenty if he was generous with himself—before one of them swept his feet out from under him and he was down, on his face, two of them immediately jerking his arms behind his back. He had a moment to hope it had just been bad timing, him running across an unscheduled patrol, and that everybody else was still fine.

And then one of them loosened their grip a little, thinking he was down and they had him, and, well, he had try, right? Squirmed loose and rolled over, kicked one of them in the dick and grabbed for another, scrabbling for a belt or a loop, something he could tug to get the guy off-balance, and then the third one shot him.

He didn't make a sound—not because it didn't hurt, far from it, but the bright hot blaze of pain sucked all the air out of his chest; he couldn't even gasp, lying there stunned and staring up, feeling the sticky warmth of his own blood starting to soak through the dive uniform.

Shit.

And then the two who were still standing reached for him, and he found the presence of mind to feel for the contacts on the inner finger and thumb of one of his uniform gloves. He pressed, felt the faint prick of the double injection, and the pain of the bullet wound spiked for a second as they picked him up and then faded all at once to a muted distance.

The cocktail of numbing drugs ARGUS had come up with was made to last—because Waller knew there was no way to be sure an agent could withstand torture, wouldn't invent lies that were accidentally revealing or give up even irrelevant secrets. Better than poison, too, because agents who could be retrieved were agents who could relate intelligence, describe how they'd been captured and what questions they'd been asked, even if they'd come back too maimed or fucked up for fieldwork.

"You piece of shit," one of them said, and kicked him in the side where he'd been shot; and he couldn't feel a damn thing, grinned up at them and blew the guy a kiss.

And then from somewhere over them, up and maybe off to one side, there was a sound. A roar, GQ thought dimly, prepared to give zero craps—except his sluggish brain managed to grind a step further and come up with: Croc. Maybe it was Croc. For a second he could almost feel a sense of urgency, could almost get a grip on it, but it was—it was too far away, too slippery, fighting with the drugs and about to lose.

Croc, he thought one more time, hoping to drag himself back up; but the drugs, the drugs plus the blood loss, it was just too much, and he was out.

 

 

 

He came to again in almost the same position, except on his front instead of his back—but still on the ground, limp, limbs thrown akimbo. Moving, but not under his own steam; being dragged across wet concrete. He wondered sort of idly whether they'd tried anything, done any extra damage besides the bullet wound before realizing it wasn't going to make a difference. He tried wiggling a little and he was pretty sure he still had all his fingers and toes, but it was hard to say for certain. Jesus, this numbing shit was top-notch.

And then whoever was dragging him slowed down a little, slung him around and onto his side. He had time to feel a kind of coolness, clammy dampness, in the air. And then there was a boot against his hip, a shove—an edge, and he was tipping over it, realizing it a second too slow to twist or catch himself, and then, before he could even catch up enough to start panicking, he hit water.

For a second, he was almost grateful. It felt like a kindness, like they were letting him go—throwing him back like small fry, even if they'd left the hook of the bullet wound still lodged in his side. He'd landed with his face tipped up, able to suck in a deep enough breath to keep himself floating without too much effort.

And then the water rippled, brief but visible. Back up behind him, the guys who'd dragged him here both laughed. "Yeah, there we go," one of them said. "Must be pretty hungry by now, right?"

"Not for long, though," said the other one.

GQ thought distantly that he wasn't really that hungry, and he didn't see what was so funny about it. He heard the crackle of a radio, chatter a little too muffled to understand, the sound of a sigh and a "Got it covered," and the scrape of footsteps.

And then the ripple came again, closer; not just current, but something moving. Something in the water with him.

Croc.

He couldn't even see anything, couldn't have said why he was so sure; something about the movement, the way Croc swam, and the douchey laughter and that "hunger" crack and all suddenly snapped into place. Except they had to know he and Croc had breached their perimeter at pretty much the same time, that he and Croc were on the same team. So why the hell did they think dumping him in the water with Croc was going to end badly? Even if he was bleeding—

A bump, and GQ could only tell because it moved him, made him bob; he couldn't feel the brief scrape of Croc's scales against his leg, though he could guess it must have been there. "Croc?" he said aloud, a little scratchy.

Croc didn't answer. He could hear, GQ knew—not as well as he could smell, but his hearing was better than GQ's, and even with his head submerged, he had to know GQ was trying to talk to him.

But when he did come up at last, it wasn't to reply. GQ had a split second to evaluate: dried blood, crusted uncomfortably onto Croc's scales; the pattern of the scales themselves disrupted—scraped off? Cut off? And then he looked Croc in the eyes and understood all at once that he was fucked.

Because Croc's eyes were—usually the weird thing about them was the paleness of them, the unearthly gray-green of Croc's own belly-scales. But right now they were practically black, pupils huge, all the light swallowed up and drowning.

Jesus, and how had these stupid fucks even caught him? They must have shot him up with half a dozen kinds of tranquilizers trying to take him down, and then—he didn't have a uniform like GQ, contact pads with an injection. Had they meant to torture him, injected him with something else to wake him back up? Or just tried to kill him and fucked it up, filled him with poison that would have snuffed GQ like a light but was only enough to send Croc half out of his head?

GQ swallowed, heart pounding—"Croc," he tried again, just in case, but all that got him was Croc dropping partway back under the water, a deep rumbling growl whose vibrations he could see in the water almost as well as he could hear it.

Croc probably didn't know his own fucking name right now, let alone recognize GQ. Who was still bleeding into the water, dyeing the colorless murk an inconvenient red. And GQ'd passed out, utterly lost track of time—who knew how long Croc had been in here? Or what else these guys had or hadn't been giving him? He probably was hungry.

GQ squeezed his eyes shut, and then water lapped dangerously far up his cheek and he belatedly remembered to breathe. Fuck. At least GQ's own dose of drugs was still working, too. At least he wasn't going to be able to feel it. Maybe Croc just needed a snack; an arm, a leg. That wouldn't be so bad. Right? GQ had half a shot of living through that, maybe.

Another ripple—Croc had gone back under. GQ floated there and contemplated freaking the fuck out, and then suddenly bobbed again, impact against his arm this time. His heart did its absolute best to just stop dead, but he looked and there wasn't more blood than before, so it hadn't been teeth, hadn't been Croc tearing a chunk off him.

He glanced up the wall, more because it was something else to think about besides his imminent demise than because it was going to help any. The edge he'd been shoved off was further up than he'd realized, five or six feet at least; on a day when he'd slept, eaten, hadn't been shot, and could feel his hands and feet, he could get up that no problem, but right now it might as well have been a mile. No way in hell.

And then he registered a scrape, and—ah, one of those douchebags had come back, was peering down at him. "Playing with you, huh?" he said to GQ, and his tone came off as almost sympathetic until he smiled. "Great, because I didn't want to miss the show."

GQ managed to drag an arm up far enough to flip the guy the bird, but his stupid heart was fucking hammering again—not like it was anything he hadn't figured out for himself, but jesus, if Croc was going to eat him then at the bare minimum he didn't want this guy fucking watching. They'd fucked Croc up, made him like this—turned him into an animal and were treating him like one, which was just about the only thing Croc hated more than humans in general, and fuck them, GQ thought. They shouldn't get to fucking enjoy it.

He lay there in that rank lukewarm water and felt a weird fierce protectiveness catch alight somewhere in his chest. Which was ridiculous, but—

But Croc was about to slaughter GQ, because he couldn't help it. And the last thing he was going to need, when he woke up and was himself again with a pile of GQ's bones in the water next to him, was the memory of this motherfucker standing up there gloating the whole time.

Except there wasn't shit GQ could do about it. He'd try not to scream, he decided. It wouldn't hurt, after all, and if he just kept his eyes shut he wouldn't be able to see it, and then at least the asshole wouldn't get that particular satisfaction.

He felt the water move around him again and tried to brace himself for it—but Croc wasn't rushing him, he was—he'd gone under GQ, and he came up with a sudden furious splash against the concrete, nearly the whole six feet in that one leap. The guy shrieked, slammed the butt of his gun down into Croc's face and knocked him back down; but GQ could hear his hurried steps backing away after, and couldn't help but laugh.

Sounded fucking spooky, echoing off the water. GQ hoped it gave the guy at least one really good nightmare.

"You okay?" he said after, even though Croc wasn't going to answer. For a second, the water was still enough that he thought—but no way had the guy hit Croc hard enough to do any real damage, and sure enough, after another fifteen seconds or so, Croc came up again a little way away, just the top of his head and those huge black eyes.

And this time when he swam over, he did grab GQ. GQ flinched a little, couldn't stop himself, but Croc didn't tear his arm off right there. He was—they were moving; he was towing GQ through the water, away from the edge and back. This was an older section of the base, if GQ had to guess, and it must have been damaged, blocked up and flooded. Through the murky water, GQ could see rubble, stone and chunks of rebar jutting up, and there were a few that even breached the surface, islands piled up back here along a half-collapsed wall.

Surely any second Croc was going to start tearing into him, right? GQ couldn't figure out any other way this ended, as much as it was going to suck.

But it didn't happen. Every time Croc moved, tugged at him or jostled him, GQ's heart did unhelpful acrobatics; but it was never to sink teeth into him. It was—he pulled GQ up onto one of the bigger, flatter chunks of toppled concrete, dragged him up until he was all the way out of the water, and that was—crocodiles ate in the water. Didn't they? Jesus, like GQ knew. He really should hit up Wikipedia one of these days.

His pulse was still rabbitting along, and man, could he not afford that with a hole in him; his head was already getting light, creeping dizziness that only got worse when he shut his eyes. Maybe that was for the best. "Croc," he said one more time, just in case it was the last time he got to say it.

And he felt Croc lean in close over him—but still, still, there were no teeth. The sound of a long slow indrawn breath, that was all. And then one of those big wet hands settled in the middle of GQ's chest, and he thought—

It had to be his stupid blood-starved brain. Right? He had to be making things up.

But he could've sworn he heard Croc say, real low and rumbly, "Mine," right before everything just kind of went away.

 

 

 

When he swam back up out of the dark, this time it felt like it might stick. Before, coming to as he was being dragged down that hallway, it had been so hard for him to make himself think, to understand what was going on and react to it.

But he breathed in and opened his eyes, and knew right away where he was. Still on that one big slanting block of cement, damp and bleeding. Not as badly, though; he dragged his head up to look, to check, and getting yanked around and dumped in here would've reopened the wound even if it had been starting to close, but since then he'd been lying here and not moving, with what was left of his uniform stuck tight over it and starting to dry. That had to count as an improvement.

Plus, of course, the best part was that it still didn't hurt. God bless ARGUS, GQ thought.

And that motion in the water had to be Croc.

Right.

GQ swallowed, and didn't move. He watched the ripple get closer, the first ridge of scales breaking the surface. Definitely Croc. And then Croc's head came up, and yeah, his eyes were still all jacked up. Shit.

It was easier to give him a onceover, now that GQ's eyes could focus properly again. He was crusted with blood, though GQ was guessing it wasn't all Croc's own; and he had some scrapes, cuts, and one spot where it looked to GQ like somebody had honest-to-god pried the scales off him with a knife. Which was gross on multiple levels, but the thing GQ really didn't like about it was that those dark spots looked a lot like track marks. So they really had taken him down with one thing and shot him up with something else after. Jesus.

No wonder he didn't know which way was up.

"Hey," GQ croaked.

Croc blinked those endless black eyes at him and didn't say a word, drifting closer. And then he lifted one dripping hand out of the water, and set it on the concrete.

GQ swallowed again. He was used to the way Croc moved in a fight: hardly at all, and then one of those quick rushes, a sudden burst of movement. Or the way he moved in the water, easy and steady, comfortable. But this was—Croc was crawling up out of the water an inch at a time, staring at GQ. And it would have freaked GQ out but good, except—

Except it reminded him, a little, of the way Croc had looked at him the first time they'd seen each other after Medical, from the other side of the equipment room. GQ had been the one moving that time, crossing the distance between them without looking away; and Croc had waited for him, stood there a foot away and breathed him in.

Before GQ had passed out—Croc had inhaled then, too. Smelling him, must have been, and maybe he did recognize GQ after all, somewhere deep down in there.

So GQ didn't move. Croc came up alongside him, still peering at him intently, close enough to drip a little on GQ's uniform. And it was 100% the wrong response in every possible way, but it was like a switch had flipped in GQ's brain. Jesus, it was even better than having Croc in the corner of the room, or even within arm's reach—this close, leaning over GQ, like—like he had been in Midway, right after pulling GQ out of the water, yanking the dive mask away.

It was so good to feel safe, at last. Which just meant GQ had a couple screws loose, too, since underneath a drugged-up tripped-out Killer Croc in the middle of the bad guys' secret base was probably pretty much the least safe place in the history of the world ever. It just didn't feel that way, was all.

Croc crowded up against him and did breathe in, long and slow; GQ got a moment's vague amusement out of thinking that he probably smelled totally abominable, like swampy water and blood and his own rank sweat, but Croc didn't seem to mind any. One of those huge hands settled curiously, even carefully, against where GQ had been shot in the side—and because it didn't hurt, yay drugs, GQ could just relax into it with a sigh.

And Croc didn't let go. He breathed cool damp air against the side of GQ's throat and made a low satisfied noise in his chest.

He was shaking a little bit, GQ realized. His arm, his hand where it was pressed against GQ. Jesus, they really had fucked him up.

"Don't worry, dude," GQ said aloud, and managed to kind of floppily pat Croc on the back of the wrist. "I'm fine. I mean, I will be. Right now I feel like refried shit. But it's going to be okay. You know how I know?"

Croc didn't answer, of course. But he was still looking at GQ, in a way that would pass for attentive if his pupils hadn't been blown to hell and back.

"Because you got me," GQ murmured. "So even if it hurts, even if it fucks us up, we're going to make it."

"Mine," Croc said, half into GQ's shoulder, so low and muffled GQ almost couldn't hear it.

And fuck, if that didn't send a prickling wave of heat up GQ's spine. GQ closed his eyes and tried to ignore it. "Yeah," he said, "that's right. You got me."

 

 

 

After another couple hours, somebody came back and looked in—GQ'd never have known it if it hadn't been for the echoes, because he couldn't see the edge, the tunnel that led up to it, from here. But as it was he could hear the scuff of boot soles so well it was like the guy was standing on them.

"Must've dragged him down. Right?"

"I guess," said a second voice, sounding a little bored. "Not much blood."

"Yeah, well," said the first guy sagely. "Shaw'd already put a hole in this one, so he had less to start with."

And GQ wanted to laugh but couldn't, had to wait until he'd heard them leave before he let himself huff out the barest breath against Croc's shoulder. He had to get a grip, start figuring them a way out of here—but jesus, it made him feel self-satisfied, so smug it was almost indecent, that those motherfuckers thought he was dead. Not that he hadn't thought he was dead, too, when they first shoved him in here; but he'd been wrong, totally and gloriously wrong, and if you couldn't laugh about being wrong, couldn't gloat about it at the guys who were even wronger, that made it a little less fun.

He concentrated on trying to stay awake, instead. Trying to keep some sort of watch, mark time and listen for steps—if the guys who came in to stare into the water and talk shit about Croc were doing it at shift changes, there was half a chance it might be useful to get a sense for when that happened. Croc didn't stay with him all the time, but he didn't go far, either; he seemed to like looking at GQ, knowing GQ was still there, just as much as GQ liked it the other way around.

After another half a day or so, by GQ's best estimate, it started to get easier to stay conscious. Which was good, but also bad, because part of what was helping him with it was the slow creep of pain surfacing, the tingle in his extremities as the feeling came back.

If you didn't get extracted before the drugs wore off, the odds Waller wasn't planning to extract you at all went up. Way up.

But he wasn't as worried about that as he should have been, because a more pressing issue made itself apparent: Croc was coming down off whatever he'd been shot up with, and he wasn't having as easy a time of it as GQ.

It took GQ a little while to notice. He was pretty sure it had to have started while Croc was in the water, marking out a lazy circle, because he caught himself idly thinking the circle was getting more jagged, and he doubted that had been the first time. He felt a sudden lurch in his gut, and told himself Croc was still right there and he had nothing to freak out over—and then Croc thrashed, sudden and spasmodic, and GQ jerked away from the splash and felt his heart start to pound. That could not be good.

"Croc?" he said, low, and Croc thrashed again, made a gritty rumbling sound and then suddenly twisted and started clawing his way up onto the concrete slab GQ was lying on.

And he looked—he looked like shit. The shaking GQ had noticed before was way more obvious, drops spattering off him every which way; he was moving weirdly, sluggishly—because of how he was twitching like that, GQ thought, trying to get a grip and keep his limbs going where he wanted them to despite it. He had his eyes squeezed almost shut, like even the shitty light in here had suddenly become too bright for him, and some of his scales were loose and flaking off. Though that might just be down to how gross the water was in here. This couldn't possibly be the ideal habitat for a crocodile-man.

But either way, GQ couldn't do a damn thing about it. "Croc," he said again, helpless, and squirmed around to reach for the guy, gasping when the stupid hole in his stupid side objected to it.

Croc startled under GQ's hand, like maybe he'd straight-up forgotten GQ was there, and for a second GQ's heart sank. It was the one thing GQ might have been able to do to at least sort of help Croc through the crash, hang on to him and talk to him, and if Croc didn't want him to do it—

But Croc didn't move out of reach. And with Croc sometimes that was an answer, GQ remembered.

"Hey," he said again, softer, "Croc—hey, it's just me," and all at once Croc did move. Toward GQ, not away from him, shoving up all at once against his side, and GQ slung his arm around Croc's shoulders, settled a hand against the back of his neck, and kissed him.

Not like—on the temple, the ridge of scales over his brow. Stupid fucking impulse, but after that brief spike of panic, it was such a fucking relief to have Croc right there, and GQ couldn't quite rein himself in.

Croc didn't seem to mind. Probably because it meant his head was jammed up close under GQ's chin, nose to GQ's collarbone, right about where GQ had to smell the rankest—and so far it had always helped Croc settle himself, when he was able to smell GQ.

"That's right, big guy," GQ muttered against the curve of Croc's head, stubble scraping scales. "I got you, too."

 

 

 

It was a long uncomfortable night, like that—or at least GQ was pretty sure it was night. It never actually got dark for real in here, since most of the light came from the tunnel that led in; but the illumination turned a little harsher sometimes, an artificial fluorescent edge to it, which GQ figured had to mean the few stray scraps of daylight had faded out.

Croc didn't say much, just huddled there against GQ and shook a lot, tensing, digging his fingers into himself or sometimes into GQ's thigh. GQ couldn't decide whether it was any use to try to warm him up—was he actually cold-blooded, or did the crocodile thing not extend quite that far? Not that it mattered much, since GQ had never quite dried out and was pretty fucking clammy himself, even if he wasn't actively losing blood anymore.

GQ dropped off after a while, and then half-woke when Croc moved or grabbed at him, muttered nonsense and brushed a hand or his mouth across Croc's face or forehead and then fell asleep again. It wasn't all that restful, sticky uneasy tiredness that never quite dragged him all the way down. But hey, at least he wasn't having nightmares.

And then eventually he actually woke up, and the first thing he noticed was that Croc wasn't there.

Wasn't crowded up against GQ, at least. He was there: maybe an arm's length away, crouched, watching GQ. Watching with eyes that looked normal, GQ realized after a second. Or at least normal for Croc, narrow slit pupils and all.

"Hey," GQ said, belated, after they'd stared at each other blankly for a minute. "You, uh. You okay? You were—they kind of fucked you up."

Croc looked at GQ, and then down at his side, at the big ugly smear of blood GQ had left all over the concrete.

Jesus, if they didn't get out of here soon GQ was going to get sepsis so fast.

"Fucked you up, too," Croc said.

"Oh—yeah." GQ cleared his throat, and then rubbed his fingers across the edge of the stain. The blood was old, mostly dry, or at least as dry as anything in here, and flaked instead of coming off onto GQ's hand—which he showed to Croc after, as evidence. "I'm not doing so bad now, though. The big leaks are mostly plugged."

"Hm," Croc said, noncommittal.

"But you're okay?" GQ pressed. "For real?"

"Won't die," Croc said, and GQ grinned at him, couldn't help it.

"Sure, okay."

But Croc didn't grin back. GQ waited, just to see if he'd say what was bothering him—because if he did, then he wanted to talk about it, and if he didn't then GQ had better leave it the hell alone.

And after maybe twenty or thirty seconds, Croc finally blinked and said, "They shot you. That all?"

GQ took a quick inventory, glancing down the length of himself, trying to work out what it was that might have prompted Croc to ask. Because sure, he looked rough; but not much worse than Croc, and it wasn't like he'd started gouting blood somewhere new without noticing. "Yeah? I mean—they kicked me, too. Dragged me around for a while, and I don't think they were too careful about it. Threw me in here. But that's it."

Whatever was bugging Croc, GQ hadn't hit on it yet; Croc was still eyeing him.

"You lying?"

GQ laughed, startled, and then winced when the movement jolted the bullet wound. "Man, I know you don't do goosestepping," he said, "but just so you know, people who aren't lying to you won't take that question so great, and people who are lying to you can just, you know, say 'no'." He shook his head—even beyond the obvious, it was a weird question. "Anyway, why the hell would I lie to you about—"

He stopped short. Croc was still watching him, silent, and—and yeah, still that precise, careful arm's length away, not touching GQ anywhere.

"No, hey, you didn't do a thing to me," GQ said, reaching out to touch his fingertips to the backs of Croc's knuckles, because suddenly that arm's length seemed like way too much. "They dumped me in here thinking you were going to fillet me, but you didn't. You just pulled me over here—got me up out of the water, and made sure I was okay, and you said—" GQ swallowed, but there was no reason not to say it. Right? It was just the truth. It didn't have to be weird. "You were—you called me 'mine'."

And that, at last, made Croc look away. "Oh," he said.

GQ waited again. No rush, after all; GQ didn't have anywhere to be.

"There's stuff that's mine," Croc said after a minute, looking at GQ again. "The stuff that matters. My life. The water. My TV," he added, and he was so smug about it, almost preening, that GQ couldn't keep from smiling. "And there's everybody trying to take 'em." He paused. "In Midway, it was you and me. Right?"

GQ swallowed. It would probably be smarter to brush it off, stay conversational. But he—he'd thought just the same thing himself, after. Him and Croc against the world, the way it had changed everything; that he couldn't have looked at Croc the same way after if he'd tried. "Yeah," he said, low. "It was."

"So you," Croc said, "you weren't somebody taking things. You were mine. And they took you, but I got you back."

Like his TV, GQ thought, and almost laughed—except down there in Croc's cell in Belle Reve, what was a TV? A way to get out of there, at least for a little while; to be somewhere else, someone else, to see people without them looking back or screaming or running away. Something Croc had and wanted to keep. Like water, like being alive—and now GQ.

Jesus.

"Okay," GQ said, a little blankly.

"Okay," Croc repeated, and he was watching GQ again, expressionless, but he hadn't moved his hand out from under GQ's.

"Okay," GQ echoed, unthinking, and then cleared his throat. "Okay, cool. Thanks—thank you."

For a long moment, Croc didn't move. And then he did—quick, leaning in all at once over GQ, and he reached up and touched GQ: the first time he'd done it since the drugs wore off, not just held still and let GQ touch him. He set one big palm against GQ's face and fuck, he was close—not letting his weight settle on GQ, but close enough that some of the rips in GQ's dive uniform were catching on his scales.

And then he kissed GQ.

GQ couldn't even parse it for a second, because Croc's lips didn't feel all that much like lips, and his mouth was so wide. But the hint of teeth made GQ suck in a breath and press up into it, blindly, mindlessly, and then—

Well. Then he flinched, because he'd accidentally tensed up too much and a spike of pain went through his side, and as quick as that Croc had moved away again, though not all the way back where he'd been before.

GQ stared at him.

"You did it first," Croc said, almost warily.

And—yeah, okay, technically. Holding Croc against him, that whole long crappy night, while Croc shook and gritted his teeth; it was impossible to say how many times GQ might have brushed his mouth across Croc's temple or brow or forehead, feeling the bumps of scales against his lips and telling himself everything was going to be okay. But that was just—he hadn't meant it like—

Except maybe he had, a little bit. Croc was settling a hand onto GQ's thigh now, slow, still watching GQ closely; and GQ stared back and couldn't convince even himself that the thing prickling up his spine right then was nervousness.

 

 

 

They were so not fucking for the first time in lukewarm standing water in the middle of the bad guys' base, so it was lucky for them that the extraction team actually did show, about two minutes later.

The first they knew about it was a distant sound that could have been thunder. GQ managed to tear his eyes away from Croc long enough to glance up, even though it wasn't like the slanting half-caved ceiling in here could tell him shit about the weather; and then there was another boom, a little closer, and okay, that wasn't thunder.

And Croc was better now, himself again. He could probably make it up to the tunnel out, if he tried.

"Hey," GQ said to him, "you can totally make that, right?"

He'd meant it one way, but Croc took it another: dragged him off the concrete slab before he could so much as squawk and towed him over to the wall. And okay, GQ thought, if Croc wanted him right there for easy retrieval, he wasn't so incapacitated that he couldn't hang onto the wall for a while while he waited. Except the next thing Croc did, after eyeballing the distance up to the tunnel, was tug GQ close with one arm and dig the claws of his other hand into the wall.

"Wait, no," GQ said, "that's—just leave me here, dude. I'm only going to slow you down," but Croc ignored him and kept climbing, gripping him without visible effort, and GQ kicked him weakly in the shin just to make a point and then gave up and let himself be carried.

There wasn't anybody in the hallway, but they could hear footsteps. And GQ had totally been right, thank you very much: Croc had to set him down to look around the corner, which was a waste of time and effort when for all they knew there were five guys about to jump them.

But this particular time, it was just a two-man patrol, headed past the tunnel rather than into it, and Croc could handle two no problem. Another couple corridors and a lot more stark fluorescent lighting, plus a rattling set of metal stairs going up, and there were the half-dozen assholes GQ could've predicted.

Croc didn't have time to set him all the way down, just leaned him against the wall instead and went to town. GQ steadied himself as best he could and closed his eyes for a second, and then opened them just in time to see the mouth of something that looked a lot like an AK-47 stick out around the corner and point itself at Croc's back.

He didn't think, because if he'd been thinking he wouldn't have done it. But it was right there, and Croc didn't know it, and GQ didn't have—didn't have anything, nothing to hit the guy with and probably not enough leverage to get the gun out of his hands.

So he just kind of grabbed it, and his aim wasn't all it could be, and when it went off his palm was right at the mouth of it.

He flinched at the noise, and aw, fuck, the last thing this day needed was GQ getting shot through the hand, except—

Except it hadn't happened. GQ blinked, and stared down at his scarred-but-otherwise-totally-intact hand, and then watched the crumpled bullet that had struck it fall and hit the floor with a little ping!—and stronger, yeah, steadier, but it really hadn't occurred to him that his fixed-up hands might be bulletproof.

"Well, that's new," he said aloud.

He leaned around the corner, and the guy holding the gun blinked at him and then said, "Holy fuck. Aren't you dead? That thing fuckin' ate you, it was—it ate you!"

"Not so much," GQ said, and then, experimental, grabbed the barrel of the gun and twisted. And wow, yeah, okay, the healing thingies that had been used on him had worked a trick and a half, because the metal squealed and bent under GQ's hands despite the fact that he couldn't even stand up on his own right now.

Sweet.

Croc had taken out the other five guys, of course. But GQ had helped: the sixth was so distracted, staring down at the barrel where GQ had bent it, that he didn't even notice Croc was in front of him until Croc had already grabbed the gun and was slamming the butt of it into his face.

Croc still had the gun afterward, and he looked down at it and then at GQ. "Nice," he said approvingly.

"Yeah," GQ said, turning his hands palm-up to examine them. Not a mark; he couldn't even remember which hand the bullet had hit unless he thought back over how it had happened, which way he'd been facing. They still looked ugly as hell, the scarred healed-over skin pale and weird and uneven, but GQ hadn't minded that much even before he'd discovered they were super badass.

But he probably should let the bullet wound in his torso heal normally. ARGUS using eldritch gadgets on his arms was one thing, but on his chest—probably not worth the risk, unless he wanted his heart to end up chucked in a lockbox like Moone's.

He snorted a little at the thought, and Croc gave him a skeptical look and then walked over and picked him up again. "Okay, let's go," he said, and GQ gave in with grace and didn't even kick him in the shin again.

Another couple levels up, there was a much, much closer boom than before, and a wall fell in—and on the other side of it was Captain Shitbag, of all people, with Lawton at his shoulder.

So they really were going to make it out of this after all. Not exactly the likeliest outcome; but GQ couldn't really call himself surprised. That was how this seemed to work: when Croc had him, he made it.

 

 

 

He made it straight back to fucking Medical, anyway.

GQ sighed and leaned back into his pillow, and listened to the sultry beeping of like twenty weird machines he didn't know the names of. Jesus, he was getting tired of this shit. "I can't believe this. I made it four days in a pool of swamp water and I didn't die, and now they won't even let me stand up."

Croc looked down at him—from the near corner, this time, which was nice—and shrugged one shoulder. "You're easy to put holes in," he said.

Which was fair, even if GQ didn't like hearing it. Yeah, okay, he was more fragile than Croc. Who wasn't? "Not my hands," he muttered, because at the very least part of him was a little bit superpowered now.

"It's not bad," Croc said after a second, slowly, and he crouched down a little closer, leaning in over the bedrail. "Got to take care of you, that's all."

And oh. Okay. "Sure," GQ said, and then couldn't resist adding, "Like your TV."

"Yeah," Croc agreed, but the corner of his mouth had slanted up just a little, his eyes steady on GQ's face, and GQ couldn't help but grin up at him.

Grin up at him, and reach: smooth a careful finger over the lines of paler scales along Croc's brow, his cheekbone, and huh. Now that he looked at them side-by-side, the weird skin on his hands wasn't all that far off the lightest edges of Croc's ridges. That was kind of cool.

He met Croc's eyes again and Croc was still looking at him, holding still, and—fuck it, GQ thought, and tugged him down to kiss him, in front of God and Amanda Waller and whatever poor fuck was on duty watching the security monitors for this wing. Because none of that mattered next to this: that he had Croc, and Croc had him, and one way or another, they were going to make it.