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turn this thing around (read my mind)

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GQ sighs through his nose, turns yet another fucking corner, and then blinks.

He clears his throat, and reaches for his radio. "Uh, boss? Think I found something."

"Hold position," Flag says immediately, and he's crackling a little, but the signal's good; he must not be too far away, though of course that doesn't mean there's not a shitload of twists and turns between him and GQ. "Where are you?"

"No fucking idea," GQ says, mild. He glances up, down, sideways. "I can't give you directions, I lost track of the turns about half an hour ago—but I'm facing east, I'm pretty sure." He takes a cautious step forward. "Haven't seen another chamber like this one in here. Only one entrance and exit."

"Sounds like you found the center."

"Yeah, I think I did," GQ says. "And there's another reason I think so. Got a plinth here, stone column, about half as high as the walls. With a—"

He stops, trying to decide what the hell to call it.

"Talk to me, GQ," Flag bites out, impatient.

"Sphere," GQ decides. "Big old—sphere. Looks like glass, except the surface is moving. Rippling. Full of light."

"Great," Flag says. "Fantastic. Do not touch it."

"Solid copy, boss," GQ says.

"You're clear?"

"Clear," GQ agrees. "No sign of hostiles. If I have to pick it up and run, I will, but only as a last resort. Pinky swear."

"Sometimes you make it so easy to forget you're a trained professional," Flag muses.

"Learned from the best, boss," GQ says sweetly, and then pauses.

Something about the light's different.

He takes a quick glance around the chamber, but nothing's moved or shifted that he can see, no noise of stone scraping. Four walls, a ceiling, a floor. GQ's still standing by the mouth of the corridor that led him in here, after stumbling haplessly through what felt like miles of endless fucking labyrinth. The plinth hasn't moved, either.

It's just the sphere.

He's moving to thumb his radio controls when it happens again: the light changes. Wavers, brightens, and okay, yeah, that is definitely coming from the sphere.

"It's doing something, boss," GQ says, and takes a half-step back.

"Dammit, GQ—"

"I didn't touch it," GQ promises. "I'm just standing here. But it's doing something."

"Okay, all right," Flag says, tone level now, steady. "Back it up. Leave the chamber, find cover, whatever it is you need to do. Somebody's got to be getting close to you soon."

"Can you hear this, GQ?" Harley interrupts, bright, and then GQ hears Harkness say something muffled and irritated, a little too far away from the radio. Harley laughs, and then—

Yeah, that was definitely an explosion. Louder over the radio, but GQ heard it.

"I appreciate the thought, Quinn," he says, "but let's not touch the nice man's explosive boomerangs without permission—"

"Are you a nice man?" Harley says, presumably to Harkness, sounding dubious but intrigued by the idea.

And that's why GQ's laughing when the sphere flares up, bright, and wipes everything away.

He can't see. He can't think. The radio's gone, or at least he can't feel its weight in his hand. He can't feel anything at all; and then he can.

It's the sphere. It's the sphere, reaching out and touching him. And it's—he's the thing that's made of glass, in the end. He's the thing that breaks.

 

 

There's too much.

There's too much of—of everything. GQ doesn't know what, doesn't know how to say it; the best he can do is squeeze his eyes shut, flinch away from it, gag a little at the strain of having it all touch him.

It's like he's been scraped off, peeled raw, so that the slightest brush of air against him can't help but set his nerves on fire. Except his actual skin is all still where it's supposed to be; that's not what's been stripped from him. It's something else, some fundamental thing he can't define, that's cracked wide open and fallen away, and left him here trembling and exposed.

He's on the floor. He fell, and he's on the floor. He can feel it, the cold rough stone against the palms of his hands, against his cheek. But it's also—he can feel—

He can feel Flag.

It isn't—Flag's not here yet, hasn't reached him. But GQ can tell where he is anyway. Burning steadily, sharp and bullet-pointed: tactical assessments pinned up over where Flag's frustration and fear are spilling out, the memory of the noise GQ made into the radio echoing beneath, except it isn't GQ who remembers it. Flag's own approximate position, as best he can figure it, and his guess as to the relative positions of the other three teams, and a looping refrain of furious self-castigation—why the fuck had he even let them get split up in the first place, he's their commanding goddamn officer—

GQ can feel everything, all of it. He can feel all of them.

Harley—brilliant, blazing, a hundred colors splattered through each other like tie-dye. Beautiful, except somewhere back in the distance where GQ's body is lying, GQ's eyes are wet and stinging, GQ's face turned away against the floor; she's searing, white-hot, too bright to look at for long. He doesn't know how she can stand it, he thinks, and then it occurs to him distantly that maybe she can't.

Lawton, like the gleaming blade of a knife, sharpened stroke by deliberate stroke, caked with blood he knows better than to try to wash off. Katana, an open wound, unhealed, that GQ flinches from—and Harkness, like a goddamn firecracker, popping and sparking in a dozen directions at once—

"Dammit, GQ. Answer me!"

It's too much. It's too much. He's aware, dimly, that he's shaking, throat aching, teeth clenched. Trying not to move, trying not to touch anything at all. Trying to crawl back inside his own flayed-open brain so he can pull it shut again around him. God, he can't think, he can't breathe.

And then there's a sound, somewhere. An impact, shuddering through stone, and it's not the half-finished explosion of Harley's mind finally detonating, not a grenade of frustration flung out of Flag with the pin pulled. It's real.

Another one. Another. The sound of stone rumbling, cracking, tumbling down over itself, and it's so loud that for a second it's the only thing—

GQ gasps, blinking, dazed. He manages to turn himself over, mindless, clumsy, only halfway inside his own body.

It's Croc.

Croc, coming straight through the wall. Pushing the last crumbled rubble in the hole he's made out of his way with one scaly foot, and shoving into the corridor, handfuls of cracking fragments showering down over the yoke of his hunched shoulders.

"GQ," he growls, scowling.

"Croc," GQ says.

Or he thinks he does. He tries to. He's not totally sure his mouth is working right. Croc, watch it, he wants to say. Don't

But even if he could, it would be too late. The sphere is there, too, just like all the rest of them, just like Flag and the Squad and half a dozen SEALs. GQ can feel it. Not a mind, not quite, but it's there.

And it's already reaching for Croc, too.

GQ shivers against the floor, jerks and shudders, twists toward Croc as far as he can. He's got this dizzy, half-formed idea that he could get there first—not that he knows what to do, not that he can stop it, but he's got to try.

He spills his way out of himself, blurred, disorienting. He has no idea what to expect. Maybe Croc's mind is as different from human baseline as his body is, on some fundamental level GQ can't possibly understand. Maybe Croc's going to hurt to touch, too, even worse than any of the rest of them.

But GQ does it anyway.

He only has an instant to grasp what it is he's found, to try to parse the sensation. Like stepping into deep, quiet water—startlingly, endlessly cool, against all the hot stinging places where GQ's been rubbed raw—

His breath hitches. His eyes fall shut. He sinks.

And in the gentle grip of that slow even current, Croc's thoughts forming, clear and distinct, and then dissolving away just as easy—the sharp flare of the sphere is nothing more than distant sunlight, shining down on the water.

 

 


 

 

Relatively speaking, GQ actually feels pretty okay when he wakes up in Medical.

It's not the worst thing that's ever happened to him. He's got all his limbs; he can feel them. His eyes are both still there, and he can open them. His teeth are all in the right places in his mouth. He blinks once, twice, and even before he turns his head—Croc's right there with him, and he knows it.

"Hey," Croc says, and looks at him for a long moment.

GQ swallows.

"I can feel you," Croc says quietly. "You still feel me?"

Fuck. Oh, fuck. It goes both ways now. Fan-fucking-tastic. GQ bites the tip of his tongue, hard, and looks at the wall. "Yeah," he says.

Because it's still there, that cool calm water. Deep—real deep. Dangerous, sure, if it closes over your head and you don't know what you're doing. Pretty decent metaphor, GQ allows himself to decide. And then he looks at the wall, and the color of the paint, the lights, the clean white beds; the cameras in the corners, with their half-dozen built-in sensors, and the wildly unsubtle span of wall that's dark, gleaming, reflective: observation area, on the other side.

And then he blinks, and looks at it again. "Wait, are we—are we in lockdown?"

"Yeah," Croc says.

GQ takes a deep breath, and braces himself. The inside of his head is just about the way he remembers from the heart of the labyrinth: that he's broken open where he used to be whole, cut free where he used to be anchored.

But something's changed. He can reach out and feel the half-dozen geeks in the observation area, taking notes. He can lean in close, if he wants—but they aren't blinding him, flooding him. They aren't overwhelming him. He is anchored after all; and if he thinks of it like he's reaching out to them with his hands, then it's his feet that are—that are still ankle-deep in cool water.

Fuck. Fuck, that fucking sphere. That second fucking pulse of light—

"Yeah," Croc says—aloud, which he only has to do because GQ got too distracted there to feel it in him. GQ grimaces a little, half sorry and half still busy freaking out. And this time he does feel Croc's answer: like a roll of the eyes, resigned and disdainful and amused, all at the same time.

Dumbass, Croc thinks, mind forming the word very, very deliberately.

GQ gives him the finger, physically—wasted effort now, he supposes, but whatever. It's reflexive. Muscle memory.

They're here because the higher-ups aren't sure what happened in that labyrinth. Because Waller wants to know exactly what it is she's got on her hands: how that sphere works, where it came from, who might have put it there. Probably thinking there's a chance it took something out of GQ's head, Croc's, when it went in there—that it reached into them and plucked out what it found, and is holding it, or sent it somewhere.

But GQ's pretty sure he knows. That thing did exactly what it was supposed to, exactly how it was supposed to do it. It had a presence, he remembers that, and he saw it—it couldn't have hidden its nature from him, once it pried him open like that.

It had memories. Dim, barely there. Imprints left on it, more than anything. But GQ touched them, GQ felt them. The labyrinth, the ritual; the people who'd competed a long-ass time ago for—for the honor of being dumped into it, having to fight their way to the center, each on their own strengths, and if they both survived—they'd won each other. They'd earned each other, and they were bound and filled with power. Truth-readers, healers, warriors—

Not that Waller's going to take GQ's word for it, if she still thinks the sphere might have fucked with his head.

Croc huffs a little, half a laugh—amused, because yeah, she sure fucking won't.

But that doesn't change the facts from where GQ's sitting. It's pretty fucking obvious what that goddamn sphere did. It made him and Croc psychic. Psychic for everybody, and super bonus double-dog psychic with each other.

Great.

GQ bites the inside of his cheek, and makes himself focus on easing out of the bed, standing up. It works okay: he's a little dizzy, maybe, but he's not sure whether that's physical or just psychosomatic, that lingering feeling of being dislodged from himself making itself known.

Croc's watching him, curious, like he's waiting for something. GQ can tell even without looking at him—and the weirdest part of all is how almost-not-weird it is.

GQ had never understood, after Midway, anybody who said that Croc creeped them out, that he was too quiet; he'd started getting pretty goddamn good at figuring out all the other ways Croc said things besides out loud, and Croc had a lot to say. GQ had learned to look at Croc's hands, his shoulders. His face—and sure, it took some work. The scales break up the lines of Croc's expressions in unfamiliar ways, make them harder to pick out, and the expressions themselves are smaller, too. Scales make things stiffer, GQ figures, and they don't move like skin.

But GQ got good at it. He got pleased with himself for it, too. Stupid, but there it was. Satisfying, in a smug gleeful way, to know something nobody else knew; to be able to glance at Croc and see that he thought something was funny, or that he was pissed, bored, tired. To not have to ask, to be able to do exactly the right thing in response: grin at him and wink, or carefully leave him the fuck alone, or scoot closer and start telling him some wild SEAL story, or whatever. And now it's like ten times as good, ten times as smug, that he's got a line on Croc nobody else is ever going to have—

That curiosity gets pointed, sloshes through GQ like a wave, and fuck, fuck. Paint colors. The wall. The cameras. How many geeks there are on the other side of that mirrored wall, where Flag is, how long they're going to be stuck in here anyway.

GQ darts from one thing to the next, quick, tactical, never letting himself pause for long. He becomes aware, distantly, that his body's moving too, that he's pacing restlessly from one end of the lockdown suite to the other. First rule of covert maneuvers in dangerous territory: don't get comfortable. That's when you start making mistakes.

And GQ would have to be a fucking idiot to make this one.

 

 

By the time Flag does show up, Croc hasn't moved a muscle in over an hour, and GQ's tempted to glance down to see whether he's started wearing down the tile.

He hasn't, Croc observes.

GQ huffs half a laugh through his nose, shakes his head—gets to the wall again, and turns to pace back.

He's driving Croc nuts. But only a little bit. The same way he can tell Croc thinks he's being a big weirdo, can feel the muted sense memories of Belle Reve and bars and waiting, learning how to get locked up in places by ARGUS and bear it, well. Croc can tell that GQ's wired about something, on alert, that the pacing is GQ's way of trying to help himself handle it.

Still annoying, Croc thinks, forming the words fully in his head the way he's starting to do when he wants to make a point.

And GQ has an instant to feel himself acknowledge it, wry resigned guilt, before he's back on the ball—before he can let himself think about why. The walls, the cameras, the geeks; the itchy seam on one of GQ's field uniforms, but he never remembers which one until he's already got it on; where Quinn's been getting all that fucking gum, because nobody's supposed to be giving it to her but she still always seems to have some anyway.

It's like having to play both sides of a basketball game, home and away at the same time. Keeping himself on his toes, swatting the ball away every time he himself manages to get it too close to the hoop, over and over and over again.

God. There's no way in hell, he thinks distantly, that he's going to be able to keep this shit up forever. He is so fucked.

And of course Croc felt all of that, too, experienced that moment of inexorable understanding in perfect step with GQ, even if he doesn't quite know why—so it's lucky for GQ that that's the moment Flag comes in.

"Hey," Flag says, mild. "Good job not ending up in a coma."

GQ raises his eyebrows. "Is that what they're worried about?"

"Among other things," Flag allows.

He's not kidding—and he's not just talking about the geeks, either. GQ looks at him, and it's all right there, plain as day, swirling around behind his face: what it was like in that labyrinth, hearing GQ's choked strangling cries over the radio, no way to get to him; Croc's faint growl, too, and Rick's mixed fury and relief that whatever it was, Croc was caught in it right beside GQ—fury that two of them were in trouble, not just one. Relief knowing that if anybody would drag GQ out the other side intact, it was Croc. Finding them at last, after another fifteen agonizing minutes of twisting corridors. And, okay, maybe GQ can't blame him, because apparently Flag's first sight of them had been Croc, crouched helplessly over GQ where he was seizing on the stone floor. Shit.

Flag clears his throat, and GQ blinks and shakes himself a little and then looks at Flag the regular way.

"Maybe try not to do that too often to anybody with a higher clearance level than you," Flag murmurs, eyebrow raised.

GQ winces. It's good advice. And GQ's not sinking deeper than he means to anymore, not with Croc's mind back there like true north, a familiar fixed point to navigate by. But Flag's right here, and the surface of everything he's thinking is, too. It's like asking GQ not to look too hard at his face, not to notice the expression on it, asking GQ not to discover that Flag knew what he was getting into coming in here, he did, and he wasn't unprepared for it, but it's still weird as shit that GQ can tell what he's thinking—how are you supposed to fucking prepare for something like that—

"So," Flag says aloud, a little pointedly. GQ jerks, and makes a face, and Flag makes one back at him. He did know what he was getting into, and GQ can feel him deliberately letting it go. As if GQ could have prepared for this any better than Flag, when it's so fucking ridiculous—as if Flag's got any right to hold it against him. Please.

GQ sucks in a breath, guilty and warmed at the same time, and tries not to smile too wide.

"The way they figure it, that thing made you telepathic, tied you to each other," Flag's saying.

"Yep," Croc agrees, from his corner.

"They're having a hell of a time figuring out how. I think Waller was hoping it would have done something to your brains that would show up on the scans," Flag adds, "but it seems like it's—well. Magic. Nothing physically different about either of you, compared to the baseline you matched before we headed out there. Metaphysically's another story, but aside from some unusual brain activity, apparently that doesn't really show up on MRIs."

Yet, GQ thinks. If Waller can use them to come up with a scan that identifies telepaths, she's sure as shit going to.

A ripple of amusement from Croc, and a hazy half-formed image: Waller, but as a bigger, colder, meaner crocodile than Croc's ever been, just waiting to open wide and swallow you down before you even know she's there.

GQ grins.

And it only took a couple seconds, maybe less—so much easier than talking, jesus, and they didn't even have to be looking at each other—but Flag knows both of them well enough to have clocked it anyway. GQ can see his eyes going back and forth between them, and GQ can feel—

Huh. He was expecting some irritation, that they're distracting each other again when Flag's trying to give them a rundown. But instead all that's coming off Flag right now is a wry little spark of amusement.

"So how long are we in for, boss?" GQ says aloud.

"Medical lockdown in general?" Flag says. "Probably at least 48 hours, if only to get some more observation time on the books before they decide whether you're cleared for the field. But they also want to run some more tests. That's why I'm here."

"More tests?" GQ mutters, even though he was unconscious for the last batch and doesn't remember a thing. He can guess, and ugh.

But half Flag's mouth slants up. "Oh, I think you're going to enjoy these ones."

And GQ's an inch from asking him what the fuck he's on, but then he spots the thought-impression Flag's allowed to drift to the front of his mind: the pool.

 

 


 

 

"The pool" kind of undersells it. Whatever it is Waller's got on whoever nominally approves her budgeting decisions, it must be some serious dirt, because when ARGUS chooses to go all-out on its resources and facilities, it shows.

The underwater training and exercise area puts Olympic-size swimming pools to shame, and it's way deeper than anything GQ's seen anywhere else he's worked—dug into some kind of natural aquifer underneath this wing of HQ, probably. Swaps between concrete and natural rock, set up to mimic all kinds of different lighting conditions, and the water can be cycled through a range of temperatures, filled with all kinds of debris and murk, or filtered clean again, depending on the scenario.

It's super fucking awesome to finally be outside that goddamn medical lockdown suite. But it's miles and miles better to get to leave it behind specifically in order to get in the water. And GQ would be embarrassed about the helpless fucking joy he's spilling everywhere, lighting him up like the Fourth of July, except he can tell he doesn't have to be.

It's—whatever it is that's tying him and Croc to each other, that's keeping Croc so much closer and dulling everybody else to something bearable, it does go both ways. Croc's glad, too: not sparking all over with it like GQ, but steady and warm, the heat of midday, lizard-smug.

It feeds off itself, doubling and redoubling between them, inescapable. GQ's glad Croc's glad; Croc's amused, quiet but warmer still; GQ's pleased, hopelessly and unavoidably, to have amused him—not that he can't tell when something's landed right normally, watching to see whether Croc's mouth moves, whether the corners of his eyes crinkle up. But being able to feel it like this, to really know, is so much better GQ doesn't even have words for it.

It gets so bad he knows he's beaming at Croc like an idiot, and he can feel Flag's fond, knowing assessment of the exact degree of GQ's idiocy, too, muted by comparison but unmissable anyway.

It's just that he likes it. He already had a better in with Croc than anybody else, after Midway, and he's worked hard to keep it that way. He's worked hard, digging his fingers in and not letting go, trying to make sure he's always as close as he can get. And now he's got it in the bag. Now nobody's going to be able to get closer to Croc than he has, not ever, even if Croc still doesn't—

He becomes aware of a half-dozen shades of faint surprise, murky uncertainty, ripples fanning out from that deep calm water off to one side of him, and shit, shit. The walls, GQ thinks frantically. The floor in the hallway, the texture, and oh, thank god, Flag's opening the double doors ahead of them, and in a second he's going to say something and GQ can fill his head up with that instead.

"Okay, go for it," Flag does in fact say, and GQ could fucking kiss him for it. "No equipment, nothing fancy. The lab coats just want to do some preliminary tests—environmental conditions you might run into on-mission, that kind of shit."

Figure out whether anything as basic as being submerged can fuck with this psychic deal, GQ interprets, before they graduate to trying to mess around with it on purpose.

And the thought that maybe they could, maybe somebody could take this away from him again, sends a cold unhappy feeling curling up in the back of his head. But no, never mind. It doesn't matter. GQ doesn't think about it. He thinks about the pool stretching out in front of them instead, the water—and man, how sick is it going to be if this works? If GQ doesn't have to get Croc to surface to talk to him, or settle for making faces at him while they're under?

Whoever examined him in Medical, he got stripped out of his uniform first. He's in an undershirt, boxers, sock feet, which is basically fine except for the socks.

He sits down to yank them off by the toes. Croc's already easing over the edge of the pool, slipping into the water with hardly a splash. GQ smiles just feeling his absent pleasure at the sensation, the coolness, being able to move the way he always wants to—the way he can't, on dry land.

And then GQ follows him. His chest is tight with a half-second of apprehension: what if water does do something? It's one of the rules, for some of the shit ARGUS has run into before—crossing running water fucks magic up, sometimes. Not that this water's running, exactly, but for all GQ knows the filters down there count. What if this link they've got gets blocked by it? What if it breaks completely?

But then he's in, head under, cool swirl of his own wake around him, and he'd laugh if he weren't holding his breath. Suddenly it seems silly that he was worried at all.

Because all the water does is make it easier. Everything that was distracting him, everything else he had in front of him, it's all gone. Up top, GQ'd probably have kept talking to Croc aloud just out of habit, just because he was used to that being how he had to get whatever was on his mind across; but down here? No making that mistake. And now that he's got to get out of his own way at last, it's—it's fucking glorious.

He doesn't have to turn around, doesn't have to look. He knows where Croc is as well as he knows where his own hands and feet are, sure steady awareness, utterly effortless. The water's warm; Croc likes that. He likes it against his scales, and GQ does too, feeling it right along with him. He likes being in it, settled somewhere deep down where GQ hadn't understood he wasn't before—likes knowing that whatever anybody thinks of him up there, in here he's strong, quick, smooth. In here he's where he's supposed to be.

And of course the flicker of GQ's thoughts in response must be just as obvious. It isn't the same for him, can't be: bare minimum, humans look at him and see one of them, and that's always going to be true. The water's not home for him, not like it is for Croc. But he loves it anyway. Loves it—loves that it's not made for him; that he's not made for it, that it could kill him just like that if he's not careful or if he didn't know what he was doing. That he's won himself the ability to do the shit he does just by being that goddamn good, throwing himself at something that could wreck him until it lets him in instead, until he's halfway to welcome, the same way that he—

GQ jerks a little in the water, digs a fingernail into his thumb hard and fills his head up with the sting, and it's super fucking unsubtle but it works.

Croc's looking at him. GQ's not looking back, but he knows anyway. Ripples again, that murk, that uncertain half-formed question GQ's going to have to answer sooner or later.

Later. Later's definitely better. GQ twists in the water with a kick or two, and makes a face at Croc, the kind he'd have used down here before they could talk to each other without opening their mouths: exaggerated, raised eyebrows and wide eyes, and a thumbs up with his hand, an unspoken question.

Croc stares back at him, and thinks a real pointed thought about how he's a moron. But part of him's amused by it, too, and no matter what his face is doing, he can't hide that from GQ. Which is pretty fucking satisfying.

GQ grins at him, and then lets himself sink a little deeper, and closes his eyes. And man, that's even cooler. Usually he likes it, soothing at the same time that it's right on the edge of unnerving. The calm, the dark, the quiet of water filling up his ears, at the same time that he's unmoored himself, knowing he could get disoriented, lose track of which way's up.

Except it seems like maybe that's not something he needs to worry about anymore. Or at least not as long as Croc's eyes are open. GQ's not seeing what he's seeing, not exactly. He just knows where it all is as well as if he were, because Croc does.

He tests himself a little, swimming to the wall with his eyes still shut tight; stopping and reaching out to where he's pretty sure it's going to be, and yeah, his palm hits concrete. Okay, that is not kind of cool anymore, that has been upgraded to super goddamn motherfucking cool. Wow.

And then Croc moves. He'd just been kind of drifting there, before. But now he's not, and GQ can barely think at all, because jesus, he just wants to throw himself at Croc's mind, crawl right in there alongside. Croc is strong, yeah, except what that feels like from Croc's side of it is just ease, effortless motion. The ridges and dips of his scales mean that water moves against him in a totally different way, and he can pick out all kinds of tiny shifts and currents in it just by feeling it as it passes him. And the way he swims, god, GQ half-chokes on a brief hot flare of sheer envy. GQ needs serious fins to move with that kind of smoothness, that casual speed.

Croc feels all of that, obviously. GQ can see his face, his mouth's moved the barest fraction and that's it; but on the inside he's lighting the fuck up, with something that GQ doesn't have any words for except slow sweet delight.

And then, abrupt, they both flinch.

GQ doesn't even know why, not right away—it was Croc, the impulse jolting through him strong enough that GQ moved right along with him. The water, GQ perceives, that's what did it. Something's disturbing it. And Croc wasn't paying attention before, but now, listening with his ears, GQ can hear it: noise, up there somewhere on the surface.

Got to be Flag, GQ thinks, and Croc agrees, and they turn at the same time, kick their way back up top.

GQ comes up with an easy breath, shoves his wet hair back off his forehead, blinking drips out of his eyes. Croc doesn't even break the surface that far—just the top of his head, his forehead, his eyes. Smug fucking crocodile, GQ thinks at him warmly.

"Jesus!" Flag shouts, and GQ startles and looks up. "You son of a bitch—"

"What?" GQ says, bewildered. He double-checks, swift, but Croc doesn't know either, doesn't even have a guess.

"GQ," Flag says, and he looked pissed and upset a second ago, but now something in his face is changing. "GQ, are you okay?"

"What?" GQ says again, inane. "Yeah, I'm—I'm fine, sir. Is there something wrong? Were we supposed to—"

"Edwards, you were down there for twelve and a half minutes."

GQ blinks.

"The hell I was, sir," he says. He's never made it more than about six flat without equipment, not while he's actively swimming, and especially not when he didn't do any kind of breathe-up first—he and Croc just plunged right in here. He sure as shit couldn't have done it without noticing

He swallows.

The sphere told him. Kind of. The labyrinth, the ritual. People who were bound together—filled with power. He hadn't guessed it was each other's, but—

But Croc can hold his breath underwater, swimming all-out, for half an hour, easy.

GQ looks up.

Flag's staring down at him, eyebrow raised.

"I, uh," GQ says. "I think we might be a little more than just psychic, boss."

"Yeah, I'm starting to get that feeling myself," Flag murmurs, flat.

And he's overflowing with a half-dozen other things, none of it showing on his face: wondering exactly how far this shit goes, whether GQ's going to wake up tomorrow with scales; what Waller's going to want to do with them once she finds out; even, quiet and tender and quickly buried, an aching unhappiness that GQ and Croc might get taken away from him—his, his team, snatched out from under him, sent somewhere he can't keep an eye on them anymore.

He's probably totally right to be worried, and GQ kind of loves that he is. But as it is, all GQ himself has room for is a bright, sharp pleasure.

Because goddamn, he might finally be able to keep up with Croc for real, now.

It's like a crack in a dam: that thought, for whatever reason, abruptly sends Croc spilling over into GQ's head, the water of him pouring in and around and between everything that's GQ's, sudden and intent, searching. The hell's that mean? What's GQ want that Croc has? GQ's human. GQ fits. Rest of the Squad—they're weird, sure. But human too. They could cover it up if they really tried. They could make like they were normal, and people would believe them. But not Croc.

He's proud of it. He's learned to be. He's learned to be, because nobody else is ever going to be proud of it for him—proud of him

Bullshit.

GQ doesn't even say it, doesn't even really think the word. He just feels it, instant helpless backlash, immediate rejection. Bullshit. Croc is badass, Croc is beautiful; the way he felt when they got in the pool—the way he looks when he swims. Everybody knows they can't make him do a single goddamn thing without putting a bomb in his head to force him to, and not because he's lost it like Quinn, not because he's got options like Lawton, but because he'd fucking fuck them up if they tried.

But the thing almost nobody seems to have figured out but GQ is that that isn't even the best part. All the shit that really means something, the shit that made GQ pay attention in the first place, isn't anything Flag ordered Croc to do with his thumb over that tablet screen. Croc wasn't even supposed to go with them under Midway—nobody ordered him to do that, nobody made him. GQ tried to order him to fuck off, and he wouldn't go. Because he knew they were going to need his help; and even after every goddamn thing any human in the world has ever done to him, spat on him or shot him, run away from him screaming or stuck a bomb in him, he still wanted to be there to give it to them.

He didn't have to do that. He didn't have to save GQ, either. But he did it anyway, because he could. Because despite every single reason he has not to give a shit, he gives a shit anyway, even if it's in a big, angry, scaly, scary way where he never says as much in front of anybody. And that's kind of the most badass thing of all.

It takes a second, maybe two, to think all of that. To feel it at Croc. Flag probably doesn't even notice. And then GQ catches up with his own goddamn brain and tenses up in the water, swallows about half a pint by mistake, feels his face heat up.

Fuck. Shit. The concrete, the side of the pool, the particular way Flag's boots are shining. The buzz of the lights overhead—

"Okay, well," Flag says. "Let's try that again, and see how long you can make it with your magic buddy breathing, huh?"

"Yes, sir," GQ says, quick, and lets himself sink again. Not that that's going to save him, when Croc's still right there with him anyway, but at least if he's doing something, then he's got shit to think about besides—

Fuck! Pink elephants, GQ tells himself grimly. Don't think about pink elephants; and of course his head promptly fills up with them. He relaxes a little, safe for now, and sinks further still, Croc's frustrated bafflement following him down.

 

 


 

 

They wrap it up after a couple more hours. Plenty to work with, Flag says, and he promised the lab coats he wouldn't tire them out too much.

GQ's not actually sure Flag could tire them out anymore. That long underwater, doing that much swimming, no equipment and no breaks—he should be feeling it by now, at the absolute least. But he's fine. Fresh as a daisy.

He doesn't make a thing out of it. But he's pretty sure Flag can tell anyway.

They have to go back into lockdown overnight. It's just like Flag said: Medical's pretty sure they aren't going to throw up or fall down or start bleeding from the ears, but that doesn't mean they don't want a full set of observations, 48 hours. Probably another round of tests tomorrow, GQ figures. So they can compare. See whether anything's changed, whether maybe the sphere's effects are fading.

They aren't. GQ can tell. If anything, he feels it all even more strongly now, sharp and clear-headed, everything around him rendered in brilliant HD. The minds of every person within probably at least a half-mile radius are just—there, at the tips of his fingers. Not scorching him, not searing him, not anymore. He could reach out and touch them if he wanted to, shuffle through them, see what there was to see, and they couldn't do a thing to him, couldn't even touch him back, when they're all closed up inside themselves tight as walnuts, insensate, brains in jars. He thinks—

He thinks maybe he could even break them.

But he's not sure he wants to tell anybody that.

So he keeps his mouth shut, nods along. Flag delivers them to that good old suite, salutes a goodbye, and heads out again.

And then it's just them.

The worst part is, GQ thinks resignedly, he and Croc can both feel that the observation area's empty right now. GQ can't even claim he doesn't want an audience for this.

Because he's not kidding himself. Croc's noticed. Croc's noticed, and his attention on GQ is as weighty as a stare even when he's looking any ten other directions with his actual eyes: steady, intent, and not wavering a fucking inch. He noticed, and he isn't planning on letting it go.

"GQ," Croc says aloud, once Flag's gone.

GQ winces. Now that they've got another option, it feels pointed as hell that Croc would use his mouth for that.

And Croc knows it. Obviously.

"GQ," Croc snaps, and GQ stops tying himself up in a fresh set of knots and rubs at his forehead.

"Sorry, man," he says, because it seems like he should—like it's worth making the gesture of saying it, even though Croc can feel it for himself.

"Calm the fuck down," Croc mutters, and okay, GQ can do that. He can try. Must be almost as annoying as sharing a room with him earlier while he was pacing; except now he's pacing in his head, which has to be a lot harder for Croc to ignore.

He swallows, and makes his shoulders drop from where they'd been starting to hunch up tight, and then reaches out tentatively.

Croc's not pissed, he discovers. Annoyed, yeah. But not mad, and GQ feels his shoulders come down another half-inch. Croc just can't figure out what the fuck his problem is. Because he thought he knew—

GQ frowns, grasps for that thread and tugs.

Croc thought he knew what GQ wouldn't like about this. That thing in their heads, and how it had tied them together. Being stuck like this in general. Being stuck like this with Croc. Because GQ didn't seem to mind him too much, except he wouldn't, would he? They worked together. GQ wasn't stupid. GQ knew how to be friendly, how to make people like him. But with Croc in his head, he wasn't going to be able to hide anymore. Whatever it was he really felt—

GQ flinches, in his head and with his body, and almost lets go. Almost, except that thought doesn't end the way it should.

—about Croc, about what Croc is like, how much he resented it, or how bad it freaked him out to be locked up in a room with something like that, well. It was going to show through, sooner or later. Undo all GQ's hard work.

Jesus Christ, GQ thinks, but he can feel Croc's impatience, prodding him along in a new direction.

Because the thing is, Croc doesn't think that anymore. He felt it at the pool, how GQ thought about him, that it was real; that GQ meant it. So that's not the problem.

What is?

GQ swallows.

Man, he feels worse, not better, about answering that question now that he knows Croc thought GQ was just fucking with him or something. Pretending they were something like friends because they'd work together easier, jesus—

"GQ," Croc grits out.

GQ blinks.

He'd sunk so deep into Croc's head that he hadn't spared any attention for anything else—the room, or his own body. But Croc crossed it and came to him, and is standing there holding him by the wrist, staring at him with those huge pale eyes.

"GQ," Croc says, "fucking look."

What?

It wasn't that Croc would've liked it better, if that had been true. If GQ had just been trying to make the work easier on them both, hadn't actually liked him at all. It was just that it made sense. A lot more sense than the other way around. Because GQ had all kinds of other options, SEALs and Flag, Lawton, Katana. Hell, most people would probably pick Harkness over Killer Croc.

And Croc wouldn't have blamed GQ if he had, too. But not because he wanted GQ to pick somebody else. The thing GQ had thought back in the pool, it was—GQ remembered. GQ liked that Croc had made GQ let him go in the water with him, that Croc had dragged him out of there again after; Croc liked knowing he did. And Croc liked that GQ had tried to tell him to fuck off; had been more willing to blow himself up than to blow Croc up.

Low fucking bar, GQ thinks, and laughs out loud, even though his eyes are stinging.

"GQ," Croc says, more quietly.

GQ squeezes his eyes shut. Croc wants him to keep looking. And he doesn't want to, doesn't want to find the wrong thing, except—except Croc has to know that, can't possibly not feel it radiating off GQ right now, and surely Croc wouldn't make him do it anyway. Croc wouldn't make him do it like this, not unless he thought GQ would find something he did want.

So stop fucking thinking, Croc tells him, and look already.

And GQ does.

 

 

"No fucking way," GQ hears himself say, somewhere in the distance.

But it's there. It's there.

He can see it, he can feel it. Would have like four hours ago, Croc tosses in, if he'd just paid some fucking attention instead of freaking out—everything they can do now, and they'd still had to fucking talk about it, just because GQ's a dumbass.

But there's no heat in the thought, no bite. It's blunted, careful: one of Croc's fists, more than able to punch through concrete, when he bumps it against GQ's shoulder.

In retrospect, there were other clues GQ maybe missed along the way.

Whatever, he insists to Croc. He's a dumbass, fine. He's an awesome dumbass, he's the best dumbass, he's the luckiest dumbass in the world; Croc literally fucking loves him.

"Yeah," Croc murmurs, and he's saying it practically right in GQ's ear, but the sound's still almost drowned out by the way it feels.

GQ laughs. He'd been trying not to think about it, trying to make sure he steered clear of everything he could've ended up thinking about Croc—and doing it so hard that he hadn't even noticed it, right there in Croc, clear as day.

"Dumbass," Croc repeats, in a tone that says: QED.

"Yeah, yeah," GQ says, grinning.

He just—he excels at what he does, he works hard, it means something to him. He's a good guy, or at least he tries to be; ARGUS does fucked-up shit so other people don't have to, and so does GQ. He's a SEAL, he's hot, it's not like he's shy. But he's not fucking superpowered, he's not out-of-this-world unique. There isn't any particular reason he'd ever had to think that Croc would—

Croc snorts.

Don't say it again, GQ thinks, knowing Croc was totally about to. And then he laughs, and shakes his head. He shoves himself contentedly at Croc, inside and out: into Croc's grip on his wrist, into the wall of Croc's body; and in there, too: diving deep, feeling strong and quick and sure, right where he's supposed to be.

There's no lab coats. But there's still cameras.

Fuck it, Croc decides, and with the sentiment comes a breathtaking, downright dirty flicker of things—GQ, the way he looks, all the parts of him Croc's already seen just watching him strip his uniform off or put it on, his ass in skin-tight neoprene—

Oh, please, GQ thinks at him. Half the time, including right now, Croc doesn't even wear pants, so if anybody's been putting on a free show, it's him.

Like GQ minds, Croc thinks back smugly, and GQ grins at him; touches the scales climbing his throat, kisses them, because it's the highest his mouth fucking reaches when he's in sock feet. But he can fix that, he figures dimly, and starts nudging Croc toward one of the beds.