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The Fountain of Humanity

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                                The cowardly

                                and insincere

                                look at us at first with voices of wonder

                                then sing all abuse to pass the time.

                                The insincere just meddle in events

                                and disregard the people concerned.

                                            —Takamura Kotaro, One Evening

 

Genji feels the rain coming in his joints.

He shouldn’t be able to. Doctor Ziegler designed his cybernetics so they could withstand the crushing weight of 90 atmospheres and temperatures pushing 600 degrees; his body simply lacks the structural weaknesses that would make it susceptible to changes in barometric pressure. Even so, an incipient ache creeps in along the bends of his synthetic bones, leaking in from his twisted web-work of scars. Less than a half hour after the initial pain sets in, he hears the low rumble of thunder not far off. When he turns back to the dusty horizon, he can see storm clouds dragging their broad, dark bellies along the edges of the sky.

The sight is an incredible relief.

It’s been two weeks since Genji came to India and he still cannot abide the weather. Gujarat in July is more tolerable, maybe, than some of the other states, the unbearable damp occasionally yielding to heat that is mercifully dry, but nevertheless he finds himself stopping beneath the dense shade of gulmohar trees whenever possible, taking off his visor so he can indulge the brief luxury of feeling like he is being drowned rather than waterboarded. The coming deluge promises a moment of respite—an outflow of sweet, cool air. But he knows it will be short lived, and he will go back to suffocating tomorrow.

He has no memory of Indian weather being so unrelenting—though admittedly, he’s only been once before, when he was eighteen and his brother was twenty, the pair dragged along on one of their father’s frequent business trips. It was December, but fantastically mild in Bangalore, the stupendous patchwork city restored to its pre-Omnic Crisis glory using a combination of brick and mortar and hard-light.

Naturally, Genji had contributed nothing to whatever negotiations his father was engaged in. His time was better spent loitering outside cafes on Brigade Road, nursing a glass of sweet lassi while he made eyes at women in bright saris and men in subdued batik. He remembers shuffling back into his and Hanzo’s shared hotel room at four or five each morning, sweltering from a wholly different sort of heat, his shirt missing buttons and his neck mottled with bruises. His brother, still awake despite the ungodly hour, would glare at him from across the room, a pile of marked-up documents spread across his sheets. When Genji opened his mouth to say something glib, Hanzo just pointed viciously to the bed adjacent to his.

In a coarse, exhausted voice, he ordered, “Go to sleep.”

Genji sighs. He used to remember that trip fondly in the past, but now the recollection brings nothing but a hollow pang in his synthetic gut. He wishes he hadn’t thought of it at all.

When he was younger, he’d always loved how international the Shimada Clan was; it had been nice getting out of stuffy Japan every now and then, and even when he was not permitted to leave the country, his father always brought him back some foreign bauble from wherever he’d last visited, adding another distraction to Genji’s endless list of distractions. Now, he resents the fact that there is no place he can go on Earth that does not remind him of his family. Since leaving Overwatch two years ago, he has been to countless countries, either staying for a while or simply cutting through, and always, always, always, his thoughts are drawn back to Japan. Finland (his father on the phone, complaining about the impossibility of reading the signs there), Mexico (Hanzo bringing him back a brightly decorated sugarskull and yelling at him when he immediately tried to eat it), Kenya (a Luo trade partner sending them a box of locally grown black tea, the attached letter boasting they would not find anything better in all the world). Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, every one bears some mark of the Shimada, like a scar left by a long since broken blade. He does not know any way to escape it: the fathomless tar pit that is his own memory.

It helps to stay active. Doctor Ziegler’s voice, advice supplied when he complained about his new limbs feeling stiff. Unwieldy. Her smile, tired, as she drew up from her bottomless well of patience to deal with Genji, who went out of his way to gripe even when he knew there was nothing wrong. Keep moving, and I’m sure that it will pass.

He does, and it doesn’t. But he keeps at it anyway, because what else is he to do? He’s hopped freight trains, stowed away on airlifters, hunkered down in cargo ships; one country to the next, unseen, never paying for a ticket, eschewing car rentals and hotels in favor of hiking around foothills and taking short naps under the auspices of the stars. Going anywhere he thinks won’t chase him out. A Vagabond Holiday, a hard-light sign supplies helpfully as Genji crosses to the other side of the potholed road he’s travelling, the three dimensional letters blinking out an advertisement for some tourist travel agency. He frowns when he sees water bounce off one of the ‘A’s—the storm’s just about caught up with him. Another fifteen, twenty minutes and it’ll be coming down in buckets.

Usually, this would be his cue to find shelter for the day. Though he’s mostly managed to weather the monsoon season—even with the plaster-thick rainfall obscuring his vision and the wind, spiteful, juvenile, yanking him around by his cloak and scarf like a dog on a chain—he hates dealing with the maintenance that inevitably follows. More than once, he’s had to carve out a chunk of his morning to scrape mud from the mouths of his vents and pressure valves, something he dislikes doing not only for the tedium of it but also for the nauseating sense of disassociation he gets whenever he deals directly with his own mechanical parts. There is always a distinct wrongness to it, the knowledge that where a human might have to wash and exfoliate, he has to buff and polish. The fact that he has to maintain himself much the same way he had to maintain the Kawasaki motorcycle he received for his 16th birthday (another memory, uninvited, stomping through) makes him sick to his stomach. He thinks of the way the bike crumpled and shattered when he inevitably wrecked it six months later, and imagines his body doing the same, his exterior plating bending like a fender, synthetic muscles seeping oil and not blood.

“Stop it,” he tells himself, throat closing around a swell of bile. He has to quit thinking about this stuff or else he’ll lose his mind. Besides, it’s barely two in the afternoon, much too early to stop—even if it means picking dirt out of his joints come sunrise, he refuses to lose an entire day to a bit of rain.

Admittedly, he’s not sure why it matters one way or the other. He has nowhere to be, nowhere to go. He’s just walking, trying to pass the time in a way that feels more productive than just lying around feeling like shit. Not to say that walking actually makes him feel any better—it doesn’t. But if he’s going to feel like shit anyway, he might as well do it on the go.

Keep moving, and I’m sure that it will pass.

Right. Wouldn’t that be nice.

He squints (completely instinctive, the cybernetic implants in his eyes don’t respond to it at all), trying to see if he can detect something like civilization in the distance. There’s a world map installed in the robotic part of his brain, and he can run it, bring it up like an app on a holobook, but he’d prefer not to do that unless he absolutely has to. Ahead, all he can make out is more of the bright red dirt and tall green grass that stretches out on either side of him, the rapidly rising wind combing through the blades like fingers through hair.

He takes in a thick breath and can taste the coming storm as much as he can smell it. Lightning flashes, and thunder trembles at its feet.

He lowers his body and decides to run for it. He keeps following the road.

----

He’s drenched down to his bones by the time he stumbles on a town. His dash only carries him so far before it needs to recharge, and he hoofs it the old fashioned way for the remainder of the trip, an act which proves unbearably slow when it feels like he’s in the midst of performing misogi.

It’s only around 7 PM, but the storm means the stars have been decisively quenched, and it is pitch black outside. The lurid yellow lights that throb just ahead, leaching out the panes of stout, white houses, are like beacons in the night. They jump and shiver in the rain, mirage-like, looking distant even as Genji draws near. As he crosses the threshold between ‘in town’ and ‘out of town,’ the mud and water at his feet feeling instantly less dense, he lets the light of his visor flicker off. He’s not interested in someone taking notice of his movement as he passes through, the vivid, electronic glow catching the eyes of strangers like a green onibi, a bleak omen prophesying fire or death.

The cyborg glances around, taking stock of his surroundings, instinctively noting points of entry, exit, blind spots, perches, things that aren’t important when all he wants is someplace dry. The town looks big enough that he’s sure he’ll find something with some patience; Genji estimates a population between twenty and thirty thousand, at the least. Surprisingly big, given what he’s seen the last few weeks. And more than that, surprisingly new, the paint on a few of the houses he passes luminously white in the scraps of light reflecting off the shimmering earth, some of the architecture looking less folky and more modern, taller and more uniformly built, like you might see in a city.

It’s in better shape than just about any of the other places he’s visited in the countryside, and by no small measure. Over two decades and most of India’s still reeling from the Omnic Crisis, still pulling things together, still trying to make ends meet. Towns crushed flat by artillery fire, tens of thousands annihilated in the course of a single night; Genji comes across ruins everywhere, finding handfuls of orphaned walls standing tremulously amongst rubble like ancient temples in the sands of Egypt, fallen titan walkers and gutted Bastion units slouched like toppled gods nearby.

The towns and cities that still stand are the ones that were only burned in parts. Though they’re still charred through, life’s flared up around the edges and persisted, but in a way that feels achingly incomplete. The Vishkar Corporation’s done a lot, especially for some of the bigger cities: beautiful Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, that citadel of light, shining Utopaea. But for the little backwater towns, the ones that were pinching pennies even before the war, help has been slow-coming. Life has been hard.

Genji supposes this place just lucked out somehow.

As he trudges forward, he studies the various buildings around him. Lots of little houses with wood and wire carts pulled up near the doors, banyan trees growing out front. Some permanent storefronts with hand-painted signs in Gujarati script nailed above rusted gates drawn shut. A handful of municipal offices, several stories high. At these, he pauses; they offer a decent opportunity to get the lay of the land. He takes a running jump at one and lands on the narrow ledge just above the first floor. Usually he could make it higher, but his soaked-through cloak has made him heavier and he can’t run at full speed on the mucky stone street. Everything feels slick beneath him, but the specially-crafted grips on the base of his feet still adhere well enough to the wall. He scales the building, finding infinitesimal cracks and sinking his fingers into them, the wind dragging at his back like a trawl.

In these moments, he becomes grateful for the training of his youth, the miserable terror of scaling rock faces at an age when most children were still learning to tie their shoes, unharnessed, having nothing between him and the ground but thirty feet of sweet spring air. The first time he fell, he’d been climbing too fast, too eager to show off how much he’d learned, how good he’d gotten. One instant, he was calling down to Hanzo and their father Sojiro, trying to goad them into a race—the next, his foot was slamming down hard on nothing. The horror had choked him so completely that he didn’t even scream. His vision went from stone to sky, his brother’s whipping hair like a distant flag as he hurtled past. He clenched his jaw, waiting for his skull to split apart like the watermelons he and Hanzo would go and smash at the beach during summertime. He felt rather than saw the ground rising up to meet him—seven years old and ready to accept his death—and then at the final moment, something yanked his shirt, strangling him for an instant, and flipped him up, redirecting his speed into a wide arc.  He’d been flailing like someone being drowned when he finally landed, unharmed, in his father’s arms—faster than Genji had plummeted, Sojiro had sped back down the cliff, beating him to the bottom. Saving his youngest’s life.

When his father tried to put him down, Genji clung to him like a remora, kicking his feet and blubbering a string of incomprehensible Japanese. Hanzo, better at climbing than Genji but still clumsy in his technique, slowly descended behind them. He was visibly shaking, his face as white as seafoam—not nearly as eager to be an only child back then. When Sojiro had finally managed to unlatch Genji from his shirt, a smile had been playing on his lips.

“Careful, Sparrow,” he said, his deep voice like a tremor in the earth. His eyes, black, much darker than either of his sons’, glittered like cut obsidian. “You can’t fly yet.”

Now, Genji soars, higher, higher, flipping up the side of the building as if gravity was a gift he’d been offered but politely declined. Once he reaches the roof, he perches at the edge of the orange shingles, water sluicing past has feet like the ebbing tide. Visibility is low, but he can make out just enough to be useful. The tops of houses, trees, some lights flickering off in the distance. He turns, and to his left he can just barely make out the tall, stepped roof of a Hindu temple about a half mile out. Perfect—all the temples he’s encountered so far are left open at night, happy to welcome in any old stray. That’s where he’s going to go; it probably won’t be warm or all that comfortable, but it beats sleeping in the rain.

He chuckles darkly at how low his standards have fallen. To think there was a time when he considered sleeping at a four star hotel legitimate cause for complaint. What he wouldn’t do to so much as glimpse the staples of his youth: a warm bed and accompanying warm body. Crisp new money. A coffered, waterproof ceiling. Walls that kept the wind out. Food with taste. Hot water. Home.

The last one slips in before he can stop it. His chest goes tight.

Keep moving, and I’m sure that it will pass.

“Right,” he inhales thickly. “Right.”

Rather than dropping back down to street level, he leaps off the municipal building and onto a nearby roof, his landing muffled by rainfall. From there, he goes from house to house, darting through the air like a Pacific swift. It takes him mere minutes to reach his destination, but it sits isolated from the buildings around it, so he’s forced to return to the road. The outside of the temple is lit, and Genji can make out a man sitting beneath the carved stone overhang, his chin on his chest. Out cold. He might be a guard of some sort, but he’s clearly not doing his job. Beyond that is a wide grassy yard with short red-brown walls making a pathway up to the temple steps. In the center of the yard is an old well with a waist-high barrier made of similarly coloured stone. And at the well--

His eyes narrow in disbelief. Silhouetted by the temple light, leaning over the lip of the well, is a person. No…as he draws closer, he sees the glint of grey metal—the blue shimmer making a halo around its head. It’s not a person after all. It’s an omnic.

It’s like he’s spotted a cryptid; the sight is so jarring that it stops him in his tracks.

This is the first time he’s seen one since he arrived in India—or rather, it’s the first time he’s seen one alive. Most places in the world aren’t exactly accepting of their omnic citizens, but the prejudice against their kind runs deep here, particularly in those rural towns still suffering from the impact of the war, the effects lingering like fatigue after a long illness. The vast majority of omnics, peaceful or not, were forced out of the countryside years ago. And if there were any that refused to leave—well, Genji suspects they were dealt with one way or another.

His interest piqued, Genji creeps closer to the machine, trying to get a read on it. If it was strange for a human to be collecting well water in the middle of a monsoon, then for an omnic it is doubly so. The fact that it’s come out in this weather suggests that it’s trying to avoid notice, which seems reasonable given their location. But as for the water, what in the world would it need it for? Genji’s stomach tightens when he considers that it might not be taking something out of the well—it might be putting something in. His hand starts to drift to his wakizashi where it sits sheathed against his lower back.

Would an omnic poison a well? It seems too subtle—too underhanded. Too human. Besides, that would take mere moments to accomplish, and this omnic has been standing in one place for minutes now, its mechanical shoulders straining under some unseen burden, a set of strange, floating orbs making an agitated rotation around its neck. By the time Genji is across from it, he’s just about resolved to ask what it’s doing outright—but in that moment, he sees it slip, metal chest slamming hard against the well wall, and watches as something streaks out of its silvery hands.

Genji’s reflexes take over. In an instant he’s crossed the remaining distance between them and thrown his hand down into the impenetrable darkness of the well. His fingers graze rope, feel it whipping past, and he grabs it a split second before it disappears for good. The rope goes taut in his fist and he’s yanked abruptly forward when something heavy jolts at the other end. He grunts, his joints (still aching from the rain) protesting the rough treatment. He leans back and starts hoisting the invisible weight back up. He can hear it smacking hard against the inside of the well as it rises, inch by inch, into the light.

He finds himself underwhelmed when it turns out to be nothing but a simple bucket, albeit a large one, deep enough to hold maybe ten gallons of water and currently filled to the brim; the thing has to weigh over eighty pounds.

Somewhat more surprising than the bucket is what’s inside it.

Bobbing on the surface of the overflowing water, bright as a buoy, is one of the omnic’s orbs. It’s badly damaged—a chunk of the golden exterior is missing, and the rings of dim light that throb in the others of the set are completely dark. Genji finds himself relieved to see the thing. So the omnic was just trying to fish out its lost possession; nothing malicious at all.

He lifts the pail and sets it on the barrier, pouring out the water until only the orb is left within, the rope tied to the bucket’s handle bundled up to join it--the rain drums raucously against its sides. When he’s done, he looks at the omnic and he can feel it looking back, even though he can’t tell whether the feat is accomplished with the nine glowing dots organized in a square on its forehead or with the twin slits just below, angled into a permanent expression of wistful calm. He has the distinct sense that it’s appraising him in some way.

Then he realizes: a human wouldn’t have been able to lift that bucket. Not so effortlessly, not in the pouring rain. He should have been yanked down into the darkness when it bounced at the end of the rope, or at least had his arm dislocated. As it is, he’s not even tired, and he certainly isn’t injured. It knows there’s something strange about him.

Genji clicks his tongue, amazed at his own stupidity. Rushing in to aid a machine like some kind of soft touch—why did he do it? What did he think would happen? And look at what it’s gotten him. As if it weren’t bad enough to endure the constant scrutiny of humans, now he has to deal with it from robots too.

He’s about to say something—something confrontational, something pointless—but the omnic turns its head suddenly towards the temple. The man sitting in the chair at the entrance is rousing. Genji sees him shiver, stretch, open his mouth in a yawn. His eyes blink open—squint, adjust to the light—and then they settle on the omnic.

The machine’s hand grazes Genji’s and his attention snaps back to it, but it’s already grabbed the bucket and started running in the opposite direction, saffron pants like a smear of paint on the veil of the night. The words, only implied, linger unspoken between them. Thank you.

Genji opens his mouth to call for the omnic—he’s immediately silenced by gunfire. He spins on his heel and sees the man inside the temple standing, his eyes wild, an assault rifle blaring in his hands (how did Genji miss it? How has he gotten so rusty?). The rounds are all aimed at the omnic, but the rain’s too thick and the omnic’s too fast; it disappears into the darkness unscathed. Genji stands motionless as the man lets out a curse in Gujarati, running one hand through his short black hair. He looks at Genji, and his expression flares with anger.

Genji grasps the hilt of his wakizashi. He has no idea what’s happening, but he’s prepared to defend himself if need be.

Rather than shoot him, the man barks out what’s probably an order, gestures for Genji to come over. As he moves, the cyborg spots a bit of black peeking out beneath the collar of his white shirt. A Kevlar vest.

That should be indication enough that Genji needs to leave. Something is clearly wrong here, and he’s not interested in sticking around long enough to find out what. But the fact of the matter is, the situation’s against him. Sunrise is hours away, the storm gives no hint of letting up—his body can take a lot of punishment, but he thinks it’s suffered enough. So long as he’s not threatening, he can probably avoid getting shot. Even if he gets arrested, at least a jail cell will have a roof. He can break out in the morning.   

He exhales sharply out his nose.

Fine, he thinks. Employing that American phrase: Let’s play ball.              

He removes his grip from his sword and moves up towards the temple. He makes sure to keep both his hands visible as he approaches. Despite the equipment, the man in front of him is clearly not military or police, and civilians are always itchy on the trigger.

Once Genji’s under the temple lights, the man steps back to examine him. His face screws up tight as he gives Genji the once-over—admittedly, his long, ragged cloak and carefully wrapped headscarf make him look suspicious, but certainly not any more suspicious than a glowstick cyborg ninja. The two swords, woefully visible, give the man pause, but he doesn’t seem to take them as an immediate danger. No surprise; weapons they may be, but to the untrained eye they seem novel, no real threat. He thinks his gun is better.

Once he’s satisfied, the man jabs his finger towards the street. There’s some snarled Gujarati, some gesturing with the rifle.

Genji sighs. “I cannot understand.”

The man in front of him blinks, maybe more taken aback by Genji’s accent than the English that accompanies it. He takes a moment, visibly weighs his options, grinds his teeth. When he’s made whatever decision he has to make, he lets out a put upon sigh and points to the ground at Genji’s feet. Wait here.

The ninja nods his assent. This is a good sign. If there’s someone in town who speaks English, maybe Genji will be able to improve his situation somewhat. Or at least get a few questions answered.  At the cyborg’s nod, the man gives one last evaluating look before he turns and runs down the temple steps, into the rain. He uses his rifle to shield his head from getting wet. His finger’s still on the trigger; he really has no training at all.

While he waits, Genji shakes himself off and squeezes some of the rain out of his cloak. He grabs the knapsack slung around his shoulder and digs inside it. It only carries one thing: an English to Hindi dictionary that was in bad shape even before he got ahold of it. Now, the book is ruined for good, the pages black with seeped ink and stuck together in a thick mass. Good riddance, he thinks as he hurls it out into the yard. When he acquired it, he’d been under the impression that Hindi was actually somewhat ubiquitous in India—as it stands, he’s yet to meet a single person who speaks it. The damn thing’s destruction is a blessing. One less thing for him to carry.

He puts his knapsack back on and rolls his shoulders. Now that he’s out of the rain, he’s starting to notice the cold. To hell with a roof; he’d be content if someone just brought him a towel.

Genji’s been standing around dripping like a drowned cat for the better part of a half hour when finally, he hears the man with the gun calling from down the road. He’s standing in the light hung from a nearby building, waving emphatically for the ninja to come towards him. Going back into the rain has no appeal, but the more cooperative Genji is, the easier this will be. He sucks in a deep breath between his teeth, like he’s about to jump into a swimming pool on a cold morning, and runs out to meet the man. He so badly wants to dash forward, but he keeps his speed to a reasonably human pace. Even so, he’s on the fast side. The man in front of him visibly balks at how quickly he closes the distance.

The two walk down a few blocks, moving in and out of narrow streets until they reach one of the municipal offices Genji saw before. Surprisingly, the lights are on, but only on the first floor. The man gestures for Genji to go inside, which he obliges. As he steps through the threshold, he makes sure the rifle stays within in his peripherals at all times.

The building’s interior is about what Genji would expect from a government building. The floor is tiled, brown and white, a few scuffs of muddy footprints here and there from earlier in the evening. There are rows of chairs lined up near the door, and ahead is a long, wooden counter with a series of old looking computers resting on top. Behind the counter are a smattering of office desks in various states of organization. The stairs leading to the second floor are dark.

Leaning against the counter, speaking in frazzled, hushed tones, are a middle-aged man with a beard and a yellow-and-red striped shirt and a taller, slightly younger man swinging an M16 lazily at his side. When Genji enters, they direct their attention to him. The man with the gun raises an eyebrow, but the one in the striped shirt grins widely, affecting good grace.

 “Good evening,” he says in crisp, clear English, his voice warbling slightly with the inflection of his mother tongue. “It is not often we see foreigners here, but always, it is a treat! Please,” he gestures to one of the dozens of chairs set up ahead of him. “Take a seat.”

Genji wordlessly declines. He feels both armed men shift irritably, not appreciating his brusqueness towards the man who is clearly their boss. He wonders if they’ll move to shoot him if he keeps it up.

Let them try.

“Is there something you want from me?” he asks flatly. This night has gone too long as it is—there’s a limit to how much he’s willing to entertain.

The man in the shirt laughs brightly.

“To the point!” He grins. “Perhaps this is how things are done where you’re from? That accent…you are…?”

Genji doesn’t supply an answer and the man is smart enough not to make a half-baked guess.

“No matter.” A wave of the hand. “I see you are busy, so I will not keep you for long. I am Kasar,” he bows his head as he offers his name, “and I am sarpanch of the beautiful Param. That is…like the mayor,” he explains when Genji stares back in visible non-comprehension. Kasar clasps his hands in front of his chest and walks forward, advancing towards the cyborg. There’s something about the way he carries himself that makes Genji raise his brow. Stance-wide, ankles apart, like he’s trying to make himself look bigger. Immediately, Genji is struck by the image of Jesse McCree: the inveterate rider’s stance, the hat, the boots, the spurs clinking at his heels, those gleaming eyes as dark as earth turned over, hankering for a ride hundreds of miles away from any horses.

The ninja smirks behind his visor. Ridiculous.

“As sarpanch,” says Kasar, his voice deep and emphatic, like he’s playing to the back row, “it is my job to make sure my home is safe. That everything is always working smoothly. But recently, there has been a problem. A problem you have encountered.”

There’s a moment of silence—it’s Genji’s turn to say his line. “The omnic.”

“Yes!” Kasar claps his hands. “The omnic. Since last week, it has been stealing from the well, causing trouble. We have been trying to deal with it…” Genji remembers the orb in the bucket, the missing chunk, like it had taken a hit from a bullet. “…but it has not been so easy. These machines, they are very clever. Quicker than they look. So we have been trying to find out where it is staying, so we can take care of it properly.” He smiles wide. His teeth are garishly white. “Of course, you understand.”

Carefully, Genji affirms, “Of course.”

“My associate Hakim,” the sarpanch gestures to the man who escorted Genji here, still standing just behind him, the rifle hoisted at his chest. “He tells me you were speaking with the omnic?”

“He is mistaken.”

Even though he doesn’t speak English, Hakim must at least understand a fair amount because he hisses something at Genji’s answer.

“Are you sure?” Kasar hums. “There is no need to lie.”

“I am not lying.”

More snarled Gujarati. The cyborg feels the nose of the rifle jab sharply at his side. That’s more than he can tolerate from a man who doesn’t know enough about guns to keep his finger off the trigger. Faster than most people can see, he snatches the barrel of the rifle, squeezing as hard as he can. When he drops his palm an instant later, the metal he gripped is mangled into the shape of his closed fist, looking like horribly abused playdough. It happens too quickly—Hakim doesn’t even get to use that itchy finger of his. All he can do is gape at the now worthless hunk of metal in his hands.

“You need,” Genji says quietly, turning back to Kasar and his second ‘associate.’ Both are staring at the mangled rifle with eyes the size of dinner plates. “To teach your men a bit of trigger discipline. If you do not learn to be more careful, someone is going to get hurt.”

The thinly veiled threat jolts Kasar’s unnamed second, and he raises his own gun, as if it’ll fare any better than the first. The sarpanch murmurs something at him in Gujarati, and after a moment of hesitation, he lowers his weapon. Tension rises in the air.

“You are very strong,” Kasar notes. He’s still smiling, but his voice is smaller than it was before. He seems aware of what an immense understatement he’s made. He pauses, takes a moment to turn things around in his mind. Finally, he continues, enunciating each word, choosing his speech carefully. “You have no affiliation with the omnic.”

“No,” says Genji.

“It told you nothing.”

“What would I gain from speaking to it?”

Kasar laughs. “Of course, you are right. No point in talking with a machine. Then, tell me this: do you have anywhere to stay while you visit in Param?”

The cyborg pauses for a moment. He doesn’t know nearly enough about this situation to assess how much information he should divulge to this man. But at the same time, they’re at the point where things could only improve, whatever he says. He tells the truth.

“No.” He decides not to mention that he was just going to hunker down in the temple until the rain stopped, like some sort of vagrant. Even he can muster up a modicum of shame every now and again.

In any case, Kasar seems to like this answer. He nods firmly, saying, “I see, I see.” More thinking, shuffling his deck, counting his cards. Eventually, he claps his hands together. He has an idea. “I see we are in a perfect position, you and I.”

Oh boy.

“How do you mean?” Genji says, deciding to rise to the bait.

“Both of us, we have something we need.” Kasar lifts either hand in front of him. “You need a place to stay.” He raises one hand. “I need to take care of this omnic.” He raises the other. “So perhaps we can come to an agreement. Let me offer you lodgings for however long you need. In return, at night, you keep the omnic from drawing from the well.” He clasps his hands together in front of him. “Both of us are satisfied.”

Genji pauses. “For how long would I need to carry out this duty?”

“As long as you like—though, at least for the next week would be ideal. What you do after that…” Kasar shrugs, eyes glittering. “It is up to you.”

“And you just want me to keep the omnic away?”

“You can do more if you’d like.” A dark chuckle. “But it is not necessary.”

The cyborg rolls his shoulders back as he considers. It’s not a bad deal; he’s done more for far, far less. He doesn’t have to kill anything, either, which is a nice change of pace. And it’s been so long since he’s slept in a real building, in a real bed. Even so, it feels like there’s something he’s missing. A catch.

But he’ll worry about it later. For now, he’ll take what he can get.

“Fine,” he says, and Kasar beams in front of him. “We have an agreement.”

----

The lodgings they offer Genji are nicer than he’d expected. The house is brightly furnished, with colorful tapestries and pretty ornaments adorning most empty surfaces. The furniture is old but not badly taken care of, and much of it is delicately crafted, made with carved wood and artfully embroidered fabric. There are a number of pictures hung up on the walls, some containing mandalas or painted scenes from stories Genji has never heard. In a few, unfamiliar gods look down at him with gentle, dusky eyes, their many arms borne up, proffering flowers, weapons, varied blessings disguised as empty hands. He feels that he has been allowed here under their auspices alone; he reels in the urge to bow to them as he passes by.  

There’s something about the house—the look, the smell—that feels distinctly lived in, like someone left to run an errand that morning and then simply failed to come back. However, he’s assured by Kasar that the place has been vacant for some time now, and he takes his word for it. He’s resolved not to pry into these small town matters. Whatever happens here stays here, and he’ll clear out at the end of the week none the wiser or worse for wear.

The house has a small bathroom with a shower in it, and the first thing he does is use it to clean the mud off his feet and legs. Never has the irksome chore been so painless. After that, he stands beneath the spray until the hot water runs out, soaking in warmth like a fat lizard in the sun. He washes his cloak and scarf as best he can in the sink, and then leaves them to dry over a wooden clothes horse he finds sitting in the tiny kitchen. He ignores the dark shirt already hung there, dried into a stiff, rumpled ‘U’.

It’s a relief to find the bedroom is as tight as it is, because it takes him all of two steps to cross from the door to the mattress, at which point he collapses heavily and doesn’t move. The orange sheets smell of wood and spices, a scent Genji finds strangely familiar, and have a pleasant, threadbare softness. The discomfort that’s been plaguing his limbs all day settles and spreads thin, like it too is stretching out to rest. Outside, the rain plays upon the roof like a taiko drum; he’d forgotten how calming storms could be when he wasn’t standing in the middle of them.

He takes off his visor and drops it on the scuffed bedside table, getting ready to settle in for the night, but his hand bumps something as he does it. He frowns, grabs the offending object, holds it in front of his face. In the darkness, his eyes adjust enough to discern that he’s looking at a framed picture. He can make out the silhouettes of several people, the whites of wide eyes and broad smiles. A family photo. He sets it back on the nightstand face down.

There it is again, the niggling sense that something isn’t right. But he pushes it down, stores it away. It’s not his business, he insists. Not his problem. Not his country, not his town. If there’s something to be fixed, someone else can fix it. The police, the government—let Overwatch swoop in, for all he cares. So long as it doesn't fall to him.

Genji rolls onto his back, raises his hand up above him so it looks like a narrow paw print against the ceiling. He can see light between the gaps in his knuckles.

He thinks of the omnic. The broken sphere. Its fingers grazing his as it disappeared into the night—

Hanzo’s voice echoes in his head. He hears the exhausted admonition: Go to sleep.

—The Kevlar vest. The guns. The too-new houses—

Doctor Ziegler with bags under her eyes; a repeated, murmured exhortation: Go to sleep.

—The dried shirt. The photograph. The absolving eyes of foreign gods.

That rain-borne ache, burbling out around his bones. It snarls, a pain just like damnation: Go the fuck to sleep.

Genji clenches his fist, squeezes his eyes shut.

Jesse, his smile like a signal flare, gnawing at the end of a cigarillo like he’s chomping at the bit. Later, later, he croons in his husky Southern drawl. Gripping Genji’s wrist, that hand (still flesh and blood, still human in almost all of Genji’s memories) dragging him out, out, out. You can sleep all you want when you’re dead.

Genji shoots up, his heart pounding, acid burning in his throat.

He can’t sleep in that bed, he determines. His legs feel about as steady as jenga stacks as he pushes away from the sheets and goes into the darkened sitting room. Slowly, he lies down on the woven rug in the middle of the floor. He breathes deeply, tries to clear his head, to focus on nothing.

He's still wide awake come morning.