People flowed around Gus like water around a rock. He smiled encouragingly at those who made eye contact with him, trying to lift their spirits. This was his role. To be the heart of the team, to ooze positivity when the odds were clearly stacked against them. He was used to it, though. Even as a kid, he'd been a glass half full kind of person. The tendency compounded when he got famous in his Thrashball days and constructed his Cole Train persona. He figured this was just more of the same. The obvious difference was that when he was playing ball, he just had to encourage his team to play well, and here he had to encourage people to not try and off themselves or anyone else - trick them into believing that they weren't currently sitting in a cesspool of a situation. Making people believe the best instead of sinking into their personal despair was old hat for Gus. He was a people person, and part of what came along with being a people person was the ability to manipulate them. They were easy to understand for the most part. Even now, with everyone bouncing between the shock at the sudden, screeching end to the war that had taken up most of their lives, the fear of being stranded on this island, and the giddiness at finally being able to hope that maybe they had a chance at normalcy, he could tell who needed what from him just by what they called him. Cole and The Cole Train were two different entities who provided two different services to people - two different types of game plans, and Gus had never fumbled the ball in his life.
So, he carried on, grinning until his cheeks hurt and turning the Cole Train act up to an eleven. At first, he tried to pay special attention to anyone whose eyes looked a little too dark, but he quickly realized the futility of that. Everyone's eyes were too dark. Even his own - he just happened to be good at hiding it. Right now, people were calm - they were too shell-shocked not to be, but there was also a tension in the air that made Gus' stomach hurt. They were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. In their experience, good news was usually followed by a 'Gotcha' and a boot or two up the ass. Gus knew that eventually the veneer of peace would start to break and everyone's shit would start to pour out like rushing water through a crack in a dam.
The situation was bleak, but he'd make the best of it. And he'd charm and convince the others into making the best of it, too. He'd be damned if he survived the war just to die because some ex-soldier lost his shit and decided to take everyone else with him. Fuck that noise. They'd all just have to hold out until Baird came up with a way to link them to the outside world. He wondered if his friend truly understood just how much was settled on their shoulders. Maybe not the weight of the world, but certainly the weight of their world. He hoped they were strong enough to carry it.
Right now, people were trying to process everything. Just having actual beds was enough to throw everyone off. Veteran soldier or not, comfortable mattresses and sheets that didn't feel like they were made of razor blades were the trappings of a life that had been destroyed as soon as the Hammer dropped. Prescott may have betrayed the whole nation when he'd abandoned them, but no one could say he didn't understand the concept of creature comforts. Gus thought it was poetic that the people that had been left behind were the ones to reap the benefits in the end. He watched everyone mill around, choosing their rooms and marveling at the opulence of the sprawling hotel. Only a few weeks ago, they'd all been sleeping up against walls or against each others backs. This concept of having privacy and actual space that they didn't have to share with their squad was a brand new type of animal. Gus grinned as someone exclaimed about there being hot water. Maybe there were some blessings to be counted from having their lives ripped away from them: they certainly had an appreciation for the small things. He wondered how long it would take for someone to have a mini freak-out at the fact that they had private showers now. He was particularly excited about that bit. He'd endured seeing more male asses than any man ever should. Surely that fact alone earned him a place in heaven. He loved his fellow Gears, but he was sick to death of surprise package exposure. Excuse me, but could you get your dong out of my face? Thanks, man.
"Hey, Cole." Carmine had finished working his portion of the crowd and wandered back to where Cole had planted himself. "You alright? You've been standing here a while."
"I'm always alright. Just taking stock." Gus smirked. "Surveying my domain, if you will." They lapsed into silence for a bit, each watching the people as they walked past them. "How do you think they're doing?"
"As well as can be, I guess, considering that just a few weeks ago most of us expected to get sniped in the head: which, incidentally, created an unhealthy obsession with our helmets."
Gus shot Carmine a faintly concerned look before turning his attention back to the few stragglers remaining in the main hall.
"I wonder what my brothers would've thought of all this." Carmine gestured vaguely, trying to encompass every detail of their situation. He looked at Gus sadly, waiting for a response. Cole turned to him fully, taking in his appearance. It was still odd seeing Carmine without a helmet, his red hair - normally cut in the regulation high and tight style - was growing out and looked a little like he'd stuck his finger in an electrical socket. Gus sighed and patted Carmine on the shoulder sympathetically. There wasn't much he could say to make him feel better. Carmine wasn't unique in his loss - there were a lot of people asking that very same question about whatever loved one they'd lost sometime in the last seventeen or eighteen years.
"Alright, man, let's call it a night. What do you say we find Jace and go see what kind of high quality liquor is hidden around here. You know that shit will be top shelf."
"Hell, yeah, Cole! Damn, I could go for a beer right now. Even Dizzy's rotgut moonshine sounds good." Carmine was nothing if not resilient. He bounced back from his dip in the pity pool in record time. Gus patted his shoulder again, already scanning the crowd for Jace so they could get out of here. He was ready to stop treading in this sea of people.
Waking up naturally to the warmth of sunshine instead of being shaken awake by a fellow Gear was something Anya was determined to get used to. She stretched briefly and reached over for Marcus, but found his side of the bed empty. Anya opened her eyes blearily, and saw that he hadn't left yet; he was perched on the edge of the mattress, naked, head in his hands. She allowed the ensuing sorrow to wash over her, as it had countless times since Marcus had recounted, in distant tones, that Dom had died in Mercy. It was one of her deepest fears come true, that something would befall Dom and orphan Marcus yet again. She grieved for Dom, but she had never shared a tiny fire with him in the middle of a snowstorm, had never staunched the flow of his blood from a bullet wound. She had not been with him when he found Maria: poor, broken Maria. She could never love him the way Marcus had. She doubted anyone could.
Anya had privately feared that losing Dom would cause Marcus to lose his sanity, to either commit a sacrificial suicide himself or just blow his head off with a gnasher during night patrol. But he was still here, certainly against his own expectations as well as her own. There existed inside Marcus' ragged soul a will to live, and Anya did her best to encourage it. She wondered how long he had been awake, trying to squeeze all thoughts of Dom from his memory. Trying and failing.
She knew he could hardly frame his feelings with words on the best days, and there had been so very few of those. Anya rolled over, rustling the sheets, giving him plenty of warning that she was awake. Marcus didn't like to be taken unawares, she thought, remembering the time he nearly backhanded her when she had come unannounced upon him while he had been showering. She sat up and brushed her own naked body against his softly. She laid her head against his scarred back, took a deep breath, and concentrated on memorizing the heat between their bodies. She still couldn't believe any of this was real. An end to the war. She and Marcus sharing a room. Sharing a life.
Marcus tensed at her touch, hunching his shoulders, and turned slightly to catch her eyes. Anya knew the little differences that characterized the wealth of Marcus' non-verbal reactions. A tense neck and shallow breath meant Marcus was attentive to danger, but a tense neck and deep breath indicated anger. Tense shoulders meant emotional brooding, while loose shoulders meant aggression. And there was the blinking; Marcus' only sure tell that indicated everything from surprise to cold rage. But hunching his shoulders…well…Anya couldn't help the smile that came as Marcus pressed her back into the sheets, angling his hips against hers, his hardness making his intentions clear. He may have been mysterious to the public eye, but behind closed doors, she could read him like a book—a book that had taken her years to decode.
His motions stilled as he regarded her expression. "What?"
She wanted to shake her head in consternation, but instead let the smile slowly fade. "Nothing. I can't be happy to see you?"
"I've been right here."
Anya huffed softly and rolled her eyes. "You were asleep."
"I'm not asleep now," he murmured in her ear, pulling her back to the building action at hand with a shiver.
She turned her head to kiss his cheek, the one with the puckered scar. So many scars. Marcus carried so many hurts. She didn't know if she would ever hear the truth about his time in the Slab. And did she want to know? His aversion to Bernie's mutt was telling of the treatment he had endured. She had been powerless when he was ripped away from her. But here she was, in an unlikely epilogue she couldn't have foreseen, holding the broken pieces, hoping the Marcus she fell in love with all those years ago was still inside, hidden away.
She pressed her body up against him, his hardness and her softness. It was all the encouragement Marcus needed. Half an hour later, Anya reveled in the luxurious quality of the sheets, watching him dress with lazy eyes. She knew she should be getting ready too—Marcus wasn't the only one with a world to rebuild, though he often considered it his task alone. Even now, with the Locust *and* Lambent threat neutralized, Marcus still dressed every day as if he was the last man on Sera, methodically putting on his stoicism, shouldering the burden of the world. He cracked his gnasher, making sure a shell was in the chamber, before racking it and slinging it over his shoulder. He checked the rounds on the boltok pistol, and holstered it on his belt. He caressed the handle of his worn lancer briefly.
His hand was on the doorknob before he heard Anya, her voice soft and pleading. "Marcus."
He turned around, taking in the way the sun highlighted her curves, how the sheets draped the rest of her in velvety shadows. The sunlight suffused her hair, making it shine like spun gold. There were faint lines underneath her eyes, the only indication that she was in her early thirties. His battered heart swelled painfully with everything he felt for her, the depth and breadth of it too much, as usual, for him to fully comprehend. She sat up when he failed to approach, a quizzical look on her face. She was the drink of water in the desert, the wellspring he thirsted for that had never run dry. Marcus shook himself free of his thoughts and went to her. He kissed her forehead, then tilted her chin up to plant another on her lips.
"Be careful. And…love you." Anya said after a pause, catching his eyes for a moment before rolling over and pulling up the sheets. Her heart was beating fast at the admission, though it wasn't the first time she had said it. She had told him she loved him years ago. It was the specter of his very real rejection of her feelings that still caused her throat to close up whenever she found the courage to say it.
Marcus grunted, and moved to the other side of the room. Anya heard the door swish open against the carpet, heard his footsteps pause.
"I'll see you later, my Anya."
Then he was gone, the door closing with a soft click. She smiled to herself and burrowed deeper into the mattress. 'My Anya' was Marcus-speak for 'I love you.' Maybe before he was fifty, he'd actually be able to say those three words aloud.
Marcus checked on Dizzy first. He'd tasked him with setting up a kitchen and getting their perishables in order. He got off the elevator and traversed the wide lobby to the row of blasted windows on the far left side. On the opposite side of the lobby, the squared-off sitting areas had been converted to a mess hall with a ragtag patchwork of tables and computer desks pilfered from the more damaged hotel rooms. A disarray of chairs surrounded the tables. It looked like one of the modern art installations at the High Ephyran Museum that Marcus' parents were always dragging him to when he was a kid.
He stepped over the column in front of the entrance to the former officer's mess, boots crunching on glass, rubble, and flaky plaster. It made sense, having a security detail stationed here, a not-so-subtle threat to ensure the scientists kept busy. While the floor had been cleared of the questionable remains they had found, no one much felt like eating inside. He headed through the dim interior to the kitchens in the back. Marcus hadn't been sure that Dizzy would accept being stationed in a kitchen, even though he frequently took over mess duties on Vectes and at Anvil Gate. His moonshine may have been able to strip the ugly from a grub's hide, but his cooking was surprisingly palatable. Dizzy had graciously accepted, squeezing a promise from Marcus that his beloved rigs he had brought ashore from the UIR cruiser would not be stripped down for parts.
Marcus found him standing over the counter, tallying the newest cache of supplies they had found. He had a feeling that Azura was peppered with numerous, hidden reserves. Everything else on this goddamn island was a secret. Why put your cans in the pantry when you could store them in a granite bunker 8 feet below the water's surface?
"Marcus," Dizzy said by way of greeting, reaching across to shake his hand without taking his eyes off of the packets and cans.
Marcus took stock of the kitchen, pleased that it was already orderly and clean. Dizzy hadn't felt safe cooking until he had doused every surface with industrial-strength bleach. He had propped the back doors open with crates to let in the sunlight.
"How're things? Looks like you've been lucky with the appliances." He gestured to the two 6-burner stoves in front of him. Other than what Marcus assumed was normal wear and tear, they looked almost new. He imaged the (captive) chefs, like the other inhabitants, were fastidious about cleanliness.
Dizzy snorted when he saw what Marcus was looking at. "Lucky nothin'. I traded Baird for the work."
Marcus looked interested. "What, spare parts?"
"Nah. Plenty of scrap for him in th' other kitchens. He wanted pork."
Marcus rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me."
"Yep. Wanted a side of bacon all to himself in exchange for th' work."
"Huh, that's pretty cheap, for Baird," Marcus said, mildly surprised that Baird hadn't demanded all of the breakfast meat Dizzy had available. Baird thought no one had noticed what he ate at a full mess, but Marcus had never seen him eat fewer than 12 strips of bacon. He was about to share this insight about their surly engineer when he noticed Dizzy stroking his whiskers, his expression mournful.
"If everything's fixed, and we've got enough food to feed people for now, why do you look like someone shot your dog?"
The ex-Stranded shook his head and sighed. "There's no deep-fryer."
Marcus grinned internally. The man's tone was so sad. "Scientists lived here, Diz. They probably watched what they ate."
Dizzy looked baffled. "But ev'ry kitchen should have a fryer."
Marcus tried to look stern, but relented after a moment's thought. "I'm sure you could bribe Baird into building you one. But it might be more bacon than it's worth."
"You know when I gave it to 'im, he asked me to fry it up right there? Wanted it all right then. Had to thaw it." Dizzy looked torn between disgust and admiration.
Marcus growled under his breath, and slouched against the counter, crossing his arms. "So what's your prediction? How long can we last on this rock before shit gets tight?"
Dizzy gestured at the supplies. "If we find this much every time, we can live on it for a couple years, maybe, even sharing with the Gorasni. But we need fresh, not freeze-dried. We need to start growin' food again. We both know that old E-Day rations ain't good health for the long-term."
Marcus frowned at the implications. The Gears were healthy enough, for now, but the pinch would come only too soon. Rations kept you alive, but they didn't prevent scurvy or night blindness. He imagined the Gorasni were much the same. They'd need arable land for crops, and while the island was lush, the picture of a tropical oasis, Marcus doubted it could support farming. Were there seeds? And who would farm them? Gears? They may as well plow with lancers and sow bullets, for all the good it would do. He barked out a mirthless laugh at the notion, startling Dizzy from his own thoughts. The irony that warriors had inherited a world that needed Bronze-Age skills was never lost on him.
"So we need to get to the mainland," Marcus said, sick to death of shuttling back and forth between the mainland and some fucking island. The mainland was wrecked; the grubs had shit on it, and humanity had brought the rest of Sera to its knees with the Hammer strikes. The ensuing decay was just textbook aftermath that hadn't needed any help. Azura was a lucky find, to be sure, but it was just a pretty facade covering the same problems.
"The Stranded have been farmin' for years now. So were we 'til recently," Dizzy said.
"Yeah, I'm sure they'll want to share their tools with Gears."
Dizzy waved Marcus' words away. "Now that the grubs and glowies are good and dead, things can change."
Marcus did not share his optimism. The cultural memory of the Stranded ensured that they would never forget *who* had ordered the Hammer strikes that had turned them into a nation of orphans. If there was one thing humans did well, it was holding grudges. He resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose.
"Alright, Diz, carry on. Report any new intel and be—"Marcus stopped himself mid-sentence and looked at the ex-Stranded, blinking. "Don't know why I'm reading you orders. You know the drill."
Dizzy smiled and pressed a bottle of his home-brewed liquor into Marcus' hand. "Old habits die hard. The COG may be gone, but we're all soldiers conditioned to takin' and receivin' orders. There's some peace in it."
Marcus nodded, but stayed silent. He stowed the bottle in a cargo pocket, shook Dizzy's hand, and left through the back doors. He'd have to get rid of it soon, pass it off to Carmine or Jace, before he was tempted to chug it all in a vain attempt to calm the apprehension growing in his stomach. Even with the final chapter of E-Day written, they still didn't have any goddamn time.
"Holy fucking shit." Baird muttered to himself as he surveyed the destroyed landscape that was going to be their home for the foreseeable future. "Holy. Fucking. Shit."
"Talking to yourself, Baird?" His shoulders fell a bit at the voice. He glanced quickly over his shoulder to confirm Sam's arrival. He'd invited her here because once he'd seen just how much work was going to have to be done to get this place fully functional, he knew he'd need an assistant. His first choice was Cole, but he was busy working the crowd with Carmine and Jace. He'd briefly thought about asking Marcus, but the man had enough to deal with being the unofficial leader of this new world order. Plus, he might be able to tell you the phylum of every plant growing on the island but his knowledge of engineering could fit on the head of pin. Baird could only think of one other person who had more than two brain cells and wouldn't just bang at a machine like a rutting animal, and that was Sam. Every cell in Bairds body - that is, the ones left over from Professor Fenix' cleansing - rioted against asking her. They'd been nothing but antagonistic toward each other since they met, and asking this harpy to help him was like sawing off one of his testicles. But, the job was bigger than his pride and it had to get done. He turned to her fully with apprehensive eyes, his hand gripping the back of his neck.
"Yeah, uh..." The words wouldn't come. His tongue had glued itself to the roof of his mouth in an act of rebellion. He briefly imagined it clinging to his teeth, shaking its head in agony. Baird worked enough saliva to drown himself and tried again. "I'm going to need your help."
Sam let out a disbelieving laugh. "Sorry? I must've fallen asleep on the way here. You need my help?"
Baird pursed his lips, annoyed at having to repeat those shameful words. "Yes." He spat out.
"You need my help." she stated, crossing her arms and sitting in her hip.
Baird unconsciously mimicked her posture. "What the hell, Sam? You want me to write it on the friggin' sky line?"
She laughed again, long and loudly, before pinning him with smug eyes. "Say please." she said in a sing-song voice, happily tapping her fingers on her bicep.
That pulled Baird up short and his arms dropped to his sides in disbelief. She didn't really just say that. "Excuse me?"
"Say please. Say please and I'll help you."
Baird stared at her in disgusted shock. Was she fucking kidding? No. No way was he doing this. He'd work himself ragged before he gave her the pleasure bowing to her whims. He wasn't going to give her something to laugh about with... whoever it was she was friends with these days. Fuck this, fuck her, and fuck the hypothetical person she was going to gossip about this encounter with. His pride reared up like a pissed off brumak and overwhelmed him.
"Forget it." He snapped. "This'll never work." He moved around her to stalk back inside.
"Why's that?" Sam called after him.
Baird paused in his deliberate pace to whirl back around to face her. "Because I hate you." He turned on his heel and marched off to his newly claimed workspace.
Sam almost felt bad as she watched him go. She didn't have to bait him the way she did, but he was so easy. And she took a perverse amount of pleasure in getting him all worked up. She didn't dislike Baird, not anymore, and she didn't necessarily want to annoy him at every pass, but old habits die hard. Sam squared her shoulders in preparation for what she had to do - she had her pride, too, after all - and set a brisk gait to catch up with him.
She watched him lift his chin defiantly and lengthen his stride, the picture of petulance, and scoffed loudly, "Baird. Wait. I was just fucking with you. You don't really have to say please." She finally caught up to him and gripped his shoulder, pulling him to a halt.
"Wow. Your generosity, Sam, it stuns me," he deadpanned, shrugging off her hand.
"Would you stop being such a baby? Sorry, okay? I'll help you. God knows I need a distraction."
Baird watched her with inscrutable eyes, trying to gauge her truthfulness. "Fine, but you're on probation. Just so you know."
Sam rolled her eyes. "You're kidding me."
He arched a blonde eyebrow at her, "You want to help or not, Byrne? Look, I know you know how to blow things up and… ride rat bikes, but I don't know if you can differentiate between a wrench and a screw driver. So, yes. Probation."
"You're making me regret my decision, Baird."
"Yeah? Well, I'd apologize for my rudeness, but I wouldn't want to seem disingenuous." He rolled his eyes. "Let's face it, Sam. The chances of us going nuts and trying to murder each because of all the forced togetherness are pretty high."
He shrugged at her, his expression surprisingly serious. "C'mon. I've got to show you the work shop."