The hardest roads are the ones we think we must travel alone.
Step 2: Recollection
"You haven't said a word since somewhere in the middle of Lamtha."
His greying muzzle smirked at her in the reflection of the window and she rolled her eyes. "Yeah, because normally I'm renowned the ring over for my chatty personality," she growled. He snorted but didn't respond, leaving her responsible for whether or not the conversation continued. That was just his way, she supposed.
She proceeded to gaze at the passing jungle before eventually grumbling. "Lots on my mind. Like why we're taking a couple of fucking days to drive across the fucking ring and back to see these fuckers -- what the fuck's wrong with the radio? Not that it would even matter, these Freelancer fucks can't be trusted to follow through on a goddamn word they say..."
"Nelson, you really gotta learn to appreciate the value of face-to-face meetings," her mentor retorted before he grinned at her. "You think I woulda been able to recruit you over the radio, eh?"
"You would have had one less bullet hole if you had," she muttered. He was right, though, of course. Tracer usually was, unfortunately. Arguing with him was often an exercise in futility. "I get your point. It's just a long time to be gone when there's still so much to be done at the mines."
"You're too focused on a single point again, woman," he chided. She frowned through the window. "I know it's important to have a base, a point you call home. But you shouldn't ever be too attached. Always have a back-up plan, another location to turn to. We do call ourselves the Movement, after all."
She rolled her eyes but mumbled an agreement. She knew the ex-Freelancers had the same perspective. Even if they weren't sharing much, she was all too aware they had their own alternate location somewhere else in Qoppa. And against her own wishes, she and Tracer had been sending small patrols out to the border of Honkal and Sampi to prepare a potential site to serve as a secondary base for themselves, as well. She just hated splitting resources when they had just begun to make real progress on building their numbers and materials. It felt too much like tempting fate to her.
And she'd had enough tempting fate. The mission in Timae still weighed heavily on her thoughts. She'd lost three men, three good fighters, and obtained nothing of value. She'd barely kept her own life...and she grudgingly had that talkative bitch to thank for that. She thought about Mills's grin more often than she wanted to, heard her voice whenever she didn't need the distraction. It confused and annoyed her to think of the SSF pilot as anything other than a convenient way out of a bind. That's how Tracer had described her after she'd told him the details of the operation. Don't be upset you worked with a mercenary -- you did what you had to in order to survive. Not all mercenaries are the enemy, Nelson.
Her muzzle twisted into a scowl as she rested her head against the window. Fucking Tracer. How was it possible to be so paranoid and yet so carefree? He was such an asshole sometimes...
* * *
"Geezus, fuck, you are a heavy bitch!" Ashley wailed as Nelson stumbled and half-fell against her for support.
"Sorry for giving a fuck about my body and not being a fucking twig," Nelson snapped back even as the slightest flush crept across her features. She tried to not put so much weight on the pilot, but Ashley noticed immediately and rolled her eyes.
"Oh, don't be so fuckin' sensitive, like you need to be doing any more work than necessary," Ashley grumbled while squeezing the arm around the larger female's waist. "I got you, ya fuckin' muscle-queen. Road's just ahead, anyway."
Nelson's features tightened. She didn't quite take that as a good thing, even if she knew trying to walk all the way to the next town would result in at least one of them strangling the other out of frustration. She grunted her acknowledgment and tried to focus on moving forward. At this point, the combination of the splint and the exertion so far had made her broken leg mostly numb, thankfully. Now all she needed was some quiet and things might actually start to--
"So you gonna tell me how you became a scary rebel bitch?" Nelson narrowed her eyes and shot a glare down at Ashley, who only gave her an unimpressed squint. "Uh huh. Yeah, what a shock, the scary rebel bitch doesn't wanna talk. Again. I get you like your peace and quiet, but damn, lady, this is a long walk and I sure as shit ain't gonna be bored outta my skull and have to drag your ass the whole way. So if you aren't gonna talk, then, I dunno. Fuckin' ask me about something."
Nelson blinked and promptly snorted. "Why the fuck would I need to do that? You seem more than capable of talking about whatever the hell you want, without any nudging from me."
"Uh, common courtesy? I know I got the fuckin' magic maw over here, but it's still kinda nice to have your new bestie at least pretend she wants to learn something about you."
"We are not friends," Nelson muttered stiffly. She didn't need to look down this time -- she could feel the blue eyes peering up at her as she strained not to meet them. "You did me a favor, I did you a favor -- that's the extent of this shit."
"Uh huh, 'cause you aren't the loneliest bitch I've ever met or anything," Ashley replied drolly. "Anyway, I got friends who've never even done me a favor, it ain't exactly a mathematical process." When Nelson only kept scowling ahead, the pilot grinned and then flicked her tail into the splints on her broken leg, making her give a very unbecoming squeak before she snarled and glared down at her again. "What're ya gonna do, kick my ass?"
"My god, you are insufferable," Nelson hissed before she closed her eyes with a grumble. "Fine. Tell me. How did you become a fuckin' mercenary-ass bitch?"
Ashley sniffed disdainfully and put her free hand on her hip as they started to limp along the road in the direction of the next town. "Was that so hard?" Before Nelson could throw her in the way of oncoming traffic, she snickered. "Anyway, you might be shocked to hear that before I was a mercenary-ass bitch...I was a mercenary-ass bitch!" Nelson glowered down at her and Ashley grinned amusedly. "Heh. Yeah, I flew for the Freelancer organization for a few years."
"Somehow I'm not surprised at all," Nelson grumbled. She was all too aware of what kind of people came from Freelancer. Untrustworthy assholes. "What happened, they stop paying you enough for carrying out hit jobs on innocent people?"
Ashley snorted quietly and then shrugged a bit. "Hey, look -- you judge all you want, but I assume you weren't there, so your blind fuckin' assumptions don't bother me none." She paused and then squinted up at her again. "Wait a sec, I still don't even know your goddamn name."
"You've been doing fine with 'bitch' so far," Nelson replied dryly. When she was met with only a pointed look, she sighed. "Nelson. You can call me Nelson."
"The fuck am I gonna hafta do to get your first name, suck poison out of a snake bite? Resuscitate your tall ass? Fuck's sake, you're a paranoid bitch, but alright, Nelson it is. For now." Nelson scoffed but felt a slight smile on her lips as they reached the top of a small hill and began to trudge down the other side while the occasional vehicle rushed past. "So anyway. Life wasn't too bad flying with Freelancer. They were all a bunch of crazy fucks, but...we got along okay. Most of us, anyway. And one thing was for damn sure -- never a boring mission with those guys. Some of the craziest shit I got to fly through started as just a fuckin' recon job or a site exploration. You wouldn't believe the kinda shit those fuckers from the House got protecting their secret sites 'n shit."
Nelson blinked. "Wait. You ran anti-House ops? Freelancer is a part of the House."
Ashley chuckled, unable to mask her surprise as she glanced up again. "Shit, here I was thinkin' you knew all there is to know. Heh." Nelson steeled herself for the mockery, but it didn't come, Ashley merely shrugging a bit. "But I ain't all that shocked. They keep all that shit under wraps. Anyway, yeah. Freelancers went where they were told to go. Sometimes they helped the Reds and the Blues, but plenty of missions scopin' out some research lab or another, or digging around in some black site for god knows what. Kept the agents -- and me -- on our toes."
Her face sobered and Nelson frowned slightly. Mills hadn't been much for somber expressions so far. "Anyway. Shit started to get...worse. The missions got rougher, the targets got lots more questionable. And I saw shit getting done to my buddies that I didn't like. Physically, mentally...it was fuckin' them up."
"They knew what they signed up for," Nelson replied icily, only to give a genuine wince when Ashley bared her teeth.
"They didn't sign up for that shit," she snarled before sighing and glancing off to the side. "Look, I wasn't 'in' on everything. But I still talked with my pals plenty. And I heard plenty more. I saw what they did to one of their best. And soon after that, some of them decided to leave the Division."
Nelson was silent, even as she started to put two and two together. It now felt improbable that they didn't know the same crew of ex-Freelancer agents.
"Didn't take me long after that, myself," Ashley concluded in a low voice. "Freelancer was a good gig, but it wasn't worth my damn soul. You say what you want about 'mercenary bitches' but some of us still got a damn conscience, alright?"
Nelson scoffed but glanced down. She was no basket of good moral decisions, herself, after all. "Yeah. Alright, I get it. Don't get why you just moved to a new mercenary organization, though, shit seems kinda repetitive."
Ashley chortled this time, her spirits seeming to lift again. "Hell, woman, the SSF ain't nothin' like Freelancer, at least. Sure, they're mercenaries, but they ain't run by a goddamn psychopath. We might do some shit that makes people frown, but I can guarantee you it's nothin' compared to the things they do over at Freelancer. And besides. I got bills to pay, mouths to feed, that shit ain't comin' to me from no good will, so a big 'fuck' and 'you' to anyone who wants to come at me for trying to make ends meet." Nelson rolled her eyes but looked down with a mix of amusement and curiosity as Ashley squared her shoulders. "I'm a fuckin' grade-A pilot and I'm gonna get paid for my skills, you got me?"
Nelson snorted quietly and let her eyes drift back to the side of the road as they trudged along. "I don't know if I'll ever get you, Mills. But I appreciate the distraction."
She didn't want to care, because this woman's life story had nothing to do with her. But it wasn't easy to simply ignore all that had unfolded over the last few hours. The last time someone had gone this far for her, she'd ended up abandoning her post and joining the rebellion. The least she could do was take the time to get to know the loud-mouthed asshole who'd saved her.
* * *
"What...what did you call me?"
Nelson smirked, her arms crossed as she glared down at Wash from across the room while the little fucker stared stupidly at Tracer. She didn't want to admit it, but this shitty underground installation they'd been working on was coming along. It reminded her a lot of her last Red Army base, and she wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing. Their location in the mines was much more natural...which was sometimes nice, and sometimes a pain in the ass. There were moments where you just wanted a room with four fucking square walls around you.
The old rebel grinned toothily and shrugged. "Shit, and I thought I was hard of hearing. I called you a spineless bootlicker, not even worthy of dying for this Movement."
York stepped forward with a half-smile, his arms wide. "Aww, come on, Tracer. Don't you think that's a little harsh? Look what we've done with this place!"
Tracer turned his eyes to the towering chupa and offered a bemused snort. "Says the idealistic idiot of a man-whore -- but ya know what, you probably recognize that as a compliment."
York grinned stupidly. "Heh. Hey, man, why deny the truth."
Wash threw his arms up in frustration. "Well what the fuck do you want from us? This is our base, I don't give a fuck if we're not running it the way you want!"
Tracer turned around to face Wash again, though his expression was anything but angry. "Son, I haven't said a peep about anything being 'done wrong'. I ain't calling you out, I'm just callin' out facts."
"How is being a 'spineless bootlicker' not an insult?" Wash seethed.
"'Cause it means you got a different perspective than everyone else," Tracer countered, jabbing a finger toward Wash. "It means you're gonna be a different fuckin' leader than anyone else, and that ain't a bad thing."
"Might be a bad thing if he decides to betray us all," Nelson muttered as all eyes flicked to her. York frowned and crossed his arms as well, while Wash bared his teeth. She snorted at them both. "Please, you fuckers wanna say somethin', come and say--"
"Would you unclench, woman?" Tracer interrupted as she blinked stupidly and trailed off. "Goddamn, we got the bootlicker, we got the man-whore, and we got the heartless, barren ice-queen-bitch who'd sooner shoot her own platoon than admit defeat." Her jaw dropped as both Wash and York stared speechlessly. Only Tracer smiled slightly before he sighed and let his arms hang down. "What I'm getting at, you three, is you are the face of the Movement now. You've got fuckin' canyons of differences between you, but that's not a bad thing, for fuck's sake. And the last thing I'd hope you would do is combine forces...you don't gotta be an old bastard like me to realize we need all these different branches to survive."
"Well then, what the fuck are you saying, old man?" Wash muttered. Nelson immediately snarled as she took a threatening step toward him while York automatically moved between them.
"I'm saying do whatever it is you feel like you should do," Tracer replied, glancing at each of them in turn before settling his eyes on Nelson last. "You're gonna do things differently, That's not a bad thing. All I humbly request is that you stop being such jackasses and try to work together every once in a while."
There was awkward silence for a few seconds before York offered a chuckle that barely broke the tension. "Aw hell, that's what we have you here for, Tracer! You're the Great Negotiator!"
Tracer smiled slightly. "I've never wanted to be a leader, kiddos. That ain't my purpose. I'm just here to help folks see they got options." He paused and then raised a finger. "Speaking of which!" He cocked a half-grin at Nelson, who immediately recognized it and scowled. "I've said my piece, I've gotten the tour -- I got some scoutin' to get back to. Gonna need to take the truck."
She sighed and dropped her face into one hand, slowly massaging the bridge of her muzzle. "Tracer, how...how am I supposed to get back?"
"Shit, your leg's not broken anymore, take a stroll," he replied with a wink, which she met with a glare. "Or make nice with your fellow rebels and arrange for some shared resources. No skin off my teeth, regardless."
Wash folded his arms and pursed his lips. "We can't spare any vehicles at the moment. They're all in use or being repaired."
Tracer walked up to Nelson and smiled at her before reaching up to squeeze one of her thick biceps. "Be sure to stay hydrated, it's a long trip."
She sighed loudly and was just able to avoid rolling her eyes before she glanced over her shoulder as he ambled toward the door. "Where will you be going this time?"
"Old man senses tell me to make a trip out to Sampi. Think I'll try and find some fresh young meat to thaw out and bring over to ya. Give you a buzz on the radio in a week or so to check in." He tossed an informal salute and then pushed his way through the door to disappear around the corner. "Good luck, boys 'n girls -- watch each other's asses out there!"
Nelson ground her teeth together as the door closed before shutting her eyes and taking a deep breath. He was such a goddamn prick sometimes, and --
"Christ, here's hoping that's the last time he wants to 'visit' us," Wash muttered. He shook his head and then glared at Nelson, who had already returned the cold glower back to him. "You can keep him, I'm tired of his bullshit."
"Watch your fuckin' mouth, Freelancer, he's done more for this rebellion than you and your goddamn defectors ever will," she snarled, apparently quite content with forgetting Tracer's 'request' in the literal seconds since it had been uttered.
"Oh, fuck you, you're one to talk -- remind me, how long were you killing the shit out of Blue soldiers in Omega's 'glorious name'?" he shot back.
Nelson growled and stormed forward, only to run into York's palm. Her nostrils flared as she grabbed his wrist and twisted it firmly to one side, only for the massive chupa to quickly spin around behind her. Her instincts screamed and she went to stomp on his paw, but rather than put her in a choke-hold, he simply kept dancing backward, forcing her to turn away from Wash as the grip on his arm was released. He grinned easily like the asshole he was, staying just out of reach as she lunged again. She nearly took a swing at him in her blind fury, but managed to catch herself with a brief snort, their green eyes boring into one another for a few seconds.
Behind them, Wash sighed and rubbed slowly at his muzzle. "Christ, both of you, stop it."
She spun around again but only thrust a finger at him this time, warding off York's automatic reaction. "Don't treat us like the fuckin' children, Agent Washington," she muttered. "Your bodyguard might act like one, but I've seen more shit than either of you, I don't care what kind of fuckin' horrors you went through at Freelancer." Her eyes burned even as she glanced to one side and finally exhaled to release some of the tension from her shoulders. "Raymond Tracer is no more perfect than any of us, but if he was able to make me see the fuckin' light and turn away after my hard fuckin' time in the Army, then he deserves some fucking respect."
"He's a loose cannon who recruits other loose cannons," Wash replied coldly. He paused and blinked as York appeared next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders before Nelson could take another step closer.
"Hey, hey, c'mon, little buddy. This is no different from Freelancer, right?" He beamed between them both, receiving two dark glares in return. "Everyone's a little weird, everyone's got their own way of doing things, and it's all for the good of the--"
"You fuckin' compare me to a bunch of mercs again and I'll rip your fuckin' arms off," Nelson threatened before she shifted her weight and sighed again. Christ, maybe Tracer was right about her anger issues -- she could already feel her pulse in her temples. "Fuck it, it's not worth the headache," she added under her breath as she turned to leave the room. "Place looks fucking great, I'll find my way out. Got a long fucking walk ahead."
York's voice called out, making her both twitch but also halt mid-step. "Nelson, wait." Her eyes burned holes into the opposite wall but she forced herself to breathe in...count to ten...and then breathe back out before looking silently over a shoulder. If York was expecting some acknowledgment beyond that, he wasn't gonna get it...and he figured it out after a few uncomfortable seconds of silence as he cleared his throat and then gestured quietly to the cast still visible on her leg. "What happened in Timae?"
"I heard it was a clusterfuck," Wash added dryly before blinking in surprise as York squeezed his shoulders firmly and gave him a pointed look. "What, she lo--"
"Agent Washington is right," she replied brusquely, half-turning to give them the same amount of her attention. "It was a clusterfuck. I lost three of my men." Her muzzle wrinkled as her claws dug into her palms. "I made a bad call, I fucked up, is that what you're hoping to hear? Because there you go," she sneered.
Wash snorted and glanced away, but York nodded to her. "Hey. We're sorry to hear it. That sucks."
"Don't bullshit me, you might give half a fuck with how goddamn soft you are, but I don't buy for a minute that this asshole gives a flying shit about it, as long as it doesn't fuck with your operations out here," she snarled with an arm outstretched toward Wash.
York looked honestly hurt for a moment, even as Wash only shrugged and crossed his arms again. York tried to force a weak smile. "Look, I get it, we have our differences, but...come on, guys, would it really be that hard to try and get along? Just...long enough to share some intel, a few words of respect? Nelson, I know you don't trust us --"
"Sure as shit don't," she growled, glaring daggers at Wash.
"--and Wash, I get you don't like the way Tracer and Nelson do things--"
"...no shit, York. I know what you're about to say, and no, it really isn't worth it because I can't get two fucking sentences out before Nelson--"
"Maybe if every other fuckin' word outta your mouth wasn't dripping with that high-and-mighty attitude you assholes lord over us," Nelson muttered as Wash simply threw his arms out to pantomime his exasperation while glancing up at York.
York sighed quietly and looked between the two before holding up his hands in surrender. "Alright, alright, geezus. I guess Omegrad wasn't built in a day, either." He nudged Wash's side. "If you two aren't gonna talk about the mission, can we at least see if we have something she can borrow?"
"I don't need your pity, Agent York," she grumbled before closing her eyes briefly. "Look." She glanced across at Wash again, reminding herself that even if she hated Tracer's advice, she meant every word about respecting him. "We had a tip about the Omegite asshole the insurgents were holding hostage. Said he had valuable intel that would help keep us off HADES radar, or at least try to avoid it. Tip was bogus, though, he had nothing of use. I lost my men for nothing. You happy?"
"No," Wash replied curtly before a raised eyebrow from York made him sigh and give a less-hostile shrug. "I know what it's like. A loss that feels...stupid. Pointless. It's why I try not to get involved in ridiculous long-shots like that, and why you--"
"How did you get out?" York interrupted, gently enough that Wash only scowled a little and quickly enough that Nelson's snarl receded into a soft snort. "Guessing that break didn't make things too easy," he added with a small smile toward her cast.
"It didn't," she shot back briskly before crossing her arms with a muted expression. "That, Agent York, is none of your business."
He tried a slightly-wider smile. "What if we get you drunk? Bar's all set up. You could have a drink or five before you start your long-ass march...which I imagine is only gonna last as long as the first car you can terrify away from whatever poor jerk is driving it."
She snorted again but gave a wry smile. "You think you can get shit outta me when I'm wasted, that's your mistake. But it's been a long fucking day. I don't have a goddamn fuck to give about socializing with you bastards, but I'll drink your booze. Lead the way."
* * *
"There is no way he thinks I'm a pilot in training," Nelson grumbled under her breath while moving around to try and find a vaguely comfortable patch of hay to rest on.
"Heh, probably not...but what does he care? Two hot chicks are riding in the back of his pickup, all he can think of is all the juicy threesome-sex he's gonna have!" Ashley replied with a toothy grin.
Nelson's expression snapped to a glare so quickly it made her jaws ache. "You didn't fuckin' promise him any of that shit, right??"
"Geeeezus, woman, take a fuckin' pill, you're about as high-strung as one of my kids after too many bowls of that fuckin' sugary cereal shit," Ashley snorted while flopping back against the itchy hay next to the rebel. She promptly smirked when Nelson stared over at her. "What, you got a problem with kids?"
"Yes," Nelson muttered even as she shifted her weight and rubbed idly at the makeshift splint. "If it wasn't obvious, I'm not much for the fucking family dream."
"Color me shocked," Ashley retorted even as she smirked in amusement. "Let me guess -- you didn't think I would be popping any hellspawn out of my whore-ass cooch, either, though, eh?"
Nelson pursed her lips but then shrugged. "Yeah, in a nutshell. You don't seem the type."
"Heh, here you go makin' assumptions again, ya cranky bitch," Ashley snickered, crossing her legs and lacing her fingers behind her head. "Anyway, the little fuckers ain't mine. I run an orphanage over in Episemon, just give the shits a safe home, some real fuckin' meals and a roof over their heads that don't leak too often."
Nelson failed to hide her surprise and she shifted uncomfortably. Of all the things she expected to hear out of this asshole's jaws...that wasn't even in the top twenty. Ashley seemed to instantly catch onto her hesitation as she grinned up at her from her relaxed position. "Left ya speechless, eh? Yeah, that's what I thought. This is the closest I'm gonna get to a fuckin' nice word from you, huh? I'll take it, I guess, since I didn't get anything better after saving your damn ass during the crash. Gonna write up some fuckin' IOUs first chance I get or I'm gonna lose track."
"Don't forget who stopped you from getting about twenty new holes to blow hot air through," Nelson warned, even as her tone was easily brushed aside by the carefree chuckle from the pilot. "Anyway, I thanked you back there. More than most get from me."
"Gee, I'm speechless again," Ashley droned even as her eyes lingered curiously on the rebel. "You know what'd be a better thank-you than that half-assed string of words you practically had to dig out with a fuckin' pickax?" Nelson glowered at her warily, but she just winked while forming a pistol with one hand. "You tell me where the fuck you learned how to shoot like that. I've been around plenty of fancy gunplay in my time flying, but nothin' like that."
Nelson narrowed her eyes before she crossed her arms and looked off to the other side of the pickup truck, watching the bland Timae scenery blur past for a few seconds. It seemed like she might just completely blow off Ashley's request -- and Nelson doubted Ashley would have been surprised. She looked sharp enough to pick up on her attitude by now.
But Nelson eventually spoke up. "You know...it's a good thing. What you're doing." Ashley blinked and looked over at her inquisitively again. "With the...kids, I mean." Nelson rubbed a thick shoulder slowly. "Some of my fighters have...children. I can't turn them away, but where we operate, it's not exactly very. Kid-friendly. And they all know they could die any time, so. I'm sure they think sometimes about what happens to those little fuckers when they bite the dust." She took a slow breath while idly fingering some of the loose hay beneath them. "Good to know there are some places out there for them that aren't run by the House." She paused and then glowered over at Ashley, trying to ignore the quiet smile on her face. "That is, of course, unless you are fuckin' House-supported and are filling those little bastards' heads up with all that propaganda shit."
Ashley burst into genuine laughter. "Goddamn, Nelson, this close to another real compliment, I must be moss on your dusty snatch at this point!" She chortled past the horrible glare, waving a hand while shaking her head in entertainment. "Look, I don't say no to no fuckin' stipends from the government, alright? Hard enough to make ends meet. But hell no if you think I'm teachin' those yappy shits any of that Omegite bullshit. I don't buy into any of that shit, and I'm not trying to raise an army of dumb fuckers rip-roarin' to go get themselves killed for this stupid war. Just 'cause it puts money in my piggy-bank doesn't mean I want it ruining their lives too."
Nelson snorted but crossed her bulky arms contemplatively. Mills continued to surprise her, not that she was going to come close to admitting it. The bitch was already taking enough pleasure with every tiny bit of kindness Nelson let slip past her moat-lined, spike-riddled, mine-covered defenses. Last thing she needed was to give her any more satisfaction, regardless of whether or not the words were genuine. If nothing else, Nelson supposed she didn't make as terrible a choice with her 'savior' as she originally thought. At least the talkative bitch had more to her than just bravado and a death wish.
...Not that Nelson was one to talk about what kept her going.
A few minutes of silence passed in almost-comfort, even if Nelson's mind never stopped whirring. She already had a plan for when they reached the settlement -- she and Tracer had sent a small detachment to Honkal to nose around some of the hoops for possible temporary arrangements in exchange for a quick infusion of resources. Assuming they hadn't gotten themselves killed or captured, they'd have a vehicle and would be able to get her back across the ferry and on the way home to Qoppa. It was better than relying on anything further from the mercenary pilot.
But even as she tasted bitterness, her eyes inevitably flicked over to Mills again. The happy-go-lucky female had an elbow propped up on the side of the truck bed as she chewed on a piece of hay and tapped her paw along to some inaudible melody. She didn't miss the occasional glances back in her direction and hated to admit they weren't laced with any kind of contempt, wariness or even appraisal. They were just...looks. Curious, bemused, tinged with something else, too. Something Nelson wasn't sure she wanted to think too deeply about.
She eventually grimaced and then cursed herself under her breath while reaching up to where Ashley's jacket was still hanging over her broad shoulders. She slid the jacket off and then pointed to a spot just above her collarbone. A scar was barely visible beneath her layered brown fur. "My second shift ever as a sergeant," she muttered, making Ashley raise her eyebrows with intrigue. "Red Army. At my first post." Ashley sat up a bit but remained quiet, turning slightly to face more toward Nelson. "I had a crew out on patrol with me. We were sweeping for Blue raiding parties. We were a small base, but we were right on the border of conflict."
Her muzzle creased at the memory, but it was one of many at this point. "Got ambushed. Fuckers had us outnumbered, but I'd trained my men well. We took out most of them. They just had too many guns, and we didn't have enough bullets. I took a hit when my rifle and magnum were both dry. Lost two of my guys, even if we scared the survivors off. And I promised myself that day I wasn't ever gonna be caught empty-handed again." She gave a curt smile. "Decided to get a back-up for my back-up. My lieutenant was a hard-ass, but he was good about requisitions if you earned it. He reckoned I did since part of the patrol returned alive, and the Blues were driven off."
She blinked, interrupted when Ashley leaned over to peer at the scar. Nelson twisted her head away and made a face. "Woman, would you back off?"
Ashley smirked up at her, practically shoving her muzzle against her collarbone as she studied the spot for a second. "So what, you got shot 'cause you ran outta ammo and thought a six-shooter was the way to go?"
"It's compact, it's accurate, it doesn't jam, it fires in any condition and it hasn't failed me yet," Nelson replied testily as she raised a hand to shove Ashley's head away, only to stare incredulously as the pilot slapped her wrist away and instead leaned in closer while jabbing a claw against a different patch of missing fur on the same shoulder. "Mills, what the fuck--"
"Aw, shuddup and tell me 'bout this one, damn -- you got more holes in you than an Omegite's got assholes," she remarked, hardly deterred when Nelson shoved her forcefully back, simply squirming around her enormous arm to continue to stare at the additional scars dotting the rebel's torso.
Nelson's teeth grit together even as she glanced at the aforementioned bullet wound. That one carried a particular sentimentality. "Get the fuck off me and I'll tell you," she grumbled, again trying to push the pilot away and again finding her like a goddamn wriggling snake that slid easily past her attempts to force her away.
Ashley finally huffed and then squinted up at her. She looked like she was making a very difficult decision, but finally smirked and settled for dropping her body back against of the cab of the truck so she was sitting up next to Nelson again. "Fine, only 'cause you clearly wanna talk about this one." She grinned toothily. "What's it from, a lover scorned??"
"I guess if you want to make a joke about masturbation, now'd be the time," Nelson replied dryly, barely able to repress her smile as Ashley blinked and stared mutely for a second or two while piecing it together.
She finally cackled a moment later. "Wait, wait -- you shot yourself??"
Nelson snorted but gave an easy shrug while reaching up to rub a thumb slowly against the scar. "You remember earlier, when I mentioned what happened to the last guy who saved my life?"
Ashley tilted her head slightly. "What, uh. Some broken bones and a bullet hole, right?"
"Yeah." Nelson rolled her eyes despite herself. "Same bullet that went through his shoulder ricocheted around and got me in mine." She shook her head slowly as Ashley laughed loudly, trying to hide her smile with a long sigh. "Look, that was. A helluva day, alright? Gimme a fuckin' break."
Ashley only continued to giggle amusedly while nudging her side with an elbow. "Well, c'mon, tell me the rest! Who the fuck shoots someone who's tryin' to rescue them, eh? You that much an independent bitch, you'd rather blow someone away than let 'em save your life?"
"I didn't kill you, did I?" Nelson retorted before she sighed again and then ran a hand through her short mane. "Anyway. Guy told me he was with the Movement. Said he wanted to recruit me. Me, being the good little Red soldier I was, promptly tried to kill him."
Ashley gave a low whistle. "Okay, I gotta say -- this dude must be impressive as fuck to walk away from a tussle with you, ya big barbarian bitch -- you're about the toughest customer I've ever had the displeasure of having wreck my ship!" When Nelson glowered at her, she just grinned and raised a hand defensively. "Hey, I mean that as a compliment! You're a badass bitch -- anyone who you tried to kill that ain't six feet under must be somethin' else."
Nelson grumbled but gave a reluctant nod. "He...is something else, yeah. After we nearly killed each other, he managed to subdue me. Even when he didn't kill me, even when he spared me and I saw he could have ended it right then and there, I was still ready to try and fight back, just...hard-coded to give my last dying breath to end this bastard's life. And instead he just started talking. I had no choice but to listen, he had me pinned and at gun-point, even if I knew I probably coulda had the drop on him."
She grimaced even as her eyes flashed wistfully. "Few hours later -- and after he promised he'd release every soldier he'd taken down to get to me -- I...walked away. Turned my back on fifteen fuckin' years serving the Red Army and became that which I fuckin' spent hours being prepared to kill on sight. Became a fucking rebel."
Nelson hadn't noticed the way Mills had sidled up close to her side, glancing over with surprise to find the pilot's muzzle resting on her shoulder as she gazed up at her thoughtfully. Nelson made a face, attempting briefly to shake her off but finding it difficult in more than one way. She was lost briefly in the tender blue pools that took her in, without judgment, without accusation. It made her want to look away -- that kind of honest gaze was anathema to the world she'd spent years building for herself. It was too steeped in a thousand potential regrets, and a thousand more haunting memories.
"He must have had one fuckin' incredible sales pitch to get you to turn your back on that," Ashley finally murmured, one of her hands rubbing lightly over Nelson's muscular bicep. "Don't see you as the kind to make a decision like that lightly. Musta felt like you were betraying everything you stood for."
Nelson stiffened up but then exhaled quietly and glanced away as she rubbed at her muzzle with her free hand. "Shit wasn't easy. Still not sure what bothers me more. Betraying something I devoted my life to, or the fact I devoted my life to a bunch of stupid, blind bullshit in the first place..."
Ashley shrugged gently against her arm. "You didn't know any better."
Nelson scoffed and glanced back at her with a frown that bordered between suspicious and confused. She was sure Mills was mocking her, but there wasn't a hint of it in her expression as she kept looking up at the rebel without any sort of visible reservation. Nelson looked away again. "Tch. I should have known. It's so obvious from out here."
"Yeah, from out here. You ain't telepathic, woman, and you were clearly just as indoctrinated as those other fucks -- why the hell you gonna beat yourself up when you at least listened to the truth and chose to believe it. Ain't that worth something to that pitiful self-esteem you got lurking under a rock somewhere in there?"
Nelson groaned and shoved her away again, only to squirm against her will when Ashley simply wrapped up her arm in both of hers and again settled close to her side. "Ugh, get off me, Mills. And for your information, my fucking self-esteem is just fine, otherwise I would have just laid down and died back there with the rest of my men."
"Nah, I'm fine right here," Ashley replied easily before she lightly dug the claws of one hand into Nelson's forearm. "And you say that, but I saw you down there. You were ready to up and die, even if you were gonna bring half the ugly bastards down with you. Call it pride, call it the 'warrior's blood' or whatever fancy shit you wanna call it, but bottom line is, you weren't down there to live, you were down there to go down fighting."
Nelson rolled her eyes and shifted again, using her other hand to push Ashley's muzzle away from her shoulder, only to wince when the bitch bit her fingers. She stared down at her stupidly and lifted her hand in bewilderment before sighing. "Of course I was gonna go down fighting, I'm not a fuckin' coward. Look, I don't need your damn judgment; whether I like it or not, I'm a goddamn survivor and I always seem to pull the fuck through, no matter the casualties it leaves around me." She wrinkled her muzzle, giving up on shoving the pilot away as she dropped her other arm into her lap with a sigh. "You're fuckin' lucky you weren't one of them, you know."
"Shit, we both shoulda died about five times durin' that crazy shit," Ashley fired back while holding up a finger. "You think of yourself as a survivor like it's a bad thing. But you know what I see?" Nelson was loath to turn her head back down to her...and for good reason, considering the affectionate half-grin that was shot back up. "I see a strong, beautiful woman who's seen some shit and knows how to handle whatever the fuck comes her way. And you know what, even if all you rebel fuckers are a bunch of crazy assholes, I'd rather have a tough bitch who don't take shit, who don't die easy, and who's a treat for the eyes out front leading the rest of the crazy assholes. At least then I got somethin' nice to look at before the shit hits the fan and all of us go down in a blaze of Omega-blessed gunfire."
Nelson's body didn't know how to be embarrassed, but she'd be goddamned if her cheeks didn't feel warm as she tried to focus her eyes on anywhere else but the clingy bitch at her side. "Fucking...christ, woman, did you shoot up with something when I wasn't looking?" she mumbled before stiffening up as she felt a soft muzzle press against the side of her neck, followed by a brief brush of teeth through her fur, scraping lightly across the sensitive flesh beneath.
Every hair stood on end as she stared wordlessly out across the back of the pickup truck, too morbidly frozen in shock to move. It was over as soon as it begun, however, and she heard the quiet chuckle from Ashley before the pilot curled up at her side and dropped her head on her shoulder again to fall into a casual silence.
They wouldn't speak again until reaching the outskirts of the town, when Ashley finally unwound herself from Nelson's arm with a small smirk as she repositioned herself to once more prop herself calmly against the wall of the truck bed. Nelson glowered at her for a few seconds but couldn't find any words to utter that wouldn't immediately give away how fucking flustered she felt. She was Marisa Fucking Nelson -- she didn't get flustered.
"You gonna give me that first name yet?" Ashley asked coolly while nudging Nelson's broken leg with a paw.
"You gonna be able to speak it after I break your fuckin' jaw for not knowing what the fuck personal space is?" Nelson spat back even as her tail twitched to one side. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but I hope you got your own fucking plans to get outta here because you sure as hell aren't coming with my people," she muttered, drawing on every ounce of the coldest ice she could feel in her veins.
...Ashley's smile melted every last fucking piece, cutting through her frozen facade with all the ease of a hot knife through butter. "Don't worry, Nelson. I ain't gonna tag along and let all your hardcore rebel friends know you're a raging bull-dyke with a crush on a mercenary-ass bitch."
"Oh, woman, if this leg wasn't broken I would have my foot so far up your fucking ass," Nelson growled, even as she completely failed to mask the tiny smile that threatened to break apart her furious glare. She didn't even know why she felt it tugging at her muzzle, but it was there, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to be pissed off or simply annoyed that she couldn't shake it off. Ashley only continued to grin across at her as the dusty pickup truck slowed and turned into a refueling station. "What the fuck are you still smiling about, Mills?"
"Just the fact that I'm gonna tell you to call me, and I know you ain't, so I'm just gonna hafta settle on hunting your ass down to get that fuckin' first name," the pilot replied with a wink. She glanced over her shoulder as the truck came to a stop in front of a row of pumps. "Farmer McTinydick's about to proposition us for that threesome -- how do you wanna play it?"
Nelson looked at her flatly before producing the revolver in an unnaturally smooth motion. "Gee, I don't know. 'Touch us and you lose your fucking brains'? That usually works."
"Geezus, you are shit at the whole 'undercover' part of bein' a fuckin' rebel, ain't ya?"
"Not all of us are born to be greasy assholes," Nelson muttered darkly.
"Better than being a nasty dry one," Ashley retorted with a grin. "Put that pocket rocket away, let me handle this shit."
Nelson frowned at her but rolled her eyes and tucked the revolver away again -- not like she couldn't have it out in a flash if needed. "Considering how well your last plan turned out, I'm just dying to see what you have in mind," she intoned before folding her arms with a neutral expression as the driver hopped out of the truck to apprehensively approach the bed.
"Hope the ride wasn't too bumpy for you ladies!" he announced with a crooked grin as he gripped into the side of the pickup with an excited look between them. "So...where can I drop ya off, mm? There's a real nice little motel just down the block, I hear they got..." He waggled his eyebrows in what he no doubt assumed was an extremely enticing gesture. "Waterbeds."
Ashley flashed a grin from the other side of the bed. "Heh, listen, pal -- I know what you're thinkin'. But I gotta warn ya, this bitch here?" She gestured idly at Nelson, who squinted up at her. "She's got the slimiest snatch this side of Honkal. I mean, just riddled, you feel me?" He blinked and slowly stared at Nelson, who wondered if she was tearing a hole in the bottom of the pickup truck with how hard her fingers were clenching into the bed. "Her leg ain't actually even broken! It's just melting from her vagina disease. Tragic, really!"
He leaned back slightly and gave an even worse look to Nelson, who tore her eyes away from Ashley long enough to snarl in his direction. But bless him, he still gave it his best. "W-well, I mean...there are, uh, other things we could do...fer a fair trade!"
"Mmmm, I got ya, buddy, I got ya," Ashley replied sympathetically before she held up both hands. "But you don't want that, either, this bitch is all teeth, trust me on that."
He took another step back from Nelson and then did his best to smile hopefully at Ashley. "...Oh. Well. What about you?"
"Oh, me?" Ashley gave a toothy grin as she hopped out of the back of the truck and strode up to him, her navel piercing glinting in the sunlight. "Yeah I'll just fuckin' knock your teeth out if you try shit, you got that?" She jammed a claw into his chest and he stepped back again with a mortified expression. "But we appreciate the ride, fuckbucket!"
His muzzle worked stupidly for a moment before he grit his teeth and yanked on the brim of his cap. "Well, goddammit, you fuckin'..." His eyes widened as Ashley held up a balled fist, cutting himself off as he quickly stepped away from her and gestured angrily at them both. "Git...git outta my truck, then, and...don't you never expect a free ride again! Just...just plain rude, the both of ya!"
Nelson rolled her eyes but slid along the back of the bed before glaring at Ashley when she offered a hand. She took it, nonetheless, and allowed herself to be helped down to land heavily on her good leg. "Trust me, asshole, you're better off getting the fuck outta here while you still got somethin' to chew with," she growled, and whether he'd forgotten just how big she was or simply didn't want to risk any additional public humiliation, he wasted no time in turning tail and jumping back into the cab to speed away without even getting any fuel.
Ashley continued to grin while Nelson snorted disdainfully and then started to glance around. Plenty of places she could borrow a radio for a quick call to her people, at least. It would be unencrypted, but not the end of the world. A vague request for pick-up would be enough to make the picture clear.
She felt a hand against her side and grit her teeth automatically, looking down and then blinking in surprise to see Ashley pulling out a small notebook and pen from her jacket, which was still squeezing snugly around Nelson's broad frame. "Oh. Here..." She started to shrug off the coat, but Ashley smirked and slapped her arm lightly.
"Keep it. It's fuckin' drenched in your damn blood, anyway."
"It has the fucking Sircan Special Forces logo, you don't think that's gonna raise questions for anyone who sees me?" Nelson asked drolly before tilting her head as Ashley jotted something into the notebook, then tore the page out to offer it with a half-grin. "You're shitting me, right?"
"We know how this plays out, but fuck you if you don't think I'm still gonna try," Ashley replied easily as Nelson sighed and accepted the folded slip of paper. "I know you're just gonna disappear on me regardless as soon as I go to call my people to get a ride outta here...so I'mma cut to the chase." She slid the notebook and pen into a pocket of her pants, then reached up to grab the back of Nelson's neck and drag her down for a brief peck on the cheek before she could react.
Nelson flailed at her and almost toppled over, barely keeping her balance with the splinted leg. Her muzzle curled into a snarl again, but she felt the tiny blush tickling over her features. "I swear to god, Mills, you touch me again--"
"And you're gonna beg for more, I know," Ashley interjected with a wink before she gently punched Nelson's arm. "Good luck gettin' back home, rebel-chick. You got my number if you get drunk enough to call. Don't let me catch a shot of your capped ass on the news before we get together again, 'cause I'll come piss on your damn grave."
She then turned around and tossed a wave over her shoulder as she headed for a public comm terminal, leaving Nelson to stare at her back speechlessly. Her eyes lingered briefly on the pilot's natural blue tuft as it flicked from side to side before she glanced back down at the folded sheet of paper and then forced a frown onto her features."Fucking mercenary-ass bitch," she murmured, shaking her head and then grimacing as she turned to limp in the opposite direction. At least it'd be easy to tuck this whole experience away into some secure pocket of her subconsciousness -- she obviously wasn't going to call...and what were the odds of ever running into her again?
* * *
"Seriously. How many is that now?" York asked, staring incredulously at Nelson from where he was perched on a bar stool nearby. There were a few empty spots between them, possibly for his own safety. He was straddling his stool, hands clutching the cushion between his thighs as he watched her slam down yet another glass, disbelief painting his features. "Are...what the hell is wrong with you?"
It's not like she wasn't tipsy. Nelson felt the inebriation crawling over her like a warm blanket, numbing the parts of her that hollered for attention, as if the years of ignoring their cries hadn't deterred them from hoping for some sliver of her non-existent kindness. She glanced at the tumbler to ensure it was, in fact, empty, then reached for the bottle that now had only about a quarter of its dark amber contents remaining.
"Christ, she wasn't kidding, not a single fucking goddamn word," Wash muttered from behind York. He had refused anything but water, though York had happily helped himself to a few bottles of beer, claiming he'd be able to 'work better' with a bit of alcoholic lubrication. "This is fucking pointless, York. Let's go, she should have arrived by now and I want to check the crates myself."
York squinted at Nelson for a few more seconds, but the muscular female only glowered back silently as she lifted the glass to her muzzle and then let the whiskey run into her jaws and down her throat. York scratched the back of his head for a moment before sighing and sliding off the bar stool. "Just uh. Try not to drink our entire stock before you go?" She gave him another look and he cleared his throat. "Seriously, if you, uh...if you want some supplies for the trip, just uh. Just come find us."
Wash grumbled and lightly shouldered York as he walked past him. "Come on. The stubborn asshole isn't gonna ask for help."
Nelson wasn't sure if that was an intentional slight just to piss her off, or a vague attempt to provoke a response. She treated them to the finest reaction she could be bothered to produce: a raised middle finger. She felt the frowns from the two ex-Freelancers, and she didn't need to look to know they weren't quite the same. Agent Washington, with his eternal, haughty disapproval. Agent York, with his idiotic straddling of serious and emotional. Two jackasses she wouldn't trust to pull her back from the edge of a cliff.
As she moved to refill the glass one more time, perfectly content to continue drinking by herself, York's voice rang out from the hallway outside. "Yoooo, Ashe!"
Nelson's eyes widened slightly as she stared down at the dark liquid. That had to be a coincidence. That had goddamn better be a coincidence.
Wash's grumble filtered in a moment later. "We still need to check the cargo."
"Shit, you don't need me for that, short-pants!"
Nelson's fingers clenched around the glass as her chest tightened. There was no fucking way. Except that fucking voice haunted her in her dreams, there was no mistaking it. She did, at least, take a small amount of pleasure from hearing Washington's annoyed muttering.
"Fine, whatever. If you're going to steal our booze, good luck with the angry bitch at the bar," Wash added mildly as his and York's footsteps faded down the hall.
"Tch, like I can't handle salty bar bitches," the all-too-familiar voice retorted.
Nelson hunched over her drink with a scowl, refusing to look up even as she heard a positively delighted gasp from behind her a moment later. "Ho-ly-fu-ckin' shit, do my eyes deceive me? Wash said 'angry bitch', not 'tall-ass, scary-ass, awesome-ass rebel-bitch'!"
Nelson felt every nerve in her body flinch with displeasure, even as the short fur at the base of her tail tingled. She exhaled slowly and then lifted the tumbler to her maw again only to stare as a hand reached past her to snatch it from her grasp. "Mills!" she snarled in warning before blinking in disbelief over her shoulder when Ashley smirked and downed it in one gulp. "Oh, fuck you."
Ashley grinned and wiped the back of a hand across her muzzle. "You never called me, woman."
"You were the one who said I wouldn't," Nelson muttered as she grabbed the nearly-empty bottle and lifted it to her jaws to finish it off. Their eyes met as she guzzled the last of the whiskey, Ashley watching her with entertainment as she bounced a thumb against the side of the stolen tumbler. "The fuck are you doing here? You switch sides again?"
"Oh, I think I like you even more when you're drunk," Ashley announced cheerfully before winking. "I'm a mercenary-ass bitch, remember? The boys pay me for a job, I do the job." She dropped into the stool directly next to Nelson, who rolled her eyes and shifted away. "I'm certainly curious why you're here," she added with a playful lilt. "You guys havin' yourselves a little crazy-bastard-pow-wow?"
"Ain't your concern," Nelson replied shortly as she gave the empty bottle a dirty look. "Besides, shit's run empty. So I'm on my way out."
Ashley smiled up at her coyly before leaning over to the other side of the bar and fishing around blindly for a few seconds. She eventually produced a new bottle, tilted blue with a wax seal covering the lid. Nelson couldn't help arching an eyebrow in surprise and the pilot immediately grinned again. "Heh. Guess who knows where they keep the good stuff. Sure you can't stay, have a drink with your best friend?"
"I told you, we are not friends," Nelson growled even as she didn't budge from her seat.
"Shit, alright -- then just have a drink with your damn savior, ya stubborn hag," Ashley teased before using her teeth to tear open the seal and spit the wax-covered cork to one side. She raised her eyebrows playfully when Nelson gave her a horrible look, then poured a healthy serving of the deep-red liquor into the glass. She nudged the tumbler toward Nelson, who peered at it and then gave her own small smirk before reaching over to yank the bottle out of Ashley's hands and take a long drink directly from the neck.
Ashley guffawed, settling to instead down the contents of the glass as they both took a moment to hiss and savor the pungent alcohol before their gazes met again. Nelson snorted but kept her spot on the bar stool -- the shit was potent, and she maybe had just enough booze in her by now that she was willing to let this cocky whore waste another hour or two of her time.
"Alright, Mills. You got to the bottom of the bottle, then I'm outta this shitty hole to get back to Qoppa." Nelson's dark green eyes flashed with a hint of amusement as she tapped a claw pointedly against the azure container.
Ashley continued her cheerful grin and slid the glass between them. "You play your cards right, I'll fly your ass back to Qoppa." Nelson scoffed but the pilot only winked and snapped her fingers with a gesture to the tumbler. "You already talk like a sailor, so I'm guessin' you drink like one, too. Fill me up before ya start deep-throating that bottle, and then tell me what the fuck you and those ex-Freelancer bastards could possibly have to talk about. We gotta catch up on lost time, ya giant muscle-momma."
Red vs Blue © Rooster Teeth. Halo © 343 Industries. Concept by Myshu, assisted by The Department of Chupapology.
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