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The hardest roads are the ones we think we must travel alone.

Step 1 | Step 2 | Step 3 | Step 4 | Step 5

Step 5: Rebirth

Ashley barely waited three days to call. Nelson was working with some of the newer recruits at the target range when the operator came to get her...and she could already tell by the sheepish expression who was on the radio. But she'd sighed, left O'Neill to continue the practice and went to answer.

After cursing at everyone else to get the fuck out and give her a moment.

Ashley was there the next day. She claimed to be dropping off a small contingent of bodyguards for a mission in Honkal, but. Nelson wasn't sure if she believed it or not. If the dumb bitch wanted to spend her own money on fuel to fly seven hours across the ring, then...she wasn't going to complain. Not much, anyway.

Whatever the other rebels thought wasn't shared aloud -- there was simply an understanding that Nelson was going to take a few hours of personal time, whether it was to go help the SSF pilot with a mission her with something else. Questions weren't asked, assumptions were kept neutral. Nelson didn't suffer gossip lightly.

But for what it was worth, Nelson grew to appreciate the visits. For a couple of weeks, things were unnecessarily good. Ashley kept finding excuses to visit, some of which were so absurd that Nelson finally told her if she wanted to just visit for the hell of it, then she was welcome to. Just not to expect any sort of compensation for fuel and that sometimes Nelson was going to be busy. Not that even the latter stopped Ashley, who spent an entire morning learning how to shoot while Nelson conducted target practice before the two of them took off for some, ah. Unwinding time.

Tracer was still on his expedition in Sampi, and while it was one of the longest stretches of times he'd spent away from Qoppa, he was reporting in often enough that Nelson wasn't overly concerned. Besides that, she was all too aware he had meant every word about not wanting to be the de facto leader of any branch of the Movement, even the one he'd essentially put together himself. He was happiest in the field, and Nelson could tell this latest bunch of trainees was keeping him busy. Lots of fresh, eager recruits...and he wouldn't shut up about the fiery kid he'd yanked out of some goddamn cave to immediately make his star pupil. He saw 'great things' in the little asshole's future, which Nelson had come to learn usually meant Tracer was enamored with the subject...but to be fair, most of the old fucker's chosen beaus usually turned out to be solid fighters.

So yeah. All things considered, even with the unwelcome intrusion of a new source of emotional attention in Nelson's wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Ashley grounded her, gave her something to look forward to without expecting it, without pining for it. Without worrying what it meant if another week went by between visits. Even if their radio calls were mostly bland and dry to avoid raising any suspicion even on Nelson's paranoid-as-fuck encrypted channels, they could still toss updates back and forth, and decide who had the shittiest job that week.

The cynical part of Nelson wondered when the hammer would drop, because nothing this good could last forever. Life simply didn't work that way. But Ashley made her want to be positive, to remember that not every story had a terrible ending. They were fighting to win this war, after all -- it was like they were already accepting their loss if they didn't have some goddamn hope.

The hammer appeared just before sunrise on a quiet, clear morning. It took the form of a HADES troop ship. And it dropped without a whisper of warning, or a sliver of mercy.

Nelson was in the cavern that served as their mess when she heard the first series of muted pop-pop-pops. A mug of coffee was raised halfway to her muzzle as she frowned. It sounded almost like light bulbs shattering. Perhaps one of their newest generators had overcharged, sending too strong of a surge into one of the hallways still illuminated with temporary lighting.

She slowly set the mug down and took a step forward before she heard the horrifically familiar sound of a grenade skittering across rock. She had just enough time to twist her head around toward the hallway to see the distinctive object settle gently against the entrance to the room before dropping into a crouch as the explosion filled the room with blinding light and thunderous sound -- a flashbang, not a frag. Less devastating yet more terrifying. Because what followed a flashbang...

She threw herself against the cabinet with a repressed growl, feeling the blood trickle down the sides of her head from the deafening clap, focusing on only the vibrations she felt...and a chill ran through her as no less than three distinct figures filed into the kitchen. She had no weapons. She was usually the first awake...except for her patrols and overnight operators...

Her muzzle curled into an infuriated snarl. The muffled sounds from before -- suppressors. They were already dead. HADES didn't take prisoners, never during their initial incursion. Only those who survived the first and second waves were left breathing for interrogation, torture and then inevitable death.

What if Ashley had been here? What if she'd been visiting, she might already be--no. No, she wasn't an anchor. She was Nelson's strength. She provided Nelson the will to survive...not to struggle.

Her eyes focused as she saw the shadow stepping around the counter, her hearing still impaired. Vision would have to be enough. Her body remained tensed, every muscle tightened in preparation...and as soon as the operative took one step closer, she sprung out with a hiss as she grabbed the barrel of the assault shotgun while stomping on the soldier's paw. He let out a grunt of pain and she was able to yank the shotgun away while using her massive body to hip-check him into a cabinet.

The shotgun was already moving toward the other two as they reacted swiftly, but Nelson didn't simply have instincts -- she was programmed to kill. The first expulsion of high-impact pellets blasted both troops backward and she used the brief distraction to whip around and shove the barrel of the shotgun between the plates of armor of the soldier she'd knocked sprawling. Her eyes were as ruthless as the shell she unloaded into his torso at point-blank range, the heavy armor seeming to deflate as his ribcage collapsed.

She was already vaulting the center counter before his final breath escaped his lips, slamming the shotgun's tip against the second soldier's chin and grimacing without flinching as the buckshot all but decapitated him to send bits of tissue and brain matter across her features. The third unit had recovered his submachine gun but Nelson was faster still as the fourth, fifth and sixth shells were all rapidly pumped into his chest -- the armor tried desperately to do its job, but was a shredded, bloody mess by the final impact, leaving a charred crater of crimson around his limp body.

Without hesitation, she slammed a fist into the small red button wired to the natural rock wall and a series of blaring klaxons began to echo through the mines. Her chest heaved but her eyes were focused and she took only long enough to grab a handful of shells and to quickly reload the shotgun before looping the strap of a bloodied assault rifle over her shoulder. She noticed a fragmentation grenade hanging off of one of the corpse's belts and tucked it under an arm. The caves were already lost. Now all she could do was rescue as many as she could and abandon their base.

Nelson moved swiftly into the main corridor, her years of training rushing back to her in an instant. The shotgun was tucked close to her side as she rested a finger on the trigger while gripping the forestock securely, making the assault weapon as maneuverable as possible. She heard screaming down the hall that lead toward most of the living quarters, the panicked cries rising above the blaring alarms before gunfire drowned it out -- they had no reason to use silent weapons anymore. Nelson grit her teeth but forced herself to remain calm as she turned the first corner and found a small group of HADES posted near the entrance.

Only one shouted in surprise, the others moving automatically to shift their weapons toward her. But her paws began to dance sideways as she snarled and fired the shotgun in a rapid staccato, her left hand cycling the rounds as quickly as she could pull the trigger to unload four deadly bursts of buckshot in their direction. Two or three of them collapsed when the pellets found weak spots, while the others stumbled backward from the sheer waves of force. Nelson was ready, holding the shotgun tightly in one hand as she lifted her arm to drop the grenade into her palm, using her teeth to grip the pin before tossing it at their feet and then disappearing around the corner to continue toward the barracks, ignoring the way the rock-and-dirt walls trembled around her a few seconds later when the explosion ripped into the disoriented troops.

A HADES soldier was facing away from her as she passed the first bunk room -- she didn't need to check, the sprawled bodies and bloodstains told her everything she needed to know. And so she poured her rage into the unit before her, as she snarled and looped the shotgun around the soldier's neck. He gave a muffled gasp of shock before flailing as she yanked the gun back viciously to crush his windpipe. Another HADES unit twisted around further down the hall and spun away from firing at the retreating rebels to instead unload toward Nelson.

But she simply stayed pressed against the strangled chupa's back, her eyes burning over his shoulder as the spray of bullets pounded into his armor, a few of them passing through to bury into his twitching body. As soon as the second soldier's weapon clicked dry, Nelson let the first HADES drop before rushing his companion with a snarl. She slung a vicious punch into his throat and he stumbled backward with a choked gasp, then suddenly widened his eyes as a blade burrowed into his neck from behind.

Blood ran down over the blade and onto the fingers gripping the knife before the weapon was jerked back out as the soldier collapsed lifelessly. Nelson grunted at the sight of O'Neill, and he nodded with a frown and tucked the knife back into his waistband. "Nelson."

She wordlessly passed him the assault rifle as her eyes skimmed the adjoining living spaces. More broken bodies, more controlled slaughter, like they were merely rats to be exterminated. O'Neill grunted his thanks and checked over the weapon before his eyes flashed. "Down!" he snarled.

Nelson dropped to a crouch as the rifle barked above her. She only continued to stare furiously past O'Neill, ignoring the hot casings that tinkled down over her shoulders while steadily putting together her plan. They needed to save everyone they could. Equipment could be replaced. Lives could not.

Mills would have said the same.

When she heard the armored body drop behind her, she stood up again and gripped O'Neill's arm tightly. "You came from the west tunnels?"

"Yeah. Three HADES. Took out most of our fighters before the alarms went off. They're down." He jerked his head back down the direction he'd come from. "We need to leave. Now."

She nodded but then met his gaze, which brought a frown across his features. "Every survivor to the garage, only essentials. As many in the vehicles as possible."

"Nelson, you need--"

"I will. But we can't leave anything behind. I'll set the charges."


"Fucking listen," she snarled, leaning into his face with enough intensity to make him flinch. "I'm trusting you to get the survivors ready to move out. We'll use the hidden route through the deep canyon. I will be there, but you need to be rolling."

He grimaced, then nodded sharply as he reached up to grip tightly into her arm as well. "Don't be late."

"Don't be stupid," she replied curtly before they sprinted down the hallway together. He turned down toward where the other rebels had fled while she proceeded further down to their ordnance supply.

She shouldered the door open and then rested the shotgun against the wall as she snagged a duffel bag and started to fill it with explosive charges, grenades and whatever ammunition she could find. She estimated most of the first dropship's occupants had been taken care of. Standard HADES platoon was twelve to fourteen deep. But she wasn't assuming for an instant that another wasn't already en route. There was no question their home had fallen -- all she could do now was make it as goddamn hard as possible for these fuckers to get anything useful from it.

Nelson slammed the last satchel into place next to the radio desk while grabbing several loose files and handwritten notes to toss them into the mostly-empty bag. She grimaced and looked down at her waist, touching a finger to the blood seeping through her torn shirt. Yet another scar to decorate her torso. Yet another reminder.

Two more HADES units were lying still in the hallway outside -- that should have been the entirety of the platoon. She'd collected as many electronics as she could, along with a bevy of documents and contact sheets. Everything else was getting torched; the most valuable assets they had weren't physical, after all, and if it wasn't written down somewhere, it was stored in someone's mind.

She hauled the bag over a shoulder and gripped the shotgun in the other hand as she stalked back through the mines to the garage. She was afraid to see who was left, but they couldn't afford to wait any longer. This was the situation they'd all dreaded, the scenario they'd drilled for. She knew the fact there were any survivors at all would need to be consolation. She slammed a fist against a support timber as she passed, snarling in frustration before shaking the intrusive thoughts away and exhaling sharply while striding into the garage.

Her eyes moved over the small fleet. Three jeeps, two ATVs and the pickup they'd salvaged from the attack on Ashley's dropship several weeks ago. They were packed with rebels and yet that wasn't enough. There should have been more chupas trying to find a place to sit. She didn't want to think of their losses because it would have broken whatever steely resolve she'd gathered to push through this. "Are we ready to go?!"

"Nelson!" She whipped her head around to a fighter limping back from the rear entrance, his face filled with despair. "Another HADES ship! They're landing too close to the hidden entrance...they're gonna see us!"

"Motherfucker!" she spat out as her claws dug into her palms.

"I...I'll take care of it..."

Nelson focused her glare on Green, who was standing in the bed of the pickup truck. Her coat was soaked with blood, but she didn't seem injured. Tears stained her cheeks, cutting trails through the crimson splotches that marred her soft magenta fur as she trembled. "They...they killed my babies..."

"Sit down, Green, we'll handle it," Nelson muttered, forcing her gaze away as she snarled again. Another rebel reached out to Green, but she shrugged off their hand and hopped down from the jeep. She dropped to a knee with a sob, then shoved herself back up to her paws as she made her way to a workbench. Nelson's eyes widened as Green grabbed a belt of grenades and strapped them across her chest. "Green! Put that the fuck down, get back on the truck!"

O'Neill cursed and jumped out from the driver's seat of the truck to move toward the distraught rebel. "Theresa, stop!"

But Green shook her head as she picked up a second cluster of explosives, staring back at the others. "N-no. Get them out of here, Nelson. Please..."

Nelson's heart thudded as she swallowed her curse, then nodded once. O'Neill looked back at her with horror and the rebel leader closed her eyes before baring her teeth. "Back in the fucking truck, O'Neill! Move! Everyone, move now!"

The engines all roared to life as the vehicles turned around to face the back of the cavern where Green had just disappeared through. She was no longer crying and stood tall as she walked out, whispering the same names again and again while she clutched into the release cords for the grenades.

"Nelson, let's go," O'Neill growled as he slowed the truck. She glared at him and threw the bag into the back before tossing him the detonator for the charges inside.

"Fire this as soon as we're out of range," she ordered before whistling sharply at the ATV idling behind the truck, two rebels packed uncomfortably onto the off-road vehicle. "Go! We'll bring up the rear!"

The two nodded and quickly steered past the pickup and Nelson gestured to the remaining jeep to do the same while she moved toward the bed. She tossed her shotgun in as well and reached up to grab the side--


She heard the loud burst after she felt it. A moment of sharp pain in her midsection before sudden numbness as she stared blankly at the spray of blood decorating the truck's side-panel. Her muzzle worked silently before she dropped to her knees and slumped forward against the tire. She heard a chorus of furious shouts and a barrage of gunfire from all around her, the bullets shredding into whoever had stumbled into the garage and leaving the cavern muted for a few seconds.

"Nelson, oh fuck, Nelson!!"

She tried to stand but could only grip into the tire and force her chest up before she collapsed to one side, her eyes staring past the undercarriage of the truck as she heard the driver's door open and saw paws pounding across the stone toward her.

"I-is she...??"


She opened her jaws again but could only offer a confused mumble. She thought of Ashley. It was a dull comfort, but something to cling to all the same.

"Get her in the back! Carson! Carson, I need you on her, now!"

She felt two pairs of arms looping under her limbs and lifting her up from the ground as her bulky body was hauled around to the rear of the pickup truck. Her legs dragged behind her but luckily she felt no pain from them. Perhaps she was just in shock. She'd been in shock before, it wasn't terrible, at least. Hazy. Things didn't always feel so bad when you were in shock, you could watch the world go--

A peal of gunfire from outside the cave preceded a faint shout of protest, and then a massive explosion made the walls shake around them as loose dirt and pebbles rained down. She heard more cursing before finding herself leaning against a wheel well as a one-eyed chupa crouched next to her with a concerned look. More shouting. More doors slamming. And then suddenly vertigo as the dark ceilings above began to slide past.

She closed her eyes tightly and coughed blood. She felt hands moving over her stomach, quiet cursing. The telltale scratch of gauze being unwound. And then unexpected brightness a moment later -- the sun? She gave a pitiful whimper and tried to shield her eyes, but her arm only lifted enough to drop back over the side of the pickup as she opened her eyes enough to see a smoldering wreck several meters from the hidden entrance, the HADES logo just visible among the crumpled, fragmented steel and armor plating.


Nelson laughed, a broken sound that made Carson frown at her. He said something, but she didn't quite catch it.

A moment later, she saw an arm come out from the window of the pickup's cab. It was clutching a little box and she tilted her head curiously before a button was depressed and the very earth beneath them shook.

Her head rolled back around to stare at the mines as a cloud of dust and smoke poured out from the entrances on both sides of the mountain. She could feel the heat that rushed out in a wave across them and she winced while Carson moved to shield her from the cloud of dirt.

When he shifted back to continue working on her injuries, she saw two plumes of thick black smoke twisting into the sky and she thought of Ashley again. She thought of Tracer. How would she face either of them, how was she supposed to tell them she'd let their base fall? This was on her watch, this was her failure.

She let her eyes close and her body fall limp. She was tired of being the survivor.

But fate wasn't going to give Nelson the time to loathe herself. Within an hour, her strength was returning, along with the realization that the numbness in her legs wasn't going to fade. She and O'Neill had shouted plans back and forth through the small window in the back of the cab before Carson had finally grumbled that she needed to stop straining herself since he was going to run out of bandaging at this rate.

The plan at this point was to take their small caravan all the way to the cliffs of Honkal. The advance team they'd sent out was suddenly a blessing in disguise...they were safe from the HADES raid, and it would mean there would be something waiting for them when they arrived. It would be better than nothing.

Of all the things she predicted after the raid, she certainly wasn't expecting the kid, nor the news he brought with him.

"God dammit!" she roared as she slammed a fist into the side of the truck bed, her eyes whisking away so the trembling newcomer wouldn't see her soul. He looked closed to tears and she'd be damned if she would show the same.

She felt Carson shifting uncomfortably at her side before gently applying another gauze patch to her abdomen as she trembled. "Ma'am." She glanced at him but he pressed on carefully: "All due're gonna lose more than your legs if we don't get you somewhere we can operate. We need to go."

She took a sharp breath in and then locked her gaze onto the kid, still hovering nearby with the pistol clutched in his hands. "Up here. He's coming with us."

He blinked but complied, joining them in the bed and then awkwardly setting his weapon aside when Carson handed him a strip of bandaging. "Here, kid -- help me out. Need you to put pressure on the wound. She's gonna bleed out if we don't get this stopped." Nelson kept her eyes on the young rebel, watching the way his hands quivered even as his eyes flicked up to her with unexpected calm behind them. "Let's go, O'Neill!" Carson barked before elbowing the back of the cab.

O'Neill glanced in the side-view before grunting and slamming the gas pedal down. Nelson howled in pain when Carson smashed into her, and she bared her teeth furiously as the one-eyed chupa grimaced and then snarled over his shoulder: "Goddammit, O'Neill!" He sighed and then glanced back at the kid before pointing to the blood-soaked wrappings on her stomach. "Here, right here."

His hands were shaking but she couldn't blame him. Helluva introduction to the rest of Tracer's people...running for their lives from their base of operations, yeah. There were better ways to meet the family.

His soulful blue eyes eventually lifted back to hers and she studied him for a few seconds. He was short, but built stocky. Looked tough. Tracer had mentioned most of the new recruits were from Sampi -- seemed legitimate. They were hardy motherfuckers out there. "What's your name?"

It seemed to take him by surprise as he blinked again and then stammered: "S-Samael. Samael Wurlitz." His eyes shifted to Carson and then back to hers. She kept her muted expression even as she clenched a hand silently against her side. This was the fucking kid. The one Tracer had spouted endlessly about. The fucking prodigy. Of course he made it out in one piece. "What...what happened?"

"We got hit," she replied curtly. "Someone betrayed us. Probably that Freelancer bitch." Her forceful speech made everything hurt and she hissed in agony. She didn't actually know if either of those bitches were responsible, but it made her feel better to be pissed off at someone, even if the whole thing was probably due to a careless mistake. All it took was forgetting a glance over a shoulder and someone could easily miss the drone following them into the winding Qoppa mountains.

Carson scowled up at her when she shifted in discomfort. "Don't gimme that face, Carson."

"Then stop making more blood come out of your body," he grumbled as he began a fresh set of wrappings around her torso.

The amused snort she gave was more grateful than she let on. She turned her attention back to Samael. "Wurlitz. You must be the cocky shit from Sampi." His eyes widened a bit. "Tracer seemed to think you were hot shit. A real survivor." Her chest clenched around her heart even as she spat out coldly: "I guess he was right."

When he looked away shamefully, tears filling his eyes, a guilty pang ran through her. This wasn't just about her. This wasn't about her self-hatred, at Tracer dying while yet another 'survivor' joined her cursed ranks. And it certainly wasn't this dumb kid's fault.

She sighed quietly and he turned his eyes back up to her as her blood ran slowly over his fingers. Yeah. One helluva introduction. "We lost more than just our base today. We lost a man who was solely responsible for bringing us together and shaping us into what we are today. The greatest among us all and yet someone whose name most of Sirca will never hear."

At her side, Carson bowed his head and closed his eye. She knew Tracer wouldn't have cared, but she still appreciated the gesture. She kept her head lifted proudly, her features stolid. But her eyes showed a flicker of surprise when Samael did the same, meeting her gaze even as his face reflected a far more visible ache. Softer than Tracer usually liked...but perhaps even tougher because of it. Perhaps he was worthy of being a survivor, after all. She allowed the tiniest smile of approval before she lifted a hand to him. "Go on, Wurlitz. Tell me everything."

The weeks passed, as they had before. But smiles were far thinner now.

They left Qoppa with twenty-six rebels jammed into the vehicles. Samael joined them, but they still arrived at the cliffs with only twenty-five. Nelson had to live with the fact that Carson might have been able to save at least one of them had he not been focused on removing the shrapnel from her innards and keeping her stable for most of the journey.

She hadn't been in the mood to live for much else. She'd managed to push through four or five days before she finally shut herself away from the others after they'd presented her with a temporary wheelchair. They'd put it together themselves with what supplies they had in their new base...their new home. And it wasn't that she didn't appreciate it -- in fact, she'd nearly started to cry when O'Neill rolled it into her room, trying his best to not look sheepish.

She'd responded with a harsh curse, and was even crueler when he asked if he could help her into it. He didn't deserve the vitriol, but she knew he'd be able to handle it. Didn't make her feel any better when he shuffled out with a murmured apology, resettling the curtain over her quarters and then hurrying down the corridor.

Nelson didn't want help. She'd barely eaten since they arrived at the cliffs, and as the reality of her condition sank in, it was harder and harder to focus. O'Neill was doing his best to wrangle everyone and get them working on excavating and preparing the caves to be their new haven...but she could tell he was strained and terrified of doing something wrong, no matter the strong face he put on for the rest.

As she'd stared at the cobbled-together wheelchair, all she could see was the end of everything she prided herself on, everything she lived for. She was these people's leader but she wasn't a goddamn rear-echelon motherfucker...she strode into battle with her men and women, shoulder to fucking shoulder. But now she was a cripple. The bullet might as well have removed her fucking head because she'd become merely a shadow of her former self.

She'd eventually accepted the chair, but rarely left her room. The bruises she gained from collapsing and falling to the stone floor while trying to put herself into the damn thing were humiliating, additional reminders that she was an invalid now, destined to be no more than a screaming voice on the other end of a radio, all bark and no bite. The kind of person she hated with all her soul.

It was for these reasons she ignored Ashley's calls. They hadn't been like before, where the pilot had spat obscenities and threatened to deliver crates full of sex toys, labeled with Nelson's name, to the front door of the Qoppa mines if she didn't call back.

The first few had been tearful, begging for at least a sign of life. Nelson had ordered all incoming calls to be left unanswered if they weren't from their own members. She claimed it was for reasons of security, to ensure they were safe while they tried to rebuild and recoup both their numbers as well as their resources. She knew it was also to protect her heart, however, because she couldn't face Ashley. If she thought it had been hard to imagine doing so after Qoppa it felt impossible.

Eventually O'Neill had responded, which earned him a spittle-infused rant from Nelson when he'd come to tell her, despite the fact the only things he'd told the frantic pilot were that Nelson was alive and that she couldn't currently talk. What perhaps hurt the most was the fact he didn't have to tell her...because Ashley had been so furious that Nelson heard her response from several chambers away.

"What the fuck do you mean she 'can't currently talk'? Who the FUCK are you, who the fuck do you think you are tryin' to tell me some shit like that, you go get that fuckin' bitch an' you tell her, you tell her to her fuckin' face that the least she coulda done was tell me at least she was fuckin' alive! I get she don't wanna see me, that's fuckin' fine, but you tell her that I've been a goddamn wreck 'cause I didn't even know if the bitch was dead 'n buried under some rocks or fuckin' bleedin' out in the middle of the fuckin' wastelands!"

Her voice had been enough to make Nelson tremble and consider tears, infuriated and broken as it had sounded. But Nelson was ashamed, and she was empty. And she was pissed off at the world, which made her fear turning it against the pilot, if she were to see her like this. As this...this...husk of a woman.

Ashley kept calling, though. She'd wait a couple days, and then try again. Most of the operators just knew to turn down the radio at that point.

Most of them.

Nelson laid in bed one night, savoring the silence and darkness alike. She could hear the cold waters lapping against the base of the frozen cliffs far below, and they were a soothing distraction from her thoughts. She had, at least, started to slowly let herself be seen around the caves in her chair, and was starting to hold meetings every day with O'Neill, Carson and a few of the other veteran rebels to plan the expansion of the caverns. It was pleasant to do something, but it only added to the countless number of things she had spinning around her mind during the long, miserable hours she spent in bed or slumped in the chair.

She had almost drifted into a fitful sleep when her voice echoed faintly down the passageway. Nelson's eyes slid open again and she stared at the smooth rock above her bed. Ashley sounded...calmer. Resigned, even. She could only just make out her words from where her room was situated.

"This is Ashley...Mills...'that crazy bitch'. Calling in to see if that angry bitch is dead yet or still just ignoring my lonely ass."

Nelson idly debated having another radio set up in her room. Even the ex-Freelancers had reached out at this point, asking if any had survived, if they were relocated. Hell, York had quietly offered assistance -- Nelson was sure the giant marshmallow had done that behind Washington's back...or at the very least after he'd left the room. It would be a good idea to reestablish communications at some point. And since she was stuck here, would be something for her to do.

It had nothing to do with wanting to hear Ashley's voice at her side.

She was so lost in her thoughts she almost missed the hesitant murmur. "Uh...hello? Yer gonna hafta repeat that, who didja say this was?"

Nelson's eyes snapped open. Wurlitz. She snarled and threw the sheets off and was still not used to her legs not fucking working as she twisted her waist and then cursed in frustration. Who the fuck put him on radio duty? He was still fucking training, he wasn't ready for that shit! "Goddammit, god-fucking-dammit," she muttered while struggling to reach for her chair in the darkness.

"Huh. You sound new. You also sound like a fuckin' redneck -- listen, I need to know where the fuck you all are."

Nelson grit her teeth. "No...fucking hell, no," she hissed as her fingers closed around one of the wheels of her chair, dragging it closer and then trying to pull herself into it...only to have it slip away and yank her out of the bed to thump heavily onto the rock floor with a much longer string of curses.

"I...uh. I'm kinda new here, an'...I'm preeeeetty sure I ain't s'posed to give that kinda shit away..."

"Bless you, ya fuckin' inbred saint, but this is fuckin' serious. See, if I don't see Nelson soon, I'm gonna fuckin' start gettin' drunker than usual and just start fuckin' flying my ship into every random-fuckin'-hole on Sirca until I find your goddamn asses, and then I'm gonna be really pissed."

"Wurlitz, no!" Nelson yelled as she fought to drag herself into the chair from the floor, her voice hoarse with what might have been panic.

"Wait, know Nelson?"

"Yeah, I sure fuckin' do, and I need to talk to her. Look -- I'm in my fuckin' ship right now. Our radios are point-to-point. Nobody can fuckin' listen in unless I fuckin' allow it. So tell me where you are and everyone's fuckin' happy."

Nelson felt her breaths quicken as she managed to heave herself into the uncomfortable chair, yanking her legs up to rest on the ugly platforms for her paws before grabbing the wheels and shoving the chair forward. She immediately ran into the frame around the entrance to her room, cursing loudly again even though she felt nothing from her leg smashing into the rock. "Wurlitz, you put that fucking radio down!" she yelled down through the dark hall.

"Uhh...y-yeah, I'm purdy sure Nelson's gonna kick my--"

"If I don't tell her what I need to tell her, then we're both gonna die fuckin' miserable, so find your fuckin' balls, dude, and tell me now!"

Nelson tore down the hallway at blinding speed, suddenly a master at maneuvering the wheelchair. Her heart pounded in her head, making everything else dull and numb as she whirled around the corner and then slammed into the entrance of the radio room with a snarl.

Samael sat at the table, his eyes bulging as he awkwardly held the microphone a few inches from his muzzle. Nelson stared at him as the thin frame of the wheelchair bent with how tightly she gripped into it. "What the fuck did you tell her?"

The stupid redneck rubbed the back of his neck and then glanced away when Ashley's voice came through the receiver. "I appreciate it, pal. Let Nelson know I'll be by for drinks soon. Ashe, out."

Nelson swallowed and then glared at Samael as he sheepishly replaced the microphone and shifted his weight on the chair. "You fucking stupid son-of-a-bitch," she whispered, ignoring the sounds of several rebels stirring from sleep and poking their heads into the corridor curiously. "Oh, goddamn you..."

"S-Sorry," Samael stammered, the strange piercing in his tail tinkling gently as the appendage gave a nervous twitch. "She jus'...she sounded...real upset, an' I just figgered..."

Nelson slowly rolled her chair backward, her eyes no longer furious but now...hollow. The control she clung to so happily was slipping between her fingers. "Fuck!" She slammed a fist into the side of the chair and caused another dent as, behind her, O'Neill appeared from the darkness.

"We have a jeep fueled. We can make a trip, take you --"

"No," Nelson interjected thickly as she closed her eyes. "This is my shit. All of you back the fuck off. I need to deal with this. If...when an Special Forces ship shows up..."

"Yeah. We won't touch it," O'Neill murmured before firing his own dark glare at Samael to make the young rebel scowl even as he shrank a bit more.

Nelson exhaled and then shook her head and turned herself around to wheel back to her quarters. "Everyone back to their bunks. Wurlitz, you have radio duty for the next two days."

"B-But, I'm s'posed to --"

"Next two days, Wurlitz!"

His resigned sigh and mumbled acknowledgment made her feel slightly better for at least a few seconds before she rolled into a corner of her room to drop her head into her hands. She didn't know what to do, but she knew the inevitable was going to be upon her soon, and she was going to have to deal with it one way or another.

Nelson clutched her mug of coffee with both hands, her fingers tightening around the ceramic as she stared down at the steaming liquid. She'd barely slept and wasn't sure if she would until this was over. Every ounce of her soul wanted it to just be done with so she could go back to doing what she was meant to do.

Even if it was in a new, reduced capacity.

She had obligations that would need answering. Being this close to Honkal at least opened up new opportunities to reach out to smaller, unaffiliated rebel groups...or even hoops. She needed to talk to Washington. And she needed to reach out to Juwo -- even if he valued the secrecy of his people somehow more than Nelson, they had been on good enough terms that they'd arranged for the secretive bat-based courier service to deliver messages to and from the mines in Qoppa. It would be important to reestablish that in their new location -- there was nothing more secure, after all.

None of these things necessarily required working legs. Yet she felt helpless, like any attempt at trying to do these aspects of her job would only result in failure, in every one of her people seeing that failure and judging her for it. And it made it far too easy to instead choose to stay withdrawn and make a minimal effort to at least keep things running here in the cliffs. There was a legitimate concern to be had with securing this new base, expanding it and filling it with replacement technology...but she was also all too aware it was merely a convenient excuse. She had people who were ready to run ops, to recruit, to recover supplies. Ready and eager. But she wasn't ready.

She closed her eyes for a few seconds and listened to the bustle throughout the caverns. Most of her fellow rebels were coming out of their sleeping shifts as well, and she heard them sharing greetings, starting a group breakfast, discussing any news from the previous crew. There were too few voices, however, and she lowered her head with a sigh. Recruitment was certainly a priority now.

" that a dropship?"

Her eyes snapped back open as she stared mutely at the coffee, the mug trembling from the way she squeezed it. She heard the initial sounds of panic as memories of the HADES raid rushed into everyone's thoughts...but then soon heard someone shout.

"Everyone calm down! It's the SSF ship!"

The SSF ship. Because everyone knew it, apparently.

...Nelson wasn't ready.

She inhaled and exhaled quickly as her shoulders tightened and her arms quivered. And a moment later, she gasped when the mug suddenly exploded from the pressure of her fingers, sending bits of ceramic everywhere as the rest of the hot coffee spilled across her legs...which at least she couldn't feel. "Goddammit!" she whispered as she looked around the room in a panic.

She wasn't ready.

Her head whipped toward the entrance of the cavern when Ashley's voice thundered through the caves. "You fuckers, you know how cold it is outside, god-fuckin'-dammit! What kinda asshole picked this place when there's about five fuckin' abandoned islands out in the middle of the Vossler that ain't frozen shit-holes!?"

Nelson's breath caught in her throat and she couldn't help herself from slowly gripping into the wheels of her chair, eyes almost fearfully wide as she hesitantly moved forward while the pilot continued storming down the passageway. "Aw, fuck off, O'Neill! You fuckers know I was gonna find this place one fuckin' way or another. Now where the fuck is she? Nelson! Nelson, you goddamn bitch, where the fuck are you!?"

Nelson rolled into the archway and stared numbly down the long corridor as the furious stomping grew closer. "You better be here, 'cause I'm gonna start torturing one of these motherfuckers to find out where--"

Ashley rushed around the corner and then froze as her eyes fell on Nelson. The rebel stared back, hating how she couldn't move, hating that she couldn't yell or snarl or even curse. She could only stare, her fingers trembling around the wheels at her sides as her heart threatened to fold up into itself and disappear entirely.

There were a few moments of silence as they looked at each other. Nelson had never felt fear like this.

"Marisa..." Ashley's arms slowly dropped to her sides and her features fell into a muted gaze, her head shaking once in denial.

It was too much.

Nelson closed her eyes tightly as tears rolled down her cheeks and the next thing she knew, she felt arms around her, hugging her fiercely and she did the only thing she could as she dropped her head and began to cry silently against Ashley's chest.

At some point, Ashley pushed her back into her room and secured the blanket to at least give them some semblance of privacy. Not that Nelson cared anymore as she slumped in the chair while Ashley knelt in front of her and gently brushed the tears from her cheeks. She stared past her, unwilling to focus on her concerned gaze, or the way her eyes held her with such compassion yet not a goddamn hint of pity. All the things she adored about this stupid woman, yet all the things she knew she knew were wasted on her.


"Don't," Nelson whispered as her eyes dropped down to her lifeless legs. "Don't call me that..."

"Marisa," Ashley repeated firmly, earning a snarl that was tinged with a sob. But the pilot was undeterred as she reached up and placed a hand against Nelson's cheek. "Why didn't you call me?"

"How could I?" Nelson replied in a hollow voice, her bloodshot eyes finally dragging back to Ashley as her head shook slowly. "How could I face you? I lost our base. I lost so many of my people. I lost Tracer...I lost my fucking legs."

Ashley looked her directly in the eye even as her expression softened. "I'm sorry. I am. But that isn't a fucking excuse. For days, I thought you were dead, I heard about the raid and I figured it was just propaganda bullshit saying no survivors but...I had no fucking clue."

Nelson licked her lips as she stared for a moment at Ashley's chest. It hurt to meet her eyes. "I...I sometimes wish..."

"Don't you fucking dare say it," Ashley whispered dangerously, grabbing her muzzle and lifting it so their eyes met again. "Not even as a fucking joke."

"Look at me!" Nelson burst out, throwing her arms wide as she trembled again. "I'm...I'm broken. How could anyone, how could you..."

Ashley grit her teeth before she gripped Nelson's head with both hands, her own eyes full of unshed tears. "Geezus, you stupid fuckin' bitch, I love you."

Nelson stiffened up, her eyes bulging as her maw opened and shut shakily. No. No, she didn't mean that, she couldn't mean that. "All...the things you've called me, now I'm just...just..."

Ashley crawled onto Nelson's lap, making the chair creak but ignoring it as she shook her own head and ran her hands down along the sides of Nelson's skull before wrapping her arms around her neck. "You're still a strong, beautiful, goddamn amazing woman," she murmured before leaning down and pushing her forehead against Nelson's. "I don't care if you can fucking walk, Marisa...and if you think I fell for you because of your body, then you're a fucking idiot and I've got a lot of fuckin' shit to teach you, stupid, angry old bitch," she added as a hitch rose in her voice. She gave a pitiful laugh and wiped at her eyes as Nelson looked up at her speechlessly, trying to understand and failing to do so.

"Mills..." Nelson closed her eyes before holding in her own sob. "Ashe. You have your whole life ahead of you, and--"

"Woman, if you even think about finishing that sentence, I'm going to break the rest of your spine," Ashley whispered as she leaned close and hugged her neck tightly again. Nelson swallowed thickly but hesitantly wrapped her arms around her companion as the warmth started to spread through her. "I'm spending the rest of my life doing what I fuckin' love, and that includes flyin' out to see your stupid ass whenever possible because you ain't gettin' rid of me just because you're a fuckin' cripple."

Nelson gave a broken laugh but this time the tears didn't hurt as much as she clutched into Ashley and closed her eyes again. "God...dammit, Mills, you're. You're a fucking wreck. You should be committed."

There was a wet chuckle from her shoulder as Ashley pulled back and then stroked through Nelson's mane as their eyes locked. "The only thing I'm committing to is getting you a new fucking chair -- christ, this one is a piece of shit."

Nelson hated that her laugh was honest, rubbing at her own eyes before giving a crooked smile. "Yeah. It kind of is. Didn't want to say anything because they made it for me in the shop, but--"

"No, fuck that, they should be fuckin' ashamed, my goddamn orphans could have done a better job," Ashley muttered as she slid off Nelson's lap and then smiled down at her. "Come on. We're going for a ride, right now. Going right to the Strip and I'm picking you up a better one."

"Mills --"

"Don't fuckin' start with me," the pilot threatened as she put her hands on her hips. She then smirked. "Then we're gonna go fuckin' make up for all this goddamn lost time, because I sure as fuck don't want to traumatize all your rebels doing you here at the top of your creepy cave-castle."

Nelson snorted even as she shifted her eyes to one side, rubbing a hand over her collarbone. "Ashley, I...I don't think I'll be able to--" She stuttered to a stop as a very distinct sensation suddenly filled her gut and she first stared up at Ashley to see her grinning before her eyes traced along the slender arm that was extended out and down into the front of her pants...and Nelson groaned and clamped her hands into the sides of the wheelchair. "F-fuck...what the fuck, woman..."

Ashley chuckled quietly and pulled her hand free again before shrugging cheerfully. "Seems like the shit still works fine. Now come on, you made me wait long enough. Let's go." She crossed her arm expectantly as Nelson rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the swelling adoration she felt lapping at her cold heart.

"You aren't going to try and push me?" Nelson asked mildly as her hands gripped into the wheels.

"Fuuuuck no, I ain't gonna sit here and listen to you bitch about what an independent cunt you are," Ashley retorted while walking backward. "Besides, you gotta learn how to use this shit. So let's go, before one of your stupid fuckin' rebels comes to check on you and sees you've been crying."

Nelson sighed again but felt an honest, albeit faint, smile parting her maw. "Glad you haven't changed," she mumbled. She paused and Ashley glanced at her. "Thank you, Ashe." She held up a hand and Ashley immediately gripped her wrist tightly while smiling tenderly.

"You know we're both too stubborn for that shit," she murmured affectionately before jerking her head. "Now let's see you put those fuckin' big-ass arms to use. And remind me to thank your resident redneck for being just not scared enough of you."

Nelson snorted softly once more. "Last thing that kid needs," she remarked as she took hold of the wheels again and started to push herself alongside the pilot. "I'll tell you all about him, don't worry...but let's get on your fuckin' ship, first." They shared another slight smile. "Last thing I need is for my people thinking I have a goddamn heart..."

Red vs Blue © Rooster Teeth. Halo © 343 Industries. Concept by Myshu, assisted by The Department of Chupapology.

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