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Bearing | Passengers


Part 1: Bearing


"How...how the hell you so sure?"

"Man...c'mon, Gabe, sometimes...sometimes this stuff, y'just...y'just feel, man." The massive chupa gave a crooked grin as he twisted to the side to peer over at his equally-enormous companion. "I thought you were the master of feelin's, ya big queer, heh."

"Dude, I don' care if this's a party, I'll still kick yer ass," Gabriel threatened as he jabbed a finger into his friend's arm. "Then we'll see who's got...feelings like a giant homo." The tan chupa puffed his chest out and Carter couldn't help the way his grin widened. "I'm jus' sayin', there's so many options..." Gabriel paused and gave a playful squint to his pal. "Unless you didn't get a whole stack'a letters!"

"Oh, pleeeeease," Carter drawled while glancing into his plastic cup. Damn. They'd gone through that keg faster than expected. But then again, nearly all of the successful Specials candidates were here tonight. The plaza was packed with their companions as music streamed out of a pair of speakers someone had no doubt 'liberated' from one of the facility's auditoriums. A few tables had been set up with pizza, beer and whatever other snacks and booze could be dredged up from everyone's supplies. Their instructors certainly didn't care -- hell, a few of the commanding officers were here among them. They were no longer recruits tonight, after all. This was essentially their graduation, and they deserved to celebrate before going back to being rookies at whatever organization or special ops outfit they crawled into after the worst of the hangovers had passed. Four more mandatory days of service with Specials, and then it was off to the next step of their careers. Plenty of reason to party hard.

Carter recalled the train of thought he'd started, chasing it down before it could completely leave the station. "I gotta full set of offers, man...in fact, Hexagon had two for me."

Gabriel snorted and elbowed him. "Prob'ly some sorta...clerical error. Jus' like the clerical error I had with your mom when I got'r knocked up with you'n Madison." Carter smirked and threw a huge arm around Gabriel's neck as the other giant chupa laughed and jabbed lightly into his chest a few times. "That's right, I'm yer daddy! Suddenly all that shadowin' you do'a me makes sense!"

Carter laughed while squeezing his neck firmly before releasing him from the headlock in favor of flicking open a nearby pizza box. His face brightened at the sight of two or three relatively-unscathed slices. "Oh hell yeah," he mumbled, grabbing two and then offering one to his friend with a half-grin. "And hey, I'm preeeetty sure m' final scores were better'n yours, 'Dad', I didn't get freakin' stabbed on m' last mission b'fore Recruitment Day!"

Gabriel's eyes widened happily at the offering and he snatched up the slice of pizza to take a gleeful chomp. "Mmmf, c'mon now, y'know I prob'ly got bonus points for that shit!" He cackled and lifted the injured arm to show off the bandaging. "Ya shoulda seen how many of 'em were starin' at it, pal...starin'!"

It was hard not to grin again, even without the pleasant inebriation rolling through them both. "Oh, don't worry, I heard from across th' whole damn room," Carter teased. He took a bite of his own slice while relaxing back on his other hand with a grunt. Yeah, all things considered, the last two quarters had ended up being pretty damn smooth.

They'd made good friends, they'd kicked all kinds of ass. They'd honed skills they would have never learned as regular soldiers...and now they were on the precipice of embarking on a whole new journey. Sure, they were still part of this insane war, but who wasn't? You were either a boring House official, a soldier or a civilian. Or...well, a heretic, but who the hell chose that willingly? So might as well make your mark as someone other than a nameless grunt on a battlefield.

The two laughed quietly and finished off the pizza in silence, taking a moment or two to watch their fellow recruits stumbling around, giggling drunkenly and cavorting like they were back in grade school. Yeah, this night was a fine cap to the last several weeks -- hell for some, a breeze for others...but undoubtedly a turning point for them all. Even a dumb jock like Carter Caruthers could tell that.

He glanced over at Gabriel when that familiar, thoughtful gaze overtook the easy-going essence his friend normally exuded. Carter smiled to himself; he was no shrinking daisy, either, but it was sometimes hard to not be jealous at just how socially capable Gabriel was. That guy could befriend a celibate priest at a teetotaler's convention. Hell, he'd probably be able to convince the guy to join him out back for body shots off a shrine maiden, he was that good. It was no wonder he was so damn talented at digging into someone's soul...and why he was so good at hiding it behind all the swagger and braggadocio. Carter kind of hoped this wouldn't be their last night as cohorts, since none of their fellow self-inflated assholes were quite as complicated and dedicated a friend as Gabriel Petri. He was a solid guy and someone Carter knew he could trust through anything.

"Shit, though...what is it 'bout Freelancer 's got you two all hot 'n wet?" Gabriel finally uttered, at least some of his heartfelt emotion masked smoothly by his inebriation. "They ain't as close to the House as HADES...but man, still figured you two would wanna be more...ind'pendent 'n shit..."

Carter grunted in acquiescence as he reached over and tapped his fingers along the side of the empty keg at their side. "Sure, sure, ya ain't wrong. But...dunno, man. Somethin' 'bout Freelancer stands out to us. HADES basically sounds like the damn...guard-dogs of the House, kinda borin'. An' Hexagon's its own company, 'cept...ya know that just means some rich dirtbag at the top is makin' all the calls." He lifted a fist to burp into before wrinkling his muzzle. "'N the dang SSF gets to see places...'cept their job half the time is to provide protection for those rich dirtbags, so...I 'unno." He shrugged easily and scratched the side of his muzzle. "Freelancer does missions for...y'know, everyone 'n anyone...they got some mysterious way 'bout 'em...and I think it's our best chance'a seein' Sirca. Y'know what I mean?"

Gabriel studied him for a few seconds before giving a drunken smile and nodding a few times. "Heh. Yeah, sometimes I forget you 'n yer sis came from some li'l podunk town out'n Wortistan."

Carter grinned and nodded back. "Yeah, exactly. Specials gave us a li'l taste of what the rest of the ring's like. So hell...might as well gun for the gig that'll let us see as much as possible!" He flashed a toothy smile. "Gotta live yer best life 'fore you run into that lucky bullet with yer name on it."

Gabriel chortled and jostled his arm. "God, you damn farmboys and yer damn sayings. No wonder yer redneck ass wants to go see th' world!"

It was impossible not to laugh back as Carter shoved himself up to his paws using the empty keg as support. "Hey, screw you, man, just 'cause we come from a farm don't make us rednecks. You c'n still un'erstand everythin' I'm sayin, drunk or not!" He extended an arm down to Gabriel, who grinned and then gripped into it so he could be yanked up to his feet as well.

"Yeah, guess that's true," Gabriel chuckled before squinting around the plaza. "Damn, I don't see no more damn beer -- guess we should order up s'more, huh?"

"You sure that ain't just a distraction from you not knowin' where you're gonna go, pal?" Carter teased even as he threw a friendly arm around his companion's shoulders. "C'mon, lessgo see who we can convince to pony up fer another keg before we lose this sweet buzz."

Gabriel nodded agreeably as he gave a thumbs up. "Hell yeah! Heh, shit, where's yer crazy battle-buddy...she always knows how to get a good deal!"

Carter couldn't help another broad grin. "Yeah, no kiddin'...whether it's with a broken heart or a broken arm, that girl is no joke! But damn if I didn't get paired with the most badass broad on Sirca!" He smiled and rubbed at his chin with his free hand. "Pretty sure she's gonna go Freelancer too, actually. Ain't sure if it's 'cause she wants to or 'cause that equally-badass-broad Lina is already workin' for 'em...pretty sure that's the only chick on this ring capable of makin' Beth have to try."

Gabriel's features lit up at the mention of Lina's name, his shoulders giving an excited little shake. "Oooh, yeah, I 'member her...damn she was a treat to watch in action! Shame we didn't get to spend more time together, woulda enjoyed gettin' some private lessons from her..."

"Gabe, my man, she is so out of yer league," Carter admonished as he squeezed the other male's shoulders. "You're better off aiming for the chicks you c'n keep up with -- I'd start with the paraplegics."

"Oooh, he's got jokes now, okay, a'right, I see how it's gonna go!" Gabriel complained even as he grinned and then hip-checked his friend. "Anyway, I'm jus' glad you ended up with such an awesome partner who scored so high that you woulda had to try to not get recruited, yerself...how's it taste, surfin' along in that wake, huh??"

"Yeah, yeah, tastes 'bout as salty as you sound -- what're you complainin' about, anyway?" Carter smirked as they strode toward the dormitories. "Actin' like you didn't do th' saaaame thing for your tiny li'l battle bud."

"Whoa, whoa..." Gabriel's tone was enough to encourage an arched eyebrow from Carter, who gave him a bemused appraisal. "Li'l Dave's come a looooong-ass way, an' you know it! He ain't th' same li'l shrimp we were shovin' into lockers back at the beginning!"

Carter laughed aloud. "Like hell he ain't, he's still the smallest dude on the squad and you know it! I'm still shocked ya never asked for a dang reassignment, pretty sure you had the biggest handicap of the whole unit..."

The teasing was real enough, but he couldn't help watch for Gabriel's reaction...and then smile to himself when the tan chupa huffed and elbowed his side. "Aww, c'mon, now...he ain't so bad! Maybe he once was, and...well, mebbe he's still a li'l stiff 'round the neck...but he's always pulled his own weight! Even if that ain't more'n a hunnerd-eighty pounds!"

"One-fifty, tops," Carter corrected playfully even as he laughed again and raised his other hand. "But yeah, yeah, you ain't wrong. If'm bein' honest, I expected him to drop out a week'r two in..." He smiled with a shake of his head. "Li'l punk didn't get it easy from us, tha's for sure."

"We toughened him up," Gabriel boasted as he puffed his chest out a bit, looking genuinely proud. "My li'l battle buddy's gonna get outta here, jus' like all the rest'a us are. An' he's gonna kick some ass wherever he goes..." He paused and then gave a silly little grin. "'Cause I helped whoop his ass into shape! An' the Gabe don't half-ass any ass!"

Carter snorted and reached over to poke Gabriel's chest. "Yanno, speakin'a that, you 'n li'l ol Dave been awful close since Twin City." He grinned through the haze when Gabriel stiffened up and immediately glared over at him, breaking into a guffaw as he squeezed Gabriel's shoulders tightly. "Don't teeeeell me you two got up to the same kinda bonding me 'n Beth did on our surveillance gig in Episemon!"

"Awww, dude, that's not even fuckin' funny," Gabriel mumbled, shoving at his friend and scowling horribly. "I ain't a damn fag, man..."

Carter only laughed again, walking sideways for a moment so he could face the grumpy chupa with his hands lifted in deference. "Whoa, whoa, no need to get so defensive! I'm just screwin' with ya, buddy -- no need to pull all that hurtful talk or whatever they call it."

What might have been an actual bolt of guilt dashed across Gabriel's face before he pursed his muzzle and then grumbled: "Yeah, well...ain't like I can't handle those kindsa rumors, I'll knock anyone out who wants'a call me gay, but 's fucked up if they do it to David. We been mean to him long enough, dude's worked hard 'n...I respect him, okay?"

Carter tilted his head, but the sullen look on his companion's features was as real as they came. He smiled in surprise again and nodded after a moment. "Heh, I believe it, I believe it -- alright, dude, it's all good. I'm just messin'..." Gabriel wrinkled his muzzle but eventually nodded back and the two automatically threw their arms around one another's shoulders again. "'S good, though, 's good...way better when yer actual pals with yer battle buddy 'stead'a just draggin' him around like yer kid brother, y'know?"

Gabriel grunted, though his body relaxed as they continued to stumble toward the main building. "David's...he's still like a brother, man...but jus' my li'l bro, now. He ain't no kid, an' he worked his ass off jus' like the rest'a us."

It was hard to argue that, no matter how easy it was to tease the scrawny recruit -- as incredible as Gabriel was, Carter had seen with his own eyes how much David pushed himself on every job, during every training mission, during every test. Whether or not Gabriel had carried him along the way didn't change the fact that he'd sweat and bled as much as the others. And deep down, Carter was happy to see Gabriel's defense of the little guy. Maybe they had a reputation to maintain...but what he'd said about him being the little brother rang true.

When it'd become clear that David wasn't going to give up, wasn't going to beg for pity or lenience from the teasing and the hazing...a sort of respect had been grown for him. At least between Carter and Gabriel. Yeah, maybe he was a skinny little wuss, but he was their skinny little wuss. He'd earned his place, and anyone else who wanted to screw with him would need to go through them, first. He smiled again before blinking as a thought wormed its way through his buzz.

"Er...but wait. Where is the li'l dude? I don't think I seen 'im all night..."

Gabriel blinked as well before craning his neck around to peer through the throngs in the plaza. "Huh. Uhhh. Shit, man, I...I thought I saw 'im earlier but...huh." He scratched at his muzzle before shrugging amicably. "I bet he found somewhere quiet to chill out 'n people-watch...or maybe he's hangin' with Connie, too..."

"The only thing Connie is doin' right now is drinkin' your loud-mouthed sister under the goddamn table!" a voice declared from behind them before a pair of strong arms were slung around both their waists as the two huge chupas stumbled a bit and then stared down to see Beth grinning up from between them. "Where are you two homos off to, eh?"

Gabriel groaned and dropped his head as Carter only sniggered at his side. "God, why's everyone 'n their mom callin' me fuckin' gay tonight, geezus..." He scowled down at her. "Not everyone's gotta jump on every dick they see, yanno..."

Beth could not have shown any less shame as she smirked. "Not everyone's gotta favor short chicks to make their own dick feel huge, either, but here we are."

Gabriel worked his muzzle stupidly for a moment while Carter cackled and shook his head again. "God, I love you guys. Naw, we're lookin' to see who wants to help us get 'nother keg ordered -- party's gone dry."

They shoved through the doors as one, only stumbling slightly as they shared a snicker among themselves before Beth piped up again. "Oh hell yeah, I'm down -- just don't expect a buck from me, spent all last week's pay on those new pistols."

"And they are badass," Carter added with a lifted finger. "But hell, we're all broke..." He paused to look around the dark hallways. "Bet we could bust up someone's piggy-bank, leave 'em a li'l IOU, heh..."

"Or just bust up someone, get the cash right from the source," Beth suggested with a toothy grin as she cracked her neck. "Nothin' washes the beer down like a li'l blood in the mouth!"

Gabriel huffed again. "Aw man, don't ruin the party like that...naw, naw, I think I got summin'." He grunted before fishing around in his pocket with his free hand and eventually producing a piece of paper that he shoved against Carter's chest. "Here, here...'s the guy in town who said he'd give us a deal...give 'em a call, I'mma...I'mma go check m' wallet, you go see who else got some cash, ya dicks."

Carter grinned to himself as Gabriel finally pushed himself away from them to stumble toward the barracks. "Heh, you sure you ain't jus' gonna take a little nap, ya dang lightweight??"

Gabriel squinted over his shoulder before grunting and waving his hand a few times. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be right back, think I got some cash, y'all just...y'all just get the order together!" he demanded before chortling as he wandered into the dormitory.

Carter smiled at his back before looking down at Beth, still half-wrapped around his torso. "Ten bucks sez he's actually got some chick waitin' for 'im in there...dude's got the drive of a schoolkid gettin' his first full-mast..."

Beth snorted and then twirled a finger in the air near her muzzle. "Big whoop, jus' 'bout everyone in this damn place is a horny bastard...how else we gonna get our rocks off when we ain't out there kickin' ass??"

"Well-spoken as always," Carter cackled before turning around so the two of them could wander back toward the plaza. "C'mon, if his drunk ass can't find our drunk asses later, jus' means he don't deserve more booze."

"Well-spoken as always," she repeated with a laugh as they shoved back through the doors.

He looked down at her thoughtfully as they made their way toward the music again. It was kinda funny -- six weeks with her as his 'battle buddy', but he wasn't sure he knew much more about her than he did Gabriel. Didn't bother him too much; this was Specials, after all, they were here to train their asses off and prove they were capable of being more than machine-gun fodder. No guarantee of recruitment at the end...hell, there was no guarantee of surviving. They were expected to work closely with their partners to show they could work with a team when it was necessary, to check off some boxes that described a willingness to give your life to make sure you succeeded no matter what, even if that meant you died so your teammate could complete the mission. But no one ever said you had to become best friends with your combat buddy.

Wasn't that Beth had ever been silent, even if she favored actions over words. But she had never seemed willing to go into details about her past beyond mentioning it was a small town she came from, not all that dissimilar from Carter and Madison. Carter figured she was looking to leave behind whatever it was she'd stepped out from and he didn't hold that against her. He wasn't one to pry if he wasn't invited to do so. He could listen plenty if someone needed it, and he could screw plenty more if someone needed that, too.

But it'd been hard to not be enthralled by her friendship with Lina before the talented woman had been swiftly recruited early into Freelancer. And maybe it was a rivalry as much as it was a friendship, because the two ran against one another tooth and nail every moment they could, putting their own partners to shame as they set just about every written record and even a few no one had ever bothered to assume possible before. They were both incredible in their own right, and Beth's determination to be the best had only skyrocketed after Lina's departure.

Carter had no regrets about being outshone by his partner -- as naturally as he dominated the playing field, he was also comfortable providing solid support. He'd always felt good doing so, whether it was helping their father till the crops back home after the crippled veteran could push himself no further, or giving Madison a boost when she was having trouble those first weeks in Basic...or providing a second pair of eyes for Beth, who was cocky as hell on every job they did and showed zero hesitation to complete the objectives all on her own. She usually did just fine, too, probably would barely have missed him had he not been covering her. But he figured if she was meant for greatness and he could stop even one stupid thing from slowing her momentum, well...what kind of jerk would turn his back on that?

As they headed for the nearest gaggle of their fellow recruits, Carter flicked Beth's tail lightly with his own. "So...'s probably stupid to ask, but yer still headin' right for Freelancer, huh?"

She tilted her gaze up to him before smirking. "Heh. I haven't signed shit yet. But...I should be askin' you the same thing. Heard you 'n Madison gonna keep chasin' my ass." She batted her eyes mockingly. "You hopin' to keep your epic battle buddy in the big leagues?"

Carter's grin came easy. "Haw, I wish. But I ain't that stupid, woman, don't have a single doubt that I ain't gonna rank high 'nuff to keep up with you. Maybe Gabe'll come with us, the Dynamic Duo c'n go from scorin' touchdowns to scorin' some sweet secret-agent gigs!"

Beth laughed, jabbing him with an elbow. "Yer right 'bout the first part, at least," she replied coolly before scooping up an abandoned half-full cup of beer to quickly down it and add another notch to her inebriation, then tossing the plastic container carelessly over a shoulder. "Ya think he's actually gonna bring his big, soft ass to Freelancer Div with us, though?"

"Soft, yeah, tha's what I'd call the guy who punched someone so hard, they had a gran' total'a three teeth left," Carter shot back with a chuckle.

"Yeah, but he was still alive," she retorted. Her eyes roved back toward the barracks all the same. "Guess he'd be cut out for it, though." That coy grin creased her features again. "Not sure if I could say the same 'bout his wimpy li'l sidekick, though."

"Y'better be careful, now, ol' Gabe almost knocked the sense outta me when I was talkin' smack on the scrawny stiff-neck," Carter warned with a half-grin. "They're pals, now. But..." He tipped his head from one side to the other before admitting: "They do make a helluva good team. 'S been kinda impressive watchin' 'em work together lately, they'd kick some major butt if they stick together after t'night..."

Beth snorted. "Good for them. Not everyone's cut out for solo work." A slick grin sliced through her intoxicated features as she reached up and pushed her mane back out of her eyes. "Easier to climb up over 'em if they're gonna hold hands 'n some shit."

Her partner laughed again as they stumbled across someone who'd passed out, their snoring frame sprawled into the walkway. Beth reared back to kick their legs in annoyance, but Carter lifted her easily with one arm before she could while stepping carefully past. She rolled her eyes and gave him a flat look that he met with only a quiet smile. "Yeah, yeah, and I'm still soft, too, eh?"

"Damn right," she muttered, even as her arm tightened around him for support as her paws met the ground again.

He chuckled and then spotted a group of their cohorts examining a bunch of empty cups. "C'mon, bet we c'n get those suckers to scrape together enough cash." He paused and then gave a hazy grin. "Heh. See, Gabe 'n Dave might be onto somethin'. Teamwork."

She smirked before lifting her head haughtily, her eyes already boring into their targets. "Yeah, sure. Whatever it takes to get what we need."

Carter smiled again as a relaxed smile filtered into place. Yeah...whether or not they all ended up there, Freelancer was gonna be a trip.


* * *


"You'll need spies."

He wasn't entirely sure what he was doing. Impulsiveness wasn't usually one of his cornerstones. But as the rain poured down across them, providing the smallest insulation to the glares that sizzled between the trio, he knew something about this night was momentous. Felt like the last days of Specials, when every decision represented a whole damn lifetime of consequences.

Some of those consequences had brought them closer together and made solid bonds; some had driven them apart, turned companions into bitter rivals.

Some of those consequences had taken friends, taken the very best of their ranks. And if even she hadn't been immune to that inevitability...what did that mean for the rest of them?

"Five of us bustin' out at once, that's just asking for trouble," he added quietly. He moved his eyes from CT to Wash, to the knife still glinting in the small chupa's hand as water ran along the blade and danced over his trembling fingers.

North felt bad for what they'd done to him. It was too late to take back the bullying -- and it had been bullying, hadn't it? 'Hazing' and 'helping grow a tough hide' were just excuses they'd told themselves to avoid the guilt. Wash was strong now, though, even stronger than he'd been at the end of Specials.

But he was haunted, too. North had never seen eyes so sunken and hollow...except maybe from Wash's old partner. He couldn't blame York, couldn't hold it against his long-time friend for finding it so hard to smile lately. The last few days had been rough.

"Let me 'n South stay on the ground here. We'll spread the word to the folks we can trust, and we can keep you all in the loop more than you woulda been otherwise, too."

As his words were swallowed by the downpour, he could see Wash finally loosening his shoulders before looking to one side and lowering the knife. North didn't bother to relax -- he hadn't been tensed in the first place. Part of him knew that if Wash had wanted to take a swing at him, he probably would have let him. Least he could do for the guy after everything he'd been put through.

CT was strong, she always had been. Never at the top of the class, never at the bottom...but calling her "average" was never fair, either. She just didn't adhere to the bullshit that Spec Ops wanted in their top subjects. She didn't bow to pressure, or bend her steel-stiff morals to the whims of someone like the Director, no matter what it cost her on the leaderboards. She'd be fine, no matter what. But Wash...

Even not being a close friend like York was, it didn't take much for North to recognize Wash had been on a downward spiral these past weeks, even before York lost Lina. Didn't matter if he was good at what he did, didn't matter he accomplished so much while given so little, while intentionally slighted by his orders, while having the odds continuously stacked against him. Just because he could survive in Freelancer didn't mean he deserved to. CT would be a strong leader, and York and Wash would make the perfect team under her command. It would be a powerful addition to the rippling waves of resistance that already lapped at the House's shores.

The smile he gave was faint, laced with melancholy over the pain he was sure Wash had suffered, despite how little he showed it. But the smile was honest, all the same. "Three of you, though. I'm glad you're getting out," he murmured as he took a step closer. "You've all lost enough already." He placed a hand on CT's shoulder, dwarfing her and yet not diminishing her defiant glow for an instant. "Can't promise much, but if we can pull off a little distraction without getting our asses nailed, count on it." He looked back over his shoulder at Wash, then glanced into CT's eyes again. "Maybe give you three a little more leeway on the way out."

She nodded and reached up to pat the side of his cheek in appreciation. He suddenly regretted not taking more time to get to know her. Wasn't like she couldn't hang with the top crowd had she wanted to -- she had the skills and the savvy to deal with that cliquey nonsense. Her comebacks were as snappy as anyone else's, and he'd seen with his own eyes how deftly she could deal with physical threat, too. No, she simply hadn't wanted to be part of that scene. She'd always seemed happier in a more intimate setting with her friends, engaged in honest conversation rather than the usual bravado and empty boasts.

He smiled a bit. Her resolve was fierce enough that not even Lina being so close to York had made her invulnerable to CT's discerning looks. CT had no problem respecting the two best agents for their abilities...but it'd always been clear that she didn't put them on the same pedestal that everyone else did, either. No one was immune from Connecticut's sharp sense of justice and fairness, and she wasn't afraid to let people know what she thought of them, no matter how important they were to her friends. After all, those same friends were never far from their own dressing-down, if and when the moment called for it.

Yeah, she was going to be an incredible leader. North only hoped the Movement understood how lucky they were about to become.

"We appreciate it, big man." CT lowered her hand and North smiled down at her through the rain. "In that case, we'll be in touch. And with any luck, you won't even know when we're gone." She tipped her head slightly and he chortled.

"Yeah, uh huh." He turned to look at Wash again, the same crooked smile spreading to his cheeks. "I'll believe that when I see it..." He reached up to push his soaked mane back, gazing into the dark storm clouds above.

Lina would appreciate the support, no matter how damn compartmentalized that woman had been with her feelings. She'd want York and his friends to have the best chance possible. "Hey." He lowered his eyes to Wash and CT again before striding toward the railing and gripping into it to gaze out across the barren flats. "I'd like to stay out here, think about things a little longer. You guys should get back inside, start working on your plan." He looked back over a shoulder with a nod. "But you got us in your corner. I'll talk to South when I get back in, get her on board." He cracked another slight smile. "I'll send the bill for the busted tooth to your new digs."

CT gave a small smile in return before she nodded and then turned to head back inside, Wash following close behind. "Thanks, North. We'll see you on the other side."

"That you will," he replied quietly before letting his eyes drift back across the landscape. "That you will."

Although he couldn't see it, his eyes locked onto the town just past the rocky structures occasionally illuminated by the flashes of unnatural lightning. He wondered if the little bar had closed for the night or if she was still behind it, slinging drinks for the few stragglers seeking refuge from the downpour. He wondered if she'd be supportive, or if she'd be scared for him.

No...never scared. A faint smile tugged at his muzzle. Dumb little small-town woman, too busy dreaming of a better world to understand how much there was to fear. Too caught up in her dreams to consider all the risks, everything that North and his friends were all poised to lose if they were caught. Wouldn't just be a quick death. Might not even be a death, because death would be a blessing.

...No, he had a feeling she'd be proud of him. Maybe she'd even ask why he hadn't done this himself, why he'd waited so long to take a stand. She was so good at pulling out his emotions, better than any other woman he took to bed. Better even than York, who melded emotional depth and being a suave, idolized jock like no other. She'd be glad he was helping, and she'd tell him he should go with them and leave this place forever. It hurt to know she wouldn't even mind if it meant she had to be left behind for her own safety.

He didn't deserve that goddamn small-town woman.

Part of him direly wished he was leaving with CT. It hadn't taken Lina's loss to convince him that things at Freelancer had been on a helluva bad spin lately; he might have been a big, dumb, obedient soldier, but he wasn't blind. Things had felt wrong ever since the onset of the latest trials...since his fellow agents began to disappear, or worse: change. The experiments brought some level of greater ability, sure -- he'd seen how much stronger York and Lina had become...hell, his own ex-battle-buddy had become a downright unstoppable force of badassery unrivaled by any other. But it wasn't hard to see the darkness behind the sheen, how not everyone came out the same person that went in. If they came out at all.

South had hated the project from its very inception. He wasn't sure if it was because she had perhaps quietly applied and been just as quietly rejected, or if her angry rants about 'unfair, unnatural advantages' were true to their core, a concept she'd hated since the beginning. It didn't really matter, though, because he'd started to agree with her. York was still York...but to see the man stand back up after taking a rifle round directly to his chest, to watch him brutally rip through an entire platoon despite cracking the same carefree jokes about his latest threesome just an hour or two earlier...

It dug deep into North, and reminded him he still had a soul. A soul that ached as much as everyone else's now that Lina was gone. Sure, she was the best, technically their greatest competition since she and Tex dominated the boards...but she had been their compatriot, too. And not a moment had been spared for her mourning, they'd gone right back to things as if nothing had even happened. Business as usual, her name merely moved off of one board and to another, where it was now marred with the daunting three-letter designation.

She left a hollow in all their hearts, and no matter how fiercely the Director and his team instilled into them the idea that your ranking mattered more than anything else, it hurt to lose a friend. Her absence didn't suddenly make Freelancer's methods and expectations look cruel. It had always been written into its pages, bound into the thick, heavy book penned so carefully by the Director's hand. But those three letters next to her name had forced them to finally open the cover and face the truth with uncovered eyes.

He wasn't surprised it was CT who'd taken the first stand. The woman was tough, smart...but criminally underrated. Her nose for righteousness rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and North knew all too well how under-appreciated her talents were because of it. It was why he'd interrupted them out here in the first place, after all. Anyone else leading the charge out of this cloister-like organization would have given him reason to hesitate and question their sanity. But CT...that one had her head on straight. She always had and North imagined any decision she made would be difficult to argue with, even one as crazy as this.

Wash was still a nervous wreck no matter how well he seemed to be keeping himself together. The lack of sleep and the even greater lack of social interaction was telling. He'd been swirling the drain of his own stability ever since his combat buddy had been reassigned a new -- far superior -- partner. Made no difference he'd insisted to anyone who asked that he didn't care, that he was glad York was with someone who could match his own impressive talent and carry the whole organization further.

North remembered thinking what a good team those two made back in Specials, and when they'd first started as agents...and taking that away from someone like Wash was just asking for a breakdown. He'd come a long way but god, did he rely on those few friends he had to make him something more than a soulless machine just going through the motions. It hurt North more to see how empty the little guy looked...at least when they'd bullied him, he showed a real spark of life and defiance, every time. Now...

North looked down at his fingers as they tightened around the guard rail. Now Wash looked nearly as defeated as York. And whenever North imagined his friend's face these days, he ached. Never before had York shown such an emptiness or lack of motivation. He was lost. North didn't know him to be lost, it wasn't something he'd ever seen on the guy's features before.

That was why he was glad York was going with them, with CT and his...his old partner. York would need them both. CT would give him direction. Wash would give him purpose. And together they could maybe help York find justice.

North took a long breath and then stepped back from the railing, closing his eyes and feeling the rain pound across his body. He wanted to savor it, soak up that simple pleasure like he'd done back home when he used to dig his toe-claws into the soft soil and let the downpour wash over him, where for a few precious moments...he was just a part of Sirca. Nothing more and nothing less.

After tonight, he wasn't sure when he'd get another chance.


"And what the fuck were you thinking even listening to that crazy bitch??"

North smiled quietly despite the raging tone, shifting on the edge of the bed that was far too small as it creaked in protest under his enormous frame. "Heh, come on, Maddy. Swear you said she was a damn good partner last time I got you drunk enough."

Her nostrils flared beautifully -- another trait she'd inherited from their mother, Sirca embrace her soul. The bronze ring at the end of her snout glinted with her annoyance, sending its insolent gleam across his features as he was reminded of another reason he'd always love his sister. It went beyond blood and unspoken obligation: Madison Caruthers might have been a caustic, angry woman with enough chips on her shoulders to serve a plate of nachos, with a tendency to not give a damn about anyone else but herself, who would shape herself in whatever way necessary to come out on top...but she would always still be her own woman. Even when she sacrificed her grey morals at the altar of obedience, trading the loose sense of right their parents had drilled into them in favor of satisfying whoever it was that could grant her elevation to a higher position, she clung to the defiant streak she'd had since the first time she'd turned her nose up at that frilly dress she'd refused to wear to school.

"Just because that cunt wasn't shitty enough to stop me from getting into Freelancer doesn't mean she's fucking qualified to not be a crazy bitch!" she snarled as she threw her arms up. "You're gonna get yourself killed, North!"

He continued to smile. His sister's attitude had ceased to shock him a long time ago. "We're the only ones here, Maddy. You can call me C--"

"No, I can't, because we're not drunk assholes palling around in Specials anymore!" she shot back, her powder-blue eyes as fiery as ever as they burned into him. "We made it, North. We made it out of that shitty town, through that shitty boot camp, came outta Specials with top-fucking-marks, and now we're agents. We're at the top of the fuckin' ring, and you think now is a good idea to listen to the ideas of some do-good bitch?!" She screwed up her muzzle and jabbed a finger toward him. "That's suicide, what the fuck are you thinking?"

He leaned forward and gripped into her wrist, the way he had when he'd pulled her out of the mud in Basic, pretending he didn't see her tears as she'd shoved him away...and then stayed close to his back the rest of the way, ensuring they both crossed that finish line. The same angry growl met him, and he gave the same gentle smile. "I'm thinking that I remember how you and CT were pinned down on that job in Flatbush, and she risked her butt to draw their fire so you could get the jump on them." She bared her teeth at him even as her eyes flicked away. "And then how you ran for the jeep...before you decided to go back and wipe 'em out so you could both make it home."

She snorted and yanked her arm away. "Woulda fucked with my score if I lost my combat buddy," she muttered while rubbing at her wrist. North couldn't help but notice that she didn't bring up the fact CT had later put her tail on the line by demanding to know why the intel for that job had been so carelessly wrong; it had put both of them in unnecessary danger for a nonexistent cache of explosives, and CT had gone straight to their superiors to protest on both their behalf despite the way it had only served to tarnish her own reputation.

The expression on her face told him she was thinking about it, though. In fact, he was positive there were several things from the last couple of years she was thinking about, because no matter how aloof she was, no matter how much she tried to distance herself from everyone and everything around her that might compromise her drive to get what she wanted...he could still see the furious, tearful girl who just wanted to be accepted as she was. The demands of Specials and Freelancer might have changed her and forced her into a new shell, but he would always see her true colors beneath the cold, brittle exterior. She could strap on whatever frozen, spiky armor she needed to get the job done -- she would always be his sister to him.

"You can't tell me things haven't started to get messed up around here, Madi--"

"It's South," she replied through clenched teeth, eyes again boring into his as she clutched into the frame of the bed with every muscle tensed.

Still his sister. He gave another helpless smile but tipped his head forward a bit. "Alright, alright. South. Come on, I know you aren't blind to it." She snorted but remained silent for the moment as she crossed her arms and kept glowering at him. "These are our friends. Our friends being experimented on, being sent on missions for some really shady stuff, being...being sacrificed for nothing."

"You don't know it's for nothing," she argued sharply even as her gaze again shifted away, a suggestion of guilt dancing across her muzzle. "And they aren't our friends anymore, North. Her being dead just means we all move up -- you're in second now, yourself, you should be fuckin' ecstatic." The words were spat out and her eyes betrayed the resentment that was mixed with something else. Something softer.

"You don't mean that," he replied, gently and without accusation.

She chose to feel some, regardless. "I do mean that. What fucking good comes out of being friends? 'Friends' aren't gonna get us jobs, 'friends' aren't gonna keep us from getting ganked if we go get ourselves plastered on a fucking wanted poster!"

He kept his eyes on her, never once losing sight of the same terrified yet brave girl who'd clutched into his hands the day they'd left home and made him promise they'd always stick together. His voice came softly. "We all came from the same place. We all fought and bled to get here. I know they wanted us to compete, but we wouldn't have made it without each other, coming together the way we did. And now...now our brothers and sisters are--"

"Don't even fucking go there!" she snarled, leaping up to her feet to glare down at him. "You are my brother, North, and no amount of flowery bullshit is ever going to make any of these other assholes my family."

He stood up as well and reached down to grasp into her arms. "You're my only family, sis, but that doesn't change the fact that we wouldn't be here if we hadn't all done this together." She grit her teeth but met his eyes as he took a deep breath. "Screw everyone at the top -- they want us to fight, because then we'll be that much more eager to do whatever they ask, without question, without a care for ourselves, or our teammates." He finally faltered for a moment, losing enough strength that his gaze dropped for a beat. "I'm tired of losing friends."

She shifted her weight but didn't pull out of his grip this time, only moving her eyes to his chest for a second or two. "I don't care, North," she murmured, as honest as she'd ever been. "All I care about is keeping my head above the fucking water...and trying to make sure you don't end up losing yours."

"Then help me," he urged as her dark expression came back to meet his gaze. "Because I want to help them."

"Why?!"

He was aware she wanted to sound incredulous. Maybe a little pissed off, too. And she did...but he knew her too well. He heard that desperation, the confusion she couldn't help as she tried to parse why he was the way he was, why he couldn't be as cold and ruthless as her.

Except he'd never seen her as ruthless. She just wanted to prove herself, the way she always had. He wasn't under some illusion that she secretly cared about the others, no. But she wasn't heartless. This life had taken more pieces out of her soul than most, but it wasn't gone. Moments like this were all the proof he ever needed.

"Because it's the right thing to do," he answered placidly, squeezing her arms and then letting his hands drop to his sides. "Because for once...I'd like to actually do something that helps the rest of the world. Not just ourselves, not just the assholes who make all our decisions for us." She grit her teeth again but their matching blue eyes never left one another. "I miss having a choice, South."

She stared him down intensely for several seconds. He swore he could hear the air crackling around her before she at last sighed, a wretched sound that seemed to quake the whole bunk room around them. "Fuck." She closed her eyes and shifted her paws before rubbing slowly at her forehead and shaking her head. "This is a bad fucking idea, North. This is how people get themselves killed. We didn't sign up to be fuckin' martyrs."

"We didn't sign up to be attack dogs, either," he replied quietly as he reached up to grasp one of her shoulders. "You've come a long way. You don't have to keep prov--"

"Don't." She shoved his hand away before sighing again as the ice melted from her voice. "It's easy for you to say. You've been at the top ever since we started."

"That's what I mean, though. They want us to care more about our rank than anything else." He resisted putting a hand on her arm again, rubbing at his own chest for a moment. He could already tell this wasn't the right tack, though. The way her jaw was set told him all he needed to know. "But think about it. We could work both sides. Keep running missions here, keep getting paid and keep our credentials and status...but also take jobs with the Movement. Find out what things are like from the other side. Get a better idea of what's going on, not just here, but all across Sirca. I know you don't feel good about every single damn thing you do for the Director."

"I don't need to feel good about it, it's our job," she muttered while crossing her arms. The flick of her tail was telling, however. "You're serious, though. You really want to do this?"

"And I want you there with me." He held out a hand. "Where I go, you go..."

"...And where I run, you run, too," she finished under her breath before grimacing and then grasping tightly into his hand as they automatically reached up with the opposite hand to grip the other's arm. "Goddamn you, Carter."

He couldn't help the smile as he leaned down to bump their foreheads together. "North, remember?"

"Still a fucking asshole," she grumbled, though the smallest smile quirked at her features as she shoved him backward and then toward the door. "Now get the hell outta here, I need to change. And oh, North." He stumbled to a halt to look over his shoulder inquisitively. "If you think I'm gonna let that bitch Connecticut tell me what to do, you can shove that all the way up your ass. She still thinks it's cute to keep calling me Madison."

North grinned and tossed her a wave before heading for the door. "I can't blame her -- few things as entertaining as watching your temper tantrums, woman." He laughed and ducked under the pillow she flung at him, calling out as left the room: "Good chattin' as always, South!"


* * *


"What the hell you thinkin', CT..."

North rubbed at his legs, doing his best to not fidget as he sat on the edge of the bed, his eyes locked onto the dull red display of the clock.

"Oh, what do you mean, do you suddenly doubt in her leadership just because she made the silly mistake of moving her grand escape to the night with every fuckin' guard on patrol?"

He glanced over at his sister, sprawled on her back as she rubbed at her face with frustration. Wasn't hard to see her anxiety as well, though, considering the toothpick dancing along her lips was all but a crushed sliver by now.

"If we're fuckin' smart, we'll stay right fucking here and wait 'til those three bastards get their asses shot off, go back to pretending this never happened," she added in a growl, peering past her fingers to eye him. "If they catch us helping..."

"I know," he murmured, taking his eyes away from the clock long enough to give her a long look. "I'm sure they had a good reason. Think it had something to do with the mission slated for York in a day or two..."

"Yeah, because he's the one they need to worry about," she commented drolly before sitting up with a curse. "Not like those fucking werewolves are made to be unkillable or anything..."

North frowned before studying the time again. Wasn't that she was wrong...but something still felt uncomfortable about the thought of York -- his friend -- running blindly into the fire again and again, adding even more scars to his collection just because he was supposed to be invincible. Especially after losing Carolina had already proved that the hip brands were anything but a gift of immortality...

He shook his head to clear the distracting thoughts, letting his eyes move to South again. "You sure you don't want me to --"

"Oh please, I get I'm not number two but I'm pretty sure I can handle getting into a fuckin' cat-fight," South interjected mildly. "The yappy bitch should be back in a few minutes. Plus I'm actually pissed at her, since I'm pretty sure she's the one who's been eating my fruit snacks. Smiling-ass bitch, never trust someone who smiles that much..."

North blinked before smiling helplessly. "Your...fruit snacks? Seriously?"

"Hey! It ain't easy to get that shit in here!" she retorted before hopping up to her paws and cracking her neck with a scowl. "Just be ready to move your truck-sized ass when they come running. And she better hope they get there fast enough that I don't break her fuckin' leg."

North chuckled. "Or she breaks yours."

A middle finger was thrust in his direction and he laughed again. Nice to have some of the tension released. Just like the old days. He looked at the clock again and took a slow breath. Part of him wondered if South would actually back down, tuck herself safely out of the way when the trio put their plan into motion.

He loved his sister but he'd seen how the last couple of years had changed her. He maintained that she wasn't heartless...but he had also witnessed with his own eyes her shrewd nature, and the way she hadn't hesitated to screw over a teammate on a mission in order to come through safely with the objective in hand. Georgia had ended up in the infirmary – in fact, he hadn't been on another job since then – and she had been given both praise and an elevated rank...but North remembered the pang he'd felt beneath the proud grin as her name moved higher on the board. That had never been who they were in the past.

Things were different now, though.

He glanced at the door when it slid open. Agent Arizona stood there with a towel around her neck, one eyebrow arched before she realized the looming figure hunched over on the end of her bed was North. She immediately smiled with a nod to South before turning toward her brother. "Hey there, North! How's it going tonight?"

He cleared his throat and glanced at South before tossing a strained but genuine-enough smile across his own features. "Uh...yo, 'Zona. It's uh...it's good. All good."

The orange-furred Freelancer beamed, running a hand through her damp brown mane. "That's good to hear! You just got back from that run to Episemon, right?" North did his best to keep smiling but he couldn't help giving another confused look past Arizona to South. She only gave him a cool smile in return before turning to reach into a small refrigerator at the back of the room. "What'd they have you doing out there? Some kind of data-retrieval?"

North turned his head back to Arizona with a slow blink before he nodded stupidly. "Uh. Uh...yeah. Yeah, another...one of those." He slowly rubbed the back of his neck before looking between the two again. "How...are you? Everything...cool?"

She tilted her head at his cautious tone, a half-grin parting her muzzle. "Yeah, I'm good. Just got back from a nice little workout." Her bright expression fell a bit. "Things have been...y'know, kinda rough. So...it's nice to get back into a routine. I should be going on another job in a day or two, though! Sounds like there's a few more gigs like what you ran popping up."

South approached again and North held his breath. She must have been going to fetch something to use as a prop for whatever argument she was about to – "Yo, girl, you need a water?"

Arizona looked somewhat surprised as she turned toward her roommate, then let a happy smile twist across her maw again. "Oh...yeah, sure! Uh...thanks, South!" South held out the water and again met North's confused look with a mild expression. God...she was backing down, wasn't she? "Your last job was for a high-ranking takedown, right? Some major somewhere?"

North clenched his jaw before licking his lips. His mouth was dry and he could feel the blood draining from his face. He shouldn't have been surprised. He would never hold a single curse in his mind toward his own flesh and blood...but damn, this hurt. Freelancer had demanded too many pieces of her soul, and now...

He swallowed as South plastered on a smile and waved a hand easily as she addressed Arizona. "Oh, yeah – piece of fuckin' cake. Guy liked to have his captain drive him around their territory...the dumbasses took the same route every period." North's eyes fell to the floor and he took a deep breath to settle the ache in his gut before slowly standing. He could feel South's gaze flit momentarily to him even as she continued her story. "So all I had to do was find a nice quiet little spot in the cluster of trees by their boundaries –"

Arizona glanced back at him when he turned toward the door, lowering the bottle of water from her muzzle. "Oh...hey, you headin' out, North? I didn't mean to interrupt."

South's eyes burned into him and he knew what she wanted. He just couldn't give it to her. Not this time. "Nah, you're good," he replied with as genuine a smile as he could project. "I should probably head back to my room, anyway, with this security drill starting and everything..."

"You should stay," South stated, a bite just audible under her calm tone.

He looked her in the eye and then smiled again, but faintly. "I can't." He chewed his tongue and then nodded politely to Arizona. "Ladies. Have a good night." He exhaled quickly before turning and walking through the door and into the hallway.

He looked from one side to the other. It was okay. South already had a tenuous time keeping her name on the first board. Any kind of hint she was involved in this and...that would be the least of her worries. No, it was...maybe better this way. He started to walk toward the nearest control room. If he was caught...if he was implicated, then she could deny involvement. And she at least knew who to contact if...when the other three escaped. She could still join them one day.

North took another long breath in as he approached the corner, slowly balling his hands into fists. He figured there'd be two guards at the doors leading to the adjoining corridor, and another two on the opposite end. As long as they didn't immediately resort to gunfire, he could probably take them out easily enough. And then if he got to the control room in time, he'd be able to at least try and wipe as much camera footage as possible, and maybe even silence the local al--

A loud curse from behind him made him freeze in mid-step as he blinked and looked over a shoulder to see Arizona stumbling out of the bunk room. "Hey, what the hell, So--ow!!" She yelped when her own water bottle was flung through the door, smacking her squarely in the face as she collided with the opposite side of the hallway.

"I know you've been eating my goddamn fruit snacks, you fat whore!" South bellowed before charging from the room to tackle her shocked roommate. She shot a quick glower down the hall at him and he smiled gratefully, then swiftly ducked into the nearest doorway when South hollered incoherently and began to sling punches into Arizona's gut. "Bitch, I'm gonna get them back, one way or another!"

It didn't take more than a couple of seconds for the shuffle of armor to be heard through the door as all four guards hurried from their posts and into the corridor where the two female agents were loudly tussling. North murmured a gratitude to his sister, counting to five and then easing the door open to see the security team awkwardly clustering the Freelancers while shouting at them to break apart. He nodded to himself and then slid around the corner to make a beeline for the next hallway.

A quick peek through the doors showed a clear shot to the control room. It was only one of three or four throughout the complex, but it would have everything he needed to at least help his friends leave this building and maybe give them a bit of extra time. He pushed through the hallway door and then walked briskly toward the control room's entrance. It was a much heavier door, secured with an electronic keypad that required a physical access card along with the regularly-rotated combination code.

He had an alternative entry method in mind, however, as he reached out toward the wall and yanked a section of decorative metal rail from the marble facade. Bits of polished masonry rained across his burly frame while he calmly used both hands to flatten one end of the rail into a thin wedge. He grimaced when one of his pads was sliced open, but ignored it as he approached the security door with his improvised keycard, fully focused on the task at hand.

With a grunt of effort, he shoved the slimmed end of the rail into the edge of the door and then slammed a palm into the other end to force it in further. He could make out the surprised yell from inside and worked quickly, grabbing the nearest fire extinguisher and tucking it under his arm before snarling as he gripped into the rail and levered the door open by a few more inches. His muscles bulged with the exertion, but the mechanisms within the door were no match for his raw strength as several loud pops and metallic squeals echoed out. And as he heard the telltale sounds of the guard fumbling for a radio, North hurriedly placed the nozzle of the extinguisher into the gap and then pulled the pin before squeezing the handle to send a thick plume of off-white retardant billowing into the room.

The confused curse was music to his ears and he wasted no time wedging his fingers into the gap of the disabled door, arms trembling as he shoved it wide enough to allow his enormous frame to squeeze through. He could make out the shape of the guard through the near-opaque haze, flailing uselessly at the mist, and North reached out to wrap an arm around her neck and then yank her back against his chest. He was fairly confident she hadn't seen him...and he figured there was already a good enough chance of some heavy bloodshed tonight as it was.

He squeezed gently until the guard's limbs went limp, then exhaled and carefully set the unconscious chupa aside. The contents of the extinguisher were starting to settle, coating everything in the room with a pale dust but leaving the electronics all intact. Alright -- that could have gone worse. He looked around the small room, trying to recognize anything he could manipulate. Several monitors displayed closed-circuit camera feeds, and he was pretty sure he recognized the console that could be used to interact with the footage. He also noticed a bank of status lights and a different terminal that he thought might be linked with the alarm system. Might be useful, too.

But then he remembered the rather obvious damage to the door and frowned for a moment. Well, he just needed to buy enough time to start messing with things, give his friends whatever advantage he could. He grunted to himself, then scrambled to pull the improvised crowbar and fire extinguisher into the room before slowly forcing the broken door to slide shut. Wasn't perfect, but would at least be less obvious than it hanging ajar.

He spun back around and looked warily at the various consoles. He thought briefly of the mission he had gone on with both York and Wash, when they'd been sent to recover files from a processing plant in Stigma. They'd had the bright idea to let North try the hack...well. Wash had been against it the entire time, but York and North had the bright idea and were too stubborn to take no for an answer. It hadn't gone as planned, to say the least, and now North found himself direly wishing he'd learned from that experience and picked up a bit more knowledge about how this technology stuff worked.

He scratched at his temple with a grimace before hesitantly reaching toward the section of switches and computer bits that looked devoted to the camera systems. A few awkward tugs of cables and flicked buttons later and it appeared most of the cameras were no longer recording, only showing him a live feed. Not a bad start. He then moved his far-too-thick fingers to the keyboard attached to the same console and started to carefully poke in a few different commands.

It took him several attempts, but he was fairly certain when a loading bar popped up labeled "Deleting Footage for Current Period" that he was on the right track. He gave a hesitant fist pump for his own confidence, then turned his attention to the vast panel that might have corresponded to alarms. He wasn't quite sure about that, though...and he really didn't want to start making things worse. North shuffled his paws for a moment while playing one hand along the board. He didn't see anything that looked like an easy method of just disabling the alarms. But he did see what appeared to be manual overrides for some of the doors and bypass systems for their building and his eyes lit up. Maybe he could combine those with the cameras and--

His head whipped around when a klaxon began to blare on the wall behind him. "Oh shit!" he cursed before his eyes flicked to the row of monitors as he spotted CT, York and Wash sprinting through the dark lobby and toward the front entrance. Several lights were now illuminated on the control board and he realized the alarm wasn't going off because of his actions -- his friends must have set something off. His gaze narrowed and he stared down at the rows of toggles again before his eyes lit upon a set labeled for the access points into the main lobby. It was better than nothing.

He mashed several switches down as he watched the cameras. He could see a group of armed guards rushing up to a door, watching as one of them scrambled to shove a keycard into the electronic panel...then look confused as it appeared to do nothing. They yanked the card out and shoved it in again as their compatriots yelled wordlessly on the silent feed, frustration overtaking the team. North smiled in relief and took a step backward. He wished he could do more but he knew the whole 'double agent' thing wouldn't work as well if he and South were caught collaborating.

"Good luck, friends," he murmured with a nod. "We'll see ya soon, I hope." He turned his eyes back to the console for the security footage -- the deletion process appeared to still be running, though it was close to finishing. He'd done what he could; the trio were on their own from this point.

He turned toward the broken door before a voice from outside made him stare and grit his teeth. "...the fuck happened here? Shit..." He heard someone grunting with effort as the door was shoved wide enough to show a concerted face. The guard's eyes slowly bulged at the sight of North, who gave a faint smile while offering a mental apology. "...Agent...North?"

The poor guy just had really bad timing.

North reached out calmly to grip into the door. "Yeah, I just got here and -- here, let me help..." He pushed the door open further while keeping his expression as disarming as possible. "I heard the alarms going off, and..."

"Your hands..." The armored chupa's eyes drifted from the blood dribbling out of North's palm to the crimson-stained rail jammed hastily into one corner. "You...oh shit!" His hand flew to his holster to draw his pistol, but the Freelancer was faster. North lunged forward and wrapped an arm around the guard's neck as the other smoothly disarmed him, a moment before he closed his eyes and murmured: "Sorry, dude."

He jerked his arm firmly and the dull crack of three or four severed vertebrae followed. The guard's body twitched before falling still as North shook his head and then laid the corpse in the corner, away from the unconscious chupa. Figured the least he could do was not have her wake up to a dead guy. "Guess CT wasn't the only one who couldn't keep things quiet," he muttered before twisting his head around to check the room.

It appeared the security camera console had finished its task, showing a successful batch deletion. He nodded a few times and then looked one more time at the monitors -- he could no longer see the trio, but he did spot a few jeeps speeding out of the parking lot. That was a good sign, though. Meant they'd made it past the perimeter. As long as they could avoid the headlights, they'd be able to disappear into the badlands. They made a good team, and they were each far stronger than anyone gave them credit for. South might have had her reservations, but North knew that if anyone had both the motivation and skill to pull this off...it was those three.

He exhaled and then leaned down to tear off a strip of the dead guard's pants to swiftly wrap around his cut palm. All he had to do now was stay out of sight until the panic was over. He knew there was a decent chance he might be ordered to take chase...but he also was all too aware that the Director was shrewd and naturally suspicious enough that he might only send someone more...controllable after the escapees. No way of knowing who else was an enemy now, after all.

North smiled to himself as he glanced around the hallway, then darted for the dormitories to head back toward his quarters. The irony was pleasant -- kinda nice to know the paranoia could go both ways. He hoped they'd survive this crazy plan long enough to enjoy it.


He'd made it back to his bunk without issue, saved from having to conjure up any excuses or handle any other witnesses. His roommate was still out on a job, too, leaving him blissfully alone to sit down and take a few moments to collect himself. Figured it was best to take advantage of it while he could. He had a feeling any Freelancer who wasn't on a job tonight was going to face some sort of questioning, and god how he hated sessions with that guy. That and he'd need to find out where his sister had ended up. He guessed South and Arizona likely got carted to the holding cells -- anyone caught committing a lesser infraction was usually tossed there for several hours. It was reserved for things that either weren't illegal...like being drunk as hell...or things the Division quietly encouraged, such as beating the crap out of your fellow agents. Much easier to foster that mindless sense of competition if your own punishment for kicking someone's ass was a few hours in a cell rather than a demotion or disqualification from the better jobs.

After an hour or so, the PA system wired throughout the dormitories crackled to life as the Director's voice echoed through the halls. "Attention. To those who are unaware, the cause for the previous alarm was the departure of three Freelancer operators. An investigation is underway, but take note: Agents York, Connecticut and Washington are no longer considered employed by this division."

"And good for them," North mumbled as he closed his eyes and laced his fingers behind his head, doing his best to relax on the bed as the flat tone continued to fill the corridor.

"The three former agents have stolen confidential Freelancer property and will be designated with the appropriate threat assignment once all internal investigation has been completed." North snorted softly. He had a feeling he knew exactly what that meant. There weren't going to be any missions to eliminate them. The Director loved being the puppet-master...North figured he would find more purpose tracking them down and turning the defection into a tactical advantage. Sounded like his kind of thing.

"Until further notice, do not eliminate any of the former agents without authorization. Any encounter with them should be reported, and all efforts made to bring them in for questioning. Remember that destruction of Freelancer property is acceptable only with the appropriate clearance. Those of you who are present tonight will be given an opportunity in the coming days to discuss any information you may have about the incident, intentional or otherwise. All other existing missions will continue without interruption, and reassignment for affected missions will be announced shortly."

The transmission cut abruptly, as they usually did. But then again, the Director never had been one for formalities. North grimaced but did his best to let his adrenaline wind down. His part for tonight was done, and now the fun part began: permanent status as a double agent. He smiled into the darkness. Shame that was something he'd never see etched into the base of a trophy -- it'd be one he would proudly put on display.

At least he could hold it over York's head, though. He figured that'd be prize enough. Be pretty hard topping that in their on-going bout for the title of 'Sirca's Stupidest Hero'.


Another hour or two passed before the security drill was announced to be concluded -- North figured it was more likely that just meant they had finished cleaning up after whatever left was mess from the break-out. They wouldn't want people seeing what a circus they'd spawned trying to stop some of their own personnel from leaving. The illusion of control could never falter.

Then again, North sometimes wondered how much of an illusion it truly was, considering the things he himself had undertaken based on orders he'd been given. The leashes felt pretty damn real some days.

He strode confidently out of his quarters after cleaning and dressing his wounded palm, replacing the hasty strip of cloth with a more subtle bandage. He only passed a handful of patrolling guards as he made his way to the holding cells -- it certainly appeared that their numbers were back to normal. He didn't even receive that many suspicious looks, though he was sure his own jovial smile and friendly greetings helped with that. Despite what South said, there really was a benefit to being nice to non-agent personnel.

He held his breath all the same when it was time to punch in his access-code for the hallway that led to the holding cells...but then exhaled in relief when the keypad beeped in approval and released the latches on the door for him to proceed. His credentials were still active, at least.

A single guard was posted in the small room that controlled the cells and she lifted her eyes to him when his massive frame squeezed through the doorway. "Oh, hello Agent North." She lowered the magazine she'd been perusing to smile up to him. "Crazy shit tonight, huh?" She paused to frown for a moment. "Can't believe about Agent York, though, he's one of the best. Why would he want to defect?"

North recalled how easily York could conquer a room. Really kind of was magical. He'd have to do his best to emulate. He slid a smooth grin into place and rolled the easiest shrug on Sirca across his shoulders. "Heh, maybe he was gettin' soft, started feeling sorry for those friends of his."

Her eyes widened a bit as she nodded agreeably. "Oh, that's true! I can't even think of the last time I saw that skinny guy Washington show up on the boards. No surprise he wanted to turn tail and run..." She scowled at her surroundings. "Wish I wasn't stuck on this shit duty, missed a chance to pop some shots at an agent!" She seemed to realize who she was talking to a moment later, blanching and peering up at him awkwardly. "Uh...no offense."

He ignored the pang easily enough. God, but it really was kind of frustrating to see strangers throwing their bland insults at Wash. They hadn't earned that right, and they weren't giving the guy any amount of credit.

It was alright, though. That's why they were going through all this, and that's why he assumed the trio had managed to complete their escape -- with the speed of gossip through Freelancer Division, he knew it wouldn't have taken long for word to spread had any of the three been mortally wounded. A healthy grapevine wasn't always a bad thing if you were looking to gather information.

"None taken," he replied with a charming wink. Maybe he wasn't smooth incarnate like York, but dammit, he still had huge-rugged-handsome-jock-star-agent swagger to rely on. And it worked, considering the way the guard gave a helpless smile up to him while she ran her fingers along the edge of her magazine. "After all, that means less competition for the rest of us, right? Plus a chance for their positions to go to better candidates."

She perked a bit at this, and he wondered how many times she'd applied to be granted the qualification test, herself. Probably as many times as she'd failed it. Agent status wasn't easily obtained. "Damn, you're right about that," she replied before glancing him over. "So, uh. You're here to see South, I take it?"

"Heh, you know it," he chuckled in return. "The damn woman's always getting into trouble -- heard she started a fight with her roommate?"

"Yuuup." The guard grunted and poked the button to open the inner door just outside the cells. "The patrols found 'em wrestling outside their room. Some kind of a fight over...food?"

North repressed his smile. "Like I said...always getting into trouble. Over the stupidest things, too."

She seemed delighted that the conversation continued, her expression tipping toward fawning. "She's lucky to have you, then!"

This time he allowed a wry smile. "Either she's lucky or I'm cursed."

"You can't choose your family," the guard offered before scratching at her muzzle with an awkward sound. "Uh. She is supposed to stay here for another three hours, though."

"Oh, that's fine, just wanted to check on her, let her know she's gonna miss getting the jump on any jobs to go hunt those bastards down thanks to being an idiot," he answered mildly. The guard looked relieved at avoiding any further uncomfortable confrontation, nodding several times and tilting her head toward the holding cells.

"Then you're all set! Have a good night, Agent North!"

Huh. That hadn't been too hard. "Yeah -- you too," he called back as he moved into the next corridor. Wasn't too hard at all.

Arizona was in the first cell and she glanced up from the book she was reading when he passed. North paused long enough to look at her curiously, wondering if South had perhaps explained to her -- "Hey, your sister sucks. Can you please tell her I didn't eat her snacks? She hasn't said a damn word to me since we got thrown in here!"

"That's because I don't talk to fat thieving whores," South's voice snaked out from the next cell. Arizona huffed and glowered at her through the bars as North felt a smile quirking his muzzle.

"Heh. I'll tell her, though it probably won't do much good," North replied before bowing his head in partial apology and moving down to stand in front of South's cell. "Dad always said you'd end up behind bars."

"That line got old the last seven times you used it," South intoned, glaring up at him from her grouchy perch on the bench. "The fuck you want, North?"

"Just wanted to check up on ya, see who got what broken," he chuckled while leaning against the iron bars with a small smile. One of Arizona's eyes had looked swollen, though South didn't seem to have any damage, herself.

"I'm fine, as always, that bitch couldn't land a punch on a pile of dead kids," South grumbled as she stood up and moved toward him.

"Tell that to your broken tooth," Arizona called after her, earning a snarl and a middle finger before South turned her attention back to North.

"Well? This stupid shit work, those dumb bastards get out?" she demanded in a low voice, keeping her features calm for the sake of the cameras they both knew were fixed onto the cells. Her tone suggested she didn't care, but the way her fingers gripped into the bars gave North hope, even if it was just because she didn't want her act to have been for nothing.

He nodded once as his own face remained glazed with the half-smile. "Think so. Guessing it'll be a little bit before one of them can reach out but...haven't heard nothin' about them catching or killing anyone."

South made a face but grumbled for a few seconds while flicking her tail irritably. "Christ, this is still so fucking stupid. Who the fuck would be crazy enough to meet them outside FHQ, anyway?"

The smile threatened to twitch a bit wider and North did his best to tamp it down. "Probably just piss you off more if I told you. We'll talk again when there aren't so many eyes and ears."

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered. Her eyes lifted to meet his, and after a moment of what must have been quite the internal struggle, she raised a hand between the bars. He didn't hesitate to grasp firmly into it. "Only doing this for you, jackass."

"That's reason enough," he replied softly as he nodded once. Their hands unclasped and he took a step away as she slunk back to the bench to sprawl across it again. "See ya soon, South," he called out, tapping a salute against the bars before heading toward the exit...and then pausing when he saw Arizona standing at the far corner of her cell, her fingers clutching into the bars as she stared up at him inquisitively.

He did his best to not let his eyes move toward any of the cameras, only meeting her gaze while halting in front of her. "Arizona." He looked briefly over to South, but she was already flopped onto her back with an arm covering her face. "Sorry 'bout, uh..."

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I get it now," she interrupted in a murmur. "You realize that's like...the most selfless thing I've ever seen South do, right?"

North chortled and kicked lightly at the bars. "Hey now. Watch what you say 'bout my kin." He shot another glance to his sister, the faint smile returning to its roost. "But yeah. Picked a good time to have a moment."

"So they really...those three actually..."

"Yeah." He gave a tiny nod. "Yeah, they did." He wasn't as skilled as York at reading someone so accurately, but nothing about the way Arizona stared up at him with a mixture of hope and inspiration seemed forced. "Are...are you..."

"I want out," she whispered, her claws scraping against the metal. "Nothing feels right around here anymore. I just...I didn't know how..."

"Keep your head down for now," he instructed quietly. "I'll let them know as soon as they make contact. I'm sure they'd be happy to have you."

She nodded back with a grateful smile before twisting her features into a scowl and speaking in a louder voice: "Well, tell her I'm not gonna buy her replacement snacks because I didn't eat them! I can't even have processed sugar!"

North masked his grin as South's voice drifted out from the other stall again: "Fuck yoooou, bitch."

"No, fuck you!" Arizona fired back over a shoulder before smiling hesitantly to North as he turned to leave. "Thank you."

He tilted his head toward her. "Good luck -- catch you ladies after you're outta timeout!" he announced before heading through the doors and taking a deep breath. Apparently the spirit of rebellion was strong tonight.

Good.


* * *


"And do you have any...opinions on the matter? I have to imagine you do. The four of you all came from the same Specials group, isn't that correct?"

North swore he felt blood running through his pants from how hard his claws were digging into his legs. Normally these sessions didn't bother him as much -- yeah, he didn't like them, because he wasn't a fan of most guys staring at him...let alone into his soul. But that's exactly where those dark purple eyes peered, with a complete lack of regard for any physical or mental boundaries. The deep violet irises overtook him and bored intensely past any attempt to resist or deflect, a pair of exquisitely honed surgical tools that delicately extracted bits of his truest thoughts to be picked through methodically.

He took a long breath and forced his hands to relax. The maroon chupa sitting across from him shifted to adjust his sweater but North caught the flick of his eyes down toward the motion, and he did his best not to frown. Now that he actually cared what the guy observed, he was starting to realize just how dangerous every little tell could be. Suddenly the late-night poker games had more practical application than he imagined. "Yeah. But, I mean...you already knew that, Counselor...right?"

Maybe he could reverse the angle a little bit.

He continued with what he hoped was a calm smile. "In fact, you were the one who was handing out letters at Recruitment Day, right? You woulda seen us all there."

"Of course." Not a goddamn hint of surprise or discomfort. North tried to swallow his twitch. "However, what I witnessed on such a busy day, so full of excitement and proud moments, would hardly be fair to use as any sort of permanent assumption about any of you. Everyone had their...public face on that day, wouldn't you agree? Friendships might been seen in places where they normally are not, since no one wants to come across as a closed, guarded individual on a day when you all hoped to be accepted into a new, elite team."

North supposed that made sense. He shifted on the couch before grumbling and rubbing at his muzzle with both hands if only to give them somewhere else to be. "If you're asking me whether or not I care about the fact that the guys who ran away are...were my friends, then...why would I answer that in any way that makes me looks bad?"

The Counselor immediately smiled and leaned forward somewhat. "I find it interesting that you say they...'ran away'." North grimaced but bit the inside of his cheek to halt any further reaction. "Do you feel that you all are being kept here against your will?" He gazed intently at North for a few seconds before adding disarmingly: "And you know these sessions are not intended to be used to gauge your performance here at Freelancer. Anything you say in this room won't be utilized to affect your ranking."

"But it isn't confident, either," North muttered, not stupid enough to think otherwise.

"Nothing within these walls is, that is the very nature of organizations such as Freelancer Division," the Counselor replied evenly. North knew that was another test. He fought tooth and nail to not flinch.

He was rewarded with a few seconds of daunting silence before the fictitious smile drifted back across the Counselor's smooth muzzle. "The point is, Agent North, it would be perfectly normal to have mixed emotions on the behaviors of your...ex-compatriots. Confusion over their decision, betrayal over being abandoned, even relief that they seem to have made their hasty departure without grievous injury, at least that we are aware of."

The wording made North frown momentarily, but he knew that was the goal. He swallowed the bile and instead shrugged as callously as he could. "Confused, maybe, but I don't feel betrayed. None of them were my partners, I wasn't trusting any of them to watch my back on a job."

"Bringing that up is intriguing -- do you find it hard to trust a partner after what happened to your combat buddy?" The Counselor's collected gaze was a mask over the hooks he slung into the agent's soul as North couldn't help grinding his teeth together while looking away shamefully. He still remembered that afternoon like it had been yesterday.

His final mission with Beth, the day after Recruitment. One last job in special ops before they moved on. Strangely enough, she still hadn't signed the contract with Freelancer -- Carter, Madison, Gabriel and David, Connie, Winston...they'd all filled out the paperwork and were just waiting for the orders to pack up and travel.

But not Beth. She wouldn't say why...maybe she was holding out for a sign, maybe she was just being her usual stubborn, wild-hearted self. North -- Carter -- had been pretty sure at the time she was going to end up joining Freelancer, if only for the promise of meeting up with her friend-slash-rival again. That guess, however, became fated after she disappeared into the shrine...and failed to come back out on her own.

His claws clenched silently into his palm as he recalled the sight of Lina dragging her limp body out...how he'd dropped everything to race across the open field, horror wrenching at his heart because the one time he hadn't followed her, the one time he hadn't stayed close to her back to keep an eye on it, she'd nearly fallen to her death.

It'd brought her to Freelancer, though not in a way North had ever wished. He'd heard she'd been saved only because of an experimental procedure, and it had indebted her to the Director on a personal level. And yeah...it had been really nice to see her alive and well, standing next to Lina that day when the latest batch of recruits were officially inducted as agents...but it had left an ache in the back of his mind, too. He'd failed as her partner, and he'd done everything in his power to ensure he would never be weak -- or blind -- enough to let it happen again.

He exhaled loudly and then ran his tongue across his lips while looking back at the Counselor. "It's the opposite. I rely on my teammates and trust them with my life because of that day." He just needed to turn this around, give a valid reason why he didn't care about them without setting foot in one of the Counselor's snares. "But...but those three left us all behind. And since not a damn one of them was a partner --"

"But they were your friends," the Counselor persisted with a thin smile. "One of the photographs in your personal quarters is a depiction of yourself and Agent York celebrating after a winning goal that clenched the championship for your team back in Specials." North narrowed his eyes slightly. "And the two of you have worked multiple jobs together throughout Sirca. Surely there must be some latent sense of camaraderie and partnership that was disrupted, abused by the unexpected departure."

That was a lot more obvious of a test. North felt like he could be somewhat honest, though. He shrugged and let his huge arms hang at his sides. "Yeah, sure. It kinda hurts, the fact he couldn't talk to me about wanting to leave, and the fact I'm now stuck here having to answer these questions alone."

The Counselor's wan smile tightened just enough that North allowed himself a measure of pride. "I see the betrayal hasn't injured your wit, Agent North." He glanced down at the datapad on his desk before lifting a notebook and paging through it for a few seconds. "Your latest missions have shown exemplary performance -- you recently surpassed Agent York on the leaderboards, in fact. Did the two of you discuss that before he made his grand escape?"

North's muzzle wrinkled a bit. "Not the first time we've traded spots. It was the usual bullshit, except not as much, since..." He trailed off and was unable to stop his teeth from gritting. "Since Agent Carolina went missing in action."

"Yes, losing his partner had a clear impact on Agent York's stability. To be expected, I'm sure." The Counselor's eyes locked with North's again and his smile was woven with poison. "Did her loss have a similar impact on you?" When North only frowned further, the soft-spoken chupa leaned toward him while gesturing calmly toward the barely-visible bandaging on his palm. "I don't recall seeing any reports of an injury on your recent mission reports. I was merely wondering if recent events have caused somewhat of a distraction to you."

North felt like every word that left his tongue was a potential bomb that the Counselor was all too excited to witness detonate. Those eyes continued to drill into him and he forced himself to speak before it became obvious he was rattled. "Oh, this?" He lifted his hand and gave a phony smile of his own. "Heh, this was just from sparring with South the other night."

The Counselor arched an eyebrow slightly. "Your sister did that?"

North's confidence swelled comfortably back into place. "Oh lord, and here I thought you would have picked up on her small angry streak by now," he returned with a half-smile. "She was pissy about the fight she got into with Arizona, took it out in the training room. She keeps those knives sharp."

A moment passed and the unreadable cloud soon settled back over the Counselor's features as he hummed. "I see. And I'm curious -- has all this affected her the same way? Do you both feel the same distrust for your fellow agents, for the organization as a whole?"

North blinked before frowning darkly. "I never said anything about not trusting anyone."

"But you do feel hesitation with your assignments, don't you? Your response time in volunteering for the latest missions has been lower than usual." North could feel his shoulders tightening even as he did his damnedest to keep his gaze level. "Tell me, why is it you no longer trust the Director? Previously, you showed little to no equivocation accepting whatever job granted the most generous pay and highest rankings."

North ground his teeth together before reminding himself to unclench his jaw and relax. This was the Counselor's job, to get under their skin. All he had to do was remember that, and stop himself from letting it frustrate him. He was Agent North. One of the Division's coolest operators. Envied by all. He had this.

He leaned forward slowly, his too-small shirt emitting a quiet whimper of protest as the fabric stretched. "I'm not here to just be a dumb weapon. And when I see my friends dying in action, it will always make me wonder what could have been done differently, and what needs to be done in the future to prevent it. Blindly trusting anyone is just asking for trouble...wouldn't you agree?"

The Counselor wasn't as taken aback this time, merely offering a patient smile in exchange as he pointed his pen toward North. "There's no reason to assume this line of questioning is meant to root out any dissonance. We consider it healthy to have the kind of emotional reactions you've experienced. And it's perfectly acceptable to want answers, and to demur in the face of expected obedience. The loss of a top agent and these recent defections are surely having an effect on everyone's morale -- your ordeal isn't isolated."

North frowned again but let himself lean back against the couch once more as he crossed his arms. The Counselor studied him for a moment, then inquired: "Do you feel we should be doing things differently? Help us improve; your input is vital in understanding how we might change how we do things as an organization."

North snorted but figured if the guy wanted honesty, then he could provide a little more of it. "I don't know, maybe doing something for the good of Sirca would be a start? Isn't that what we're meant to do since we're outside the scope of the Holy War?"

The Counselor's smile was unnerving as he breezily turned the page of his notebook and jotted something down. "No one is outside of the scope of the Holy War, Agent North. I asked how we might do things, not what things we do. There is no question that the Freelancer Division exists to provide a service to whoever contracts it out, and to further its own development to constantly improve the quality of that service."

North realized too late he'd walked into a trap and he grimaced while glancing aside with a grumble. "I wasn't trying to say -- you're twisting my words. I know why we're here." He could still save this, though. "I meant that...sometimes it's hard to see the fruits of our labor. We're contracted out across the ring, we're sent all over for jobs that sometimes make sense, and sometimes don't. I joined because I wanted to be here, because I wanted my talent to be appreciated." He gripped into his own arms while looking squarely at the calm pardus. "South and I came from a small farm in a small town. We never thought we'd have a chance to have an impact on our own village, let alone all of Sirca. So yeah, I want to make a difference."

He thought of York and Wash and CT. He needed to protect them, and he knew what that meant. "You're right -- the guys who left, they...they did betray us. And they're just proof that friendships don't matter as much as getting the job done, and staying where we're useful, where our skills have a purpose. I don't care that they left, because it means they weren't strong enough to handle the job, anyway."

The smile he received didn't comfort him much as the Counselor perused his innermost thoughts with ease. "You don't mean that quite so literally, Agent North. Otherwise why would you continue to show such unnecessary kindness? Two missions ago, you went out of your way to help Agent Ohio out of situation he got himself into, and your record took the hit for it. He would have survived, most likely, without your intervention." North could feel his claws digging slowly into his biceps. "Or the way you sent in the note regarding South's performance on her latest physical conditioning examination. You took it upon yourself to explain issues she has apparently been keeping to herself -- an unnecessary gesture that I'm sure you're aware only makes you appear thinly-stretched."

North's eyes narrowed and he swallowed despite the thickness of his throat. "She's family," he replied quietly, unfolding his arms and pushing a finger into his thigh for emphasis. "And I would do anything for her. Some things are still more important than my career, and if that--"

"We know, Agent North," the Counselor interrupted smoothly, relaxing back into his chair with a satisfied smile. "We know."

The silence spun out, punctuated only by the swift strokes of the pen gliding across the paper. North tried to breathe normally even as he prepared for the worst, for the call that he be taken somewhere for further questioning...enhanced questioning. But the Counselor only flicked his eyes up after a beat before tipping his head toward the door. "Thank you for your candidness, Agent North. You're free to go. I'll look forward to reviewing these suggestions with you during our next discussion."

North blinked but didn't falter as he stood up and then grunted his acknowledgment. He still didn't trust the unnaturally benign expression on the soft-spoken chupa, but he wasn't going to stick around to have any more truths unearthed. "Right. Guess we'll talk then." He was given a bland smile and he ignored the way it made his guts churn as he pushed through the door and then promptly made a beeline for the nearest bathroom.

He didn't often get physically sick...but today was going to be an exception.


* * *


It wasn't the first thirty-five minutes of nonsense he'd sat through. He'd dealt with it from their father. He'd experienced it from the officers in Basic. He'd gotten it from the trainers in Specials...and yeah. The Director loved the sound of his own voice, too.

Normally North tuned these kinds of things out. Usually boiled down to the same thing, after all -- quit showing off, work with your team, the trophy is never won by just one player. Or at least those were the things he vaguely recalled being yelled at him. Things he could smile and ignore, brush off as not applicable to him. He'd always been able to figure out for himself when he needed to shine, and when he needed to lift. He might have been a dumb jock, but he knew how to strive for a victory, every time, whether he was racing ahead of the pack or pushing the whole team from behind.

But he found himself listening more than he typically would this time. He wanted to hear the words that Director Church strung together, the hollow excuses that formed an explanation for the increasing fatalities and disappearances of Freelancer personnel. It fueled his drive to keep his agent status clean for as long as possible now that he had forced himself to look at things with a different perspective, because knowing that this bastard was using them the way he did, for what seemed more and more like his own ends, gave North a reason to fight that much harder. His friends would need everything they could use against the Director if they had any hope of bringing him to real justice instead of simply the end of a hungry blade.

All surviving, active agents -- and the reality that such a phrase was necessary was infuriating, itself, wasn't it? -- had been ordered to meet at Freelancer Headquarters for the speech. Reasoning had been that all personnel were going to be assigned updated identification and access cards after the recent 'voluntary exodus'. North found that particularly amusing, since his actual code hadn't been changed. Even an organization as singularly managed as Freelancer Division had the elements of a bloated bureaucracy tied to it.

He figured there were ulterior motives to call everyone out of the field and the remote bases, and he was sure the Counselor would be making his rounds to gather more 'emotional checkpoints' or whatever the hell they were calling it now. He knew probing when he felt it, and he'd had to be even more careful than usual during his scheduled conversations with the man since he'd started to receive transmissions from the newly established branch of the Movement.

L-Base, they were calling their location. And boy, did it sound like things had taken a few unexpected turns since the last time North had spoken with CT and her companions. He hadn't quite gotten around yet to telling South about the changes, but he supposed he could do that sometime --

He blinked and tensed up at the presence he suddenly felt at his side, one hand already balling into a fist...before wheezing and relaxing again as a familiar voice shot up to him. "The hell you think you're about to do, actually land a hit on me?"

"Geezus, woman, don't sneak up on a guy like that, especially with the way things have been lately," he mumbled, even as he gave a relieved smile and turned to face his old partner.

"What, more goddamn rumors flying around about how Agent Texas is gonna stab someone else in the back?" she replied drolly while flicking her tail as irritation creased her features. "God, non-stop with that bullshit. Like I'd need to do some underhanded shit like that."

He knew there was more to her emotions, that she seethed at the thought she'd had anything to do with Lina's demise. No need to exacerbate that, though -- they both knew how cheap talk was. "You know how they are, Beth. If folks don't appreciate someone, the closest thing they got is jealousy."

She snorted and then crossed her arms. "Swear to god, North, you know you're the only one who still has trouble with the names. Still a dumb jock."

He smiled again. "Who said I have trouble with it? Maybe I just like rememberin'."

Tex wrinkled her muzzle a bit before shaking her head. "Screw all that. Looking backward never does us any good." She looked around the room for a moment. "You got any bullshit lined up right now? Because I want to know what the hell has gone down lately, and I don't want to do it here."

North didn't blame her. "Nothin' I can't move around. C'mon, I got some beer stashed and I know a quiet place..."


"Christ, you helped them that night?!"

Her voice was laced with incredulity, and North liked to imagine there was a note of concern, too. He chuckled quietly and leaned against the railing while holding the cold bottle against his chest. The open-air deck felt different -- he still came out here to think, sometimes, but it was invariably tinged with memories of that rainy night, now. Felt like more than just a place for quiet introspection. It felt like a haven these days, somewhere to go when you needed to think things you weren't supposed to...or have conversations that danced with the heretical.

"Me 'n South both did, actually," he admitted with a small smile. Tex raised an eyebrow and he gave an outright laugh. "Yeah, I was just as surprised. Honestly thought she was gonna back down at first, but. Carried through, helped cause a distraction while I did a really bad impression of someone who knows how to mess with technology and security systems and all that jazz..."

"You're goddamn lucky you're not locked up in a testing cell," she muttered as she leaned over the guardrail and took a swig from her beer. "I should be surprised you'd do something so goddamn stupid, but you are goddamn stupid, so guess I should have seen it coming." She glanced up at him for a moment. "What the hell made you jump off the deep end?"

He sighed and met her eyes before gazing out across the landscape. "That tough act of yours is as bad as mine, woman." She scoffed but didn't interrupt. "You can't tell me the way things have gone lately that you don't have your own doubts. You might be number one but you ain't blind."

"Ain't stupid, either," she grumbled even as he heard the soft squeal of her bottle as her fist tightened around the glass. "There's ways of getting shit sorted without putting your neck in the goddamn rope..."

"Sure, though not if you wanna do some good for the ring while you're at it," North added, nodding toward the horizon.

"Screw the ring," Tex grumbled before turning around to rest back against the railing as she fixed him with a long look. "So...what. They get out in one piece? Running some shitty arm of the resistance out of some cave somewhere?" She made a face. "Who's leading the pack of dumbasses?"

A different kind of smile quirked at his maw. "Heh. You'll love this. So, CT was the one who made first contact with the Movement. Kind of accidental, too, from what I heard." The noise Tex made was not one of delight, to say the least. "Met the man himself, actually," North added with a chortle.

Tex frowned but looked somewhat intrigued. That, at least, was a bounty North was sure would catch even her discerning eye. "Raymond Tracer? You kidding me? I figured that bastard was just a myth at this point, something those suicidal jackoffs were just using to boost recruitment, look more capable than they actually are..."

"She apparently barely got out with her life," North noted, smiling at the even-less-pleased frown from his old partner. "Sounds like there's a few competent folks running with him." He let a grin slide into place and lifted the bottle to his muzzle. "Now they got a few more on their side."

"Yeah, competent, harder to appreciate that when you're using someone for comparison who wasn't even on the top ten last time I looked," Tex replied mildly. "So is that goody-two-shoes bitch in charge, then? God, can't even imagine what that's like."

North gave her a bemused look and gestured toward her with the bottle. "Man, what's your deal with CT? I get South, they were partners and she always hated the way CT actually held her accountable...but you??"

Tex fired back a sour expression. "Justice. She really thinks there's any justice or fairness in this world? I've taken out contracts on kids with more realistic dreams than that."

North squinted at her. "Geezus, you ain't changed a bit." She glowered back at him and he only smiled. "Kinda nice to see. Anyway, I figured CT would be a damn fine leader -- she's got a cool head on her shoulders, she makes solid decisions and she cares about her people." He could already hear Tex sucking on her teeth and he raised a hand with a quiet laugh. "Yeah, I know. But that kinda thing matters a lot more in a rebellion where you take our worst chances of survival here 'n cut 'em in half."

She grumbled before glancing at the remaining beer in her bottle. "You're talking like she's not leading things, though."

"Yeaaah..." He tipped his head from one side to the other. "Talked to York 'n Wash both a little lately. She's been laid out since they got to their new base, got tagged by a lucky bullet on the way outta this place. Sounds like Wash has been running things while she's out."

Tex blinked and then barked a laugh as disbelief scrawled across her features. "Washington? Are you shitting me?"

North smiled again as he raised his beer. "Just what I'm gatherin' from conversation, nothing confirmed. But someone's gotta take the lead for now, folks are already showing up to be recruited. No stoppin' this train now."

"Christ, they're screwed," she remarked even as she looked thoughtful for a few seconds. "Though I will say one thing -- after all the shit that scrawny bastard went through, he's probably gonna make better decisions than she will. Only one of those three who isn't an emotional bitch."

"Heh, emotions ain't all that bad," North reasoned as he downed the rest of his beer, then set the bottle by his feet. "So yeah. Things are happening. Me and South, we're...we're gonna hitch a ride with Ashe out that way in a day or two, after things have calmed down. Check out the new digs, figure out a better way to keep in touch." He laughed softly. "This whole double-agent thing is kinda exciting, Tex -- you sure you don't want in? Seems right up your alley."

He was all too aware Tex was probably already playing her own game, since he knew how close she'd become with the Director. But he also knew that was something she likely had far greater control over. Joining the losing fight of a war willingly was a little different. "I'm sure as hell not going with you two. Between your sister and Ashley, I've got ten better ways to go deaf than listening to a few hours of that." He grinned easily, taking a comfort from the familiarity of the insults. "But I'll think about checking it out at some point. Might as well see how much of a shitshow it is, and how badly I need to avoid you dumb bastards."

"All the things that change around us, it's good to know Agent Texas will always be Agent Texas," North replied, winking at her and gripping into the rail with both hands as it creaked against his weight. "You should think about it. It's not just about stopping all the nasty things happening here. Gonna go for the brass ring, try to stop the whole damn war. Do something good for Sirca. And she'd be a lot better off if you were there to help."

He knew a pipe dream when he heard one, even out of his own jaws. But it didn't stop him from believing in it. It finally felt like a cause worth dying for, because the words didn't leave him feeling crazy this time around. They just felt right.

The look she gave him was just about what he expected -- somewhere between annoyed and amused, which was pretty much where Tex lived even around her most competent cohorts. "I'm not here to save Sirca. I never cared about that shit like you did, North." She swirled the last contents of her bottle, then drained them before chucking the bottle over the railing. It glinted in the bright afternoon sun before shattering on the rocks below a few seconds later as she glanced back at him. "But I do want some goddamn answers about what happened to Lina." She shifted her eyes to the shaded glass doors leading back inside, and he knew where her glower was directed. "And some answers about what that bastard is up to."

North let his smile curl just enough to feel a twinge of guilt. "Would have thought you could have found that out from him directly."

Tex glared coldly up to him and took a step closer as her eyes narrowed dangerously. But she eventually snorted and turned to look out over the Qoppa landscape again. "You're too goddamn stupid to recognize that not everything is as simple as it looks. I'm not...with him just to find out information." She shifted her weight but the switch of her tail told North nothing had changed about Tex -- she still had no shame for what she did, or who she choose to pull behind a closed door.

He was glad. That pride and complete lack of care for what anyone else might think would always be admirable traits to him. He turned to look at the horizon with her, quietly nudging her hip with his. "Not that stupid. Kinda figured -- I know you still have emotions, Beth."

She laughed shortly again, though the flick of her eyes up to him contained a sliver of appreciation. "And I know your heart is still bleeding, Carter. It's gonna get you killed one day."

He gave a crooked smile and threw an arm around her shoulders. "Better than dyin' in your sleep."


* * *


"I tell you giant purple motherfuckers what, you let me know if those assholes are done catchin' heat from FHQ, because the minute this shit has died down, I'm fuckin' outta there."

"Bitch, you better just land us in one fuckin' piece before you talk about quitting, your crazy ass already flies like you put in your three day notice!" South yelled into the cockpit before bulging her eyes as the pilot cackled and yanked the stick to one side, nearly throwing the Freelancer against the wall. "Fucking CUNT!"

"Sit your tall ass down, then, 'fore I sit it down for you!"

North grinned cheerfully, idly holding onto the support bar with one enormous arm as South cursed and dropped into one of the jump seats before glaring over at him. "Quit that fuckin' smiling, North, this whore is insane."

"Ashe just bein' Ashe!" he called back as the aforementioned whore winked over a shoulder and flashed a thumbs up from the cockpit. "Did you really wanna land at the newly-established rebel base with a possible HADES tail?"

"I don't really wanna land at the newly-established rebel base at all, fucking period!" South shouted before grimacing at the hot blast of humid jungle air that washed over them from the open cargo door. "Fuckin' hell, you had to pick the fuckin' dropship with the broken goddamn door!"

"She's one'a the fastest birds Freelancer's got, gimme a break, ain't had time to fix it!" Ashley yelled back from the front before reaching back and slapping at the wall. "You purple fucks grab dicks and squeeze tits, we're plungin'!"

"Oh motherfucker," South cursed, fumbling with the harness and then giving a genuine squawk as the aircraft suddenly dropped down into the treeline, several branches and vines smacking loudly against the hull and wings. North leaned back, amused as always at the raw terror his sister still displayed for flying. You'd think their time at Freelancer would have worked it out of her system...but then again, Ashley Mills just had that special way of handling a dropship. Made even the most hardened HALO veterans nervous when she pulled the stops out.

North didn't even bother to look through the windscreen -- he probably didn't want to know how close together the trees were, but Ashley had wanted to ensure no one could track them for the last few minutes of the flight. He wasn't gonna stop the woman; she was her own force of chaotic skills and unprofessionalism, but damn if she didn't get the job done like no other.

Last he'd heard, Wash was still heading the budding branch of the resistance while CT recovered from her gunshot wound and what sounded like some kind of head injury. South had been full of nothing but acid for this revelation, but North was intrigued, to say the least. Wouldn't have been his first choice, no. Yet somehow Wash made more sense than York. Which was saying something, since North considered York a far closer friend than Wash...just had trouble seeing him in charge. He knew if nothing else, this sure wasn't going to be your run-of-the-mill underground resistance group.

"Alright, the rusty rebel roost is just up there...but I gotta drop you turds off a little early, jungle gets a little too...jungly ahead!" Ashley called back to them. "You remember how to jump out of a moving dropship, right?"

"Bitch, what the fuck, just stop for a second!" South snarled.

But Ashley only grinned toothily and threw a thumb toward the open bay door. "Sorry, this bird's like a motherfuckin' shark, she'll die if she don't keep movin'. Now ya got ten seconds 'til the mark, so eyes up, buttercup!"

"Oh, you gotta be fuckin' kidding me, I--"

"Ten!"

"Bitch you better not, I swear to--"

"Nine!"

North chortled as he undid his harness. South was gonna be pissy the rest of the day, but damn, it was gonna be worth it. There was something whimsical about seeing his sister so off-balance. It was...refreshing. Worth all the four-letter words he'd be hearing for the next couple hours.

"Five!"

"North! Tell this cunt I will shoot her if she doesn't--"

"Four!"

He picked up his backpack and then handed South hers with a wink. "Pretty sure not even that's gonna stop her, sis. Let's go."

"Thuuuuuh-ree!"

"Are you fucking kidding me right now?!"

"Two!"

North shoved the backpack into her arms as she glared horribly at him. He flashed his teeth playfully, earning a growl. "You comin' or not?"

"Two-and-a-half!"

South whipped her head around to snarl with more than just a hint of trepidation lining her fury: "It's technically one-and-a-half next, you fucking dumb bitch!"

North muffled his snicker and reached out to loop an arm around South before she could protest, her eyes going wide. "Appreciate the lift, Ashe -- see you soon!"

"Same, Northy! One!"

"Carter, I swear to fucking god if you--"

"Mark!"

North whooped and leaped fearlessly through the open door, dragging his sister with him as she half-cursed, half-screeched through the air. They smashed through countless smaller branches and vines to effectively slow their descent before they landed heavily with matching grunts. South stumbled forward and tripped into a half-kneel before spinning around and roaring a string of expletives after the dropship as it twisted neatly and darted back up past the canopy.

North chortled and brushed off his pants calmly, then shouldered his backpack and gazed around curiously while ignoring South's raving with aplomb. After a lifetime together, you just sort of got used to it.

They'd been dropped off -- quite literally -- in the middle of Lactan's dense jungle and he took a moment to align himself. Ashley had passed directions to him on where to find the facility, since there was legitimately no signs of civilization this deep in the wild. The trees that hemmed them in let only a few choice beams of sunlight trickle down, illuminating their verdant surroundings and reminding North the barren world of Freelancer Headquarters was just one little part of Sirca. This was a place full of energy, thrumming with life. His whole body relaxed for a moment, finding himself beneath that umbrella of clarity that he would never fail to cherish.

Damp leaves brushed against his arms, the sounds of birds and insects settled around them comfortably. Soft loam tickled the bottom of their paws and North couldn't help closing his eyes for a moment as he dug his toe-claws in. "Just like home..."

"--and if I ever see that skinny cunt again, I'm gonna shove my rifle so far down her throat that she's gonna get a free fuckin' colonoscopy!" South concluded before groaning and snatching up her pack while shooting daggers at her brother. "What the fuck are you doing?"

He smiled at her before shuffling his feet a bit. "Nothin'."

She gave him a sour look for a few seconds before rolling her eyes and looking down, kicking at the soil gently. "Not as thick as back home. Be too damp for corn."

North grinned and nudged a fist against her shoulder. "You remember."

"Not because I fuckin' want to," she grumbled even as a small smile momentarily tickled her features. "Thought that was why we left that shitty town, to get away from all this...nature."

He chuckled and tapped his knuckles against a nearby tree. "No such luck, Maddy. Sirca's full of it."

"Yeah, and it's some bullshit," she muttered, the tiny smile staying in place. "This place is fuckin' humid as shit and smells like stale asshole. And where the fuck's the base? How far away that bitch drop us off?"

He laughed and slapped a hand against her arm, then jerked his head as he started to walk. "Couple klicks east. Let's get movin', see what we've signed up for."

"A real shitty idea, that's what," she replied before sighing and fishing out a toothpick to jam into the corner of her muzzle while breaking into a jog after him. "These assholes better pay even half as much as Freelancer..."


"And North, we put you here!" York announced as he pushed open the door with a sweeping bow, encouraging a smirk from North and an eye-roll from South. "Wash figured you wouldn't mind being next to the boiler, since you uh..."

"Sound like a lumberjack giving a blowjob to his chainsaw when he sleeps? Yeah, tell me about it," South offered drolly. She poked her head into the doorway as North smiled and wandered into the room. "Christ, you can smell the bacteria -- what the fuck was this facility used for before you assholes took it over? Biological warfare?"

York huffed and held his arms out to either side. "Hey! Gimme a break, this place was abandoned for god knows how many years before we got here! And Tracer's only had a skeleton crew to come around to all these joints, keep 'em from falling completely apart while they waited for happy new rebel families to move in..."

North was still smiling as he gazed around the space. It was smaller than the bunk he shared with Ohio back at FHQ, but it was so much less...sterile, too. He set down his backpack, leaning it against the rusty frame of the bed while turning slowly in place. "Sweet of you guys to all stay up and take notes on my delicate snoring..." He smirked at York, who grinned and threw back a middle finger. "It's great, though, honestly. Happy new family is right -- this place already feels more like of a home than HQ ever did."

"Geezus, save the fuckin' mushy shit until we have something to get drunk with," South grumbled even as her eyes flicked through the room. North wondered if she was thinking back to the cozy little bedroom they'd shared as kids. They were good at making the best of a mediocre situation; it was something they'd always prided themselves on. "Pretty sure any chick you drag down here to bang is gonna want to know if there's a condom she can put on the whole damn room so she doesn't catch whatever it is growing on the walls."

"Charming as always, South," York remarked, but he laughed easily and held an arm out. "C'mon, I'll show you guys the training room we're setting up -- you'd be surprised how much exercise equipment this place had in storage, I think whatever nerds ran this place years before must have been like...beefy nerds." He paused and put his hands on his hips. "Which...that's pretty awesome. Who says big sexy guys like us can't be awesome science-dudes, too??"

North grinned and left his backpack behind as he walked back out to the hall to join the other two -- he'd brought a few personal mementos already, figured he could do a little decorating before they headed out. "Yeah, that's true! Who decided you can't be a beefcake and a...uh. Smartcake."

South gave them both a flat look before sighing. "Pretty sure your fucking pea-brains decide that for you every fucking time you open your mouth to say something."

North and York laughed easily and the trio turned to head back down the hallway together. North knew his sister wasn't going to be passionate about this cause...but he also knew she'd appreciate it not feeling like some uncomfortable suicide pact every time they came to the Lactan base. Way easier to focus when it was just like being back at Freelancer, after all, sharing dumb jokes and taunting each other at the drop of a hat. It was how they'd always coped best with things.

York took them around the base to show off all the renovations and where they were planning to expand and add more bunks and common areas. It brought a real smile to North's features, one more honest than most he'd given lately. York was showing signs of his old self, the larger-than-life personality he'd always exuded before all the best parts of his world had been thrown cruelly against the wall to break into a thousand tiny pieces.

He wasn't the same, no -- and North really didn't know if he ever would be again. Ever could be. What he'd felt for Lina, what he no doubt still felt for her, wasn't something you buried and occasionally visited in the future with a few flowers and soft words. Those kinds of emotions clung to you like a thin mist, little droplets you could brush at and try to towel off...but all you'd ever do was spread the damp veil further and make it harder to escape.

But North could see York putting one foot in front of the other, refusing to let the weight on his shoulders drag him to a halt. York had something to apply himself to here, and friends he could put his efforts toward, friends who cared and who would appreciate what he did rather than the cold face of a man who expected him to throw himself into the fire for no reason but the mission, for the rankings, for the organization. This was where he belonged, and this was where he could finally heal. Sirca was fortunate to have him on her side, now.


...As was Wash.


"This...this is supposed to just be temporary. I'm just doing this until Con--er, CT gets back on her feet, but..."

"Great. Don't know what's worse, the wuss or the bitch," South commented flatly.

North elbowed her lightly and smiled down at Wash. The guy looked ragged, like both physical and mental exhaustion had already drained him before they'd even had a chance to do anything notorious enough to have a bounty put on their heads. There were bags under his eyes and the constant twitch of his tail wasn't just from the coffee North could smell in the office. But it was hard not to notice the way Wash calmed somewhat when York moved to stand next to him behind the desk. It was like seeing them in Specials all over again...except now Wash was running point, and York was the support.

North thought it looked like it might work.

"Hey, runt." Wash scowled immediately and glared up at him, and North grinned. "Don't listen to her. I think you might actually be cut out for this stuff." Wash's expression shifted warily, edging toward curious. "You've got the mean mug for giving orders." Wash raced back to his flat expression while fixing North with another glower as the giant chupa laughed easily. "Yeah, these new recruits are gonna be terrified of you, shrimp or not!"

"Hey, now, my little shrimpy squirrel of a combat buddy has been kicking ass and taking names ever since we got here!" York announced cheerfully as he dropped a hand onto Wash's shoulder. The smaller chupa flinched and tried to shrug it off, but York had deftly relearned the art of persistence, it seemed. "I keep telling him he's doing a great job! So does CT!"

"This is her branch...it was her idea to leave, she got us out, and --"

"Hey, hey..." York squeezed his fingers into his shoulder and North watched as Wash squirmed and looked down. "You stopped me from wolfing out...and CT got shot halfway through the flats. Quit acting like you're a burden when you're the only reason we're all still alive and extra-heretical."

Wash sighed as his shoulders slumped, but North didn't miss the grateful shift of his gaze as he looked up at his partner for a few seconds, then back at the siblings. "Anyway. The point still stands. CT will be the one calling the shots when she's back in action, I'm just. Trying to help get this place running and making sure we're doing what we can to start training the guys showing up."

"And he's already organizing the first couple missions, and he's got plans for our first big supply run, and he let me get the cargo lift fixed!" York added with a raised finger, a cheery grin painting his features. "He's the best boss I've ever had!"

"Is he letting you know when to breathe and take a shit, too?" South inquired, her sarcasm as poignant as ever. Wash seemed torn between annoyance at York and frustration with South, but she plowed ahead before he could respond. "What I wanna fuckin' know is whether it was you or CT that decided my fuckin' room is the furthest one from everything else?? I gotta fuckin' practically walk to Timae just to get there."

Wash took a slow breath before setting his jaw. "It was my call. I figured you'd appreciate the distance."

"Oh yeah, nothing I love more than running a fucking triathlon to get fucking breakfast," she retorted sharply before blinking as Wash leaned across the desk with a grimace.

"Look, you fucking hate everyone and everything, so I thought I'd give you some goddamn privacy away from the others," he explained through grit teeth. "But if you'd rather be right in the middle of all of everyone else's bitching and moaning about how much being a rebel sucks, I can do that. Or even better, how about I just put you in North's bunk? You're brother and sister, that'd be fine, right?!"

North didn't bother to hide his delighted grin, absolutely enthralled as he was with South's bewilderment as she seemed unsure whether she should apologize to Wash or just shoot him. But she eventually snorted and crossed her arms, doing her best to hide any sort of horrified reaction while firing back briskly: "Holy fucking shit, okay, whatever, not like I'm gonna be spending much time in this shithole, anyway. Christ, I take it back, I cannot wait for CT to be in charge, geezus..."

Wash sighed but settled back into the chair before grumbling and fiddling with a pen. "Sorry, it's just been...stressful, and--"

"Hell, don't apologize," North boomed as he threw an arm around South and ignored the venomous glare she slung at him. "I say CT lets you keep running things, man. You were born for this!"

"Right?!" York exclaimed brightly, giving a happy smile down to his partner as Wash mumbled something incoherent.

"Born to be a little asshole, more like," South muttered before pursing her muzzle as North gave her another playful elbow. "Well, sir, what are your first orders, then? And do you plan on paying us in IOUs, or does this rusted dildo factory have a printing press for cutesy resistance leaflets and counterfeit bills, too?"

"C'mon now, we're just getting started! Resources are slim!" York answered with a wink. "I'm putting those penmanship classes to use and doing all the cutesy leaflets by hand!"

"You still have the handwriting of a six year old," Wash countered as he shuffled through some of the files on his desk, then slid one forward. "You two should...should take a little time to settle in. And...then I was hoping you could see about helping line up that supply run York mentioned." He glanced up to them and North was pleasantly astonished by the determination in the little guy's eyes. North didn't doubt that the stress and protests were real, but he looked ready to do this, as long as it took.

He knew then and there they'd made the right decision to help.

"I...I know it's a big risk for you two," Wash added slowly. "We appreciate it. You guys can take whatever you can carry from the supply run, and then we'll discuss what we can do as compensation for stuff down the road."

South rolled her shoulders. "Tch. Guess we don't really have a fucking choice. Whatever, it's a start."

North smiled for them both and reached out to pick up the paper so he could start skimming the notes. "It sounds good, guys. Let's do this."

The faint, grateful smile from Wash was amplified by York's beaming expression as the two enormous chupas leaned toward one another to bump their knuckles together.

Yeah, this was exactly where they were needed. And god, did that finally feel right.


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

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