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Bearing | Passengers


Part 2: Passengers


North grunted as he slung another firm punch, the dull, satisfying thump of his knuckles slamming home giving him that old familiar rush. He flicked his tail and then slid to one side before sending his other arm rocketing forward to smash viciously into its target as the other chupa wheezed...

...and then laughed.

"Hey, dick, 'one more punch', my ass!"

North grinned as York shoved the heavy bag toward him, the chains wailing in protest from the weight. He reached out with a hand to stop the sand-filled bag, then playfully pushed it back to send York hopping one step away. "Heh, I told you all this Movement stuff was makin' ya soft, pal! Look at big bad Agent York, doesn't even remember the basics of be ready for anything!" He suddenly lunged toward his friend with an uppercut.

But York returned the earlier grin, his paws moving in a blur to strafe him to the side as he used one hand to redirect North's punch and put him off-balance, then planting the other on the side of the punching bag to send it swinging into North's enormous frame. North's eyes widened and he stumbled a step or two before smirking and catching himself against the wall. "Now, now, it's not nice to talk to your daddy like that," York taunted before he laughed as North tackled the punching bag with a shoulder and sent him backpedaling a few feet. "I'll have you know this rebel stuff is probably putting all these fine skills to use far more often than Freelancer ever did!"

North chuckled, halting the momentum of the bag again and then taking position behind it to stabilize it for his huge friend. "Guess I can't put too much doubt on that. You guys have finally been making a name for yourselves out here in your little jungle pillow fort!"

York laughed while approaching and then bouncing lightly on his paws as he started flicking a few warm-up punches into the bag. "Screw you too, buddy. The York is still the toast of the town, yanno! Don't need a damn leaderboard out here to know that, you just ask anyone in the Movement who the biggest, baddest rebel is, and they'll say--"

"Nelson, from what I've heard," North interjected, making York blink and miss a punch entirely as the purple chupa laughed and reached around the bag to slap at his arm. "Yeah, even with that wheelchair I heard she's in, sounds like she's still got all you bastards quaking in your boy-shorts!"

"Dude, you say that to her face and tell me she doesn't end up making you run to change your pants," York mumbled, tossing a few more rapid thrusts.

This felt like old times.

North smiled as the bag twitched against his chest with York's rhythmic swings. "Yeah, yeah, I know the percentage of talk verses walk with you, bud." York squinted playfully around the bag at him, and North snickered as they began to circle naturally together. "So since you've got all your swagger back..." There was a long enough pause for a glance at the key, but York kept his smile despite the strains of melancholy that drifted past. "You wanna go ahead and tell me how much play you're gettin' out here in your sticky, swampy paradise? How many fine jungle ladies you lure out here that you then gotta pay off so they don't give away the secret location of the secret rebel base they had secret terrible sex in?"

York feigned offense with a loud gasp, putting a hand to his muzzle in mock horror, then very purposefully slinging a firm punch near the top of the bag to make North's head pop back lightly on the other side. "Ha ha, still got jokes, I see," York retorted. "I'll have you know I've never had to pay anyone off to keep a secret -- A: because the sex is never terrible and B: because there's no need to go bringing poor, unsuspecting outsiders back here...we've been attracting some real cuties, man!! Freelancer never looked so ugly by comparison!"

North guffawed and waited for York to finish a quick combination of blows before grinning again and flicking his tail with entertainment. "Yeah, okay, okay, true enough. I saw some foxy dames on the way here. Actually meant to ask you why we're training here in this tiny sparring room instead of in the main space, let all those fine ladies gaze on all this gorgeous Sircan sirloin!"

His friend chuckled back with an easy shrug. "CT's doing a lesson for all the latest recruits in there -- didn't wanna interrupt." His grin eased back somewhat as he slowed his energetic hopping back and forth. North tilted his head curiously and York cleared his throat, then gave a few lighter, almost sheepish punches into the bag. "Plus, I. I dunno. Uh. Figured we hadn't caught up in bit. Since...well. Since that job I had out by Highguard, and uh..."

North studied York curiously -- the guy seemed nervous. That wasn't like York at all. He recalled that job, though, at least somewhat. "That was the possible informant, right? Turned out to be an obvious trap or somethin'?" He scratched at his muzzle while raking through his memories as York's blows against the bag became even gentler. "Thought I remembered you asking for help, but Q-Base didn't have anyone...except then you ended up having a hand anyway? What was up with that?"

York rolled his head back and forth a few times before focusing on the bag. "Yeah, I was gonna do it alone, but. Uh." He rubbed at the end of his muzzle and then took a quick breath as he thrust his fist forward twice, then brought a haymaker with the opposite arm. The blows were strong...but his rhythm was off. "Sammy. Samael, he was just across the border. He heard the call, uh. He stole a car, came over and helped me out. Did a damn good job again, too."

North lifted an eyebrow, barely registering how sloppy the next punch was. "Wait. That...short stubby gay guy? Sounds like he got strained through about five layers of incest?"

"Uh...y-yeah." York nodded and licked his lips, his eyes darting to North for a second before moving back to the bag as he tightened his fists and proceeded to unload a slow but powerful barrage of punches. "Yeah, that. That guy."

"Ha, man, I told you he had it bad for you!" North exclaimed with a shake of his head. He hadn't seen Samael around the base since the redneck's first visit to Lactan from Sidewinder -- he'd assumed the guy had headed back after likely being yelled at by Wash and had continued doing his...gay thing over in Honkal. Nelson seemed even less likely the type to share resources after everything that had happened to her at the original base in Qoppa, so North hadn't figured on seeing him that much more often.

He smirked past the bag at York again. "All the queers you could have chase your tail, you get the one that looks like a midget pro wrestler. Nice one, York. At least it shouldn't be too hard to punt his ass halfway across the ring if he comes on to you again!"

He laughed and prepared for York's next set of strikes...only to lean sideways with an inquisitive squint after a moment or two. York still had his fists raised, but his expression had grown distant as if his body was here but his mind was a thousand miles away. North's frown deepened. "York?"

York's eyes cleared somewhat before drifting hesitantly to meet North's. "Yeah." He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, then exhaled slowly while throwing a punch into the middle of the bag. "Um. So. Actually..." Another punch, a bit harder. "Meeting him. Meeting...Sammy." A third, and then a fourth. North grunted from the impact of the tightly-packed sand. "It made me realize...uh..."

This wasn't just hesitation. York looked scared. North knew his old friend was thick with emotions, it was something they shared. But not about this. They weren't talking about Lina, they weren't talking about the future or some profound, deep subject that required inebriation and a shared acceptance that they were going to be philosophical for a little while. This was just some horny kid who -- like plenty before him -- thought York had a nice ass and probably hoped to get him drunk enough to agree to a blowjob. He stared at York, waiting for the confusion to morph into a punch line.

But York only bit his lip hard, eyes boring into the bag once more as he slammed another, even harder punch. "I'm...I'm into guys, too."

North wasn't sure he heard that correctly. The next punch didn't come as York slowly lifted his eyes to meet North's again. In fact, he was positive he hadn't heard that correctly. "You...you what?"

York shifted his weight before lowering his arms and clearing his throat. "I'm. Not just into girls, I'm into. Into guys, t--"

North cut him off with a loud, sharp laugh, staring in disbelief while stepping away from the bag. He looked York over, head to toe, and then laughed a second time with a quick shake of his head. Was this some kind of a joke? A new...rebel-hazing thing? He waited for the easy grin, for the confident smirk, but all that met his narrowed eyes was the most vulnerable gaze he'd ever seen come out of York's features. North finally managed to scoff. "You? You're...you're joking, right?" A third laugh, this one dripping with the incredulity he no longer bothered to hide. "Dude, you're a goddamn prince of pussy, what the hell kind of drugs are you guys pumping out here?" He threw his arms to either side and glanced around the small room before snorting and looking back to York. "When do the guys pop out with the camera? Before or after I pretend to believe your...gay confessional?"

York's muzzle worked silently for a moment before he gripped into his own shoulder. It wasn't the right motion. It wasn't followed with a cackle, or a middle finger, or an over-exaggerated bow while he boasted what a great actor he was. Nothing about this was right, there was too much terror in York's eyes, too much real trepidation in the way his fingers trembled upon his muscular arm. York's voice was tinny, ragged with apprehension. "No, I'm...I'm serious. I w-was the same at first, too, I...I thought it was just...just my ruff, and being drunk and confused, but I--"

"No, York!" North interrupted with a curt bark of laughter, cutting a hand through the air. "I've known you for years. You're Gabriel Petri, and you ain't a goddamn faggot!"

York blinked and took a step backward, and North's heart clenched. No. No, no, there was absolutely no way. "Hey..." York stammered, swallowing thickly and then dropping his arms as his tail wilted behind him. "North..."

"What?!" North choked out, raising his hands high with another shake of his head.

"I...I still like girls, too, I just--"

"No, man. No, there is no way," North shot back while making a face. It was impossible. Guys like York didn't just turn gay, that didn't happen. That was just some bullshit the House occasionally trotted out to threaten areas with low population. York wouldn't do this, not to himself, not willingly.

York took another shaky breath and then replied slowly: "Well...I. I mean...y-yeah, there is. I just...I hadn't realized it before, and I..."

"So, what?" North exploded, ashamed with himself and yet too infuriated with this confusing nonsense to keep himself reined in. This was his friend, but christ, the guy was on something, or he had someone in his head, screwing with his goddamn brain. "So...so, what, do you...think I'm hot, suddenly? You checking my ass out, should I have been worried all those times in the goddamn locker room??"

York's body crumpled further and the pained expression made North twitch. "Come on, man. I...don't..." York's eyes locked with him and he slowly widened his own.

"Oh my god. What the shit, are you shitting me right now?!" he spat out before gritting his teeth and turning in a tight circle as he tried to grasp into whatever the hell this was.

"North..."

"No, no fuckin' way!" The word sounded foreign, dirty. It tasted like copper and he hated it, but it lurched from his jaws all the same as he emitted a loud, brittle laugh. "I don't fucking believe it, you, you, goddamn Agent York, you suck dick now?" He licked his own lips, finding them as dry as his throat while his claws clenched into his palms, the disbelief twisting violently around his befuddlement. Part of him still waited for York to yell, to take a furious swing no matter where the truth actually fell, because at least that would be something North understood, that would be something he could react to. Something more than just York's broken stare, something beyond his eyes wide with misplaced trust even as they still begged for understanding, for acceptance. He didn't know how to offer that, because the circumstances didn't feel possible.

North chose to shove his skepticism forward instead. "Geezus, man, you...you wear frilly dresses and skirts now, too?" York flinched, his eyes growing hollow. "All the times we knocked some asshole's lights out for telling us our asses looked tight, and now you're one of them? Holy goddamn, maybe you shouldn't have done this rebellion thing, after all!" North took a step toward him, unaware of his own tremor. "It made you a goddamn fairy!"

York clenched his teeth together and took a step as well...only to falter and then look away as shame and self-loathing crashed over his features. North felt sick to his stomach because he knew he'd caused it, but christ, wouldn't he have hoped his friend would do the same for him? Break him out of whatever goddamn spell he was under to act this way?

"North, please..."

North balled up a hand...then thrust out the other arm to jab a finger toward York. "So what? So you spent a few hours getting drunk with the midget cocksucker, the tiny greenhorn queer who probably went on that job just to try and get in your pants, and it...what, unlocked some girly side of you or some shit? You just woke up a few days later, realize you like dicks now, too, because some little redneck bastard faggot said you should?"

York inhaled sharply before closing his eyes for a moment. "North."

"What?"

"I'm...I'm a-asking you as a friend, North," York murmured, opening his eyes and revealing an expression that burned intensely despite the way his voice wavered. "Stop calling him that."

North crossed his arms and set his jaw stubbornly. "Why? Why's this one different, why is he any different from any other painted-claw, metal-studded, dick-hungry fairy we've ever run into before?!"

York grit his teeth again before swallowing and then answering in a near-whisper: "Because Sammy, he..."

North stared at him, refusing to believe it. It was even more impossible than York suddenly lusting after guys. "He what?"

"He...he and I..."

The color drained from North's face and his shoulders finally collapsed as all the unbridled confusion and misguided anger melted into raw stupefaction. "...You're pulling my goddamn leg. Him?"

York wrestled with himself for a moment and North had to look away when the tan bastard actually reached up to brush at one eye. "That night. A-after we left the bar. A-a-and then...later that day, when. When I got back from a supply run." North reached out silently to grip into the chain of the sand-bag, unable to stand on his own accord as York's words left him beyond speechless. "...And after Highguard."

"Ho. Lee. Shit," North uttered, his eyes bulging as he shook his head slowly. "I...York..."

York took a deep breath and then at last looked away again as he rubbed at his chest, his fingers brushing past the key. "It wasn't just some...drunken fling. I mean...I...I guess the first one was, but...the other times..."

"No...no, I just. I can't believe this, York," North muttered while rubbing at his temple slowly. "You're...you're just going through some shit. Maybe it's Lina --" He twitched when York stiffened up and stared mutely at him. "Maybe...maybe it's just...everything else you've gone through. But there is no goddamn way in hell the guy who shared the top of the boards at Freelancer with me, the guy who was there with me when we won our third league championship in a row, the guy who could get with any chick he wanted -- and did -- is now...now some fruitcake shoving his dick inside a damn Sampian midget." North shook his head once more and took a step back before forcing himself to turn toward the door. "No goddamn way."

"North, please..."

"I'm gonna...I'm gonna go take a long goddamn walk, and...we'll talk." He opened the door but couldn't avoid looking back at the stricken chupa, his green eyes threatening to flood with more than just emotions. "We'll talk and you'll see this...this is just something that'll pass. You'll see." He nodded, and he told himself it was more than just a self-reassurance. "You'll see." He pushed through the door and took a long, slow breath.

York was his friend. He'd managed to survive losing his partner, and she was the best thing that ever happened to him -- sure, maybe North hadn't been the one to help him overcome it, but he'd seen him recover, enough to keep running missions, enough to escape Freelancer. And he still believed firmly this was where York needed to be, doing what he needed to be doing. It was probably just some lingering trauma to work through. They'd beat this, they'd conquer this just like every other challenge they'd ever faced before.

Things were gonna be just fine.


It'd taken a little longer than North intended before he met up with York again -- he'd meant it to just be a few hours. But it was long past sundown before he had dropped into a booth across from his friend, forty-some hours after their conversation in the training room. A call from Freelancer and a nearby job had gotten in the way.

He figured that was alright, though. Gave them both a chance to put their heads on straight, get past the emotional discomfort. He knew they had a reputation as jocks, sure, but North wasn't about to be an asshole and pretend emotions didn't exist. There was a reason he and York had always gotten along so well, after all. They were badasses with soul. And they were there for each other, because not everyone understood the tightrope they walked to maintain who they were.

North was relieved, regardless, that York seemed far calmer. They were both adults, and they'd both been through plenty. They could get through this, too. North smiled to himself as he pushed a fresh beer across the table. He was pretty sure he knew exactly how to do it, too. "So, what ya been up to tonight, ya giant gay?"

York quirked an eyebrow, though the tone was playful enough that he eventually snorted and popped the lid off his bottle. "Toldja, bisexual. It's not that crazy, dude. Anyway, had some vehicle maintenance we worked on and I was helping some of the guys with sorting a new batch of radio parts for our comms repairs."

North twitched but reminded himself it wasn't going to just be some switch he pulled. The guy was working through some stuff, that was all. "Uh huh." He guzzled from his own beer for a moment, then wiped his muzzle and gestured toward York. "Okay, okay, so...on that note."

York gave him a pointed look before sipping from the bottle. "Which one? The note about boring daily tasks? Or the bisexual one that's got you acting like a real asshole?"

North scoffed but brushed off the insult easily -- just part of the process. "Yeah, yeah, just hear me out." He took another drink as well, then grunted and tapped his bottle against the table top. "I think I've got it figured out, man." York seemed a mix of amused and wary as he tilted his head but otherwise remained silent, waving at his friend to continue. "Alright, so you mentioned you were in the ruff after the, uh. Mission with." He fought not to make a face. This was about finding a solution, not slinging vitriol at some random rookie who, admittedly, seemed just fine to North past the whole super-gay thing. He didn't need to vilify that guy to get his point across. "With Samael."

...He reserved the right to belittle if he had to, though.

York gave a half-smile. "Yeah? When's the last time we talked cycles, North, you and I both know that we're out prowling the streets 'n rocking the sheets whether or not the spines are up, that's just who we are."

North huffed but nodded a few times. "Yeah, true, true, but listen, man. You know it's harder to think straight -- in your case, apparently, literally --" He paused long enough to appreciate his own pun as York only looked at him flatly. "But on top of the ruff, you were drunk, too. And you guys were riding that mission high, still. Sounds like it was one of his first real jobs, too, so I know you were helping him feel good about it." York was still fixing him with an inquisitive gaze, clearly waiting for him to get to the point. North snorted but shrugged easily. "So I figure, I remember the guy was kinda small. Sure, he's beefy, but he's...thick? Sooo, you're horny, you're drunk, you're celebrating...and through all that, Sammy feels kinda like--"

"A woman?" York supplied with a thin smile.

North broke into his own relieved smile. "Yeah! Exactly, you get where I'm going with this! It's got you all confused and--"

York laughed quietly, but the gentle sound was more than enough to stumble North's train of thought. "God, man, it's...it's kinda hilarious, honestly. You're as bad as me." He smiled a bit. "As bad as I was, I should say. That's exactly what I told Sammy, and what I told CT later, too."

North blinked before swinging his free arm out to the side. "And?? How is that bad? It makes sense, don't it?!"

York continued to smile, an honest expression rather than a hesitant one this time. "No, man. No, it...it doesn't make sense. I get it -- I wanted it to make sense at first, because..." He shook his head and glanced down at his bottle. "I was scared, too."

"I'm not scared," North interrupted before forcing a quick laugh. "But then again, I'm not a queer like you."

"Dude." York gave him a reprimanding look and North wrinkled his muzzle. "First of all, I wasn't even still in season when I met up with him at Highguard." North shifted on the bench-style seat and lifted his beer to his lips with a grimace while York looked at him evenly. "And I get where you're coming from, I do. I was there, too, but...I made myself be honest. It wasn't just Sammy's personality I was into. I was...I'm still attracted to him, physically. I'm attracted to guys, not just girls, it's as simple as that."

North's teeth ground together before he groaned and dropped his head into a hand. "God, I...there is nothing simple about that, dammit!" he sputtered. "I just. I don't...I don't understand how you just...suddenly decide one day, 'oh hey, I like taking it up the ass!'. It doesn't make sense!"

York sighed, though he reacted far less sensitively than earlier. North wasn't sure he liked that fact. "North, it's...not about that. This doesn't change who I am. I'm still the same guy, the same person you've always known."

"No you aren't!" North argued, his features scrawled with disbelief. "Because the York I know would never even think about putting his dick in some other guy's hands!"

York looked at him for a few seconds before lowering his eyes again and taking a long sip. "How do you know?"

"I...I just...what do you mean, how do I know?"

"Sure, we've never been shy talking about what we do in the bedroom, we traded stories all the time back then, but..." York exhaled. "How would you know if I was having sex with guys and not just girls? Did you ever come in and watch?"

North blinked stupidly. "Were you?!"

"No, no, I..." York sighed. "Like I said, meeting Sammy and...and sharing what I did with him, that's what helped me understand. But it doesn't change who I--"

"It kind of does," North exclaimed before he gave his own sigh and shook his head several times. "I...okay, look, whatever, whatever. You big queer, geezus." York gave him another mild look and North frowned slightly. "You're still my friend, man. And if you wanna try out this whole...having-sex-with-guys thing for a while, okay, sure. Experiment, I guess." York opened his muzzle but North held out a hand. "It's fine, just don't expect me to participate. We'll have a big laugh about it later when you work all this gay stuff outta your system."

"North, I--"

"No, no, it's fine...in fact, you know what, let's just not even talk about it, okay?" He quickly finished the last of his beer and nodded a few times. "I gotta catch you up on the latest stuff from Freelancer, anyway -- let me grab a few more beers and we'll get down to business."

York finally sighed again and leaned back. "Alright, man. Yeah, let's...let's do that, then."

"Good, I'll be right back," North mumbled as he pushed himself away from the booth to make a beeline for the bar. Goddammit, that hadn't gone as planned. It was alright. There'd be more chances -- and hell, maybe York did just need a little more exposure for himself before he realized how weird it all was.


It was a few days later when North again found himself at L-Base -- he kinda regretted how long it had been, since he'd meant what he'd said about being York's friend. He just kind of wanted this whole awkward thing to be done with, though, so they could go back to the way things were before. A return to normalcy...or as normal as things could be when you were playing double-agent between Freelancer and the Movement.

"York said they're hanging out in the bar -- you comin' with?"

South made a face. "Yeah, no. I'm gonna go take a fuckin' nap because you made me drive the last ten fucking hours."

"No one handles a wet, bumpy ride like you, sis!" North teased, earning a painful blow to his shoulder for his troubles. "Ow! I'm tellin' Mom!"

"I'll send you up there myself, asshole," she retorted. But she smiled slightly all the same and tossed a careless wave over a shoulder before turning to head for her bunk. "Tell CT she's still a bitch if you see her."

"Always happy I can keep passing your love notes for you!" he called after her. He snickered and then let his paws steer him toward the cantina. This route was starting to become familiar already, at least.

He entered the bar and at first smiled brightly when he saw York across the room, until he saw that his massive friend was seated with a couple of other rebels from the base...and Samael. North squared his jaw but then cleared his throat and called out in a mockingly-chipper voice: "Yoooo, York! You still a giant homo??"

The occupants of the table all turned to peer over at him. He could feel York's disapproval through the long look he got from him....and then noticed Samael's gaze on him as well. Even at this distance, those blue eyes bored into North's own and made him freeze in place for a moment or two. He didn't feel hostility from the midget, just a kind of searching. Like he was looking for something inside of North that North himself didn't know he had.

North only gave a glower in return before smiling when York excused himself from the table and came over to greet him. North immediately threw an arm around his shoulders to show he wasn't holding any of York's weird experimenting against him. "York! Good to see ya, pal."

"Yeah, man...same." York gave a wry smile. "Aren't you worried you'll catch my gay?"

North scowled but didn't flinch as York tossed an arm around him in return, letting himself be guided to another table. "Guess that means you're still trying out the bicycle with no seat, huh?" North taunted before stealing another look at Samael, who was still studying him from across the bar. "Ugh, what the hell's the snow-queer doing here? You sure you wanna spend time around him while you're...you know, figuring this stuff out? Isn't he gonna...I dunno, distract you or affect your decisions while he's trying to choke down your cock?"

York's chuckle was patient, if a bit faint. "Aw, c'mon, there's lots to make fun of Sammy for, at least get to know the guy better before you go after his...gayness."

"Pff, sounds like you're going after his gayness enough for both of us, dude." North shrugged as they sat down. "Besides, chill out, I didn't call him a fag, alright?"

York shifted but then glanced back toward the other table. Samael's piercing gaze at last broke from North to shift to York -- North was pretty sure he saw a flicker of concern in Samael's eyes before the two shared some silent, gay communication and the redneck gave a small smile instead. York offered one of his own as he turned his attention back to North. "You know, I think I'm realizing at least one reason why Sammy was the first who made me...um..."

"Want to put a dick in your mouth?" North replied drolly.

"Man, seriously?"

"I'm just sayin'!" North protested while throwing an arm toward Samael's table. "Yeah, he's...friendly and tough and I'm sure he can take care of himself, blah blah blah, has no shame about the fact he's gay, but--"

"But that's it," York interrupted, tapping a claw insistently against the table between them. "He...he isn't ashamed. He's fine with it, he's...happy with it."

"I don't get how, but whatever, man, that's. That's his thing," North muttered dismissively. "Only thing pissing me off is the way he's gone and gotten you all mixed up with it, too." He shot another glare to Samael before blinking as York sighed heavily. "What? Aw, c'mon, man -- do you really wanna be like that guy? Flouncing around, giving every other dude big eyes and hopin' they invite you back to some dark alley? You realize everyone else is making fun of him, is making his life miserable."

"Not everyone," York replied quietly while leaning back and studying North. The somber expression was enough to make North tear his attention away from the glower toward Samael. "Sure, he's outgoing, and he doesn't hide it. That's his personality. We...we never hid the way we were, did we?"

"That's different, we were...we were the goddamn cream of the crop, York! Guys envied us, ladies wanted us...they looked up to us! They still do!"

York rubbed at his chest for a few seconds. "I don't think everyone did."

North scoffed. "So? So what, man, who didn't? Some nerds that weren't ever gonna be our friends, anyway?"

"Wash never looked at us that way."

North opened his maw and then blinked again before slowly closing it again. There was no good response to that, and it wasn't even just because of York; Wash was North's friend, too.

He stared at York as the seconds ticked past. York eventually let out another soft sigh, and the look he gave North was painfully vulnerable. "I understand that this makes you uncomfortable. But there are always gonna be people who don't like something about you, or who make fun of some part of you. Just like there will always be people who don't mind, who accept it and. And still consider you a friend." He glanced back toward Samael and North did the same with a frown.

The redneck was chatting away with the other three rebels -- two guys and a girl, none of whom North recognized. But they looked normal to him. No strange piercings, no extravagant clothes or grand gestures. Yeah, North got what his friend was saying. They were interacting with Samael normally, treating him like he was one of them. Well fine, so the little gay asshole was charismatic, too. Didn't mean he could just go and screw up York's life like this.

North rolled his shoulders. Sometimes you had to be a bigger asshole to help your friends, though. "Alright, how 'bout this, York -- I'm gonna go over there, have a chat with. With, ah. Sammy. Whatever he did to you--"

"North." York reached out and North frowned, making York hesitate before actually making contact with his arm.

"I'm serious, he's making you think you're into guys, he's got you all messed up and I just want to talk--"

"North."

"What?!"

York ran his tongue along the end of his muzzle before letting his hand drop onto North's forearm. North flinched but didn't pull away. It was still York. "He...didn't make me think anything." North grit his teeth and glared across the bar as Samael threw his head back with a laugh, the entire table laughing along with whatever he'd just said. "He helped me understand I've...I've always been this way. This is just who I am."

North tore his eyes away as he stared at York for a moment. He swallowed, not wanting to accept it, but knowing that if York insisted, then... "Fine. I...I told you you're my friend, and I meant that. Maybe it'll take me some time to, to, adjust, but. But he is still a fruitcake, and I'm gonna--"

York's fingers tightened around his arm. "Sammy is my friend." North froze, locking his gaze onto York as the tan chupa gave a tiny shake of his head. "So. So no. You won't."

North tried to find the right words again. It was difficult, though. He kept trying to help York play this off as something they could push through together and...and York wasn't on the same page. And the further this went, the more it seemed like...he was serious about this. He really did mean this, it wasn't just...

North glanced down at the hand still grasping into his forearm. A small part of him wanted to pull away, but he didn't feel an ounce of disgust like he did at first. This was still his friend and even if he wanted it to be a phase, York was being as honest as he'd been those nights he told North every secret in his heart about all the things he dreamed about doing with Lina, all the places they'd go and the quiet, peaceful life he wanted. The words he'd spoken these last few conversations had come from his heart and the more North tried to deny it, the worse he felt, because he didn't want to lose his friend. Not over this. Not over anything.

But he still didn't know what to say or what to do, how to even try and process this and...

He blinked when the grip on his arm loosened, stirred from the swirling thoughts as York pulled his arm back and stood up first. North was almost afraid to look -- goddammit, what if he'd tried to fight this too hard, what if he'd been too convinced he could fight it and now his friend was going to tell him to get lost?

But when he looked up, the smile that met him was real, even if it ached a bit. North empathized. "Hey, man, look. Swear I'm not running out on you, but I promised Sammy we could work out, do a little sparring." He glanced toward the short rebel. "CT still isn't sure about him, even if they talk alright. No surprise, Wash can't stand him, and apparently you can't, either, so. So I'm gonna keep trying to help him not feel like the weird outsider around here." He nodded once, hesitated and then lifted a fist with a tilt of his head. "Wanna talk later?"

The guilt was a drum pounding away in his head. North stared at his fist for a few seconds, then nodded back and bumped his knuckles lightly to York's. Woulda been a lie to say anything else. "Yeah. Yeah, man. Sounds good."

York granted him another smile laced with hope. "Cool. See you then, North." He tipped his head and then ambled toward the other table while calling out: "Yo, Sammy! Quit tryin' to turn the rest of our people gay, let's go practice that ugly-ass left hook of yours!"

North didn't miss the irony. Except what came out of York's mouth was playful. There weren't any uncomfortable looks, no one seemed hesitant to laugh. Sounded like something a real friend would actually say. He watched as Samael hopped up with a laugh, quick to wrap an arm around York's waist before he took a moment to glance over at North.

North stared back wordlessly, and after a few seconds, was gifted with a warm smile from the little redneck. And he already knew Samael wasn't an idiot. He might have had the same stupid, goofy look on his face that York and North shared, but his emotional depth was beyond even York's. Didn't take long to pick up on that. He had to have known what North was saying but...there it was. A smile so kind it hurt.

He tried a glare, anyway, to see if it would help him feel better. But it only made Samael's smile falter somewhat, and made his own remorse grumble a bit louder from the back of his consciousness. He sighed and slumped in the chair as the two strode out of the bar, leaving him to rub at his muzzle slowly.

He'd expected danger running out to do double-duty for both the Movement and Freelancer. He'd been ready for exhaustion and juggling lies and keeping a pair of eyes on the back of his head at all times.

He sure as hell hadn't been expecting so much gay drama.


North breathed out hard as the heavy iron bar settled back into the notches, the entire weight bench trembling from the countless poundage he'd just lowered into place. He sat up and looked around while letting his heaving chest begin to calm. Still no sign of York or Samael. He hadn't even wanted to hound them, just...maybe try and talk to them both. Or at least talk to York. Maybe...maybe even apologize.

But wherever they'd gone to train, it wasn't anywhere North could find. That same quiet part of him wondered if they were actively trying to avoid him. Maybe York had already decided enough was enough. Maybe his friend was finally sick of him living in the past, unable to adapt and change and evolve.

North looked down at himself as the sweat ran from his plastered-down mane across his muzzle and into his lap. He hated that thought, and for more than one reason. He cared about York, he was one of his oldest friends who was still alive. He hated the idea that he couldn't adapt, something they'd been trained to do, to be ready for anything and to have the ability to adjust to any scenario. He could do it in the field...but not with his personal life? And yet, he hated the idea that he had to evolve. He'd spent a long time in this comfortable lull, never far from the top, never having to try, just kicking the same kind of ass he was used to and being praised for it, lauded and adored for barely breaking a sweat. His admirers were everywhere, he never had to worry about being lonely or being shunned...

...but nothing had ever stung quite as much as watching York walk away from him with the implication that their friendship was a tenuous thing now, something he could lose and something he cared about losing more than any other status or title or honorific. God, this sucked.

He sighed loudly and reached blindly for a towel. He was surprised how quickly his fingers closed around the soft cloth, lifting his head and then widening his eyes at the crossed-out omega tattoo. His eyes traced up along the muscular arm to find Samael smiling down at him, York standing next to him with the same kind expression. "Heya, big man -- hope we din' scare ya none, just saw you in here sweatin' away, figured you could use one'a these."

He continued to stare at Samael for a second or two, then finally nodded stupidly while mumbling a thank you for the towel. "Sorry, thought. Thought I'd get a little exercise since...er."

"Since you didn't see us in here?" York ventured as he offered a hand. North looked at it briefly, then grasped into his wrist and let his friend heft him to his feet.

North huffed quietly before rolling his shoulders and nodded lamely. "Yeah."

York smiled again before elbowing Samael. "We go up to the roof to spar sometimes. This weird little gnome likes being outside whenever possible."

"Hey! When ya growed up in a cave, you take all the gat-damn fresh air you c'n take!" Samael retorted before wiggling his eyebrows at North. "Plus it's a whole lot more private up 'ere, y'know what I mean."

North stiffened up before exhaling and then attempting a sheepish smile. "I, uh. I guess it's...good that you guys didn't invite me to your, um. Gay party."

York snorted and glanced at Samael, who only winked back at him before studying his features for a moment. North watched before leaning away automatically when Samael turned his attention to him once more. "Heh. Maybe, maybe not." He reached up to pat York's cheek lightly, making North grimace...except he couldn't help but notice how easily York was smiling. It wasn't some punch-drunk smile, some dazed expression being fed by the afterglow of weird rooftop sex. It was York's smile, the cool, easy, happy smile North had always known.

He cast his eyes down as Samael added: "I'mma go hit the showers, then I gotta actually go do the job in Lamtha Nelson sent me out here for." North lifted his gaze long enough to see Samael smile between the two larger chupas. "You fellas take care, huh? Maybe I'll see ya 'fore sunrise if I get done with the gig quick 'nuff." He raised a fist and York immediately bumped it before offering a friendly wave to North as he trotted past them and toward the locker rooms.

North watched him for a second or two, then glanced back at York, who was still giving the same relaxed smile. He knew this was completely on him how things went at this point. He shuffled his paws, then set his jaw squarely and met his friend's gaze. "York...can we. Can we go chat?"

York wrapped an arm around his shoulders and waited a moment...and North found himself only squirming slightly before his body relaxed and allowed him to return the motion. "Sure thing, pal. C'mon, my bunk's not too far. Got some mostly-cold beer, I think..."

North relaxed further and chuckled a bit. "Sounds about right. Let's go."


The walk to York's room wasn't as awkward as North was expecting. They fell into an easy conversation, discussing the latest jobs that had been going out at Freelancer, South's brush with a HADES squad on her last takedown, and of course the fact North's old partner was now actively participating in their little rebel games, too. Having Tex on their side made the crazy dream feel that much more within reach, if only because the woman wouldn't stop at a damn thing to achieve whatever she set her eyes on. Gave them one hell of an advantage. You know, assuming she didn't go off and do some crazy thing on her own accord as she tended to do.

They caught up like they had between missions at Freelancer, like when Wash, York and CT first started L-Base and the visits from North and South couldn't be as frequent as they were now. It felt natural, it felt the way North wanted things to keep feeling. But he couldn't help feeling terrified for the inevitable change, what would undoubtedly be a shift in how they interacted. He'd have to change how he talked to York, how he behaved and reacted to things. He'd have to treat York differently, remember that York had transformed and was becoming a new person.

But...but that was okay, right? York was still his friend, after all, and he had no intention of that stopping. He was willing to try and do what he could to accommodate his friend because, well. Because that was what friends did, wasn't it? He knew York wouldn't have hesitated to accept whatever he needed about North, too. His pal deserved the same.

It didn't stop him from feeling a bolt of nervousness at York's door, all the same. He stopped at the threshold to look at York for a moment or two. Part of him wondered if this was it, the last moment of things being this way before everything shifted and peeled away to reveal what was beneath. It was alright, though. He accepted it.

He took a deep breath and then walked into York's room as his buddy followed. York nudged the door partially shut, and North figured that was fine. He wanted a little privacy but realized he also didn't want to act like this was something that had to be mumbled behind closed doors. He'd seen for himself that York was comfortable with himself in the bar, didn't mind the teasing when it had been just that. Just teasing, nothing cruel or insulting.

Another burst of guilt as North hesitantly sat on the end of the bed. He looked around the room as he berated himself for the things he'd said. Some little voice still told him it would be so much better if York did just admit it'd all been a phase, that he'd messed around and was sure he didn't like guys, he was ready to go back to who he was. But that lone voice was drowned out by the chorus that had begun to rise ever since York had walked out of the bar earlier. It was wrong to try and tell York he was changing for the worse. That wasn't North's call.

"Yo, beer's up, man." North glanced over a shoulder with a hand instinctively lifted...and just like their days in Specials, a can of beer slapped almost perfectly against his palm before he'd even seen it coming. He grinned a bit and York returned the expression. "Still got it, Northy."

"I guess we both do, old man," North replied with a soft chuckle before they both popped the tabs and took matching guzzles. York eventually wandered over and leaned against the dresser across from the bed while the two friends studied each other. North figured the silence would be a lot more uncomfortable, but. No. They were in that quiet place, after the party when they were the last two awake and were prone to chatting about things they normally didn't, especially in front of anyone else.

As good a place as any.

North squeezed his can slowly, and the aluminum creaked against his thick fingers. "York, I wanna...I wanna say I'm sorry for being an asshole about this. About this whole thing."

He looked up and knew not to expect anything harsh. It was still gut-wrenching to see only a soft gaze waiting, York giving him more patience than he deserved. "It's...it's alright, man, the way we were...and how you know me..."

"I just." He sighed. "I just want to tell you that I understand." North paused and then squeezed his shoulders together a bit. "Okay, that's not completely true. I don't want to lie. I don't understand completely yet, but I also think I get that...this isn't just some phase or an act or anything."

"That means a lot to hear," York murmured. "I know what you're feeling, I really do. I was pissed off and then I was scared and then I was...confused for a long time." He smiled a bit and met North's gaze. "And you aren't even the one realizing you like dicks."

North snorted and a faint but honest smile glanced along his features. "Shut up. It's, ah. It's hard to wrap my head around it, is all. And I guess I'm scared of losing another friend. We've lost a lot these last couple years."

York frowned and leaned forward a bit. "We have, man, but. You aren't gonna lose me, North. I'm right here."

North sighed. "I don't. Ugh. Don't mean like that, I mean. It's selfish, but I'm just. Gonna miss the York I knew, I guess. But I want you to...to be yourself, man, I want you to be happy, and. I want you to know it's fine, and I'm gonna try to stop being such an ass about it."

He glanced away before grimacing at the sound of York setting his can on the dresser and taking a step closer to him. He dragged his eyes back to his friend and found York showing that flicker of vulnerability again. "This...this isn't much easier for me to talk about, I'm still trying to figure some things out, too, but. You gotta understand, pal." He waited for North's eyes to meet his before he continued. "I'm still that York. It's...it's still me, I just. I got twice as many people to bone, now." North snorted again and York gave his own chuckle before he rubbed a hand through his incidentally-perfect mane. "I'm serious, though. I don't feel like a new person, it's different. I feel...complete. Not changed."

North bit his lip as he tried to understand. God, was he trying. "But you were the most confident guy I ever knew, and you loved who you were. You weren't ever ashamed and you didn't give a damn what anyone said. Not about you, or me, or Wash, or any of us."

York reached down to squeeze one of his shoulders lightly, then turned around to hop onto the dresser and pick his beer back up. "Does it look like I'm any less confident, dude? Sure, my first couple days, I was, well. Pretty nervous. I figured everyone was gonna make fun of me, call me names..." North looked at his can shamefully. "Think less of me. And a few people did, sure. But a few people used to think the same things about us back in the good old days, too. We didn't care then, either. I'm...I'm not ashamed of who I am."

North stared down before lifting his head with the last bastion of his strained desperation to understand. "So...so you're fine with being gay?"

York gave him that same bemused smile. "Dude. Bisexual."

North retorted with a huff. "Yeah, and?"

"North, I'm not just fine." York finished the rest of his can and then looked down at it between his fingers as he smiled. "I'm...happy, man. I'm happy because this is who I am. Who I've always been. I wish it hadn't taken me so long to find out."

North felt the final barriers start to crumble as the weak remainders of his resistance collapsed beneath the weight of reality. "You're...you really are serious. About...christ, about everything you've said."

York met his eyes, and goddamn if he wasn't telling the truth -- not a hint of shame. "Yeah. Yeah, I am."

North exhaled, a slow, drawn-out sound. He took a moment to study his beer, nursing the can between both hands."I. I don't know what you want me to say."

York sighed and then trudged over to sit next to him on the end of the bed. He dropped his arms onto his thighs and leaned forward while locking his eyes with the cheap carpet below. "I dunno, man. That...that you're still my friend?" He looked over and North glanced up as well, finding his gaze a mix of pleading and hopeful. "Or...that this is too much for you. And that's okay if it is, I'll understand, but I just want you to be honest for both our sake, so..."

"No, no...no." North took in a deep breath and then lifted a hand and dropped it onto his companion's shoulder. "I support you, York. I'm still your friend, that...that ain't ever gonna change. No matter what." He was still waiting for the hammer to drop, for a longer glimpse of the new side of his pal. He just wanted that to be done with, so he could get used to it.

...But it never did. York didn't start sobbing in relief, or suddenly cling to him and cry into his chest while thanking him for understanding. He just sat there. Even the way his eyes gazed at him wasn't weird or discomforting. It was the same deep, honest gaze York had always possessed, the same look that North knew could look further than most. It had never bothered him before. It didn't bother him now. Even if it now came out of a face that stared at dicks and said 'hot damn, that looks pretty awesome!'

North trembled before York did, a moue of bewilderment creasing his muzzle. "I...I've been a goddamn idiot, haven't I?"

York laughed quietly, throwing his arm around North's shoulders without hesitation. "Hey, man. We've both been there."

"Never with each other," North muttered, slumping a bit under his companion's arm.

"Aw, that's not true," York replied, flicking his tail lightly against North's. "You mighta let me forget about Emily, but I never did."

North smiled faintly despite himself. "You really thought I was gonna get off to some chick tied up and pretending she was a reluctant prize from the other team."

York smiled back wryly even as he rubbed at his face sheepishly. "She said she was into it, but still one of the stupidest things I ever did. And boy, you were pissed."

"I was pissed, yeah...that stuff always got me riled up, but not in the good way." He smirked as some of the tension drifted away. "You weren't into it either. You just thought I was."

"Like I said, man." York squeezed the arm around his shoulders. "We've both been stupid. I forgive you, you know I do. I care more about you...being honest. If you can handle it, hey, that's awesome -- I swear, we go back to how things were, just. Y'know."

"You like dicks and tits now, yeah, I think I'm getting it," North supplied with a half-smile.

York grinned back. "Yeah, exactly. Or if you couldn't handle it, then. Woulda been okay, too. As long as no one's having to pretend something is okay when it isn't."

"I appreciate you saying that," North murmured, pulling York closer to his side as they leaned toward one another and dropped their foreheads together like they had before every game. "God. I have to go apologize to Sammy, too, though, don't I?"

York guffawed and they both leaned back, North catching a playful twinkle in his friend's eye. "Heh, yeaaah, I mean. You probably should. Even though he ain't gonna hold it against you."

"...Why? Because he wants to suck my dick?"

York's eyes bulged slightly. "North!"

"It was a joke, it was a joke!" He held up his other hand with a smile. And this time it actually was.

York chuckled before giving his own smirk. "I mean. He probably does, though."

It was North's turn for his eyes to widen as he pursed his muzzle. "Oh god," he mumbled, rubbing at his neck awkwardly.

York's smile flooded him with reassurance...and maybe a little hint of playfulness, too. "Don't knock it 'til you try it, dude." North looked at him flatly and York's grin returned with gusto. "Kidding, kidding. Sammy's...he's just dumb and self-sacrificing like that. He'd rather forgive than hold a grudge when it comes to things like this."

North laughed a bit. "Like you?"

His companion reached over to prod his chest. "And like you too, pal."

North blinked but smiled after a beat, nodding his acknowledgment. "Fair enough. Still not sure how concerned I should be that you fell for some guy who's like our long lost brother. Although in his case, what was 'long lost' was about two feet of vertical height..."

York snickered and loosened the arm around his shoulders to elbow him gently. "Hey, if you were smart, you'd be jealous. I'm one helluva catch, yanno." He hopped off the end of the bed and moved back toward the mini fridge as North rolled his eyes but smiled again.

"Gross. Only person on Sirca crazy enough to not throw you back as soon as you showed up on their line," North replied. He saw York's pause but the misty smile over a shoulder told him his friend appreciated the memory. "Well. I guess two, now."

Another easy laugh as York returned with two more beers. "Whoa, whoa -- Sammy might be a close friend, but, uh...we aren't doing anything...permanent." He shrugged a bit and North accepted the offered can while York plopped back onto the bed. "Kinda funny, I haven't told Sammy about...about her, but it's like he knows anyway. And I think he's got someone from his past hangin' around him, too. He sorta seemed to just sorta know I wasn't ready for something, uh. You know."

"More than 'friends with benefits'?" North attempted with a half-smile. It was finally becoming a little less weird to think about. York hadn't been lying, everything about this still felt like old times with his friend. Still felt like York. "Don't know how I'd feel about you being all doe-eyed for someone half your size, it'd make all those jabs about your tiny dick too obvious."

York looked surprised before he grinned again and threw up a middle finger. "Hey! Ass." He paused long enough for them both to open the cans and have matching sips. "I. I did think about it. Sammy's a great guy and...hell, I still don't know what I'm doing, but if there's anyone on the damn ring who'd make it okay despite that, it'd be him. Got the biggest, dumbest heart I've met." His grin melted down to a softer smile. "Maybe I should ask him out so someone else doesn't take advantage of that and turn the guy into a chained-up puppy.."

North laughed and rubbed a thumb along the cool metal of his can. "Heh, maybe he thinks the same about you. Probably doesn't want your heart breaking again." He glanced up and saw York fingering the key silently. He wondered what Lina would have thought of all this. He was sure York had thought about it -- he knew the guy consulted her plenty in life, had little doubt he continued seeking her advice from beyond the grave, too.

Something told North she would have just grinned and cuffed the back of his head, told him it was about damn time he figured it out. He shook his head and then gripped harder into the can. He still felt like he was tiptoeing over broken glass, like if he spent too much time talking about this, he'd slip up, make a snide comment or some assumption that offended York. But he owed it to his friend to try despite how shaky he felt about it.

He took a slow breath of air in, then looked up at York to meet his curious gaze. "So...so how did...you know?" York tilted his head a bit and North grimaced as he scratched a claw against the rim of his can sheepishly. "Sorry, I'm not tryin' to...um. Be offensive."

York reached over to squeeze his arm briefly. It didn't make him flinch. "You're fine, pal. I know it's strange, and you don't have to talk about it."

He wrinkled his muzzle a bit before exhaling. "No, I want to." He gave a half-smile. "I want to try, at least. Look, just. Don't hesitate to take a swing at me if I say something stupid, huh?"

York smiled -- it was teasing, but North didn't miss the notes of gratitude underneath. "Fair enough. What do you mean, though? How did I know that...uh..."

"Yeah, um." North gestured awkwardly with the beer toward his friend. "I mean. Was it because of the sex, or...uh...just Sammy, or..."

York himself looked sheepish as he toyed with his can as well. "I. I guess a little of both? And man, it wasn't like...I met him and suddenly I was into guys. I told him up and down he was chasing the wrong tail, I had no interest, all that." He smiled wistfully. "Little dude was somehow persistent without being offensive. It was flattering. And I saw him as a friend within just a few hours of meeting, so. I dunno. He hit a lot of chords for me, first as just a pal, but then we were in the bar, after you left. Kept drinking...kept drinking..." He chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. "One thing led to another. I told myself I was just letting him have a moment, since he'd done so good on the job and was, uh. Y'know, kinda cute and so I figured, 'hey, just a handjob, and no one's gonna know'. That kinda thing."

North squirmed a bit but eyed his friend measuringly. "Heh -- hey, it must have been one hell of a handjob?"

York gave a crooked grin, rolling his head lamely from side to side. "Kiiiiind of turned into a blowjob. Like I said, I was...very drunk."

North scoffed and then let a soft frown crease his features. "Okay, but seriously. Nothing against Sammy but...but did he do some bad shit to you that first time?" York's eyes widened and North winced, already regretting the suggestion but knowing he cared too much about his friend to not at least ask.

But York seemed less offended than he did concerned about the facts. "No...no, no. Christ, you and CT both -- kind of adorable, but -- I mean, he knew I was drunk, but he was plastered, too. And. If I'm being honest..." He cleared his throat and tapped his claws against the can, a timid smile replacing the earlier grin. "If anything, I. I kind of...uh. The first two times. I, uh. Between the ruff and not wanting to think too hard about it being a guy..."

North's eyes slowly widened. "Oh...oh god, York. Do...I need to apologize to him twice? I remember kicking a lot of guys' asses for pulling shit like that with a chick, man, we never stood for that! Don't tell me I gotta kick your ass for Sammy's honor, now..."

A relieved laugh spilled back over the nervous expression as York stretched out a leg to nudge his friend playfully. "God, no, it's okay, I promise. He and I have talked about it since then and...yeah, like I said. The dumb bastard is too good for his own good. He doesn't hold any of it against me."

"Christ, he is too good for you," North remarked, even as he gave an easier smile as well and relaxed enough to take a long sip of his beer. "I think I can already get why Wash doesn't like him, he probably never expected to have a midget clone of you to deal with on top of having to turn into the leader he never wanted to be. But why doesn't CT like him?"

"Oh, she doesn't...not like him, I think she's still trying to gauge him. He and I have run a couple of small jobs since Highguard but nothing huge." York rubbed at his muzzle thoughtfully. "But I think she's coming around, he's just still kind of the outsider -- we don't exactly get a lot of visitors from Sidewinder."

North took a deep breath and then reached out to gently punch York's arm before sliding off the bed. "Then...come on. Sounds like he's gonna make a point to come by after his Lamtha gig, whether or not he actually has the time. Let's uh...let's put together a little barbeque or something. Show the rest of the gang he's cool."

This time it looked like York might actually start crying. "Hell yeah...he'll love it." York quickly polished off his can and tossed it toward the wastebasket before beaming as he hopped down and trotted toward the door. "Let's get this crazy little redneck adopted properly!"


* * *


"York, ya know I trust you, but remind me why you aren't taking the lead?"

North eyed Samael through the window, watching the stocky rebel gesture with animated motions to a corporal who was apparently acting as the secretary for the depot. Samael was wearing a polo shirt and almost-neatly-pressed khaki pants...neither of which were appropriately sized for his short frame. But a quick hem job from CT -- only fair she put in a bit of time after she'd been the one to encourage this job -- and a tightly-cinched belt left Samael looking...well. Almost presentable.

York chuckled as he stood at North's side, the two putting on a show of holding their hands behind their backs at attention with their legs evenly spread. Just like whenever someone important walked into the room in Specials. "Hey man, I toldja he's good. You've heard about how the last few jobs went where he helped me out!"

"Running interference for a smash-and-grab and recovering some uniforms isn't the same as pulling off grand theft auto from a Blue depot!" North mumbled back in a loud whisper. "Does Nelson even know her tiny sex-demon is on this gig with us?"

"Heh, knew you'd be scared of her one day," York taunted before smiling confidently as they both watched the corporal frown but stand up warily and walk around the desk toward Samael. "But we promised her part of the haul. She gave him the go ahead."

"Not that it would have stopped him, regardless," North replied mildly, even as he smiled to himself. "Little bastard's as bad as we are about orders."

"You know that's right," York snickered with a quick elbow to North. "I'm just bummed it's taken this long for you to actually see him in action. He's almost as good as me!"

"Which doesn't mean much anymore, Mr. No Longer On The Boards Since He's Now A Wanted Heretic," North teased as a half-grin flit across his muzzle. "All I'm saying is when he screws this up, I'm not gonna save either of your asses."

"Well that's fine, I'll save Sammy's ass since it's an ass worth saving."

North stifled his snort. "You should know, you've been inside it enough."

"For good reason! I'll get you to give him a shot one day, dude, I swear."

The grin came without trouble now. "Heh. Promises, promises." They both leaned sideways a bit to observe Samael chatting away while leading the corporal toward the door. "Eyes forward, you giant homo, it's showtime."

"That's giant bi-mo," York whispered loudly as North choked on his laugh.

The last quarter had been a lot of things, nearly as eventful as the first week or two of establishing this new branch of the Movement. Learning about York's self-discovery had led to handful of uncomfortable days, and North would be lying to himself if he didn't admit his long-standing friendship with the guy had been nearly pulled beyond the breaking point thanks to his own bullheadedness. The series of mistakes still nibbled at his guilt, but he'd been forgiven multiple times over by York...and Samael, too.

The trail with Samael had been admittedly a little less tenuous than it had with York, if only because North hadn't been a close friend of the guy for as long. It did give him the opportunity to feel jealous of the little bastard once or twice, seeing what a tight bond he and York shared after only knowing each other for a fraction of the time York had spent with other compatriots. He understood it after being around the chatty redneck, though; at first, Samael had reminded him of the Counselor, with the way his eyes pierced into your soul and raided the depths of your most private thoughts without so much as an invitation.

But Samael's gaze was warm and his emotional touch light. Even with North's, ah. Early aversion to being so close to someone so...gay, the conversations he'd had with Samael never made him feel uncomfortable or violated the way his 'sessions' had back at Freelancer. If it was true everyone had a doppelganger somewhere on the ring, then North knew who the Counselor's was, albeit the perfect inversion.

So he'd realized quickly why Samael and York acted like childhood friends at this point -- they meshed on some higher level than any of their other companions, to the point that you could start a conversation with one and end it with the other, and have difficulty remembering when they'd switched places. And it hadn't taken North too long to appreciate Samael, and pull him close in his circle of trust. Once he'd stopped being so damn closed-minded, he'd realized it was an opportunity to have a second York by his side. Who the hell ever said no to another pal like that??

The free-spirited rebel was a regular around L-Base now, often working out with and training alongside York, North and CT -- North had tried to have South agree to a bit of long-range weapons training with Samael after he'd seen how damn talented Samael was with a gun at any kind of distance...but she hadn't been so keen on the idea. He'd still caught her staring when they were having a bit of target practice on the range, and the scowl she gave the redneck when he'd proudly showed off his grouping was the same look she gave anyone she felt threatened her supremacy. North learned long ago to receive it as praise, at least.

So in all fairness, North didn't have a lot of solid ground to stand on with asking why Samael was the face of this job. The kid was rough around the edges, sure, but he had a lot of potential and worked his ass off to sharpen his skills. North could see why Nelson was always snarling at them to send him back; losing Samael would probably cause a noticeable hit to Sidewinder's capability.

He yanked himself out of the musing thoughts when the door swung open, Samael's lilting drawl spilling into the impromptu waiting room. "--an' these two strappin' lads are here to help with the demonstration!"

The corporal -- a somewhat overweight cervidae with pale green fur -- widened his eyes as he finally seemed to realize the size of the two 'assistants'. "Holy...shit," he spluttered.

Samael barely stifled his snicker as he put his hands on his hips with a grin. "I toldja, we pride ourselves on our stock at Hexagon! Fine products, delivered by the finest personnel!"

The soldier rubbed the back of his head and then grimaced. "Well, the only issue is that both our mechanics are currently away from the depot. They had to go to our headquarters for recertification."

"Whaaaaat?" The surprised face Samael gave was so tongue-in-cheek that North's face hurt from trying not to laugh. "You tellin' me we managed to show up right when you ain't got no mechanics around? Damn, what're the chances of that? But hey! Yer in luck!" Samael grinned and gestured broadly to the two enormous chupas behind him. "My two pals here ain't just a treat for the ol' peepers; they know how to provide service like you ain't gonna believe!" He fanned himself dramatically while the corporal slowly stared back toward him. "Oh lawd h'mercy, lemme tell ya 'bout the last time I had a li'l summin' clangin' around in m'undercarriage -- big Mikey here got one'a his big ol' tools up in there and weren't but a matter'a minutes 'fore everythin' was purrin' like a kitten!"

The corporal blinked a few times before turning his eyes back to the grinning giants. "M-Mikey?"

York opened his muzzle but North was faster, shamelessly stealing the spotlight as he pushed his chest out. "That's me! Lemme tell ya, my hands look huge, but I promise they're the most gentle things you're ever gonna feel on your chassis!"

North didn't think the poor soldier's eyes could have bulged any further...and the enormous grin Samael was giving behind the guy sent a swell of delight through him. He might not have partaken in Samael's talents the same way York did, but damn if it didn't still feel good giving the redneck such a thrill.

It really had been a helluva quarter for him. He'd been so worried about York changing that he'd forgotten to care about his own viewpoints evolving and becoming...well, better, as far as he was concerned. Nice to know he could still be a cocky jock asshole and have friends who had super-gay-buttsex all the time, and not have a meltdown over it.

He caught York pouting at his side and had to lift the box he was carrying to muffle his laugh behind it. Samael took it into stride, trotting forward and reaching up to throw a friendly arm around the corporal's shoulders without paying any mind to the several inches' difference in height. "So we brought some'a them new modules with us! Me 'n the boys wanted to give y'all a free demonstration, show ya first-hand how sweet them nerdy science-fellas' latest invention is! You ain't never gonna need to worry 'bout where ya parked yer vehicles again!" The soldier looked down at him warily but Samael had already stepped away again before his touch could do more than spark a curious twitch, his suaveness on full display. North couldn't deny he actually might have been slick enough to give York a run for his money.

"And, since y'all purchased all them specialty tires from us last quarter, we're visitin' you before we even talk to them dirty crimson bastards 'cross the ring!" Samael trilled while gesturing grandly with both arms.

The corporal blinked again. "We...we did?"

"Get a load'a this guy!" Samael crowed as he turned to face his companions with a wink while thumbing over a shoulder. "This's why I love doin' business with the Blues! So modest!"

North grinned cheerily as he and York both hefted their containers onto a shoulder, all three of the impostors looking at the corporal expectantly while Samael exclaimed: "So! You show us the way to the garage, 'n we'll get three, four of yer jeeps decked out with gear so hot it'll make ya wish yer pockets had holes big enough fer a quick handy!"

York let out a quiet giggle that luckily went unnoticed considering the delightful mixture of confused and horrified painting the soldier's features. He dragged his eyes slowly between the trio before finally stammering as he lurched back toward the main hallway. "Uh...oh...okay. The staff sergeant isn't here but...uh...if you're sure he called you guys for today..."

Samael's feigned shock was a beautiful thing to witness as he delicately touched a hand to his cheek. "He ain't here neither? I swear, that's some crazy timin', what bad luck!" It was North's turn again to mask his snicker as Samael lobbed a fingergun toward the corporal. "But jus' think what a great surprise it'll be when he gets back 'n finds his vehicles got the hottest new automated field tech on the market!"

It was almost sad how excited the soldier's countenance became. "Oh...oh! That's a good point! Okay, follow me right this way, and you can explain how you want to do the demonstration!"

The grin that slid across Samael's features was intoxicating...and North doubted the corporal even realized the way he was drawn closer. "Oh it'd be my pleasure, Corporal...lead on 'n I'll tell ya just what we'll have y'all do..." The trio fell into step behind the corporal as he nodded several times and proceeded down the hall while Samael broke into an easy ramble.

North took a moment to glance over at York, not at all surprised to see the cool grin meeting his glance. "Toooold you," he whispered before giving a soft cackle when North elbowed him firmly. "This one's gonna be a cakewalk!"

North smiled back as his eyes moved to Samael again, watching the animated motions of the stocky chupa and how helplessly enthralled the soldier was. He wasn't quite ready to call it a 'cakewalk'...but damn if York hadn't been right about Samael's natural talents. He could certainly think of several jobs in the past that might have gone a bit smoother if they'd had someone like him to be the designated distraction.

The same smile tugged at his maw as he shook his head. He wasn't one to regret the past or wish things had been different...but it definitely would have been a hoot if the little guy had been with them at Specials, heh.


"So...it's going to make them...drive themselves?"

North glanced up from the jeep he was working on...or rather, pretending to work on as he idly tightened a few bolts. He had to cover his smile -- he probably would have just as soon simply knocked everyone out and made a run with the vehicles at this point. But Samael was on his toes with the corporal, even as the Blue's suspicion began to grow.

York was working on the last of the four jeeps, leaning against the fender while doing a very convincing job of making it look like he was actually doing something with the wrench he kept using to scratch his back. The garage did have a couple of hogs as well, but they'd decided to try and keep to the smaller jeeps. More often than not, the less-conspicuous vehicles were better suited to the needs of the Movement...plus they were better at navigating the tight trails in Lactan, and could have a roof mounted for the frigid travels through Sampi.

"I mean don't get too excited, son, ain't like this's some kinda super-fancy artifacial intercourse!" North heard the wheezing from York as the tan chupa failed to completely disguise his laugh. The corporal blinked slowly before clearing his throat.

"Did you mean...'artificial intelligence'?"

Samael only grinned as he slid up close to the corporal and put a hand on his shoulder while waving the other arm slowly in front of them both. "We ain't ready to release that kinda technology on you fine folks yet, but we're gettin' there! So naw, ain't no super-brain in these modules...but what they's gonna do instead is interface with yer ignition, transmission, drive-train 'n steerin'...an' motor itself right back to whoever called it!"

The corporal frowned and then picked up the pockcom from the table. It was one of Wash's spares that York had kindly, uh. Borrowed. Samael had then proceeded to carefully decorate...er. Disguise it with paint and decals to look like something that had come from Hexagon's third-quarter catalog. It was, of course, just a plain pockcom. In fact, it was less than a plain pockcom, since it had recently been factory reset. It was about as useless as the "modules" that North and York had "installed" on the jeeps...a process which had consisted of wedging random burned-out radios and destroyed computers -- also, of course, meticulously gussied up with Hexagon's logo -- into the engine blocks and then using some zip-ties to hold them in place. It wouldn't have fooled anyone who actually knew much about vehicles, like the depot's mechanics. How fortunate they were gone to the Blue Army's semiannual recertification. Even more fortunate the Blue Army posted the dates of recertification on their public network site so anyone could verify when they were scheduled.

"So...if there's like. A cliff between you and the vehicle," the corporal began, squinting suspiciously at one of the jeeps. "Will it navigate around that?"

York quirked an eyebrow and North tightened his grip around the nearby wrench. Maybe they'd get to go out swinging, after all. But Samael was quick on his feet as he laughed easily, then moved toward one of the jeeps as he gestured eagerly to the soldier to follow. "C'mere, c'mere." They walked up to the jeep in front of North and the hulking chupa began to raise the wrench...but Samael winked at him before shoving a finger toward the hastily-planted device. "That there thing's all...hard-wired into yer other things!" The corporal clearly wasn't very mechanically-inclined and North could see how swiftly Samael latched onto that. "You got yer standard RPS units in these trucks, right?"

The corporal scratched at his muzzle, not even seeming to notice the way Samael's hand was now slowly massaging between his shoulderblades. "Uhhh...I...y-yeah. I'm...pretty sure."

Samael's playful grin might have convinced a priest to open his robe for him. "Purdy sure?? You ain't sure whatcha got tucked away in yer cockpit?"

The way the corporal's eyes widened slightly was a gift. "I-I mean. Yes! Yes, of course. We have the standard RPS units." He looked warily toward North. "You, uh. You saw them in there...right?"

North smiled smoothly and patted the top of the jeep's windshield. "Yessir. We've got the modules connected right to 'em."

The soldier nodded as if he knew exactly what that meant, turning eyes back to Samael. "And that's...good?"

"Super good!" Samael chirped, his tail swinging jauntily. North smirked to himself at the fact he actually missed the jingle. Always something strange about seeing the redneck without his crimson piercings in place. "So that means these babies will use the RPS data to drive 'emselves around any natural obstacles! No chasin' yer vehicles into lakes no more!"

"That is the worst," the corporal mumbled before curiously turning the pockcom over in his hands. "And it's controlled by this thing?"

Samael cleared his throat but kept his grin in place as he slid forward and swept the device neatly out of the Blue's grip. "You got it, son! Although we don't wanna set it off now, that ain't much of a demo if the thing just rolls three inches to holler atcha!"

"Oh...right." The corporal frowned thoughtfully at the pockcom, then again to Samael's two 'assistants'. "Maybe I should go get some of the soldiers to accompany you. I can't just let you take four of our vehicles..." He took a longer look at Samael. "In fact, I'm not even sure I'm authorized to let non-Army personnel drive anything out of here to begin with..."

North started to move to the corner of the jeep, but Samael glanced between him and York before putting a hand to his chest and faking a dramatic gasp to the soldier. "Well, now, yer jus' breakin' this poor salesman's heart! Hexagon is here to serve, we ain't gonna do ourselves no favors we start hijackin' our customers' trucks!" The corporal shifted his weight a bit and Samael continued the thread. "Tell ya what -- I'll have my boys here take the jeeps out, 'n you can keep me as yer helpless li'l hostage!" North gave a concerned look to York, his companion returning the small frown. Samael was calling an audible. "That way if they do anythin' untoward, y'all have me in yer clutches to have yer way with with me!"

The soldier leaned away from him at last, seeming to register that maybe there was something weird about all the physical contact and odd choices of speech. "Er."

Maybe he'd be too uncomfortable by that particular homosexual vibe Samael oozed to stay alone with him.

"...Okay."

Dammit.

"That should be fine. Your men can get started, and I'll have a couple of the guys join us so you can explain how this works."

York raised a hand. "Uh...yo, boss, you sure? Didn't you want to make sure we hid the jeeps...good?" York's attempt to sound slow-witted almost distracted North from his mild anxiety over the change in plans.

Samael waved him off with a confident smile. "It's all good, Jimmy. I trust you and Mikey to not set anything on fire!"

The corporal blinked. "Yes, please don't...do that."

"Although'd be a helluva sales pitch to have you a fleet'a flamin' trucks come roarin' over the horizon on autopilot, eh?" Samael announced with a light elbow into the soldier's side. He received a horrified look for his joke, and he grinned teasingly before nodding to the other two impostors. "Alright, fellas, let's get the demo set up! And no loungin' around pullin' each other's dicks out there, get yer asses back here on the double so we c'n stop wastin' this good man's time!"

The corporal grunted an awkward agreement, then turned toward Samael. "Come on, let's get a few of our regular drivers, I imagine they'd be the ones to use this most..." York and North shared another apprehensive look but Samael smiled past the soldier to alleviate it somewhat.

"You heard the man! Quit yer dawdlin' 'n get to work!" Samael ordered as he nodded quickly to them.

North grunted and hopped behind the wheel of the first jeep as York did the same, the two cranking the engines simultaneously. It was time to see if Samael really could handle himself enough to keep up with the Freelancers.


They stashed the jeeps in their designated spot -- there was a natural gully just beyond a cluster of trees and underbrush at the bottom of one of the rolling hills surrounding the depot. The spot was clear from any prying eyes at the base and was near their planned escape route. And in all honesty, things hadn't gone terribly so far. North tried to avoid smiling as he and York jogged back through the waist-high grass, not wanting to make his approval of their little friend too obvious.

"Come on, you're impressed!"

North attempted not to grin as he punched York's arm. "I didn't say crap."

York didn't bother hiding his own grin. "Well maybe you should, your word might help Wash hate Sammy a little less!"

"Hoo boy, I'm no miracle-worker, pal, don't think Mother Sirca herself could dull that hatred -- Wash has it out for him, man." It wasn't really an exaggeration, either. Something about the redneck seemed to just get right under Wash's hide, coaxing from him a frustration that rivaled his nastiest reactions to a mission gone wrong or Nelson snapping at him for some thing or another.

York chuckled even as a note of regret drifted past his easy smile. "He really does. Ah well, I'm sure it'll just take a little more time! Maybe this job will help."

"Assuming none of us get shot the hell up trying to pull this off," North retorted as he snatched up some of the tall grass they trotted through, tossing it at York with a grunt. "Seriously, though...should we just stick with the two jeeps? I don't really like the idea of leaving Sammy alone without someone to watch his back."

"Awww, you're worried about him!" York sang out, smiling over a shoulder. His expression showed genuine appreciation, though, and North smiled slightly in return. "But, man...based on what he's been telling me, this is the kinda stuff Nelson's started sending him to do. Solo infiltration gigs."

North frowned to himself. Notoriously among the most dangerous kind of jobs, even for trained pros like themselves. Samael was still greener than the rest of them, too. "I'm not surprised, he's suited for it...but don't want to push our luck with a new guy on the mission."

York's upbeat smile never wavered. "Don't worry, Northy -- we got this in the bag!" He glanced at his friend as they approached the garage. "Unless Freelancer's started making you afraid to take a chance now and then!"

North let out a quiet huff before grimacing. "More like it's made me start to expect the worst on every gig now..." When York slowed his jog to give him a concerned look, North found his smile again. No point worrying York with the creeping dread that accompanied any time spent at Freelancer these days. Every day felt like a step further into the darkness, and North couldn't shake the encroaching sensation every time he looked over a shoulder. Maybe he and South would have to soon consider permanently parting ways with the organization. He elbowed York lightly to distract the searching gaze. "I will admit, buddy -- seeing Sammy in action so far, he might be even better at this than you!"

York scoffed, even as his proud grin betrayed him. "Wow, ouch! Look, I've never sucked a dick, alright?" North squinting at him, arching an eyebrow in mock disbelief. "Seriously! I'm one of those, uh. Mostly-top bisexuals."

"Uh huh. Mostly."

"Shush. Either way, it's not my fault he's better at that kind of thing!"

"You could always ask him to teach you," North interjected smoothly, winking and laughing when York shoved him playfully.

"Screw you, pal! Anyway, I swear he doesn't even need his target to be curious, he just exudes like...raw homo-magic, anything sporting a dick within ten meters starts to loosen up around him."

North puffed his chest out proudly as they slowed to a walk when the garage neared. "Whoa, whoa, hold your gay horses, dude. My everything has remained cinched up tight around Sammy."

York grinned coyly. "Yeah, alright. Like I don't see the cracks forming in that big, scary, straight armor you've got strapped to yourself. I know for a fact you're on his list."

"Well, of course I am," North replied with a dainty flick of his wrist. "I'm not some easy tramp, I'm top-tier queer-bait, my friend. You're like the cheap sampler platter gay guys use when they're testing out their techniques."

"Wow, hurtful."

"Like the free bread baskets they use to fill you up at the restaurant."

"Now you're just being mean!"

"Empty carbs." North hid his grin as the two approached the open bay doors. "Poor kid's gonna starve if you're the only thing on his plate."

York snorted laughter, forced to hurriedly plaster a stoic expression on his features when a few heads craned around to peer at them when they wandered into the garage. "Cannot wait for the day he blows your mind, buddy," he whispered before calling out loudly: "Boss-man! First two jeeps hid!" North did his best not to frown -- three soldiers were now with the corporal, the group clustered around Samael as he paused what was likely a very bullshit explanation about the technology. But Samael seemed absurdly at ease, smiling toward his two companions with every ounce of his natural swagger still intact.

"Yer gettin' yer steps in today, fellas, no doubt! An' we got a handful'a Blue boys ready 'n rarin' to see this sweet-ass tech in action, so get them other two trucks hid!" he called out.

The corporal rubbed at his muzzle and then added awkwardly: "Should...should a couple of my guys go, too? What if they, uh. Don't work? And you need help bringing the jeeps back?"

"Well shoot, if that happens, these two beefy assistants of mine know they better plan to walk on back to the airport!" Samael tutted with a confident swing of his tail. "Plus, that's what I keep 'em around for, anyway -- they do all the dirty work like retrievin' lost vehicles while we sit back, put our feet up 'n wait for the fireworks!"

"Not...not actual fireworks, right?" the corporal asked warily, which Samael met with a boisterous laugh while throwing an arm around one of the other soldiers.

"Damn, y'all -- yer corporal always this uptight?? Actin' like we's gonna get nothin' blowed up...sheeeeit, we know we ain't gonna make a damn buck if we just go 'round explodin' things all willy-nilly!"

The soldiers broke into chuckles while the corporal looked somewhat mollified, huffing and then gesturing irritably to North and York. "Well...well, go on, then! While, uh...we're still young!"

The awkward laughter from his soldiers was somewhat less enthusiastic, and all eyes went back to Samael as if hoping he could provide more actual entertainment. The stocky rebel fired a positive smile to the other two, then launched eagerly into another ridiculous story while waving the spray-painted pockcom around for emphasis.

North nudged York lightly. "Heh, maybe you're right about the kid." When York immediately grinned and opened his maw for a reply, North was quick to add: "Not about how tight his ass is, goddammit." The goofy expression York gave in response was hardly a denial. North snickered and rolled his eyes. "Just as bad at focusing on the objective as you always were. Let's go get another damn round of cardio in before Sammy runs out of hot air and has to figure out which Blue to jam down his throat first."

"Ohh, the horror," York called out just loud enough for North to hear as they both hopped into the other two jeeps. North kept his grin modest while he followed the ex-Freelancer out of the garage, pausing long enough for a glance over his shoulder at Samael. But their little gay greenhorn was immersed in his story and he had the whole group of Blues eating out of his hand. Maybe he was worrying just a bit too much.


...Or maybe he was worrying just enough.

They'd heard the hog speeding toward the depot as they were trotting back from hiding the other two jeeps. Their intel had the staff sergeant away at Blue Headquarters until much later that day...but it wasn't just Freelancer where bad intelligence was a very real, very possible element of every mission. And while North hoped against hope that it was just some other Blue soldier returning from patrol, or perhaps even the two mechanics back from a canceled recertification, they weren't going to be that lucky.

He glanced over at York as they broke into a sprint. "We need to get Sammy outta there..."

York frowned and grunted his agreement, for once light on his easy comebacks as he stared up the hill at the depot. Were the circumstances not tipping toward 'shitty', he would have taken a moment to appreciate how close York had gotten to the charming little redneck. It was almost the same level of mixed concern and unabashed pride he had for Wash...which should have been a damn clue to Wash himself how capable York thought Samael was.

They barreled into the garage just as Samael was using a few spare parts on a workbench to explain the technology behind the faux modules. "--an' the best part is, if any Reds get in the way, this sucker'll drive right over 'em! Automated Red smashin', ain't that a treat??" He and the soldiers all glanced over curiously at the two beasts huffing through the bay doors, Samael's expression showing a glimmer of recognition that something was off. "Whoa, whoa, fellas, what's the rush?! You two seen this demo before, ain't nothin' new!"

North flicked his eyes toward the four Blues before letting a brief smile whisk across his features. "We just thought we should get the show on the road, boss-man, sun ain't slowin' down for --"

The door connecting the garage to the rest of the depot burst open as a navy-blue chupa bustled in with a furious snarl. "Marquez! There you are, where the fuck..." He blinked at the sight of the three as North sorely wished they'd figured out how to explain why two mechanics would have pistols on their hips. He calmly palmed a nearby wrench and held it against the back of his leg as the infuriated interloper thrust a finger toward Samael. "Who the hell are they?"

The corporal cleared his throat as he quickly scrambled to salute and then plaster on a broad smile. "Sir! You're back early!" North was going to assume this was the staff sergeant. The Blue NCO's eyes narrowed at the corporal, who cleared his throat. "These...these are the guys from Hexagon that you called out for a sales demonstration of the latest, uh...automated recovery modules!"

Well, at least Samael's thick-as-molasses storytelling was effective enough that he had complete strangers trying to reproduce what he said verbatim without even realizing what nonsense it was. Samael took a casual step backward while maintaining his cool smile. "That's right, Sergeant Rico! Ya don't remember chattin' me up Tueday afternoon? We jus' showed up a li'l bit early, I guess, but the demo's ready to go!"

North moved slowly closer while York propped up a disarming grin, nodding and drifting toward Samael as the sergeant reared back at the mention of his name before growling: "I didn't talk to anyone from Hexagon about a demonstration." He started to reach for his rifle but Marquez snatched the pockcom out of Samael's hands to eagerly show it off. North understood better than ever what York meant about Samael's abilities, though -- the corporal had gone from suspicious to unwitting stooge in the span of thirty or forty minutes.

"No, no, sir, look! They've installed the modules in some of our vehicles, and we can use this to call them back, without even needing to be behind the wheel!" He presented the pockcom and the staff sergeant's nostrils flared as he snatched it up. "Think how much more efficient our patrols will be, especially in territories where they have to go on foot more often and--"

Rico grit his teeth as he turned on the portable device. "Are you a fucking moron, Marquez? This looks like it was painted by a child!"

Marquez's eyes bulged and North tightened his grip around the wrench, his eyes flicking over to York. The pockcom was about to ruin the whole damn charade, but it'd given them just the distraction they'd needed. York reached down to grasp into a loose panel of armor plating while Marquez stammered, "I-it's just a prototype, sir, but I verified it had the official Hexagon logo and--"

"Did you bother to fucking turn it on?" Rico demanded before shoving the screen toward the corporal so he could stare blankly at the cheerful message announcing that the device had been successfully formatted and did not, in fact, have any applications on it, let alone one for magically retrieving lost vehicles. "They're frauds, shit-for-brains!" He threw down the pockcom and reached over his shoulder for his rifle, eyes burning toward Samael. "Open fire!"

The other four all hesitated, even Marquez slow to stretch a hand toward his pistol as they stared at the smooth-talking redneck. Goddamn if he really hadn't enthralled them all without them even realizing it. It was exactly the window North needed to grunt and whip the large wrench toward the sergeant before he could shoot. The heavy tool smashed into his shoulder and sent the spray of bullets wide, giving York enough time to scoop up the armored panel and leap in front of Samael.

The gunfire shook the others from their indecision as pistols and battle rifles jumped into hands, several shots ricocheting off the armor that York held up defensively while a round or two was sent toward the hog North swiftly used for cover. "I think the demonstration's over!" he yelled toward the others.

"I dunno, I ain't even gotten to the affordable payment plans!" Samael squawked back before all three of them cursed as a stray bullet smashed into one of the barrels of fuel to send the viscous stuff splattering across the floor. "Oh shit, quit shootin', ya jackasses!" he cried out above the din of the four or five weapons.

But the warning came too late as another round glanced off the heavy metal plate protecting Samael and York, casting a shower of sparks over the spreading fuel. North's eyes widened from across the garage when the searing flames licked across the puddle with terrifying speed. "York, on your right!" North called out before wincing and shoving himself against the hog when a bullet grazed his forearm.

All he could do was stare around the side of the vehicle as York grimaced but shifted the heavy plate to the side while wrapping an arm around Samael to pull him tight against his enormous frame...an instant before the small cache of barrels exploded in a cacophony of white-hot fire and shrapnel. The wave of force shoved violently into the armor plating but York held firm with his teeth grit. North winced as bits of flaming metal were flung across the garage while most of the Blues were knocked scattering from the blast. He started to move toward his companions but cursed and quickly leaped back as another explosion rocked the structure and knocked a support beam down from the ceiling as fire continued to hungrily jump to the grease-covered surfaces.

"Motherfucker! Marquez, grab Thomas -- everyone, inside, now!" North grimaced over the top of the hog, watching the sergeant snarling and firing the rest of his clip toward York and Samael, then cursing as the flames only kept spreading rapidly through the closed space. At least his priorities were somewhat logical. "Barricade the doors and radio for support! We need fire suppression now!"

The last of the Blues scrambled out of the growing inferno with a cough before slamming the door shut. North leaped up again and then grimaced as a plume of fire roared up from a barrel of engine lubricant to send another flaming gout through the room. "York, Sammy! You bastards alive?!"

He squinted through the blaze and then exhaled in relief as he saw York shove the plating aside with a wheeze, then jump to his feet as he yanked Samael up with him. "Yeah! Exit stage get the hell outta here, pal!"

The ceiling was beginning to creak with the immense heat racing along the walls and support columns, the metal screaming and slowly warping as the chemically-assisted flames showed no sign of slowing. North frowned but waited for the sight of York and Samael both sprinting toward him before he joined them in running for the bay doors. A moment later, a klaxon began to blare as someone set off the alarm...which caused the oversized doors to start rumbling shut. "Shit, shit, run!" he exclaimed.

The trio bolted through the smoke and flames as sheets of roofing began to crash down around them. North could almost taste the fresh air when a heavy thud! and muffled yelp made him stop in his tracks. He and York both spun around and spotted Samael pinned beneath a massive steel beam, cursing and shoving at the huge support piece while the fire crept enthusiastically toward his wriggling frame like a predator circling a wounded quarry.

There wasn't a breath of hesitation as North sprung toward the trapped rebel, ignoring the flames that tickled along his legs and too-tight shirt. He didn't even feel the heat, focused only on wrapping his arms around the beam so he could heft the fuel-covered steel off Samael and then fling it aside with a grunt. He heard York's voice cut through the crackling inferno as Samael stared up at him, showing the first sliver of fear he'd displayed since they'd first met.

"North, your back!"

"I'm fine!" he yelled over a shoulder. "Don't let that goddamn door close!" He knelt down and scooped up the stocky rebel, meeting Samael's eyes. "I gotcha, Sammy."

Samael only nodded as he breathed rapidly and wrapped an arm around North's neck. North sensed the fire eating away at his shirt but ignored it as he clutched Samael close and bolted for the half-open bay, the shutter screaming in protest as it ground against the rolling toolbox York had slammed into place beneath it. York threw a concerned look over them both while gripping into the bottom of the shutter, his thick arms trembling as he hefted against the whining gears to give his friends as much clearance as possible.

As soon as North was clear, York rolled underneath and then booted the toolbox to allow the bay door to slam shut -- they weren't trying to set the whole goddamn countryside on fire, after all. North stole a look back in time to see York bending down and scooping up a handful of dirt and grass before he flung it at the other massive chupa's back to extinguish the flames. North nodded sharply and then broke into a sprint as the two of them raced down the gentle hill through the tall grass, thin trails of smoke twirling up from them both as they ran.

He glanced down at Samael again to see his compassionate blue eyes filled with gratitude and more than a hint of embarrassment. "I'm...I'm good to run, hon!" he choked out before wheezing the last of the smoke from his lungs. "Ain't nothin' more'n a sprain!"

"Toldja I got you, Sammy," North muttered before he and York both ducked their heads as several wild reports of rifles sounded from the depot, a few incensed voices shouting after them. "Shit -- York, the fourth jeep!"

"Already on it!" York yelled back as he broke away to head for the last vehicle in the half-hidden culvert. North grunted before wincing as a bullet whizzed past his hip to cut through the grass.

"Head down, Sammy!" Samael grimaced but curled closer to his chest, his other hand clutching into the thick purple fur through North's destroyed shirt. North glanced down again and saw a moment of raw panic in Samael's eyes as a whimper slipped out. "Hey, hey -- you're good, we're good!"

Samael swallowed but nodded once even as he clung harder to North's neck. They reached the treeline as a handful of rounds plunged into the trunks around them to pepper them with bits of wood and bark. Samael's eyes were closed tightly and North swore he heard the murmur of a prayer as he moved swiftly through the trees and then leaped fearlessly from the top of the ridge down to the gully. His paws hit the ground hard and he landed in a crouch with a grunt, Samael still cradled to his enormous frame. "See, ain't no thing," he rumbled before blinking as Samael squirmed out of his grip and stumbled in a half-circle to check North's back. "Hey, Sammy, Sammy -- I'm good, I'm good, no new holes!"

Samael didn't answer for a few seconds as his fingers moved swiftly along the larger male's back and shoulders before he finally nodded and gave North a faint smile. "S-sorry. Memories."

North hoped he never had to see such a pained look on the little rebel's face again, Samael's expression distraught enough that the gunfire and unintelligible yells of the approaching soldiers faded to a hum for a second or two. North shook his head and then curled a gigantic hand around his friend's shoulder. "It's okay, bud. You can drive?"

"I'm good, yeah," Samael whispered, nodding and steeling himself before they both looked over to see York racing toward them with a steering wheel in his hand.

"Everyone alright?!" he asked as he flung the wheel into the woods.

"Yeah, let's get the hell outta here!" North announced as he quickly scooped up Samael before he could protest and tossed him in the driver's seat of the nearest jeep. The two shared a look before nodding to one another and grasping into each other's forearms, then pulling apart so North could sprint to the first jeep in the line while York hopped into the third one. They started the engines almost simultaneously, North roaring away with Samael and York close on his tailgate as they made a beeline for the escape route.

The blind gunfire and angry shouting soon faded away behind them as the depot's occupants were forced to turn all their attention to the raging fire that dominated the horizon -- and even if they had wanted to chase, North was confident the hog that the staff sergeant had arrived in was likely low on fuel and wasn't nearly as nimble on the rough terrain as the jeeps. Plus the fourth jeep they'd left behind wasn't going to be too useful without the steering wheel York had kindly removed for them.

North finally let a smile roll across his muzzle again as he looked back at his two companions, flanking his rear fenders with matching grins. Samael was still smudged with ashes and soot and York's shirt was torn and bloodied -- either from shrapnel from one of the explosions or a few fortunate bullets -- but they looked otherwise fine.

Part of him was curious about Samael's reaction earlier...but he recalled what York had said about thinking he had his own Lina somewhere in his past. He figured the redneck would talk about it if and when he was ready one day.

He at last looked down at his own arm, the gash still bleeding where he'd been clipped, but it was nothing serious. And his back felt a little warm, though other than the smell of burnt fur, he didn't think it was anything serious. Christ, all in all, not the worst set of outcomes.

He relaxed in the seat and the three vehicles fell into formation as they sped back toward Lactan. Yeah, alright...this was one for the books. They'd be talking about it for several boozy nights to come, that was for damn sure. His smile lingered as he shook his head a bit. This whole rebel thing was starting to sound more and more promising, and they were putting together one helluva team, Nelson and Wash's combined negativity be damned.

...Still wasn't ready to call it a damn cakewalk, though.


* * *


"Boom, read 'em and weep, boys 'n girls!" North tossed his hand down with a victorious grin. "I should be a damn landlord with all these full houses I got comin' tonight!"

"Awww, you're totally taking advantage of the crippled!" York cried out, shaking his cast-covered leg for emphasis.

Arizona was quick to smirk and wave the stump of her right leg around as well. "Some of us quite literally!"

Samael cackled next to her, poking the amputated limb playfully. "You two been pullin' the gat-damn pity card all afternoon, we c'n only mourn yer shitty hands so long!!"

"York's probably losing on purpose to make this fucking game last longer than necessary," South complained as she flicked her hand into the middle and then leaned back with a groan. "Still say we just go hit the range, there are so many better ways to wait this fucking storm out..."

"Oh yeah there are, I can think of..." York paused to make a very obvious show of counting the spots around the poker table. "At least five! More if we try some fun new combinations!"

CT snorted laughter while South rolled her eyes and tossed him a middle finger. "Count me out of your weird sex shit. Between the amputee, the midget and the incest, pretty sure my fetishes are fucking maxed."

"Hey, I never agreed, either!" North protested while gathering all the cards up with a chuckle. "No matter how many looks the two butt-buddies been giving me the whole time." He tipped a wink to York and Samael, who stuck out their tongues out in near-perfect time. The laughter was interrupted when they all lifted their heads for a moment as a massive peal of thunder shook the base hard enough to make the lights swing gently above them.

"Lawd, it's comin' down out there, ain't it?" Samael noted as he scratched at his muzzle. "Y'all gotta back me up when Nelson hollers 'bout me hangin' here to wait it out!"

"Our resident cave-demon's not afraid of a little jungle storm, right?" CT teased, finishing off a bottle of beer and then gesturing to South. "Pass those chips, girl!"

South glowered at her but shoved the open bag across the table as a few of the crispy snacks scattered. "I think the fact half the table's got a pussy is the only thing that's got him nervous," she muttered.

York and North both snorted while Samael only smiled charmingly and flicked his tail, the melodic jingle of his piercing cutting easily through the noisome rumbling of the thunder and the loud slap of wet fronds against the roof. "Aww, South, babydoll -- yer jus' jealous I ain't used my patented Sampi Slip 'n Slide on you yet, since I know ya heard it from that closet last Friday!"

She pursed her muzzle as York burst into laughter. "I'm pretty sure the whole second floor heard it," York tittered while leaning over to snag another two beers, tossing one without a word to Samael. North smiled -- their little psychic routine was pretty much normal to everyone else at this point.

"The worst part is you two assholes didn't even stop when I kicked the door open," South replied drolly.

"They do the thumbs-up?" Arizona inquired with a half-grin as South groaned to provide all the confirmation anyone else needed. "Yeaaaaah, the lack of shame is kind of impressive once ya get past the two-foot vertical difference."

Samael provided a full grin as he cracked open his beer and raised it to the table. "Make sure y'all recognize we's only talkin' total body size, now, I ain't all midget."

York cackled and lifted his own bottle as North shuffled the deck. "Let me be the first to say Sammy ain't just blowin' hot air, either -- not sure what the hell they feed 'em out in those Sampi caves, but it's probably illegal in most territories as a 'physical enhancer'!"

"You'll be the only to say, no one else at the damn table's been stupid enough to risk catching whatever Sammy's got," South noted. North grinned at his sister, considering a playful interruption...only to blink as CT leaned forward first with a devious lift of her eyebrows.

"Yet!"

South gave her a horrible look while the rest of the table broke into easy laughter, even Samael giggling away as he flipped a hand modestly at CT. "God, you always were the quiet freak in Specials," South muttered, lifting her beer to take a sip.

"Wasn't that quiet according to that armory guard in Blarganthia," CT retorted as South nearly spit out her beer...and then grinned despite herself around the bottle.

"Christ, you're still the worst," she intoned. "Still don't know how you managed to plan all our missions, confirm all the details, prepare all the gear, complain about the intel, save all the hostages and get laid...and still never had a fucking breakdown."

CT shrugged easily as she popped a chip into her muzzle. "Had me a decent battle buddy, I guess."

North smiled while dealing a card to everyone, watching the way South scowled but failed to hide the slight smile in return. She eventually turned her eyes back to Samael, though, while kicking grumpily at Arizona's chair. "So speaking of. Even fuckin' Stumpy here got into Freelancer fair-and-square...remind me why the gay garden gnome is at the table? He fails the minimum qualifications for experience and height."

"Heh, I might not have all the details of his dick, but I can vouch for his spot at the table," North answered while laying out a second card for everyone. He traded a warm smile with Samael, then looked at South with a wink. "Think you might just be a little jealous since Sammy's target sheets are starting to look an awful lot like yours."

She fired a flat look across the table before holding her palm out to CT. "Gimme that strap-on, gonna shove it up my brother's ass."

"So much for maxin' out them fetishes!" Samael crowed before laughing and dodging the spare betting chip South flung at him. "But man, I ain't gonna lie! Y'all still make me feel like a damn useless li'l newbie, stories y'all pass around sometimes. Honored to be sittin' here!"

"You are a damn useless little newbie," South retorted as she glared at her cards.

Arizona snickered bemusedly while tossing in a small raise. "Be nice, South."

"No." South wrinkled her muzzle before making a face and folding her hand.

Arizona laughed. "Honestly, though! Sammy's had some of his own batshit-insane tales from his more recent gigs -- that crazy ice-queen has been sending him out on some scary shit lately!"

"'Cause the kid's got moves!" North declared as he matched the raise and flashed another toothy grin to Samael. "He'd be able to talk his way through the front door of the Citadel if he wanted, and apparently he's pretty good at catching bullets, too!"

"Hell yeah he is!" York chimed in enthusiastically, gesturing wildly at the cast on his leg. "I'd have a lot more than just a busted leg if he hadn't been there to help with the flashbangs last week!"

CT smirked and laid her cards flat to bow out of the hand. "Nelson's still pissed about that. You were supposed to be delivering them to Sammy, not having him pull your ass out of the frying pan." She then squinted across the table at Samael, jabbing a finger toward him playfully. "And you, you're lucky your scary-ass foster mom didn't ask why you didn't take off your shorts for three days -- she'd have broken York's other leg if she knew you got shot and ended up helping get the cargo."

Samael and York both ducked their heads sheepishly while the former cleared his throat and raised both hands. "Ay, Nelson shoulda been smart 'n sent me to help ol' York right from the get-go! Who cares if she's tradin' shit to y'all fer the goods..." North watched with the same quiet smile as Samael scowled and tossed a few chips into the middle as well. "We's all part'a the same gat-damn hopeless rebellion, 's damn silly that her'n Wash keep on treatin' us like we's two fuckin' rival families."

"Has anyone made an incest joke on Sammy's behalf tonight?" North asked while tapping his chin in mock thought as the others chuckled. He grinned and then laid out the flop while glancing toward York. "Sammy makes a pretty good point, though. The two leaders of this joint suicide venture sure ain't big fans of the whole cooperation thing, no matter how many times we prove we all work pretty damn good together!"

"You ain't gotta tell me twice," CT grunted as she grabbed another handful of potato chips to munch on. "I was the one who 'hinted' to Sammy that York needed a hand with the flashbangs, and I got Wash to put you three meatheads on the jeep job together."

"Yeah, and look how those jobs turned out," South countered with a sour look around the table. "York and Sammy's little romp through Timae ended with one giant asshole breaking a leg and one short asshole having his shot through." She met North's eyes and that little hint of concern surfaced briefly, the same one he still found endearing after all the years of her masking it. "Not to mention you dickwads got my brother's back set on fire bringing those jeeps back."

"Awww, a little crispy fur isn't so bad!" York sang out before putting forth his finest pout. "Ever since the flashbang job, I haven't been able to 'bang' properly...and even my 'flashing' is pretty limited!"

"You've gotten at least four blowjobs since then," CT replied with a half-smile. "And before you try to deny it, you've told me about three, and I saw the fourth; you two realize just because it's night-time doesn't mean no one else uses the gym, right?" Samael grinned shamelessly as York rolled his eyes innocently. "Go cry your busted-leg river somewhere else, hot shot."

"What the hell did you even need the midget's help for?" South grumbled while leaning back in her seat. "Wasn't it just grabbing a crate from a fuckin' half-abandoned Red armory?"

"Half-abandoned my ass, they were using it as a training course! There were like two full platoons of trigger-happy Reds," York complained. He took a moment to study the turn card before grunting and upping the bet. "All I'm sayin' is you guys should be nice, I'm nursin' a serious battle wound here."

North smirked as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Pleeeeease, my bed still smells like burnt fur -- you know how many chicks like that smell? The answer is zero, before you try and be smartasses about it."

"At least one," Arizona taunted as she raised with a handful of chips, grinning across the table. "We heard about your little outing to that Lamtha bar, didn't sound like it went too badly at all."

"Yeah, and if you're complaining about a lack of blowjobs, you've got like...the queen of 'em, right here," York added with a nod toward Samael. "He don't care about a flash-fried back!"

Samael's muzzle curled into a playful smile as he batted his eyes at North. "I dunno, he's cute but that smell was downright atrocious!"

North gasped and put a hand against his chest in what he hoped was a decent mockery of Samael's famous feigned dramatic horror. "You're gonna break this farmboy's heart, Sammy! And after I carried your ass through flames and poorly-aimed bullets!"

"You did use yerself 'bout a gallon'a fancy-ass shampoo 'n conditioner to get yerself all prettied up for that ruff," Samael fired back with a wink. "Musta cost a fortune, so mebbe yer right that yer injury was more tragic than ol' York's, after all!"

"He stole all of my shit, first," South noted blithely. "Had to kick his crispy ass and then he had the gall to make me order more so no one would find out he was using the 'frilly stuff'." She smirked at him as he grinned back across the table. "So maybe the redneck's right, North wins this round. Sirca's Stupidest Hero, third year running."

"Uh...excuse me??" Everyone turned to glance at Arizona as she gestured wildly to her stump. "I'm pretty sure I win that fuckin' contest for the next five years, at least!"

The laughter came easily and North leaned back comfortably after throwing out the fifth card for the table, then reaching for his beer. He smiled around the table at his friends -- a bunch of Freelancers, some excommunicated, some leading double lives...and one crazy Sampi redneck, from a tribe, no less. But they all had one thing in common, and that was throwing all goddamn care to the wind and putting their lives on the line for a resistance that had no business even existing, let alone thinking it had a snowball's chance in hell to do anything about the state of Sirca.

Yet they still pushed on; they took the hits when they came and celebrated the victories when they could, sparse as they were. They weren't winning, but goddammit, they weren't losing either. Each of them had made a journey since they'd met at the start of Specials. They'd all lost something -- or someone -- and they'd all tasted the bitterness of defeat more than once. But not a single one of them had traveled backward. Every step was a step beyond where they'd last stood, every defiant plant of their flag a few inches further down the field.

The fact Samael sat here with them, part of their circle and no longer the outsider, was just more proof of the fact that something very real was being built. They would have never taken in someone who wasn't like them in the past, someone who didn't understand what they went through, who hadn't shared their harrowing march through Sirca's relentless meat grinder.

But Samael had lived through his own trials and tribulations, and he deserved the spot at the table. They weren't just being charitable to the new guy from the 'other' branch. They trained hard with him whenever he was around, not giving him an inch of slack just because he hadn't been through the military. Nelson might have spit acid to Wash about it -- and Wash himself might have yelled at them multiple times for endangering Samael with the Freelancer-level sparring sessions -- but it was never enough to scare them off.

They'd taken what was a solid but highly-concentrated rebellion and expanded it. Sure, maybe Nelson hated the idea. Yeah, maybe Wash wanted nothing to do with the 'crazy' branch at Sidewinder. But this little group around the poker table was all the evidence North would ever need that they were doing the right thing. No matter what they lost in this fight, they'd gained too much to ever truly be defeated. They were already beating the odds just by coming together, and as far as he was concerned, that made this whole crazy plan worth it...and maybe meant they really were gonna start changing things for the better on this godforsaken ring.

South's dry voice drew North back from his winding thoughts. "You realize you'd still have that fuckin' leg if you weren't so shit at your job, right?"

Arizona reared back even as she flashed a toothy grin at South. "Goddamn, can I just move back in with you? I've missed having the saltiest cunt at Freelancer sharing my bunk! Yeah, I'm sorry I wasn't fast enough to avoid the fucking experimental laser Hexagon was fucking around with, seeing as it's a laser and most of us mortal assholes haven't figured out faster-than-light travel."

"That sounds like a you problem," South retorted, though her small smirk was enough to keep the mood light. "Can't believe these emotional bastards took you and your stump in, I woulda tossed your ass back."

"Awww, come on now, anyone who takes out six security guards after losing a leg and then cauterizes her own damn stump is Movement material if I ever saw," CT replied with an elbow to South's ribs.

North grinned, shoving a couple of chips into the pot. "Before we see everyone's hands, lemme offer this up." He lifted his bottle of beer with a playful wink. "South has a history of resolving friendly conflicts using bottles."

"I shoulda used a glass bottle on this orange bitch!" South groused as she jabbed a finger at Arizona, who only flashed two middle fingers. "Probably woulda fixed that ugly-ass face of hers."

Samael cackled and slapped the table a few times. "A'right, a'right -- that there's a waste'a good booze...oh wait, shit, this beer ain't good booze, neither!" York sat up slightly as if expecting a treat, North unable to avoid missing the way his tan-colored friend twitched when Samael's tail wiggled and made the piercing jangle a bit while he leaned back to reach into his pack.

"Oh god, here we go," CT announced, propping her head up with a grin. "Christ, thought we were just planning to ride out the storm, not black-out through it!"

North tilted his head. "Ooooh, are the rest of us finally getting to experience Sammy's--"

"--famous moonshine!" Samael belted out delightedly as he slammed a jar of clear liquid onto the table and sent chips bouncing all directions. "Hell yeah, son!"

York giggled gleefully and clapped his hands together, dragging his injured leg a bit as he slid closer to the table. "Oh man, took you long enough, ya hoardin' midget!"

CT shook her head as she stood up and laughed. "No wonder Wash declined to join us -- again -- he must have known this shit was inevitable...let me get some goddamn glasses so York doesn't end up like last time. Goddamn passed out with his maw in the jar and Sammy's hands down his pants..."

Samael shuffled his shoulders with a coo. "An' who says ya ain't s'posed to operate heavy machinery under the influence? York's equipment works jus' fine even when he's breathin' vapors!"

North glanced between the three of them before smiling and offering a good-natured huff. "Alright, you guys have talked this crap up before, but it can't be all that. We've all had homemade booze before."

"Ooh, buddy, not like this, you haven't," York replied with a bounce of his eyebrows. "What Sammy lacks in height--"

"--and non-sexual experience--" CT called out.

"--and brain cells--" South added before glancing expectantly at Arizona.

Arizona smirked and thrust a finger into the air. "And modesty!"

Samael crossed his arms with a pout, although the way his eyes danced told plenty about how much he appreciated the mockery.

"--he makes up for with his brewin' abilities!" York concluded cheerfully.

CT chuckled as she returned to the table and laid down several tumblers. "Little bastard only ever shares with York -- just because I don't have a dick to suck, he never gives me any. They'd go nuts for this shit at the bar!"

Samael winked up to her. "Awww, all ya gotta do is ask, hon, y'know I'll always give ya an exception to the No Dick, No Deal rule!"

South and North both snorted as the former snatched up the jar of liquor and then cracked it open while her brother squinted at Samael. "I dunnoooo...what would he know about good booze, anyway, he's freakin' tiny! Probably gets tipsy after a few of these 'garbage beers'!"

York's eyes gleamed as he immediately leaned forward with an enormous grin. "Screw this hand -- I'll bet you right now that Sammy can chug more of this rocket fuel than you!"

North scoffed and leaned away from York while giving him an incredulous look. "You must be crazy." He paused as South coughed loudly across the table, her eyes wide with the jar of moonshine held at arm's length.

"Oh my god, you could use this to strip the paint off a fucking dropship," she gasped before staring warily at Samael. "Then probably pour the rest in the fucking tank to fly it afterward."

"Bullcrap!" North protested even as he caught a whiff of the liquor, his eyes bulging the slightest bit. "There's no way I couldn't drink your stumpy ass under the table, even with this ridiculous incest-flavored white lightning!" he declared to Samael before clearing his throat and peering over at Arizona. "Uh. No offense."

"Shit, I'm not an idiot, my stumpy ass ain't goin' up against Sammy's stumpy ass, that's the kind of shit you use to prevent your next six pregnancies," she stated while giving the jar a look torn between mortified and intrigued. The proud grin on Samael's muzzle didn't betray even a hint of shame. "But you should totally go for it, North."

York was even quicker to tap a claw against the table, his smile broader still. "If Sammy can't beat ya, he and I will both do all your base chores for three days straight!"

North raised an eyebrow. "Holy damn, but you are serious," he remarked. "And what if he does beat me?"

A hungry crawbear had a less eager grin than the one York produced. "Ohhhh, nothin' big..." He rolled his eyes innocently. "You just spend thirty minutes with Sammy behind a closed door."

CT stifled a snort as Samael laughed but then gave a sheepish smile to North. "Aww, York, that ain't cool, don't--"

North puffed his chest out as he gathered up all his strength. "No, no. That's fine. I. Accept." He glanced over at Samael and was somewhat surprised at the genuine moment of discomfort that passed in front of the short chupa's features. He couldn't help but recall how just the day before, Samael had asked him -- without so much a hint of a giggle -- if he'd wanted to go spend a bit of intimate time together. North had reminded him he was straight, Samael had replied that he knew, but still wanted to ask. It was just his nature, after all. And it'd left North flattered, but resolute in his response. He just hadn't felt like exploring at that time. Samael had understood and they'd smiled, bumped knuckles, and gone off to their individual tasks afterward.

So maybe Samael was thinking back to that moment, worried that it'd seem like York was trying to set him up with another shot. And he wouldn't put it past York -- that was just the kind of friend he was -- but he also didn't feel like Samael would have asked him to. The little guy took too much pride in his own natural persuasion. And that was okay. North would just have to say no again. So North only grinned confidently and then raised a hand. "There's no way he's gonna win, but...just thirty minutes? And we don't gotta...do anything?"

York beamed and fired a fingergun at him. "That's right! Just thirty minutes with no one watching."

South scowled darkly and pushed the jar of moonshine into the middle of the pot. "Don't be an idiot, North. These two gay assholes are one-hundred-percent setting you up."

"Hey, hey! Bi!" York complained as CT snickered into her palm.

"Yeah, you keep singing that tune except I keep picking nothing but grey fur outta the lint trap when you wash your sheets -- your ratio's mighty tilted," she teased. "At least give Sammy's ass a break, let some other guys at L-Base have a turn."

"With him or with me?" York responded as he and Samael both pointed playfully at one another.

"Ugh, they're just proving my point," South muttered, eyeing North pointedly. "God, don't make me watch you lose a rigged bet to this midget, North, please."

North cleared his throat but raised a hand defiantly. "I can't back down, now! Besides...I know we've pretty much thrown this hand, but look what I was bringing to the table!" He grinned and turned his cards over to proudly display a straight. "Heh! Even the cards know, I'm like a damn arrow!"

It was almost terrifying how smoothly Samael turned his momentary concern into a cheeky purr. "Aw, sweetie...I spent a lotta years carvin' a lotta arrows." He winked and North refused to admit the shiver he felt run down his spine when the stocky rebel leaned toward him. "The good ones always straight as c'n be...'cept they also tend to be...flexible." The toothy grin was matched with a brief tour of Samael's tongue across the end of his muzzle before he tipped his head toward his hole cards. The entire table craned forward with helpless curiosity and North's eyes widened as he realized the little redneck had a -- "Whoopsie, I got me a straight, too." Samael practically spilled into his open palm, propping his head up while fixing North with a smile that would have melted all of Sidewinder. "'Cept that pretty li'l Queen ridin' all over that big ol' Jack'a yours..."

North opened his muzzle...then shut it...and then creaked it open one more time to let out a whine. "Are...you kidding me?"

Samael grinned coyly as he started to line up two rows of glasses, every movement of his muscular arms unnaturally sinuous. "You c'n still back out, hon, ain't no shame..."

York settled back into his chair with a matching expression while he fired North a teasing wink. "There'll be a little bit of shame."

"Fuck thaaaat," CT chortled as she raised her beer in a mock toast to Samael. "I'mma call it like it is -- you back down now, Northy, and you're a big purple bitch." Her muzzle twitched while she lifted the bottle to her lips, already seeming to expect the horrible glare from South. "Y'know. Just like your sister."

"I will break that bottle off in your ass!" South thundered as CT broke into wild laughter. South thrust a warning finger toward North. "Don't be fuckin' tempted!"

"But my honor!" he complained before squinting at Samael. "You ain't gonna cheat, right?"

Samael gave a much softer laugh as he placed a hand against his breast. "On m'seven mamas 'n six daddies -- wouldn't dream of it! We take our drinkin' games mighty serious back home!"

"Oh man, I love watching Sammy when he's on the hunt," Arizona announced, her fingers dancing amusedly along her own beer bottle. "South, you're 'bout to witness the metamorphosis of your brother -- he's gonna go in a straight guy...but he's gonna come out a straight man."

"I absolutely am fucking not," South grumbled as she pushed away from the table. "I swear to god, you assholes are still the hormone-riddled teenagers we were back in Specials, every get-together boils down to some kind of sexcapade."

"I will never not love that term," CT declared before she tossed a saccharine smile to her ex-battle-buddy. "Seriously, South, when's the last time you got laid?"

"When's the last time you had a fuckin' tracheotomy?" South snarled while shoving a finger at Arizona when her muzzle opened with a grin. "And you shut it, woman, that guard you walked in on was not the last time!"

Arizona feigned a hurt expression. "Ow, I wouldn't dream of telling everyone how I heard you tell him what a great dick he had and how you probably still dream of him every night!" When the ring in South's nostril was nearly flung away by the furious snort, Arizona cackled and held up both hands. "Don't be mad at me! He was a cutie!"

"God, you're all such bastards," South grumbled before leveling a flat look at both North and Samael. "If I think you're even slightly craving dick when this storm is over, I'm sending a letter to Dad so you can enjoy explaining all about that to him." She then gave a middle finger to the rest of the table and spun on a heel to storm out of the room.

"Oh lord, I'd apologize, but I'm pretty sure you all know my sister by now," North mumbled under his breath. He knew she was probably...mostly joking. If only because neither of them ever wrote letters home to their father.

"Don't worry, we all know she's probably about to go jill off," CT commented loudly, a grin curling around her bottle as Arizona spit out a mouthful of beer before choking on her guffaw.

"I heard that, bitch!" South's voice thundered from outside the room.

CT laughed cheerfully and called out after her: "Love you too, Madison!"

"Fuck yooooou, bitch!"

York and Samael were lost in a rush of giggling as Arizona shook her head and then bowed her head briefly to North. "Man, I love your sister, but she always was kind of a stick in the mud!"

North grinned while glancing down as Samael began to pour a measure of moonshine into each tumbler. "You know she said the same thing about you, right? Apparently you smiled too much!" He paused and then chuckled. "Kinda like you're doing now!"

"Oh, that's just because I can't wait to see this," she sang out, dropping her muzzle into one hand. CT mimicked the motion from her perch next to York as the tan chupa leaned forward with a broad grin.

"Alright, you two -- you ready?" He glanced between them with his arms folded together on the table, his eyes dancing with entertainment. "I want clean drinking only, no funny faces, no sly elbows, no flashing dicks!"

Samael held up a hand somberly and North wondered briefly if this was a regular thing for the stocky chupa. He nonetheless raised the same hand and then thrust his chest forward again. There was perhaps just a sliver of nervousness, thanks to how damn calm Samael looked. But then again, that was just Samael's way, wasn't it? Yeah, he was just a calm guy in general. North had nothing to worry about, drinking games were practically a morning exercise for them back in the day.

York lifted both hands above his head. "Okay, fellas. Hands on your first glass!" North met Samael's eyes as the same half-smile shone back up at him. "Ready..."

North flexed his arm with a cocky grin, eliciting a playful flick of Samael's tail.

"Set..."

North's eyes bulged a bit as Samael suddenly relaxed and dropped his cheek into his hand while the other stayed wrapped snugly around the glass.

"Go!"

North swung his head quickly back to focus on the five glasses as he levered the first up toward his maw. The smell hit him first, nearly making him wince even as he forced his jaws wide and practically flung the liquor onto the back of his tongue. He slammed his muzzle shut again and then swallowed as he closed his eyes...then opened them a moment later with a grin...

...which rapidly turned into a gasp as his eyelids threatened to disappear into his skull. His free hand slapped against the table before his claws dragged thin lines through the cheap vinyl. "H-holy shit!" he wheezed as the indescribable sensation filled his throat with what could loosely be called hellfire. "Wh-what the hell!?"

He stared over with a cough to see Samael smacking his lips, then flicking the first glass away as he reached for the next, his eyes never leaving North's. He heard York and CT tittering but they were distant sounds now as North could only gawk with disbelief at Samael. Oh god, South was right. This little jerk was a hustler!

North scrambled for his second tumbler, taking a hurried breath and then closing his eyes tightly as he threw back the next shot. He felt it sear his tongue but the back of his throat was already numb, even as he drew another set of jagged lines through the surface of the card table. "Oh my god this cannot be legal," he panted, eyes threatening to bug out of his face as he fired another mortified look at Samael who was now calmly using his tongue to lick the inside of his next glass clean.

"Purdy sure it ain't in most territories," Samael purred, his eyes half-lidded while he reached blindly to close his fingers around the next tumbler in line. "You c'n tap out any time, hon, I ain't gonna tease ya..."

North barked out a laugh -- he was sure York added some mocking jab, but he only had eyes and ears for the challenge before him. What was it Coach had always said? When things got intense, when all the chips were down...quit focusing on the enemy. Just keep your eyes on the prize! "No, no, no, I freakin' got this," he insisted, already feeling his arm growing tingly before he stared down the remaining glasses. Eyes on the prize!

He took a deeper breath and grabbed the third and fourth glasses in both hands, ordering his body to obey and praising his own steely will as both gulps of fiery liquor disappeared down his throat. He couldn't feel his tongue anymore but he was Carter Goddamn Caruthers, and no uppity Sampi gnome was gonna beat him in a drinking contest! A crooked albeit victorious grin snaked across his muzzle as he tossed both tumblers away and then reached for the last glass.

His enormous fingers missed it the first time and he cursed a word he was fairly certain didn't actually exist before snatching up the tumbler with a huff. He lifted it to his muzzle while he shifted his eyes to Samael...and then freezing with the rim against his lips as he stared at the neat little stack of five glasses precariously balanced on the end of the rebel's snout. "Wh-wh-what?" he stammered.

In all fairness, he could see Samael swaying slightly...but his own arm was trembling almost uncontrollably at this point. The redneck grinned up at him and then licked his lips before lifting the arrangement of glasses off his muzzle to ask sweetly: "You gonna finish that, hon?"

North jutted his chin out childishly, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment and inebriation alike, then stubbornly knocked back the fifth shot as his eyes squeezed shut again. He pounded a fist against the table with what might have been a squeal, choking down the moonshine and then flopping back in the chair with a groan to stare up at the ceiling as tears ran down his cheeks. "Oh my goooood, there's summin'...wrong wit' you," he gasped before the sound of slurping forced him to slowly tilt his head down...only to drop his jaw stupidly at the sight of Samael hoisting the jug in one burly arm as he let the liquor pour freely into his open maw. "Okay, christ, you win!" North cried out, throwing his arms high and then letting them drop down with a rattling groan as he sunk slowly into the seat until he had slid nearly halfway beneath the table. "My everythin' hurts," he whimpered.

He at last was able to hear York and CT again as their laughter filled the room, a sympathetic hand patting his forearm lightly. He opened one eye to make out the hazy figure of York grinning over at him. "Oh shit, Northy...you alright, man?"

He heard Arizona's voice drift in from somewhere, too. "Hot damn, he might be halfway through a fuckin' stroke..."

The buzz rolled over him like a sudden high tide and he mumbled a string of incoherent words before throwing an arm across his muzzle as his shame fought for supremacy with his drunkenness. "You...you two...'s cheatin'," he managed.

Samael's pattering laughter was unexpectedly soothing through the hum of the moonshine. "Aw hell, sweetie, now I feel bad...I din' wanna kill ya..."

"You din' kill me," North burbled, lifting his arm enough to squint with one eye at the slowly-swaying redneck. "Bu' now yer...gonna...eat my dick right up, aren'tcha?"

York, CT and Samael all gave stifled giggles before Samael reached over to squeeze his shoulder. "Shit, pal, I ain't a monster...ain't gonna make you go behind no doors with me, don't worry. 'S all good!"

That was a relief.

North closed his eyes...and then slowly pouted.

It wasn't fair, though. A deal was a dang deal.

He drew in a slow, slow, slow breath...and then let his arm drop as he cracked open both eyes. The low light of the room was still a blazing star, blinding him for a few seconds. When he could see again, he jut his chin out and gave a defiant look to York, then turned his eyes back to Samael. "Nooooo. 'S m'word. An' a man's word...word's sacred," he uttered.

Another second or two passed before he hiccuped and raised a shaky hand. "I...I might...need a hand gettin' up, though. 'N. Gettin' pointed at m'room, so...I c'n take this...this..." He paused to huff at Samael, even as a tiny smile slid across his muzzle. "This gay cheater 'n...go talk 'bout...dicks fer thirddy minutes'r whatever..."

York was quick to hop to his paws with a chuckle as CT thoughtfully reached across the table to pluck up the jar with the remaining moonshine before anyone else could make any additional terrible decisions. "I gotcha, buddy, I gotcha..." York looped his arm around North's and the two grunted as North was hauled up to a standing position. "Alright, now lemme just --"

"No, no, no, this...this's Sammy's time," North interrupted stubbornly before turning a jagged smile over to the redneck. He loathed how happy that made Samael look...except he kinda loved it, too. Still felt good giving the dumb little homo a thrill. "C'mon, Sammy...yew c'n help me get to m'room, right? Nooo broom closets 'long the way, though. I know...I know you 'n York, you...you do yer...gay butt-stuff in the closets, which...s'kinda funny since...yer both outta the closet."

He giggled to himself as York and Samael both shared a soft snicker. North sensed his larger friend waiting to ensure that the arm Samael wrapped around York's tree-trunk-like torso was secure...but when North didn't cause the smaller chupa to bowl over, York took a step back with a laugh. "Alright, you two -- all you, now. We'll clean up here, go enjoy your thirty minutes in Valhalla!"

Arizona gave them a thumbs up as she moved her rolling stool out of their path. "Go get 'im, Sammy, show 'im that Sampi pride you 'n York never shut up about!"

North huffed loudly as he stumbled forward, his massive arm practically swallowing Samael's shoulders as he shamelessly propped himself against the tiny rebel. "Don'...don' talk 'bout sex stuff...yer gonna give the li'l cave-demon a boner."

CT appeared next to them as they made their way to the door, a smaller grin on her features as she held out a bottle of water. "Oh, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to give him one, yourself, no problem," she teased. "Here, you dorks. And Sammy." She squinted down at Samael as North sluggishly moved his head to follow her eyes. "You take care of him, got it? Big man's always too busy watching everyone else's back to watch his own."

Samael's smile was so tender it hurt. "Yes, ma'am," he replied softly before taking the water with his free hand and grinning up to North. North should have hated the way it didn't bother him...but no. No, he instead felt proud of himself. Samael was his friend, and he happened to be gay. And now he had an arm around him and was about to drag him off to his bunk...but that didn't mean a dang thing, did it? He trusted his friends.

He trusted Samael, too.

Mostly.

"C'mon, big fella...we got some navigatin' to do..."

North puffed his cheeks out before reaching a drunken finger out to mash it lightly against Samael's snout. "You navigate. I'mma...followigate. An' then I'mma pass-out-igate." He nodded solemnly as Samael failed to hide his giggle, the two slumping forward together while North thrust his arm ahead of him. "Lessgo."


The journey to North's quarters was a slow but steady one. North couldn't remember the last time he'd been this woozy, and there was admittedly a little more humiliation than he'd expected. They hadn't been joking about that moonshine. He could only assume Samael had a special tolerance to the stuff, since the little rebel had been out drinking with their crew multiple times, and North could recall several occasions where Samael had been just as tipsy and giggly as the rest of them.

...Unless the sneaky bastard had been faking it to look like less of an alcoholic with a natural temperance due to excessively inbred genetics.

Samael was mostly quiet as he helped the gigantic chupa down the halls. North was glad the corridors were so empty -- he figured the storm had most people tucked away somewhere cozy since most of the base was filled with the cacophony of the tropical tempest. Hard to hear yourself think in most of the common areas. Their little card-playing room was an exception, as deep in the lower level as it was.

And...so was North's room, wasn't it? He screwed up his muzzle as a curious thought wrestled for clarity through his inebriation. That's right. Little ol' Wash, he'd been kind enough to remember that North could sleep through anything. Well, that and his snoring was enough to wake the dead. So he'd been given a room nestled neatly behind the boilers, away from most of the other personal quarters and enveloped in a constant hum that drowned out even the fiercest storms. He mumbled a quiet note of gratitude to Wash as Samael glanced up at him curiously.

"You, uh. You hangin' in there, big fella?" the redneck asked with a cautious smile as they zigzagged down the hallway past the boiler room. "We're almost there."

"'M good. 'M all good," North mumbled even as he slumped forward enough that his loose arm nearly dragged along the floor, Samael visibly straining to help hold him up. "Jus'...jus' need to. Rest." A drunk little smile squirmed across his muzzle. "Thiiiiirty minutes ought do it."

Samael had only a soft chuckle for him as they approached his door. "More'n happy to just hang out 'n be quiet the whole time, pal, don't you worry 'bout that."

"Mhmm, I'll...I'll b'lieve that once you sleep wit' yer first girl," North announced as he reached for the door handle...and then promptly missed, his head dropping against the steel door with a thud. "Ow."

"Lemme help, hon," Samael chortled, tucking the bottle of water under his arm and stretching his hand past North's to ease the handle down and then shouldering the door open before glancing up at his companion with a smile. "Geezus, you 'n York both, y'all just ain't suited fer this raw Sampi stuff..."

North huffed and barged through the doorway, his enormous frame sweeping Samael along in his wake. "You 'n...you 'n all that...sex talk," North grumbled. He kicked the door shut out of an automatic reaction, then widened his eyes a bit and turned his head around sluggishly to peer down at Samael. "Hey...hey, no...ideas."

Samael laughed quietly and then tugged on North's arm to pull him toward the bed. North hesitated at first, then allowed himself to be guided to sit down heavily on the end of the mattress as Samael took a respectful step back. "Only idea I gots right 'bout now is gettin' you hydrated 'n make sure you don't give yerself no concussion or some shit 'fore I slide on outta here 'n let you sleep this off, buddy."

North screwed up his muzzle in consternation. There was that damned chivalry again. He huffed after a bit and tapped the claws of his index fingers together for a few seconds before lifting his head with a more determined expression. "No, no...yer m'friend, Sammy. An' a deal's a deal, too." Samael smiled down at him and then twisted off the cap of the water bottle to take a small swig before offering it to North.

The Freelancer blinked and then accepted the bottle with a grateful nod. "Erm...thanks," he murmured before clutching into the bottle with both hands. It practically disappeared between his enormous fingers as he worried at the plastic. He knew it was just because he was kinda drunk that he felt so awkward. He'd spent time with Samael before, even alone. They'd had plenty of sparring and workout sessions just between themselves, after all.

The water was smooth and cool on his tongue -- the complete opposite of Samael's moonshine. He wasn't upset about the liquor, though...somewhere under his numbing inebriation was an appreciation for how potent the stuff was. He'd have to compliment the little jackass when his synapses were properly rewired.

His eyes lifted lazily at the movement in his periphery. Samael was shuffling away from him to drop into a torn-up armchair across from the bed. North's reading chair. Even if it was kind of ragged...he liked it even better than the expensive one back at FHQ. He grunted at the show of consideration, raising the water and mumbling something he hoped sounded like a 'thanks'. It wasn't like he was afraid Samael would try anything. He was a good guy. He was a sneaky guy, yeah, but North at least trusted him enough to assume he wouldn't just shove a hand down his pants while he was too wasted to fight him off.

The mere thought turned North's stomach and he waited for his eyes to focus enough to be able to make out Samael's kind smile across the room. Yeah, Sammy wasn't gonna try and force anything on him...but talking him into something? Well...well, well, well, that was more Sammy's speed. He was all...good at words and stuff. Just like he'd been with York. Talked him right into liking wieners.

...Though that wasn't very fair, was it? York himself had explained that Samael didn't trick him or anything. Sure, North hadn't believed him at first, but. North also knew he was kind of being an asshole at first. He sometimes still regretted the way he must have made York feel. Dick move being such a...dick.

North puffed his cheeks out as he tore his eyes away from Samael to look at the bottle of water. Too many thoughts about dicks. "So...so do you usually use yer...scary Sampi sauce when yer...yer on'a hunt?" North accused, even though his words carried about as much bite as the water he took another drink from.

Samael chuckled and propped his head up as he rested his elbow on the arm of the chair. "Sometimes!" he admitted freely while tipping a playful wink. "But you know me by now, big fella -- I ain't no helicopter hunter, I like the chase! No fun gettin' a guy all liquored up just to see if he'll come to bed with me. Ya remove a man's inhibitions an' it's kinda like riggin' the game!" He put a hand against his chest while lifting his chin imperiously. "Samael Wurlitz is far too talented to need to cheat!"

"Same fer Carter Caruthers!" North declared loudly before wincing and rubbing at his temple with his free hand. That buzz was still gnawing at him. Probably best to avoid yelling for a little bit. He then blinked as he realized what he'd said, waving the water at Samael. "Oh, tha's...tha's m'real name, by the way," he murmured.

Samael laughed quietly. "Helluva name for a helluva man!" North scoffed but smiled a bit as Samael winked. "And sheeeeit, I call York m'best friend but I ain't even learned his real name!"

North tilted his head back haughtily. "Well I'm not gonna tell you!"

Samael was quick to grin out from his palm. "Good! I'm sure I'll learn it one day -- 'til then, York works jus' fine!" He paused and then tipped his head a bit. "What do you prefer bein' called, hon?"

North huffed and squeezed the bottle before shrugging slowly. "I 'unno. North's a good name. Good codename, 's...been good to me. An'...e'ryone else, they...they all're fine with the codenames. Think I'm...prob'ly th' only one who ever says our ol' names every once in a while." He gazed over at Samael again. "Good as Freelancer's been t' me...I think...I think sometimes I still miss Specials. It was hard but. But it was a real good time an' I made all m'best friends there."

He paused again as a realization struck him. He smiled woozily at Samael. "All but one li'l beefcake of a friend, I guess." Samael's smile shifted to one so warm that North nearly blushed. "B-but...naw. 'M good with North. People're more important than names." He took another drink of water while letting his own words echo through his thoughts. "'S people that make memories worth havin'. M'sister an'...all m'friends, they're why I do what I do," he explained carefully around his slurring. "Make all the danger'n stuff worth it, yanno?" He nodded to himself and then squeezed his shoulders sheepishly together. All this talk about how important the people in his life were to him, and here he was, making Sammy think he was uncomfortable with him being too close.

North sighed loudly, injecting a fair amount of drama into the sound before he tried to give a smile that wasn't drowning in the awkwardness of his unintentionally divisive demeanor. "Hey...hey, Sammy..." Samael fixed him with another look so affectionate that North wondered what the hell he'd done to deserve it. He rubbed at his shoulder, then mumbled while gesturing to the open spot on the mattress next to him. "Come on over 'n sit with me."

Samael smiled brightly and slid off the chair, even as his first step forward was steeped in hesitation. "Y'ain't gotta do nothin' you don't like jus' 'cause ya feel obligated to," he noted quietly.

North only grumbled and patted the bed more insistently. "Com'on, com'on, com'on. You...you gotta nice voice to listen to 'n...plus yer the one got me drunk, so...least you c'n do's gimme a li'l company 'n tell me a li'l story or summin' while I wait for your stupid moonshine t'wear off..." As Samael took another few steps closer to the bed, North added lamely: "Sorry fer...not sayin' somethin' sooner, I...I know you ain't gonna try nothin'..."

"Haw, I ain't offended," Samael replied, approaching the bed and then sitting next to North with a searching gaze. "We're pals, but that don't change the fact we both know I'm a big ol' whore."

North huffed again, shifting only slightly when he felt the stocky rebel reclining back on his hands next to him. It was admittedly less of a reaction than he'd expected from himself. "Yer...a whore, but you ain't big," he protested before chuckling and reaching out with the bottle of water to lightly smack Samael's shoulder. "An' you ain't old, either.. Yer...yer the little baby whore of the group, tha's what you are." He then offered the bottle, which Samael took with a laugh so he could help himself to another guzzle or two.

"I cain't rightly argue that," Samael answered while nudging North's arm with the bottle. "Mighty glad y'all let me be part'a yer li'l gang. For a minute back there, I was purdy sure only ol' York was gonna be my pal. Ain't too many folks fond'a me 'n my ways, I s'pose!"

North scowled as he squeezed the bottle firmly, making the cap pop off to skitter to some corner of his room. "Well those folks are just plain dumb!" he complained. "You...you're weird, but all of us are weird an'...we din' let you in." He rolled his head back to look at Samael over a shoulder. "You earned yer place with us." He paused to drink another gulp of water before shaking the bottle at the redneck. "'M happy t'call you my friend."

"Me, too, hon," Samael replied warmly. North nodded firmly and then winced as he let his body fall backward onto the mattress with a grunt. He dragged his eyes over to peer up at Samael, who gave an amused smile back down to him. "Lawd, you look like y'need a li'l nap, though, now that ya got some water in ya..." He started to push himself off the end of the bed and North swung an arm out with a grumble.

"Hey, I meant what I said!" North's eyes closed and he gestured blindly with the bottle again. "Thirty minutes. Now...tell me a story with that dumb, nice redneck voice'a yers while I wait to see straight again."

He felt Samael leaning toward him but he managed to not twitch. "Oooh, so ya ain't seein' straight now, huh?? Sounds like this li'l baby whore should get to work!" The lilt was playful, though, and North giggled despite himself -- god, he wondered if it sounded as silly coming out of him as it did from York -- while he slapped at Samael a few times.

"Ahhh, shaddup 'n quit wastin' the best half hour yer ever gonna get wit' yer good buddy North," he demanded, lifting his head just enough to suckle the last of the water bottle before tossing it to the side. He could barely hear the storm outside, the hum of the boilers blanketing his room the way they always did. It was a reassuring familiarity, one he welcomed around himself as his body fought to overcome the alcoholic trial it'd been put through.

And when Samael's drawling baritone filled the air a few seconds later, North felt a smile spreading over his muzzle as he melted down into the bed comfortably.

"A'right, so lemme tell you aaaaall 'bout the mission I did for ol' Kiden 'n his folks a couple weeks ago...hoo, boy, was that a doozie..."

North relaxed even further as he murmured a word or two of thanks, letting Samael's soothing voice join the serene hum to wrap around his woozy form and give him the kind of consolation that he'd always craved above all else -- something he could only get from a friend who cared.

Even if he was a dirty gay whore.


When his eyes cracked open again, he was still surrounded by the rumble of the heavy machinery through the wall. He couldn't tell if the tempest was still active outside -- he was too busy wondering why he could no longer hear Samael.

Sobriety wasn't quite washing over him as much as it was steadily creeping along his senses, and he had enough clarity to feel a momentary sense of loneliness...at least until he felt the mattress dip as another body leaned toward him.

He blinked and stared up as Samael's half-smile drifted into focus. "Well, hey there, big man. Welcome back to Sirca."

"Ugh." North moved a hand to cover his face, mumbling past his fingers: "I'm not tryin' to hide from you, promise. I'm just waiting for the headache."

Samael chuckled before the mattress thumped a bit as North felt a brush of fur against his own. He flinched if only out of instinct, but warily looked over through his fingers to see Samael flopped down next to him. Samael's eyes met his with that same teasing smile. "Y'might be surprised there ain't too much of an ache once yer body's done figurin' out what the hell ya just did to it."

North squinted with suspicion while rubbing at his temple. Except...Samael was right. His head barely hurt, and his stomach was only a little discontent. He snorted quietly and warily lowered his arm while continuing to peer at the short rebel. "Lord, you're a helluva mystery, Sammy. You make liquor strong enough to drop a guy my size after a few shots...but it doesn't leave a dang mark afterward?"

Samael looked delighted at what he likely construed as praise as he wiggled his shoulders a bit on the mattress. "Hell yeah! 'S 'cause there ain't no impurities or nothin' in it! I only use a few ingredients, all natural shit, an' it goes right from the still into the jug!" He paused and then scratched at the end of his muzzle. "I ain't sayin' it might not punch a few holes in yer liver over time, though...heh."

North chortled and shook his head a bit before resting both hands on his chest and tilting his head up to gaze at the ceiling for a few seconds. He prided himself on his strange friends. And after coming to terms with York's self-discovery, North embraced that to an even greater degree. He had no shame for who he was, for being known as the jock, as a bit of a self-inflated bully, since he was aware of it. He had come to understand some time ago there were times to tamp it down and set it aside. And he'd learned even longer before then that he was okay with having emotions, and going out of his way to be kind to the folks around him. Some childhood lessons never left you, after all.

Coming to know Samael was just another step down that same road, the path that took him out of the comfort of having a clique where everyone simply adored him without question, where his friends were just like him and his audience was made solely of fawning idolaters. Samael was about as far-flung from his usual crowd as could be...and now that he'd gotten to know him, he wouldn't have it any other goddamn way. This was what made sense, now. This was why their half-cocked attempt at saving the ring was worth it, win or lose. These people wouldn't have been brought together by anything less.

He tipped his head to the side and studied the clock on the bedside table for a second or two. The moonshine had made observation of reality rather difficult, but he was pretty sure it'd been at least forty-five minutes since they'd managed to make it back to his quarters. He gave a tiny smile. Thirty minutes behind a closed door with Samael...and no one was even crying.

He didn't know if he should have been shocked, or just pissed at himself for assuming the worst.

He smiled a bit more, then reached over to lightly punch his friend's arm. "I know you might be an illiterate redneck, but I'm sure you can tell time. How come you didn't leave, huh? Earlier you made it sound like you couldn't wait to get outta here, leave my straight, drunk butt behind for someone who'd already be humpin' your face."

Samael winked and reached over to poke North's forehead. "Aww, I din' wanna leave ya all alone! Plus you's the cutest li'l snoozer, even if yer snorin'd bring a feller right up out a coma!"

North huffed, trying and failing to hide his smile. "Aw, shaddup. But...thanks." He glanced down at his chest for a moment. He'd taken to going shirtless whenever he was staying at L-Base, blaming York for how easy he made it look. Kind of funny how he hadn't even thought about it with Samael, though. Sure, they were both guys who were proud of how they looked but. It was Samael. All this time behind a closed door with the powerful lubrication of Sampi-born moonshine and not a single passing comment. It was at the point some little part of him wondered if maybe Samael just didn't find him attractive.

...He wasn't sure he appreciated the other little part of him that was the tiniest bit upset by that.

He cleared his throat before tapping his claws lightly together again. "I'm feeling better -- guess we owe CT a thanks for the water, and you for making...magical booze that does what it's supposed to do and doesn't overstay its welcome." He chuckled and nodded before blinking as he heard the sound of Samael shuffling to sit up and sidle off the bed.

"I'm glad, hon." He smiled over at North as his paws swung down to the floor while he pushed himself off the mattress to stand. "This's been real nice. Ain't often I get to watch over a fella sleepin' when we's all still got our pants on."

North snorted but sat up quickly as Samael moved toward the door. He hesitated, then reached out to grip his shoulder for a moment. "You...you can stay longer if you want, Sammy. It...doesn't feel right since I slept through most of the half hour."

Samael halted and then turned to face him so North could feel the full extent of his bemused expression. "Now I ain't complainin', hon...but haw, y'know ya ain't foolin' me no more 'bout jus' wantin' to keep yer word, right?"

North pursed his muzzle. That same voice from earlier reared its head, demanding that he reprimand Samael and remind the guy that he wasn't some dick-loving queer like him. But North had long ago learned to tell that voice to take a hike. That wasn't who he was anymore. He was better than that.

Samael had a point, though, didn't he? North did care about his word...but the playful bet was long since over with. Now there was something more to it.

He couldn't help thinking back to those less-than-pleasant arguments with York again, especially when North had wanted to 'talk' to Samael. He didn't know what he would have actually done -- he'd been so overwhelmed with his incredulity over York's confessions that he was sure if York hadn't stopped him, he would have said a lot of regrettable things to Samael. He might have done more than just threatened him, too. Doing whatever it took to help his friend snap out of his gay musings very well could have involved kicking a tiny redneck's ass; how dare Samael make York think he liked guys, after all?

North realized that now he actually did want to talk to Samael, because he was honestly interested. This was a facet of his little friend's life he simply didn't have reference to or experience with. Sure, he and York had known people who were gay or bisexual in the past, it wasn't like York had been the very first he'd encountered. But he was the first to be someone so close, a true friend and not just some acquaintance North could keep safely at arm's length and comfortably mock without more than a pang or two of guilt.

North shuffled his paws a bit before leaning forward on the edge of the bed and gesturing back to the mattress with a faint smile. Samael seemed to understand that North wasn't entirely sure what he wanted...just that he didn't want him gone. The stocky rebel moved back to sit next to him again, folding his hands in his lap and gazing up inquisitively. It was another aspect of Samael that North could appreciate with greater depth now, because he'd seen when Samael turned his charm up all the way and became a momentous force of enticing, gay energy. It was easy to forget Samael could just as quickly dial it down to nothing more than a soothing hum to make himself as innocuous and comforting a presence as could be.

North once more thought back to the Counselor. That asshole was the same way, except there was always the little thread of unsettling poison under his calm demeanor...the sensation that, yeah, you were feeling comfortable, but take a step back and you could see the welcoming embrace was actually the cold encircling of a serpent. With Samael, he didn't feel like there was a blade hidden at his back, like the easy smiles weren't just there to distract him from the traps littered around his feet. North actually wanted to talk, wanted to learn more about his friend without the fear of being judged for his own inexperience or biased mindset.

"How, um..." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat with a sheepish glance to the side, but Samael was already there to squeeze his arm lightly. It was only a brief touch and it lasted only long enough to reassure North without making him have to contemplate what it meant. He turned his head back to Samael with a faint but honest smile. "How long have you known you were...yanno." He half-expected Samael to finish the thought with his usual magnanimous swagger, coupled with a huge wink. But the little guy was quiet, offering only his tender smile as if to encourage North to work through things at his own pace.

It was unexpectedly welcome.

North grumbled all the same out of some need to be a tough bastard, though the smile that drifted across his muzzle was hard to ignore. "Did you...always know you were, uh. Gay?" he finally managed, meeting Samael's eyes curiously.

Samael quirked a different smile, one that was laced with entertainment yet without a hint of mockery. "Shit...purdy much soon as I had my first boner..." North blinked, showing more surprise than he intended. "Haw, you ain't...you ain't got no other pals who're...y'know. Not-straight, do ya?"

North rubbed the back of his neck with a lame smile. "Honestly? Back in Specials, I knew a couple of the girls in our group were...y'know. Bisexual or whatever, but. Before York..."

He didn't need to finish as Samael whistled and elbowed him gently. "Guess you guys really were in yer own li'l bubble back then, huh? But alright, so...it was a li'l different for me, growin' up in a tribe." He bumped his arm against the larger male again. "We ain't got the sorta inhibitions a lotta normal folks got. Ain't no real stigma 'round bein' gay where I come from...you just like who you like, no one gives much a hoot." He gave an easy shrug. "So when one'a my packmates 'n me were wrestlin' one day an' all'a sudden I found myself really excited 'bout it, well..." Samael grinned cheekily. "Didn't take me long to confirm it."

North snorted but twiddled his thumbs a bit, his discomfort melding slowly into genuine intrigue. "I just, uh. I guess...I guess I sorta figured that...Sampi tribes living out in the middle of nowhere, you'd be even more...traditional?"

Samael smiled over at him as he rubbed along his own thighs. "Haw, y'ain't the first to think so. An' I s'pose I ain't surprised that they do much teachin' of ways like ours where y'all got educated 'n stuff. But yeah...in our culture, it ain't a big thing. We care more 'bout doin' somethin' with yer life, somethin' that matters to the ring. We don't believe in Omega's bullshit 'n the Holy Wars always been a sore subject for our folks, too -- we don't partake in none'a that, 'cause it don't align with what we hold close. You snuggle up to whoever ya like, long as you still work to make a difference in some way."

North bit his lip as he urged himself to not be too scared to continue. "I, uh. It's just odd. It sounds like you all kept to yourselves, so...wouldn't keeping your numbers strong be a reason to, um. You know. Discourage that kind of relationship?"

He let his eyes drift over to Samael, almost nervous about what he'd find...but the little redneck only gazed at him with a smile that oozed understanding. "I know you ain't no Omegite, hon...but I also get that this is all y'all have known, yer whole lives. That...whole argument, 'bout not havin' enough kids 'n all that, that's...a buncha bullshit the House spits out. We ain't never had no issue with it. Bein' able to love who you want don't mean you ain't still able to do yer part 'n keep the pack strong." Samael paused and then gave a coy smile. "I'm purdy sure I woulda never had to worry 'bout it, regardless -- my people ain't all midgets like me, I jus' got an extra helpin' of inbreedin' in my blood. They wouldn't want me throwin' my short-ass genetics back in the mix."

North laughed before he could help it, covering his muzzle and giving an apologetic look...only to blink in shock as Samael burst into laughter himself. North let out another giggle, lowering his hand as his shoulders relaxed again. "God, I'm...I'm sorry, I must sound like such a dumb farmboy, all these questions..."

Samael chuckled and shook his head, reaching over to squeeze one of North's enormous biceps. "Oh lord, yer fine, hon, yer fine. 'S cute, an' I'd rather someone be interested in who I am rather'n just hate me for it."

It was hard not to grumble as North gripped into his shoulder and glanced away. He knew Samael wasn't calling him out in the slightest. He was just also all too aware of his own opinions from the not-too-distant past. "I still feel pretty stupid. We were so obsessed back then with our image and...being the stars, the ones everyone looked up to..." He drew his gaze back to Samael and there it was -- like York's intense stare, but deeper still.

"But not everyone, huh?" Samael murmured.

North laughed quietly again as he looked down. "Same thing York said to me when we uh...first. Started talking about his..." He fought for the right word. He knew now it wasn't a transformation. He finally understood York hadn't just decided to be bisexual one day. It'd always been there, just tucked away behind the layers of bravado and machismo. "His realization." North nodded once. "He was right, too. Used to not care about anyone who didn't worship the ground we walked on." He glanced back at Samael and let a warmer smile crease his muzzle. "Glad I got that outta my system, since I don't think I'd be friends with your weird little ass now, otherwise..."

"An' that'd be a downright shame!" Samael sang out with a wink before he chortled and fell back on his hands again, his eyes moving away from North to instead gaze at the various knickknacks, posters and photographs that lined his room. "Ain't gotta be ashamed of yer past, hon, not if ya learned what ya shoulda 'n tried yer best to be better 'n you once were." He reached up to rub a thumb against a spot on his chest before exhaling and gazing back up at North. "We gotta let the past guide us, not define us."

North tried to reciprocate the mind-reading ability as he studied Samael's forlorn features for a few seconds. The expression of longing soon shifted back to the same kind smile as before, though, as two pairs of emotive blue eyes met to trade whatever words failed to reveal. North knew he wasn't quite as gifted, but the look of wistful recollection was one he recognized from York. Maybe Samael was thinking of his own Agent Carolina.

But North didn't have long to contemplate it as he soon found himself treading water in the deep pool of Samael's gaze. He smiled a bit -- he definitely didn't suddenly want to spin Samael around and start plowing the guy...but there was no revulsion, either. If anything, he was a little confused that...

He squirmed a bit and then huffed. "Ain't you gonna...try and seduce me?" he finally asked, hating that he couldn't decide if he was wary or...a little offended, even.

Samael cocked his head and then released a tinkling laugh. "Naw, naw. An' I promise it ain't just 'cause you ain't all drunk 'n pliable no more, neither."

North scowled but sat up some as he chewed on his lip, doing his best to try and feel out the strange chupa's emotions. "But...isn't that what you did to York?"

"I..." Samael paused and then rubbed at one of the crimson studs in his lower jaw. "I kinda did, yeah. It was like...fifty-fifty, though!" North squinted at him and pursed his lips, eliciting a giggle from Samael. "A'right, seventy-thirty, but he was still mighty into it! I wasn't out to convert no man that night, naw...I had a feelin', that's all." He looked up into North's features for a moment or two. "It's...it's just what I do. I see people, hon. I see 'em pretty damn good an' I could see York that day. He weren't sure 'bout what he wanted, 'bout himself. Acted like he knew, 'cause I'm sure he thought he knew all his life, y'know? He was curious but ain't know he was curious."

A flicker of a grin passed along Samael's muzzle -- North assumed he was savoring the memories. It didn't feel unsettling, though. And York's words about being happy he'd discovered the truth about himself, they felt as real as could be. The guy had never seemed so content with life as he was these days, not since losing her.

Samael continued. "He didn't know how t'deal with that curiosity, what to think 'bout it. Went against everythin' he thought he knew. But you..." Samael paused long enough for North to look a tiny bit nervous, the same playful smile rolling back into place. "You, Northy, yer pretty sure who you are." The smile transformed momentarily to a cheeky grin. "Still a li'l curious, though."

North huffed again as his fingers clenched into the sheets below, his tail looping around itself lightly. He opened his muzzle to protest, then slowly shut it. Samael...Samael wasn't wrong. North was curious, the same way he'd been genuinely anxious to hear about Samael's past, how he'd known about himself and what -- who -- he was attracted to, what it was like to be wired this way. To be someone, like York, that North could find such a good, close friendship with, without it being uncomfortable, even if they had such a different interpersonal view of the world. And in that same vein, he couldn't help but be curious what it meant for a guy like him, now that imagining someone like Samael being intimate was no longer something to make him nauseated.

"I..." North grumbled, hating how mealy-mouthed he felt. "I'm...I'm not...trying to come out of a damn closet or anything," he muttered before flinching unwittingly when he felt fingers at the small of his back. He whipped his head around but Samael's gaze was supportive, not suggestive. The touch soon became a soothing warmth and he felt his hackles lower while he unclenched his fingers and then sighed as embarrassment and self-awareness collided in his mind. "I feel really dumb right now. You're my friend, you and York both are, and the last thing I wanna do is offend either of you..."

Samael rubbed along his back until his fingers reached up to squeeze into a shoulder. "Yer curious," he repeated quietly. "That ain't a bad thing. An' it's way better'n those nasty looks you used to fire at me from 'cross the room!" Samael teased, pairing it with a wink.

North still felt like a bastard, though, as he put his hands together in his lap and looked down sheepishly. "Er...I'm...I'm still sorry about that, buddy..."

"Yer fine, hon," Samael replied while stretching his arm up to flick at North's mane. "Weren't the first an' ya sure ain't gonna be the last." He shrugged and gave another soft smile. "Fact yer even contemplatin' stuff instead'a just bein' horrified means yer growin'. An' I ain't here to say yer not a good person unless you decide you like guys -- I'd never say that. It ain't just some decision, but I think you've already figgered that part out with York." North squirmed a bit but nodded silently. That had taken him some time, but he understood now. "Yeah, exactly. But lettin' yer mind be open means you've grown as a person. An' ain't nothin' wrong with that at all."

Samael then chuckled and punched his arm lightly. "So naw, we can jus' talk, disappointed as that makes ya sound."

North huffed but couldn't stop the small smile. "Hmph. Alright."

Samael nudged his side after a moment. "So how're you feelin' 'bout York these days, huh? Y'all been pals a long time, way longer'n I've known him, but looked like it was a couple rough days back when my homewreckin' ass came onto the scene."

North snorted. His guilt threatened to rear up again, but Samael's joviality felt so honest that the feelings hesitantly retreated and allowed him to sift through the memories more easily. "I...I was scared at first," he admitted as he squeezed his hands together in his lap. "Thought he was gonna be a different person, you know?" He glanced over at Samael, not sure why he was surprised that all he was met with was an encouraging smile. Of course the little fruit basket wouldn't hold his biases against him. He gave his own smile and rubbed a thumb over his palm. "But he's still...York. He's still my friend. It didn't change who he was and if anything, he's happier than I've ever seen him, ever since..."

North trailed off. That wasn't his story to tell. Samael seemed to understand, considering the pained smile that followed the shift of his eyes across the room. "We've all been in that boat, one way or 'nother. But few folks reach the shores as strong as York. I'm sure y'all helped him get there, too. Even a fella as strong as him don't make that swim alone."

North smiled wistfully down at his hands. "I'm pretty sure Wash did more for him than any of us. We were all there for him, though Wash was the one who first reached past the wall he'd put up." He rubbed at his forearms and allowed himself a tiny grumble. "So I might be a little jealous of you and how fast you became York's tight little pal." He paused and smirked down at the grinning redneck. "No pun intended, you homo." Samael laughed and elbowed him lightly again. "But...even you got nothin' on Wash. No offense, Sammy."

Samael waved a hand and gave a reassuring laugh. "None taken, hon. I seen that fer m'self."

North nodded. "Those two are somethin' special, that's a kind of friendship that doesn't just happen overnight. And man, I love Wash like a brother, myself, but...you know him by now. He's not an easy guy to be close to." He leaned back with a smile. "But York was determined. Like...one day, just this lightbulb went off. 'This short scrawny dude isn't someone I'm stuck with, he's my battle buddy. We should be best friends!' And...he worked at it. Never gave up, no matter how hopeless it felt, no matter how many fights or arguments they got into, no matter the fact that poor Wash -- rightfully! -- held weeks of bullying and hazing and stuff against him, against all of us."

North exhaled but kept his smile as he nodded. "York's a good guy. And I'm happy he's...happy. Even if the fact he bones everyone now probably just makes his poor buddy Wash that much more annoyed."

Samael smiled enormously, giving a bright chuckle. "You ain't wrong there! I seen some grumpy moments from Wash. But you c'n see he cares 'bout his best friend. An' like you said, that's gotta be harder for Wash than it is fer most. York is a good guy." He picked at his shorts for a few seconds as North studied him silently. "I know it weren't easy for ya, neither. I felt guilty for a good bit, too -- wasn't sure if I'd confused 'im back then, put thoughts in his mind that weren't his own, y'know? The way you reacted, you wasn't the only one. I know York always had a reputation an' I sorta felt like I came in 'n screwed it all up." Samael licked his lips but smiled again, shifting his eyes back up to North's. "I know that's just silly thinkin', though. I'm the one o'er here preachin' 'bout how you don't choose this shit." He propped his head up with an elbow against North's colossal arm. "Still felt guilty, though."

North rubbed at his chest before smiling lamely and nudging Samael back. "I guess we got that in common, then. But...I hope you don't feel that way anymore. I know I'm not the only one who sees how content the big gay -- sorry, sorry, bisexual -- is."

Samael beamed up at him, his tail swishing once to accent his delight. "Yeah...yeah, yer right 'bout that, big man. So that goes fer you, too -- quit bein' so hard on yerself. Lookit ya now, we been locked up together fer like an hour an' ya ain't even knocked out one tooth." He gave a more measured smile, a sheepish look bolting past his features. "You ain't gotta force nothin' for me, ya know."

"Hey, hey -- what'd we just say about guilt, you silly redneck?" North murmured as he scratched at his muzzle, then breathed out and smiled back down at Samael. "It's okay. I'm comfortable with my sexuality. It's not that weird." He hesitated and raised a finger with a wink. "I mean, it's a little weird, but. You're not. I dunno. Making me feel weird."

"Heh. Good! You should feel comfortable with yerself. Yer a fine man, an' if it weren't for all this shit we're doin', you'd make some lucky girl the happiest lady on all'a Sirca."

North laughed softly before he bit his lip and shifted his weight on the bed. Holy crap, but he hadn't thought of her in some time, now. "Oh lord, Sammy. I..." He halted and then cleared his throat, looking down at his friend. No, he didn't need to ask. Samael was a man of his word, too. He'd said they could talk, and North wanted to believe it. "There, uh. There actually is this girl..."

Samael immediately cooed and scooted closer to his side, peering up at him intently. "Oh? Go on, then!!"

North huffed again but let a goofy grin dance across his muzzle. It was always worth trusting your friends. "She, uh. She works in this crappy bar, in the town a few hours from the Freelancer Headquarters." He smiled a bit as her cerulean fur whisked through his memories, velvet fingers that caressed him as if the two of them were still in her dingy bed pretending there wasn't a tomorrow. "I haven't seen her as often lately as...as I'd like. But whenever I make a trip out that way, I stop by her place and we. We talk."

Samael's finger prodded into his ribs, tender but playful. "Jus' talkin', huh?"

North flushed and puffed his chest out. "Hey! I'm a gentleman, too! We don't just screw."

Samael's laugh was as gentle as they came. "I'm sure ya don't, hon. I know you better'n that."

"Damn right you do," North mumbled, even as he smiled again and gripped into his thighs while letting thoughts of her flood through his mind. "I told her about what I did...you know. Being a Freelancer and the jobs I did and stuff. She never minded. Even the, uh. Less-pleasant stuff we did, she'd drink it all in and tell me she wished she could do that, too." He paused and then hesitantly draped an arm around Samael's shoulders as he continued softly. "It wasn't because of the money or the connections we had, not because we were revered as elite agents or anything like that. She...she wanted to help Sirca. And that was what she took from my stories, no matter how...bad the missions were, the things we did. She still believed in changing the ring, making a difference for the better."

He sighed but refused to let the memories turn sour. He could feel Samael shifting closer to his side, but he didn't mind. He took it as a comfort, squeezing his massive arm around his pal's shoulders. "Her name is Evelyn. She likes Eve, though. And when I first met her, I...I laughed. This woman stuck in a podunk desert town, only interactions with the ring she gets are high 'n mighty Freelancer bastards and whatever random travelers happen to pass by. What does she know about Sirca? Whether or not it's worth saving, you know?"

Samael dropped his head against his shoulder. North didn't mind that, either. He pulled the smaller male against his side as Samael's drawl floated up to him. "You think it ain't?"

North stared at the other side of the room for a moment, his eyes locking onto a framed photograph of the entire group that had come from Specials into Freelancer.

Too many of the faces were now only memories.

"Of course I do," he murmured. "Even when I pretended I didn't care, I always did. Sirca started treating me like I was worth more than I was, and then I started treating myself the same way. I've said some pretty stupid things to people because I was the king of the playground. Leader of the pack, top of the food chain. Guys like that aren't supposed to have emotions, aren't supposed to be dreamers."

"Shame," Samael replied, though it was hardly a reprimand. North glanced down to find eyes as gentle as the rolling hills behind the family farm. "You got more hope in yer heart than most'a us doin' this rebel thing. I'm sorry you ain't been able to show it sooner."

North didn't bother scoffing as he simply smiled and nodded once. "Some of those dumb things I said was to Eve. Bless her, though, she never held it against me. Guess she liked somethin' about me -- of course I just assumed it was...you know."

He started to gesture to himself and Samael laughed, an arm appearing around North's waist. "All of this?" the redneck offered teasingly.

"Yeah!" North laughed and relaxed again with a childish grin. "I mean, what's not to like? Me and York, we never liked seeing anyone treat girls bad, but...god knows we were jerks sometimes and still got laid. We didn't think much about it back then. So of course I thought the same about her. Just some small-town girl with big dreams that was gonna get a thrill sleeping with a real-life Freelancer, settle for that since it wasn't gonna get better than that for her." North exhaled but the smile remained as more memories drifted through him. Pleasant memories, warm memories that tickled him in all the best ways.

"I'd tell myself she was just always agreeing to see me 'cause she liked the thrill, but. Even I wasn't that stupid, I was the one who kept coming back to her. She was a good listener, sure, and she let me talk plenty, get lots off my chest. But, god, I could spend all day and night with her curled up against me while she went on about all the good things she wanted to do, all the stuff she'd try and fix if she could do what I did." North closed his eyes and leaned backward, and Samael automatically moved his arm off his back as he flopped back into the mattress. He was okay with the way Samael thumped down next to him, still tucked under his enormous arm.

"The more I listened to her, the more I realized she wasn't silly. That what she wanted wasn't so crazy." North smiled, his eyes still closed as the light trace of her fingers along his stomach made his toes curl a bit. "I'd still tease her, but it didn't take long for me to realize that her dreams weren't all that different from mine. I think it's why we were so good together. Listening to her made me see that just because a dream felt impossible didn't mean it wasn't still worth trying." His fingers squeezed slowly into Samael's arm and he opened his eyes to gaze at the ceiling as he heard her whispered words, a delicate promise to do everything she could to at least make his world a better place. A stepping stone to healing all of Sirca.

"I stopped pretending I didn't care," North admitted softly. "I wanted the same. Every time I saw her, I wanted that more...until the day CT and Wash told me they were planning to leave Freelancer. And then there was so much going on that I wasn't able to go and see her for a long time."

Samael squirmed a bit to roll onto his side and North automatically curled his arm around the smaller chupa's back to keep him held close. "Aww shit, man. I'm sorry. Kinda sucks that you went 'n started doin' them good deeds she always talked about, just to not see her no more..."

North puffed his cheeks out, then found a coy grin snaking back into place. "Weeeell. I did manage to make a li'l trip out that way a couple weeks ago. I, uh. I told her everything." He rubbed at his muzzle with his free hand, tasting a mixture of regret and longing. "Probably shouldn't have. Freelancer, they really don't take kindly to spies." He grimaced briefly and remembered Georgia. "But I had to. I had to tell her, because I know she was part of the reason I decided to help CT and her boys escape. Why I convinced South to start playing both sides with me."

He smiled as he rubbed his hand back down along his chest and settled it on his stomach, right where she loved to sit. "God, she. She was so happy to hear it. She was so proud of me and she made me feel better about myself than even I ever had." A shrug rolled off his shoulders that failed to quell the excitement stirring within him at the thought of the way she'd been so much more passionate that afternoon...a bit of an overwhelming memory since she was already one of the most enthusiastic and rousing companions to spend time in a bed with him. He licked the end of his muzzle and tried to exhale calmly again, though it came out in small shudders. "Sweet mother Sirca but that was one helluva day," he mumbled. "She makes me want to be a better person. And maybe one day..."

He could feel Samael's breath tickle his chest and he glanced over, suddenly embarrassed by the proximity since...

His eyes widened slightly. Oh lord, he'd lost himself in the thoughts a bit too much. The tightness in his pants had crept up on him like a goddamn thief in the night, leaving his entire body flushed with the ecstatic memories of Eve. "Oh...oh goddammit," he grumbled, trying not to smile as he reached up and dropped his hand on his face. "I swear to god, this isn't because of you, Sammy."

He felt Samael shift curiously before the delighted giggle drifted over him, making that half-smile grow despite himself. "Well, hey there, those must be some fine moments yer recollectin', buddy!" Samael teased. North parted his fingers to squint down at him with a huff. Samael's gaze was affectionate but not drowning in lust as he lifted a hand innocently. "I ain't takin' credit, pal, don't worry. I'll leave ya be so you can, uh. Work this'n out." He winked, and North sighed in relief...until Samael paused.

Oh boy.

North tried not to let his eyes bulge, tried not to even think about whatever was on the tip of his friend's tongue. But spirits above, he could feel the raw heat emanating from Samael, melding effortlessly with his own despite the fact North had never had a single goddamn passing thought of another man. He attempted another calm, measured exchange of air as the words trickled out of Samael's maw. "But if ya want...y'know I c'n help ya out, too." He reached up and North froze as Samael's fingers graced the side of his muzzle. The other chupa's touch was electric and his entire body trembled. "No teasin', no pullin' you to the dark side." Samael gave a smile that North knew would make a Cleric's knees quake. "I'm jus' really good at what I do, an' I'm here if ya like."

North swallowed thickly but didn't move his muzzle away from Samael's fingers. He knew he could back out, he trusted Samael even in this vulnerable moment, trusted him to understand this wasn't some attempt at realizing his true nature. As nervous as he'd once been around the little redneck, he felt safe with him, now. Evelyn wasn't someone he talked about with most folks, and he knew just telling that story was a sign of how easy it was to drop his guard around Samael. He knew in the same beat a single "wait, no" would end things and have Samael on his paws and out of his room without a fuss. They were friends, after all.

...But that damn curiosity.

His pants weren't getting any more relaxed and he clenched his teeth momentarily before lifting the arm around Samael's shoulders to shakily brush a thumb beneath his companion's muzzle so he could lift his head and meet his eyes. "You...you know that I'm..."

"I know," Samael replied softly, his palm sliding down to cup North's cheek. "An' this ain't gonna change nothin' that ain't wantin' to be changed. I jus' know what it's like to feel lonely no matter how many friends ya got 'round ya. I'm here if you want a li'l company to go with them thoughts."

Another tremor ran through North's colossal frame as he lowered his free hand to rest on his stomach...then edged it toward his waistband. "Lord, you are too good at this," he murmured as a small, sheepish but real smile crawled over his features. "Alright, Sammy. I'll let you know if..."

"You just gotta say the word, hon," Samael rumbled as he pressed tightly against North's side to send another bolt of need through the larger chupa. "Hands off 'fore you c'n even ask twice."

North found it difficult to even close his eyes, not wanting to break contact with Samael's reassuring gaze. He thought again to the previous night, when he'd been able to let his friend know he wasn't interested. But he hadn't been feeling the intense thrum of need he did now. And curse the tiny redneck, but he wasn't wrong about the loneliness. A little companionship went a long goddamn way in their world.

And so far the sheer physical arousal hadn't faded a bit despite the fact it was a guy curled against his side. He chalked it up to that stupid curiosity...and the fact Samael really was kind of an amazing little dynamo of sexual energy. Yet despite that, North still found nothing but a genuine affection in his companion's gaze. No slavering lust, no constant, expectant flicks to his crotch. Samael's eyes never left his own.

Those eyes were the last nudge North needed as his trembling fingers unfastened his belt, his desire to succumb to the blissful memories overcoming everything else. "Okay, Sammy," he murmured, licking his lips as the bitter taste of nervousness mixed with the spice of erotic exploration. Like the old saying went -- he wouldn't know 'til he tried. "Okay..."

Samael's smile tiptoed the line of eager and grateful and North found himself stricken for a moment. They always joked about what a whore Samael was, and he never seemed offended. In this instant, though, North saw exactly what that meant, and why it wasn't quite the insult a stranger might assume it to be. His friend looked needy, yeah...but the sheer delight at being given an opportunity to share something so physical, so intimate, that real joy was scrawled across Samael's features. He took a genuine pleasure from the act, more than just fulfilling some mindless desire.

North didn't register the fingers working alongside his, his overburdened consciousness sluggish to catch onto the fact that Samael's opposite hand was nimbly undoing the button of his pants before smoothly drawing down the zipper. His other palm was still pressed tenderly to North's cheek, less a distraction than it was a comfort. North pressed into it with a throaty purr, allowing himself to sink into the tender administration of his friend's motions.


~ * ~ * NSFW * ~ * ~

North huffed but smiled despite himself as he carefully reclined next to Samael, then turned onto his side with a wince. Now the soreness was starting to ebb along his frame as the last of the ecstasy settled into a gentle hum. "Geezus, Sammy," he commented while straining to steady his breathing, reaching over to drop a shaking hand on Samael's shoulder. "You...you really made the...most of this chance...huh?" he panted with a playful grin.

Samael greeted him with the same expression, his teeth gleaming happily through the visible daze on his features. "Hell yeah, hon...an' you're still...straight as can be...huh?"

North smiled again -- it wasn't a mocking jab. Samael was making an honest observation. "Heh...I uh. Y-yeah, sorry, Sammy." He cleared his throat and took an unavoidable glance at the very obvious bulge in his friend's pants. "I ain't sure I can..."

"Lawd, hon, you ain't gotta," Samael interrupted gently, patting a hand against North's breast before closing his eyes with a smile and shuffling the tiniest bit closer to his friend. North smiled back hesitantly and allowed himself to pull Samael gingerly to his chest with one arm. "You deeeefinitely don't gotta...holy fuckin' shit..."

North chuckled quietly, smiling not in relief that he wouldn't need to force himself into anything awkward, but instead knowing that this didn't change a thing between him and Samael. He already knew Samael would still be his friend, the same way North would never call him anything less. The curiosity had been sated...along with a few other needy emotions. And he was still confident about who he was -- in fact, perhaps even more so. Leave it to enjoying the gayest blowjob from his gayest buddy to secure his heterosexuality.

"Thank you, Sammy. This was. This was nice. Even if you couldn't convert me." He tightened his arm against Samael, earning a muffled giggle from against his damp chest. "Still straight as an arrow." Another smile danced across his muzzle as he closed his eyes and held his friend comfortably to his gargantuan form. "But just the right kind of...flexible."


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

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