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Nothing Ever Goes As Planned

by CrossroadsPony

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8

Lightning Crashes


“I dunno, Simmons. They're Blue. Do they need a reason to be weird?”

The maroon-furred chupadore shot a sour look over his shoulder before glancing back down at the partially-dissembled assault rifle in his lap. "I guess. That doesn't really explain why the one with the bell is playing poker with a squirrel." Private First Class Richard Simmons grumbled and searched around himself with his free hand while peering across the sandy expanse to watch the distant but very assuredly bizarre antics of the rival soldier.

"Oh, do you mean...uh...what's his name...Caboose? Why didn't you say so." He paused, using a single claw to flip the page of the magazine he held against his reclined leg armor. "There is something severely wrong with that guy. I mean, beyond being a dirty, stinking Blue, as your fearless captain would say." The paunchy leporidae tilted his head slightly at the dust-covered centerfold, Private Dexter Grif easily ignoring the additional dirty look from his equus companion.

"Okay, first of all, Grif, he's a sergeant, not a captain." Simmons dropped the battle rifle into his lap and then twisted at the torso to jab a claw in the other male's direction." And second, he's OUR sergeant, not just mine. He probably wouldn't hate you so much if you actually showed him the respect he deserves. And last, will you hand me the needle-nose so I can fix this thing finally?" He gestured impatiently with an open palm while grabbing the rifle again to prop it against his chest.

"Sarge doesn't need my respect. He's got yours. And your dignity. And your balls." Grif lazily reached into the toolbox at his side, fishing around blindly as he added, "Also, you didn't say the magic word, Simmons. You know that common courtesy is the only thing that separates us from those damn, dirty Blues."

Simmons rolled his eyes before dropping his head and sighing loudly. "Grif, will you PLEASE give me the pliers."

"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" The orange-hued male slapped a metal tool into Simmons's hand before flicking the page of his magazine again.

Simmons grumbled again before reaching into the exposed chamber with the pliers...only to realize he was uselessly jamming a pair of calipers into the debris-filled space. "God...DAMMIT, Grif! I said I needed the NEEDLE-NOSE PLIERS, not a--"

A sudden crackle filled the air, effectively cutting off the chupadore's rant. The hot canyon atmosphere seemed to dim for a moment before an eerie green light spilled over the two shi'a males. Grif slowly lowered the worn issue of Tail & Tits, eyes widening as a roughly oval-shaped ring fizzled into reality. "Uh...Simmons...what did you do..."

His red-furred companion was already scrambling to his feet, struggling to shove a clip into the half-assembled battle rifle. "Grif! Pick up your fucking gun! What if it's the Blues?" His voice came out strangled as he fumbled to load the first round, only for the shell to jam in the still-dirtied chamber. "Shit!"

"YOU have my gun, Simmons," Grif replied churlishly even as he tossed the magazine aside and nervously shifted to bring his legs beneath himself. Kneeling, he grabbed the other battle rifle propped against the low concrete wall before staring up stupidly as a new voice pierced through the swirling vortex of energy. Both chupadores leveled their rifles, Simmons gritting his teeth tensely while Grif glanced over his shoulder as if already desperately planning a swan-dive from the top of the base.

"--don't want to hear your horseshit about coordinates." A slender leg emerged from the viridescent portal, covered in a tattered beige fabric that ended a few inches above a – is that a hoof? Simmons blinked stupidly as the rest of the figure strode out, immediately confused by what he saw before him. A stained overcoat hung loosely around a frame that could only be described as equine, but certainly not any variety of chupadore species. "Your one goddamn job is picking somewhere that doesn't have a fucking pack of armed goons chasing us and--"

Simmons's voice cracked as he yelled with what authority he could muster, interrupting the horse-like male. "What...what the fuck ARE you??"

A pair of cool silver eyes shifted to the maroon chupadore before settling on the battle rifle leveled at his chest. He reached behind his ear for a bent cigarette, brushing back a messy mane of deep blue before placing the thin cylinder in his maw. "And you drop us right in the middle of a fucking army base?"

"A-are you Blue? Don't move!" Simmons shouted, thrusting the tip of the assault rifle forward.

"Well, Simmons, his hair is blue, so I'd say, he's a fucking Blue!" Grif retorted sarcastically, though his shift to a full upright stance did plenty to reveal his nervousness. But before Simmons could screech a response, the second figure slipped out from the crackling ring before it dissipated behind his enormous frame.

While the first creature stood at maybe five feet tall, his companion's height towered somewhere above eight feet, and was the furthest thing from a horse-like species in his appearance. His head was reptilian, looking vaguely like some mythical dragon, complete with a scaled maw lined with spikes along the lower jaw. His amber irises bore down into the two soldiers with a mostly tired expression as a long tail flicked irritably behind him. The last few feet of the long appendage split into two, each ending in a long, cruel spine. He wore a battered three-piece suit and a pair of pinstriped pants that had been torn unceremoniously at the bottom above his large clawed feet.

Apparently undeterred by the twitching rifles pointed in their direction, the enormous reptile rubbed at one of the four thick spikes curving out from behind his skull. "Now look here, YOU were the furious little spitfire that shouted so rudely to go as – and allow me to recreate this moment properly – 'as fucking far as fucking possible' from our acquaintances from the west."

Both Simmons and Grif blinked in confusion as the tiny equine stomped a hoof and jabbed his unlit cigarette at the reptile's chest. "Listen, Dusey, I just open the goddamn door, you're the fucking navigator and you should KNOW better than to take me at --"

"Goddammit, I asked who the hell you guys are!" Simmons all-but-screamed, taking a step forward with his rifle as he slipped a claw into the trigger ring instinctively. The smaller stranger narrowed his eyes and reached for the front of his coat, which prompted Simmons to immediately yank back on the trigger.

The partially-dissembled rifle only clacked once, emitting a dusty puff from the chamber before a spring exploded from the side of the gun that was followed closely by several more unsecured pieces. "Shit!" he cried out as Grif turned toward him with an insult ready to fly, shifting his own gun away from the two strangers.

The silver eyes of the smaller male flashed as he thrust his free hand into his overcoat and spun toward the maroon chupadore, producing a gleaming handgun in a blur of movement. Simmons's eyes widened in shock as the first deafening blast cut through the dry canyon air, stumbling back from the impact against his chest. For a moment, only muted silence filled their ears until the echo of the shot rolled across the roof of the base to wash across them once again.

"S-Simmons?" Grif stammered, expressing genuine concern for a moment as he stared at his blanched companion's face. Simmons’s horrified eyes slowly shifted down to his dented chest armor, his battle rifle clattering to the cement as he clutched at himself...only to stupidly pull his hand back with a crumpled bullet clutched between his trembling claws.

"Well, shit," the short stranger remarked with a scowl, putting the cigarette back into his maw before strafing the smoking tip of the scuffed handgun to the side, proceeding to unload the rest of his magazine into Simmons's chest plate over the terrified shouts of the red-furred chupadore. Each shot struck him like a prizefighter's punch, forcing him to stumble back until he tripped over his own paws and crashed onto his back with a gasping wheeze.

After six more shots, the pistol finally fell silent with its slide locked in the open position. An uneasy silence filled the air once more as the small-statured male wrinkled his muzzle before finally producing a dented metal lighter to flick into life against the tip of his cigarette. "What a mature and level-headed response, little one. It would appear that their armor is superior to your ammunition," the enormous reptile commented dryly, earning a dark glare from his smaller cohort. "But surely I am just an ignorant jackass, as you are so fond of reminding me. Why, I am absolutely positive that if you were to try again, at least one shot would hit something."

Grif could only stare dumbly between his groaning companion and the two strangers, licking his lips once before blurting, "Um, Simmons, are you dead?"

Simmons grit his teeth as he rolled his head back and then hissed, "No...I'm not dead...how about you SHOOT them, Grif??"

"Oh. Right." The orange leporidae cleared his throat as the pair of strange males regarded him mildly. "You guys are dicks, like the Blues are. So I guess that makes you Blues. So now I'm gonna shoot you." The horse-like creature frowned darkly even as he drew deeply on the glowing cigarette. His reptilian companion tensed and took a step forward, prompting Grif to twitch and jerk the rifle toward him before yanking back on the trigger on wild instinct.

The resulting dry snick made the scaled beast flinch, while his tiny partner only cocked his head slightly. Grif's eyes widened stupidly as he pulled the trigger several more times, each one making the battle rifle click uselessly. The periwinkle-coated male barked out a laugh, nearly losing his cigarette as he lunged forward and snatched the gun from the chupa's hands with little resistance.

Grif watched blankly as the slender male turned the weapon over in his nimble hands – he had four fingers and a thumb, but he had no visible claws on any of the digits – before successfully finding the magazine release. He plucked the clip out deftly and glanced at it before snorting in amusement. "You meatball, this isn't even loaded!"

From the ground, Simmons groaned loudly as he slapped his forehead. "Grif...you have...like only two...jobs...seriously!?"

Grif idly put both hands in the air with a shrug. "I really wish you'd let me know when you give me new jobs. It's hard to ignore them when you don't." He turned his attention back to the smaller of the two strangers, who was still examining the rifle closely. "You know, you probably should have aimed for his head."

He earned a scowl from the short one while the muscular reptile rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, apparently no longer concerned about an attack from the two soldiers. "Fuck you, Grif," Simmons wheezed from his sprawled out position on the concrete. "This hurts like a bitch..."

"Yeah, well. You got shot like a bitch," Grif supplied, only to wince and lean back slightly when his own rifle was pointed back at him. "Look, whatever you guys want...uh, you picked like. The worst possible place to get it. This base sucks. This canyon sucks. Everything here sucks."

The equine exhaled a plume of smoke to the side before he suddenly paled, his stony exterior faltering. His eyes bulged as he took an unsteady step. He held out the empty battle rifle and it was grabbed without a word by the towering reptile, who sighed and slid backward smoothly as the small male stumbled past him to retch violently over the side of the base roof.

"Dude, that's gross!" Grif exclaimed, scooting away from the vomiting stranger. Simmons grimaced and looked away but otherwise remained on his back as he regarded the glowering lizard-like creature standing over them both. "Is he gonna...get us sick or something?" the pudgy chupadore asked, paling slightly and staring down at his grounded companion. "Simmons, you're a nerd – are we gonna get alien flu or some shit??"

Simmons groaned but couldn't muster a response over his own confusion, covering his eyes with a hand and mumbling incoherently. The muscular reptile regarded the two furred soldiers for a moment before shifting his gaze to the panting equine. "We are not...visitors from space, if that is what you imply."

"Not so sure about that, Dusey," Graceful interrupted, tilting his head back as he stared up, taking notice of the strip of blue-and-green earth that stretched into the sky to arc past his visual horizon. "This ain't Kansas. Or even a goddamn planet like ours..."

"--Nor will you contract any sort of sickness from this foul-mouthed cretin, at least not of the variety you imagine," the draconic creature continued dryly. "Graceful Melody, I warned you not to fill your lungs with that toxin after transportation. You are not yet suited to initiate such a lengthy jump, your body requires recovery."

Graceful Melody rolled his eyes, sitting back on his knees and wiping his muzzle. But his response was cut short as a concerned voice called up ahead of the sound of trotting claws. "Guys, I heard shots! Are you oka-- OH MY GOSH!"

Graceful found himself staring down at a gasping face looking up at him from the sloping ramp that led to the open roof.  The two males regarded each other for a moment, the nauseated creature attempting to register what he saw before him. A tangle of blond bangs and spikes atop a light-red hide met his blank expression and he leaned back slightly. "Oooh, what are you!? You are just so adorable, like a cute little horse, I could just hop on you and ride you all day! Look at all the pretty piercings you have, your ears and your mouth are so shiny!"

The equine blinked slowly, studying the newcomer for a moment. He was slender, almost feminine in his stature, his hands on his hips as his long tail flicked behind him. The same blond-colored fur upon his head formed a tuft at the end of the appendage although by far the most eye-catching part of this soldier was his armor. The other two were covered in the same shade of deep red but this one's was... "Pink."

The lithe male wrinkled his muzzle and stomped a clawed paw in protest. "It's lightish-red! And it just happens to accentuate my hide perfectly!"

"Donut...have you even SEEN the giant lizard thing?" Grif finally sputtered, gesturing wildly at the looming reptile. The aforementioned giant lizard thing idly shifted Grif's battle rifle into a ready position with one hand before resting it against his shoulder, watching with mild amusement as Private Frank Donut slowly drew his eyes over his enormous figure. His muzzle dropped and, apparently uninterested in using the pistol holstered at his side, the less-than-red soldier opted to instead release a high-pitched scream before whipping around and racing back down the ramp to disappear into the base.

Simmons and Grif both blinked stupidly and the maroon soldier groaned as he crossed his arms over his face. "Goddammit, Donut...we're all gonna fucking die!"

"Oh, would you ease up?" Graceful snapped, giving the two soldiers a sour look as they leaned away from him and back toward the somehow-less-imposing reptile. "We ain't here to kill you. But try not to make it so goddamn tempting! If I wanted ya dead, it wouldn't be no goddamn debate!"

Simmons scowled, jabbing at his dented chest armor. "You...SHOT me! Like six times! You could have killed me!"

"Seven times," Graceful Melody responded mildly before standing up slowly and brushing off his tattered coat. "One in the chamber. Unlike your piece, which had none in the chamber. Dumbass." He picked up his still-smoldering cigarette from the concrete, brushing at it absently before poking it back into his muzzle and motioning to his lizard-like companion. "Gimme that. And watch your ass, Red. Ain't got no armor on that pretty face of yours and I know not to aim for the chest anymore."

Grif cleared his throat loudly as Simmons spluttered and paled slightly. "So...so you ARE Blue?"

"I believe my egregious little friend calls this shade 'periwinkle'," the reptilian creature replied, handing the rifle back to Graceful. "Much as I would personally call you 'maroon', or perhaps 'burgundy.'"

"Oh, yes, Burgundy suits you much better, Simmons," the orange male quickly added, grinning toothily. "I think we'll call you Burgundy from now on."

"Shut up, Grif." The wiry chupadore looked warily at the equine once more as he finally sat up, poking at the deep crease in his chestplate once more. "If you aren't Red, and if you aren't Blue, then either you're from the Church, or a damn Freelancer. Unless..." He trailed off as the two strangers fixed him with stony but somewhat curious expressions. "Unless...you're really not from...uh..." Simmons gestured around himself, ignoring Grif's eye-roll as he finished awkwardly, "from...from around...here."

"That's very perceptive of you, pal. No, we ain't...Blue, and we definitely ain't no clergymen, either." Graceful snorted. "Clearly we went further than I expected. Thanks to this numbskull who apparently couldn't follow a goddamn map if it stripped down and drew an arrow pointin' to its gut-wrench."

The muscular reptile blushed slightly despite his best efforts. "There is not exactly a map that can assist with navigating the various folds of space and time!" he snapped. "Perhaps YOU put too much energy into your channeling? Overcompensating, as you do with ALL things?" The two glared at each other dangerously, Graceful's fingers gripping tightly into the synthetic body of the battle rifle before the equine finally gnashed his teeth together and thrust the weapon toward the paunchy soldier.

Grif awkwardly accepted it into his claws, holding it almost gingerly as he direly wanted to avoid triggering a reaction that would lead to his own impacted chest armor. But the slender stranger only turned away to gaze across the sandy box canyon, smoking silently for a moment. Grif and Simmons glanced between themselves before the maroon-furred chupadore carefully knelt and then pushed himself to his feet. "So...uh...who the hell are you guys?"

Graceful tapped the ash from his cigarette, swaying slightly on his hooves as the silence drifted between the four. As the two soldiers exchanged another confused look, the short male finally shrugged and waved absently toward his companion. "Amdusias, try not to put them to sleep."

The reptilian creature sighed dramatically. "I am not some paid narrator who can be summoned to provide exposition at the drop of a hat." When this earned a dark glare from his small companion, Amdusias pursed his lips and then turned toward the confused soldiers. "This will be difficult to explain, mostly because I do not yet know the extent of your world's...knowledge. To be honest, at this juncture, I am not even certain if our origin and your home share the same dimensional reference points." He paused, looking somewhat sour as the orange soldier before him raised a hand. "What is it?"

"Is this gonna take long? Because this seems like it's gonna take long. And I need to not stand here in the sun because that sucks enough doing it every day with this guy." He jerked a thumb at Simmons, who rolled his eyes and then apparently felt confident enough to begin picking up all the scattered pieces of the rifle he'd been cleaning.

"Oh, very well, boorish cretins," Amdusias grumbled. "The three of us--"

"Three?!" Simmons yelped as he stumbled back to flop unceremoniously on his haunches. "There are MORE of you?"

Graceful snickered to himself as his scaled partner groaned. "I have completely forgotten about Riffraff. Graceful Melody, you cannot leave him in the rift forever. He will begin to degrade. Eventually. I...think."

"Oh, blow it out your ass, Dusey." The equine turned back to the chupadores, tossing the smoldering cigarette down and grinding it out with a chipped hoof. "That asshole had it coming. Besides, I'm sure our new friends will find him. They seem strangely competent." As Simmons opened his muzzle with what was no doubt another horrified inquiry, Graceful cut him off. "Shut it. I'm talkin'. Look, your fat friend ain't wrong, it's hot and I'm already sweating like a whore in church. Here's the long and short of it. Yes, I'm a horse. Pony, whatever. He's a demon."

"Fallen angel," Amdusias interjected shortly, crossing his arms as his tail flicked irritably.

"Who became a fucking demon," Graceful retorted. "Our acquaintance who you ain't currently seein' here is also a horse."

"Pony," Amdusias mumbled.

"Fuck off. I'm tired, these guys clearly ain't seen horses on two legs and they probably ain't ever seen a demon, so no point picking through the goddamn silt! I'm Graceful Melody – give me shit about it, I'll knock your teeth out – and the demon is Amdusias." He paused, closing his eyes for a moment before calmly brushing his deep-blue mane back and dropping to his knees to vomit over the edge of the roof again.

The muscular reptile dropped all semblance of a cold exterior as he quickly approached the hunched pony, placing a hand supportively on his back. "Graceful Melody, you require rest..."

The two chupadores shifted uncomfortably, glancing at each other again. "Uh, Simmons? Maybe we should. Run away and lock ourselves inside while they're distracted? And maybe they'll just disappear into a green magic circle thingy again?" Grif whispered loudly.

Simmons looked torn, obviously curious about the two now that they were no longer attempting to pump bullets into him. The two strangers were exchanging a few low whispers as Graceful attempted to shove the fallen angel away. Now that  their backs were exposed, Simmons noted several more curved spikes jutting through the reptile's clothing. Demon really does seem to be a more appropriate term...never seen anything like him before...

"Well, maybe they...aren't so bad, Grif. I mean, they're not Blue, and they aren't trying to kill us, so maybe we should go call Sarge and let him and then maybe see if they'll help us out if we let them rest. It's not you can deny how interesting it would be to get to know ACTUAL visitors from another...world, or...dimension, even?"

An increasingly excited Simmons looked at Grif to gauge his response...only to scowl grumpily as he realized his orange companion had already disappeared from the roof. "Goddammit, Grif." He licked his lips and fidgeted on his clawed feet for a moment before finally sighing and making his way to the ramp as well. He gave one more glance over his shoulder to the strangers, but they were still hunched together with little regard to the world around them. "Guess I'll call Sarge..."

 

Amdusias helped Graceful stand up after he'd gotten the worst out of his system, keeping a firm but comforting hand on the pony's slender shoulder. "Where'd the two fuzzy things go?" he mumbled. "And why am I this goddamn blown, Dusey? Ain't ever been this bad after a jump..."

"They appear to have retreated into the reinforced abode below. I am having a difficult time reading them, although I suppose this should not be a surprise. I believe we have inadvertently crossed a dimensional barrier." The scaled creature automatically leaned back to avoid a weak slap from his companion, grabbing his wrist gently. "Calm yourself. We were in a mild state of panic at the moment of the jump, despite preparation. We both made a mistake. However, we are not dead, nor have we yet been slaughtered by the local fauna."

"Not for lack of trying," Graceful responded dryly with a grimace. "Still. Guess you ain't wrong. Don't make me feel much better. Any readings on this world? And if Riff's alive?" A note of concern slipped into the pony's words at the last inquiry, though Amdusias dutifully ignored it.

"This is...a strange world. It appears to be a giant...well. Ring." Graceful tilted his head up again to gaze in dizzy wonder at the unnatural shape of the planet...if it can even be called that...that they'd dropped into. A nauseous expression crossed his features and Amdusias immediately grimaced and pulled his companion's muzzle back down. "You are still not well enough to fill your meager cranial space with the geometry of this strange world," the demon murmured, though his condescending words were betrayed with a caring undertone. "Fear not. Riffraff is fine. I suppose I must applaud your perception, regardless of whether or not you actually sensed it. The signatures of those abominable lupines have crossed with that of your hapless...chippie."

Graceful Melody snorted laughter despite himself, immediately regretting it with a wheeze. "Shaddup, Dusey. That boy's just a glutton for punishment, is all. Can't count the number of times I told him to fuck off..."

"About as many times as you have stumbled into his home, bleeding or inebriated and demanding unspeakable acts of intimacy," Amdusias replied, almost kindly. "Come now. We need to coerce our way into this strange structure so you might rest and adjust to this reality." He sniffed the air for a moment. "Your mortal body is likely in need of acclimation. The quality of the atmosphere is surprisingly better than that of our previous location."

"Fantastic. So they haven't fucked themselves over by destroying their own planet yet. How fortunate indeed," the pony growled as he allowed himself to be led to the ramp to descend from the hot concrete roof. "Gonna be real pissed if we landed not only in a warzone, but one where my iron don't mean shit. Ain't used to that, Dusey. Don't like it when I can't shoot a motherfucker and watch him go down."

"I know, little one," the reptile murmured reassuringly, though not without a hint of wry amusement. "I am quite sure if it was not for that infernal armored plating, you absolutely would have...what is the parlance you prefer? 'Murdered the shit out of him'?"

"Yeah, close enough," Graceful Melody chuckled as they came to the bottom of the ramp, turning around to examine the cylindrical structure from the ground level. It appeared perfectly round, at least from this vantage point. The pony noted what appeared to be an unguarded entrance into the inner area, which had neither door nor any kind of visible barrier at all, really. Weird, if this is actually some kind of base or outpost... The dull grey concrete building was situated at the far end of a box canyon with a flooring consisting of mostly sand and cracked clay, though green vegetation sprouted through the dry soil to form small patches of grass dotted by the occasional shrub, tree and bunch of wildflowers. In the distance, Graceful was pretty certain he could identify another squat cylindrical building, which made him wonder if it that was the home of the "Blues" as which they'd be mistakenly identified. His tired gaze also noted a denser glen of leafy trees and brush along one long side of the natural depression.

"Enough surveying the land," Amdusias chided softly as he held one hand out to the sour-faced equine. "It would appear this...'base' truly has no means of preventing entry. I do not sense anything invisible to the eye, either. It would seem that one could simply...stroll in. How queer."

"Queer indeed. Ain't in the mood to argue, so yeah, go. Stick your ugly face in, see if anyone tries to blow it off. If you die, I'm gonna go drag my ass to the shade and either pass out or join you in whatever makes for an afterlife around here." Graceful half-dropped, half-leaned against the warm concrete surface while waving an arm out ahead of himself.

"Take off that ridiculous coat, that may help with the heat," Amdusias suggested mildly. "Do not wander off and do not perish. I will be extremely disappointed." Graceful only grunted in response, crossing his arms  and dropping his chin against his chest. "Yes, yes, childish cricket. I will attempt to secure lodging. And sustenance. I tend to forget your kind requires this." Graceful glanced up long enough to gesture rudely with one hand, which was enough to earn a slight smile from the demon before he took a slow breath and wandered into the concrete structure.

 

"...dammit, he's not answering..." Simmons grit his teeth and began to punch in the contact number a third time.

"Didn't you say he was on his way here, anyway? And besides, what about Sarge makes you think he'd do anything to make this any better?" Grif sat across from the maroon chupadore in the war room, straddling a chair backward with his crossed arms resting along the back. "Sarge is like you, but worse. He's less of a nerd, and more of a 'shoot first, shoot now, shoot later, shoot the questions' kind of guy. And I dunno about you, but I don't wanna get shot again."

"You didn't GET shot, Grif! I did!" The equus male tapped a claw impatiently against the wall as the video communication feed crackled static for a third time.

"Uh, so...did that dragon eat that cute pony?" Donut asked as he clutched nervously into a teacup. "Did you summon them with your Dungeon S&M book? Are they gone now?"

"Donut. I don't...even want to. Just shut up," Simmons grumbled, rolling his eyes as Grif grinned behind him. "And stop talking about Sarge like that, there's a reason he's our leader."

"Yeah, they sent the most useless sergeant to the most useless outpost. That's no mystery."

"Goddammit, Grif! I--" Simmons broke off as a bored face filled the communication screen, a drab red canis chupadore answering in monotone.

"This is Red Command. What is it, Timae Outpost?"

"Uh...um, nothing! Just trying to reach our CO, Red Command!"

"Is there some kind of emergency?" the operator asked drolly. "This line is for dispatching orders and reporting emergencies. And I would gather by the fact you are the only outpost in the Timae region that you cannot have much of an emergency."

"That's...correct! Of course, and we are so sorry to bother you! We'll get right back to our posts, no need to report any of this to anyone, I--" The screen fizzled out, the operator breaking the feed with an indifferent shrug before Simmons could finish. He sighed and tapped the END button resignedly, turning around with a mopey expression.

"Aw, don't cry, Burgundy. You shoulda just told Command all about your problems, I bet they would totally understand, and maybe they'd even send you a special helper to get you on your way!" Grif flashed a toothy smirk.

"Eat a dick, Grif," the maroon chupadore muttered. "Look, I don't think it would be in our best interest to go spouting about...aliens or something like that to Command. It's not like the last Freelancer was any help. She was...scary. I don't want them sending another one..."

"Oh no, no, please not another one, she was dreadful!" Donut exclaimed after a sip from his tea before setting down the cup to hug himself for a moment. "So...do you think they're gone? Maybe we should go look?"

"I sure as shit ain't doin' it. Burgundy is the ranking officer, he should go see, that would be the responsible thing to do. Sarge might even give you a medal!"

Simmons scowled. "Stop calling me that, asshole. Look, maybe they'll just...go away or something. Besides, I..."

"THE DRAGON!" Donut suddenly squealed, taking a step back as Amdusias's tall frame stooped into the entrance of the war room. The demon frowned slightly and raised a hand to interrupt, but Grif shouted frantically before he could speak.

"Donut, he's here for your tea, SHOOT HIM!"

Amdusias blinked stupidly as the pink-armored male widened his eyes and, in an unexpectedly dexterous show of reaction, yanked the pistol from his hip to jerk it into a ready position. "No wait--!" Simmons yelled, lunging toward the feminine chupadore as his thumb clicked off the safety with a surprising familiarity before Donut unloaded three quick shots of the magnum at the demon's center of mass.

The deafening reports crashed through the concrete-walled room as all three chupadores flinched and yelled incoherently while the reptile only snarled and threw his hands up instinctively. A fourth sharp sound filled the base as a faint amber energy gleamed in front of the supernatural entity. His clawed hands flexed slightly and, as Simmons struggled to regain his composure, he could see three intact slugs hovering in front on the demon. They were covered with the same pale yellow glow, trembling slightly in the translucent grip of the creature's powers before they clinked to the floor softly.

The chupadores' jaws all dropped as Amdusias gasped and then immediately clutched the doorway for support as his entire body slumped. "Please refrain from shooting me. My companion is going to be very upset by that. And I am only here to request...a very brief...sojourn..." The reptile's words trailed off, his arm hanging limp.

"Holy shit, Donut. I think you killed him," Grif remarked dumbly as the demon cursed weakly, only for his eyes to roll back into his head before his muscular frame crashed to the ground with a dull thud. "That little pony-thing is gonna murder you!"

 




Perfect Strangers


"...did you hear that? Sounded like shots..."

"You're the one with the scope, dumbass. Why don't you look?"

A light-blue chupadore glanced down at his weapon before wrinkling his muzzle in distaste. "Fuck that, they're probably just trying to get our attention. And I have enough of a headache without having to hear the nerd's voice."

A few moments of silence passed between them before: "So...you're pretty sure she's dead?"

"Goddammit, Tucker, of course she's dead, she got blown up." The larger male made a face as he fidgeted with the enormous sniper rifle in his lap before rubbing self-consciously at the white bandaging beneath his shirt.

His companion, a scrawnier turquoise-coated shi'a currently sprawled out on his back, shrugged and raised a hand as if to make a point. "But we didn't check. We dragged your fat ass back here after you tried to eat me 'n Caboose. Again. Maybe she's still alive."

Private Leo Church scowled and poked once at his wrapped wound once more. "You forgot the part where she shot me. With a shotgun. And I'm pretty sure no one wants to eat either of you. You're a skinny bitch, and Caboose is probably...contagious." He grumbled before glancing over his shoulder. His fellow Blue soldier was lounging behind him, idly scratching himself while staring up listlessly into the sky. Their third compatriot was somewhere downstairs, likely playing childish games with the feral rabbit-like creature he'd befriended.

"Yeah, well, you're stupid," retorted Private First Class Lavernius Tucker as he lifted a middle finger, waving the clawed digit blindly at the other chupadore. "Anyway, maybe it's worth going back to check out. What if she like...crawls away and gets another shotgun? You'll feel stupider than you already are if you get shot again."

"Why the hell are you so determined to go back there?" Church mumbled, lifting the sniper rifle to peer through the scope. "What, you think you're actually gonna get some if she's still alive?"

"Hell no! That bitch was crazy. You don't dip into crazy."

The taller chupa snorted amusedly. "Bullshit, Tucker. Bull. Shit. If went went back there and you found her crazy ass even lukewarm, I bet you'd at least cop a feel."

"You sayin' you wouldn't?" Tucker shot back, lacing his fingers behind his head.

"You're sick."

"Hey, man, dead ain't the same as crazy."

Church climbed to his feet, using the long rifle to push himself up with a grimace. "No, you're right. Dead is dead. That's even worrrr--" He trailed off as a crackle of electricity disrupted the air a few feet in front of him, blinking stupidly at the sudden appearance of the sparking substance. "Uhhh..."

"Uh, are you stroking out, dude? Because, bow-chicka-bow-wow aside, my medical knowledge ends at taping up fucking shotgun holes."

Before Church could reply, the small arc of white energy expanded rapidly to form a tall arch that appeared to be the entrance to some sort of...tunnel? Church stared at what he could only mentally describe as a portal, jaw slack as a shiver of nausea raced down to his stomach at the incomprehensible sight. From the side, there was nothing behind the crackling electricity, but looking directly into the arch revealed a passage lined with twisting colors and impossible shapes, and he was so nearly overwhelmed by the unnatural phenomenon that he almost didn't hear the sound of voices trailing out from the rift in reality.

"...tell you this thing would work? Ha! You owe me dinner, sweetie."

The tall chupadore watched numbly as a white-furred paw was shoved out into the open air as if testing it. Behind him, Tucker called out to him in a lazy drawl that he barely registered. "Dude? Did you just call me 'sweetie'? The fuck?!"

Church's eyes widened as the owner of the paw appeared at the entrance a moment later, the slender figure holding a glowing chunk of rock with a pleased expression. A second voice drifted out from behind the furry male's face, lower in pitch and decidedly grumpier. "I don't owe you shit. You still don't know where the fuck we are. And what about that goddamn horse that fell through the goddamn...magical tunnel, huh? The fuck was THAT?"

As his eyes slowly traced the canine-like creature, Church realized that whatever it was suddenly locking eyes with him from the strange, floating portal...it wasn't a chupadore. "I'm sure he'll be fine," the creature responded to his still-unrevealed partner, while keeping a curious eye on the wide-eyed soldier. "Well. I can say for certain, wherever we are, we ain't alone."

With that, the short-statured male hopped down to the surface of the roof and gave a friendly wave as he pocketed the gleaming object. "Hi, there!" Church worked his jaw stupidly, clutching tightly into his sniper rifle as his instincts screamed at him to react.

Behind him, Tucker finally glanced over his own body at the sounds of the strange voices before he gave a yell of surprise. "What the fuck?!"

"What do you mean, 'ain't alone'? Did we...oh." The second voice belonged to a larger, more-masculine variation of the first creature as his taller frame crowded the portal next, squinting down at the confused chupadores. "Uh..." He hesitantly lowered a paw to the roof from the portal even as he nervously moved one hand to his side, reaching behind him to produce a sawn-off shotgun. "Mahihko..."

"Gun!" Church yelled out of impulse more than anything else as the smaller wolf-like creature cocked his head before glancing over his shoulder at his partner and then rolling his eyes. But the husky blue soldier had already jerked his sniper rifle up to a ready position as he leveled it at the two. "Die, you...monsters!" He winced when the butt of the enormous gun shoved into his injured shoulder, but grit his teeth and pulled the trigger regardless.

The two alien creatures both flinched as the smaller one in front bent his knees slightly as if attempting to react in time. The tremendous report from the rifle shook the air around them as the massive round blasted out of the oversized barrel only a meter or so from the creature's face. A moment passed as both strangers wrinkled their muzzles before the shorter one of the two blinked and poked the vapor trail left by the stray round, several inches to the side of their bodies. "Um..." But before he could speak, Church yelled incoherently and pulled the trigger three more times.

All three rounds went wide, leaving the two canine-like creatures awkwardly surrounded by thin vapor trails. With a bemused expression, the one in front cleared his throat and leaned forward to offer politely: "Maybe the scope needs to be adjusted? Also, uh...did you actually say 'die, you monsters'?"

Tucker groaned and stepped forward while unholstering his pistol. "Holy fuck, dude, you SUCK. I got this!" In response, the shotgun-wielding alien growled and lunged past his companion, raising the shortened weapon as the turquoise soldier took aim at the charging stranger with his magnum. But before any more shots could be fired, the feminine lupine hopped quickly to the side before leaping with surprising speed toward his partner's back.

"Look out, hot potato!" he yelled cheerfully, shoving his paws firmly into the larger creature's back before kicking off his muscular frame to neatly somersault through the air. The unexpected maneuver shoved his companion forward, causing him to stumble and consequently tackle Tucker to the ground, the colliding males both shouting in surprise as their guns clattered away from them. They were left in an awkward tangle on the hard surface of the roof as the grinning, turtleneck-sporting creature landed neatly in front of Church, looking exceptionally pleased with himself at preventing any gunshot wounds.

The chupadore stared down at him speechlessly, and then finally attempted to reload his rifle as the feminine male groaned and rolled his eyes. "Seriously?" He slid forward and simply reached up to slap the clip out of Church's grip, leaving the soldier stupefied. "No. Bad...blue...thingy. We're not bad guys!" He glanced past the gaping fi'la to see Tucker wrestling uselessly with his partner, the much-heavier creature pinning the slender chupadore with only mild effort. "Lone! Don't hurt the little guy, he was just...trying to shoot you."

"Yes! He was just TRYING TO SHOOT ME!" he yelled back in a strangled tone, but he eventually scowled and released Tucker's wrists, raising his arms up in a peaceful gesture and sitting up on the armored soldier's waist. "Okay, okay. Fine."

"Good. Now, let's try this--"

"Church! Tucker! Are you having tea without me again?!?" The voice belonged to a third chupadore soldier, deep blue in color and sporting a tuft of brown fur on his head as his head poked up from the stairs leading to the roof. He had a pout etched on his features, which became a gasp when he jabbed a clawed finger at Tucker, and the strange creature straddling his torso. "Tucker! You never want to wrestle with me and now I find you wrestling with a doggy! Why do you hate me so much, Tucker!"

"Goddammit, Caboose! Get back inside!" Tucker yelled back before shoving at the grumbling male still sitting on his waist. "And you, get off my junk!"

"Well, I think introductions are in order, now that no one's trying to kill anyone else," the slender alien interjected with a bright, toothy smile. "I'm Mahihko! The big guy over there is Lone!" As Church stared down at the canine-like male with a still very-much-confused expression, a faint scream became audible from the crackling portal that had yet to close. The one named Mahihko twisted his head to look over his shoulder before side-stepping smoothly as the screaming grew louder before the creature it belonged to was ejected forcefully from the archway. Its body shot through where Mahihko's head was a moment ago, crashing into the roof past Church and rolling a few times before unceremoniously skidding to a stop just in front of Caboose's muzzle. The portal snapped shut with a final burst of electricity, making Mahihko wince slightly before he cleared his throat awkwardly. "And uh. That guy is um. Er...man, what the hell is your name again?"

"Horsey!" Caboose interrupted delightedly, hopping back and forth on the stairs as he reached out to pet the dazed creature's face. The third alien did indeed look like a feral equine, from his long snout to the hooves that ended his powerful legs. He lifted his head groggily to look around before collapsing with a groan as he rubbed slowly at his features.

"Uh, yes. Yes, that is Horsey," Mahihko concluded with a sage nod. "And we...have no idea where the fuck we are."

"You're still on my junk!" Tucker shouted indignantly with a furious gesture to the lupine straddling him. "Church, who the fuck are these guys?"

"How the fuck should I know?" Church shot back, rubbing at his shoulder with a grimace.

As Lone awkwardly climbed to his paws and stepped over Tucker to retrieve his scattered weapon, the prone chupadore slowly sat up and then shrugged. "Because you're a goddamn werewolf? I dunno, I figured maybe you'd know more about weird shit than we do."

"Hey! I know lots of weird things!" Caboose interrupted. "I know that Tucker likes to talk to his invisible friends in the shower, and he tells them to talk about his--"

Tucker's eyes widened and he waved his arms frantically. "Caboose! Shut the fuck up!"

The dark blue chupa pouted while the dazed equine sprawled in front of him slowly pushed himself to his knees, looking around with visible confusion. "Who...where...are we? What are you?" Caboose instantly perked up, saluting sharply as the horse leaned back slightly with a frown.

"My name is Michael J. Caboose!" declared the soldier as the bell around his neck jingled once with his sudden jerk to attention. "And I. Hate. Babies!"

The equine blinked up at the tall chupadore, rendered speechless as the other two blue-armored soldiers sighed and shook their heads slowly. "Uh. Hi, Michael J. Caboose. Can...I call you Michael?"

"No, because that would be confusing as fuck," Tucker replied sourly, rolling over once and snagging his pistol. He gave the rearmed stranger a distrustful expression before hesitantly holstering his weapon. "You point that thing at me again and I'll shoot you in the face. I'm really tired of having guns pointed at me."

"You're in the fucking army, Tucker. You can't NOT have guns pointed at you," Church grumbled before he rolled his eyes and leaned on the heavy sniper rifle. "The short, stupid one is Tucker. The...special one is Caboose, and I'm Church." He drew his eyes over the three strangers, settling first on the smallest of the trio. Mahihko noticed his scrutinizing expression almost immediately and the slender male quickly spun around to face him with a provocative grin.

He stood somewhere around five and a half feet tall and was covered in mostly white fur, except for the tips of his ears and his lower neck and upper chest. He had every appearance of a feral canine, from his pointed muzzle to the bushy tail that flicked behind him. Several silver rings laced through his ears and his lower jaw was dotted with a melange of the same silver rings, alternated with studs of identical material. His feminine frame was covered with a slim-fitting turtleneck, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. An exceptionally snug pair of pants hugged his legs, though they were dotted with several pockets and pouches, and Church could just make out a black bandolier stretched across the fabric of the ebony top. "So...Mahihko, right? Where...are you from?"

"And why shouldn't we shoot you ALL in the face?" added Tucker with a scowl, standing up and brushing his leg armor off. "Are you...some kind of experimental Freelancers or some shit?"

The taller lupine finally slid his short shotgun into the holster on his back as he turned around to first shrug apologetically at Tucker, then looked to Church. "Whatever Mahihko would reply with is probably gonna make shit even more confusing, so let's start with the most obvious thing. I got a feeling this...isn't just a different planet, but...likely a whole different...universe or dimension or something, because...no offense, but I've seen most of the remote corners of my planet, and I ain't never seen somethin' like...well, like you three."

"Church says I am very special, so there is only one Caboose, and it is me," the dark-blue chupa replied firmly.

Church sighed and rubbed slowly at his muzzle before nodding once and looking the larger wolf over. Lone was about a foot taller than the other lupine, and had a more masculine frame in general. He wore a simple t-shirt with two leather shoulder holsters crisscrossing his chest and the handles of two handguns were visible in either one. His third holster was apparently attached to his belt, as the sawn-off shotgun was not visible to Church from the front. His worn blue jeans were simple and a single utility pack was cinched around one thigh. Compared to the smaller wolf, his body seemed mostly unadorned, with only a single silver ring visible in his ear. His grey eyes locked with Church's after a moment and the two looked awkwardly away from each other as they realized they'd been sizing each other up silently. "Uh...okay...so, then I guess it's safe to say you're not from...here."

"Can someone please tell us where here actually is?" the third stranger complained as he sat up, apparently too dazed to attempt standing. "Also, how the hell did I end up coming through the hole YOU two made? Where's Graceful and Amdusias?"

"Oh, fuckin' great, there's MORE of you assholes?" Tucker exclaimed, dropping his face into a clawed hand and groaning into his palm. "Fuck!"

"Chill, Tucker. We really don't need to get into any more goddamn fights right now..." Church sighed again before glancing toward the seated equine. "Uh...Horsey, was it? That's...that's a...strange..."

"That's not my name," the seated stranger grumbled, shooting a poisonous glare toward an innocently-whistling Mahihko. "It's...Riffraff."

Tucker burst out laughing before Church could reply, pointing at the embarrassed horse. "Dude, SERIOUSLY? What, are you guys from the land of fuckin' magical friendship or some shit? Are you one of those thirty-year-old virgins? Riffraff...how much of your childhood was spent in lockers, man?"

Riffraff pursed his lips, cheeks flushed deeply as he curled his fingers into fists but remained seated with a sour expression. Church again attempted to speak up, but this time was cut off by Caboose exclaiming: "Hey, that is not fair, Tucker! My name is also dumb! It rhymes with moose! And your name sounds like you are tucking a girl into bed!--"

"Bow chicka bow wow!"

"--and a church is a place that is full of old men, which is also a strange thing to have as a name! So leave Horsey alone!"

"Wow, Church, how often do you get full of old men? I mean, not that I'm surprised, I guess you gotta get action wherever you can," Tucker quickly interjected again, flashing a shit-eating grin toward the light-blue soldier.

"Caboose, Tucker, both of you just shut the fuck up before I...make you shut the fuck up!" Church growled, throwing his arms up in the air as his rifle clattered to the roof surface.

Tucker rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "Nice comeback, asshole."

Mahihko and Lone traded glances, the former looking far more amused and at ease than the latter as the muscular wolf rubbed at his chest nervously. Behind them, Riffraff made a face and rolled his head back with a mumble. He pinched the bridge of his muzzle slowly and then slowly dropped his hand...only to widen his eyes in shock. His jaw slowly dropped as he struggled to understand what he saw above them in the distance. Is that...the...world? Are we...INSIDE a planet? No, that's... He began to pale as nausea crept into his gut and made him almost immediately dizzy.

Church was about to yell at his shorter companion again when he noticed the equine stranger's sickened expression. "Uh...dude, are you okay?"

The wolves glanced simultaneously at the horse as Lone's brow furrowed in concern, while Mahihko shifted his gaze upward. He let out a surprised gasp, but seemed far more intrigued than nauseated as he studied the arcing strip of land that curved far past the point of visibility in the horizon. "Huh. This isn't...a planet, is it?"

"No," Church replied slowly, stunned by their confusion. "Sirca is a ring-world. Didn't you know that before you...beamed down, or whatever the fuck you did?"

"We did not beam down," Lone responded delicately, approaching Riffraff and carefully poking his face to force the equine to focus on him instead of the dizzying implications of the world beneath and around them. "I'm just gonna go ahead and amend my earlier statement. We are definitely not in the same solar system. We don't have...ring-worlds. In fact, I'm not even pretending to know how the fuck a ring-world works."

"Fuck that, how about pretending to know how the fuck we can understand each other if you're goddamn ALIENS?" Tucker half-shouted. "Anyone wanna answer that gem?"

Church, Lone and Riffraff all traded glances as Mahihko continued to slowly gaze around, more interested now in their surroundings than the conversation at hand. It was Caboose who first responded, stating very matter-of-factly, "Tucker, that's easy, they must have gone to the same school that we did." Everyone save Mahihko slowly turned their heads to the bell-wearing chupadore. Caboose blinked and looked between them all owlishly. "What?"

"Caboose...shut up," Church finally said with a sigh. "I...don't know, Tucker. Would you prefer we didn't understand them?"

"Yeah, because my fucking head hurts trying to figure out all the shit going on," Tucker complained, crossing his arms again and showing a rare moment of actual, unmasked emotion. "We're already trying to figure out why some crazy bitch shot you and tried to drag you away, and we were on the verge of abandoning our post and trying to track down whoever was with the crazy bitch. And they're probably crazy, too. This is...a fucking LOT of shit to comprehend, okay? So...fuck, man, give me a goddamn break..."

Church looked uncomfortable as he watched Tucker turn around and stare into the distance, slowly rubbing along the armor covering his slender arms. It was strange having his vulgar companion be anything less than...

"Uh, not to interrupt, but..."

The light-blue fi'la shook his head briefly to clear his thoughts, glancing at Riffraff as the still-pale horse finally, slowly stood up. "Can we...try to get everyone on the same page?" Church could at last appraise the full appearance of the tall equine, noting that he was even taller than Lone, likely only a few inches short of fully seven feet tall. His body was more muscular than Lone's as well, less toned and thicker in definition. His short hide was a deep, blood-red hue that made Church realize Riffraff was lucky he wasn't immediately shot for looking like a Red Army member. The horse's mane was a lighter shade of red, essentially pink, and was quite long. Several messy bangs half-covered his features, while the excess was pulled into a braided ponytail behind him. His long tail was the same color, hanging down only a half-foot or so from the ground. A battered semi-formal outfit covered his bulky frame, consisting of a snug dress shirt that was a deep cerulean blue, a black vest that appeared more ornamental than functional, and black dress pants complete with pleats, although the bottoms had long since been tattered and showed obvious signs of non-formal wear.

"Uh...sure, I guess," Church responded slowly. "Should...we go inside?"

"Dude, I'm still not convinced they aren't gonna try and shoot us after we drop our guard," Tucker grumbled, turning back around to glare at the two armed wolves. "Still don't know they aren't...some kinda spy or some shit..."

"Use your brain, Tucker. Just seeing the shape of Sirca almost made them hurl. I'm pretty goddamn sure they've never stepped foot on our world before."

"You say that like it's a positive attribute," Tucker shot back before shrugging. "But whatever, man. I'm hungry, anyway."

"When are we going to do the horsey-rides?" Caboose demanded, earning a horrified look from Riffraff. "I call firsts! And also seconds!"

"We're...not going to do horsey-rides, Caboose," Church replied through clenched teeth, visibly choking back his frustration. "We're going to figure out what the fuck is going on."

"Riffraff wouldn't mind, though," Mahihko added with a wink. "I've known him long enough to know what he likes!"

"You've...known me for maybe two days," the horse grumbled, looking embarrassed nonetheless. "I still don't understand how you two managed to intercept us, anyway. Neither one of you are demons like Amdusias..."

"Mahihko might be part-demon," Lone mumbled as his smaller companion only looked pleased at the designation. "Yeah, let's. Let's go inside. I've seen some weird shit but this shit takes the goddamn weird cake..."

Caboose whooped, oblivious to any of the danger that concerned Tucker as he spun around and bolted back down the ramp from the roof while calling out: "Mr. Bunnylops! Put away the cards! We have visitors! Get the sliced cheese!! But stay on your guard, I think one of them wants to take the weird cake!"

The three strangers shared an awkward glance between themselves while Tucker shook his head slowly but then looked pointedly at the trio. "Well go on, follow Short-Bus. I sure as hell ain't ready to let you walk behind me..." He continued to grumble as Church sighed loudly. "No way am I getting shot in my ass today, nope. I ain't a moron."

"Pff, I can't blame you! The view is nice from back there!" Mahihko replied brightly, slapping his own rump before trotting after Caboose. Lone and Riffraff gave similar, embarrassed expressions before following the small wolf down the ramp. The two remaining chupadores shared a mutual look that all but screamed "what the fuck?!" as Tucker shook his head and stomped after the foreign creatures with a hand on the butt of his holstered pistol.

Church hesitated, kicking at his dropped sniper rifle childishly. We have had way more than our fair share of what-the-fuck moments lately... He wondered if bringing the enormous weapon inside would really help the situation, considering how tense his companion already seemed. He realized that, in the first moments of their mind-boggling collision with these strangers, either side could have suffered a fatal blow. It had seemed childish at the time, but had the one named Mahihko not kicked his larger companion into Tucker... The tall soldier grimaced and finally decided against bringing yet another gun into the picture. His less-than-perfect aim aside, his instincts told him they had no real desire to hurt any of them. At least not yet...

 

Things were not all that less awkward in the mess, despite Lone's best attempts at normalizing the situation. Church and Tucker sat next to each other across from the two wolves as the smaller chupadore leaned back slightly with a frown. Mahihko was practically laying on the table with how far he was bent forward, grinning sharkishly at the visibly-uncomfortable turquoise shi'a. In a corner of the room, Riffraff was leaning awkwardly against the wall while Caboose babbled away to him cheerfully about the collection of snack wrappers he was keeping to plant behind the base, where they'd grow into "snack bushes", apparently.

Lone cleared his throat and then carefully pushed his slender companion back into a seated position in an attempt to calm Tucker, though the soldier looked far from placated. "Uh...so. I don't really know the best way to start, but I guess I should ask how much you guys know about things...er...outside your world?" He gestured with his hands in an attempt to make his words easier to understand, but it didn't seem to make a difference as both chupas across the table gave him blank stares. "Well...I mean, you know about...aliens, it sounds like?" he asked hopefully.

"You said you weren't aliens," Tucker responded dryly before shoving a prepackaged muffin into his muzzle, blatantly refusing to offer the strangers any of the food stacked on the counter behind them.

"Well, I guess in a way we are," Lone replied slowly. "We're...not from this world, so. Yeah, literally, I suppose we're aliens. But we didn't get here on a space ship or anything. I don't even honestly know if this is the same...uh. Galaxy. Or universe. Or...dimension."

"Yeah, 'sfar as we know, ain't got no ring-planets around us!" Mahihko chimed in, propping his pierced muzzle up on a  hand, his tail swinging idly behind him. "But goddamn, I wish there were. I bet there are all kinds of neat places and people to explore in a place like this..." His periwinkle eyes slid back to Tucker, making the chupadore recoil in horror again.

His larger companion sighed and rubbed at his muzzle slowly. "Seriously, ignore him. He does his best work when he realizes someone's uncomfortable around him." Church gave the wolf a pointed look and Lone shrugged, continuing slowly. "Anyway. The reason I ask is because, as you have guessed, we're from somewhere either very far, or...fuck, I dunno, maybe not that far, but on another plane of existence."

"Whoa, whoa, we don't know for sure we're on a new plane of existence," Mahihko interrupted.

"I do not like planes!" Caboose half-shouted from behind the wolves, making Riffraff shrink embarrassedly against the wall. "They are full of babies."

Mahihko couldn't resist a slight smile even as he turned back to the others and raised a finger. "Not to be a dick, Lone, but we actually don't know that. Hell, you barely know what this thing is, and you're the one who actually researches this shit."

Church frowned and leaned forward slightly, looking between the two wolves. "Yeah, what was that thing you were holding? Was that how you...made that...uh..."

"I swear to Omega if you call it a wormhole, you will be a nerd in my eyes forever," Tucker threatened, jabbing a claw into Church's chest before the larger soldier scowled and slapped it away.

"Well then what the fuck would you call it, asshole?" Church snarled, leaning toward the smaller male and earning a rude gesture from his companion.

"How 'bout we just call it a doorway?" Lone offered awkwardly. The two chupadores glared at him and he shrunk back slightly before shrugging. "Well it is, in the most basic sense," he grumbled, nudging Mahihko in the side lightly. "It's...some kind of artifact. I'd call it 'ancient', but fuck if I know how old it actually is." On cue, the feminine lupine reached into one of his many pockets to produce what now looked like a simple cluster of crystals growing from a lump of limestone. Lone pointed to it as the two chupas leaned in despite themselves to stare at it curiously.

"Why isn't it glowing anymore?" queried Tucker, shifting to the side to study the strange object in Mahihko's open palm. "And fuck that, why aren't you three using it to go back the fuck to wherever you came from?"

"Because where we came from is in a bit of a fucked situation right now," Mahihko replied bluntly, tossing the crystal formation lightly upward as Lone's eyes widened in horror. But he easily caught it without so much as a glance, offering a half-grin as he placed it gently on the table so the other wolf could snatch it up with a huff. "Someone may or may not have intercepted my call for assistance and someone may or may not have shown up at what I was very positive was my dig site, and then someone may or may not have tried to kill us."

"I was there first," Lone grumbled as he idly brushed some invisible dust from the crystals. "Also, you called one of your many old boyfriends to see if he'd come get us in a helicopter. He was the probably the one who called that bastard and his goddamn mercenary army out there."

"He was hardly a 'boyfriend', more like a walking source of dick that also happened to have a helicopter," the other wolf said dramatically, waving a hand before perking up as Tucker gave them both an incredulous look.

"Wait, so...what the fuck are you two, like...tomb raiders or some shit?"

Mahihko looked positively tickled at this, propping his muzzle up with both hands. "Oh yes! Absolutely, that is one-hundred-percent the best term to use and you should refer to us as such forever after this point!"

But Lone scowled darkly and quickly wrapped the so-called artifact in a dusty cloth before tucking it into one of his thigh pockets. "No. No, no, we are not. I'm...uh. An...explorer. Who...recovers old stuff. And such."

"--sounds like a tomb raider," Tucker interrupted mildly.

"No, not...a tomb raider. Explorer. And...he is..." Lone pursed his lips as Mahihko batted his eyes at the larger lupine. "He's a goddamn thief."

A dramatic gasp flew from the feminine wolf's muzzle as he put a hand mockingly against his own chest. "Sir! Bite your tongue." He earned two very skeptical looks from the chupadores across the table and gave a loud sigh in response. "I hate 'thief', it's so...bland. So crude. I am so much more than a petty thief." He underscored his next phrase with a poke to Lone's cheek. "And you know it."

Lone rolled his eyes and attempted to respond, but Church interrupted bluntly: "Okay, fine, you two come across some ancient...thingy, and it transports you...here, and that all makes sense if we pretend this is some goddamn video game, but what about him?" The taller chupa gestured wildly at Riffraff as the equine looked back at them blankly. "It sounds like he's not...even with you two?"

"Uh. Remember what I said about alternate dimensions?" Lone replied lamely. "I wasn't just talking out of my ass. And since we've already gone far past the point of no return in regards to crazy-shit-that-shouldn't-be-possible, I'm sure you'll have no trouble believing that he's from an alternate version of the same world we're from." Once more, he was met with two confused stares of disbelief. "It's...look, you're already talking to three people who just came through a literal tear in reality. So just. Bear with me. But in the world where Mahihko and I come from, it's uh...I dunno. Normal, I guess."

"Normal is relative," Riffraff intoned sourly. "Maybe you're the freaks and I'm the regular joe."

"I thought your name was Horsey!" The horse shifted his gaze awkwardly back to Caboose to find the dark blue chupadore glaring up at him suspiciously.

"Um, it...is actually R--"

"Anyway," Lone continued, leaving Riffraff to uselessly attempt an explanation to Caboose. "What I mean is that our world is...without magic, I guess is the easiest way to say it. We have science, we have technology, we have religion, but there's no...supernatural elements." He paused, his expression torn between amused and anxious. "Well. Not regularly, anyway. Between the slippery thief and I, we've...come across some weird shit that's beyond most normal explanation, at least in our reality. But he," Lone gestured to Riffraff once more. "He comes from a different version of our world. Same world, in a strictly geographical sense, and I guess a physical sense...but completely different in a metaphysical sense. They lack a lot of the scientific and technological advances we have, but in return, a good percentage of their population can harness magical elements." At this point, both Tucker and Church had gone from wary and somewhat disbelieving to showing outright incredulity. "I...I know how it sounds. And to top it all off, the uh...er. How to put it...'protective layer' that separates their world from the supernatural world is also exceptionally thinner. So things like angels and demons are kind of a thing, too. Y'know, just to add to the entire goddamn impossibility of what I'm saying."

"These two boneheads ended up here because they were chasing a demon," Riffraff added helpfully. "He's sort of my friend. I...guess. Or a friend of a friend. He's...it's...complicated."

Church slowly lowered his head into his hands, groaning into the table as Tucker made a disgusted face. "That's putting it fuckin' mildly, don't you think?" the smaller chupadore asked ironically. He seemed to take a moment to watch Church for a reaction, apparently hoping for some cue from the other soldier. But when his companion appeared more content to simply keep his face buried in his fingers, the turquoise male shrugged and continued, "Okay, so I'm not even gonna try to make sense of this. All I know is you don't belong here, but you're here now, and you don't know how to get back, right?"

Lone nodded slowly while Mahihko only shrugged cheerfully, leaning back slightly as he produced a slender handgun from some unseen holster in his turtleneck. Tucker tensed up immediately, but before he could draw his own magnum in response, the slender lupine had already neatly removed the slide from the weapon and was calmly dissembling it on the table as his eyes shifted back to the rigid soldier with a playful expression. "Go on?"

Tucker narrowed his eyes but slowly relaxed and tapped a claw purposefully on the surface of the table. "Anyway. What I wanna know is, if you three weren't originally together, and the two of you," he pointed two fingers at the wolves, "were just...'following a demon'...then where the fuck is THAT guy?"

"That's...actually a good question," Church said, lifting his head and giving Tucker a genuinely surprised glance. His smaller companion looked less than thrilled at the insinuation, but remained silent as the fi'la continued. "Are there...uh...other...travelers here somewhere? Because I sure as shit can guarantee that we won't be the only ones to open fire. And the last thing we goddamn need are more goddamn dead bodies."

"You forgot the more important question." All eyes shifted to Tucker and he leaned forward with a serious frown. "Where the fuck are all the chicks?"

 




Any Other World

 

 

Simmons, Grif and Donut all stood over the enormous reptile's collapsed form, glancing between one another awkwardly as the effeminate chupa slowly holstered his pistol. "Um, guys...were you just joking about the tea?"

"Shit, shit...shit! Donut, what did you do?!" Simmons lamented, pulling a hand over his features before glaring at Grif. "This is your fault, Grif!"

"Whoa, whoa, I just made a logical assumption, and it looks like it paid off, because now there's one less gigantic dragon-thing trying to kill us," the pudgy soldier reasoned, raising his palms in a slow shrug. "I'd say you own me a meal, Simmons."

The dark-red chupadore frowned immensely at his companion. "That's the last thing you need. Look, let's...move him to the brig, before he wakes up and...I dunno, kills us." He paused before his eyes widened. "Oh shit, and what are we gonna tell that horse guy outside??"

A gruff voice echoed down the hall as if in response, punctuated with staggering hoof-steps that filled the air with an ominous sense of inevitability. "Tell me what?"

The three soldiers stared as Graceful Melody stumbled up to them, leaning heavily on the wall as a mostly-smoked cigarette hung out of his muzzle. His features were pale and his fingers were visibly trembling as he breathed shallowly. Simmons cleared his throat awkwardly, making a lame attempt to step in front of the demon’s enormous body while doing a poor imitation of casually resting against the wall. "Um. You look uh...pretty sick still, you better go back outside for some fresh air," he announced helpfully, his voice several decibels too loud as behind him, Grif slapped a palm over his features.

The unsteady equine narrowed his eyes dangerously, spitting the cigarette onto the floor and gritting his teeth as he studied Amdusias's prone form behind the useless distraction of Simmons's wiry frame. Simmons's eyes widened as Graceful yanked his massive handgun out a second time, waving it by his head while taking a shaky step forward. "Who. The fuck. Killed my demon?" But before he could threaten any of the soldiers with the twitching pistol, the slight horse slumped against the opposite wall with a groan before melting into a pile next to the unconscious reptile.

Simmons wheezed and clutched at his damaged chest plate, nearly tripping over the gigantic creature behind him but his face reflecting only a sense of relief for the moment. He let himself flop against the wall with a gasp before throwing a glare at the other two. "Can we please stop behaving like children before I get shot again?"

"You know, Simmons, Sarge might stop letting you wash his balls if you keep crying like that," Grif retorted as he began to unbuckle and remove his armor. "He doesn't much care for sissies."

"I guess that explains why he hates you and Donut," Simmons grumbled in return, earning a dramatic gasp from the light-red chupadore.

"Sarge doesn't...hate me, does he?" Donut looked genuinely upset at this notion, grabbing his tail and kneading it instinctively. "Wait...have I ever met Sarge?"

Simmons gave the blond-maned male a dry look before rolling his eyes. "Well...no, but...I have a feeling he WILL hate you. Wait, that's what you're upset about? Not the whole...sissy thing?"

Donut blinked in confusion and tilted his head slightly. "Wait, what's wrong with--"

"Guys?" Grif interrupted mildly. "Guys. I have an idea. How about everyone shuts up and we drag these things to the brig so the big baby Simmons doesn't cry about getting shot again?"

The maroon chupa sighed. "Grif...shut up. Help me with the big...dragon-thing." He glanced at the collapsed equine with a slight frown – at best, the tiny stranger couldn't weigh any more than a foul-mouthed teenager. "Donut, do you think you can handle the horse-guy?"

"Oh, for sure, I'd love to handle the horse-guy!" Donut replied cheerfully as he bent down with his hands on his knees to peer at the crumpled stranger, his hindquarters swinging a bit. "Just look at that adorable face! Are you sure we gotta put him in the cells? It'd be so nice to have a guest for tea finally!"

Simmons and Grif were both shoving each other toward the torso of the muscular reptile, neither one wanting to deal with the long bone spikes that stuck out through the back of its tattered suit. But Simmons couldn't resist a glare toward Donut with those words, giving up a moment of concentration and subsequently being pushed by Grif to the demon's upper half as the orange-furred chupadore quickly grabbed one of its muscular legs defiantly. "Goddammit, Grif, and goddammit to you, too, Donut! Again, he SHOT me! We're locking them both up 'til Sarge gets here!"

"You're right, Simmons. Our logical, calm, rational leader will definitely provide the wise response you're hoping for," Grif deadpanned, continuing to hold only one of the lizard's legs up while resting lazily against the wall. "Surely Sarge wouldn’t do or say anything to get us killed. Surely Sarge is going to be our beacon of reason in these trying times.."

Simmons paused with a frown. "Well...that's beside the point. He's still our commanding officer," he grumbled, bending down to awkwardly slip his hands beneath the enormous creature's arms, wincing and attempting to avoid the myriad spikes poking out through its well-worn suit jacket. He visibly strained to lift the reptile's torso off the ground, gasping in effort. "Grif...would you...goddamn...HELP?"

The pudgy soldier sighed dramatically, dropping down to a kneel and scooping up the other leg, gripping the creature's ankles against his sides as he struggled to stand afterward. "Lead the way, cub scout."

Simmons scowled darkly before shouting in surprise as Donut suddenly danced past them nimbly, the unconscious equine hefted onto his back. Where the lithe chupadore had the energy to carry the other male so easily, tiny in stature or otherwise, was a question that would likely remain unanswered. Grif seemed resigned to simply shrugging as his taller companion mumbled incoherently before awkwardly side-stepping and maneuvering his way down the hall after Donut. "Watch his tail, it's long as hell."

Grif grunted and hefted the reptile's legs a bit higher, barely listening to Simmons as always and almost immediately tripping over the long appendage at his paws. "Grif! I said watch his tail!"

"And I said you're stupid, but I don't hear you listening," Grif retorted, childishly kicking the forked tail to the side as the two soldiers awkwardly made their way to the brig with the muscular creature held up between them.

"You never said that!" the maroon soldier snapped back, nearly tumbling down upon reaching the first step on the staircase leading to the lower level.

"See, Simmons, you just proved my point, you never listen," his companion replied with a morose shake of his head. "It really hurts me inside, the same way you must feel when when you realize your balls are in Sarge's pocket, like...twenty-four, seven."

"Fuck off, Grif," Simmons growled, glancing over his shoulder as they carefully made their way down the stairs and toward the brig. Grif smirked but otherwise remained silent, following his fellow to where Donut was already positioned outside of the holding cell containing the passed-out equine.

Simmons carefully slipped into the next open cell, already looking exhausted from hefting the weight of the reptile's torso. He did his best to ease the monstrous creature's body onto the hard cot but was unable to avoid getting jabbed with a few of the spikes. He cursed and quickly stepped back, only to wince as several of the sharp points of bone tore through the mattress when his center of gravity suddenly dropped. At the other end, Grif unceremoniously dropped the creature's legs and they flopped with loud smacks against the back of the cot. "Goddammit, Grif..."

The orange-hued chupa shrugged and wiped his hands together. "What? Not like he even remotely fits onto the bed, and it ain't like he's gonna feel anything, anyway." He ambled back out of the holding cell as Simmons grumbled incoherently and took a moment to awkwardly try and reposition the gigantic creature's legs and tail. He prodded and shifted the appendages a few times, frowning immensely as from outside, Donut called in cheerfully:

"Oooh! Are we posing them?!? I have a great position to try with the pony-guy!"

"Omega's sake, Donut..." Simmons sighed loudly, eventually giving up on trying to adjust the demon's limbs into a more comfortable position as he stepped back slowly. "Fuck all of this." He eyed Amdusias's unconscious form warily, his body still somewhat tense as if expecting the alien creature to pop back to life and slaughter them all. A frown remained on his features when he finally slipped through the small doorway next to the metal bars. As he slapped the button on the wall to activate the light-blue force field that protected the narrow entrance, Simmons rubbed the back of his head and gave his companions a concerned look. "You guys understand what...all this means?"

Grif rolled his eyes, leaning against the wall again and crossing his arms. "Let me guess. It means you're gonna waste another ten minutes of my life with one of your nerd-gasms?"

"Ooh, Simmons, tell me more about these nerd-gasms!" Donut exclaimed brightly, tail swinging cheerfully.

"Oh my god, it is impossible to have a normal conversation with you two," the maroon chupadore groused, rubbing at his muzzle slowly. He shook his head a bit, then glanced into both cells with an expression that barely masked his concern. "Look...while I might...normally come across as a little bit excited to learn aliens are real--"

"Just a little bit?" Grif interjected in a dry monotone. "Barely a twitch from it, eh?"

"Fuck off, Grif." Simmons shot his fellow soldier a scowl before self-consciously poking at his impacted chest armor. "The point is that...I mean...what's the point of...of all this?"

Donut looked confused, tapping at his chin thoughtfully. "Um...well, you said we should lock up these two so they don't try to kill us? But I can let them back out if you want! There's still time to get tea ready for five of us!"

"God...dammit, Donut. No. Not...this," Simmons grumbled, gesturing around him as Grif snickered in the background. "I mean this whole stupid war. If there's actually life out there, if there are worlds outside of Sirca, and if they're capable of reaching us, then...don't you guys think all this bullshit back-and-forth with the Blues is a little...silly?"

"So silly that you'll hang if you don't join the fight," Grif responded mildly. "Or at least be forced to listen to Sarge bitch while you're trying to watch TV, which is almost as bad. I'm pretty sure no one gives a crap about some weird spiky guy and his little scary pony showing up in a piece-of-shit canyon, in the middle of a piece-of-shit territory."

"Shouldn't they, though?" Simmons looked genuinely upset, staring between his compatriots. "Don't...you guys think this is pretty fucking crazy? I get it, the Holy War is...life, it's a part of life, but...come on, you don't see how...stupid it all seems now??"

Grif regarded Simmons blankly for several seconds before shrugging lazily and ambling out of the brig. "Pretty sure anything you're involved in is pretty stupid," he drawled over a shoulder. "I'm gonna go find a new place to nap before Sarge gets here. You guys have fun with your nerd party."

As the orange chupadore slouched away, Simmons sighed and rubbed the back of his head before shifting his eyes to Donut. The light-red soldier was squinting at Simmons with his lips pursed, one hand on a hip as the other poked in his companion's direction. "Simmons, were you saying all that stuff about how the war is stupid because you're trying to get out of chores? Because you can just tell me! I love doing chores! I got that outfit delivered and everything!"

"I still don't know where the hell you were able to order that from," Simmons mumbled, making a face. "They must have some fucked up shops on the network."

"Everyone knows you can't clean without a proper maid's uniform!" Donut proclaimed. "How am I supposed to go around polishing the doorknobs, naked?"

Simmons looked more strained than normal as he slowly clenched and then relaxed a fist, his features visibly creased with annoyance. "Please, for the love of Omega, don't do that. You don't even have to polish the doorknobs, Donut, who even does that?"

The feminine chupadore sniffed disdainfully and trotted past Simmons with a flick of his tail. "Well, I've found that a good life is full of polished knobs. Maybe that's why you're so grumpy, Simmons! You should polish more knobs!"

Simmons scowled as the cheerful soldier skipped toward the stairwell to head back upstairs. "You have to be aware when you say shit like that," he muttered before turning back to study the two unconscious creatures. I can't be the only one who thinks this is a big deal...this is all just so fucking stupid if…if there’s something beyond this ring out there…this changes everything…

 

"So yeah, that's about it, I guess. We have the one extra room that I guess you guys can use but...y'know, hopefully you won't be here that long," Tucker grumbled, hands shoved in his pockets as he turned to face the two wolves. He'd been tasked with giving them a brief tour of the base, while Church was accompanying Riffraff to the roof to let him use the rifle scope and possibly spot some sign of the horse's two companions in the vicinity.

Lone nodded once, poking his head into the brig to note the empty cells. "Thanks, uh...Tucker, right? Yeah, we appreciate it. I'm hoping we don't have to be here long, no. I guess it's just kinda hard to tell. We expected at most to cross over into the alternate version of our world...didn't really expect to end up gods know how many light-years away."

Tucker made a face but grunted out an incoherent "you're welcome". He had mostly been keeping a wary eye on Mahihko – no longer because of the handgun that the smaller wolf had managed to re-assemble while they wandered around the base, but rather due to the fact that the feminine lupine had been giving him aggressively suggestive winks and grins constantly. "Yeah. Whatever, man, just don't touch my fucking snacks. And don't go into my room. It's for me and the ladies, that's it."

"All the ladies, huh? So where IS this legendary, ever-flowing fountain of vagina you keep alluding to?" Mahihko inquired innocently, tucking his pistol back into his half-concealed holster. "I mean, you've mentioned all the action you get like...nine times. But uh. I ain't seen a single female 'round here yet."

"That's because this is the army, asshole," the soldier spat back. "It's not my fault I had to come out here and leave a whole village full of mourning ladies behind." He crossed his arms confidently as his tail flicked behind him. "I bet they had to start a support group just to manage life without me around."

"No one left to flip their burgers, eh? Yeah, that would be pretty rough." Mahihko gave a sympathetic nod, barely hiding his grin as Tucker flushed and bared his teeth in frustration. "Whoa, whoa, chill out, there. I ain't gonna judge. I have terrible luck with the ladies, too, after all."

"I'm pretty sure the last time you saw a pair of tits was when you were breastfeeding," Lone interjected drolly. "You run screaming from women."

"Excuse me, I was allergic to breast milk, thank you very much." The shorter wolf seemed absurdly proud of this fact as he flashed a bright smile. "Momma had to put me on soy milk. I was a fag the day I popped outta that hell-hole."

"Omega's sake," Tucker mumbled, looking extremely uncomfortable. "So...uh...I mean, you two are actually..."

"Why the hell do I get lumped in with him?" Lone exclaimed, his hands on his hips to give him a far more effete appearance than he likely intended.

"Because every knows you're not just a tomb raider, you're a tomb raider who loves dick," Mahihko replied mildly before tipping a wink toward a somewhat-pale Tucker. "So yeah! We're both actually flaming homosexuals. Lemme guess, we landed in Redneck Gulch, where 'we don't like them faggots' and 'God says them sodomites should burn.' Not that I'd mind, I love fuckin' with close-minded assholes. I mean, really, I just love fuckin' with all assholes, but that's neither here nor there..."

Tucker frowned slightly before scratching awkwardly at the back of his neck. "Well...uh. Let's start with this: Does Omega not, um...rule over your...world, or whatever? What's the name of the church that runs everything?"

Lone and Mahihko glanced at each other with mixed expressions, though Mahihko looked more amused than anything. "I mean. There are SOME people who think that the Catholics are secretly ruling the world, but um. Yeah, we. We don't have that. No single church...hell, no single anything rules our world. Every country has different rulers, different rules and customs...but for the most part, religion isn't exactly the all-powerful force it was a century or two ago." The slender lupine smiled a bit and gestured between himself and Lone. "We come from a world that…well, yes, does kinda suck thanks to some pretty fucked issues that we caused ourselves. There’s a lot that blows, just like any other world, I’m sure…but overall...science and technology are leading the way forward. Things aren't as repressed as they used to be."

Lone tilted his head a bit as he noticed the surprised expression on the chupadore's features. "So...wait. How...bad are things here?"

"Bad? I mean. There's a Holy War that's been going on for the last few decades, and if you don't fight when you're conscripted, you kinda get killed, and also, how the FUCK do you function without the House of Omega?" Tucker looked genuinely confused and horrified and somewhat concerned all at once. "Who makes all the rules? Who decides who wins and who loses?"

Lone gave a faint smile. "Jesus. Things are different here. It'd take too long to try and explain everything, but...it ain't like it is here, I guess."

"Yeah, I guess," Tucker responded slowly, lacing his fingers behind his head with a long, slow exhale. "Fuckberries. This shit is painful to try and understand." He shook his head a bit, then glanced between the two wolves. "Look, I don't give a fuck if your ass gets shot off as long as I don't get my ass shot off, but... I will give you this much advice: it ain't a good idea to be gay, and it ain't a good idea to talk shit about Omega. So uh...try to avoid those two things and I guess you'll be fine."

"Oh goodie, I guess I might as well slit my wrists now, because I am NOT spending this entire trip without experiencing any alien junk in my trunk," Mahihko blurted as Tucker took a preemptive step backward. "Fuck THAT. Okay, so far, other than trying to shoot us in the face, the people on this ring-world-place are fine, but man. Fuck this Omega guy. And fuck this Holy War. We got religious nutjobs back where we come from, too and you know what? They suck there, too."

Tucker visibly winced as the lupine disparaged their all-powerful deity, but he also looked almost...relieved. "Um. Look, I don't wanna get my ass sent to the gallows, but...uh. Yeah, I guess I can't argue. The real devout fuckers are annoying as hell...but I guess one good thing about this shitty outpost is that no one out here is real holy." He let his arms drop back to his sides, his body relaxing a bit once again. "One of the very few benefits of getting shipped out here." Tucker grimaced. "Very few."

"No ladies coming out to this lonely canyon, I'm guessing?" Mahihko teased, though his tone was surprisingly gentler than before.

Lone glanced at his companion curiously; he wasn’t expecting the outspoken thief to ease up on the verbal abuse of the turquoise soldier that he'd no doubt already singled out to try and get between the sheets. But he could tell by the half-hidden expression in his companion's features that the reality of life on this ring-world was upsetting to him. Lone wasn't a fan of what he'd heard so far, either...it made him a bit more uncomfortable about this strange planet on which they’d somehow ended up.

"No, there are not," Tucker scowled, pursing his lips and grumpily stomping back toward the stairs as the wolves followed. "This place is a barren wasteland devoid of any and all pussy. And the only one that we've seen lately is at the bottom of a goddamn cliff due to a close encounter with a fucking frag grenade."

"You found a real lady and your first instinct was to grenade her?" Mahihko asked with a coy grin. "Boy, you sure you're not playin' for my team?"

"Extremely sure!" Tucker snapped over his shoulder before scowling as he half-jogged the rest of the way up the stairs. "She was...fuckin' scary. And had a really big shotgun." He paused and turned to see Mahihko appraising him visually, making a horrified face and waving his arms in frustration. "Quit starin' at my ass!"

Lone shook his head in mild amusement as Tucker led them toward the exit of the base, doing his best to memorize the layout as they passed through. "Please don't mind him. Freaking out about it will only make it worse, anyway."

The lean soldier grumbled before holding up a finger and glancing back at them. "Seriously though. There are others that came with you? Are any of them at least chicks?"

"Sorry, buddy! Two more sausages to add to the party, I'm pleased to announce!" The shorter lupine flashed a winsome smile at Tucker's dejected expression, offering him a thumbs-up that did not help to ease the chupadore's moodiness.

"Yeah, and they're a lot scarier than us, I might add," Lone mumbled, rubbing at his shoulder a bit. "Sometimes I forget which one of those two was the actual demon."

"Oh, we barely had a chance to get to know them, I'm sure they aren't so bad," Mahihko reasoned. He cut himself off, however, as they stepped out of the base through the concrete doorway and back into the dry air of the box canyon. He took a moment to meander away from the base, letting his bare paws push into the cracked clay-like ground below while his eyes surveyed the environment around them. There was a thick grouping of trees and brush not too far from the base, and it looked like the verdant foliage nearly encircled this end of the barren valley. He could see the other squat military structure just past a thin cluster of greenery in the middle of the canyon, and otherwise there wasn't much to take in. "So...what, only one way into this place?" he asked as his eyes settled on a break in the canyon walls that he could barely make out through the same patch of dense vegetation.

"Two, actually," Church corrected from above. The three glanced up to the roof where the taller chupadore stood next to Riffraff. The equine had the oversized sniper rifle pressed into his shoulder, holding it entirely wrong but obviously only interested in peering through the scope as the soldier at his side gestured idly toward the back of the canyon. "There's another way out through the trees back there, leads to the jungle."

"There's also a dead purple bitch that way," Tucker added bitterly. "You assholes are free to get the fuck outta here through either option."

Lone rolled his eyes but made a mental note regardless as he nodded silently. "Thanks. Uh...yeah, guess I'm not sure what we're gonna do yet. We don't know how to re-open the portal and...I'm not sure if we even want to right now. As it is, we're probably lucky nothing...else...came through with us..."

Tucker frowned immensely. "The fuck does that mean? You fuckers tryin' to get us all killed with some interdimensional monster bullshit or somethin'?"

"I wish! That would be exciting as hell!" Mahihko responded, only to shrug amiably. "But no. Just a shitload of guys with guns who were not really happy that we got to the artifacts before they did."

"Great," muttered the lean chupadore as he crossed his arms. He glanced up toward Riffraff with a smirk. "Hey, douchebag – you're holding that wrong. I bet you hear that all the time, though."

The equine huffed but continued to peer through the scope for several seconds. "You would get along really well with Graceful," he mumbled. "You're both crude bastards."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Tucker grunted.

"Shut up, Tucker." The larger soldier glared at his companion before eyeing the horse and his awkward handling of the sniper rifle. "So uh...any sign of...er. Them?"

"Nothing," Riffraff murmured, slowly lowering the massive firearm with a sigh. The muscular creature shook his head and then handed the weapon back to Church. "Not a sign of them at all." He shifted his eyes down to the two wolves, concern etched into his features. "Do you...think..."

"I'm sure they're fine," Lone interjected smoothly, waving off the equine's fretting. "Hell, if anything, we should have been the ones to worry about demolecularization, after all."

"You just made up that word," Mahihko remarked, though he appeared more impressed than accusatory as he half-grinned up to his companion.

The larger wolf cleared his throat but did not protest, only offering a slight shrug. "Point stands, all the same. We were the idiots who decided to try and just. Leap into a magical portal. Y'know, without an actual demon to guide us. So hey, don't worry about it, Riffraff. I'm sure we'll find them soon. Or they'll find us."

"Unless they got demolecularized," Mahihko chimed in with a wink.

Riffraff seemed genuinely horrified for a moment as the chupa at his side took an awkward step back, perhaps fearing a violent outburst from the well-built horse. "You...you don't...I mean, they wouldn't..."

"I'm pretty sure they're fine," Lone interrupted again, waving both hands as Mahihko tittered at his side. "Let's uh...let's just see if we can...I dunno." He paused and looked at Tucker, then up to the other soldier on the roof. "You guys got like. A...vehicle or something lying around that we could uh...borrow?"

"You fuckin' kidding me?" Tucker scoffed, flashing a disgusted look up to the taller wolf. "You assholes pop into our world, try to start some shit, and NOW you want us to give you a ride, too? Nah, fuck that."

"Tucker, calm your shit," Church rumbled from the roof, rolling one of his shoulders slowly and grimacing. "Although I guess he has a point. I mean...we don't really know you, and you haven't really done much to like...earn our trust."

Tucker rolled his eyes, muttering before anyone else could speak: "'Earn our trust'? You ever get told you sound like a real pussy? 'Cause you sound like a real pussy."

"Eat me, asshole." The taller chupadore raised his middle digit toward his companion; the gesture earned an interested grin from Mahihko. "Point is, we don't have a vehicle, no."

"You weirdos should probably just go over to the other base, they're always looking for more dicks to play with," Tucker offered mildly.

"Oooh! It would appear we have our destination!" Mahihko trilled before giving a muffled giggle as Lone sighed and held the other lupine's muzzle shut.

Before Lone could formulate some form of "thanks, anyway", the third blue chupadore suddenly appeared with a telltale tinkle from the bell around his neck. "Hey, Church! Why don't we just have them stay here and protect the base from monsters while we take our field trip?!"

Church's eyes widened slightly as he groaned. "Goddammit, Caboose! You can't just go telling that to everyone!"

"Well why not? Someone has to water the snack bushes!"

"Yeah, Church, why not?" Tucker paused, but decided to just ignore the second half of Caboose's rambling. "Who the fuck cares if we leave?"

"You're the one who pointed out that we're going AWOL the other night," Church grumbled. "Did you forget what the punishment was for going AWOL?"

"I thought we were going away." Caboose frowned deeply as he scrunched up his muzzle. "We don't need to leave to go to a wall. There's one right here!" He slapped a hand against the side of the base, oblivious of the morbid glare Church had affixed on his features.

"Well, whatever. It's been how many months now since you smoked Flowers, and all they sent us so far is a literal special recruit." The shortest soldier of the three shrugged idly. "I somehow doubt we're gonna have Blue Command up our asses any time soon."

Riffraff shifted from hoof to hoof, catching the attention of the two wolves on the ground below. "Hey, uh...could we maybe still go check out that other base? I'm starting to really get worried about the other two..."

"I'm pretty sure between the tiny terror and...the...huge demon, those two are handling themselves fine," Lone reasoned with a shrug. "But I guess at this point it would make sense to try and get us all in one place. Maybe Amadeus can help us figure out where the fuck we are."

"Amdusias," Riffraff corrected lamely.

"Sounds a lot cooler than Riffraff," Tucker remarked before glancing up at Church. "Come on, dude. They ain't our problem. They wanna go get shot at, that's their right as...weird, fuckin'...alien-things."

"Yeah, I guess..." The tallest soldier sighed. "Look, whatever you decide to do, I think...we're leaving tomorrow. Probably pretty early, we've...got a lot of road to cover."

"Don't lie, you don't even know where the hell we're going," Tucker retorted before he gestured to Caboose. "And you better get his ass to bed on time if you want to leave early. I already gotta deal with your bitching, I don't need his, too."

"I am not a baby!" Caboose half-yelled. "Nobody likes to wake up early, that's when the grass is wet."

Church groaned loudly, slinging his rifle over a shoulder and shaking his head as he lumbered toward the ramp down from the roof. "I mean, he's not wrong," Mahihko said with a slight smile, glancing between his companions. "Wet grass is the worst."

"Don't encourage him," Tucker muttered. The turquoise chupadore shoved lightly at Caboose. "C'mon, let's go figure out what the hell we're taking with us." He glanced over his shoulder at the three strangers, frowning for a moment. "And uh. I guess...good luck? And if you assholes don't die, don't hesitate to avoid us, since shit's complicated enough already."

"I'll see you soon, Horsey!" Caboose called out as Tucker shoved at him again. "You still owe me a ride!"

Riffraff's face filled with consternation as they watched the three chupadores disappear into the base. "You two are real pricks, you know that?"

"The hell did I do?" Lone muttered. "Mahihko's the one who did all the talking."

The smaller wolf only shrugged agreeably before peering toward the distant, opposing base. "So you ladies ready to go meet more of these strangely sexy aliens?"

 

Church paused, causing Tucker to collide with him and utter one of his usual curses. "Oh shit. Tucker, did you tell them about the minefield?"

"Sure did." The smaller chupa cleared his throat and then pushed past his less-than-convinced companion. "Whatever, man, who cares if I did or not? Probably ain't even real anyway. Did you see the sign? There was a heart on it. You don't put hearts on a real danger sign, everyone knows that."

"I guess..." Church frowned a bit. But the sounds of cabinets flying open in the kitchen was enough to snap his attention back to his companions and he shook his head quickly before trotting into the base. Guess this probably won't even be the weirdest shit we see, anyway...not after everything else we've seen...




No Man's Land

 

"So...you two gonna...escort me over there, or uh...er...what's your plan?" Riffraff rubbed his hands together lamely, glancing down between the two wolves as they sat beneath the shadow of the concrete base. Lone was fretting with a dented pistol, his ears only half-lifting to acknowledge the tall equine as his mind paged through several potential plans of action.

Mahihko, on the other hand, tossed an amused smile upward. "You want us to escort you? Honey, out of the three of us here, you are the absolute least likely to pass as a prostitute. Plus you’re like super-tall. And muscular." He paused thoughtfully before grinning toothily. "You’d be a great pimp, though! I mean, if I could choose my own pimp, I’d choose you. Every time."

Lone glanced up with a sour expression. "What the hell are you two jabbering about? And why do I feel weirdly insulted you’d choose this giant horse to whore you out, over me?"

"Because he’s a giant horse," Mahihko retorted mildly.

Riffraff blushed and awkwardly took a step backward, clearing his throat quietly. "That uh…that doesn’t really answer the question. Look, you two are real dandy, but…I’d really like to get back to the two fellas who are…you know, actually from my world. Because right now, I’m on a strange world, with two strangers from another strange world." The red-hued equine tapped two fingers together sheepishly. "No offense, but…I’d like some normalcy back."

"Dude, one of your two ‘normal’ boyfriends is a demon. An actual, straight-up demon," Lone replied drolly. He looked down for a moment as his hands worked the slide of his compact handgun a few times before eyeing the massive equine again. "Yeah, we’ll get you over there. Think we’ll need your buddy’s help to get the hell out of here, anyway."

"He’s technically a fallen angel," Riffraff corrected, his expression laced with discomfort.

"That makes him even worse," sang Mahihko. The slender lupine chuckled before reaching out to grab his fellow wolf’s muzzle. Lone blinked stupidly and then scowled as the smaller male levered himself upward with the help of his face. Mahihko hopped to his paws and began tugging off his turtleneck, continuing to talk through the dark fabric. "That means he was a baaaad boy up in Heaven, and they kicked his ass out." His head popped free a moment later and he flashed another grin, the bright sun glinting off his multiple piercings. "Does he like the dick too much? I been kicked outta my fair share of places for liking the dick too much."

Riffraff stared down at the cheerful lupine with something like horror etched across his features. "I…I don’t…he doesn’t…"

"C’mon, ‘Hiko, the poor guy’s traumatized enough," Lone grumbled, ejecting the clip from his pistol and glancing at the top of the mostly-full magazine. "And you get kicked out of places for stealing more often than dicking. Stop trying to convince everyone you’re a slut before you’re a thief." He slid the clip back into place and shoved the gun into its holster before climbing up to his paws as well.

Mahihko didn’t seem all that insulted, simply smiling once more as he tied the dark-blue sweater neatly around his neck. The taller wolf scowled at this, but the feminine male huffed in response, tapping the smooth fabric with a pink claw. "This is cashmere, sweetie. I ain’t gonna just leave it, ‘cause I highly doubt I’ll find a Neiman Marcus around here to shoplift for a replacement."

Lone rolled his eyes and strolled forward, leaving the shade of the so-called ‘Blue’ base to take a closer look at the stretch of half-desert, half-grassland landscape between the two military structures. "You’re the worst. It’s gonna end up getting torn, or dirty, or stretched, and you’ll be pissier than you’d be if you’d just left it behind, and guess who gets to deal with it?"

A slight contact with the muscular lupine’s hip made him twitch and he looked over his shoulder just in time to see Mahihko pointing the short-barreled shotgun at his face with a wink. "Stop bein’ a whiny bitch, you whiny bitch."

"That’s mine, put it back," Lone grumbled, patting at the now-empty holster above his tail as if it would somehow undo the almost-perfect snatch from his black-and-white companion.

"If I had a nickel for every time," Mahihko remarked cheekily before swiftly flipping the sawn-off around to grip it by the barrel, offering it to Riffraff. "Hey, Seabiscuit – you know how to use one of these?"

The quiet equine took a step back from the comparatively-tiny male, frowning slightly at the firearm. "I’m a croupier, not a gangster."

"You’re a what?" Lone asked dumbly, turning to face the horse confusedly.

"A dealer, hon, like at a casino," Mahihko provided with a chuckle. "I knew a blackjack dealer once. But he sucked." The smaller lupine paused and added thoughtfully: "Both at dealing cards, but also on dicks."

Riffraff shifted awkwardly as Lone sighed loudly and rubbed at his face with both hands. "Again. The worst. The hell’s it called a croo-pee-ay for?"

"Um, well, the word originally meant--" Riffraff began, only to be swiftly cut off by the shorter wolf.

"A croup is a horse’s butt!" Mahihko nodded wisely and then gestured toward the towering male with the double-barrel. "It means someone who rides all up on a horse’s ass!"

"Wouldn’t that be someone behind the players, then, and not on the other side of the table?" Lone asked dryly.

"I dunno, I’m not from his crazy-ass, nineteen-fifties-ass world, ask him." Mahihko shrugged and once more shook the shotgun at Riffraff.

The red-hued equine sighed again, looking helpless as he shook his head slowly. "I have a feeling you two wouldn’t actually care about the history. And I really don’t want the gun, thank you."

Mahihko pursed his lips and squinted defiantly up at the horse. "Boy, it ain’t a question, you need somethin’ in case the shit hits the fan. Which it kind of already did, but you know. Here, watch. It’s easy, and you don’t gotta do shit unless you’re about to die, yeah?" Riffraff made another face, but reluctantly crossed his arms and gave the two-toned wolf as much attention as he could bear to offer. "Good!" Mahihko laughed and nodded firmly as he held up the shotgun with both hands. "Now watch!"

He began to point at the various parts of the gun, calling them out as he did so and shifting the firearm each time for the benefit of the tall equine. Riffraff found himself listening despite himself, even as he scowled when Mahihko flipped the break action lever and snapped the weapon open to send the two unspent shells flying toward him. "Couldn’t be easier to reload!" the lithe male exclaimed, grinning and whipping a hand out to deftly snag the buckshot rounds from the air before slipping them back into the breech and snapping the shotgun together in one movement. "Got it? It even cocks itself when ya close it, all you gotta do is check the safety and pick your barrel!" He winked and flicked his thumb across a vertical lever on the stock of the shotgun as he continued: "Left…right…or my favorite, both at once!" He knocked the selector into the central position and then promptly pointed the weapon  at the horse’s crotch before pulling the trigger.

Riffraff screamed and leaped backward in horror as the shotgun clicked softly, his face drained of all color, while Mahihko guffawed cheerfully and jabbed the gun at the muscular male a few times. "Aw man, you already forgot the safety lesson! I’m ashamed and hurt!"

"Mahihko…you’re an asshole," Lone remarked before holding his hand out. "Gimme that back before one of you two gets hurt."

"Oh hell no!" Riffraff yelled in a strangled voice, lunging forward and snatching the shotgun from Mahihko’s grip with trembling fingers. "You’re mental! You’re absolutely mental! I feel safer with Graceful than I do with you!" He clutched the break-action weapon to his chest, frowning immensely and grumbling, "I will shoot you the next time you pull some nonsense like that again."

But Mahihko seemed pleased more than anything, taking a step back and laughing brightly, clapping his hands a few times. "Aha! See, he likes guns, now! Mission accomplished!"

"I don’t like guns," Riffraff mumbled disconsolately, relaxing slightly but keeping an iron grip on the shotgun with one hand as the other pushed his bangs back from his eyes. "I just really hate you."

"Join the club," Lone chimed in, earning two middle fingers from the smaller wolf. "Let’s go, before you two assholes end up either shooting each other or screwing each other, or both, because I know Mahihko’s capable of all three."

"The challenge is doing them simultaneously," Mahihko chirped, winking as he trotted toward the center of the canyon. He glanced over his shoulder to the roof of the base, but the three soldiers were nowhere to be seen. He shrugged and gazed forward once more. "Guess we’re on our own."

"We might have had a chance of getting some help if you didn’t break every possible variation of the Prime Directive when we got here," Lone replied moodily as he idly checked the small packs miraculously still attached to his hip and thigh.

"The hell is a Prime Directive?" his counterpart demanded. "That sounds like cop-talk." Mahihko squinted at the other wolf, leaning forward slightly. "You a cop? You been a cop all these years? You gotta tell me if you’re a cop! Entrapment! Also I have sex-tapes of us, I will burn you to the ground!"

"That’s…no. I’m not a cop, and. No. Stop quoting movies. That’s not how it works," Lone responded tiredly before blinking a few times. "Wait, you recorded us?"

"Always assume the camera is rolling!" Mahihko announced loudly, jabbing a finger into the air emphatically. "I only need a waiver if I try to sell it!"

"Also not true," the other lupine sighed. "And you really don’t know what the Prime Directive is? How the hell do you know what a croo-pee-ay is, but not know about Star Trek?"

"Because I’m not a nerd," Mahihko shot back easily. "Also, give Secretariat your back-holster so he doesn’t have to keep holding his gun like a rookie porn star doing his first double-handy."

"I’m not a nerd, you’re a nerd," Lone mumbled. "Star Trek is the shit. And um…I mean…it’s…my holster, though." He glanced up at Riffraff uncomfortably, receiving an equally awkward look from the even-larger male. "I mean. You know. It’s made for…my size. And he’s…bigger?"

"Yeah he is!" Mahihko purred, licking his lips and stepping closer to the equine to make him hurriedly back away once more. "Stop being a baby. He’s not going to steal your precious butt-pocket. Because that’s basically what it is. A pocket for your gun, on your butt."

Lone sighed again, rubbing slowly at the bridge of his muzzle but grudgingly undoing his belt with his other hand to remove the holster above his tail. "Fine, fine."

"What are these names you keep calling me?" Riffraff asked, though his hesitance made it clear he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He reached out for the leather holster when the white-furred lupine offered it, tucking the shotgun under one arm as he examined the simple accessory. "I’m not familiar with them and...I don’t know if you’re insulting me or not." He didn’t find it overly difficult to piece together how it worked, taking a moment to undo his own belt and string it into place at the base of his spine.

Mahihko reached out automatically to help guide the horse’s huge hands as he made the first attempt at holstering the sawn-off, giving an amused smile as he did so. "Guess you guys don’t have the Triple Crown in your world, eh? Let’s just say that in our dimension, horses are known for two things. Running races and huge co—"

Lone groaned, swiftly cutting off the smaller wolf. "My gods, you are impossible. You lead the way, so you can get shot first." He gestured grumpily with one arm, sweeping it with mock graciousness in front of himself.

"Touchy, touchy!" Mahihko snickered and then gave Riffraff’s rump a firm slap as he pranced past. The enormous equine yelped in shock, hopping forward and immediately blushing once more. "Alright, boys. Into the breach, let’s go find his ménage a trois, have a fivesome, and then figure out how to get back home." He began to wander into the dusty canyon basin, his paws guiding him toward a small patch of green in the midst of the desert-like surroundings. "And don’t forget! I still gotta see me some alien dicks!"

 Lone shook his head slowly, giving the speechless equine a helpless look and half-heartedly motioning after his companion. "Well uh. Let’s…get going, then. I’ll watch the rear, I guess. ‘Hiko’s better at navigating than me, anyway, much as I hate to admit it."

"We’re going to die," remarked Riffraff, his tone surprisingly calm. "I’ve said that a lot these last few weeks. It hasn’t happened yet, but you two are just as insane as Graceful and Amdusias. And now we’re on another world. So we’re going to die, and we’re don’t even know where it is that we’re going to die."

"We…might not die," Lone replied lamely. "Just because we ended up in the middle of a war zone doesn’t mean we’re gonna die."

Riffraff rolled his eyes, giving Lone a mild look over one shoulder. "I know you’re trying to reassure me. I hate to tell you that I’m afraid it isn’t working."

"Yeah, well…yeah, okay, fair enough," Lone muttered. "You’re not wrong. This blows."

Ahead of them, Mahihko had just reached the leafy tree that stood next to a large boulder among a collection of wild grasses and shrubs. As he turned to call back to his companions, his ears suddenly swiveled toward the entrance to the canyon and his slender frame went stiffly alert. His periwinkle eyes narrowed slightly and he instinctively ducked behind the boulder while gesturing rapidly to the other two. "Get over here!" he hissed. "I hear something coming!"

Riffraff seemed less than convinced, frowning a bit but then widening his eyes in surprise when Lone grabbed his arm and yanked him forward to the shabby cover of the irregular boulder. "I don’t hear—oh."

He could now make out what the wolves’ more sensitive ears had picked up – it sounded almost…familiar. His frown grew deeper and he couldn’t resist poking his head around the rock to if his hearing was playing a trick on him. Neither lupine moved to stop him, as they were both peering over the top, themselves.

The distant whine became louder and louder, burgeoning into a growling roar that echoed through the otherwise quiet box canyon. The small plume of dust rising up beyond the tree line made it almost impossible to imagine anything other than a motorized vehicle…and sure enough, an open-topped transport came tearing into the distant end of the valley a moment later, a single driver behind the wheel of the armored cruiser.

Lone focused immediately on the soldier in the driver’s seat, taking in what he could despite the surrounding clouds of dust and what he imagined was likely an unsafe speed for the jeep-like vehicle. It was another one of the ‘chupadore’ creatures, though this one appeared older than the ones they’d met so far. His hair was grey and cropped short – a far more military-appropriate style than any of the so-called ‘Blue’ soldiers. Both his armor and hide were red, though, leading Lone to assume he would be driving directly to their destination. The other three were much younger…maybe this guy’s a leader. Or just some old dog of war still in the game…guess it wouldn’t be a shock if this world really is in a constant state of conflict…

Mahihko, on the other hand, had his eyes glued to the mounted artillery. It looked almost like a minigun or oversized Vulcan cannon, complete with the shielded belt of ammunition feeding into one side. Even their weapons don’t seem all that alien, at least not the ones we’ve seen so far. A chaingun is a chaingun… "Whoever this guy is, we should steal that gun for Riffraff," he whispered, cracking a half-smile. "Your little baby shotgun is just so…small in his big horse hands…"

"Shut the fuck up," Lone grumbled, nonetheless giving Riffraff an awkward glance. "He’s fine. Hoping he doesn’t need to shoot anything, anyway."

The three of them continued to watch as the chupadore – in full armor, no less, whatever his rank might have been – turned slightly and made a beeline for the opposite base. Lone assumed his guess was correct, and now could only hope that this newcomer and his fellow Red soldiers would be even half as reasonable as the last trio. He leaned forward slightly, squinting at a vague shape in the distance, just ahead of the speeding jeep. Wait, what is that? Can he not see…

As if to answer his incomplete thought, the driver of the armored vehicle blew past the simple barrier, smashing into a wooden sign that had been hanging from the rope. They were too far to have even spotted it, let alone read it, although Lone supposed it must have not been that important for the driver to have simply driven through it. Or maybe he’s just in a hurry?

The two wolves both relaxed somewhat, Lone moving to the side of the boulder as Mahihko pulled himself up to a crouch atop the warm stone, keeping his stance low. Riffraff glanced at his companions curiously, allowing his own body to calm slightly. "Are we going to follow that vehicle in?"

"Might as—"

A thundering explosion interrupted Mahihko’s carefree response as all three heads whipped around in surprise to stare at a sudden expulsion of flame, detritus and smoking steel from the area just in front of the distant concrete structure. The ground shook from the force of the impact and the smaller lupine guessed some sort of landmine had been triggered, judging by the massive pillar of sand and dirt that billowed upward from around where the military vehicle was last seen. "Holy fuck," Lone remarked, slowly moving back behind the rock but unable to tear his eyes away. "Did…that dude just get blown up by his own team?"

But somehow – perhaps even miraculously? – the sound that followed the unexpected boom and subsequent screech of metal was a voice, gruff and defiant as it pierced through the thick cloud of smoke: "Grr…confounded furgledurgler!" Is he…alive??

The three strangers all shared a confused glance before staring in disbelief as a figure emerged from the billowing smoke with no visible signs of injury. It was the same chupadore that had been driving the vehicle, somehow unharmed, with nothing beyond some charred smudges across his battle-worn armor. The older male didn’t even look all that shell-shocked – rather, his expression seemed…grumpy.

A slight breeze had kicked up, helping push away the bulk of the dust and smoke to reveal the now-inverted armored jeep. Its massive tires were still slowly spinning as a steady stream of black smoke rose up from the engine. The explosion from the mine had apparently caused it to flip, though by some phenomenon, the driver seemingly escaped with hardly a scratch. But rather than be grateful to be alive, the stocky grey-haired chupadore looked supremely grouchy as he gave his likely-totaled vehicle a once-over, his hands on his hips while he continued to mutter under his breath.

"Sir! Are you okay?!?"

Mahihko’s eyes narrowed and in a single movement, he let himself slide backward atop the boulder to drop behind it once more. Probably not a good idea to go running out now…let’s see what we’re dealing with on the other side, first… He nodded once to Lone, and the lupines settled back into observing for the time being. Riffraff was more than content to simply follow their lead, licking his lips nervously and hoping his companions hadn’t encountered a fate similar to the scene that had just unfolded before them.

 

"Sonuvabitch!"

Graceful snapped awake as the curse left his tongue on instinct more than effort. He immediately regretted the movement, however, clutching his head with a low hiss of pain and shutting his eyes tightly. He’d been stirred violently from his unconsciousness and wasn’t yet sure why, nor did he care at the moment. "Fuck…my brain feels scrambled," he muttered, automatically searching out his pack of cigarettes with his free hand. He managed to light one with minimal effort even as he continued cradling his forehead, teeth clenched around the smoldering cylinder in a vain effort to drive back the agony.

"I would wager by the increase in foul language that you, too, have awakened."

Amdusias’s voice floated into the pony’s ears – somehow soothing, as always, despite the pulsing ache behind Graceful Melody’s temples. The diminutive equine frowned immensely but grunted in reluctant relief. He forced himself to sit up on the uncomfortable mattress, swinging his legs slowly around to plant his hooves against the cool concrete flooring. "Yeah, I’m up. Now for fuck’s sake, get me the fuck out of here."

"Were it so simple," the demon intoned from the adjacent cell, his tone only slightly less caustic than the pony’s. "As your body and mind are still recovering, thus are my own. We both strained ourselves to an inordinate degree to make the bridge to this strange world." There was a pause before a strange, muted rapping came from the demon’s cell. "This mysterious blue force blocking the smaller entry is…not permeable. It is some kind of solid light energy. I cannot affect it, at least not in my current state."

Graceful scowled and exhaled impatiently through his nostrils despite finding it difficult to even stand, let alone stomp up to the front of the cell and demand compliance. His eyes glanced toward the translucent barrier between the wall of the cell and the bars at the front, imagining the alien technology was manipulated by a remote switch or panel of some kind. "So you can’t use your magic. Fine. You’re still a lumbering hulk, or do you keep forgettin’ that? Just bend this shit wide and get us free. Ain’t no sign of guards, and there are plenty of bars that ain’t covered in this blue mess."

"I cannot physically force myself through, either," Amdusias muttered, now sounding almost embarrassed.

"What, is it iron, or somethin’ like it?" Graceful frowned again, idly wondering if there would be new, foreign resources here in this strange world that would also be detrimental to the demon’s physical form. That’s the last thing we need…more hazards for the fallen angel to avoid…

"No," Amdusias answered stiffly before sighing, a dull thud echoing from his cell that Graceful imagined to be the demon’s head slumping against the wall. "I am…extremely weak right now, little one. My last manipulation of energy depleted me nearly entirely. It is very exhausting to stop even one projectile, let alone three."

"Well ain’t that peachy," Graceful Melody grumbled, massaging his forehead as he puffed angrily on the stale cigarette. "Wait a tick…" He slowly looked down at himself, realizing only now that not only was his overcoat still hanging from his slight shoulders, but it still had the same weight that he’d long ago become accustomed to. Don’t tell me these schmucks forgot… Biting lightly on the smoldering butt to hold it steady, he reached into his trench coat while continuing to cradle his forehead…and emitted a guttural laugh a moment later as he produced his battered handgun. He marveled at it for a moment, shaking his head slowly in disbelief before remarking loud enough for his confined companion to hear: "These buffoons didn’t even take my piece. The hell kind of soldiers don’t disarm their captives?"

"The kind of soldiers who probably do not wish to be soldiers," Amdusias replied mildly. "These…familiar and yet alien creatures do not strike me as particularly…and forgive me for this…aggressive." Graceful immediately pursed his lips, causing a cascade of ash to spill over his chest. "I can feel your scowl from through these walls," the demon grumbled. "But I beg you to listen. Let us consider the manner in which we appeared before them. If they are, in fact, currently at war, and if we did, in fact, startle them enough that they believed we were either enemy spies or simply an unexpected threat…it is not so difficult to imagine that frayed nerves and radicalized expectations encouraged a violent reaction."

"Sure, I don’t blame ‘em for trying to get the drop on us on the roof," the pony countered, tapping the barrel of his pistol against the bedframe idly. "That was a heated moment. But why the hell they try to perforate you when you wandered inside to ask for help, eh? Unless you came in doin’ your fire-breathin’ act, full of brimstone and fancy-fury, I find it rather discourteous of ‘em to make a run at shooting up my demon."

"I am not your demon," Amdusias responded snippily before sighing. Graceful heard the tell-tale sound of the reptile’s long, two-tipped tail rapping quietly against the wall – a sure sign that the demonic entity was about to present a thought that likely wouldn’t fit the equine’s mindset. "I do not believe it was the initial intent of that flaxen-haired fellow to discharge his weapon. I am fairly certain the larger of the three shouted something to extricate the murderous instinct of his compatriot."

"That boy ain’t no ‘fellow’," grumbled the equine. "But I suppose considering how Tubby was acting up top, I could believe he coaxed the dandy into taking a shot. He’s got a mouth on him."

"And you are a renowned judge of mouths," Amdusias deadpanned, earning a low chuckle from his equine companion. "Perhaps you can put your own to good use and secure our safe passage from these confines."

Graceful barked out a laugh despite himself. "I don’t know if you mean some sweet-talkin’, or sweet-lickin’, but I suppose I’ll give ‘em both a try if I can’t just shoot my way out…wouldn’t be the first time for either…"

 

"Now which one of you knuckleheads let me drive straight into a mine field?!"

The three Reds shared an awkward glance before Donut cleared his throat and tilted his head slightly. "I put out a sign!"

This earned the pink-armored chupadore a firm squint from the veteran soldier prior to him turning around and only then noticing the wooden panel lodged into the grill of his overturned vehicle. Donut looked over his shoulder curiously to see Grif rolling his eyes and Simmons showing simply a pained expression. It was quite the introduction to his new CO – the sergeant of Timae’s least valuable Red outpost, aptly known to everyone simply as ‘Sarge’.

The grizzled soldier yanked Donut’s sign free from the front of his damaged vehicle, clutching it in both hands as he leaned forward to examine it. Sure enough, the absurdly neat penmanship spelled out "Mine Field, KEEP OUT!", complete with little hearts over the i’s. "Hrm…so you did," Sarge muttered, turning toward the younger males and then gesturing expressively to the sign. "Private! This isn’t regulation font! No wonder I couldn’t read it!"

"Or maybe you need to get your eyes checked for some regulation glasses," Grif quipped, promptly wincing as Sarge chucked the broken sign at his head.

"Can it, Grif!" the sergeant growled. He was cut off before he could continue, however, when Simmons quickly stepped forward with both hands held up.

"Uh, sir! Sorry to interrupt, but uh…I think we have something bigger on our hands than Grif being an ass…"

"Simmons! You know there’s nothin’ on Omega’s big round ring bigger than Grif’s ass!" Sarge retorted.

The orange chupa scowled but otherwise seemed unimpressed by the insult. Simmons, on the other hand, completely ignored it as he jabbed a finger repeatedly at his damaged chest-plate. "Sir! Two…aliens showed up!"

"Aliens? Son, I been all around this planet and I killed just about everything at least once, and I can tell you without a doubt there ain’t no durned aliens on this world! Else I woulda shot one by now!"

"I think that’s the point of aliens," Grif remarked dryly. "They aren’t from this world. And you know I make it a point to never agree with Simmons, but...for once, he’s not just being a weird nerd. There’s two guys in the brig, which means I think we’ve earned a week off, sir."

Sarge’s eyes widened slightly, giving Grif’s usual sarcastic tone the usual lack of response. "Hot dog, did you miserable rookies finally catch us a coupla Blues?! And you were savin’ the interrogation for me?"

"Not…exactly, sir," Simmons replied slowly before pointing at his dented armor once more. "I don’t…think they’re with the Blues, but one of them did shoot me! Like…six times!"

Sarge bent forward to examine Simmons’s damaged armor, bellowing out a hearty guffaw. "Simmons, I really didn’t think ya had it in ya! But look at this, your first real battle damage! You’re a man, now, son! I think I might actually be proud of you!"

 

 Riffraff’s eyes widened from behind the boulder, reaching back blindly with one arm to grab one of the wolves’ tails. Lone barely managed to muffle his surprised squawk and glared over his shoulder, but the horse was still staring at the four alien creatures as he whispered frantically: "Did you hear that? They have them! That has to be them, Graceful always shoots first…and it sounds as if they’re still alive, too!"

"Yeah, yeah, we heard it too," Lone grumbled, yanking his tail out of Riffraff’s grip before peering past the rock to watch the slender red chupadore flailing his arms while shouting about ‘huge demons’ and ‘stolen tea’. "Thing is, I don’t exactly think we’d get a warm welcome if we came tromping out right now…the dude who just got blown up by a land mine seems like he might be a little…violent."

"All of you are a little violent," Riffraff mumbled, fidgeting a bit. "Please…we need to do something…"

"Yeah, we do!" Mahihko exclaimed cheerfully. "And I got just the plan, baby!" He grinned broadly as the other two gave him a doubtful look. "We just need…" He paused and slipped close to Lone, making the larger wolf shift awkwardly and flush a bit…before his embarrassment turned to grouchiness when he realized the slender male’s hand was buried in his hip pouch. "This!"

"Stop going through my stuff, you thief," Lone replied in a sullen tone before blinking as he noticed Mahihko was holding a cylindrical object in his hand. "Hey, is that a…no wait, I don’t carry grenades. How did…that…"

"Sweetie, if I had to carry all my own shit, I’d never be able to wear these fantastic outfits," the feminine lupine reasoned before winking confidently. "Thank you for unwillingly hauling my luggage, sugarlips. Now! Time to put those big, sexy muscles to good use!"

Lone rolled his eyes but held out his hand grudgingly…only to look more than a little hurt when Mahihko shoved the grenade into Riffraff’s palm. "That’s…wow. Rude," the toned wolf uttered.

"Sorry, darling! You’re a beautiful specimen, but ah…" Mahihko cleared his throat before making finger-guns at his scowling companion. "Ya just ain’t strong enough!"

Riffraff looked at the cylinder in his hand uncomfortably. "Remember when I talked about not being a gangster? Yes, I believe a grenade is even worse than a shotgun."

"Eh, calm your tits, it’s a smoke grenade! We ain’t gonna kill anyone, at least not now," the smaller wolf explained before peeking over the top of the boulder once more. "No time to argue! These boys look like they’re about to head inside, and if you’re truly scared ‘bout your buddies, it’s now or never, my friend!"

Riffraff exhaled slowly, frowning immensely and staring at the cylindrical device again and then looking toward the four soldiers, concern etching across his features. "And Lone, you still have a super-important job," Mahihko added smoothly, flashing a bright smile at his still-grumpy partner. "We need YOU to go shoot your gun, like…over there somewhere," he paused to gesture vaguely at the edge of the box canyon. "You know, somewhere over there. Once the grenade goes off! So!" He clapped his hands together and glanced between the two taller males. "Our big friend Riffraff throws the grenade, doesn’t suck, gets it close to the furry lizard people things, Lone runs as fast as his manly legs can carry him ONCE it goes poof, distracts them with a couple bang-bangs, and then I make the introductions. Got it? Yes? Yes?"

Lone tried to protest almost immediately, but Mahihko simply reached over and yanked the pin out of the smoke grenade, holding it up with a toothy grin. "Hope so!"

"Oh dear," Riffraff stammered, eyes widening slowly as he stared first at the unnaturally upbeat thief, then at the much-less-composed explorer; Lone’s expression about matched the horse’s, both their faces blank with shock.

"I’d probably go ahead and give that little puppy a real nice throw in about…oh…right about now," Mahihko announced kindly as he tossed the pin over his shoulder with a solemn nod.

"Gods be damned," the horse groaned, gripping the small device tightly and focusing on the soldiers for a moment. He felt a familiar spark race through his massive frame and he closed his eyes. Lone caught this, but hardly had time to do more than give a horrified face as the equine blindly hurled the grenade over the boulder. He didn’t even look!

 

"Well color me unbamboozled!" Sarge exclaimed. "Simmons here took one for the team! And--"

"It was actually six, sir," the crimson chupadore mumbled.

"Six inches, maybe," Grif interjected with a smirk.

"Shut it, Grif! And then our new recruit discharged his weapon at the intruders! All while the resident jerkoff sat around with his thumb up his ass!" The older soldier barked out a laugh. "You didn’t even have the decency to get shot in the face!"

"And I’d be happy to help anyone else discharge their weapon if they need a hand, too!" Donut chimed in excitedly.

"Now that’s the spirit!" Sarge replied with a clenched fist and broad grin, while Grif and Simmons made matching faces of disgust. "Grif! Since you’re still the failure of the group, get this mess cleaned up! We’re gonna go interrogate us an alien!"

Grif opened his muzzle to offer some witty rejoinder, but was stunned into silence when a metal object dropped squarely onto his forehead. His retort became a yelp of shock and slight pain and all three of his cohorts turned to him in confusion as the cylinder bounced off of his face.

"Oh shi-"

A dull pop made all four soldiers flinch automatically before the grenade rapidly expelled a thick cloud of off-white smoke even before it hit the ground. "Smoke, it’s just a smoke grenade!" Simmons yelled to no one in particular as the chupadores moved closer together instinctively.

 

Lone almost missed his cue, having been so distracted by the weirdly perfect placement of the grenade by the tall horse. It took a firm shove from Mahihko to send him stumbling out from behind the boulder the moment the non-lethal device began to spew its payload, and he nearly tripped before turning it into a sloppy sprint toward a cluster of straggly trees at the edge of the basin. He unholstered his handgun with a grimace, not liking how far he was from the pitiful cover but knowing he had to cause the distraction sooner rather than later. He glanced back toward the boulder in time to see Mahihko scrambling over the top and flinging himself forward in an exaggerated leap. Lone cursed under his breath but immediately yanked the pistol’s trigger three times, sending the rounds screaming several feet above the growing plume of thick smoke and hoping the startling reports would cover his partner’s acrobatics.

Mahihko landed smoothly but still tucked his slender frame into a quick somersault before sprinting toward the strange creatures as he heard their confused voices clamoring over one another. Lone’s distraction worked better than he intended – the definitive sound of a shotgun burst out of the blinding haze, scattering motes of smoke wildly for a moment before they quickly collapsed back onto themselves. The shot went considerably wide, but the larger wolf still winced and dove for the cover of the vegetation ahead of him.

"It’s gotta be those dirty Blues!" the older male’s voice proclaimed from within the cloud of smoke. "They never fight fair! Take this, you grubby bastards!"

Mahihko’s ears caught the unmistakable sound of a pump-action cycling and he swiftly leapt to the side a moment before another roar sent a load of buckshot flying out of the smoke and into empty air. This guy’s somethin’ else!

"Holy shit, Sarge, you’re gonna shoot one of us!" one of them shouted between coughing fits.

"Only if you do a better job getting in my way!"

The feminine wolf smiled amusedly despite himself, quickly pulling up the tied-together sleeves of his sweater to cover his nose and muzzle before producing a slim pair of goggles seemingly from nowhere and slipping them over his eyes. He was able to spot one figure near the edge of the cloud, waving his arms wildly and almost clear of the smoke and it was just enough of a glimpse to let him dart past, barely avoiding contact with a flailing arm. He crouched low and glanced around to spot the shadow of a soldier with both arms extended, the vague silhouette of a handgun swinging back and forth in the thick swirls of smoke. There’s one.

Mahihko ducked under a sweep of the soldier’s arms, then quickly shifted to the side and held up a hand to delicately catch the barrel of the gun as it swung back toward him. "Simmons! Is that you?!? Should I shoot?!"

"For fuck’s sake, no!" choked out the voice Mahihko assumed belonged to Simmons and he took the moment of confusion to deftly wrap his fingers around the end of the handgun and firmly jerk it upward. It came free of the pink-armored soldier’s grip with little resistance and the wolf quickly tossed it to his other hand as he slid toward the owner of the shotgun.

"Hey! That’s my gun, give it back!" cried the soldier before he broke into a coughing fit. Mahihko ignored the jumble of confused responses from the other soldiers, instead focusing on the eldest of the four as he shoved the stolen handgun into the front of his waistband. The smoke was slowly beginning to dissipate and so he decided to do what came naturally and simply reached around to firmly grab one of the sergeant’s buttocks.

"Sweet mother of a swamp-thing! Grif, stop trying to steal my cookies! How’s about a face-full of buckshot to go with that fistful of my ass!?" As the shape of the older male shifted around furiously, Mahihko saw the long barrel of the shotgun whip through the smoke just in front of him. And there’s two. Suspecting a much tighter grip from this veteran, the agile lupine snapped a leg up in a rapid kick to the blinded soldier’s wrist, resulting in a surprised grunt from his target. He immediately reached up with both hands to grasp the shotgun by the middle, twisting it toward him while yanking backward at the same time and being rewarded with a horrified yell from the gun’s owner. "My baby!"

Mahihko quickly backpedaled, reaching up with one hand to remove the goggles as he backed out of the disorienting cloud. He let the simple eyewear drop down onto one arm to hang loosely as he shook his muzzle free of the turtleneck’s protective shroud. The shotgun was exceptionally heavy, but he just managed to heft it up with his dominant hand as the other plucked the stolen handgun out of his waistband, leveling it at an incidental angle as he waited patiently for the smoke to settle.

"Okay, what the actual fuck is going on?" the orange-furred creature shouted, managing to stumble free of the disappearing plume before any of his compatriots. "What kind of stupid…uh…oh shit…" His voice trailed off when he noticed Donut’s magnum pointed at his head, staring stupidly at the beaming lupine.

"Grif, I swear on your soon-to-be-dug grave, if you have your grubby fingers on my…HOT SNAKES IN A COOKIE JAR, it’s a GOT-DAMN WEREWOLF!"

Mahihko laughed despite himself but gamely kept the shotgun aimed toward the older male, continuing to wait calmly for the other two alien creatures to wave the last of the smoke away. The blond-haired one noticed him first, letting out a high-pitched shriek and immediately clinging to his companion, who was shocked enough that he gave his own undignified yell even as he tried to wrestle his arm free from the other male’s tight grip. The wolf grinned broadly at this, half-waving the handgun in a cheerful gesture. "Well, hi there!"

 

Grif lifted his hands automatically, even as he remarked with no small amount of annoyance: "Holy shit, there really are more of you."

"Grif, I knew it! You traitorous bastard!" Sarge yelled, taking a step not toward the alien creature holding his weapon, but toward the orange-hued chupadore. "How could you? Oh, I always knew you’d disappoint me more than ever before, but workin’ with goldarn SPIES for the BLUES?"

The petite wolf cleared his throat, gesturing with the shotgun a few times in Sarge’s direction. "Yeah, hey, look – we’re just talking, ‘kay? No need to get nasty. I think we’ve got enough of a grasp of the situation ‘round here, so uh…" He paused and whistled loudly over his shoulder before turning back to the four chupas with a winning smile. "We aren’t Blues. In fact, we aren’t even from around here."

Sarge screwed up his muzzle, leaning forward slightly with a suspicious squint. "You squirrelies?"

"I don’t…believe so?" the lupine replied slowly, looking somewhat confused for the first time. "Never been accused of that, at least?"

As he spoke, another wolf wandered toward them from a tiny grove of trees, as an even-larger figure poked his head around the boulder that sat in the middle of the canyon.

"What in tarnation is going on?!" Sarge barked, looking between the trio with a deep frown. "Simmons! You tryin’ to tell me these are aliens?!? Don’t look like no damn aliens I seen on the TV before, these boys look soft!" He eyed the smallest of the three once again, locking onto his shotgun and grumbling, "Don’t think a little fuzzy thing like you can handle a real man’s weapon, now that I get a good look atcha."

"Hey now, old timer! I might be a svelte li’l side-piece, but physics is physics – you’ll still get a real nasty diagnosis of shotgun-to-the-face even if it breaks my arm afterward," reasoned the confident lupine. "But seriously! We ain’t here to start some shit."

"Then why don’t you put the guns down?" Simmons suggested nervously, rubbing a hand self-consciously across his perforated chest-plate. "I would really like to not be shot again."

The lithe wolf chortled, giving an amused shake of his head as he looked over his shoulder at the approaching horse. "You hear that, Riffraff? Sounds like your little pony boyfriend already had himself a party without us."

"If by ‘party’, you mean ‘shooting at anything that moves’, then no, I’m not at all shocked to hear that," the muscular equine mumbled, his expression almost sheepish as if embarrassed for the behavior of his tiny, angry companion.

"Oooooh, that’s a much bigger horse," Donut noted with a particular lilt in his tone that made Simmons yank his arm away violently, the black-maned chupa hurriedly stepping away from his enamored compatriot. "I like these aliens!"

The smallest of the three strange creatures grinned broadly again as he sized up the chupadore in the pink armor before he waved the large magnum toward the soldiers. "Oh, I know what will help calm all these tits!" he proclaimed while Simmons quickly ducked behind Grif, his eyes locked warily onto the pistol. "Introductions! Everyone likes introductions."

"Nobody likes introductions, you weird spaz," Grif retorted, even as he grimaced and leaned slightly away when the lupine peered directly at him, very purposefully aiming the stolen handgun at the paunchy soldier’s groin. "Please don’t shoot me in the junk, tiny space dog," he added awkwardly, lifting his hands for the second time that day.

"A dog? A dog?" The slender male huffed dramatically and struck a pose, holding the magnum to his chest and swinging the shotgun wide. "I am a wolf, you adorable furry mandarin. And my name is Mahihko." He tilted his muzzle toward the enormous horse, the multiple piercings along his jaw gleaming with his words: "This big boy is Riffraff, and he’s not with us. Well I mean, he is, but he’s not from the same place we are. We just got lucky as hell to be gifted with such an Adonis, am I right? I mean LOOK at him! And this…" He tapped the taller, more-muscular lupine with the tip of the enormous weapon, making him flinch backward with a horrible expression. "Is Lone. He’s my pack-mule."

"I am not just a pack-mule!" Lone seethed, shoving the shotgun away from himself and stepping forward with a scowl, crossing his arms moodily. "Also, you guys look exactly like the other guys, other than your colors. What the hell is this war about, fuckin’…racism or some shit?"

"Just…just like…JUST LIKE THE BLUES?" Sarge sputtered, stomping forward to thrust a fist toward the white-furred lupine. Mahihko lazily pointed the shotgun at the angry chupadore again, raising one eyebrow slightly when the older male snorted and jabbed a finger at him instead. "We ain’t nothin’ like those dirty Blues! And this ain’t the first time I had a gun trained on me, son! And I doubt it’ll be the last! So if you ain’t gonna pull that trigger, gimme back my weapon and let me show you how it’s done!"

"Oh, I like this one, he’s feisty!" Mahihko commented brightly. "Sure, you can have your gun back! Ya gotta promise not to shoot us, though. Also, we gave you our names, so it’s only polite that –"

Riffraff stepped forward hesitantly, cutting off the feminine wolf with a mix of sheepishness and urgency. "Uh…excuse me? Is…is Graceful Melody okay? He’s um…he’s the…little…"

"The little asshole that tried to kill me?" Simmons provided, frowning immensely. "Why is it that all the shortest of you…alien-things is the most violent?"

"Hey, I haven’t shot anyone yet!" the slender lupine complained. "Don’t you get all heightist on top of being racist, lumping all us little bastards together."

Simmons gave a pained look, his eyes continuing to trace toward the two guns in Mahihko’s grip. "Uh huh. Sure." He made a face but then glanced back to the towering equine, seeming to note the genuine concern on his features. "Yeah, uh…yeah, that…scary pony guy and his giant lizard-thing are locked up in the cells."

"Simmons! I thought you were loyal! Now you gone and given up our greatest bargaining chips to these space-critters!" Sarge bemoaned, shaking both fists toward the wiry burgundy-colored chupadore. "Now we got nothin’ to stop them from probin’ us, gat-dammit!"

"Oooh, when do we get to do the probing?!?" Donut asked, hopping from paw to paw eagerly as he clasped his hands together. "I’ll go first, Sarge!"

Sarge pumped a fist into the air with a laugh. "Now that’s what I call dedication! Take notes, Grif! I don’t even know this new private’s name, and he’s already offering to gather intelligence so we know what to expect from the enemy!"

"I’m one-hundred percent sure that’s not what Donut meant," Grif muttered, finally letting his hands drop to his sides.

"We’re…we’re really not here to do that," Lone began awkwardly, before being rapidly shushed by his smaller companion.

"Hey, hey, hey, you don’t know that, maybe we are!" Mahihko nodded several times before winking at Donut. "We’re open to suggestions." He then turned toward Sarge, glancing over him for a moment. "So! You guys totally failed your part of the introductions, but luckily, I’m a great detective, so I can guess you’re Sarge, the fluffy one is Grif, the scared one is Simmons and the cute, pink one is Donut?"

"It’s lightish-red!" Donut protested, though he still wiggled his clawed fingers at the white-and-black wolf with a titter. "But thank you! I love your piercings!"

Mahihko flashed his teeth in a broad grin. "Honey, you play your cards right and you can see the rest of ‘em! But! Onto business!" Without further thought, the lithe lupine tossed the shotgun into the air, grabbing it by the barrel and then offering the butt of the weapon to the veteran chupadore, meeting his steely gaze calmly.

Lone’s eyes widened and he stumbled forward to stop the smaller wolf, only to be halted when Mahihko idly pointed the magnum at him with a playful smile, even as he continued to speak to the soldiers: "We’d really like to get our friends out. And we’d like to do it without anyone else getting shot."

"Please don’t point that at me, you don’t even know how their guns work," Lone mumbled as he crossed his arms disconsolately. "You’ll lose all your street cred if you accidentally shoot me in the face."

"Not to mention you won’t have a face anymore," Mahihko added helpfully. "Which would be creepy."

Sarge only hesitated for a moment before yanking his shotgun out of the wolf’s grip and immediately cycling the pump to clear the chamber and load a fresh round. He leveled it at the short-statured male, squinting and looking almost like he was hoping for a reason – any reason – to pull the trigger. Mahihko turned toward him but remained calm, eyeing the grey-maned soldier coolly. The chupadore narrowed his eyes further, letting out a low, slow growl as he slipped a finger into the trigger ring and steadied his stance. The entire group found themselves freezing in awkward silence, sharing slow, uncomfortable glances.

Letting out a frustrated snarl, the stocky soldier finally hauled the shotgun upward and swung the barrel away from the small creature’s head. "Got…damn…little…smaggersmogging…how am I supposed to shoot you when ya ain’t even gonna point yer gun at me?" he complained, gnashing his teeth together. "It’s like aiming at a goldarn child! A puppy-child! Why are you so tiny! It’s just unfair!"

Everyone breathed out a collective wheeze of relief as Mahihko chuckled and shrugged amusedly. "Don’t judge a book by its cover, cap’n. I compensate where it counts." With that, he spun the magnum around in his hand, gripping it by the enlarged, square barrel and holding it out to Donut. "Worth keepin’ that in mind," he added easily as the light-red chupadore giggled and took back his firearm with both hands.

"What a lovely little gentleman!" the effeminate chupa gushed, clutching the pistol to his chest and making both Simmons and Grif shuffle back to avoid having the barrel point at them yet again. "We could use more manners like yours around here!"

"Don’t get too excited, he’s a nasty little bitch when he wants to be," Lone grumbled, his body relaxing at last. He stepped forward to join his smaller companion and then jerked his head toward Riffraff when the towering equine nervously approached. "Since it seems like we’re not all gonna shoot each other at the moment, can we please go see his friends before he explodes and kills us all?"

"Great flaming wombats! You aliens are explosive, too?!" Sarge exclaimed, staring at Riffraff and receiving an equally shocked expression. "Grif, you idiot! You’re gonna get our base blown up! We gotta get those bastards outta there!"

With that, the veteran soldier spun around and jogged toward the base as his fellow chupadores looked at each other for a moment. "The hell did I do?" Grif grumbled before rolling his eyes as his compatriots followed the sergeant. He turned toward them, then paused and sighed, glancing over his shoulder at the three alien creatures. "Well, c’mon. Faster you get your stupid friends out, faster I can go back to avoiding work…"




Hit Me with Your Best Shot

 

Graceful lifted his head with a deep frown when the sound of hurried steps reached his ears. In the cell adjacent, Amdusias remained on his back, still vaguely attempting to recompose himself even as he tilted his head toward the entrance of the dim holding space. "One to ten, how are you?" the pony growled softly, just loud enough for the demon to make out his words.

"I hate that question," Amdusias remarked before adding honestly: "No more than a three, according to your infernal system of estimation. If there is to be a fight, it will not be won on my account."

"It rarely is," Graceful muttered, though concern still tinged his voice. He leaned forward, hunched on the edge of the cot with his eyes trained on the front of his cell. "Hopefully won’t be a fight. But I ain’t plannin’ to die in this goddamned bunker, I’ll tell you that much."

"I would prefer to avoid planning death altogether," the reptile noted, closing his eyes a moment later as a new face barged into the brig.

"Oh, sweet roasted riddlegwok, they ain’t exploded yet!" exclaimed the blood-red chupadore, taking a moment to wipe a wrist across his brow – the motion looked somewhat ridiculous considering the massive shotgun he still clutched in the hand that crossed his features. "Grif, looks like you get to avoid the noose one more day, you lazy varmint!"

"Wow, I’m just so glad to hear it," a sarcastic voice floated down the hallway in response.

Graceful Melody studied the newcomer for a moment as the two named Donut and Simmons filtered in afterward. His immediate assumption was that this soldier was the leader of the small base – his scars told the tales of a battle-worn veteran, and his eyes held more steel than the other three red-armored creatures combined. If things go south, he’s the one I gotta ice first…

The slender pony tightened his grip around the automatic in his coat as the oldest soldier approached his cell, shotgun once more held comfortably in both hands. Graceful’s piercing silver eyes locked with the stocky male’s own dark red irises and the two studied one another wordlessly, neither one offering so much as a flinch as the tension bubbled quietly between them.

The alien’s unwavering gaze brought a new sense of alertness to Sarge, his features hardening as he stared down at the silent equine. Although the blue-hided male looked even smaller in stature than the wolf they’d met outside, something about this particular creature made the veteran wary. There was almost a sense of unspoken kinship – the kind shared between two soldiers that wasn’t quite a distant bond as much as it was a mutual air of caution.

"You got a real cold stare, partner," Sarge remarked as he idly took a step back and shifted the barrel of the shotgun a few inches toward the front of the cell. "You the one that took shots at my boys?"

"Only reason ‘your boys’ still breathin’ is that fancy armor they’re cowerin’ in," Graceful muttered in response. "They ain’t worth the lead I slung at ‘em, and they sure as hell don’t belong on a battlefield."

Sarge narrowed his eyes and squared his shoulders, making Simmons shift uncomfortably – the grey-maned soldier was a hardass, but he rarely saw the sergeant take such a serious stance, especially for such a long time. By now he would have normally flung a quip or two, or at the very least spouted some odd colloquialism. "Well, I mean, he isn’t entirely wrong," Simmons began to interject, only for Sarge to snort disdainfully.

"Yeah, but that ain’t nobody’s job to say ‘cept mine!" the grizzled chupadore insisted, turning slightly toward Simmons. The motion was just enough for Graceful to contemplate a preemptive strike as he pushed himself to his hooves and started to draw his handgun in one fluid motion.

The movement caught Sarge’s eye and he immediately shifted back toward the cell, his oversized weapon swinging toward the slender pony as he let his instincts take control. With a shell already chambered, all he had to do was slip a finger into the trigger ring and aim the barrel a few more inches closer to the advancing male, the telltale flash of gunmetal from inside the alien’s long coat confirming Sarge’s gut feeling.

"Graceful, you’re okay!"

The periwinkle equine stopped in mid-draw, blinking a few times as Riffraff stumbled into the room and rushed toward his cell. His features relaxed despite his best efforts and he dropped his gun-wielding hand a moment later with a sigh to let the large pistol hang by his side. The two wolves were a few steps behind, followed finally by the orange-hued chupadore who sauntered in and almost immediately leaned against the doorway.

"Now what bumble-headed idjit thought it was a good idea NOT to disarm the angry little alien?" Sarge demanded, glaring between Simmons and Grif. "Ya ain’t supposed to let prisoners have weapons! How are we supposed to interrogate ‘em if they shoot themselves?!?"

Considering the relatively calm state of the other "aliens", Graceful Melody assumed that some sort of passable introduction had been made and – for the moment – no one was trying to shoot anyone else. He cagily holstered his handgun under his coat and approached the front of his cell to examine Riffraff. "Looks like you ain’t been shot yet," he commented mildly before glancing past the enormous equine. "Guessin’ those two slickers didn’t make it any easier, though."

"Hey, it’s my favorite knee-high private eye!" Mahihko exclaimed cheerfully with a grin, throwing his arms up.

"Yeah, you’re welcome for keeping the giant baby alive, by the way," Lone grumbled, earning a scowl from the tall equine. "Also, don’t piss him off again, ‘Hiko. He’s only like four inches shorter than you, and you’re basically a midget, yourself."

"That’s what makes it so fantastic," the feminine wolf reasoned before tilting his head. "Where’s that huge walking sex-pot demon-guy butler of yours?"

"I am no one’s butler," Amdusias’s voice seethed from the adjacent cell, drawing everyone’s attention away from Graceful for the moment. Sarge squinted at first, only noticing a shadowy figure sprawled across the cot at the back of the dimly-lit cell, and he leaned forward slightly as Amdusias opened one eye to appraise him silently. Sarge started at the sight of the glowing amber slit…only to stumble back a moment later when the enormous reptile slowly shifted to sit up on the edge of the relatively-tiny mattress.

"Great stampeding garfrogs, is that a got-damn dragon?!?" the sergeant cried out, nearly dropping his shotgun in shock. "You jack-holes didn’t tell me you had a damn mythical beast in my base!"

"I think that is what you mortals refer to as some form of profiling," Amdusias complained tiredly, rubbing at his spike-covered muzzle with a long sigh. "Why does everyone seem to jump to this conclusion? Every dragon I have ever met has wings and I have none, this should be the first clue and yet here we are again, misattributing and making biased assumptions."

"Oh shut yer trap, Dusey," Graceful replied from the other cell, sounding almost as exasperated. "Besides, you used to have wings."

"Yes, my glorious wings that were severed and burnt to piles of ash because of you," the demon mumbled bad-naturedly before eyeing the still-shell-shocked chupadore at the entrance to his cell. "I am no dragon, mortal creature. I am a fallen angel, although I surmise that may not do much to alleviate your shock. Also, since I know Graceful Melody will make precisely no effort to say this: we seek no harm against you and your soldiers. What has happened up to this moment has been the result of surprises, misunderstandings and, yes, brash, idiotic behavior." He glared at the wall with this last line, apparently hoping to shame Graceful Melody in some way. "Although I suppose it is also fair to note that both parties have had their share of asinine decisions," he added with an accusatory scowl in Grif’s direction. "However, there has been no irreversible harm, thus no irreversible foul."

"No foul?" Simmons shot back in frustration. "Your little jerk of a partner shot me! Multiple times!"

"You slung your lead at me first," Graceful’s voice growled from his cell. "Self-defense."

"Yeah, well…you didn’t have to keep shooting me after the first one," Simmons sulked, his tone wilting into defeat.

"Simmons, you know better than to ever let an enemy talk you down!" Sarge chided even as he kept a cautious eye on the enormous reptile. "Now then, to prove you’re the better man, get that little alien out of his cell so you two can finish what you started!"

The dark-red chupadore widened his eyes and took a step backward. "Oh, um…well, maybe we should, uh…wait and make sure that these two aren’t –"

Grif rushed forward like the scheduled food drop had just landed outside, a toothy grin spreading across his muzzle as he pushed past the two wolves and their tall equine companion. "Great idea, Sarge! We definitely gotta help Simmons become a real man!" Donut perked curiously at this as he nimbly moved aside for the orange soldier to barrel past, while Simmons made a horrible face and half-attempted to block Grif’s path.

"You hate all of Sarge’s ideas!" Simmons protested, half-heartedly snatching the back of his compatriot’s chest armor.

"Grif, is that true?!" the veteran soldier barked, finally stepping away from Amdusias’s cell.

"No, no, never, sir!" Grif replied through a smirk as he approached the cell and glanced at the glowering pony within. "Your ideas are fantastic! We should totally let these two fight. It would only be fair to prove the Red Army’s superiority, right?"

Sarge squinted disbelievingly for a moment, but gave a vigorous nod a moment later. "I hate to agree with Grif, so I won’t! How about this instead: Simmons and the alien have a good ol’ fashioned fist-fight to prove the Red Army’s superiority!"

Grif opened his maw to reply, but then simply shrugged and flashed a grin toward Simmons. "Well there ya have it, buddy."

Lone and Mahihko glanced at one another awkwardly. "I guess this is better than more shooting?" Lone commented slowly.

"You say that now," Riffraff mumbled as he looked pointedly at Graceful, who had approached the front of the cell while casually removing the clip from his handgun and unloading the chambered round.

Sarge laughed raucously and stomped over to Simmons to snatch the battle rifle holstered on the soldier’s back. "You make me real proud, Simmons! You’ll be a real inspiration to the new recruit, too! Now get that chest armor off!"

"Oh, yes, this is my favorite lesson!" Donut chimed in, dancing eagerly from paw to paw. "Can we all get our armor off?"

Simmons cleared his throat uncomfortably, clutching at the neck of his armor with both hands. "Sarge, what if he just shoots me?"

As if in response, the powder-blue equine in the cell tossed his emptied pistol to the ground, along with the clip. The oldest soldier almost looked surprised, but he chuckled approvingly and nodded once. "See there, Simmons. Now make me proud, son!"

"Maybe…maybe we should see if the alien-pony agrees, too?" Simmons stammered, doing his damndest to stall as his claws fidgeted with the clasps, glancing around the room anxiously only to have his eyes settle upon Graceful Melody.

The short-statured equine stood squarely at the front of his cell, his periwinkle irises locked onto Simmons. Without a word, Graceful dropped one shoulder and shifted slightly so that his tattered trench coat slipped free from his gaunt frame. He stepped up to the metal bars as the coat puddled down behind him, leaving his bare chest open for the world to see. Simmons stared stupidly at the numerous scars marking the pony’s torso, realizing far too late that he should have let sleeping dogs lie. As Graceful rolled his head slowly on his shoulders, the soldier noticed black text tattooed across the pony’s collarbone and when he silently read the phrase spelled out in disjointed block letters, the color drained from his face: Behold, a pale horse.

"Oh shit…" Simmons mumbled, eyes widening in disbelief.

"I’d say the scary alien-pony agrees," Grif commented, although his own voice cracked with nervousness as his claw hovered above the control panel for the cell.

Lone and Mahihko grimaced slightly while Riffraff only sighed and rubbed slowly at his muzzle, mumbling past his fingers: "Told you…"

 "Fuck, fuck, fuck," Simmons muttered nervously as he undid the straps for the damaged torso armor, trying his best to not glance fearfully at the stock-still pony staring him down. Okay, just remember the basic training…low center of gravity…legs squared…defenses up…okay, wait and what does Sarge always say…

"Let me out, Tubby," the pony growled as he flexed his fingers at his sides. "Time to get this show on the move."

Grif seemed unable to offer any retort, looking more than a little intimidated as he cleared his throat and then slammed a fist into the panel to disable the protective energy field. "Good, uh…good luck, Simmons," he intoned delicately before hurriedly stepping back from the opening to the cell.

Graceful glowered at the immobile metal bars for a moment and then strode through the intended gap, making a beeline for the wide-eyed chupadore. Behind him, both Grif and Sarge blinked a few times as they tried to make sense of what they realized was a pair of wings furled tightly against the equine’s shoulder blades. "Don’t worry, son, ain’t no way you can lose a fight against a little boy with wings!" Sarge called out, apparently intending to come across as encouraging but doing little to alleviate his soldier’s nervousness.

As Graceful Melody approached, Simmons slowly set down the armor, breathing anxiously through his nostrils as he rubbed awkwardly at the snug black undershirt covering his crimson hide. "So…so how do we, uh…"

"Get your fists up so I don’t feel like I’m punchin’ a pansy," the pony grunted, glaring up at the aloof chupadore defiantly.

"There’s your first problem, Simmons already is a pansy," Grif commented mildly.

"I don’t see you fighting the short alien," Simmons mumbled, raising his fists gamely and looking down at Graceful uneasily. The steely gaze of the slight equine made the hair at the back of Simmons’s neck stand on edge, despite the fact that he had at least a foot and a half over him.

"Go, Simmons, go, I believe in you!" Donut cheered from behind them, even as his eyes were drawn to Graceful’s exposed chest with a mix of excitement and concern.

Graceful Melody bared his teeth, taking a rapid step forward and immediately eliciting a fearful hop back from his opponent. "Think the orange bastard was right," he muttered darkly as he wrinkled his muzzle in disgust.

"Simmons, this is no time to retreat!" Sarge complained, pumping a fist in the air. "Red Army’s honor on the line, son!"

"You know what?" Graceful spat out, throwing his toned arms wide as Simmons flinched automatically. "Hit me, you sad sack! C’mon, free hit, right here!" he snapped as he jabbed a thumb toward his face. "Maybe it’ll get you in a goddamn mood to rumble!"

Simmons blinked a few times, swallowing and glancing around sheepishly. "Uh…really?"

"Take it, friend," Riffraff suggested even as he shook his head slowly. "Go for his jaw, it’s a little weak still. And use everything you got…"

Graceful’s eyes narrowed even as a grin parted his lips. "You goddamn bastard…knew there was a reason I kept your beautiful ass around…" He tilted his head slightly to give Riffraff an amused smile, his periwinkle eyes losing their hard edge for a split second.

Simmons decided there was no better moment than the present and he wound his right arm back, twisting his torso with the exaggerated movement before shoving his entire body into a sloppy haymaker aimed at the small creature’s muzzle. He shouted incoherently with the force of the blow and grit his teeth in the innate fear of immediate retribution as Graceful’s eyes shifted back to him just before his closed fist smashed into the pony’s cheek.

The entire room fell into a hush for a moment, all eyes on Graceful Melody as the powder-blue equine stumbled backward with a grunt. He managed to keep his balance despite the almost-surprising arrival of the punch, fixing his hooves firmly onto the concrete floor and coming to a halt outside of Amdusias’s cell.

Sarge was the first to break the silence with a loud whoop, leaning forward with an excited grin. "That’s right, Simmons! Good use of my patented ambush technique!"

Amdusias was still perched on the edge of the cot when he and Graceful locked eyes through the cell bars, the gaunt pony slowly running a tongue over his lips as he gave his senses a moment to recover. "Please restrain yourself," the demon grumbled. "I wish to be free of this mortal cage sometime this century."

Graceful Melody narrowed his eyes somewhat but smirked amusedly, nodding curtly before he straightened his body and faced Simmons once again. "Not bad, buttercup," he commented, tasting blood inside his cheek and flashing a toothy grin as he cracked his neck, then stomped toward the speechless chupadore.

"What is he made out of?" Lone inquired, his tone only half-playful as he watched Simmons look desperately around for some form of support other than Sarge’s excited shouts.

"Rage, trust issues and an unfortunate libido," Riffraff answered in a mumble.

Simmons winced as Graceful stormed up to him, quickly raising his arms defensively. But the pony’s own limbs were still dropped at his sides even as he planted his hooves less than a foot away from the soldier’s own clawed paws. The chupadore shifted uncomfortably, doing his best to match the intense glare of the short creature before him with little success. He didn’t know if the equine was testing him, or challenging him, and in the heat of the moment, Simmons decided to drop his guard and sling another overpowered punch at the defenseless pony.

There was no satisfying smack of fist against hide this time, however – at least not the way Simmons intended. Halfway through his wild haymaker, Graceful Melody bent his knees to easily avoid the wide blow while slinging a rapid thrust with his left arm into the soldier’s solar plexus. The slender alien’s punch carried enough force to make the crimson chupadore gasp for air, his taller frame doubling over automatically…which unfortunately brought his face directly into the path of a vicious uppercut dealt from the pony’s right fist.

The resulting crack jarred Simmons’s entire skull and he saw just a flash of Grif’s wince over Graceful Melody’s shoulder before he collapsed forward in a boneless heap. Graceful had only a moment to look content before the heavier body of the unconscious soldier toppled across his slight frame and knocked them both to the ground. He had little choice but to yell angrily, flailing beneath Simmons’s half-armored form while attempting to shove the chupadore off.

"Well…so much for Red Army’s glory," Grif remarked, crossing his arms but looking somewhat more relaxed now that the short bout had come to its apparent conclusion.

"What are you yammerin’ about, Grif? Simmons here did great!" Sarge exclaimed as he booted the lanky chupadore a few times in the arm while Grace continued cursing loudly in his struggle to extricate himself. "He went up against impossible odds and went out swingin’! It’s the goldarn best thing a proud Red can hope for! He even managed to take out his enemy in the end!"

"Impossible odds?" Grif scoffed. "That thing’s not even five feet tall, I wouldn’t say impossible odds."

"You and me can go next, fatso, minute I’m back on my hooves," Graceful snarled before grunting a thanks to Riffraff, who had finally been the first to step up and carefully lift Simmons’s limp frame high enough for the light-blue pony to squirm free.

"Whoa, whoa, just a joke," the orange soldier apologized hurriedly as he scooted quickly around to seek refuge behind Donut and the two bemused lupines. "I think we’ve all had enough fighting for one day."

The pink-armored chupadore stepped forward anxiously, tapping his fingers together while looking down at Simmons. "Sarge, oh gosh, Simmons isn’t really…dead is he? He never got a chance to respond to my tea party invite…which I know he was really excited about!"

"This lunkhead ain’t dead," Graceful grumbled as he stood up, brushing idly at his battered trousers and then glancing at Sarge. The grey-maned chupadore tightened his grip around the shotgun but left his off-hand hang free as he met the pony’s cool gaze. "Now, let my goddamn demon out." Graceful Melody squared his jaw while clenching a fist slowly at his side. "Unless you wanna go a couple rounds, too, gramps…"

"Jesus Christ, you are a hot mess," Lone observed, stepping forward to help Riffraff as the muscular horse awkwardly hefted up Simmons and half-clutched him to his side. The wolf nodded once when he was sure the equine had the passed-out soldier secured, then strolled up to place a hand on Graceful’s narrow shoulder. It was almost immediately knocked off with an annoyed slap, but the white-furred lupine smiled slightly all the same. "Stop trying to pick fights with everyone. Let’s get the big guy out before we go punching everything that moves."

Graceful Melody snorted, still staring down the tensed chupadore veteran but finally nodding briskly and turning around to stalk back to his open cell to snatch his coat from the ground. Lone grunted in approval, then turned back to Sarge. The older male’s body slowly relaxed again as he regarded the taller of the two wolves. "So you the leader of these aliens, son?"

Lone laughed despite himself, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly and looking over his shoulder at Mahihko before clearing his throat loudly. "We uh…don’t really have a leader. That…other short guy will punch me if I try to claim otherwise. And well…" He shrugged slightly. "We also aren’t actually…you know, WITH the two horse-guys and their demon. Oh and speaking of which, can we…get him out now?" He leaned forward somewhat, continuing in a loud whisper: "I really don’t like to antagonize Graceful, from what I’ve seen of him in the short time we’ve known each other, it’s…best to avoid his bad side."

Sarge barked out his own laugh even as the aforementioned pony’s voice drifted out from his cell behind them, accompanied with the telltale sound of a clip being inserted into a gun. "I heard that, you grave-robbing asshole…"

"Listen, son, I ain’t about to be intimidated by no one, especially no hard-edged gunslinger who tried puttin’ holes in my men," the sergeant warned. His eyes narrowed somewhat when Graceful emerged from the cell, watching suspiciously as the pale equine slowly holstered the large handgun once more into his coat holster. "But…you aliens ain’t tried to kill us again, and I got me a lazy orange blob your dragon can eat if it gets hungry…" He turned toward Amdusias’s cell and poked a claw into the control panel.

"My gods, how long will I have to endure this mislabeling?" the demon complained as the blue energy field fizzled out of existence. He didn’t rise up from the cot, however, fidgeting a bit and glowering at the curious faces all staring in at him through the metal bars. "Have you no shame?" he spat out bitterly before groaning and gesturing impatiently at the unimpressed pony leaning against the corner of the concrete wall dividing the two cells. "Graceful Melody, come hither. I require…assistance."

The slender equine rolled his eyes with a loud sigh, elbowing past Lone and Sarge to stomp into the dark cell. He fixed the demon with a scowl while searching his pockets for any remaining smokes. "The hell is wrong with you now?" he muttered before jamming a bent cigarette into his muzzle and flicking the dented lighter a few times to produce a small flame.

"It is my clothing," Amdusias hissed, his features taut with concern. "Holes have been torn in certain areas that will make it very difficult to maintain my identity as a non-supernatural entity!"

"Oh my fucking gods, Dusey, you must be pullin’ my leg," Graceful growled, taking a long drag before exhaling a plume of smoke directly over the demon’s features. "We’re on a goddamn alien planet. You’re already somethin’ these simpletons ain’t seen before, the fuck you care if they see you without these rags? We ain’t tryin’ to convince normal folks that you’re just a big fuckin’ dragon in a suit anymore – your glamour ain’t been workin’ since we jumped, anyway…"

"You…you mean…they have all…"

"Seen your horns and all that jazz? Yeah. Yeah they have." Graceful shook his head slowly and then gestured idly at the tattered suit with his smoldering cigarette. "Just get rid of that shit for now. Ain’t like you keep your bits visible for the world to see, anyhow…" He sniffed disdainfully and glanced over his own disheveled outfit. "You and me could both use a wardrobe change. Besides, you can conjure yourself a new get-up when you got your strength back, yeah?"

Amdusias sighed heavily but nodded once, looking miserable as he slowly stood up. His towering frame barely fit despite the ten-foot ceiling and all eyes were once more on him as Graceful ambled back out of the cell ahead of him. "Goddamn pansy," he muttered as he tapped a bit of ash out against the entrance way. "Wasn’t wearin’ no clothes for the first twenty years of my life, but now he’s gonna be sensitive…"

Riffraff was the only one who seemed less than intrigued as he carefully hefted Simmons over one shoulder and waited patiently for the rest of them to stop staring at the massive reptile. The demon muttered something under his breath before his eyes flashed and a moment later, his entire body was surrounded by an intense amber fire.

"Holy mother of Omega, he IS explosive!" Sarge yelled, instinctively spinning away as Grif and Donut both squealed and ducked behind the others.

But the blinding swirls of flame disappeared almost as fast as they’d ignited, leaving only a shower of ash around the gigantic creature. His striking form was now bare for all to see, revealing a patchwork of alternating silver and gold squares of scale covering his chest while rippling musculature rested beneath the tight hide, putting even the overly-masculine form of Riffraff to shame. The demon’s abdomen might as well have been carved from marble, a seemingly endless cascade of tight muscle guiding the eye almost naturally down to his hips and then below…a groin devoid of any discernable sexual characteristics – as smooth and androgynous as a hulking male demon could appear, at least.

Donut peeked past Mahihko as Amdusias ducked through the entrance to the cell, where the somewhat-better lighting caught his lustrous scales and neatly accentuated his powerful frame. The lithe chupadore gasped and leaned forward, his open jaw nearly hitting the top of the small lupine’s head. "Ohmigoooosh," he breathed out excitedly, his long tail whipping to and fro a few times in unbridled excitement. "He’s…he’s…"

"Pretty damn good at making me feel like the second string prom date," Mahihko supplied easily, though his teasing smile betrayed his words. He could barely restrain his own hungry stare, after all – demon or not, seeing Amdusias without his three-piece suit for the first time was…invigorating.

"Oh, would you all close your goddamn mouths and put your dicks back in your pants," Graceful uttered after a few seconds. "Don’t give him too much credit, that’s just how his goddamn supernatural body looks. Ain’t no hard work behind all those pretty muscles you fruitcakes are eyeballin’…"

"Yes, the little one is correct," Amdusias replied daintily as he crossed his enormous arms and attempted to look stoic despite the fact that all eyes remained locked onto his exposed form. "Vanity is a terrible sin. And as perfect as my physical appearance may be, it hardly defines who I am."

"Yeah, but…it probably should," Grif retorted, making a face and shuddering a bit. "Seriously, why couldn’t you be a giant chick. Why is it that we finally get a chance to see some alien tits, and they all belong to dudes. It’s fucked up."

"Life ain’t fair, Grif," Sarge rumbled in response, eyeing Amdusias’s enormous frame apprehensively one more time before focusing his glare on the orange-hued chupadore. "Otherwise the tiny alien woulda shot you instead of Simmons. In the face. Ridding me of your useless carcass once and for all!"

"That can still be arranged," Graceful replied mildly, shoving past the demon and sauntering up to Riffraff. Despite the muscular horse being the second tallest in the room – by far – he still shrank back slightly when the diminutive pony approached. "Fuckin’ hell, I’m…I’m glad to see you," he added gruffly, looking uncomfortable for a moment and then giving a sharp nod to the two wolves as Riffraff blushed despite himself and smiled quietly.

Mahihko shrugged easily. "Hey, we couldn’t just leave his gorgeous booty drifting in…uh. Whatever that was. Transdimensional…goop." He tossed a broad grin between Riffraff and Amdusias. "Plus, now we get two lovely distractions. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!"

"Speak for yourself," his companion grumbled while glancing at the towering reptile for a moment. "Also, that wasn’t…transdimensional anything. I think it was a complex rift in space-time. Made passable by the crystals. That would make sense considering the last piece of the scroll…"

"You sound like Simmons, which makes you a nerd," Grif commented, even as he poked his unconscious compatriot where he was slung gently over Riffraff’s shoulder. "I would have thought I’d get a break from nerd-talk after the angry little pony knocked him the fuck out."

Lone rolled his eyes but refused to rise to the bait, instead scowling at Amdusias. "You realize if you stand around naked, ‘Hiko won’t be able to focus on a damn thing, right? How long ‘til you get your magic back?"

"Oooh, I want to see the big strong dragon do a magic trick!" Donut sang out, dancing from paw to paw as the demon made a horrible face. "I’ll be your lovely assistant! I’m really great at making stuff disappear!"

Mahihko grinned enormously, starting to reply with something that was likely far more intentionally inappropriate, but Amdusias cut him off with a dramatic groan. "Magic? Magic?!? It is as if your only purpose while in my proximity is to test my waning patience with your insolent insults and irritating irreverence!"

The taller wolf sighed and barely resisted rolling his eyes again as he rubbed slowly at the bridge of his muzzle. "My apologies, your highness. I know it isn’t ‘magic’, I’m just trying to avoid a bunch of convoluted bullshit so we can get to the point." He paused and pursed his lips grouchily. "I don’t even know what the point is anymore…I guess it would be good to start figuring out what we do next?"

"Maybe we could take your uh…friend, here," Riffraff ventured, lightly lifting Simmons’s limp form with his broad shoulder, "to a bed or something? Unless you want me to put him on one of these cots in here…?"

"I think Simmons would appreciate that, he loves showing Sarge how tough he is," Grif replied quickly, gesturing toward one of the empty cells.

Sarge looked like he was going to consider the offer despite the chubby soldier’s barely-restrained amusement, but Mahihko stepped forward swiftly with a half-smile. "Hey, how ‘bout we take him up to his room instead? That way we can make sure he’s ready to jump into action if any…er…’Blues’…attack, eh?"

"Those dirty Blues!" Sarge blurted, clearly losing his previous train of thought. "Y’know, for a goldarn alien, you might be alright! Good thinkin’, let’s get him upstairs and see if we can find some spare armor to strap on ‘im, and maybe tape a gun to his arm so he’ll have it if he wakes up in the middle of a fire-fight!" The veteran’s eyes flashed as he rubbed his chin musingly, a slow grin spreading across his features.

"Great job, space-dog, now he’s gonna want guns taped to everyone’s arms," Grif grumbled.

"I know the way, I’d love to show the giant horse guy the bedrooms!" Donut gushed, prancing through the group to lead them all to the stairwell. "C’mon, let’s go!"

 Riffraff nodded gratefully and followed the energetic soldier out with a glance behind him to see that Graceful Melody followed. He seemed extremely reluctant to have the stone-faced pony leave his line of sight any time soon…not that anyone else really looked like they would complain about someone who could somewhat restrain the furious little spitfire.

Sarge quickly fell into step behind the two equines, visibly still distrustful of Graceful even as his body reflected a bit more ease, even with the shotgun still clutched in his arms. Behind him, Amdusias attempted to stalk after the eldest soldier, but Mahihko twirled into his path with a toothy grin, neatly falling against the doorway to lean against it, one arm propping up his head as the other hand rested on his cocked hip. "So. You come here often?"

"I have never been here before. Neither have you. Nor have any of us in our miserable band of misfits," the demon replied irritably before attempting to shimmy his enormous frame past the enraptured lupine, who of course gracefully flopped across to the other side of the doorframe with a dreamy sigh. "I do not like you."

"Join the club," Lone grumbled before glancing at the remaining chupadore, whose expression reflected boredom more than anything else at the moment. "I can’t tell who’s more normal between you and your unconscious friend."

Grif snorted, idly watching as Amdusias continued unsuccessfully to try and bypass Mahihko without actually having to touch the unnaturally flexible wolf. "Me, obviously. You ain’t normal if you spend as much time as Simmons does trying to bury his face in Sarge’s ass."

Lone smiled despite himself, tilting his head a bit. "He didn’t seem like that much of a suck-up."

"Just give’im time," the orange soldier reassured before glancing over the taller wolf for a moment. "You aren’t gonna shoot me, right? This armor smells like shit and I really don’t wanna wear it anymore."

"Something tells me you’d end up taking it off either way, regardless of my answer," Lone remarked with a half-smile. "Nah, I think we’re done with all that. I’ve had guns drawn on me from two different armies already today. That’s two more armies than I usually prefer dealing with. You know…ever."

 In front of them, Amdusias had finally resigned to physically lifting Mahihko aside and racing past as the flamboyant wolf cackled and chased after him. "Okay, you win. You’re definitely the most normal of all these goddamn weird-ass alien-thingies," Grif muttered as he struggled to remove the armor from his upper torso while trundling toward the stairs. "Come on, you can distract everyone so I can grab some snacks and go find a nap spot."

"I hate to say it, but considering some of the shit I’ve heard your buddies say…those sound like admirable life goals right about now," Lone replied, earning a lazy shrug as he followed the soldier upstairs.

 

"How many snacks should we bring?"

"Shut up, Caboose, the adults are planning this." A pause before Tucker’s voice drifted up to the roof once more. "Church, how many snacks should we bring?"

Church rubbed his hands slowly over his face, half-wishing he’d tried to leave the base that morning, before his companions were awake. It would have been quieter, at least… He sighed and leaned forward against his bent leg, the other swinging idly over the edge of the concrete platform. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful for the apparent dedication of his teammates…but all the same, it was difficult enough to imagine tracking down Tex and then confronting Tex by himself, let alone having those two there... "Hard enough just confronting breakfast with those two," he mumbled.

The light-blue chupadore winced when a sudden crackle of energy erupted at his side, a deep frown settling on his features. "Oh, come on…" He slowly shoved himself up to his paws with a groan of exertion, idly leaning on his sniper rifle to support himself as he glanced moodily at the shaky portal slowly expanding a few feet away. "Guys, seriously. You’ve already showed us this trick…"

"Sir, I can barely make our your transmission. A portal has opened, though, and I can see some kind of creature through it. It appears to be armed."

Church frowned at the voice – it was unlike any of the trio that had emerged from the earlier gateway. There was a hard edge to it, speaking to a honed discipline that immediately made the chupadore think of the more militant members of the Blue Army. Something about it made his skin crawl and as he warily slipped his finger into the trigger guard of his rifle, listening as a second voice could barely be made out. It was overrun with static, and nearly every other word was lost:

"Permission…use deadly force…if…"

Church’s eyes widened and he took a step back a moment before a figure clad in black became visible at the mouth of the off-green tunnel. The being had smooth skin and no visible muzzle – the flatness of its face immediately made the chupadore blink in confusion. "Sir, did not copy," the stranger muttered into a headset as it slid a hand toward a thigh holster. "Sir? No sign of the targets, but I do have an armed creature and I did not hear your previous instruction."

The radio only issued a burst of static in return, and the grimace that washed over the strange being’s face made Church’s fur stand on end. "Oh, fuck this, nope!" he growled, limping back one step as he slung the sniper rifle up to his shoulder. "Not this time!"

The stranger cursed and swiftly drew a pistol from the holster, but Church pulled his trigger first…and for once, the enormous slug from his weapon made contact. A choked yelp slipped out of the creature’s mouth a moment after the specialized round smashed into its shoulder, the impact exerting enough force to completely sever the alien’s arm. Its face screwed up in a mixture of confusion, pain and fury as it stumbled backward on flat-soled combat boots with no visible tail to help it maintain balance; Church stared stupidly as, despite all that, the smooth-skinned creature still made a vague attempt to draw its pistol with its remaining arm. The chupadore scowled darkly in response and shoved his elongated weapon forward, reaching just far enough for the smoking tip to poke firmly against the intruder’s armored vest.

The eyes of the odd alien widened in horrified denial as it teetered backward, its one arm windmilling almost comically as it shouted a single word: "Fuck!"

"What the shit was tha—oh, shit!" Tucker’s strained yell floated up from the ground as the alien toppled over the edge of the roof, accompanied by the distinct sound of scurrying that he could only assume was Tucker scrambling out of the creature’s path. Church winced at the dull smack of flesh colliding with hard clay before nearly tripping over the severed arm when he approached the lip of the rooftop to peer down. "Holy shit, dude, his neck is broke as fuck!" the turquoise soldier shouted with a glare up to his compatriot before looking back at the strange creature. "The fuck did you…oh FUCKBERRIES, WHERE’S HIS ARM?!?"

"I shot it off," Church grumbled, still clutching his oversized firearm with both hands and eyeing the extreme angle of the neck of the lifeless body below, fairly certain it was considerably dead. The otherworldly portal had vanished into nothing, at least, granting the tall chupadore a moment of relief as he sighed quietly.

"Bullshit," Tucker retorted, lightly kicking at the limp creature before shooting a skeptical glance up to the other soldier. "You couldn’t shoot a new hole in your own ass if you sat on your gun. I bet you ate his arm, you fat werewolf arm-eating bitch."

Church rolled his eyes and then stepped back to hook his foot under the alien’s bloody limb. "Fuck you, Tucker. And your lines suck. Let me give you a hand." He flicked his leg out and flung the arm in a lazy arc, rewarded a second or two later by the lithe chupadore screeching in disgust.

"You fucking asshole, that’s gross, dude! That’s fuckin’ gross!"

The voice of their third companion echoed out from the entrance of the base. "Wow, Tucker, did you join the army? Because it looks like you are extra army today."

"Shut up, Caboose."

Church glanced over the edge once more to see Tucker wiping a splotch of crimson from his armor with a scowl, while Caboose approached and then prodded the severed arm a few times with a small twig. "So yeah, that just happened," Church intoned moodily. "Another goddamn green hole, except instead of the weird animals, that guy came out." He paused and then made a face. "Maybe we should postpone our trip," he muttered. "This is a lot of weird shit to happen in one day."

"Man, fuck all that noise," Tucker protested loudly, giving the dead creature another swift kick to the side. "This shit means we should leave even faster, if you ask me!"

Church grunted, not exactly agreeing but not entirely sure his fellow soldier was wrong, either. He scrubbed at his face for a moment in frustration. "Look…I don’t know what the fuck those other guys did by coming here, but we should at least leave them a note or…something. I dunno, I just don’t want to have this bite me in the ass."

"Not like you don’t have plenty of ass to spare," Tucker fired back before rolling his eyes and sighing loudly, throwing his arms up in resignation. "But whatever, fine. For a bloodthirsty, teammate-killing asshole, you sure are a pussy. Let’s go leave a sticky note on this fucker’s face or whatever. Maybe then your lady-parts will feel at peace or some shit. But I still say we leave before it gets dark. And let’s not forget, thanks to Caboose’s big mouth, those furry guys know about our plans. What if they tell the Reds? They might try to come run us down tonight…"

Church rolled his eyes but nodded once with a grimace. Something told him that their already-ludicrous idea of leaving the base in search of answers wasn’t going to be as straightforward as he’d hoped. Not that I really thought it would be, anyway. He frowned and turned to leave the roof and rejoin the other two. But this shit is just getting ridiculous…




The Stranger

 

"Does anyone want any of my special cream for their tea?" Donut beamed and held up a porcelain pitcher adorned with painted flowers.

Grif wrinkled his muzzle and rolled his eyes even as Mahihko held up his mug with a cheerful grin and one dainty finger extended. "I don’t think anyone besides him even wants the tea to begin with," the orange male groused.

"So…you weird critters are from two different worlds? You ain’t even the same kinda alien?" Sarge inquired, his features twisted in disbelief.

"Three, technically, if you include Amdusias," Riffraff replied helpfully. He shook his head briefly to Donut when the lithe chupadore skipped up to him after splashing a dollop into Mahihko’s tea.

"As you well should," the demon added, pursing his lips from where he stood in the corner of the common room, arms crossed over his massive chest while his long tail coiled self-consciously around his clawed feet. "One should never disregard the presence of such a powerful and wise creature."

Graceful Melody muttered something under his breath, still leaning back on the well-worn couch as one hand slowly massaged the new bruise on his cheek. "Still think you picked up a couple notes of Pride on your trip down below," the pony observed mildly.

Grif leaned away slightly from the other end of the couch, as he had been doing each time the short-statured equine spoke. He apparently wasn’t scared enough, however, to give up the comfort of his favorite piece of furniture. "So he was an angel…but now he’s a demon? That’s seriously a thing?"

The periwinkle stallion grunted quietly, his tone softening just a bit. "Sure as hell is. He was an angel when he found me, just a damn baby with two dead parents. He raised me with the help of a demon. Two of them were better family than I woulda had otherwise."

"Oh, is that why you turned into a demon, too? You started banging his adopted mom?" Grif jeered with a snicker.

"You are a dislikeable person," Amdusias remarked past his scowl.

Graceful snorted amusedly, however, shaking his head slowly. "Ain’t that easy, Tubs. And besides, the demon’s a fella, too."

"Two dads! That sounds like a perfect family!" Donut chimed in, glancing up from his admiring inspection of Mahihko’s pierced ears.

Amdusias sighed but Graceful gave a rare, small smile. "Wasn’t so bad, I suppose. He and Burning did a bang-up job raising me. Anyway…" He shrugged a bit. "Dusey lost his wings when a couple of stuck-up angel assholes decided to make it their business to decide an angel and a demon had no right to work together for the sake of a single goddamned mortal. They hunted him down, chopped off his wings and he got sent down to Hell."

The reptile shifted uncomfortably but could only nod a few times to confirm the pony’s story. Grif lifted an eyebrow, the others in the room glancing toward the enormous creature curiously. Graceful broke the silence by continuing ruefully: "So yeah, he was gone for a few years, came back just in time to save my hide from a shitty, yellow-bellied traitor of a partner, we been workin’ together ever since. That’s the long’n short of it, anyhow."

"So the whole ‘fallen angel’ trope is based on reality?" Lone asked, tilting his head somewhat. "Here I thought when we first met that you were just being prissy about being called a demon."

"I am never prissy," the tall lizard huffed even as he glanced down at the claws of one hand before brushing them idly against his taut chest. "I simply happen to care that I do not carry myself like some slovenly creature of refuse."

"I think he just called you a trash goblin," Mahihko remarked to Lone before leaning toward Donut. "Hey, do you guys have piercings? Is that a thing around here?"

Lone attempted to retort, but was promptly cut off by the feminine soldier at Mahihko’s side. "Oh yeah!" the light-red chupadore gushed, reaching immediately for the lower half of his armor. "Let me show you!"

"Private! We are still in a combat-ready situation!" Sarge barked, glaring across the table. "Armor stays on until the alert level is at Code Orange! Because that’s the least-threatening of all colors!"

"But Grif has his armor off," Donut complained, gesturing at his codpiece several times as Mahihko propped his head on his chin and simply watched with a predatory grin.

The oldest chupadore scoffed. "Yeah, but he’s Grif! If he gets shot, it’s one less Grif around here that I gotta deal with!"

Grif shrugged idly, lacing his fingers behind his head and propping his paws onto the coffee table before him. "Sarge does make a point."

Riffraff was sitting awkwardly in an armchair across from the sofa, looking between Sarge and Grif hesitantly. "And I thought Grace treated me bad," he mumbled, rubbing one of his well-muscled arms slowly.

"Well, if their relationship is anything like ours, then they should be going off to pound each other raw within half an hour," Graceful retorted bluntly, immediately earning a horrified glare from the chupadore on the couch as Grif leaned even further away from him.

"Dude, what the fuck!?" Grif blurted, his face screwed up in disgust. "No one here is pounding anyone else here raw! Ever!"

Mahihko cleared his throat loudly. "Hey, never’s a long time, man, let’s not make any promises just to have ‘em broken later. You just gotta believe."

"Fuck all that noise," the pudgy chupadore grumbled before digging a hand down into the cushions of the couch to produce a worn magazine, slumping further into the upholstery and ignoring the others in favor of flipping through the publication.

Sarge glowered in Grif’s direction, but was distracted by the taller of the two wolves leaning forward and tapping the table gently while clearing his throat. The grizzled chupadore shifted his attention to Lone, who offered a polite smile. "Before we get back to yelling at each other and feeling uncomfortable about the constant innuendos…could we get some facts laid out? Like, first of all…what can we call you guys? You seem to recognize most of our species, even though so far we’ve only seen…you know. You guys. Me and Mahihko are wolves, plain and simple." He gestured toward the others. "Riffraff’s a horse, Graceful’s a…well. Smaller horse. And we all know the story behind the fallen-angel-turned-demon. But I don’t think we’ve seen anything like you guys on either of our worlds."

The veteran soldier looked confused at first, frowning somewhat and leaning forward as well. "Son, we’re chupadores. And we are here on this damn ring to spill the guts of our enemies and bring glory to our army in the name of Omega!"

"Chupadore, huh? That’s a helluva name," Mahihko replied curiously, reclining in his chair while easily balancing it on its back legs. "Judging by the earlier conversations and the fact that the orange guy is over there reading, ah…" The feminine lupine squinted in Grif’s direction before grinning amusedly. "Does that say ‘Tits & Tails’? That is beautiful. So yeah, I’m gonna guess you have two genders, same as us." He paused and let his eyes wander over Donut with a smaller, measuring smile. "Some certainly the fairer sex, if I may say so myself." He chuckled, then tapped his nose thoughtfully. "But your whole…Red versus Blue thing, that ain’t about species or races or nothin’, is it? But you do have different races, ‘cause y’all don’t all look like ya got the same body structures…I think I need an anatomy lesson." He grinned toothily up at Donut again, who clasped his hands together around his mug and nearly spilled the tea within as he tittered excitedly.

"Nonsense!" Sarge retorted, slamming a fist into the table and making Lone jump in surprise. "You’re either born a proud Red, or a dirty Blue! And that’s that, gatdammit!"

"Not entirely true," a tired voice drifted into the room as all eyes turned to see Simmons leaning against the doorway, looking pale despite his thick maroon fur. "Did someone tape a fucking gun to my arm? It’s gonna take forever to get that shit out…"

"Simmons, you’re awake! That promotion is right around the corner for you, son!" The commanding officer laughed raucously while pounding a fist proudly into the table again.

"Thank you, sir," the tall chupadore mumbled. "And to answer your question, yes, there are different breeds of chupas. A lot of the family trees on Sirca are really diluted, though, so we usually just get assigned a primary breed when we’re old enough to have distinguishing features. And there are two main body-types among us, which account for some of the structural differences out there. For example, everyone here is a shi’a, except Sarge – he’s a fi’la. And while it is common for your natural hide color to determine which army you are assigned to, most towns also let you volunteer for one side or another if you want to."

"So good to have the resident nerd back in the room," Grif remarked without looking up from the magazine.

But Mahihko smiled gratefully as Lone nodded a few times. "Gotcha, makes sense," the smaller of the two replied.

"So what, you guys are…constantly at war here?" Lone asked, disbelief tinging his voice.

"Ain’t just any war, boy! It’s the Holy War! Only comes every coupla hundred years, and we were lucky enough to be part of it!"

"So lucky," Grif commented drolly.

"And what about you guys?" Donut queried, stepping away from Mahihko to prance over to the couch and peer between Graceful Melody and Riffraff. "I saw wings, are you angels, too? Can you take me for a ride!?"

Graceful barked out a laugh despite himself as Riffraff groaned and slapped a hand against his features. Behind them, Amdusias huffed loudly before responding irritably: "Graceful Melody is certainly no angel!"

"Yeah, seriously, ditto to that," Simmons added with a scowl, self-consciously rubbing at his jaw while very purposefully walking in a wide arc to avoid the couch.

"I, uh…I have wings, too," Riffraff interjected lamely. "I suppose that for all intents and purposes, Grace and I are pegasi. But we can’t actually fly. Our wings are mostly vestigial…we can sometimes glide short distances but…that’s about all."

"Awww…" Donut’s face fell and he pouted dejectedly before turning toward Simmons to ask brightly, "Oh, Simmons! Would you like some tea?"

"Goddammit, Donut, no, I never want tea," he replied with an exasperated sigh, dropping into an empty seat at the table. "Have you guys talked about anything important since I…laid down?"

Grif snorted mirthfully and flipped another page. "Don’t be shy, Burgundy – your ass got laid down."

The lanky soldier shot Grif a sour look, then grumbled and glanced between the five aliens. "So I take that as a no?"

"Nothing terribly important, no," Lone answered, resting his muzzle on an open palm as he propped his head up and tapped his fingers slowly on the side of his jaw. "Guess we need to figure out what you guys are planning to do and…I dunno, see what the hell we should be doing, ourselves. Think we’re gonna be stuck here for a while."

"Well, as long as you fight for the Red Army, that ain’t no problem! Like Freelancers, except we ain’t gotta pay ya!" Sarge exclaimed.

"Yeah, well…I don’t know how well that last Freelancer did, since it sounds like the Blues were all still there," Simmons grumbled, looking to the wolves with a frown. "How many guys did you see over there?"

"Three, and pretty sure that was all. We had a lovely little soiree in the mess, complete with stale snack cakes," Mahihko replied cheerfully. "I can’t imagine anyone would have wanted to miss that, so I don’t think there were any more dudes hiding, if that’s what you mean."

"Don’t know if they’ll be there long, though," Lone added, pursing his lips in thought. "Pretty sure they were talking about leaving. Or, I guess, since everyone here seems to be in some kind of army or another, they plan on going AWOL."

"I knew it!" Sarge cried out, pairing the vocalization with another hearty fist-slam into the table. "Men, this is precisely what I was afraid would happen!"

"Isn’t that what we want?" Grif grumbled behind his magazine. "Drive the Blues out of this shitty canyon?"

"Grif, you’re even stupider than usual!" the veteran soldier proclaimed. "It’s obvious, isn’t it? I told Command we couldn’t trust them no-good Freelancers! She’s probably planning to use that hideous blue monster to launch an attack on our other bases, I bet they’re rallying with her as we speak! We have no choice but to chase those confangled cobalt bastards, catch ‘em by the tails and --"

"Wait, wait, wait…okay, I just remembered," Mahihko interrupted, holding up both hands. "Y’all keep talkin’ about a Freelancer, and you keep mentioning that she was a she, so uh…I’m gonna guess I have some real bad news for you fellas." He cleared his throat and leaned forward a bit. "Pretty sure your gun-for-hire is dead. Via frag grenade, if I recall correctly. The cute turquoise one was real upset about the only lady for miles around getting exploded."

Simmons frowned immensely at this. "Wait, seriously? I mean, even if Sarge is right about not trusting Freelancers, they’re still usually well-trained and way better than your average soldier. And those three idiots over there are goddamn worse at being soldiers than we are. How the hell would they manage to kill her and yet haven’t done jack-shit to us except for when the fucking werewolf guy went crazy?"

"Maybe the fucking werewolf guy went crazy again – that Church asshole might be a shitty-ass shot when he’s normal, but you saw what happened when he was all…wild and shit," Grif spat out, finally lowering his magazine and unconsciously rubbing at two thin pink scars below his eye. "That lady mighta been scary, but I doubt even she would have known what the fuck to do about that."

"That’s…ugh, a good point, Grif," Simmons admitted, earning a horrified glare from his sergeant. "Sorry, sir, I hate to say it, but…that actually could explain it."

"He really is a terrible shot," Lone remarked as he smiled despite himself. "Truth be told, the two of us probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if that big one could actually hit anything with that giant sniper rifle."

Graceful Melody tilted his head slightly at the lupine’s particular wording and gave Riffraff a curious look, which prompted the tall equine to shrug awkwardly. "I didn’t come through the gateway with them, per se. After I got lost in the hole you and Dusey made, I…just kind of came tumbling out of theirs, after all that shooting was done with."

"It was pretty awkward and amazing," Mahihko supplied with a half-grin. "So yeah, we almost all got shot up, but luckily we were able to settle our differences, and everything turned out just peachy."

"Did you go the distance with all those boys over there? That sounds like your kind of method," Graceful grumbled.

"No, no, thank gods, he didn’t," Riffraff muttered in response.

"And thank the stars you didn’t get shot, because otherwise that lovely sweater would be all ruined!" Donut exclaimed, pointing at the turtleneck still neatly tied around the smaller wolf’s neck. "Is that knitted wool?"

Mahihko beamed and deftly undid the sleeves of the sweater before holding it up for the light-red chupadore to admire. "No, my dear, this is cashmere, and yes, you are more than welcome to try it on if you like, because I bet it would fit your svelte little frame just about perfect."

Lone scowled and rolled his eyes, dropping his cheek into his palm to look at Sarge and Simmons with a sigh. "And yet when I ask to borrow a belt that’s obviously too big for him, I just get a nasty stare. You guys see what I gotta live with?"

"That’s because the belt was black and you don’t own any black shoes," Mahihko chided, which made Lone groan and tap a finger irritably against the table.

"I don’t wear shoes! Neither do you!"

"That sounds like a you-problem," Mahihko commented as Donut held up the turtleneck at his side, gasping in delight at the feel of the fabric.

"With as often as you two bastards derail a conversation, how the hell do you ever get any treasure hunting done?" Graceful muttered. As Amdusias nodded agreeably behind him, the light-blue pony leaned forward on the couch, ignoring Grif flinching away at the other end as he instead fixed his eyes on the eldest soldier. "So if I’m followin’ all this convoluted shit correct-like, your commanding officers sent in a mercenary to aid your sorry boys with a tough nut on the other side. By the sounds of it, she ain’t accomplished anything she was paid for, but they don’t exactly seem primed to come make a move on you lot, either. Matter of fact, sounds like they’re itchin’ to leave. Why the hell would you care, then? Like the chubby one said earlier, ain’t the idea to drive the other guys out?"

"I have a name, asshole," Grif grumbled, which prompted Simmons to glower at him.

"See, it’s not so fun on the other side," the taller soldier huffed.

"Shut up, Burgundy."

"Both of you shut it!" Sarge ordered, jabbing a finger in Grif’s direction. "The little winged demon asked a stupid question, but only ‘cause he don’t know any better!" Graceful Melody glared at Sarge with enough venom that Simmons couldn’t help but shrink down in his chair, as if it would somehow protect him from the diminutive pony’s dark stare. "Listen here, boys! Even if that Freelancer is dead, those dirty, no-good Blue bastards are up to something devious! I can smell it!"

"Only thing I can smell is the pile of bullshit stackin’ up around everyone’s pie-hole," Graceful Melody growled. He rolled his head back, resting it on the back of the couch and rubbing grouchily at his temples with both hands. "Why don’t we save ourselves a caravan of trouble and mosey on over there to see how the board reads?"

"Well that sounds stupid," Grif remarked mildly, even as he automatically twitched away when the periwinkle stallion turned his head to stare daggers at him. "Look, the whole point of these bases is that if you try to just run in without a bunch of rookie meat-shields to absorb bullets, you’ll get the crap shot out of you by the assholes hiding inside."

"Sounds perfect to me!" Sarge declared enthusiastically. "You’re worth at least two meat-shields, Grif!"

"Agreed," muttered Graceful with the tiniest of smiles before he gestured idly in Riffraff’s direction. "Send the cooler, too. His lucky hide’s been shot at ten times over since I known him and he ain’t got so much as a scratch on ‘im."

"We don’t get to choose our powers, I didn’t ask for mine," Riffraff mumbled, visibly embarrassed.

Graceful rolled his eyes, shoving a cigarette into his muzzle and grumbling around it: "Don’t act like you didn’t get the goddamn pick of the litter, you whiny bastard."

"Wait a second…you telling me that not only are you two ponies…with wings…from a magical land stuck in the past…but that you have powers, too?" Simmons asked skeptically. "This sounds like a goddamn TV show."

"Oooh, do all ponies have powers?" Donut inquired, finally tearing his gaze away from Mahihko’s sweatshirt to peer at Graceful. "Do you have a power, too? Can we see it?!?"

The slender pegasus glanced up from lighting the cigarette, letting out a short, dry chuckle that evoked a death rattle more than any sort of amused sound. "Yeah, I got one too, kid." He exhaled slowly, prompting Grif to wince away once again to avoid the plume of blueish smoke. "Pray you never gotta see it."

"Speaking of things we haven’t seen…why the hell do you keep breathing in that smoke? That’s the worst incense I’ve ever smelled," observed Simmons as he wrinkled his muzzle and waved a hand in front of himself. "Do you have some kind of condition or something? Because it’s really fucking weird to inhale incense."

Graceful’s face fell, his eyes narrowing and ears flattening slightly as he leaned forward slowly. "The fuck does that mean? Don’t tell me you bastards ain’t never seen coffin nails before. Don’t you goddamn dare tell me that."

Grif and Simmons shared an awkward look, the latter clearing his throat uncomfortably. "Are you…are you gonna shoot us if we do tell you that?" Grif asked carefully. "Because I think you should keep shooting Simmons instead of me, that’s kind of been your pattern so far, which is great for me."

"Naturally. Naturally we end up on a fucking world that ain’t even invented smokes," Graceful spat out before taking a deep drag from his cigarette as his eyes gleamed furiously. "You bozos got the same kind of advanced gizmos as the two fruitcake treasure hunters, yet you ain’t got the chops to roll any goddamn cigarettes. That’s just fuckin’ dandy."

"Will he die without them?" Simmons queried, doing a poor job of masking his hopeful tone.

"No, but we might," the larger equine remarked without a hint of irony, frowning with a mix of concern and trepidation. "Grace, he, ah…he doesn’t do so good if he can’t light up…"

The periwinkle pony snorted, even as he gave a tiny smile. "Just ‘cause you know me don’t give you the right to try and be my voice, you stupid git."

Amdusias sighed loudly from behind the couch. "You are a terrible excuse for a romantic, little one. However, I can vouch for Graceful’s…minor dependence. If you strange creatures find him abrasive now, you will be absolutely thrilled to know he is infinitely more intolerable without those disgusting cylinders."

"Well that’s just fuckin’ great," Grif grumbled, sinking down further into the worn cushions and once more covering his scowl entirely with the dirty magazine.

"How about you pretty soldier boys go over to the enemy base and check things out, then? And I’ll go search for some goddamn tobacco leaves, or somethin’ close enough. I’ll even bring Amdusias." Graceful Melody sniffed dismissively, tapping the ash from his smoke into an empty bowl on the table. "You can take the poofs, too. And then everybody in this godforsaken hell-hole can be happy."

"Yes, searching for a supplemental smoking supply, that is surely the best use of my time," Amdusias replied dryly. "I am overrun with a sensation of personal validation and fulfillment."

"Can it, Amdusias, ya ain’t worth half a dead cat ‘til you get your powers back," the tiny equine retorted.

Sarge grumbled under his breath but eventually nodded in agreement. "Alright, men, I suppose the little bastard’s right. We can’t go hunting down our enemies if they ain’t made a break for it, yet! Grif, Simmons – get your gear in order! Donut, I want you to stay behind and make us some sandwiches, because I ain’t had a bite to eat since I set out this mornin’ and I’m hungrier than a snake with a broken jaw!" He paused to squint at Mahihko and Lone, who respectively sported expressions of amusement and confusion. "You two fuzzy things can come along, but no funny business! You already met some Blue bastards an’ your first instinct wasn’t to shoot ‘em, so I still don’t know how much I can trust ya!"

"Aye-aye, sir," Mahihko responded crisply, grinning cheerfully and popping up to his paws. "Wouldn’t mind getting some fresh air, anyway!"

"Great. We’ll all be friends in no time," Lone added sarcastically, sighing and rubbing slowly at his features. "Lead on, then. We’ll be an extra set of eyes for you, at least…and who knows, maybe those guys left some useful stuff behind if they really have cleared out…"

 

"For shit’s sake, Tucker, was your village too primitive to teach basic writing?" Church complained, wrinkling his muzzle at the hastily-scrawled note in his companion’s claws.

"Fuck you, dude, I was too busy gettin’ chicks’ numbers to pay attention to that nerd shit," Tucker retorted. "Besides, not like this shit is for anything important." He held up the sticky square of blue-tinted paper, upon which his sloppy handwriting spelled out:

 

Hey wierd alien fuckers – this dead guy came out of a green hole, too. Stop fucking up the world and don’t touch my stuff.

 

"You spelled ‘weird’ wrong," the larger soldier grumbled. He glanced at Caboose as the deep-blue chupadore emerged from the base with a backpack strapped to his tall frame, the bell around his neck jingling softly with each bouncy step. "Did you go to the bathroom, Caboose? I don’t want to stop five minutes after we leave…"

"Of course I went in there, I had to get my bath frog," Caboose responded matter-of-factly. "I thought you said we were going on our adventure in the morning! Why are we leaving when the sun is going down and not up?"

Church gave a tired sigh as Tucker smirked, visibly enjoying the strain caused by the childish soldier’s rambling. "No, I mean…did you…you know what, never mind. Tucker would love to show you how to take a piss in the woods, anyway."

"Whoa, not funny, dude. I will kick your ass if you try and push any of that on me," the turquoise chupa warned. "Caboose, you gotta promise to be a goddamn adult on this trip, because we sure as shit ain’t got time for babysitting."

"Babysitting is for babies, and I am no baby!" Caboose exclaimed. "Who is going to water the snack bushes while we are gone?"

"I’m sure those stupid wolf-dog-guys would be happy to," Tucker muttered. "Gay guys are supposed to be really good at gardening. Especially uphill."

Church rolled his eyes. "Real mature. And besides, it’s not like you’ve never thought of a dick at least once in your life, so don’t be a hypocrite."

"Fuck you, man! Never, not even once!" the smaller soldier immediately protested, holding both hands up. "You’re the one who’s been lookin’ at other dudes’ ruffs, not me!" He snorted and turned away, then squinted over his shoulder with one eyebrow slightly raised. "What, you…don’t think about dicks or anything, right? I mean, if anyone would between us, it would obviously be you. And I would need to know, because I’m gonna have some fuckin’ hardcore reservations on our goddamn trip if you’re gonna be trying to get in my pants."

"Fuck you too! No! Never!" Church shot back with a scowl even as he rubbed the back of his head. "Why the hell are we talking about this? Let’s go over our gear so we can get moving…sun’ll be down in a couple hours…" He grimaced while gazing toward the tree line, adding after a moment: "We need to go back to where that lady…uh…"

"Got blown the fuck up?" Tucker supplied mildly. "Why? She’s dead as shit, and her ride got totaled, too. Both from the grenade but also when you, you know, rammed it off the cliff."

The larger chupadore made a face before replying through clenched teeth: "I know that, asshole. I want my goddamn armor back, and maybe we can find some clues, too."

"That’s…well…okay, not the stupidest idea you’ve ever had," Tucker admitted.

Church had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes again, instead turning toward Caboose. "Alright…you’ve got all the rations and snacks we were able to cram in there--"

"Bow-chicka-wow-wow!"

"…and Tucker, you’ve got a couple clips of ammo and whatever camping gear you could find, right?"

The slender chupadore shrugged, peering over his shoulder. "Yeah, probably. Me ‘n Caboose both have a bedroll, too. And your fat ass has…what, again, exactly?"

"Look, there were only two packs, okay? And my rifle weighs almost as much as your packs, so…"

Tucker snorted amusedly. "So what? You blow one freaky alien’s arm off – by mistake – and suddenly you’re Captain Sniper. Whatever, man, let’s just go find this dead bitch and get out of here before more bad shit happens."

"Screw you too," Church mumbled even as he shifted the rifle awkwardly on his back. "Uh…so which way was that, again?"

"I know the way! I can smell the scary hot dog lady still!" Caboose declared before dropping down on all fours and galloping toward the trees with his tiny, brown companion scampering along at his side.

Church and Tucker looked at each other for a moment before groaning and jogging after their exuberant companion. The turquoise male adjusted the straps of his pack, falling slightly behind his heftier compatriot as he glanced over his shoulder one more time with an almost forlorn expression at the sight of their base, only to shake his head briefly a moment later and half-sprint to catch up to the others.

 

"Shouldn’t we, um…bury her?" Caboose’s voice was tinged with curiosity more than awkwardness. The dark blue chupadore seemed less distraught by the distorted body in the ravine below as much as he was simply unsure of what should be done with it.

"You like digging holes, Caboose. Have fun with that," Tucker offered, which earned a displeased frown from the other soldier.

"I do not like that game anymore. The hot dog went too far."

The two observing soldiers turned their attention back to Church when he grunted and held up a waterlogged communicator between his claws. "Tch, dead," he muttered, shaking it a few times and then tossing it over his shoulder.

"So much for that lead," Tucker commented before raising a finger to add mildly: "And can I say that this is about a seven-point-oh on the creep-o-meter?"

"That’s my lucky number," Caboose noted, mimicking the gesture by the smaller chupadore at his side.

"Shut up, Caboose," the light-blue soldier grumbled, still bent over the stiff corpse as he quickly rustled through her pockets and various side packs. His eyes narrowed somewhat when his claws traced over a logo on her outer jacket and he slowly lifted the fabric with a grimace. "Tucker, look at this."

The lithe chupa leaned over the edge of the destroyed jeep, squinting at the blue symbol dyed into the soaked cloth. "What is that?"

"Freelancer. I knew I didn’t like her for a reason."

"Also because she was punching and shooting you," Caboose added helpfully.

Tucker made a face. "You think the Reds hired her?"

Church shook his head slowly. "No, I overheard her talking on the phone. I think she was working for someone…" He paused as he slowly held up the jacket, voice trailing off for a moment. "Something else…"

The turquoise soldier frowned at the much-larger red symbol on the inside of the clothing – it looked almost like a tribal-style depiction of a strange creature. "And what’s that supposed to be?"

"Don’t know…I’ve never seen it before."

"Why’s it on the inside?"

The husky soldier wrinkled his muzzle, glaring up at his companion. "What part of ‘I don’t know’ is beyond your grasp, Tucker?"

"The knowing part," Caboose supplied.

This time it was Tucker’s turn: "Shut up, Caboose." He shot a glower in the bell-wearing chupadore’s direction before tilting his head back to Church in confusion when their de facto leader began tearing apart the jacket. "NOW what the hell are you doing?"

"Keeping this," Church muttered, shaking the patch of cloth lightly to show off the strange crimson inking. "It might be our only clue." He tucked it into a utility space in his reacquired armor and then straightened his back and glanced at the ridge of the riverbed. "Sun’s gonna be down soon. Let’s get moving, find somewhere quiet to set up camp. Hopefully we’re far enough away that we don’t attract any attention from those assholes back at the Red Base."

Tucker snorted and shifted idly out of the way as Church pulled himself up to the side of the overturned jeep with a grunt. "Those dumbasses didn’t notice when this Freelancer bitch got her shit blown up. Doubt we have to worry about that. And besides, the gay aliens are probably gonna get them all drunk and then have a gay alien orgy."

Church rolled his eyes as the three Blue soldiers clambered up to the top of the ravine, each grabbing their respective gear as Tucker automatically helped Caboose cinch his pack around his torso. "You keep bringing up the fact they’re gay – I think you’re secretly happy that someone around here finally took an interest in your scrawny ass." He smirked as the turquoise chupadore offered him a dark glare. "You can always head back if you want, I think that one wolf-thing with all the piercings would happily make you his bitch for the night."

"Fuck right off, dude! You can go eat a fat dick! Besides, if I left your werewolf ass alone with Caboose, you’d go crazy after ten minutes of trying to take care of him yourself, so you better beg my straight-as-hell ass not to leave," Tucker threatened as Caboose looked between them with widened eyes.

"Are you guys going to have a divorce? Because I do not want to be cut in half for custard."

Church slapped a hand over his features. "It’s called ‘split custody’, Caboose. And no, we’re not getting a divorce…"

"You should probably start by saying we aren’t married, retard," Tucker interrupted before shoving past the other two and scowling toward the forest. "C’mon. Let’s find a campsite before I have to kick both your stupid asses."

Caboose happily scampered forward after the slender chupadore, leaving Church behind to grumble under his breath for a moment. He shook his head slowly before wordlessly securing the massive rifle on his back and lumbering after his two compatriots. He had zero clue of what he was getting his team into, but at this point it seemed silly to turn back. And now, more than ever, he wanted answers. He felt almost guilty for getting Tucker and Caboose caught up in this sudden quest of his…but at the same time, he would have felt guiltier still leaving them behind. This stupid war feels so pointless most of the time, now more than ever…even if this is punishable by death, better than wasting our lives in that stupid canyon forever…

 

"Looks like the sun’s on its way down," Lone remarked as the group of five exited the main entrance of the base. He shaded his eyes with one hand, peering up at the sky to note the odd sight of the sinking sun despite the visible curvature of the ring-shaped world. "How the hell does that work?"

 "Oh great job, asshole, make way for the nerd-talk," Grif grumbled, holding his rifle lazily against one shoulder.

Simmons frowned at his paunchy companion but seemed eager to answer all the same. "Well, that’s actually an interesting question…see, there’s a ‘working day’, and then a ‘solar day’. Due to the fact that Sirca itself is actually a satellite of that big planet you see out there…" He paused and gestured at the red mass that took up much of the eastern sky – the wolves hadn’t really noticed before, but the distant sun was actually falling not behind the shadow of the ring-world itself, but behind the rim of the nearby planet. "…which we call ‘Nerom’, and the fact that our orbit around it isn’t lined up with the position of the sun…well, we have about 120 hours of sunlight, followed by 50 hours of darkness."

"That sounds ridiculous," Mahihko replied, tilting his head slightly. "Goddamn, have you dudes like…mastered the art of micro-comas? Because that’d be a long-ass sleep every day."

"Well, that’s why we have two ‘day’ definitions, so to speak," Simmons responded. "Even though the solar day is something around 170 hours long, we use a 28-hour cycle for our ‘working day’. The average chupadore spends about ten hours being active, followed by a sleeping period."

"Wow, sleeping twice a day? That’s gotta be…well…pretty damn relaxing, I imagine," Lone commented.

"It really should be three or four times a day, that would probably be healthiest," Grif supplied, which was met by a shaken fist from his commander.

"Your lumpy butt doesn’t need any more naps!" Sarge uttered. "If I had my way, we’d all sleep for just an hour or two every day – in shifts! – so there’s no chance of those doggone Blues sneaking up on us."

"That also sounds ridiculous," repeated the smaller lupine with an amused smile. "Where we come from, our solar cycle is twenty-four hours. The amount of sunlight and nighttime changes by season and your location on the planet…but I guess that would make sense, considering that we come from an actual spherical planet, whereas you guys live here on this…well. This ring. So I guess there would be differences ‘cause…you know…that’s just physics."

"Livin’ on a got-damn planet…now that sounds like some real hooey," Sarge grumbled as he led the group toward the middle of the canyon, his eyes narrowed cautiously. "How do you stop yourselves from flyin’ off the edges, standin’ on the outside like a buncha weirdos?"

"Well, sir, that’s actually not how centripetal force wor--" Simmons began, though he was cut off by Mahihko’s interjection.

"Magic! We use magic! Because we’re freakin’ awesome!" the feminine wolf insisted as he waved his arms wildly, flashing a toothy grin while his companion groaned and rubbed slowly at his muzzle.

Sarge squinted suspiciously, then grunted and shrugged. "Ah well, I suppose that’s why I ain’t no silly scientist; Omega put me on this beautiful ring to lead the Red Army to a glorious, bloody victory over them dirty Blue bastards, ain’t no magic or science needed to get THAT done."

Lone frowned somewhat, only half-listening to the sergeant’s rambling as the gears in his brain whirred in thought. "So…if the sun’s setting, but nighttime lasts so long…I’m guessing that doesn’t mean much in terms of whether or not you guys decide to get something done, or – assuming these Blue guys have really left – start chasing after them, right?"

"Yer darn tootin’!" Sarge exclaimed, even as he wrinkled his muzzle. "But…well, gotta say – it is about time to have a quick snooze. There’s no point gettin’ wheels on the dirt if we got tired eyes. And you can bet your sassafras those good-fer-nothin’ Blues ain’t gonna skip sleepin’, neither…those bastards might be crafty, but they ain’t got half the steel us Red boys do!"

"Naturally," Mahihko said in a reassuring voice that wasn’t altogether convincing, a small smile tugging at his lips. Their cautious trek across the box canyon had so far not sparked any response from the opposing base, which admittedly made the two wolves somewhat relieved. They were still trying to wrap their heads around the concept of a world that was defined to its very core by a recurring, decades-old holy war that pitted an entire species against one another. And while he knew it would be a terrible idea to bring it up aloud, Mahihko couldn’t help but marvel that – so far – the so-called ‘chupadores’ on either side bore plenty of resemblance to each other. With the exception of Sarge’s virulent military fanaticism, there were no real earth-shattering differences between the soldiers they’d met. Their brief time on either side had already shown that most of them seemed indifferent to the fighting as it was.

Mahihko knew enough to avoid having some wild belief that they could magically put an end to the fighting thanks to the similar spirits these creatures all shared – this was no fairy tale, after all. But all the same, it was becoming more and more clear to him that the idea of banding together against a common enemy, well…that might be possible. And for all we know, it might be necessary…

"Hey, you grimy Blue bastards!" Sarge suddenly shouted as they approached the front of the base, his shotgun hefted to a ready position. Simmons grimaced and lifted his own battle rifle in response, while Grif sighed and shifted his weight from paw to paw, half-heartedly gripping the front of his weapon to at least hold it in both hands. "You ain’t tried to fire on us yet, so either you’re hidin’ in there like some scared little rabbits, or you tucked yer low-down, cheatin’ tails between yer legs and ran off to meet up with more of yer cobalt kind!"

Only silence met the sergeant’s brash tone as he and Simmons remained tense with weapons ready, while Grif continued to look bored. The two wolves glanced at each other before Lone nodded once and cleared his throat softly. "Uh, if you guys want…I can go take a look inside. Maybe they won’t shoot if they’re still there, since…you know. They already met us and stuff. And I guess decided we weren’t Red, or whatever."

Sarge grunted, his expression wary as he looked over the taller lupine for a moment. "Suppose you may have a point, son. But I’d rather send in Grif; you might still be useful to us, after all."

The orange chupadore rolled his eyes, but was cut off by Mahihko before he could drawl a response. "Oh boy – guys, looks like a body over on this side," the slender wolf announced as he gestured toward a dark lump in the shadow of the concrete structure. "Doesn’t look like…one of you, though."

"Could be a booby trap!" Sarge called out immediately as he glared in the direction of the unmoving mass. "Grif, go check it out! Poke it with a regulation stick and see what happens."

"You can regulation stick that right up your ass," the chubby soldier grumbled under his breath, even as he nervously approached the shape. Mahihko gamely moved closer as well, his well-concealed pistol materializing in one hand. Grif shot him a cagey look, but the smaller male’s eyes remained locked onto the limp form before them.

"I ain’t gonna shoot ya," Mahihko murmured, barely loud enough for the chupadore to hear. "Just keepin’ you covered. But I’m pretty sure this guy’s dead, and I’m also pretty sure he ain’t no booby trap."

Grif’s eyes traced over the strange creature when he was close enough to examine it in more detail. Unlike the wolves, the horses or even the demon, this odd being bore almost no resemblance to any sort of known animal. The lack of a muzzle and tail alone was enough to make the confused chupadore frown immensely as a thousand unexpected questions began to drift through his mind.

"Well?!" Sarge barked from behind them, making Grif jump and snap out of his daze. "Is it one of them Blues?"

"No, it’s…something else," Grif replied slowly before the orange-hued soldier twitched backward with a disgusted scowl. "Oh, what the fuck, its arm got blown right the fuck off, it’s over there on the ground next to it!" He pointed at the severed limb with a shake of his head, taking a step back. "What the hell is going on here?"

"My guess is someone managed to follow the tail-end of our dimensional rift," Lone offered, carefully stepping past Grif to join his companion, who had dropped down to one knee to examine the body more carefully. "Is that…a Post-It note on its face?"

"Well that’s helpful," Mahihko replied amusedly, gingerly plucking the sky-blue square of paper from the strange creature’s face and holding it up for Lone to see as his own eyes traced over it quickly.

"He spelled ‘weird’ wrong," the larger wolf muttered, pursing his lips and then prodding lightly at the corpse with a paw. "Yeah, so looks like this thing came out of a tunnel like the one we came through. Looks like the Blue guys got him before he could do anything, though."

"That sounds unlikely! Considerin’ how long this useless sack of orange laziness has survived around these Blues, I highly doubt they have the chops to kill anything at all!" Sarge declared as he finally stomped over with Simmons at his side. The veteran soldier nonetheless gave a low whistle at the sight of the corpse, glancing around for a moment after noting the angle of its neck.

"Looks like it probably fell off the roof, maybe after they…you know, shot its arm off," Simmons offered with a frown. "Broke its neck coming down. But what the hell IS it? It’s…it’s another alien, but…where is its mouth? How come it doesn’t have any fur or a tail, or..."

"For once, the space-dogs do not have an answer," Mahihko interrupted, though his tone was unexpectedly low. "We been chased by all manner of cops, soldiers, mercs and plain ol’ thugs, from all corners of the globe…and a couple that weren’t even from our world. And this thing is definitely wearing armor, and that’s definitely military-grade gear. But we ain’t never seen a species like this. It’s…smooth, but not like a reptile at all." He paused and then added with a finger raised: "Honestly, it’s pretty fuckin’ ugly. I’ve slept with some questionable dudes, but woof. This thing just looks…weird."

"Oh, and is that your professional opinion?" Grif replied mildly. "What the fuck is it doing here?"

"Dunno," Mahihko replied honestly, shrugging slowly as he let his fingers deftly run along the creature’s lightweight armor, automatically checking each pouch and pocket and setting aside anything he found. "Like Lone said, this…thing either managed to hop in after us – I got no idea how long the gateway stays open, or…y’know, how it even works."

"But you’ve never seen something like this?" Simmons inquired worriedly. "How did you not see it if it followed you?"

This time Lone offered a slow shrug, bending over to pick up the pistol that didn’t look all that unfamiliar to his eyes. "Let’s be honest…we had a lot of guys on us when we used the crystals to follow Graceful and his crew. It’s possible we missed seein’ this weird…dude. I think it’s a dude. The body armor is somewhat masculine…it looks honestly pretty similar to other modern bulletproof tactical get-ups I’ve seen." He examined the handgun, finding it surprisingly akin to any number of other firearms he’d used himself. "His gun ain’t anythin’ special, either…so wherever he’s from, they got some of the same shit we do." The muscular lupine ran his thumb along the slide of the pistol before depressing a small button, which ejected the clip as he’d half-expected it to do. A quick glance at the ammunition and he was even more convinced that the origin of this strange creature and its gear was yet another dimension with remarkable similarities to their own. "Bullets aren’t all that strange, either…look like blue-tips to me."

"Armor-piercing rounds," Mahihko supplemented politely with a small smile. "Forty-fives, if my gorgeous eyes don’t deceive me."

Simmons looked torn between a looming sense of dread and a peculiar fascination. "So…so what if they didn’t follow you in? Is it possible they…made their own tear, or whatever?"

"Sure, anything’s possible," the smaller lupine reasoned, snagging the headset and attached radio device from the corpse and tucking them into a slim pouch strapped to his thigh. "I mean, they must be exploring some means of traveling between dimensions, because either they somehow got to ours – and it’s possible they followed Graceful, Riffraff and Amdusias when they first appeared in our world – or they got a temporary portal of their own open long enough to end up…well. Here."

"This gobbledegook is startin’ to hurt my head," Sarge grumbled, finally lowering his shotgun with a deep frown. "We ain’t here to look at dismembered aliens, we’re here to take down some got-dang Blues and stop ‘em from attempting a comeback against our brothers in Red!" He scowled as he glared toward the entrance of the base. "I ain’t smelled a single Blue hair since we got here, which means they really did turn tail and run!"

"Can’t we just go in there, grab the flag, and take over this stupid canyon?" Grif asked drolly. "Aren’t those the stupid rules of this dumb war?"

"Well sure you could! But there’s no dang honor in that, now, is there?" the sergeant shot back. "Get in there, make sure them Blue boys are really gone…and if they are, then we’ll get some quick shut-eye, pack up, find a trail and hunt those cowards down!"

"I got like…five percent of that," Grif drawled even as he slouched toward the entranceway. "I liked the part about sleeping, anyway," he muttered while warily wandering forward, glancing from side to side with his rifle held in front of him.

"Sir, shouldn’t I…go with him, just in case there’s still someone inside?" Simmons asked nervously.

"Nope. We’ll know someone’s there if he gets shot," the eldest soldier replied calmly before grunting and gesturing to the side of the base with his weapon. "Simmons, go check the perimeter. Look for any signs of trickery and worminess, it’s how you can always spot a Blue! And I’ll take these fuzzy boys up to the roof, see if we can spot anything there."

Simmons almost began to ask how, precisely, he was supposed to search for that, but he decided against it and instead sighed. "Yes, sir…"

Sarge grunted and nodded approvingly as he jerked his head toward the ramp to the roof. "C’mon, you two. Ain’t ready to let you strangers outta my sights yet."

Lone and Mahihko shared a quick look but nodded amicably, the larger wolf shoving his hands into his pockets and sauntering forward to take the lead. Mahihko trotted after him, fairly certain at this point that Sarge wouldn’t shoot them in the back. Not unless we do somethin’…Blue-like. He gave a small smile as he let his paws lead him to the edge of the roof, shading his eyes in the slowly fading light of the setting sun. "So, Sarge…why do you do it?"

"Why do I do what, ya dang confusing alien?" Sarge retorted, though the expression on his features showed clearly that he understood exactly what the feminine male was asking. "We were put on this Omega-given ring to fight for the honor of our army! Whoever wins the Holy War gets all the glory, boys…ain’t nothin’ a proud chupa should want more than the distinction of bein’ named Omega’s favored team!"

Lone smiled despite himself, gazing over the quiet canyon floor and examining what he could see of the surrounding forest. "For all your bluster, Sarge…I can’t imagine you’re actually that…er, don’t take this the wrong way, but…colorblind?"

The grizzled soldier snorted, glowering at the taller of the two wolves for a moment before growling softly: "Red Army’s my life, son. This is what I know. And this is what I do. You ain’t gonna come ‘round here from your fancy world tryin’ to tell us how to do things."

"We don’t intend to," Mahihko interjected gently as he idly tossed one of the bullets from the dead creature’s gun between his hands. "We ain’t here to be crusaders. Hell, we didn’t even plan on being here in the first place, this was all an accident, to say the least. But…like it or not, sir, things around here might…be taking a bit of a turn away from the way you’re used to."

Sarge stared stonily at the distant tree line, gripping his shotgun tightly but silently. The two wolves turned their gazes to him but kept quiet, giving the chupadore a moment to respond. "You boys brought a real mess with you, didn’t ya?" he finally rumbled, shifting his weight almost uncomfortably and displaying an uncharacteristic lack of confidence for a few seconds. "We in for a fight?" he asked gruffly, glancing between the lupines.

"That’s very likely," Lone admitted, somewhat surprised when Sarge grinned slowly. "What?"

"You confangled aliens might have done nothin’ but cause trouble so far…but one thing I know how to do is handle a tussle," the deep-red chupadore replied with a low chuckle. "But just so you two know…’til somethin’ else presents its ugly face for me to shoot, me and my boys are gonna keep goin’ after the Blues. You come along if you want, but you get in our way, and it don’t matter how friendly you and yours’ve been…I’m gonna go through you, and I’m gonna tell my soldiers to do the same."

"Understood," Mahihko responded softly. Lone opened his muzzle to try and make some argument, but the smaller male cut him off: "Lone, c’mon. You’re the one talkin’ about your Prime Detective nonsense. We ain’t here to change hearts and minds." He met his companion’s eyes, giving one, slow nod that conveyed enough of a message to Lone that the tall wolf finally nodded back with a grumble.

"Good," Sarge grunted before glancing over the edge of the roof when Grif emerged from the base, visibly unscathed. "Grif! I don’t see no blood, much to my disappointment…what’d you find in there?"

"The pantries were all empty," Grif replied moodily, holding up an empty cardboard box labeled for some generic type of snack cake. "There was some weird green stuff in the kitchen, it didn’t look edible."

"Are you…are you talking about vegetables?" Simmons asked incredulously. The blank look on the orange chupa’s face made Simmons groan and shake his head before he looked up at the sergeant as well. "Well, the only thing I found out here was, er…we..…it…looks like a garden plot. Except someone buried snack wrappers instead of…you know. Seeds or anything. I’m not sure what idiot was--"

Sarge’s eyes widened slightly. "Great green ghosts! It can’t be! Were these sneaky bastards trying to grow…snack bushes?! I thought that sorta rubbish was just a myth!"

Simmons barely restrained his groan as the two wolves looked between one another amusedly, Mahihko covering his muzzle to try and hide his giggling. "Sir, no…sir, I don’t…I don’t think that’s how it works--"

"Son, just think how dangerous these cerulean cowards would be if they made sustainable food? They wouldn’t need to wait for supply drops! They could fill those drops with more guns, and more bullets! Gat-dangit, Simmons, this is just the sort of thing those dirty Blues would come up with! Usin’ that unholy science to cheat their way to victory!" Sarge spun around and stormed down the ramp with the entertained wolves at his rear. "We’re gonna have to chase down those bastards more now than ever! Back to the base – no time to waste! We gotta eat and catch a quick nap so we can start trackin’ these azure animals, cut ‘em off before they can spread their tree-huggin’ secrets!"

"Wow, sir," Grif replied sarcastically, dropping the empty box carelessly and wandering after the sergeant as Simmons sighed and fell in after him. "You know, I never realized just how dangerous our enemies were now that they can grow food out of plastic wrappers."

"That’s why you’re soft, Grif!" Sarge barked over a shoulder without looking back, his eyes locked forward as he marched toward their base with determination in every step. "You always underestimate the enemy!"

"Please stop encouraging him," Simmons mumbled under his breath, receiving a smirk from his companion.

"Actually, Simmons, I think Sarge is onto something," he replied coolly. "After all, he did just give us an order to eat and sleep. I plan on doing exactly what our commanding officer says."

"Sometimes I almost envy how stupid and simple your goals in life are," the taller soldier muttered before frowning as Mahihko strolled up to his side. "Did you guys see any sign of them up there?"

"Nah, not really. My guess is they headed for the woods nearest their base, though. It’s what I woulda done, anyway," reasoned the slender lupine as he held up the smooth-skinned creature’s bullet to one eye, examining it through a squint while adding quietly: "For all his bravado, your Sarge is a solid motherfucker. He and Grif might forever be at odds, and you might forever look like the teacher’s pet…but I gotta say all the same, I think you guys are lucky to have him. He’s…maybe a little radical, but I’m startin’ to feel like that’s just how things are here. And if nothing else, he’s gonna have your backs no matter what comes your way."

Simmons grimaced uncomfortably – Mahihko’s words rang true, as awkward as it was to hear them from a strange alien creature he’d met just a few hours prior. "Yeah, I suppose. Are…you guys gonna…come with us, or…what about the horse guys?"

Mahihko gave a small smile once more. "I think at least one of us will. If we can find a good way to stay in touch, it might be best to split up for now, anyway. We don’t know how long we’re stuck here, and maybe you guys could use an extra pair of eyes, too. Promise I won’t send the scary little detective pony with you, though. Even I’m not that mean." He paused, then rubbed the back of his neck slowly with a glance over his shoulder at the still-visible form of the odd alien corpse. "Besides…might be a good idea to keep a little extra firepower around here while your little hunting party is out. If we ain’t got a destination ourselves, it’s probably better we stick close to the place we all showed up."

Simmons was sensible enough to draw on the feminine male’s hidden meaning as he scowled and flexed his claws against the battle rifle still gripped to his chest. "You’re also wanting to know if any other…weird things show up, aren’t you?" He sighed again and idly shifted his gaze toward Grif and Lone in time to see the all-white lupine snatch a magazine that had been folded into the back of the orange chupadore’s armor.

"Dude, did you steal this from their base? That Tucker guy’s gonna be so pissed, he very specifically said not to touch his stuff. And I’m one-hundred percent positive this is his, based on the small amount of time I spent around him."

"Yeah, well…he wussed out and ran away, which makes us the winners." Grif grabbed the porno mag back and shoved it once more into his waistband with a disdainful sniff. "Like they always say, to the victors goes another man’s trash. Or something like that."

Simmons muttered a few choice words under his breath before looking at Mahihko dourly. "You fuckers are really starting to make me wish we were back to the boring old routine around here…"




Follow You Down

 

"It was weird, man…the thing was like…flat-faced," Mahihko explained around dainty nibbles of his toasted sandwich, dramatically gasping in delight after each bite. "Holy shit, Donut, I thought I knew love, but this croquet monsieur is just…my gods, I just…I feel like you and I should really get together tonight so you can reeducate me!" He sighed happily as he smacked his lips together loudly, Donut all but vibrating excitedly on his right. Grif recoiled slightly on the other side of the table, which consequently made him bump into Graceful; it earned him a dark scowl that caused the soldier to shrink away in the opposite direction.

Donut gave a pleased smile even as he replied cheerfully: "I don’t know what a cro-kay monster is, but I’m glad you like my toasted meat treats!"

"Ain’t no real meat in these," Sarge grumbled even as he chomped away, grunting his approval. "But you did a fine job with the food, soldier, even with the gruel Command sends in the drops. You’re gonna go far in this army, son! We can’t beat back those dirty Blues on an empty stomach!"

Graceful Melody pushed his plate away with a mutter, fishing absently in his pockets for a cigarette, only to hesitate and then force himself to cross his arms. "Rationing cigs like some fuckin’ con," the pony growled. At his side, the demon curiously picked up the remainder of Graceful’s sandwich to sniff at it cautiously. "It ain’t half-bad, not that your supernatural hide needs it, anyhow." The equine shifted his gaze toward Mahihko thoughtfully as he frowned slightly. "Tell me more ‘bout what you all saw over there. You couldn’t ID the species of stiff?"

 "It definitely wasn’t from around here," Simmons interjected, rubbing one of his shoulders slowly. "I’ve never seen anything that was so…weird."

"And we’ve seen a fuckin’ werewolf," Grif added mildly.

Lone nodded slowly. "Yeah, like they said…never seen anything like it. No fur, no hide, no scales…me and ‘Hiko have encountered some weird-ass shit traveling the world, diggin’ up weird-ass relics protected by weird-ass things. But never come across anything that’s…well, missing so much, as strange as that sounds." He chewed up the last of his toasted sandwich before continuing: "No snout, no tail, no visible ears, even. Guess those coulda been in the helmet, didn’t check…but they’d have to be small as hell."

"You didn’t even bother to strip the damn thing?" Graceful muttered, tapping two fingers impatiently against his sleeve. "Gods above, you two ain’t fit to sling iron if you can’t even take the time to look at what the hell you slung it into."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, we didn’t shoot shit!" the slender lupine exclaimed, holding up both hands before pausing to lick at his fingers for a moment. "Fuck me, even the crumbs are good. All tips go in the chef’s basket tonight!"

"And who doesn’t love getting more tips in the basket!?" Donut declared loudly.

Sarge grunted again, ignoring the two feminine males with an almost practiced ease. "Yeah, these fellas spotted that strange alien’s body when we got over there…apparently those good-fer-nothin’ Blues shot ‘im before we could!"

Riffraff seemed confused, his head tilted slightly. "Uh…this may sound silly, but…isn’t it a good thing that you avoided the creature? If it’s the same as what we--"

"Did you see its feet?" Graceful interrupted bluntly, leaning forward to fix Sarge and the wolves with a firm gaze. "Hide can be burned off. Muzzles can be removed. But it’s pretty goddamn hard to do anything about the lower half of your leg." He breathed out slowly, glancing at Riffraff and then Amdusias. "We’ve seen them before. Lots of ways to tell, but…if you’re ever unsure, check their feet. Five toes, no claws, heels rest flat on the ground. Easy to sort ‘em out that way."

Everyone at the table save the other horse and their demon companion slowly turned their eyes to the diminutive pony. Graceful shifted his eyes between the various expressions before him: trepidation, curiosity, intrigue, and confusion. "Look, even if you strangers got a night that lasts longer’n three of ours combined, I still ain’t got the time to tell the whole story before dawn. So I’ll cut to the chase, save you some wonderin’, even if it’ll probably also bring up new questions."

He produced a cigarette from his jacket, but refrained from lighting it, instead deftly twirling it between his fingers in a show of absent dexterity. "Me and the demon…well, we ain’t just a couple of typical gumshoes. Ain’t out lookin’ for evidence of cheatin’ wives, or corrupt teamsters, or missin’ children. Between him and me, we got the means to not just see but also interact with forces beyond the normal realm of understanding." He gave a brief nod toward Riffraff, who shrunk his head down sheepishly when a few members of Graceful’s captive audience turned their eyes his way. "Riff’s seen it. He knows what I’m on about. We took normal cases, sure, but we also handled things of a more…supernatural nature. Angels, demons, and all sortsa murky shit in between."

Sarge leaned forward somewhat, forcing Simmons to awkwardly arch his torso to the side. "Whaddya mean, ‘supernatural’? So far, the only supernatural thing I’ve seen with these two eyes is the damn blaze in the brig when your damn dragon set his clothes on fire! I don’t believe in all that superstition, only what I can see myself, and shoot myself!"

"I reckon you’ll get the chance to do both," Graceful replied dryly. "See, me ‘n’ Amdusias, we were comin’ across some real nasty mojo before we ended up with those treasure hunting assholes." Mahihko waved cheerfully at the insult while Lone simply rolled his eyes and lifted a middle finger. "Angels, demons, not necessarily working together, at least not on the surface. Somethin’ was organizing them. Somethin’ that brought along troops bearing a mighty familiar resemblance to what you all described finding at the other base." He held the cigarette silently between the index fingers and thumbs of both hands before rubbing them together in a smooth motion that seemingly caused the cylinder to vanish. "They got some way of traveling into worlds they ain’t belonged to. My guess is they’ll find their way here, too, if they’re so inclined." He shrugged, reaching up to pluck the cigarette from where it appeared to rematerialize behind his ear before shoving it into his muzzle and pushing suddenly away from the table. "Gonna take this outside so I don’t upset the delicate constitutions around this joint," he muttered sarcastically. "Compliments to the chef. Never hurts to eat like it’s your last meal."

With that, he stormed out of the mess and stalked toward the entrance of the base, leaving the remaining group of soldiers and alien visitors to slowly look between themselves with the same mix of confused expressions. Amdusias almost made as if he was going to follow the moody pegasus, but he instead kept his awkward seat on the too-small bench, grimacing and absently nibbling at the last of Graceful’s unfinished sandwich. "I must apologize for his dourness," the demon murmured. "He has not lived a very…kind life. His heart yearns to do right by the world, though his body and mind do not always choose the path of least resistance. He thrives on friction and conflict. I believe you may understand this sensation, in some way." The fallen angel turned his amber gaze to Sarge, who frowned but didn’t immediately disagree. The battle-worn chupadore looked back at the reptile thoughtfully, then nodded once. "He does not mean to cause panic among you," Amdusias added quietly.

"Yeah, well…great fuckin’ job at that," Grif grumbled, looking at his empty plate moodily. "He pretty much said that more of those weird smooth-skinned fuckers were gonna come our way. As if this war wasn’t shitty enough with just the Blues to ignore…"

 "More things to shoot, far as I’m concerned," Sarge retorted. He paused after a moment, however, then wrinkled his muzzle. "Since we’re leavin’ tonight after those runaway Blues, though, means Donut and the short wolf-pup are charged with putting holes in anything else that shows up!" He nodded firmly before eyeing the enormous equine and the even-larger reptile seated across from him. "And I suppose you and yours could help, not that I expect any sorta loyalty from that little firecracker of yours. You do have a crimson hide on ya, son, makes you Red by default, so I’m countin’ on you to make up the slack!" The veteran soldier punctuated his last line with a firm jab of a blunt claw into Riffraff’s muscular breast, causing the massive horse to shift uncomfortably.

"I, uh…I get why you don’t trust Grace much, but…he’s a much better shot than me," Riffraff mumbled awkwardly. "Hell, Amdusias is a better shot than me and he’s not even…you know. Mortal."

The demon scowled before rolling his eyes. "I would be remiss to disagree. My unfortunate status as Graceful Melody’s…associate lends itself to a certain necessity for particular skills. I have reluctantly grown proficient in the usage of some varieties of these crude mortal weapons." He made a face, then shifted his amber eyes to meet Sarge’s gaze. "However, I must also refute your implications that Graceful would not provide this foreign homefront the same dedicated service and martial prowess he extends to all facets of his life."

Amdusias’s features shifted somewhat in a bald attempt to mask his emotions. "He is brash, rude and cruel both to himself and to others, to an extent that at times seem sadomasochistic. But his loyalty…that has never come under question, and never should." The demon smiled faintly, looking almost wistful as he glanced at Riffraff pointedly. "He is loyal to a fault. And should he decide that we will remain here to recover while you and your soldiers go traipsing after your enemy, then you can stake your very souls that this land will be protected with the ferocity of an entire legion of Heaven’s greatest knights."

The four chupadores shared an awkward look in the ensuing silence, no one quite knowing how to reply as Riffraff cleared his throat quietly and tapped his fingers lamely against the table. It was Grif, of course, who finally spoke up in a voice dripping with sarcasm: "Do you realize that using the biggest words possible makes you sound like a total douchenozzle?"

Mahihko snorted laughter despite himself, spraying the water he’d just sipped over Lone and Simmons as both lurched backward in disgust. Amdusias frowned immensely and gave a loud huff before turning his muzzle away from the table in a less-than-effective show of disdain.

For what it was worth, Sarge actually appeared somewhat convinced even with the surrounding chaos of Donut dabbing excessively at both Lone and Simmons despite the latter’s protest, while Grif took the moment of distraction to snag the other half of Donut’s sandwich and casually shove it into his maw. The scarred soldier studied Amdusias and Riffraff for a moment before offering simply a small nod that almost immediately gave way to a bellow in the direction of the other soldiers. "Enough nonsense, men! We’ve got a busy night ahead, so I want this mess cleaned and everyone in their quarters on the double!"

"Yes, sir!" Simmons automatically replied as Grif smirked, encouraging a moody glare from his maroon companion. "What about, uh…what about the strangers, sir?"

"They can sleep with me, I’ve got lots of practice getting extra guys into one bed!" volunteered Donut with his usual exuberance.

"Of course you do!" Mahihko crowed in delight, a predatory grin spreading across his muzzle once more only to be covered by Lone when the larger wolf grabbed his partner’s muzzle with a groan.

"No, we’re…we’re fine outside or…you know. Wherever." Lone attempted an apologetic half-smile while restraining the smaller lupine in a near chokehold.

"I will use the upholstered duvet," Amdusias stated, more a demand than a request. "I require at least a modicum of comfort if you silly mortals truly wish for me to recover even a portion of my full power."

Grif frowned immensely. "If that’s another word for my sofa, you better not, last thing I need is some spiky fucker putting holes in my favorite cushions!"

Sarge, on the other hand, simply waved a hand dismissively. "There you have it, Simmons, these alien boys can rest in the rec room. We move out in six hours, men!"

It was apparently the one thing that could distract the orange-hued chupadore. Grif cleared his throat and announced loudly: "You heard Sarge, you guys move out in sixteen hours!"

"I said SIX hours, you tangerine lump!"

"Can’t fault a guy for trying," the paunchy soldier replied mildly with a lazy shrug as he tossed his plate on top of Simmons’s and then sauntered off toward his room with little regard for the loud complaints from the lanky chupa. "Sorry, Simmons, but orders are orders!"

The maroon soldier narrowed his eyes even as he grumbled and snatched up the stacked plates, joined by Mahihko and Donut on the short journey to the kitchen. "Asshole." He continued to mutter under his breath as the feminine wolf peered up at him musingly.

"You guys are like a married couple. I know you two ain’t bonin’, but boy oh boy, wouldn’t be a stretch!" the slender lupine sang out.

"Do you ever talk about something other than…that?" Simmons retorted bitterly.

Mahihko shrugged as he handed the plates to Donut, who had already begun to run hot water in the sink. "Sure, even fish gotta stop swimming sometimes."

Simmons paused at this before sighing and pushing his stack of dishes toward the others. "I don’t know why I asked. I’m gonna go see if Sarge needs anything prepped before we sleep." He hesitated and frowned at Mahihko. "The bigger…wolf, Lone?  Is there any chance he’s going to come with us instead of, uh…you? I mean…no offense, but…"

Mahihko only seemed more amused by this, grinning toothily yet again as he put a hand on his hip and struck a sultry pose against the counter. "My, my, my! Afraid of distraction, huh? Yeah, I get it, happens all the time around me for some odd reason," he replied airily, waving a hand and then continuing to speak smoothly before the chupadore could protest the choice of verbiage. "But yes, you can have Lone, I’m willing to LOAN him out, get it? Eh?" The slender lupine skipped a beat just long enough for Simmons to roll his eyes and groan. "He’s better at the whole…rough-and-tumble, off-roading, tackling-the-wilderness nonsense than me, anyway. Besides…" He paused and eyed Donut over one shoulder with a chuckle. "It’s probably for the best that I stay here. Keep an eye on things. Things like Donut. And the giant horse, and his gianter demon friend. We wouldn’t want them to lose their shirts or their pants or like…get shot or anything, not without someone here to help out."

The maroon chupadore shifted uncomfortably, unsure of precisely how serious the cheerful lupine’s awkward rambling was meant to be. "Uh…right. I guess. I’m, um…I’m gonna go now, and. Make sure all the door locks are still working. For, uh. For safety." He backed slowly out of the kitchen before spinning around and hurrying back to the mess, leaving Mahihko to laugh amusedly and continue the chores with Donut.

 "What is wrong with that guy?" Simmons asked no one in particular as he wandered back into the dining area, frowning and rubbing the back of his head.

"Just gonna assume you’re talking about Mahihko," grumbled Lone from where he was hunched over a half-dissembled handgun. "Are they screwing in there yet?"

"They had better not be!" Sarge thundered, drawing an almost-worried look from the white-furred wolf, before he declared: "The kitchen ain’t on the list of approved recreational locations!"

Lone sighed and shook his head a few times. "You guys keep surprising me with how…weird you are," he muttered, though his tone was relieved more than annoyed. "Figures that the second group of guys we meet from a different world than our own still got the same odd quirks as anyone else."

Sarge chortled. "People are people, son. Now, the good ones are Red, ‘course, but…people are people." He nodded in self-affirmation before squinting at Lone’s handiwork. "Now what in tarnation are you doin’ with that alien pistol? You even gonna be able to put it back together?" He leaned down with a scowl. "Looks tiny! These aliens must be little ladies if that’s what they’re tryin’ to kill us with…"

"It’s not that tiny," the lupine huffed, rolling his shoulders awkwardly. "Some…people I know use small or medium-sized handguns with incredibly talented precision and, and…they are just fine for…shooting things…"

"My goodness, you are such a noble specimen, defending those entirely unrelated souls who choose to utilize what our newfound friend would suggest are…inadequate tools for the job at hand," Amdusias drolly commented, barely hiding a half-smile.

The muscular wolf scowled and shifted on the bench before continuing to poke through the small mechanisms spread out across the table. "Look, I’m just sayin’. My thirty-eights never let me down. Anyway, I just wanted to see if the weapons really are as straightforward as ours…you know, no…weird magical shit, or some…steampunk-alchemic-unnecessarily-complicated nonsense."

"Would it not be more prudent to have the one mythical creature in the room examine the firearm, then?" the demon intoned mildly.

"Actually, Dusey has gotten really good at taking apart his piece, both of ‘em," Riffraff added helpfully, clearing his throat and wincing a bit when the reptile glowered in his direction. "What? It’s true. Grace might be the gun nut, but even he has trouble getting the Degtyarev back together. Amdusias can probably help if Grace doesn’t want to…"

Lone gave the towering horse a sour look before sighing. "Thanks, I guess. Look, either way, this thing looks normal enough. So if nothing else, it’s another gun if we need it." He held up the clip and shook it a few times. "Guessing we won’t be lucky enough to have the right ammo lying around here, though."

"I got ten-gauge buckshot, magnums use a twelve-seven, and the rifles’re chambered in nine-five," Sarge rattled off easily, resting his shotgun lightly against one shoulder. "But ammo ain’t growin’ on the trees ‘round here, so I can’t promise nothin’ for you’n yours, ‘less you’re fightin’ with the Red Army, son."

"Yeah, well…even if we did agree to join this damn war, I don’t think any of those rounds fit anything we brought with us," Lone groused as he lifted his head and arched his back with a sigh, giving himself a moment from bending over the dissembled pistol. He looked over to the eldest soldier for a moment. "Look, I’m sure we’ll make it work somehow. We’ve been in some messes before. And I can’t even deny that both ‘Hiko and I have been in a few battles here and there. You’d be surprised how often a regular treasure hunt turns into a goddamn insurgence against some douchey warlord or overzealous general…though I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise. Valuable relic or some ancient, mythological device always tends to rile up the power-hungry and the crazy." He shrugged and started to piece the handgun together. "We’re usually fighting with a bunch of rebels, but…you know, whatever. If nothing else, I can mostly promise not to freak out if you guys drive right into the middle of a firefight."

"Oh, we got rebels around here, too," Simmons replied with a frown. "At least stories about them. I’m pretty sure anytime there’s a confirmed Movement location, it’s only because the House troops killed the shit out of everyone there."

"Wait…there are rebels?" Lone’s interest was noticeably piqued as he glanced up from the pistol curiously. "What do they fight against?"

"The way of the world!" exclaimed Sarge, his eyes burning with the same passion embedded in his voice. "Those bastards ain’t Red OR Blue…they think it’s a grand ol’ time to go around blowin’ up bases, stealin’ gear and causin’ all sortsa ruckus! Hah! Like a buncha guerilla squirrely tactics could put an end to this glorious war!"

The wolf tilted his head somewhat before fixing Simmons with a querulous look. The maroon chupadore looked at Sarge briefly as he cleared his throat. "Well, uh…I mean, Sarge basically covered it." He rubbed the back of his head slowly. "I’ve never had any run-ins with them, myself, but, well…they’re pretty much considered terrorists. And it’s pretty stupid to try and change something that the entire world is basically on the same page with. It’s a losing fight," he concluded, though his tone was less than convincing.

Lone understood enough to not press further, nodding a few times. "Yeah, I got it. Fair enough. I figure I’ll be the one coming along with you guys, if, uh…if that’s cool. So…yeah, promise I won’t go joining any rebellions or anything."

The veteran soldier squinted in the lupine’s direction and then nodded once in return. "You mind what I told ya about the way things work ‘tween us and the Blues, and we’ll be alright," he growled before pointing at Simmons. "Get yer tail to bed, Private! We roll out in six!"

"Ah, it’s actually Private First Class, sir," Simmons corrected as humbly as he could, raising a claw awkwardly. "And I think you’ll find I’m on track for another promotion soon based on the length of my time served and what I would consider pretty exemplary perfor--"

"Ya ain’t gonna be more’n a janitorial assistant if you and Grif ain’t ready to move tonight!" Sarge barked, which was more than enough encouragement to earn a mumbled apology and salute from the lanky chupadore before he rushed off to his quarters. The sergeant grunted his approval and then turned toward the group of visitors just as Graceful stalked back into the room. "We can accompany one," he noted briskly, giving a sharp nod in Lone’s direction. "Don’t matter to me much who goes. Whoever is left behind, yer technically gonna be under Donut’s command, if you choose to stick around. Ain’t no hair off my tuft if you do…just don’t stir up no trouble you won’t be able to fix yerselves." The scarred chupa locked eyes with Graceful for a few moments, then grumbled something under his breath as he left the four strangers to themselves and headed to the kitchen to check on his remaining soldier.

Graceful Melody’s cold silver gaze remained on the grizzled soldier until he disappeared around the corner, and the slender pony snorted disdainfully when the quartet was left alone. "Ain’t takin’ a single order from that poof," the equine muttered as he slowly flexed his shoulders. Riffraff cleared his throat awkwardly while Amdusias rolled his eyes.

"Do not be so dramatic, little one. They are granting us a kindness merely to offer us quarter, let alone no longer attempting to murder us all," the demon reasoned with a small wave of one hand. "Besides, the light-red fellow appears to be smitten with most of us at this point. I highly doubt it will lead to any uncomfortable situations."

"I can’t tell if you’re joking or not," Riffraff complained while scrubbing slowly at his features with both hands. "Could we all just maybe agree to try and stay out of their way, and focus on getting back home?" He glanced at Lone, then to Graceful with desperation in his eyes. "Our home?"

"Look, it’s not like we’re--" Lone’s attempt at plying the larger equine with reason was cut short by Graceful growling over him:

"I ain’t any more excited about this turn of events than you are, Riff. But whining about it ain’t gonna fix a fuckin’ thing." His voice softened somewhat, at least as much as the gruff pony seemed capable of doing. "We’ll cover each other’s hide, okay? We got chased here by somethin’ we couldn’t handle, so the least we can do now is have a look around, gather our strength, and make sure we got as much an arsenal as possible strapped to us when we find the way back, so we ain’t gonna show up like a coupla deer in the damn headlights, right?"

Riffraff nodded silently and rubbed his arms nervously. "Good," Graceful grumbled before jerking his head toward the stairs. "Let’s go get some shut-eye. Guess it won’t be as easy takin’ a look around this place in the dark, but we’ll have to make do. I ain’t just sittin’ around jerkin’ my slab while those army boys head out on their goose chase." He glowered at Lone, which made the masculine lupine shift awkwardly. "You the one gonna go with them, then? I assume your cross-dressin’ little daisy’s gonna stay here and bone the brains outta that blond kid."

"You’re not a fan of mincing your words much, huh?" Lone mumbled. The gaunt pegasus simply glowered in response and the wolf sighed, offering a lame shrug. "Not that you’re probably wrong about ‘Hiko, but yeah. I’ll go with them. I’m sure there’s some way we can keep in touch…we’ve got some of our gear still, and these…chupadores must have some type of radio communication, anyway." He exhaled slowly, patting idly at his chest. "So…I’ll stay in contact. If we come across anything that might help, I can let you know ahead of time. And…well. Worse comes to worst, maybe there’ll be someone else who knows something out there, who the hell knows."

"That is a very promising plan. I am sure that you have an overwhelming chance to come across a wise oracle as you accompany these strange creatures on their fanatical quest to destroy all those of an opposing chromatic designation," Amdusias noted dryly.

"He means the opposite color," added Riffraff helpfully, offering a dumb smile.

Lone frowned at both the towering horse and the even-larger demon before throwing up a middle finger. "Screw both you guys. Well, I mean…mostly screw you, Amdusias." Riffraff looked slightly relieved before Lone continued: "But screw you too, Riff, for assuming I don’t understand big words." Both of the muscular males gave him grumpy looks, which he ignored in favor of glancing at Graceful Melody. "No, no, I don’t actually think I’m going to find anything, but…worth taking a look, right?"

The small pegasus grunted and shrugged indifferently. "Sure, whatever floats your boat. Ain’t gonna stop you, but also ain’t gonna wait on you if we decide to do our own thing." Lone tilted his head somewhat as Graceful snorted. "No offense, just that we ain’t exactly partners."

"We could be, though," the lupine ventured hopefully, looking between all three of the other males. "’Hiko and I can handle plenty of shit between us, but I still had another friend providing me lots of support on plenty of trips, and even then we were just plain lucky sometimes to get away alive. I can pretty much bet that this is the craziest shit any of us have ever seen, so…wouldn’t hurt to have some more friends."

"Yeah, friends are real nice," Graceful spat out, his gravelly tone harsh enough to make the wolf wince reflexively. "I had friends once or twice before. One of ‘em ratted my family out to Heaven, got my angelic father figure clipped and thrown to Hell." The pegasus’s eyes narrowed darkly with some not-distant-enough memory as he clenched a hand into the nearby countertop with enough force to make the metal tremble ever so slightly. "Had another friend, taught me everything there was to know about bein’ a cop, just for him to shoot me in the back when he decided I wasn’t worth turnin’ against the shield." The withering fury in his eyes caused Lone to look away in unconscious submission when Graceful shifted his gaze back to the lupine, Lone’s greater size and masculinity almost a joke against the force of the pony’s fiery glare. "Friends are great to have," he concluded coldly. "But you bet your worthless hide that you’re gonna prove it to me first. Trust is earned, not gifted. Ain’t gettin’ my clock punched because of a so-called ‘friend’ a third time, you had goddamn better believe it."

With that, the dour pony turned on a hoof, his trench coat billowing around in a brief flourish as he tromped down the stairs to presumably head for the recreational room. Riffraff quickly hopped up from the bench, rubbing the back of his head in a vague, mixed gesture of apology and sheepishness before chasing after the smaller equine. Lone was left with Amdusias for a few moments of awkward silence before they both glanced up as Mahihko sauntered back into the dining area.

"Hard to believe you struck out with Donut," Lone remarked, making the feminine lupine grin cheerfully.

"Struck out? Darling, my batting average is well over eight-fifty," Mahihko retorted smoothly, still sporting a self-assured half-smile before he studied the demon’s concerned features. "Sarge came and swept my new plaything off to beddy-bye without so much as a goodnight kiss. I’ll have to make my house-call sometime after Daddy goes off to work." He offered a generous wink before tilting his head a bit. "So why the long faces, boys? Guessin’ our well-hung stable boys have already retired – did Lone try to make a move on you, Dusey-doo?"

"As if your bland, genital-centric approaches would sway a being with the sort of willpower I possess," the reptile replied grumpily. "No, I was merely going to convey a small amount of knowledge as restitution for Graceful Melody’s anti-social tendencies," he continued softly.

"I asked about working together, as partners, since we’re all stuck here together," Lone summarized, raising his hands in a helpless gesture before continue to fumble at putting the alien handgun back together. "To say the least, the scary little private eye gave me the cold shoulder. Guess I wasn’t all that surprised, but still…"

"Now, now, that is both entirely inaccurate and also wholly unfair to Graceful Melody," Amdusias chided, putting his hands on his hips in a strangely mortal display of disapproval. "The little one was not exaggerating. He has been betrayed; not once, but twice, by individuals he trusted. The first, as family – one of my own lieutenants, to be frank." The demon glanced down at his fingers as he flexed them slowly. "I had enlisted the help of a few volunteers within my Heavenly brigade when I raised the child with the help of that oh-so-loathsome demon and his demonic ilk…" The enormous lizard scowled and shifted uncomfortably, seemingly unable to avoid rectifying his own words: "And yet…it was not Burning Desire, nor any of his minions of Hell who betrayed our solemn oath to protect and raise this child, and help nurture his gifts; a promise to keep his existence shadowed and concealed from the eyes of Heaven and Hell alike. No, it was a fellow angel…a fellow no more, I suppose," the now-demon spat out bitterly, reaching self-consciously over one shoulder to brush a hand past one of the many protruding bone spikes to where his wings must have once been attached.

"The second was even more despicable," Amdusias continued slowly, his tone becoming colder. "His partner and mentor, a member of the mortal department tasked with maintaining the peace and upholding justice. I believe you know them as ‘police officers’." The enormous reptile clenched his teeth for a moment as a small trail of smoke escaped from his nostrils, his words tinged with rage. "This…this utterly odious specimen of a creature took Graceful under his cloak, made him stronger than Burning or I ever could, built him up as a proud, powerful defender of the law…only to betray him when he and his band of underhanded traitors decided Graceful Melody would never turn to their poisonous ways, would not turn his back on the devotion to uphold the duties of his station." Amdusias glanced away for a moment, shame creasing his features. "I blame myself, somewhat. I was absent for several seasons of his formative years, as I was disgraced by losing my wings, humiliated by being thrown from Heaven to the burning pits below, where I underwent the transformation to the creature you see before you now.

"Feeling as though I had abandoned him, Graceful Melody became extremely focused on his desire to be a respected paladin of justice. And he was blind to the venom that flowed through his partner’s veins." The reptile studied his hands silently before slowly clenching his fingers into fists. "I reappeared on the mortal realm for the first time at Graceful Melody’s side as he was being overwhelmed by his mentor and partner, the one he trusted his life to. There were many of them, tens of accomplices, and Graceful Melody had already suffered several grievous wounds, nearing death as he clung stubbornly to life. But, together we rallied and silenced them all. It was…a massacre. We had little choice."

The towering demon exhaled slowly and let his hands unclench, bowing his head as he spoke. "And there was no stopping the little one when he came upon his partner, still alive and trapped beneath a burning timber. Even with my barely-contained demonic fury, I struggled to urge reason on him. I forced down the irrepressible need for blood to try and convince him he would find no solace in his action. But…Graceful Melody choose to take his mentor’s life after some hesitation." Amdusias scratched a claw slowly against the table, unwilling to lift his head as he murmured. "He has never since been the same. He quit the force as a disgrace, his honest devotion clouded by the murkiness of the slaughtered traitors. Thus, we began our new journey forward, offering investigative services to the general public while using our unique abilities to try and combat what supernatural conflicts we encountered during our jobs." Sighing quietly, Amdusias rubbed a hand gingerly along the spikes jutting from the top of his muzzle. "You must understand that…trust is no longer an easy concept for Graceful Melody to accept. It simply took me far more time than I intended to explain the reasoning. I apologize for my long-winded speech – ‘oversharing’, as Graceful would no doubt call it."

"Nah, it’s alright," Lone murmured in response, giving his own long exhale as he glanced at Mahihko for a few seconds. "I’m…glad you told us. I suppose we know a thing or two about not trusting the first guy who offers you a handshake, but…Christ, even when I’ve been fucked over by someone I might call a partner, it was never someone I actually trusted NOT to back-stab me. Can’t really say I blame the guy. So…you know. I’m sorry for implying he was a jerk because he brushed off my attempt at an outreach of goodwill and whatnot…"

 Amdusias sighed dramatically and waved a dismissive hand. "I am afraid it is not the first time I have had to perform the monologue nor will it be the last. It can be extremely…wearisome to attempt explanation of Graceful Melody to those who do not know him as intimately as the foolish gambler and I."

Lone frowned curiously. "Gambler? I thought Riffraff was a card dealer?"

"The moniker was granted ironically," Amdusias replied dryly. "That is not to say he is no deviant of risk, nonetheless. He may gamble neither with card nor die, but trust in me when I say he tempts fate regularly. One day you will have to hear of the particular circumstances in which he found himself which led him to our front stoop." The demon paused thoughtfully. "Or rather, our front fender. It is a good story because it involves nearly trampling an idiot with an automobile."

The ivory lupine blinked a few times before rubbing at one of his ears slowly. "My gods. Here I thought our adventures were fucked up. Do you…drive? I mean, not to get off-topic, but…you are a demon, right?" Amdusias huffed and Lone quickly corrected himself: "Er, a fallen angel, whatever. You’re a supernatural being. And it sounds like you               know how to use guns…which is already weird on its own to imagine. It’s just…you know. You picture demons using…claws or…or fire, or some weird magically-enchanted sword or some shit…"

Amdusias glowered at the sheepish-looking wolf for a moment. "Here I imagined you were the wiser of the two," he replied dourly. "And I will have you know that I have striven to improve upon my skills in all that I do, as it is foolish to simply rest on ones laurels, as impressive and impeccable as those laurels might be." He self-consciously thrust his chest forward ever so slightly, and Lone had to cover his muzzle to avoid snorting aloud. "Yes, I am capable of conducting conveyance via those confounded contraptions you mortals so dearly cherish," the demonic creature added moodily. "I am often forced to do so after Graceful has suffered some grave mortal wound or another, after all. I simply do not prefer it, as it is much more efficient to utilize a traveling spell, or to simply reykrfara as needed."

Mahihko and Lone both stared blankly at the enormous reptile before the smaller of the two asked dumbly. "Uh. What’s. What’s ray-ker-fara?"

The demon snorted derogatorily and snapped his fingers with practiced ease, and the wolves blinked in confusion as…absolutely nothing happened. The two lupines glanced at each other awkwardly before Amdusias cleared his throat after a few seconds, then groaned and rubbed both hands over his face. "This would normally be when I offer precisely no explanation and instead leave you bewildered as I disappear into an effusive burst of supernatural ebony smoke and whisk myself away using the form of travel common to powerful supernatural entities," he explained grumpily. "It is very tedious to be without my energy for such a time. I can no longer spew hellish flames from my maw to immolate rude treasure hunters. Or instantly remove myself from droll conversations with droll children."

"I’m not droll, you’re droll!" Mahihko retorted, tilting his nose up and looking unnecessarily proud of himself. Lone sighed and shook his head a few times, even as he looked surprised and pleased for a moment at the now-reassembled pistol in his hands.

"Huh. No missing parts. Nice. Uh…anyway…" He set it down and offered a small smile to the scowling demon. "Look, for better or for worse, we’re stuck here together. And honestly, I think it’s really freakin’ cool that we have a de—er, fallen angel on our side." Amdusias glared, but a hint of quiet appreciation lurked in his gleaming amber eyes. "I know we aren’t the, uh…easiest two to deal with. And now I understand a lot more why you three aren’t exactly a typical nuclear family, either. We all got some strange-ass stories, no doubt. So I just think that--"

"I know what you are requesting of me," Amdusias interrupted gently, his tone once more unexpectedly soft. "And I do not fault you. It would likely seem natural to ask the wise, powerful, supernatural entity to weigh his judgment on the situation, and bestow his will upon his revenants." The reptile smiled slightly; it was a mix of amused and apologetic. "However, things truly do not function amongst my odd triangle in the ways you imagine. Graceful Melody is not simply the angry spitfire who lashes out and imagines himself to be a tiny autocrat barking mock orders, while Riffraff and I do as we please behind his back. For all intents and purposes, Graceful Melody is the leader of our small, humble party. We both respect and follow his decisions, even if we may protest or advise against them at times. He has earned this right, and neither my other-worldly experience nor Riffraff’s calmer diplomacy will take precedence."

Lone frowned slightly, though didn’t argue. It was Mahihko who seemed to understand more completely as the feminine wolf smiled and nodded once. "Yeah. We get it," he replied quietly. "I mean…let’s be honest, the sexy little guys with the piercings and ink should always be the de facto leaders, anyway," he added teasingly, grinning as the multitude of rings and studs lining his jaw, nose and ears all seemed to glitter on command. "But in all seriousness, we understand that we can’t ask you to force some uncomfortable order onto the other two. Trust needs to be earned, right?"

Amdusias looked more relieved than anything else as he nodded in affirmation. "Yes. Thank you. And…I am not saying that this will mean much, but I will tell Graceful of our conversation, and of the slightly improved sense of respect I hold for the likes of you. Perhaps we will yet find a means to combining our efforts."

With that, the demon nodded to the lupines and headed for the rec room to join his pony companions. Lone tapped a finger against his muzzle a few times before exhaling and glancing at the other wolf. "You sure seemed to come around quick to what he was saying. Not that I’m trying to start no shit with the scary short guy, but…it just seems sorta weird. If nothing else, you’d think he and the demon would be making decisions together, and the giant horse who is apparently also a giant baby would just be going along with it because he doesn’t know how to say no."

 "Hmm." A smile tugged at Mahihko’s lips again. "Now, now, sweetie. When’s shit ever that simple, huh? Besides, there’s something about Graceful that’s…I dunno. Hard to put it into words, but not hard to see it. He’s been through some shit, man. More shit than all of us combined, I reckon. And it’s given him some steel that we sure ain’t gonna know ourselves, not any time soon." He paused to laugh softly. "And remember how Sarge looks at him? Not as much that he doesn’t trust him, just that he knows if anyone was gonna be a serious threat to him…it’s gonna be that guy. Shit, I might just as soon call him my boss if I was in his clique." The lithe male furrowed his brow and then pouted. "Man, I kinda wish I was in that lucky bastard’s clique. Just surrounded by big ol’ sexy dudes, all ripped ‘n shit. Damn, he’s a lucky bitch."

"Yeah, well…even if you do make a point, I’m tired and I wanna get to sleep if I’m supposed to be going with these guys when they leave," Lone commented mildly. "Let’s go find somewhere that the lucky bastard-bitch and his two peons haven’t already taken over."

"Shit, I struck out on alien dick tonight, so you’re gonna have to make up for it," Mahihko remarked, slapping Lone’s rump firmly before prancing down the stairs and leaving Lone to grumble under his breath.

"You wish…maybe I should join their damn group if only to get away from the constant sexual harassment," he muttered, only half-serious as he huffed and stormed after his cheerful companion.

 

"Who’s got my Sergeant’s Digest?!? I need it for reading material on the road!"

Sarge’s voice echoed in from the dark, passing through the entrance of the base and down several hallways as if somehow designed specifically to drill into the ears of every unfortunate fool who hadn’t yet stirred from sleep. Lone’s muzzle wrinkled horribly as he covered his head with one arm and groaned into the carpet below. "Goddammit. God. Damn. It. Does that guy have a snooze button?" he mumbled before jerking his head up in sleepy surprise at a light slap to the back of his skull. "If you don’t have coffee in your hand…"

"Sorry, m’dear!" Mahihko sang out with his usual exuberance. He crouched down next to the larger wolf and continued to poke him between the ears until Lone finally rolled onto his back with a displeased grumble. His slender companion held out what looked like a compact nutrition bar in one hand, as well as the small radio and headset he’d plucked off the strange, dead creature at the Blue base earlier that day. "What’s wrong, sleepyhead? Ya look like you got run over by a train or two."

"We slept on the floor because Graceful Bastard-Bitch and his Man-Whore Crew took up all the furniture, and that was after you kept me up for like an hour to work out your no-alien-sex frustrations…" The muscular lupine grimaced and forced himself to sit up before snatching the food bar and sniffing at it suspiciously. "I’m sore and…drained. You’re like a vampire, but with…you know. Not blood."

"Don’t I know it!" The feminine wolf grinned broadly. He gestured toward the fruity-smelling rectangle. "Go ahead, it ain’t bad. Guessin’ whatever fruits and nuts they got on this crazy ring-world ain’t all that distant from our own. I tucked a few more into your pack already so you can fill your mouth with some tasty nut treats whenever you’re missing me." Lone glowered up at him, but reluctantly took a bite and chewed slowly.

He blinked and glanced at the nondescript wrapper before shrugging and continuing to nibble at it while nodding at the communicator. "Thanks, I guess. If you hadn’t told me otherwise, I’d honestly think this was some generic fruit bar from the corner store…this place has so many weird similarities." He chewed thoughtfully, then inquired: "Did you get that thing working?"

"Ha, did I get it working. Ha! Child’s play! Been up for almost an hour, hon. And Grace took his two giants for a night walk, I think he said something about finding a suitable tobacco replacement." Mahihko paused as Simmons’s voice floated through the rec room – nearly as loud as Sarge’s, and yet somehow only a fraction as authoritative:

"Grif! Where are you with those rations?! We’re leaving in fifteen minutes!"

The black-and-white lupine continued smoothly when no reply rose up to answer the frustrated soldier. "Anyway, I grabbed Simmons and he spent a few minutes showing me the radios they use for regular communication. It’s basically a form of shortwave – you can thank your nerd friend Vic for the intro lesson on comms gear, tell him I still owe him an unassuming anonymous BJ with the promise that he can still be straight afterward – and it wasn’t too hard to match frequencies with this little number off our shot-up friend with no tail."

"Oh. Hooray. Have you heard of this new invention called the comma?" Lone mumbled, holding the breakfast bar between his teeth so he could accept the small radio and attached headset, turning it over in his hands to examine it. "Still blaming you for my shitty night’s sleep. But…you know. Thanks, I suppose. For somehow managing to do your freaky weird yoga all over my broken body and then still be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with only four hours’ sleep on this gross-ass carpet."

"You were very comfortable, and such a gentleman to wordlessly offer to be my mattress," the smaller male replied daintily, earning a scowl once again.

"Ass. This thing using batteries?"

"Ayep. Unfortunately even though they look  a lot like our batteries, they’re not quite compatible with anything we got, or what the boys got here at the base. Buuuut…" Mahihko reached down and poked a small latch on the back of the communicator, allowing a miniature three-panel device to unfold. "Built in solar panel! Obviously you need…you know. A sun. But hopefully it’ll last you the rest of the darkness as long as you ain’t on it constantly."

"Delightful," the larger wolf uttered with a sigh. "Alright. Better get my shit together and head out before they--"

"Goddammit, Grif!" interjected Simmons’s voice from a few rooms over. "Wake up!"

"Simmons! Where is that lazy orange blob?" Sarge called from the exterior.

"He’s in the store room, sir! Asleep on the rations!"

Lone made a face and glanced sourly at Mahihko, who flashed his teeth amusedly and gave two thumbs up. "You’re gonna have a blast!"

"What’s gonna happen is I’m gonna end up punching someone in the face and at this rate it might be you," Lone muttered, carefully folding the solar panel back into its hidden compartment and then wrapping the wire for the headpiece around the radio. He looked around for his side packs and spotted them stacked neatly next to his twin pistols – the sawn-off shotgun was conspicuously missing, but considering that the handguns looked freshly cleaned and tuned, he wasn’t sure he could fairly complain. With a sigh of both annoyance and resignation, he pushed himself up to his paws and arched his back for a moment before looking around idly for his clothes. "Now, I’m not ungrateful in the slightest, and I super-appreciate you cleaning my guns…but uh. I just need to know, for my own edification. Am I getting the shotgun back, or should I consider that payment for services rendered, even if they were not even remotely requested?"

The smaller wolf smiled amusedly. "Oh, calm your damn tits. You’ll be fine without it. You end up using whatever the hell you come across, anyway, if I know you at all." He winked and tapped Lone’s nose teasingly. "And I know you very well, my dear." Mahihko laughed – a lilting, sunny sound as always. "Besides, I might as well spend some more time teachin’ big olRiffyraffy how to handle a weapon. I wouldn’t want him to find himself unable to blast a load off in a pinch."

"That’s…you know what, never mind, I know you’re more than aware of what you’re saying," the more masculine male grumbled, hopping into his jeans and cinching the belt. "Alright, so…you and the pony boys are gonna hang out here with your favorite pink alien--"

"Lightish-red," Mahihko corrected with a half-grin, automatically handing his taller companion one of the battered side-packs so he could strap it to his thigh.

Lone rolled his eyes and buckled the pouch into place before looping the other small satchel on his belt just above the opposite hip. "Whatever. And I’m going on this…Blue-hunt. So I got no idea who’s in more danger, and who’s actually gonna make some progress on figuring out what the hell we’re gonna do now that we’re all stuck here. But please…" He paused, taking a moment to actually meet Mahihko’s eyes with a genuine expression of concern. "Promise me you won’t do something stupid and…you know. Die. And please let me know if something else shows up. And please don’t piss off Graceful, he’s way scarier than a bunch of mercenaries."

"I know, right?" Mahihko replied with a tone that was both impressed and entertained. "Hey, look – super sweet of you to be so worried, but I’m gonna be alright. And scary as the private dick might be, I’m pretty sure it’s better to have him on our side than against us, so I won’t go doinnothin’ that’ll get us on his shit-list."

"Then maybe don’t try to sleep with one of or both his enormous friends," Lone suggested mildly, looking at the feminine lupine pointedly.

Mahihko, of course, gasped loudly and clutched his chest with a hand. "Your words wound me. Besides…Graceful can’t get mad if I go for all three of them simultaneously."

"Your goals are lofty as they are whorish," Lone remarked as he slipped the two handguns into their holsters and then rolled his shoulders a few times to ensure his various accessories were snug while still leaving him mobile. He exhaled softly and then nodded once to Mahihko. "Alright. Let’s go join a war."

"Don’t be such a drama queen," Mahihko teased, shoving at Lone’s back to push him toward the sound of Simmons’s yelling. "So far this war has just been a buncha horny dudes not really trying to shoot a buncha other horny dudes. Now go help wake up the blob so you can make a good impression with your new regiment."

"Ha ha," Lone replied mirthlessly, sighing again but trudging reluctantly down the hallway nonetheless while tossing a wave over his shoulder. "Better be on that widow’s walk when we’re leaving to see me off, asshole."

"I don’t think the roof counts as a widow’s walk, but you’ve given me a great base improvement project idea to start while you guys are gone!" Mahihko called after him before chuckling and flopping onto one of the couches to busy himself with dissembling and cleaning out his own handgun.

 

Simmons groaned as he slammed two boxes of rations together next to Grif’s head, but the orange chupadore just waved a hand sleepily and rolled away from the other soldier. "Come on, Grif, I don’t want to get yelled at even more – I’ve already gotten all the other supplies together…well, most of them. Wake up!"

Lone poked his head into the supply room, then stepped past the threshold while clearing his throat lightly. Simmons looked up with a scowl before gesturing irritably toward a row of shelving units behind him. "Hey, uh…wolf-guy."

"Lone," the lupine offered mildly. "Dude it’s like the stupidest name ever, easy to remember. I’ve been teased about it my whole life. Because…you know. I’m a wolf. And I’m named Lone. So…Lone…wolf. Lone wolf. I’m a LONE WOLF, it’s…it’s really actually easy to remember, honestly."

Simmons blinked a few times before lifting both hands in frustration. "Okay?! Whatever! Lone, then, christ! Can you grab some toilet paper? Sarge said he’s making us wipe with our tail tufts if this asshole here uses Sarge’s stupid magazine to wipe his ass again…"

Lone glanced over his shoulder at his own shorter, thicker tail, and promptly winced. "Ew. I don’t even have a tuft, but that sounds awful. Yeah, sure…uh." He paused and then lifted a finger. "You having trouble getting him up? Mind if I try something that works on my overly heterosexual friend back home?"

The dark red chupadore frowned and then shrugged with a grumble, gesturing toward his slumped-over compatriot. "Sure, go ahead."

The muscular wolf cleared his throat once more, then announced in a loud, slow tone: "Oh gosh. Look out, everyone. Mahihko is running around giving surprise blowjobs to every dick he can find."

"Wha-huh, whoa, you promised no gay stuff!" Grif sputtered as he shook his head rapidly and shoved himself to a standing position fast enough that he nearly toppled backward. He looked around blearily and then glared at Lone. "Don’t joke about that shit, man."

"If you were having a dream and that line was involved, I think you may need to reevaluate your life choices," the white-furred lupine replied easily with a snicker, spotting the aforementioned toilet paper and snagging several rolls to tuck against his chest. Huh. TP. Definitely not something I would have thought about until too late…I’m glad this facet of their civilization here is apparently the same as ours…

"Fuck off," the pudgy soldier retorted before looking down at the partially-crushed rations scattered on the floor around himself. "Where is he going with the toilet paper? And who was sitting on all the food?"

"You were, fatass," Simmons shot back before throwing his arms up angrily. "And he’s taking them to the jeep! Where you were supposed to bring the rations when we sent you in ten minutes ago! So we can leave on the trip!"

"What trip?" inquired the shorter chupadore with a raised eyebrow.

Simmons blinked, almost silenced by his shock. "Dear…God, were you even listening earlier tonight? Why do we even bother to bring you to staff meetings? Yeah, we’re leaving!? Jeep’s packed, we’re just waiting on rations." He scowled and flailed his hands in the direction of Lone as the lupine disappeared down the hall. "Even the goddamn alien we’re dragging along is more on top of this than you, you jackass."

Grif threw his arms wide with a snort. "What? Yeah, I remember some shit Sarge was going on about moving out – I figured that jerk-off just wanted to go check the other base again, or do a perimeter sweep, or make me go pick up all those stupid landmines. I didn’t think he was so fucking stupid to order us to drive the flaming heap of metal after those dumb Blue fuckers." He screwed up his muzzle in displeasure. "We try to drive that thing and the only place we’re going is straight back to the hell Sarge came from."

"Not Sarge’s jeep, dumbass," Simmons replied tiredly. "The one Donut brought here. The one you’ve been sleeping in whenever I ask you to do a simple fucking chore."

"Oh…right." The orange chupadore rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That back seat is so comfortable…and smells like lilacs for some reason."

The maroon chupadore sighed but continued over Grif’s odd reminiscing. "Anyway, like we talked about literally six hours ago, Sarge wants to take it so we can find the Blues."

Grif frowned immensely. "Wait, seriously? We’re just supposed to…pack our shit, leave our base – which guarding, I thought, was literally the ONLY point of this stupid war – and follow the Blues when we have no idea where they went, or why." The shorter chupadore gestured with both hands in frustration. "They could be anywhere in the world by now!"

"Not…exactly. According to our intelligence--"

"Intelligence?" Grif interrupted moodily with a snort. "Show me anything in this goddamned army that resembles ‘intelligence’."

Simmons rolled his eyes but continued nonetheless: "They don’t have a vehicle over there. And we haven’t seen one passing by, so…they must be on foot. And if we take the jeep, we’ll have a better chance of catching up with them."

"This absolutely sounds like something I’m one-hundred percent interested in," Grif deadpanned, bending over to grab an armful of rations and turning to leave with one dismissively raised hand. "Good luck on Sarge’s wild goose chase, Simmons. I’m sure between the two of you and that dog-thing, you’ll have plenty of campfire stories to share. And I can take one for the team, hold down the fort here."

"Fuck that, c’mon, Grif! We can’t hunt down the Blues by ourselves, I don’t even know if that wolf-guy can even shoot straight!" Simmons put his hands on his hips and huffed before continuing mildly: "Sarge wants Donut to stay here and keep the base clean, since neither of us can trust you to do it." He paused, then carefully offered, "So tell you what: you can drive the jeep and come with us to follow the Blues, OR…you can stay behind here. At the base. With Donut, and the little wolf with all the piercings and tattoos and…sex drive. And also the demon, and also the angry pony who likes to fuckin’ punch people in the face."

Grif paused in the doorway, his shoulders slumping slightly as one of the cradled rations tumbled to the floor. "Goddammit," he sighed, rolling his head back with a groan before glaring over his shoulder. "There’s really no right answer to get me out of this, is there?"

"Not really," Simmons replied with a shrug of his own; he then leaned down to snatch up a few additional rations. "C’mon, let’s go before Sarge starts yelling again."

"For once we can agree on something," the chubby soldier grumbled, lazily kicking the dropped meal package in front of him as he trundled down the hall and toward the entrance.

 

The two soldiers emerged just as Lone and Sarge were cinching down a box of ammunition, flanked by the other supplies that had already been loaded. "There ya are, ya lazy lump!" the veteran chupadore barked with an impatient nod toward the back of the jeep. "Get those poor excuses for food packed in! Don’t wanna miss another minute of moonlight! Nothin’ like huntin’ Blues by the light of the stars themselves!"

"You have some weird fetishes, Sarge," Grif mumbled while carelessly dumping his armful of rations into the vehicle’s bed. "Simmons said he’s too much of a pussy to drive, so gimme the keys."

"Simmons! I thought you grew a tougher pair of cojones after you got yer ass kicked by that boy with the wings! Real disappointed, son!" the sergeant exclaimed as he tossed the keys to Grif, who promptly missed them in the low light. He shrugged and dropped down to search for them as Simmons made a face and rolled his eyes.

"I never said…you know what, fuck it, I call--"

"Shotgun!" Sarge interrupted, holding up his enormous firearm with a toothy grin. "Matches the weapon! Yer too slow, Simmons, you need to show some more initiative if you want that promotion."

"Yes, sir," the lanky soldier replied dejectedly, shooting Grif a sour look before wrinkling his muzzle at Lone, who waved awkwardly from the other side of the jeep. "Great." He hurriedly hopped over the side to claim half of the bench-style seat in back, barely attempting to mask his intentions as he quickly grabbed a few of the smaller loose boxes and shoved them into the middle of the seat.

Lone flattened his ears with a huff and crossed his arms moodily. "Wow, okay, first of all, I am nothing like Mahihko, and--"

He was cut off when the aforementioned male all but exploded into existence next to the taller lupine with a cooing laugh. "That’s right, everyone likes Mahihko!" he chirped before grabbing the back of Lone’s head in a motion too quick for the more masculine wolf to avoid. He forced a deep kiss onto his flailing companion that lasted several seconds before Lone was finally able to shove free with a gasp, cheeks flushed and legs trembling slightly.

"God…fucking…dammit, you TAWDRY WHORE!" he yelled, which only made Mahihko grin broadly and lean to the side to eye the three chupadores.

"Anyone else want a goodbye kiss, eh? Eh? Sarge? M’boy Grif? You look like you could use a smooch."

"Fuck off, dude, that shit isn’t even funny," the pudgy soldier grumbled, rushing to jump into the driver’s seat while leaning away from the feminine lupine.

Lone clambered into the back of the jeep still cursing under his breath as Simmons tilted his head away uncomfortably, while Sarge only waved a hand dismissively at the cheerful lupine.

"I appreciate that passionate Red spirit, son, but we ain’t got the time! We got Blues to hunt!" He grunted and gestured toward the other end of the canyon, barely visibly beneath the natural luminosity of the clear night sky. "You’n Donut keep this place clean, and I’ll owe ya one." He paused, then squinted at Mahihko with a more serious expression. "And make sure that pony-boy don’t start no war without me. I’ll whoop his tail from here to Omegrad if he thinks he’s gonna kick up some dust the minute I ain’t got eyes on him no more!"

Mahihko tossed off a salute, his eyes twinkling as he answered enthusiastically: "Yessir! I’ll keep a real close eye on things here, and make sure I’m coverin’ Donut’s flank so’s I can prevent any, uh…sneak…attacks? By…those dirty Blues?"

Grif and Simmons shared a horrified look, while Lone simply pursed his lips in annoyance. Sarge, however, laughed loudly and slapped the side of the jeep with the huge shotgun. "You catch on quick! Remind me to enlist you as a dang official Private in the glorious Red Army when we return, soldier! You got the makin’s of a real go-getter, even if ya are a damn exploding alien! You’d have your own platoon in no time with that attitude!"

"Sir, I’d be happy to cover your flank, too!" Simmons blurted out, earning a guffaw from the orange soldier behind the wheel. "I’ve also got a real go-getter attitude!"

"Yeah, a real go-getter for Sarge’s balls," Grif chortled as he twisted the keys in the ignition to coax the powerful engine into life.

"Simmons, now you’re just stealing that fuzzy boy’s ideas," Sarge commented. "You gotta think outside the box if you want to make it to where I am!"

"Wow, a whole two ranks above where you are now, that’s totally worth sacrificing the last of your dignity," Grif noted mildly. He peered at Sarge, who apparently did not hear what he’d said, and immediately spoke in a louder tone before Simmons could complain: "Which direction, Sarge?"

"Well, if I was a stinkin’, cowardly Blue…I’d be makin’ a bee-line straight to our territories to the east! Bet that Freelancer is leadin’ ‘em right to our boys over there to finally win it back! We-hell, not on my watch, no sir," he growled.

"Didn’t, ah…didn’t we come to the conclusion that the Freelancer was dead?" Lone interjected delicately.

Sarge’s brow simply furrowed further. "Probably just a bunch of counterespionage, wolf-thing! The Blues just want us to think they’re wanderin’ out there, lost and alone, with absolutely no real goal in mind!"

"Oh." Lone cleared his throat, scratching the back of his head sheepishly and figuring it was better to avoid reminding Sarge that the Blue soldiers had mentioned the dead female long before they’d gone to the Red base. "Uh. Of course."

"Damn right!" Sarge announced, sounding as if he was agreeing with himself more than anything else. "So, Private Useless Orange Blob! Get us outta this canyon ‘n follow the stars to the east! We’re headin’ to Lactan!"

Grif looked blankly at his superior officer for a few moments before glancing at Simmons expectantly. The maroon chupadore rolled his eyes before holding an arm out to point silently to the entrance of the canyon. "Just…go that way, Grif," he sighed. "Follow the road for now."

The chubby soldier shrugged aimlessly, flicking the switch for the powerful headlights and slamming his paw into the accelerator to send the military vehicle roaring in a wide circle. Lone had to scramble to grab the side of the jeep to avoid being flung out, his eyes widening in shock as he was suddenly reminded why he preferred to be the one behind the wheel. Simmons gave a surprised cry of his own, clutching into Sarge’s headrest while the eldest soldier only settled down in the hard seat with a half-smile.

Lone grimaced as the jeep straightened out with a kick of gravel, keeping his firm grip on the bedrail while taking a look behind them to spot Mahihko standing – as promised – on top of the base. He could just make out the silhouette of the feminine lupine blowing a kiss toward the jeep as it rumbled toward the gap in the canyon walls. Real cute, asshole… He snorted softly despite himself and then shifted back around to gaze through the windshield. Riding with a bunch of fuzzy aliens in the middle of the night to hunt down some other fuzzy aliens on the other side of a pointless planetary war…no, this is fine…




Confidence Man

 

"Private! Who authorized that dye-job?! Pink is not a regulation color in this Army!"

The grey-furred chupadore cocked his head and glanced over his shoulder, smoothly rolling down his sleeve in a casual motion while nonchalantly shifting the armor at his side to reveal the small insignia embossed into the shoulders. He flexed his toned frame leisurely, drawing the other male's gaze to the large tattoo of a crossed sword and pistol burned into his back. The fur around it was recently trimmed, making it extremely visible to the glaring soldier who approached.

"Terribly sorry, sir," he drawled, hiding his smile as he took note of the way the corporal immediately frowned and shifted uncomfortably as his eyes moved from the newcomer's bold tattoo to the insignia on his armor. The grey fi'la took no small internal delight watching the noncommissioned officer realize the oddly-shaded soldier technically held the same rank. "It was an awful prank at my last base, those guys thought it’d be funny…ain’t been able to wash it out no matter what I try."

He glanced over the dark red chupadore standing stiffly behind him, noting the bags under his pale eyes and the way his tail continuously twitched as he clutched a clipboard against his chest. This guy is either trying too hard or he’s being overworked…probably both. "I…Sergeant Marsden didn’t mention that the new transfer was a Specialist," the enlisted soldier muttered, taking a moment to glower down at the papers attached to his clipboard and chewing at his pen in what was likely one of the frazzled corporal’s many nervous tics. "It says here, Private Edward Shell from Outpost 15…and I got this directly from the sergeant…"

The specialist frowned for a split-second before flashing a much more welcoming smile, offering a helpless shrug. "Not sure what to say, Corporal. Must be a clerical error – Shell was back at 15, that’s true enough. But he’s still laid up, suffered a leg wound from a raid brought down on us from one of the last Blue footholds around here. I’m…Specialist Holmes," he replied with the smallest pause, nodding once and holding out his hand. "Thomas Holmes."

A second or two passed as the corporal studied both the offered hand, as well as the snug black bandanna wrapped around the stranger’s wrist. An awkward pause later, the other ranked soldier hesitantly grasped the grey chupadore’s hand and shook it once. "Corporal William Barnes," he half-mumbled before releasing the specialist’s hand and quickly jotting down the name offered by the new arrival in the margin of his log sheet. "I’ll, uh…I’ll have to verify this with Command…all those recent attacks from those stubborn Blues in the mountains, we’re supposed to maintain a close watch to avoid any spies." He wrinkled his muzzle before sighing and shifting his weight from one paw to the other. "Why…did they transfer you here, anyway? Other than the ammunition depot, this base doesn’t have much to set it apart from the others. And the Red Army has Qoppa fairly locked down, it’s been declared in our possession for several months now. And I know neither myself nor the sergeant requested assistance."

Holmes shrugged again and nodded toward the recently-polished sniper rifle leaning against the lockers nearby. "I’ve been sent to a few different bases over the last couple months. Usually wherever Command says intel suggests a potential raid. My specialty is long-to-medium range targets. I’m usually sent to scout out possible locations for a Blue rendezvous and then, well…" He winked, cocking his head slightly as Barnes self-consciously rubbed a hand against his neck. "Try to cut ‘em off before they get too far. But hopefully y’all won’t need it here! You got a full barracks, from what I’ve seen, and the men here look sharp. All appropriate praise to you and your sergeant."

Barnes frowned again, looking somewhat pacified for a moment only to shake his head quickly before his body could completely relax. "Uh…right, well. Before we can assign you a bunk and bring you in for the daily briefing, I need to confirm your information with Command, or at least see if I can get a confirmation on the error from Outpost 15."

The specialist gave a short but amused laugh, waving a hand a few times as he returned to stripping the last of his armor from his legs. "Sure, go ahead! Rules are rules – you can lock me in here if you need to, I won’t be offended." Barnes looked surprised at this, hesitation crossing his features once more. "Oh, and tell Rourke I said hi, and that my tattoo is still better than his," Holmes added cheerfully.

Corporal Barnes hesitated for a few seconds, but eventually nodded briefly and turned to leave the locker room, his clipboard once more clutched firmly to his armored chest. The still-seated chupadore glanced up at the sound of the door sliding shut…followed by the distinct breep of the security panel being activated from the outside. "Sonuvabitch," he muttered, immediately hopping up from the bench and kicking off his remaining piece of leg armor with a scowl.

The spry fi’la was no more than five-and-a-half feet tall, representing the bottom range of the average height for his species. His features suggested a rather solid lupus bloodline despite his relatively shorter stature, which seemed to be confirmed by his sleek yet stocky build. The thicker-than-usual hide covering his frame was almost entirely an uncommon shade of grey, save for a half-diamond of white fur that began just under his jaw and came to a point somewhere above his navel. Both neck and upper chest were scruffier than usual, giving away somewhat the location of his bitterly cold homeland.

If one studied the odd chupadore carefully, they would also notice the small telltale holes in his lower jaw and at the base of his tail – locations of piercings he currently had removed in an attempt to at least somewhat meet the strict criteria for physical appearance of an enlisted soldier. As Barnes had almost immediately latched onto: the almost-silver chupa sported a pink-dyed tail tuft…which matched the very bases of his claws, where a hastily-removed paint job of the same defiant pink still remained visible, should one care enough to inspect closely.

The nonconforming chupadore quickly turned to dig through the duffel bag at his paws, tossing out a few clips of ammunition and several pieces of spare under-armor and casual wear before finally coming across a battered communication device, covered equally in dents, scratches and electrical tape. It looked like a heavily-modified radio that had seen its fair share of rough situations; despite the outward appearance, however, it crackled to life the moment the chupa’s claw punched in a series of numbers on the keypad that had been wired to the front. Several short beeps sounded from the worn speaker in patterned succession before they were almost instantly followed by a grouchy female voice.

"Sammy, goddammit, you know you aren’t supposed to use this line if you’re within a hundred yards of an active base!"

"Then I’ll make it quick, Nelson," the grey fi’la shot back coolly, glaring down at the handset. "Good news is the encryption seems to be holding up fine, give my love to Ricky. Bad news is that you fed them the wrong fuckin’ name."

"What?!" The static-laced voice bubbled with both frustration and concern.

"Yeah, and not only that, but apparently they have a corporal here who’s a goddamn bureaucrat junkie currently en route to contact both Red Command and Outpost 15 to verify my identity," he explained as he kicked moodily at one of the spare clips of armor-piercing rounds to send it skittering across the concrete floor. "So you got about two or three minutes to get your asses in gear, get a correction into Command’s recent orders and also run a hot patch for a direct link to 15." He paused, then smiled slightly despite the mounting concerns. "Those nerds gonna be able to work that out, or am I gonna die in a locker room that doesn’t have even one hot naked guy around to grant me my final wish?"

There was a few beats of silence punctuated only by the steady crackling of the communicator before the female’s voice came through once more, trimmed with an unexpected confidence. "We can handle it. I know I don’t need to say this, but don’t lose your cool, Sammy. And…hey." A pause long enough for an unseen sigh. "Be careful, okay? All you gotta do is get them to send the bullets to Red Headquarters…that should take at least three or four weeks for them to work out the issue and have the ammo shipped back to the depot. And that’s it, understand? Do NOT do something stupid, like--"

"Of course, I got it," he interrupted effortlessly, a devious smile spreading across his muzzle. "Hey, your words, Nelson – shouldn’t be using this line, I gotta dash. See you in a week or two, lady." He switched off the radio before the voice on the other end could shout anything else, chuckling softly as he tossed it back into his bag. "As if I would do anything stupid," ‘Holmes’ said to the empty room as he returned some of the other loose items to the duffel to cover the radio before the masquerading chupadore dropped back onto the bench, legs splayed comfortably in an inviting pose. And now we wait to see if those guys are as good as they like to think they are…

He spent the next five or six minutes attempting uselessly to scratch at the small of his back through the taut black material that accentuated his toned frame. The bristly fur surrounding the large tattoo positioned above his tail had just begun to grow in once more after the last time he’d had help shaving it down…it was difficult to imagine anything itchier. A scowl grew on his features as he arched his back and clawed wildly at his spine with both hands from two different angles before finally finding the right spot. He let out a delighted groan and stretched his legs out as his tail stood nearly straight up behind him, his recently-de-painted claws curling slightly in happiness…right as the door to the locker room slid open.

The so-called ‘Holmes’ peered between his half-lifted legs to spot Corporal Barnes – who looked something between horrified and speechless – and another soldier, fully armed and holding a battle rifle to his chest. The other Red soldier’s expression was less morbid and more surprised, instead…and perhaps entranced by the grey-furred chupadore that made absolutely zero attempt to change position. At this point it was almost impressive how steadily the specialist held his legs up as the awkward silence spun out between the three soldiers. "Uh…hi, how are ya? Itchy back!" So now I either die in the weirdest position ever, ooor…

Barnes sighed and rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. "Private Jacobs will show you where you can sleep. We don’t have an open room, I’m afraid, so you’ll have to share with Jacobs and Ronson." He nodded toward the muscular soldier at his side even as he began to walk away. "The private just came back from a patrol – Jacobs, please take Specialist Holmes to his bunk and give him a tour before you go off-duty."

"Please, just Holmes is fine," Samael Wurlitz said cheerfully after dropping his legs, hopping off the bench and strolling up to the larger chupadore to offer his hand once again. "Thanks, Corporal!" he called after Barnes, receiving a muffled grumble from the lanky Red soldier who had already disappeared around a corner.

An enormous hand gripped into Samael’s own, drawing his attention back to the nearly-seven-foot-tall canis soldier before him. The stocky chupadore had a light brown coat covering his well-built frame, with a standard military trim applied to his dark brown mane, which matched the thick tuft at the end of his tail. ‘Holmes’ whistled amusedly and pumped the private’s hand several times before reaching up to rap his knuckles against the almost-too-small armor that seemed to barely contain the large male’s brawny torso. "Holy shit, do they grow ‘em big out here!" Samael remarked with a grin.

"Uh…yeah, I suppose so," the massive soldier replied sheepishly. "So…" He peered over the head of the much-shorter chupadore at the oversized rifle propped against the lockers. "You’re a sniper, huh? That’s awesome…Ronson, he’s my bunkmate and also my friend, he wanted to try out to use one of those, but…well, he wasn’t so good at it."

 "Well ain’t that a shame! I’m sure it’s alright, though, by the looks of ya, it’s best to deal with you up close and personal," Samael chuckled, hefting his duffel bag over one shoulder while pushing the various pieces of his armor against the bench for the time being. "I’m guessing I can come back for that later," he commented. Jacobs nodded a few times as the specialist grabbed his gigantic rifle in the other hand and then gestured to the hallway. "Lead on, new friend! And hey, if you and Private Ronson want, I’d be more than happy to show you guys some pointers on, uh…heh, handling my rifle."

"Do you mean sex?" Jacobs asked bluntly as he turned and ambled out of the room, leaving Samael to pause in amused surprise for a moment. "We aren’t supposed to have sex with each other, it’s against Army protocol."

"Wow, you sure don’t mind calling shit like it is," the smaller chupadore noted, smiling with entertainment as he followed the enormous soldier. "We could always use more of that."

"But…I’m already in the Red Army," Jacobs replied slowly, which earned a laugh from the grey-and-white chupa behind him.

"Of course, of course! By 'we', I meant…the elite soldiers like me, who get sent around to help out wherever needed," Samael lied smoothly as he pounded a fist against his chest a couple times. This seemed to perk up Jacobs, which was enough for Samael to continue casually: "And hey, man, that whole…no-sex thing, that’s just related to fraternization with officers, when you think about it. You know, they don’t want someone claiming they get special treatment just ‘cause they’re shackin’ up with their lieutenant, know what I mean?"

"Oh. I guess that makes sense," the muscular soldier admitted before waving ‘Holmes’ into one of the bunk rooms. "This is our room, and that free bed is yours. But just so you know, Ronson and I aren’t gay. No one here is, because you’re not supposed to be according to the House."

"Absolutely," Samael responded firmly, barely hiding his smile. "No homo! We gotta follow the rules." He tossed his duffel bag onto the bed and absently rubbed at the black cloth pulled over his wrists, chuckling to himself and then resting the massive rifle against the concrete wall. "What’s a world without rules, after all…"

 Samael noticed the way Private Jacobs seemed to take the corporal’s word as law – he’d been told to give the new soldier a tour before going off-duty, and like clockwork, the muscular chupadore hadn’t made a single move to strip his armor or drop his weapon. He resisted trying to coax the soldier to relax; it required fighting his urges, but he figured he’d at least try to stick to some of Nelson’s directives. Guess it wouldn’t be too fun if I got fingered this early. He exhaled slowly and gathered himself, trying to remember the lessons from Nelson, from Anders…from Tracer. His eyes narrowed slightly and an air of focus gathered around him. Make the impression, then make the point.

"So, you boys seen any action lately?" Samael inquired as Jacobs led him back to the hall and down toward the mess. "Can’t help but notice that rifle looks real clean, Private. You gotta polish it often, or have things been quiet?"

"Sergeant Marsden says we should always be ready," the large soldier rumbled, even as he self-consciously relaxed his grip somewhat on the rifle to cradle it in his arms more than clutch it to his chest. "Those damn Blues should have all run off, they don’t got no flags left. But they’re still out there, raiding and trying to win back a flag." He paused at the entrance to the dining area long enough for Samael to poke his head in and nod briefly to the two soldiers hunched over the standard Red Army rations. "There were four or five Blues that were just outside our perimeter a couple weeks ago," Jacobs continued as he lumbered past the kitchen and gestured briefly at the brig. Samael didn’t need to spend much time there – you’ve seen one standard army brig, you’ve seen them all. "I was on lookout at the time…we fired at them, but didn’t hit any, they turned tail and ran when we started shooting."

"Ah, the cowards," Samael replied idly, not putting much effort into his tone but also avoiding any sarcasm that might make the soldier curious. "They shoot back at y’all?"

"Yes, sir, but they sure didn’t hit anything. Although a couple rounds hit the base just below my post, but I doubt they could have hit us if they were even half as far away." Jacobs sounded proud of being so close to the danger, though that was nothing strange to Samael anymore. He’d come to learn that anyone who willingly signed up for the war thrived on that rush of beating the odds almost more than the excitement of eliminating an enemy. He smiled slightly and patted the small of Jacob’s back a few times.

"That’s the Red Army courage I’m always lookin’ for, Private," Samael responded with a cheerful laugh. "Good to hear I’ll be working with such capable men!"

"Yes, sir, absolutely," Jacobs declared before looking sheepish for a moment. "Also, you can call me Jacobs, sir, if you like."

"Well, then you better remember to drop the ‘sir’ nonsense and call me Holmes, like I toldja," the imposter teased, flashing a grin and winking up at the towering soldier as they paused in front of the entrance to the garage. Jacobs flushed slightly with embarrassment, visibly fighting what had no doubt become ingrained behavior.

"Y-yes…si…er, Holmes," he managed to sputter before clearing his throat and attempting to draw attention to the vehicle bay and away from the lame smile that had spread over his features. "Here’s our garage – because of the ammunition depot, we were able to get permission for two permanent jeeps. It makes patrols a lot more effective, especially with all the mountains and hills around here."

Samael smiled thoughtfully as he studied the two armored vehicles – each had a mounted weapon and multiple boxes of spare ammunition, and both jeeps looked to be in pristine condition. Must have a helluva mechanic who actually gives a damn about his job… He nodded once in approval. "Definitely a great asset to have, I’ll bear that in mind!" We could use one of those. I think it’s time to make more friends.

"Yessi…I mean, yeah. We take four hour shifts, with eight hours between for training, sleep and meals," Jacobs explained as he continued toward the stairs that led to the first floor. "We do that day and night. It works okay because we have enough guys for constant patrols. We can head upstairs now, though, I'll show you the war room and where the officers are usually posted if you ever need to ask them something…"

Samael bit his tongue before he could make a dry comment about the fact that nearly all Army bases -- both Red and Blue -- were almost identical. He would need an extra pair of hands to count how many times he'd been guided through these bland concrete structures in his journeys across Sirca. He wasn't sure what dumbass decided the tour should be a vital part of transferring to a new base…but he wasn't about to break tradition.

As expected, nothing in their brisk jaunt across the top floor piqued the grey chupadore's interests. He nodded absently and made the occasional politely-curious comment as his guide enthusiastically led him along the circular layout. War room, utilities…maybe worth taking a peek in the armory if the opportunity arises. Half-distracted by his thoughts, the short-statured imposter nearly collided with the back of the massive soldier when Jacobs slowed near the private officers' chambers. Samael caught himself just in time and glanced at the three doors in tandem -- he supposed the sergeant occupied one, his corporal the second…why the third wasn't available, he imagined he'd need to find out. Or maybe Barnes just doesn't want me to have a room because the new mysterious transfer is way cooler than he is…

Private Jacobs paused for a moment at the room labeled with Barnes's name, self-consciously straightening his spine and clutching his gun properly before rapping sharply on the door. There was a muffled grumble on the other side, followed by the telltale shuffle of paperwork that was distinguishable even through the thick metal surface.

The door swung open a moment later, framing Barnes's tired features as he glanced wearily between the two. "Yes, Private?"

Samael had half-hoped they'd catch the corporal in some compromising situation, feeling almost disappointed at the expression that suggested exhaustion rather than surprise or embarrassment. Jacobs, on the other hand, seemed preoccupied with his sharp salute and the hurried announcement that followed: "Sir! I'm just reporting that I've nearly finished giving Holmes the tour!"

"That's very good, Jacobs," the corporal mumbled, rubbing slowly at the bridge of his muzzle. "Also, he is a Specialist, you should use his rank when addressing him."

"It's fine," Samael interjected airily. He promptly earned a scowl from Barnes but it was just as promptly ignored. "I'm simply used to combat situations, you see, the shorter the command, the better," he explained smoothly, half-smiling when Barnes frowned but seemed hesitant to argue. "No worries, ain't here to undermine the day-to-day! I've just always had the guys use my name; I'm not in the business of giving orders, after all. I'll leave that to you and the sergeant. Point out my targets, I'll make 'em go poof."

Barnes shifted on his paws for a moment, then sighed. "Yeah, alright. Private, have you shown Specialist Holmes the depot yet? I suppose if that's the reason Command had him transferred here, we'd better be sure he's aware of its importance."

"Good idea, sir! I was just -- I mean, yessir!" Jacobs stuttered, saluting quickly again before jerking his head at Samael and marching swiftly toward the main entrance of the base. "This way, sir!"

Barnes responded with a weary salute and a barely-audible, "On your way, then," as he pushed the door shut. The 'specialist' peered thoughtfully at the corporal's door momentarily before trotting after Jacobs with a chuckle.

"Tight ship 'round here, eh? Ah, nothin' wrong with that, though, keeps the gears nice and snug," Samael commented. He scratched idly at his neck as he felt the eyes of the almost-tan male glance down at him curiously. "Don't mind me! I've seen lots of bases and every single one's run a little bit different'n the others." He nodded once and then tilted his head. "So, between us boys, what were you about to say to Barnes back there? Don't worry, I ain't gonna tell."

Jacobs frowned deeply as if pondering whether or not he could trust the newcomer…and probably also fighting the instincts that had been instilled firmly into his thought process. "Well…I just wanted to let the corporal know that I was already planning to show you the depot, but I didn't want to sound like I was coming across like a smart-ass or nothin'."

"Ah, understandable," Samael agreed, adding a few nods to punctuate his tone. The private looked relieved by this response, his body language loosening up once more even as Samael had to bite his tongue. It always became difficult for him to put the mission first when he came face-to-face with the very behavior he committed himself to try and break whenever he came across it.

But he had to push down the urge to challenge Jacobs's thought process -- trying to turn the soldier before he even had a chance to scope out his objective was almost guaranteed to either break his cover or at the very least make it extremely hard to maintain it. And so, Samael was left to simply watch as Jacobs reassured himself through his natural submission to order before leading 'Holmes' outside.

Samael shook his head a few times but resumed his relaxed posture and eased expression as they passed a patrolling soldier, sharing a brief exchange of salutes (and one helplessly curious glance in the specialist’s direction) before continuing to the fortified structure just west of the base. It had the same cylindrical shape as the average Red or Blue base, though it certainly looked like it had been constructed to serve specifically as a storage facility.

The roof was now flanked with two guard towers – overkill, if Samael was giving his thoughts – that each appeared to be manned by a single soldier. What Samael assumed was the only entrance was protected by a steel shutter mounted as a door, with a complex electronic lock to one side. A third guard was posted near the secured entrance, wielding the same battle rifle as most of the other soldiers they’d encountered on their small tour.

Jacobs led his audience of one to the shutter, pausing to once again trade salutes with the private on guard. "Hey, Ronson, This is our new bunkmate."

Samael couldn’t hide the sly grin that crept across his muzzle as he drew his eyes along the second impressive mountain of Red Army recruit that had filled his gaze that day. Jacobs’s aforementioned roommate was probably only half a foot shorter than the towering canis, but the deep-red, almost-black equus was just as thick with bulging musculature that for a moment, the shorter, sleeker and just-about-dwarfed Samael wondered for a moment if this base was receiving some sort of hormonal enhancements.

Ronson’s slow tilt of his head to examine the diminutive fi’la prompted Samael out of his reverie, and the grey-furred chupadore grinned once more while thrusting his hand out. "Hot damn, you boys must be losin’ sleep with how much you’re hittin’ the weights, never seen a finer pair of Reds!"

Jacobs puffed his chest out proudly, finally seeming to lose some of his ingrained behavior around his friend. "Yeah! Me and Ronson work out twice a day so we’re always ready to kick Blue ass, no matter the scenario!" He nodded firmly, then whispered loudly to his curious bunkmate: "Ronson, this is Specialist Holmes…he’s a real sniper!"

The dark-crimson soldier widened his eyes before hurriedly saluting and assuming a rigid stance. "S-sir! Forgive me, sir, I didn’t know your rank!"

‘Holmes’ laughed easily, forcing himself to return the salute for the sake of any wandering eyes. But he immediately reached out after the lazy gesture to slap the massive soldier’s bulky arm. "No harm! I already had the talk with your friend here – I ain’t nothin’ but a glorified grunt who got promoted for fancy shootin’. Call me Holmes – it’s what I expect in battle, so it’s what I expect everywhere else. There’s never a good time to waste on formalities in the heat of a fight, so don’t bother with it here at base, neither."

Ronson twitched nervously, his eyes flicking between the genial newcomer and his beaming roommate. Jacobs nodded several times before giving a thumbs up. "It’s true! He asked the same thing of me! And he gets to bunk with us, ‘cause the other officer’s room is still being used for storage."

The hesitant equus looked back and forth a few times before lowering his arm. He leaned forward slightly, which of course prompted Samael to gleefully bend toward the enormous soldier conspiratorially. "That’s awesome!" he whispered excitedly. "Do you have your rifle? Could I try it out, sir?!?"

Samael chuckled and patted the private’s chest plate. "Absolutely, but only if you remember to call me Holmes, Ronson."

Not being addressed as ‘Private’ seemed to confuse the gigantic chupadore momentarily, but after a few seconds he began to nod. "Oh…oh, right! Okay, s…I mean, okay, Holmes!" He grinned broadly as he clutched his battle rifle against his chest, his features lit up like a child with his first invitation to sit at the adults’ table. "Wow, I can’t believe it…a real sniper at our base! It’s a good thing Trellen never got replaced!" The bulging soldier paused for a beat as he peered down at Samael’s bemused expression. "Oh, unless you’re his replacement."

"Uh…no, no. Transfer from Command," the smaller male lied easily before he cocked his head. "What, uh. What happened to Trellen, though?"

"Oh, he got shot," Jacobs answered glumly, his grip tightening around his own weapon. "Those cowardly Blue assholes got him when he was doing a perimeter sweep. His bunk’s been empty for about a month, now."

"Ah, well. Hopefully I’ll have better luck in his bed," Samael replied delicately, his half-smile only somewhat genuine. Another stupid waste of an innocent pawn…fuckin’ hell.

Ronson flushed somewhat – a feat made impressive considering his nearly-ebony fur. "I hope you aren’t talking about sex stuff. You know we aren’t allowed to do that, it’s against the rules!" he exclaimed.

Samael had to bite his tongue to avoid the ever-present risk of breaking his own cover. Omega’s ass, why does everyone assume I’m always talking about fuckin’ ‘em. Even if I am. Shit’s rude.

But Jacobs waved a hand quickly, offering a smile of reassurance. "Don’t worry, Ronson! I already explained the regulations, and besides – he’s a specialist, so he probably knows the rules even better than us! He can tell us if there’s anything that goes against protocol, that way we don’t have to bother the corporal with it!"

Samael raised an eyebrow. Either I’m gonna learn something really intriguing, or these poor guys really are just the dumbest sack of bricks I’ve been placed with yet. Well…at least they’re cute. He smiled before either of the tall soldiers could notice his curious look, tapping his muzzle with a wink. "’Course I know the rules! And I’d be happy to let you know what Red Command has to say about anything you’re unclear on. But for now…" He gestured to the metal shutter behind Ronson’s bulky frame. "Mind if I get a quick peek inside so I know what we’re protecting?"

The enormous chupadore fell into his training almost immediately despite Samael’s amiable posturing. He stiffened up slightly and readjusted the grip on his weapon, then glanced nervously between the specialist and his guide. "S-sir, I mean, Holmes, sir…are you, um…are you authorized to ask me to open the door? There is a level 2 protocol in place for this facility, and I require a--"

"Authorization from your CO, unless level 3 clearance can be provided," Samael rattled off brusquely with a brief shake of his head. "I know, kid, I know. All I'm sayin' is Corporal Barnes ordered Jacobs here to show the new specialist the ammunition storage, and I'm the new specialist." He paused before adding in a more playful tone: "You don't wanna get your buddy in trouble, eh? And man, just between us dudes, Barnes seems like the kinda guy who might get mad at both of you if his orders ain't followed." He held up his palms with a small smile. "Just wanna get this done with so I can stop buggin' you boys with all my whinin' and bitchin'."

Jacobs frowned somewhat, although his response wasn't quite what Samael expected: "Ronson…well, Holmes is right. Corporal Barnes did tell me to show him the depot, and he did seem very busy today. Plus I heard the corporal on the radio with Command -- Holmes actually has level 4 clearance."

Samael barely managed to withhold his shocked expression, covering his muzzle with one hand and forcing the most reserved nod he could spare. Sonuvawhore…that bitch, ha! Way to sneak in some BS security levels just to show off, assholes. No wonder Barnes seemed so grumpy, that guy probably only has level 2…

"Oh gosh, wow," Ronson exclaimed despite his attempts at remaining professional, hurriedly saluting again with some innate reflex. His eyes were wide once more as his tail twitched from side to side before he quickly spun around, one hand still on his brow, and then looked down stupidly at the battle rifle still clutched in his other meaty fist. "Uh, um…j-just a second, sir, I mean…I mean, Holmes." He fumbled with his weapon for a moment and then quickly produced a card from one of the small niches built into his armor. Rotating passcodes. Guess that's no shock. After staring at the tiny text for a few seconds, the huge equus carefully punched in a series of numbers with his sausage-like finger, very visibly struggling not to accidentally hit an adjacent key. He was rewarded with a soft beep shortly after, a look of relief washing over his features as he stepped back. The thick metal shutter twitched before lurching briskly up into its container as the dark room beyond slowly became illuminated by a series of lights that audibly buzzed to life.

Samael smiled slightly. "Thank you kindly, Ronson. No need to be so nervous -- they just give me a bit of extra clearance with all the moving around they have me do. All the different bases have various levels of security, after all…"  One more lie to keep up, now…thanks a ton, Nelson. "I promise it ain't all that great, just means more shit I gotta keep memorized."

"Yeah, but still," the dark-crimson soldier replied excitedly, "you're almost like…like a Freelancer!"

The amused grin on the shorter male's features wavered. 'Holmes' reached toward a shoulder unconsciously and gave it a light squeeze before he quickly shook his head and managed to give a light chuckle. "Ha! If only, those guys are somethin' else. I doubt I'd be able to hang with any of them for very long."

A laugh from Ronson suggested that the slightly-shorter of the two privates was beginning to loosen up, which Samael warily took as a good sign. It was always helpful to have friendly faces around while under cover…even if becoming too much of a social butterfly could also spell suspicion. "Yeah, I guess those guys are really good," the equus admitted as he gestured for the specialist and his escort to come through the entrance. "But it does still sound like you're getting to do what they do…going from place to place using your skills to do whatever job you get told to do."

A more genuine smile played over the imposter's muzzle as he quickly eyed the neat piles of ammunition. You got no idea how right you are, friend. The crates of magazines, clips and loose bullets were sorted rigorously enough that Samael could confidently assume a certain corporal was in charge of keeping the depot orderly. A single computer workstation rested on a desk near the front of the warehouse-like room, along with a small array of communications devices. The rebel figured he could likely guess how operations worked here…or…

He tapped a still-tinged-pink claw against one of the crates labeled for the standard battle rifle ammunition. "So…I'm gonna assume bullets get delivered here, and then you all send them out whenever you're asked for them?" Provide intentionally bad information in order to get…

As if on script, Ronson piped up proudly: "Nope! I actually get to help out here because I've done such a great job with guarding the door!"

Jacobs scowled, ducking his head somewhat as he clutched his rifle close to his chest disconsolately. "It's not fair, I've been patrolling really good, but the corporal doesn't like me, so I haven't been able to guard the depot more than a few times."

"Ha! I told you, you gotta volunteer when they have empty slots to fill!" his friend replied with another laugh before turning his head back to Samael, who had wandered over to the powered-down computer. "So, you were right about the deliveries -- we get a shipment, usually by drop ship, sometimes by transport, an' then we gotta get it all sorted…but then we actually get calls directly from Command telling us where it all goes." Ronson nodded firmly as he nodded toward the workstation. "We get orders for how much gets sent where, and then we either pack it up to deliver it ourselves, or they send us a vehicle to load up." He gave a prideful arch of his chest, making the plates of his tight armor squeak gently in protest. "We're probably one of the most important bases in Qoppa, even if no one realizes it!"

Bingo.

"Oh, no doubt," the false Holmes responded with a wink while jabbing a finger toward the two Red soldiers. "You buys are protecting a helluva big deal here!" As he praised them loudly and continued to gesture around the room, his other hand slipped down to slide along the desk smoothly. "Hell, even I didn't know much about the depot, or how much you supplied before I got sent this way. It's a damn shame!" He shook his visible fist for emphasis just as his searching fingers came upon a slip of paper wedged beneath the keyboard, which he promptly palmed in a smooth sleight of hand. "Y'all deserve more recognition for what you do!"

"Damn straight, Holmes!" Jacobs shouted enthusiastically, his face lighting up with excitement. "Are you gonna tell everyone about the good job we're doing?"

"Sure am, you can count on that," Samael replied encouragingly as he sauntered back to the other side of the desk, feeding their sorely-neglected egos with each word. He realized how furious it made him that such a small boast could bring the soldiers so much pride, but it felt wrong to deny them the pleasure by that point. He couldn't do much to fix the indoctrination that had been poured into them, but at least he could help them learn some self-respect. "Boys, I'll be sure to have a word with your superiors, too, let 'em know it might do the troops some good if the rest of the Red Army knew how much they depended on your service here."

Ronson looked uncomfortable for a moment, but Jacobs clapped his friend firmly on the back and nodded several times. "Don't worry, he's really good with his words, Ronson. I've seen him talk to the corporal, he knows how to say stuff the right way, so we won't seem like we're complaining or anything." Wow, that didn't take long to get my first fan…

The equus still had a hesitant expression even as he slowly nodded in return. "Well…alright. I guess it would be nice if more guys knew how much we were doing to help the war effort. We work really hard here."

"That I've noticed," Samael commented while taking a few cursory steps around the first row of ammunition. He made a show of inspecting a random box of clips for a second or two before poking his head around it with an approving smile. "This is an impressive facility, fellas. I can see why I was sent here, even if they didn't tell me specifically to help keep an eye on the depot." He tipped them an exaggerated wink. "Sometimes ya learn to read between the lines with Command's orders."

Ronson and Jacobs looked at one another before shrugging collectively. Apparently it made sense to them, which was more than enough for Samael to grin confidently and approach them, throwing an arm over both of their rippling backs. "You two are stellar candidates for spec ops, you can bet your asses I'm gonna be recommending they take a look in your direction for new recruits. You boys ask the right questions but don't question every answer. Command likes that." Okay, they actually probably hate that, but the Movement sure appreciates it…

Despite his smaller build, the grey-furred chupadore guided the muscular soldiers easily forward and out of the ammunition storage building. A combination of his smooth chatter and effusive positivity seemed to give him a natural affinity over the eager-to-please privates, and neither of them seemed to notice when Samael took it upon himself to spin around to the control pad by the entrance as he continued rambling, studying the electronic device more closely for a few seconds before smiling to himself and tapping the necessary buttons to bring the heavy shutter back into place over the wide doorway. "And that's a fact!" he concluded easily, barely even aware of what he'd been spouting but assuming the stream-of-consciousness speech had done what it was intended to do and kept Ronson and Jacobs enthralled. "Much obliged for the peek inside, Ronson," the undercover agent added with a warm smile and another firm rap of his knuckles against the dark-red chupadore's chest plate.

"Of course, si--I mean, Holmes! It wasn't nothin', you had the clearance, after all."

"Sure, sure, but I appreciate it all the same. Sometimes it gets old bein' able to just 'clearance' your way into things, nice to earn trust now'n then, ya feel me?" Ronson nodded automatically, and his partner mimicked the motion a moment later. Samael smiled slightly and gave them both a nod back before giving the equus a salute purely for any curious gazes around them.

Ronson, of course, immediately returned it, but seemed far more relaxed than he'd been initially. "Good meetin' you, Ronson. I think I'd better head back and get settled in a bit more, then maybe see what the latest reports are on Blue activity. How about you and Jacobs meet me when you're off, we can grab a bite to eat together, you can tell me all there is to know about the fine base here, and I can see what all I can answer about special operations?"

"Th-…wow, that sounds great, sir!" Ronson said, unable to contain both his excitement and his informality, smiling sheepishly. "Uh…sorry, I meant 'Holmes'."

"It's all good! Nothin' wrong with keepin' your brain workin', anyway," Samael replied cheerfully. "I know it can get to be pretty damn numbing doin' the same shit, day in, day out…so don’t worry if ya gotta think a little more than usual." Ease up there, cowboy. Can't go blowing the floodgates on day one... "You keep up the good work, friend, and we'll see ya in a bit for some grub."

Ronson nodded again with a happy smile plastered on his muzzle. Samael assumed it wasn't often these soldiers had much to smile about, so who was he to judge him for his reaction to what felt like a rather commonplace gesture?

The fake 'Holmes' spun on his heel and gestured to Jacobs as he let his paws guide him back to the base even while his eyes roved along the exterior of the depot to continue taking an any details he could spot. Alright. They have lots of security and no shortage of spare bodies to throw on patrol…but nothing I haven't dealt with before.

He was brought out of his thoughtful reverie when Jacobs poked his shoulder lightly. "So, uh…what do you think so far, Holmes?"

Samael shook his head once before smiling over his shoulder and up at the tall soldier. "A real fine base, I think! Top-notch men, a well-guarded depot…what else could a guy ask for?"

Jacobs didn't seem to know how to answer that as he scratched the back of his neck for a moment, and Samael gave him an almost pitying look before clearing his throat and reaching up to pat his arm gently. "A rhetorical question, buddy! I'm just tellin' you that I think you guys are doing a great job and shouldn't get too worked up about being told otherwise. I'm not trying to call anyone out, but it does seem a little bit like the brass around here would rather nitpick every little issue and keep you boys on high alert at all times, rather than give a little praise now'n then." He shrugged amiably, doing his best not to seem overly radical even as the soldier looked at him awkwardly. "Like I said before! I been all over and I've seen all kinds of leaders…everyone's got a different method. And I figure if no one else says it -- you're doin' this Army proud."

"Oh! Well…thanks! I think…" Jacobs continued to look a little bit unsure of himself as they passed back through the main base entrance.

Samael didn't bother replying to that, simply allowing the private to mull over whether or not he should be worried about his superiors' thoughts on the specialist's choice of words. "I'm gonna go unpack a bit," 'Holmes' commented up to the tall soldier, giving his usual half-smile. "You gonna come hang out, or you got stuff to do?"

 "Oh, no, I gotta go check out with the watch desk to file my report before I go off-duty," Jacobs explained sheepishly, as if he'd really been looking forward to spending a bit of down time with someone who wasn't a member of the base.

Gods above, they have a damn watch desk here, too? The two assholes in charge of this place are living a whole fantasy out here, thinkin' they're some hot shit High Command facility. Just an ammunition depot, fellas…but guess that's why I'm a fuckin' rebel… He smiled a bit once more, then slapped Jacobs's arm lightly. "Ah, that's all good! Go take care of that, I'm sure I've been a thorn in your side enough already, friend. Don't worry, you'll know where to find me afterward." He tossed a light salute, again having it returned far more sharply before Jacobs turned rapidly around and moved at double-time toward the main barracks. Samael watched him for a moment, eyeing the muscular soldier's rump appreciatively -- and shamelessly -- before chuckling and sauntering back to the small room he'd been assigned. At least he'd have a few minutes to himself to unwind and get out of character before he broke it under the pressure of having to constantly toe the line.

 

A couple of hours later, 'Holmes' was back in play with Samael sitting between Jacobs and Ronson as the two towering solders both leaned over him with their barrage of questions. He chewed idly at the bone that remained on his plate, using it on occasion to gesture and emphasize a point.

"Oh, well…honestly, level 4 isn't all that great," he commented as he shrugged easily, both the other soldiers gasping at the nonchalance of the specialist. "I mean…the secrets aren't really all that awesome, I promise. It's mostly just access to some of the research that the Red Army is doing around Sirca…you can request the weapons you want, as long as you qualify for 'em…uh…" Samael tapped his muzzle thoughtfully. "Oh, and we get unrestricted Network access. That's pretty sweet." That part's not technically a lie…the clever bastards back at the base got those computers hooked up with full 'net capabilities…if these boys could see all the crazy shit  out there!

"Whoa! You get to log in? I haven't even seen a PET except the one the Sergeant keeps in his room…" Ronson marveled as he widened his eyes a bit.

Samael quirked an eyebrow with a slight grin. "Ah, your Sarge likes a bit of skin before bed, eh?"

Ronson blinked before shaking his head violently. "Oh, no no! Nothing like that...Sargeant Marsden pulls up videos from the Red Army network to play on Entertainment Nights."

"Oh, of course," the imposter replied amusedly before slurping down the last of his water and wiping at his muzzle. "'Entertainment Night', huh? Guess that makes sense, but uh…" He leaned toward Ronson conspiratorially as Jacobs stared and bent toward them as well. Samael politely waited a moment for both privates to press in before whispering loudly: "But is it even remotely entertaining??"

The equus looked away awkwardly as his canis compatriot stared down at Samael, clearly not believing he actually asked that. Jacobs worked his maw a few times, then finally sputtered: "Well, I mean, of course it is! It's from Red Army Command, they know exactly what we need for morale!" He stared in disbelief at his friend. "Right, Ronson?!?"

"Uh...well…" Ronson cleared his throat uncomfortably and then looked around furtively before whispering loudly: "Jacobs, those…those videos are really boring! I mean…they're…they're informative, but they're so boring." He rubbed his tight undershirt nervously -- even without their armor, both soldiers were still ridiculously thick, which provided Samael with plenty of welcome distractions as he listened to them fret about their loyalty to the company line.

Jacobs huffed loud enough to draw the shorter chupadore from his reverie. "Well…they're informative, that's all! We need to know what we can do to help win the war faster."

"I dunno…it just mostly seems like the same clips lately, and then some new type of ammo, or new grenade or…" Ronson scowled as he tapped a claw insistently on the table. "I just think they aren't trying very hard, that's all!"

Samael had to struggle to maintain his neutral face despite the immense burst of pride he felt. That's what Tracer would call finding fertile soil. Next we plant the seed, and water it. He managed to show just a small smile as he tilted his head toward the deep-crimson soldier. "You boys feel free to express yourselves -- remember, I ain't here to pass gossip up the chain of command. If anything, I can promise you the top brass likes hearing some unfiltered thoughts now'n then from the front lines. There's a reason you report to superiors, and they report to theirs, and so on…helps keep the bullshit separated. But don't mean they still aren't wondering what the thick-skulled grunts like us are thinkin'."

"Well…I don't know if you'd be lumped in with us," Jacobs mumbled, suddenly losing some of his gusto for considering the new transfer to be a close friend. "You've got all those security clearances, sir."

'Holmes' tilted his head toward the almost-pouting private with an amused smile, reaching up to tap his muzzle with a claw. The muscular soldier scowled and batted at the smaller chupadore's hand, but the specialist was insistent, poking the grumpy canis in his neck and shoulder until Jacobs finally gave up on trying to slap him away. "Listen, dude -- I only got that clearance 'cause of all the travelin' and transferin' they got me doin'. I'm no different from the Holmes you were chattin' with earlier. Just a grunt with a big gun and sore paws." He shook his head once and gripped Jacobs's thick bicep firmly. "Don’t put me on a pedestal, friends. I'm nothin' but a cocky shooter from Sampi who spends most of my time in shit so far over my head that I'm prayin' for a ladder. So don't you go thinkin' I'm disingenuous -- I can barely spell the word, let alone act it, yeah?"

Ronson looked curiously at Jacobs, one of his enormous hands resting supportively on the smaller male's shoulders as the skeptical expression slowly melted from the other private's features. Samael quietly pushed down his bubbling sense of guilt -- it wasn't that much guilt, if he was going to be honest, but he still felt a little scummy for chastising the honest concern of an honest soldier…it wasn't uncommon, after all, for guys within even the same unit to run accusations of their fellow soldiers up the flagpole in the hopes of getting some reward or leniency. If anything, he appreciated that Jacobs wasn't so hasty to trust the newcomer, despite the fact they'd spent the day like old comrades, especially when it came to talking openly about Red Army standards.

But his job was to earn their trust so he could complete his mission…and maybe also count on a blind eye or two. The more disillusioned a soldier was, the less likely they were to blurt the entire truth to their commanding officer after all was said and done. And so he waited for Jacobs to finally give him a hesitant smile. When it came at last, Samael returned it genuinely, and then turned it to a grin as he playfully knocked a fist against the massive chupadore's muzzle.

"Well, alright, Holmes," the canis replied confidently, making sure to emphasize the lack of 'sir'. "I guess you're right…you're one of us. But you're still a lucky bastard!"

"I suppose I can't deny that," Samael admitted with a chuckle.

"But!" Jacobs shared a quick grin with Ronson as both the huge soldiers leaned together again with lowered voices. "To really be one of us grunts…you gotta play our drinking game tonight! I've been saving up our beer rations!"

A broad smile grew across Samael's muzzle as his eyes lit up. "Well, well, well! You boys are in luck…'cause I'll see your beers and raise you a bottle of Lamtha's finest 'shine…just waitin' for a coupla willing glasses."

Ronson and Jacobs stared, wide-eyed, at one another for a moment before grinning back down at the smaller male excitedly. Clearly they hadn't been able to enjoy the good stuff for a while, now. And clearly, they were both ready to drop their defenses a bit more, if they were after a drinking game.

I love drinking games. I especially love cheating at drinking games and finding out just how curious my fellow soldiers are behind closed doors. Samael licked his muzzle and let himself relax as the three finished their meals with a newfound gusto. Well, no one said he couldn't enjoy a little bit of pleasure with his business…or at least if they had, he sure hadn't been listening.


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

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