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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 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21

Chapter 7: 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." Graceful 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!" Mahihko 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 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. Ears 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 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." Amdusias turned his amber gaze to Sarge, who frowned but didn’t immediately disagree. The 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 wolf-pup are charged with putting holes in anything else that shows up!" He nodded firmly before eyeing Riff and Amdusias. "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 soldier punctuated his last line with a firm jab of a blunt claw into Riffraff’s muscular breast, causing the 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. Paying them no attention, Sarge instead 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 maw once more only to be covered by Lone when the explorer 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 shifting to grab the thief 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 Grif. He 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,"Grif 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 other soldier. "Sorry, Simmons, but orders are orders!"

Simmons 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 diminutive 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!" Mahihko 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 swimmin' 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?" Mahihko 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."

Simmons shifted uncomfortably, unsure of precisely how serious the cheerful thief's 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 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 wolf 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 new-found friend would suggest are…inadequate tools for the job at hand," Amdusias drolly commented, barely hiding a half-smile.

Lone 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 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 Sarge for a moment. "Look, I’m sure we’ll make it work somehow. We’ve gotten through some messes before. And I can’t even deny that both Hiko and I have been in a few legitimate war-zones, even. 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 expression. Simmons 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."

Sarge squinted in the wolf'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 Simmons 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 c'n accomodate 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." Sarge 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 pony snorted disdainfully when the quartet was left alone. "Ain’t takin’ a single order from that poof," he 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 horse 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 wolf 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. Graceful 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 them both before rolling his eyes. "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." They both 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 pony 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 wolf 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 allies."

"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." His 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 him, 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, he 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 pony. 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 thief grin cheerfully.

"Struck out? Hon, my battin' 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 'n 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…" He 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’." He 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 balling 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."

Amdusias 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…shit, 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."

Lone 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 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 him before Mahihko 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. They 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 mystical 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 he 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 wolves 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 Mahihko. "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 somethin' 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 don'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." He 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. Mahihko 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 odd, dead creature at the Blue base earlier that day. "What’s wrong, sleepyhead? Ya look like ya 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…" Lone 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!" Mahihko 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 c'n fill your mouth with some tasty nut treats whenever yer 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 somethin' about findin' 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!"

Mahihko continued smoothly when no reply rose up to answer the frustrated soldier. "Anyway, I grabbed Simmons an' he spent a few minutes showin' me the radios they use for regular communication. It’s basically a form of shortwave – you c'n thank your nerd friend Vic back home 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 literary 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 thief replied daintily, earning a scowl once again.

"Ass. This thing using batteries?"

"Ayep. Unfortunately even though they look a lot like our batteries, they ain't quite compatible with anythin' 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," Lone 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?"

Mahihko 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. "'Sides, I might as well spend s'more time teachin’ big ol’ Riffyraffy 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," Lone 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 doin’ nothin’ 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 his companion pointedly.

Mahihko, of course, gasped loudly and clutched his chest with a hand. "Your words wound me. 'Sides…Graceful can’t get mad if I go for all three of 'em 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 tryin' 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 nonetheless trudging reluctantly down the hallway 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 lazy soldier just waved a hand sleepily and rolled away from him. "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 wolf 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 tufts if this douchebag 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?"

Simmons frowned and then shrugged with a grumble, gesturing toward his slumped-over compatriot. "Sure, go ahead."

Lone 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," Lone 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," Grif 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?" Grif inquired 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 wolf 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." Grif rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That back seat is so comfortable…and smells like lilacs for some reason."

Simmons 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." He 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 goddamn 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," Grif 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!" Sarge 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," Simmons 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 wolf all but exploded into existence next to him 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 him to avoid. Mahihko 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," Grif muttered, rushing to jump into the driver’s seat while leaning away from the coyly-smiling wolf.

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 Mahihko..

"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 muzzle 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 Grif. "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."

"Darn tootin'!" 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. Simmons 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."

Grif shrugged easily, 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 Grif's headrest while the veteran 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 slender silhouette of the thief 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…

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

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