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Standoff

The real choice is never whether or not you will fight. The real choice is how.

Round 1 | Round 2


1: Bullet


Agent Connecticut muttered darkly into the scarf wrapped around her features as it whipped in the wind to snap sharply at her shoulders. Why was she doing this again? She wasn't fucking trained in free-climbing, but here she was, pressed against the side of a sheer rock wall in the middle of a howling blizzard. And at this point her options were to keep climbing until she found refuge, or drop and hope whatever was below her was soft as shit.

The mission parameters had been simple, even if vague. HADES had a depot near the border of Sampi and Honkal, and it was Connecticut's job to slip in, fill a memory drive with all the data that would fit and then get the hell out before anyone detected her. No real specifics on what kind of information to get, just to pull as much as possible. She supposed it meant she was trusted to know what looked important and what didn't...not that it would stop the critical grading she would receive if she guessed wrong.

...Yeah, this whole Freelancer thing was starting to wear on her nerves a little bit. But the biting winds threatening to launch her into the frozen bluffs below made it difficult to keep up her frustrated line of thoughts as she was forced to focus on the slow crawl across the icy surface. This day-trip was her idea, so she only had herself to blame. She'd already gone by the depot which...hell, that was easy compared to this. She'd only seen two guards, neither of which had even been aware of her presence. It was boring by most Freelancer mission standards -- in and out in less than an hour, not even one weapon drawn.

But then something had come across her pockcom.

It had only been a blip, just a brief burst transmission that indicated a coded radio conversation -- not exactly unusual, and not exactly something she'd normally pay any mind to. At least not if she wasn't in the middle of nowhere in a desolate, frozen landscape, and if the signal hadn't come from the opposite direction of the depot she'd just infiltrated. And since she considered her tenacity a strength rather than a shortcoming, of course she had to investigate.

Safe to say she wasn't singing praises to her so-called tenacity now.

She squinted into the biting gusts when she noticed a deep crevice in the sheer cliff face. The icicles forming on her exposed brow told her that was going to be a better option than anything else and she quickly shuffled toward the opening before she could lose all feeling in her fingers and toes -- why the hell hadn't she brought some gloves? Chasing down a random radio signal wasn't going to earn her much beyond satisfying her own curiosity, anyway, not unless it belonged to anyone of actual value. It was probably just some backwoods redneck playing with a custom communications rig out in his goddamn tundra fishing shack.

Connecticut edged carefully into the niche carved out of the rock, sighing in relief at the immediate shelter from the harsh gale. She dropped down to sit against a rough wall, grimacing and unwinding the scarf from around her features while working her jaw a few times. The depot had been deep within Sampi's borders, but it was located smack dab in the middle of a forest, where the windchill didn't threaten to freeze her tuft off and leave her an extremely unbecoming rat tail. She frowned up at the grey skies and watched the snow particles whipping past her little hideaway, wondering who the hell in their right mind would be out in this, anyway. She knew the hardy Sampi locals were used to the weather, but she hadn't even seen any of their scattered settlements for the last hour or two of trudging into the cliffs on the border between Sampi, Kaprime and Honkal.

...She had an annoyed thought that perhaps the communications burst came from the weather station situated near the edge of Sampi. The transmission had tracked fairly clearly to the high bluffs surrounding her, but christ, she wasn't a signal analysis expert, what if the damn thing had just bounced off the rock walls or some shit? Lord, of all the places to go on a wild goose chase.

She grumbled to herself and rubbed her hands together, then rolled up her sleeve to glower at the portable computer on her forearm. The cold wasn't doing the battery any favors, either. She was about to sigh and map her route back out of this frozen hellhole before she blinked and cocked her head when she heard what she swore was the whisper of a voice. The winds were screaming around the crevice, but she knew she wasn't going delirious from the cold...not yet, anyway.

It was then she squinted and realized there was a narrow passage further inside her temporary shelter, a shadowy orifice leading deeper into darkness and -- she presumed -- perhaps a cave system within the cliffs. A frown crested her muzzle and she dropped to her hands and knees to crawl forward inquisitively while keeping her head tilted...and sure enough, another scrap of a word or two whispered out from the craggy portal. She was fairly certain she didn't imagine it that time.

It wasn't the most dignified entry, but for all the mystique surrounding the Freelancer Organization, few things ever were. It was never about the agents' comfort, after all. She thanked the stupid kneepads and cursed her sword as she squeezed into the low, slim tunnel and began to maneuver her way through the winding passage.

The tight space felt worth it, however, as she almost instantly felt her body beginning to warm while she crawled further in. The rocks pressing into her weren't icy to the touch anymore...they weren't hot, either, but apparently these caves were well-sheltered from the frigid climate outside. As she moved, the snatches of conversation became a bit louder, and she frowned to herself. At least two voices. Maybe a few more. She made her movements as delicate as possible as her eyes finally caught a glimpse of light past a sharp bend -- it wasn't flickering, either, so whoever was in these caves wasn't using fire or torches.

"...waste of our time, goddammit..."

"...you would just think about...access to the Sea of..."

Her eyes narrowed in concentration. A male and a female. But a few other indistinguishable voices were mumbling nearby. Perhaps a small group in a cavern ahead?

She continued the cautious crawl forward, no longer cursing her sword as much as she now did her chest. Christ, whoever said women were more suited for infiltration never had to wear a goddamn C cup while squirming through a snug rock passage.

...Then again most people probably never had to squirm through a snug rock passage, period.

"...don't give a fucking flying shit about that, the fuck are we gonna do with boats??"

Whoever that was, she sounded like an angry bitch.

The voice that replied was still calm, his tone weathered but unwavering. Something about it was soothing and patient, even as the husky baritone had just enough of a lilt that Connecticut could hear the small, bemused smile. "We need to be flexible. If you needed to make a quick trip to Honkal...hell, what about to Xulod? Are you going to wait for a ferry and explain why you have a bunch of unregistered men and women piled into a stolen military vehicle? Or would you prefer to travel all the way around Sirca?"

"Goddammit, Tracer, not another speech about why we're called the 'Movement'," the first voice muttered as Connecticut's eyes suddenly widened.

The mention of the rebellion should have been enough, but she knew that name. Most House special forces teams (and any bounty hunters worth their salt) knew that name. Raymond Tracer was one of the ring's most wanted rebels, the Jack of Hearts on most target lists and one worth far more alive than dead.

Except Agent Connecticut was not a bounty hunter, nor was she a zealot. She barely even qualified as a good soldier. An extremely competent one, yes, but...what was it they'd put on her last review? "An exceptional free-thinker, to a degree of possible detriment to the unit due to potential insubordination." Yeah, she was kind of proud of that one, and she would have told that goddamn Counselor that if she wasn't all too aware that the bastard thrived on those kind of outbursts. Better to let them think she was still playing their game for the most part.

...But then again, bringing in -- or bringing down -- a major figure in the resistance would net her a hell of a lot of goodwill, which was something she could use these days. She wrinkled her muzzle at the fact she was even considering it, but knew it would be far from the worst thing she and her compatriots had done during their time with Freelancer.

She shook her head rapidly and then ventured forward warily as she approached the edge of the small tunnel. She just needed to confirm the size of the crowd and then figure out the best plan of attack. Even if there were five or six, it shouldn't be a huge deal. It was likely Tracer was the biggest threat, and possibly one or two of his fighters if they were in the same chamber. She saw three figures milling on the edge of the cavern, fussing with a few crates. This room of the cave was lit with temporary lights, but she could spot a passage leading to another chamber that appeared to actually have mounted lighting in the walls. Christ, this wasn't just some bandit hideout, was it?

Tracer and whatever growling female was snapping at him still weren't in her field of view -- the two must have been beneath the narrow outcropping she'd slowly maneuvered onto. That made five. Doable. But as she plotted her entry, she became still when the woman's voice cut through the cavern again, even colder than before.

"And what if we lose Qoppa? You expect this to replace it somehow? This fucking frozen hole in the cliffs?"

Tracer chuckled. "You should have seen the mines before we--" He trailed off as the female muttered with a muffled flutter of movement.

"Hold up." Connecticut blinked as she heard...sniffing? What the fu-- "I smell leather."

"...Woman, what's that supposed to mean, half of us have--"

"It's high-quality, and it's been oiled recently. When's the last time anyone here had fucking leather conditioner??"

Connecticut's eyes widened in disbelief as she stole a look down at her leather joint guards. Did this mysterious bitch smell her? She lifted a leg cautiously to move away from the edge...and the motion promptly shifted her weight enough that the shelf beneath her hands gave way. She had just enough time to gasp a curse before the entire platform under her body crumbled to send a small avalanche of rocks, limestone and one Freelancer sliding along the wall of the cave. She heard multiple shouts of surprise and trusted her instincts as her eyes quickly swung down to take in her target -- there weren't a lot of pictures of Tracer, but she figured the grizzled chupa standing next to the...geezus, what was that?!

If it wasn't for her training, the beast of a woman at Tracer's side would have made the special operative go stiff as a board despite her semi-controlled gravity-assisted travel. But Connecticut was already moving even as she almost free-fell, one hand reaching back to grip into the handle of her sword as the other crossed her chest to yank her pistol from the reversed holster. She saw both Tracer and the enormous woman reacting but the surprise of the collapsing rock gave Connecticut the slight edge she needed as she shoved herself toward them with a grunt.

As she drew her handgun, the female rebel already had a shotgun whipping toward her and Connecticut forced her reactions to obey, pulling the trigger before her gun was at its intended target to send a bullet smashing into the side of the massive weapon. It made the woman's arm twitch and gave Connecticut the half-second she needed to shove the barrel of her pistol into the rebel's neck while twisting her body around to send the edge of her sword whickering out. The woman snarled a protest that Connecticut felt through the handgun but the Freelancer kept her focus and brought the blade to a breathless halt against Tracer's throat.

She stared at his face, but didn't miss the pistol frozen in midair, mere inches from completing an arc toward her head. Agent Connecticut's eyes were calm, belying the elevated pulse that stood her fur on end, and she eased the sword into his fur before flicking her eyes back to the glaring woman pushed into the end of her pistol. Behind her, the other three rebels had guns drawn, but all hesitated at the sight of their leader's predicament. Connecticut forced in a quick breath before growling between them: "Weapons on the ground, now."

Tracer studied her for a moment. His eyes were devoid of any fury or fear as they plumbed the depths of her conscience. It was nothing like the intent stares from the Counselor, yet she still felt like he was gazing into her greatest secrets. But he then gave a small smile and released his handgun so it twisted and hung from one finger before he allowed it to tumble to the stone below their paws. His accomplice, however, still had her iron-like grip on the shotgun as her eyes burned down into the Freelancer's. Connecticut at first shoved her pistol a bit more insistently into her throat before pausing and instead pressing the sword higher so it kissed the bottom of Tracer's jaw. The burly woman's eyes narrowed but she finally relented and let the shotgun drop to the cavern floor with a loud clatter.

Tracer chuckled softly and earned a small nick in his throat for his trouble. "She wouldn't have gotten us both, Nelson."

Connecticut glanced over at him before quickly shifting her attention back to the so-called Nelson when the female rebel bared her teeth. "Shut up, Tracer." She then glowered into Connecticut's eyes before snorting furiously when the pistol against her neck shifted ever so slightly. The woman's massive arm hung loosely at her side, her fingers flexing, but she snarled loudly to bring Connecticut's attention back to her features. "Bitch, you better point that motherfucking gun at my head, because if you miss my spine, you're dead before you get a second shot," she hissed.

Connecticut almost repositioned her gun but Tracer's voice made her halt as she looked back toward him. "Nelson. Settle down." Nelson muttered a few unintelligible words but Tracer continued smoothly. "You're fast, but you're not that fast," he remarked coolly. "If the Freelancer wanted us dead, one of us already would be."

...Yeah, that did bring up a good point. Why hadn't she killed either of them? What the fuck was her game plan now?

Nelson's rough voice interrupted her attempts at formulating a plan. "Of course she hasn't yet, she's a fucking Freelancer, she wants some motherfucking information for the masters at the other end of her goddamn leash..."

Connecticut's eyes flew to Nelson as some of her composure cracked. She was nobody's attack dog. But she snarled slightly all the same because they all were, weren't they? Her friends, her compatriots, they were all dancing on the Director's strings. And with the latest program he'd initiated...the way things had changed and shifted to an even darker place, as each mission grew more segmented and splintered from the rest of the House, as she watched the agent roster shrink smaller and smaller, as she saw the hollow, vacant stare in her childhood companion's eyes spreading with each passing day...

She exhaled slowly and then forced her gaze away from the fiery Nelson to put her attention back on Tracer's placid smile. Christ, he was a rock in spite of the fact that a trickle of his blood was dribbling along the edge of her blade. His aged, scarred features continued to show a frustrating amount of patience, but something told her not to be lulled. She had no doubt he could flick the switch to 'aggressive' as quick as any elite operative, appearances be damned.

Nelson's words lingered, tugging silently at the thread she'd teased more than once over the last few days. Whatever it was looped around was dangerous, yet she couldn't bear the thought of simply standing by and watching things proceed down this broken path. Her friends' lives were worth more than the comfort of ignorance.

Ironic that it was the same sense of integrity that put her in Specials in the first place.

She at last addressed Tracer, keeping her tone as even as possible. "I'm not here looking to turn you all in."

"Bullshit," Nelson spat before snorting darkly when Connecticut tilted her gun a bit higher against the base of her jaw.

Tracer looked over the Freelancer again before tilting his head slightly as his eyes lit onto the corner of her pockcom, visible past the hem of her jacket sleeve. "You wouldn't need to, anyway, would you?"

Connecticut frowned at him but kept her cards close. "My mission wasn't related to the Movement at all. This was...a detour."

Tracer's smile became something nearly sly. "The Director doesn't look kindly on deviations. You probably wanna take care not to get a mark on your record."

Connecticut failed to hide the slight widening of her eyes. She had to remind herself that didn't mean much -- the structure of Freelancer may not have been freely public knowledge, but it wouldn't take much to garner that tiny bit of information. Hell, it might have just been an easy guess. "Most commanders don't," she replied briskly. "So you can understand why I'd be taking a risk just by not reporting this little discovery."

Nelson opened her muzzle with another retort, but Tracer cut her off with a chuckle. "I suppose the threat of being volunteered for testing with the latest pack is gonna be a greater concern, huh?"

There was no masking the shock this time. She stared at Tracer silently for a few seconds as she picked carefully through her options. No way that was a lucky guess...and if they had an insider...

She glanced at Nelson for only a moment to remind her she hadn't forgotten about the gun held against her throat, then looked back to Tracer. "Let's make a deal."

"Deal my ass," Nelson snarled, not even flinching when Connecticut's finger flexed on the trigger with a threatening whisper of internal mechanisms. "Even if you kill us, the others will have you bleeding on the ground before you take a goddamn step."

Connecticut shifted her eyes back to her before replying curtly: "You do that and this whole base is good as dead."

Nelson snorted but Tracer cleared his throat gently against the sword. "Ain't gonna lie, find it pretty damn interesting you want dirt on your own organization." Connecticut blinked but did her best not to react as she met Tracer's curious gaze evenly. As little information as the House had on the infamous resistance leader, one consistent note was that he was extremely talented at recruiting lives for the cause. She was starting to understand how, considering he was coming across as all but psychic.

She dropped the pretense of calculation and gave him a look that was likely less neutral than she wanted. "I want to know what you know about the Freelancer Organization. I want to know what they're doing to my friends, to all of us."

"That's real fuckin' rich," Nelson seethed, only to stare wordlessly when Tracer gave the tiniest nod of his head.

"You'll keep this little run-in off the books in exchange for information on your Director's messy little aspirations, I take it?" Connecticut shifted her weight and then nodded silently. Tracer gave her a kind smile and slowly held his hands out to his sides. "Then can you start by lowerin' your steel before somebody sneezes, and we all have a real shitty day?"

Connecticut felt Nelson's teeth grinding together above the gun still pressed into her neck, but she kept her attention on Tracer. Years of indoctrination screamed to her that trusting a rebel -- even for an instant -- was just asking to have your head blown off. But she'd painted herself into a corner, and trust was just about the only option any of them were going to walk away from this alive. She allowed herself a slow breath and then relaxed her arms, lowering the sword from Tracer's neck as she shifted the pistol away from Nelson and nudged the decocking lever...

Only for a blur of brown fur to race toward her faster than she could process. Fingers gripped into her shoulder as a mountain of body mass shifted and then smashed into her with the force of a freight train to send her into a violent plummet onto her back. She collided with the smooth stone hard enough that the air was knocked from her lungs while her sword skittered out of her grip. And in the same motion, Nelson stepped over her body and produced a revolver from thin air, the hammer already cocked as the barrel hovered a foot or so above her head.

Connecticut had seen guns pointed at her before. She'd even had them fired at her before. But she'd never felt the cold dread she did now, her eyes locking onto the just-visible tip of the bullet positioned in the chamber as the gun didn't so much as quiver in Nelson's grip. Her own fingers closed around her handgun despite feeling pinned to the spot as the two females stared at each other with matching glowers, even while Connecticut tasted the bile of fear at the back of her throat.

"Stand down, Nelson."

Nelson's face screwed up in shock and the revolver twitched. "She's a fucking Freelancer, Tracer!" Her eyes never left Connecticut.

"You kill her and we risk losing everything we have here."

Nelson bared her teeth again and Connecticut found her voice. "He's right. My equipment is recording my location and vitals. Vitals drop and everything is transmitted." She felt disgusted, but not by the rebels. "Standard protocol in order to recover all organic and non-organic inventory," she spat out.

"Then I guess I start by shooting the fucking equipment," Nelson muttered as she moved the revolver toward the bulge under the Freelancer's jacket sleeve.

"Marisa."

Nelson's eyes bulged and she twisted her head around to glare furiously at Tracer. And Connecticut didn't hesitate, swinging her handgun up during that sliver of distraction as her thumb flew to the hammer. Nelson's attention was back on her instantly and the two snarled viciously as they leveled their guns at each other's faces. Connecticut felt her heart thudding hard enough to shake her arms, but she refused to back down or even give a goddamn inch to this fearsome woman.

They were saved from their mutual assured destruction by Tracer grasping into Nelson's thick arm. Connecticut stole a look at him and nearly flinched at the intense expression that now replaced the calmer facade from earlier. "That's enough. Any enemy of our enemy..."

"Just means they're that much more capable of being a fucking turncoat," Nelson replied icily.

But Tracer only gave her a bemused look. "Remind me how many years you served?"

She flinched at the implication and then narrowed her eyes at Connecticut before finally clenching her teeth and slowly lowering the hammer of her firearm. The Freelancer took a deep breath but kept her own weapon trained on Nelson even as the rebel grumbled under her breath and tucked the revolver back into its hidden holster. Nelson glared down at her as the seconds ticked by uncomfortably before she rolled her eyes and snapped out a hand in a rush of movement to grasp tightly around Connecticut's handgun.

Whether out of instinct or merely surprise, she pulled the trigger with a soft curse as her brain screamed in protest, fully expecting any outcome to result in her imminent death...only to stare dumbly when she realized Nelson's thumb was curled around the back of the slide, preventing the hammer from striking the firing pin. The enormous rebel gave Connecticut a sour look before sighing as Tracer commented mildly: "You realize if she'd shot you, not only would it have been your own damn fault, but I woulda laughed my goddamn ass off...right?"

"Fuck off, old man," she muttered as she yanked the shocked Freelancer off the cave floor and onto her feet. Before Connecticut could protest, Nelson ripped the gun from her grip and then held it out to the side and released the hammer to simply let the chambered round fire into the wall of the cavern. The loud blast echoed through the room, drawing surprised shouts from the other rebels as Tracer sighed behind her, the weary sound barely audible over the dull ringing left behind from the gunshot.

Nelson made a face and studied Connecticut for a few seconds before safely lowering the hammer and then spinning the gun around to hold it out securely by the barrel. Her presence was intimidating even still, but Connecticut did her best to accept her weapon back calmly. The rebel's dark green eyes pierced mercilessly into her before they shifted to the dropped sword. "They issuing pig-stickers to all you mercenary fucks now, or just the teacher's pets?"

Connecticut scowled and warily moved to retrieve the blade, feeling Nelson's scrutinizing glare on every step she took. "Well you're one to talk...you got a pair of spurs to go with that six-shooter?"

Tracer snickered behind Nelson, whose nostrils flared so magnificently that she might have been mistaken for a spitting horse. She clenched her hands into fists, but Tracer was there again, an entertained chortle breaking the tension as effortlessly as a pair of scissors through tissue paper. "Nelson, go ahead and inform Agent...ah." He leaned to one side to squint at Connecticut as she picked up her sword and examined it briefly before looking back at him.

She hesitated but...they were already here. What was all that shit about trust she'd been telling herself? She cleared her throat, then grumbled: "Connecticut."

"The fuck did you just say?" Nelson asked incredulously. "Who the fuck comes up with these names?"

"I...I actually don't know," Connecticut answered slowly. The worst part is that the rebel's scowl wasn't even misplaced -- these names were all ridiculous. "Do you need me to spell it?"

Nelson immediately flattened her expression at the tone while Tracer only smirked before he scooped up his pistol and tucked it back into its holster. "Don't kill each other. Mostly talkin' to you, Nelson, but Agent Con-neh-ti-cut, you seem pretty feisty, too. Play nice and maybe we'll all benefit today." He gave a kind smile before he kicked Nelson's shotgun up to his hand and then pressed it into her chest as his eyes remained on Connecticut. "But you've seen this one's temper. I reckon you're safer not testing it."

Nelson's teeth must have been daggers with how often she ground them, speaking through clenched jaws as she snatched her shotgun away from him. "How about you give all our secrets to this mercenary bitch and I get the status reports from the team here?"

Tracer chuckled as he fired a bemused smile up to the enormous woman. "'Cause they're all scared of you, so they're just gonna tell you what you wanna hear. Won't be accurate." His eyes shifted back to Connecticut, accompanied by a finger thrust in her direction. "She ain't scared of you. Plus you need to learn to share."

"She should be," Nelson muttered moodily as she slung the shotgun across her back and then closed her eyes when Tracer only winked and patted her arm before ambling past her. She turned to glare after him for a moment before setting her disapproving look on the Freelancer again.

Connecticut glanced past Nelson to Tracer's back, watching him throw a reassuring arm around one of the other three shaken rebels as he led them out of the chamber. She wasn't sure what she expected the man to be like in person...but it was safe to say that this wasn't it. There were certainly hints of his wily and dangerous nature, but he was otherwise so unassuming. Perhaps that was how he'd evaded capture so far.

"Spell it."

Connecticut blinked and looked back to Nelson with a blank expression. The rebel had her arms crossed as she waited expectantly for a few seconds before leaning forward slightly and enunciating slowly: "Spell. It. Without. Being. A. Smartass."

Connecticut stared for a beat before sputtering: "Spell what?"

"Christ, woman, your fucking name, like you sarcastically offered to do thirty-fucking-seconds ago!" Nelson spat out while throwing her arms wide.

Connecticut's jaw worked for a moment as she struggled not to ask if Nelson was serious. Her face looked rather serious. "Uh. C-O-N-N...wait, look, just. Call me CT, that's what--"

"Do I look like one of your friends?" Nelson replied dryly with her hands dropped down to her hips as she glowered down at the Freelancer. "Finish so I know how the fuck to spell it. Then say it again so I don't sound like a fucking invalid when I speak it."

"A please would go a--"

"Bitch, I will literally shove you back into the goddamn rat-hole you crawled out from up there," Nelson snarled with a threatening step forward as she jabbed a finger toward the collapsed outcropping above them.

But when Connecticut didn't shuffle fearfully backward, Nelson narrowed her eyes and took a step closer to loom over the smaller female. If Connecticut was being honest to herself, there was certainly still a part of her that was all too aware that this...giantess would probably be able to actually rip her limb from limb. But didn't do her much good to show that part of her. She wasn't a big fan of kneeling for anyone, let alone barking rebel enforcers.

...And after a few seconds, Connecticut swore she almost saw the hint of a smile on Nelson's features. "Hmph. For a goddamn mercenary-ass bitch, you got backbone," Nelson noted mildly. "Better than most." She gave the smallest nod and then curled her muzzle into a frown while leaning down closer. "But that doesn't change the fact I don't do nicknames. Or first names."

The Freelancer gave her a flat look before sighing. "C-O-N-N-E-C-T-I-C-U-T. Connecticut."

"Holy fuck that is a stupid fucking codename."

"Yeah, I know, stop fucking reminding me," Connecticut replied sourly. "What's wrong with 'CT'? That's what everyone else calls me."

"I'm not one of your mercenary pals," Nelson retorted before she eyed the sword one more time. "You looked like you actually knew how to use that thing, Agent Connecticut."

...Well, if this barbarian of a woman wanted to be that stubborn, that was on her. CT sure as fuck wasn't going to refer to herself that way. At least Nelson was pronouncing it correctly. Sort of weird she was making the effort, but if that was her thing, whatever. CT looked from the sword to Nelson before shrugging. "Yeah, a giant 'fuck you' if you assumed I just carry this fucking thing around for show, Mari--"

"Don't." CT actually flinched this time when Nelson snarled, and she wrinkled her muzzle even as she had to force her fingers to unclench from around the hilt of her weapon. She wasn't sure if she should have been impressed or not that Nelson triggered her instincts so easily. But one thing was for sure -- her brawn was evenly matched by her personality, and it was becoming rapidly clear that she wasn't just one of Tracer's enforcers. She was his right-hand woman.

"Okay, then...Nelson it is," CT continued slowly as she ran her fingers along the flat of the blade before flicking her eyes back to the rebel. "Didn't answer the question, though."

"You didn't ask one, you merely implied it," Nelson replied brusquely, crossing her burly arms with a neutral expression. But she eventually grumbled and tilted her head toward the sword. "You choose that or bring it with you? Those fuckers might let you assholes pick your loadout, but you know what you're doing, or at least look like you do."

"I brought it with me from Specials. Taught myself and..." CT blinked and realized after a few seconds that Nelson's earlier comment was an intentional ruse. "You...already knew it wasn't just some status thing." Nelson smiled briefly and CT scoffed. "Do you often play dumb on purpose?"

"People want to see me as a dumb, bullheaded bitch, that's their fuckin' prerogative. Doesn't hurt my fuckin' feelings, and if it makes it easier to get shit out of them, so be it." She smirked. "Doesn't mean I won't still rip their arms off afterward, anyway."

CT couldn't help the small laugh. She nodded and then finished wiping the trickle of Tracer's blood from the sword before sliding it back into the sheath on her back. "Fair enough." Nelson didn't seem like she appreciated commiserating about how hard the world was for 'us girls', and so CT didn't bother.

...She wasn't a huge fan of that, either. Being a woman didn't mean shit, in her opinion, as long as you proved yourself. Something else was gnawing at her, anyway. "So...you have a spy at Freelancer?"

Nelson's features immediately hardened again. "Tracer wants me to talk to you about what we know. Not how we know it." CT frowned and Nelson shrugged. "Do you suddenly trust me with your life? With the lives of your 'friends'?" The intonation bothered CT, but she glanced to the side because she understood all the same. "Would you tell me the codes to get into the Freelancer HQ, right now, with what you know -- and don't know -- about me?"

"I'm not asking you to tell me who they are, I'm just --"

Nelson leaned down toward her, but her tone was unexpectedly softer. "Whether or not I trust you to talk isn't the problem. We know Freelancer, and we are all too aware of the kinda shit they pull to find out what they want to know." She met CT's eyes. "Even on their own."

CT shifted her weight and then looked down. It hurt to hear but she knew it was all too true. She tried to deflect, for the sake of her own soul. "What, you think I'd crack under some bullshit interrogation?"

"Probably not." CT's head shot up in surprise. "You look like a tough bitch. But I still don't know you, and I ain't gonna just trust you with the lives of my people like that." Nelson cracked another tiny smile as she leaned back again with a grunt. "Besides, one way or another, you chose to work for those motherfuckers. Can't trust your decision-making skills quite yet while you're still on their fuckin' payroll."

CT snorted quietly even while she couldn't quite disagree with Nelson's rationale. "Gee, your recruitment rate must be stellar with that bedside manner," she sniped, which earned a glare...followed by a throaty chuckle.

"In case it wasn't obvious, I ain't the recruiting type," Nelson muttered. "This is Tracer's suicide mission -- he does the shepherding. He calls the shots, and I take 'em. You want inspiration, you look at him. You want shit to get done, that's my field." The way Nelson's eyes moved over her wasn't unsettling this time, nor did it feel entirely scrutinizing. Perhaps 'appraising' was the word she wanted. "Why do you want info on your own people? Finally starting to get too dirty for you?"

CT shrugged, trying her best to look aloof. She wasn't sure that showing she cared would matter much to this stony-faced woman. "Say what you want. They made the best offer and they recognized my skills. And since then I've been able to improve them. Just because you have an insider in the organization doesn't mean you understand what it's like to be part of it."

"And just because you tell me I don't understand doesn't mean you do, either," Nelson countered, though her voice didn't carry the same edge as before. "You don't need to tell me about honing skills, or the value of camaraderie. Save that for someone who ain't already lived through that shit."

CT set her jaw stubbornly, but knew there wasn't a point in arguing. "Look. I never said I was proud of what we've been ordered to do...especially lately."

Nelson's gaze narrowed, though it seemed more inquisitive than accusatory. "You still run the ops."

"I do, because it's my job." CT met the rebel's steely gaze again. "And as long as I'm the one on task, I can control the outcome. And I can make choices that others might not and pay attention to shit others might ignore."

Nelson continued to watch her for several seconds after she finished speaking before grunting quietly. "Your recent missions." CT tensed up with a frown, expecting more berating. But Nelson only observed her calmly. "Have you retrieved anything strange? Or ancient?" When CT only wrinkled her muzzle in confusion, Nelson grumbled and then added in a low voice: "As in shit that looked like it was from the Predecessors. Real old shit, real rare shit."

"No..." CT grimaced. "Any retrieval missions I've had lately were for data lifts or the occasional ordnance recovery." She glanced to the side, her frown deeper than before. "Maybe because I'm not..." She grit her teeth in a moment of self-consciousness.

Nelson snorted softly but her gaze remained impartial. "If you aren't at the top of the boards, then I imagine whoever is is part of your precious Director's latest project." When CT gave her another searching look, the rebel shrugged. "We get piecemeal information, so we don't know everything. But we know enough." She lifted her muzzle to fix CT with an approving expression. "It's not a bad thing that you aren't involved. The bits we hear about the test subjects are fucked up, more than usual. And I guarantee you ain't trusted to blindly follow orders if you ain't in the club, which is why you haven't been sent out to fetch that shady motherfucker's nastier laundry. We've got word he's scouring the whole fuckin' ring for any Predecessor relics he can get his hands on, lifting them from shrines, temples, dig sites...wherever."

CT clenched her fingers slowly into a fist before exhaling. No matter how accurate the Movement's data pipeline, Nelson knew enough details that CT had no reason not to believe at least some of it. And goddammit, that did sound like something right inside that motherfucker's wheelhouse. "Do you know what he's doing with them?"

"No." The reply was curt, but not guarded. It was CT's turn to briefly study Nelson. She was somewhat surprised the enormous woman had no comment as she only stood there patiently while the Freelancer gauged her. It wasn't that Nelson had no reason to feed her mistruths...but that didn't seem like her style one bit. Not this woman.

CT shifted her weight as her tail flicked in thought. It wasn't a shock that most of the top agents were part of Project Werewolf...with the exception of Tex, naturally. But that bitch had her own weird intimacy with the Director. Who knew what kind of errands he sent her on. And while CT wasn't exactly friends with her, she certainly was with York. He didn't talk much about the Project, but he still seemed plenty open when he'd chat about the missions he went on. Was he keeping secrets from her, too? Or was he just as in the dark?

...And then of course Lina. Always in the top two spots, always running missions with the highest security clearance. Sometimes with York, but plenty of runs solo. Was she involved? She wouldn't tell them...she wouldn't even tell York, as close as they were. The woman was a master of that carefully-drawn line of delineation between business and personal, and York was too damn in love to press her on the things she kept to herself.

When she finally looked back to Nelson, she found an passive expression waiting for her; it was out of place on the hardened female's features. But she took advantage while she could, taking a step closer and asking in a lower voice: "Does your source have any details on the goal of Project Werewolf?"

Nelson shook her head. "Like I said. Bits and pieces. So while I couldn't tell you what any of your missions are, or the codenames of half your people...we do know what the asshole's been collecting, and we know that project's nothing but bad fuckin' news." Her expression shifted to a more severe one. "I'll put this plainly: if you truly care about your fellow fuckin' merc buddies, tell them to stay far away from that shit."

CT looked away again and Nelson snorted. But the voice that followed washed against her gently. "Too late for some, I take it?" The Freelancer didn't need to answer and Nelson took it into stride as she took a few steps to one side while eyeing CT again. "You don't strike me as the type to hold your tongue much. You should tell them. Or you already have, and they're too fucking stupid to listen."

CT bristled slightly but Nelson continued as she nodded once toward her. "The Movement needs blood like yours."

"What?" The sharpness was more from her surprise than any sort of distaste, which Nelson seemed to understand, considering the amused smirk. "What do you mean?"

"Don't be fuckin' coy. You're tough but you're smart. Your physical reflexes are almost as good as your mental ones." Nelson gave a look to the hilt of her sword, just visible over her shoulder. "You don't back down, but you ain't completely suicidal, either. Rare mix."

"I thought you didn't do recruitment," CT shot back before crossing her arms. "Especially not with some 'mercenary-ass bitch'."

Nelson's smile was somehow frigid and entertained all at once. "I didn't say a goddamn word about wanting you on my side," she retorted. CT didn't feel insulted, however. Or at least not as much as she probably should have been. "I can't imagine you think we're the only branch of this godforsaken death cult, or that our shit isn't getting wrecked enough to always need fresh meat," she added mildly.

"God, no wonder you don't recruit, you suck at selling it," CT observed.

Nelson only shrugged. "Now you know why I don't bother. I don't like bullshit, so I don't give it. Doing this shit, working to make a change, to fuck up a system that's been in place for centuries...don't take no fuckin' genius to see it's a one-way ticket to a shallow grave." Her eyes locked with CT's. "But I imagine that ain't all that different from what you see every day, either." CT's shifted weight was enough of an answer. "Yeah, that's what I thought. What is different is how you feel about it. That shit make you feel proud at the end of the day? Or just successful? Because there's a big fuckin' gap in between."

"I got the feeling I don't need to answer that," CT murmured.

"Then do something about it," Nelson muttered, gesturing around her. "Make a fuckin' choice. You got your eyes open more than most. You're definitely smarter than most. And you're no fucking pushover, either. So put that shit to use somewhere you'll stop regretting being a part of."

CT eyed her. "That anything like the speech you got?"

The smile was thin, but honest. "Tracer's a lot better with words than me. I'm tellin' you that you got what it takes to put your own little shitshow together. Be more than me -- I'm no fuckin' leader. I've been down that road, no point looking back."

CT considered her words before Tracer's jab came back to mind. She met Nelson's cool gaze again. "How...how long were you with the Army?"

It was Nelson's turn to stiffen up, even if she exhaled quickly and then grumbled while rolling up her sleeve. The fabric threatened to tear, stretched as it already was against her thick musculature. CT took a step closer out of curiosity before blinking at the detailed tattoo of a cobra burned into her bicep, marked with a small 'X'. CT reeled back slightly before glancing back up at Nelson's calm features. "Geezus...ten years? That means...you were there from the beginning..."

"Yeah. Volunteered, for all the wrong reasons," Nelson replied while slowly pushing the sleeve back down and then shaking her head. "Old bastard had me turn my back on everything I knew just a few days after I got this fucking thing."

CT thought back to everything she and Wash had been through in their years since leaving the orphanage. That already seemed like a lifetime ago. The thought of doing this for ten years...christ. "Do you regret leaving?"

"For a day or two," Nelson answered as she glanced over her shoulder toward the passage leading out of the cavern. "But once you get past all the bullshit propaganda...once you look at this shitty world from the outside and realize how fucked up it all is, then you feel like a fucking moron for ever buying into it." Her eyes shifted back to CT. "You've got the chance to do something about it before you turn into a bitter cunt like me."

CT snorted softly even as she glanced down for a moment. "What makes me so fuckin' different? You're no idiot, no matter what you tell yourself for how long you fought in the war. You stayed in for your reasons -- I'm in Freelancer for mine."

Nelson reached out and ignored the way CT flinched as she grasped into her shoulder. "The difference is that you care about more than the mission," she supplied while leaning down to look into CT's eyes intently. "That already makes you better than me. And it makes you worthy of more than just shoveling shit for the Director."

She released her fingers from CT's arm and took a step back. The expression of general displeasure and moodiness filtered back into place as Nelson grunted. "You know about what we know, now. And now you know about this place, not to mention that we got somewhere in Qoppa, too." Nelson looked nearly morose for an instant. "Don't make me regret not pulling that trigger, woman. I don't have your heart, but that means I got all kinds of extra room for payback. Last thing I want to do is cross metal with you again, because one of us ain't walkin' away the next time. And I got a real nasty habit of surviving."

It wasn't an empty threat, and yet somehow CT didn't feel threatened. It was simply an honest statement from one hell of a terrifying woman. "So...now what? I can just...walk out?"

"Unless you wanna tussle again," Nelson replied dryly. "You got any other questions I can go outta my fuckin' way to answer? This whole exchange already been a one-sided bit of bullshit, might as well go for fuckin' broke with the information gathering."

CT rolled up her own sleeve to activate her pockcom. She could feel Nelson's wary glower, and she spoke up without lifting her head. "Don't throw a goddamn fit -- making sure this whole detour gets wiped from my logs." She paused and then glanced up to meet Nelson's gaze again. "Look, if. If things...get worse." Nelson snorted, though otherwise remained silent. "How do I reach you?"

"What, you think I got my own fuckin' dedicated frequency? Already told you I'm not the fuckin' ringleader, I don't need motherfuckers calling me with their bullshit night and day," Nelson muttered. She fired a distasteful look at the portable computer before grimacing. "I don't trust your fuckin' tech, Agent Connecticut. Hell, I don't trust you any further than I could throw you."

CT smirked despite herself. "Who the fuck are you kidding, you could probably throw me pretty goddamn far."

Nelson blinked and then chuckled, a rough but entertained sound. "Yeah, you're a real fuckin' clever bitch, like I said. Alright, how about this: we use public frequencies for drop-locations and general recruitment." CT raised an eyebrow and Nelson gave her a bemused shrug. "Yeah, we expect well over half the fuckin' calls to be traps. They get investigated by our propaganda folks -- they don't know shit about the rest of us or our operations, they stay out there in the wild, blend in with the civvies. They know how to sniff out most bullshit. And if they don't..." This shrug was colder. "That's why they ain't connected to us directly."

CT frowned but nodded slowly. "Yeah, I get it. And I'd probably have my doubts about what you crazy assholes could ever accomplish if you offered me anything more, so..."

Nelson gave her a small smile. "I'll take that as a fuckin' compliment. You ever decide to bite the fuckin' hand, reach out. I'm gonna make it real fuckin' clear to Tracer that there's no place in our branch for you people..." CT scoffed and Nelson seemed to savor her sour expression. "But we'll find you and anyone else you fuckin' drag out a place to set up shop." As CT snorted quietly, Nelson glanced up at the tunnel from which the Freelancer had tumbled. "I ain't fuckin' tossing you back up there, so c'mon. I'll show you another way out. Give you the frequencies as we go. And then you're on your fuckin' way." She jerked her head and turned to walk into the rock-lined hallway leading to the rest of the caves.

CT jogged after her, silent for several seconds as they moved briskly through the caverns. As Nelson spat out numbers that she punched into the pockcom, CT took in the progress they were making within the cliffs; she could see that some areas had been hollowed out manually, or were being expanded. But most of the chambers looked to be untouched, the rebels making use of the natural spaces and setting up equipment and various sparse furnishings right upon the smooth stone. She wondered for a moment why Nelson had seemed so against setting up a base in this location -- even if spreading their resources thin, it felt like a formidable headquarters. Remote, yet accessible...guarded by the surrounding tundras of Sampi and Kaprime, yet overlooking the Sea of Vossler with only an hour or so by boat to enter the warmer waters of Honkal.

Perhaps their location in Qoppa was just that much better.

As they approached what must have been a hidden exit, considering the sudden twist of frigid air that washed over them, CT looked up at Nelson. One singular thought had been on her mind since Nelson had hinted about her own defection. "Is it worth it?"

The towering rebel halted. Her eyes remained forward for a moment or two before they shifted back to the Freelancer. "If you care about dying, then no. This ain't the place for you." She glanced back into the poorly-lit passage they'd traveled through, a faint smile on her muzzle. "But if you care about what you die for..." Nelson met CT's eyes squarely. "We'll be waiting."

The words struck CT harder than she expected. She kept the gaze for a few seconds before nodding slowly. "Guess that means you all need to avoid getting the shit killed out of yourselves until then."

"Well, well, look who's all fuckin' grown up and contemplating herself a goddamn insurrection," Nelson deadpanned. She jerked her head toward the exit of the caves. "This'll put you on the north side of the cliffs. Should find a decent enough path back toward Sampi, assuming that's where you crawled in from."

CT took a moment to fasten her jacket higher and check her gear. She tipped a small smile up to Nelson's stone-like features. "Is this the part where you tell me to be careful out there, even though you don't care about anything?"

Nelson's expression miraculously found an even less-amused roost. "This is the part where I remind you that if we have even a sniff of House activity because you turned chicken-shit, I'll make it my goddamn mission to hunt you and every single fuckin' one of your friends down," Nelson retorted plainly.

CT felt a real chill that wasn't from the winds slithering into the caves. But she smiled briefly all the same. "From anyone else, I'd call bullshit. But something tells me people regret calling bullshit on you." She tapped a fist to her chest. "My word still means something to me, whether or not it does to you."

Nelson snorted but gave a tiny nod. "The day you prove it, we'll talk again. And if we do meet again, you better be rid of those goddamn dogtags, Agent Connecticut, or it ain't ending in a standoff." And with that, Nelson turned and strode back into the caves to leave CT alone.

As she wrapped the scarf around her muzzle again and prepared to face the biting winds once more, a renewed sense of purpose flowed through her. She had no intention of leaving Freelancer when she got back...there were still things she wanted answers for, things she knew couldn't be left alone.

But now. Now, perhaps there was something else, something to use as a reason to push forward. The inevitability of going up against the Director wasn't the only thing on the horizon anymore. If these people -- people she knew now were not just zealots blinded by the fires of rebellion -- found a reason to fight the way of the world...why couldn't her people do the same?


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

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