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Cold Comfort

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“Fuck, this is one place I’d really hoped never to see again,” Tucker mutters. He grips the door and helps Carolina to wrench it open. His stomach lurches when they finally get it open, adrenaline humming in his veins. It had been here, after all, that they’d made their last stand. It had been here that they’d found the suit, and where Church had…

They step inside. Carolina pulls a few sticky lights from the bag she’d brought with her, and hands half of them to Tucker. She slaps the first one onto the wall and it illuminates the area around it with a blue glue that is decidedly eerie.

There are marks on the floor nearby; bullet holes and gunpowder and the dragged marks of the Grifshot.

Tucker stares at them. His hands clench into fists at his sides, then edge closer to the sword at his hip. Last time, Epsilon had been with him. Last time they’d all been together and Epsilon had been there and now… now there’s an empty space in his skull and Epsilon is gone and Grif and Caboose are still in hospital and Sarge is still limping and they don’t know if that leg will ever recover fully.

And now he’s back here, the blank spot in his head seeming to gape wider with every second.

“Tucker?” Carolina says, and he realises that he’d spaced out again. he’s been doing that a lot since- since-

“What is it?”

Carolina looks at him for a moment, her head tilted slightly. “Thank you,” she says after a moment, “for coming with me.”

He gives her a startled look. He’s not used to hearing her like this; the gratitude and hesitance in her voice. She’s always been kind of a hardass. But she’s their hardass, so it’s okay.

“Church said you should see something,” he says. “Since he’s not… not here right now, I’m the only one who remembers.” Ain’t that a bitch?

Unfortunately, Church had neglected to show him what exactly it was that Carolina needed to see. All Tucker knows is where. Even more unfortunately, they have to cross Hargrove’s trophy room to get there.

The bodies of the fallen Charon soldiers have been moved already, thank fuck, so it’s easy enough to skirt the edge of the room, sticking lights to the wall as they go. It’s the memories that trip them up, Tucker half expecting to hear gunfire at any moment while Carolina…

Carolina has stopped a few paces behind and oh, it’s that gun. He only recognises it because Church had recognised it. A vision of the Director, a man that Tucker has never actually met, flashes through his mind. Just fucking great.

He can’t see Carolina’s face. He’s glad he can’t see her face. He doesn’t want to see if she breaks down. It would feel like the worst sort of intrusion, when Carolina has always been painfully private.

She gathers herself. He thinks. Fuck knows what’s going on beneath the helmet. Tucker watches her straighten up, square her should like she’s walking into battle. “Let’s go.”

“This is some serial killer shit, huh?” Tucker says as they move on at a more hurried pace, past shattered helmets and broken weapons, the gathered relics of Project Freelancer. Some of the objects Tucker doesn’t get at all. He has no idea why there’s a couple of toy rabbits, and he’s steadfastly refusing to look at the photographs, the ones that haven’t crumbled to dust.

At the back of the room there’s a sealed door and a keypad. He recognises it. Hell, it’s in his brain marked with a giant red X courtesy of Church.

“Did Epsilon give you the code, or do I need to break down the door?” Carolina’s voice is tight, utterly controlled, so it’s easy to tell that she really would love to break something, and might not stop breaking things once she starts.

“I think…” Tucker says, searching through the chaotic mess of thoughts that Church had left in his head and- ah, there it was. “Got it.” He steps up and enters the code; 24110, the number burnt indelibly into his brain.

The door slides open smoothly and they share a glance at the wave of cold air which washes over them.

“Epsilon did say that this room had a redundant power supply,” Tucker says as they step inside. The lights flicker on overhead.

Carolina gasps and Tucker takes a step backwards. The room is cold enough for mist to form, some real horror movie shit. And set into the wall are a number of large glass tubes. Human sized.

“These are cry-stasis tubes,” Carolina says. Confusion is thick in her voice.

Tucker remembers those from the one time he’d had to do the whole cry-sleep thing on his way to basic training. He’d been dog sick afterwards and had sword to never do it again.

“Why are they here?” he asks. And why had Church wanted Carolina to see this so much?

“I don’t know,” Carolina replies. “They’re empty.” Most of them are clear enough that it’s easy to tell there’s no-one inside. It’s like they’re waiting for something. Like Hargrove had planned to fill them. Bugs in a jar.

Up ahead, Tucker sees something. “There. There’s lights on that one. That means it’s on, right?”

They creep closer. Tucker is sort of expecting something to burst out of one of the tubes and try to eat them. For all they know, that one tube contains an alien facehugger and he already has one kid!

The light glints off a suit of grey armour on a plinth next to the tube and inside the tube-

“Oh my god,” Carolina breathes.

—————

“You’ve caused me quite a bit of trouble, Agent Washington.”

The Chairman walks quickly enough that Wash is hard pressed to keep up with him. The injuries he’d sustained on Sidewinder are still healing, and having his hands cuffed behind his back doesn’t make things any easier. Nor does the gun being poked into his spine by an overzealous guard.

“You were supposed to retrieve the Epsilon Unit,” The Chairman continues, “and instead, you return with a broken AI Unit and the report that you destroyed the Meta and lost its equipment.”

He. Not it. He. That’s the first thought that crosses Wash’s mind. The next thought is to protest, to explain. The Meta had tried to kill him, had tried to take Epsilon! But he’s explained that a dozen times in the last few days, with increasing degrees of desperation and he’s certain that the Chairman knows that. Instead he says “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”

“Better? Better?” The Chairman snaps, and finally he stops and turns to look at Wash.

Wash feels naked in just his undercut. They’d taken his armour as soon as they’d found him in the snow. He hasn’t seen it since.

His hands clench into fists at his sides, reaching for a gun that isn’t there. Sidewinder. He’d regained consciousness to the Reds and the Blues having a hurried conversation around him, while Caboose tugged at his gauntlet. Something about switching armour. Something about getting out of there. But then the Chairman’s men, and they are the Chairman’s men, Wash has realised, had arrived and well, here he is.

“You’re lucky that you haven’t been thrown back into solitary confinement,” The Chairman continues. “You’re lucky that I still have a use for you.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes sir,” Wash replies, the thought of solitary making him shudder. He’s spent too much time alone. He knows that he can’t handle much more. He’s so tired.

They stop outside a door and the Chairman enters a passcode. He steps inside and Wash is shoved unceremoniously after him. The lights in the room switch on, spotlights illuminating plinths set out around the room. On each plinth is an object, and Wash realises, with a dawning horror, that he recognises those objects. There’s a purple gauntlet on one, a tan helmet on another. A handful of chips singed from an EMP blast.

But it’s not just those, not just the testaments to a failed military project. He might be able to deal with that. Oh no, there’s personal items too. He recognises that pair of sunglasses, the ones that Connie wore on shore leave, no matter the weather or time of day. A pair of battered and well loved stuffed bunnies that the twins had insisted they only kept because their mother had made them promise to. A dog-eared photograph of the squad which Wash knows is the one that Maine kept in his locker.

“What the hell is this?” Wash manages to ask, his voice thready and shaking, bile burning the back of his throat.

“This is my little collection,” the Chairman says. He faces Wash. He’s smiling. Wash’s heart pounds, adrenaline coursing through him, fight or flight except there’s nowhere to run. The Chairman, he realises, dread settling in his gut, is utterly insane. “Do you like it? You’ll be spending a lot of time here, Agent Washington.”

No. “You want me to guarding this place?” he asks, desperately reaching for the best possible outcome, the logical outcome, because the idea in his mind as he looks around at the collected items is impossible. Right?

“Oh no, you misunderstand,” The Chairman says. He steps towards Wash and Wash can’t back away when a liver-spotted hand grabs his chin. “You won’t be a guard, Agent Washington. You will be an exhibit.”

Wash jerks away, but the guard is there. A rifle butt slams into his stomach and another hit to the backs of his knees has him on the floor.

“Have Agent Washington prepared for cryosleep,” the Chairman says while Wash wheezes on the ground. “I have an important guest coming to talk about investments, and I do so want to show off the new jewel of my collection.”