Actions

Work Header

The Once and Future

Work Text:

find me when you wake up.

 

On the first last day of her life, Rita wakes in a pool of sick. It's a wet, rancid puddle beneath her right shoulder, and with Sullivan sleeping like the dead at her side, squarely within the splash zone, she can't even be sure that it's hers.

She groans and rolls, dislodging somebody's boot from the small of her back. That belongs to the body spilling over the side of the bunk above — Murphy, maybe, from the look of the leg. It's early yet, and the barracks are black and blue with pre-dawn light, filled with the familiar sounds of Sully's snores and Burke's soft prayers and Timmons trying to toss off silently in the corner.

A laundry list of favorite pastimes. They've a big day ahead.

"Well good morning, sunshine." Crawford's slow drawl comes from somewhere overhead, smooth and smug and not at all inebriated. "Looks like we've got ourselves a lightweight."  

She can't make her mouth form the fuck you, but a finger does just fine.

Crawford's from… one of the Carolinas, she can never remember which. The one that breeds cocky bastards. Regardless, it'd been his bright idea to make his mama's famous moonshine with a pinched bit of piping, potatoes from the mess, and the hydraulics core of a Gen-1 Jacket. He'd started the mash after PT one morning, masked by the fumes of the mechanics' loading bay, and broken out the resulting booze when they were barely back from last night's chow, smuggled in in an extra canteen. "Gotta commemorate the maiden voyage," he'd said, a sentiment she'd intended to ignore. Then Paulie'd piped in with a laugh and a nod and an "about time you lost your virginity," the pair of them had flipped each other off, and they'd all fallen into that place that felt like family and forgotten, for a moment, what the next day might mean.

And she'd figured, what the hell. You only live once.

The midday call for second-shift sortie comes all too soon — she's had a shower but only feels half-human, they're still missing a team member, and between two meals and all the movement, Murph's gone back to being a bit green.

Then again, she supposes, he's stopped her being labeled the lightweight.

She slips into her jacket like a second skin, testing the pivot points of each joint and the pressure on both triggers. Timmons triple-checks the tanksuit ammo while Paulie calibrates his HUD. Sully tops off a set of jump drills, then walks by on his hands like the showoff he is. Murph is trying valiantly to remain upright, and only just succeeding. And across the aisle, head bowed low, Burke is murmuring steadily to himself.

"Hey Thumper," Crawford calls. "You ain't got nothin' better to do?"

The name still makes Rita cringe, but Burke's never seemed particularly bothered. "Better than what?"

"Talking to imaginary people. Or d'you think God's gonna unfuck your clip when it jams?"

Burke just smiles, patting the place low on his breastplate where the bible is taped to his chest. It's a habit, his telltale tic, but it can't be helping the name any. "Some of us are looking out for this life and the next."

"Whatever, man." Crawford shakes his head. "We're going to war. I don't want that shit to be the last thing I ever hear."

Hendricks has a habit of fucking off to god knows where, only to appear again as if by magic, exactly when he's needed most. Now is no exception. "It's recon, Fish, not the Battle of France," he says, hopping into the loader on her left. "Let's dial it down a notch, huh?"

Rita raises an eyebrow, leaves it there until he looks up. "Kind of you to join us."

He grins, suited and armed in thirty seconds flat. "Well somebody's gotta keep you out of trouble."

The all-call sounds, and they flood from the hangar in formation. Murph's still swaying, even weighted with the suit's center of gravity, off-balance enough that Burke walks with a hand around his harness.

Murph matches his steps and takes a deep breath. "If I go down, I want the words," he says, not about balance at all.

Hendricks stops short, and it halts their whole company. Out of instinct. Out of respect.

Where most of them have yet to see a Mimic, Hendricks has been to the front, no jacket to speak of, and lived to tell the tale. Anyone else would be wearing bars by now, but Bingham's got some kind of grudge. "General doesn't like you much, does he?" she'd asked, just once. "What'd you do, fuck his wife?" He'd laughed a little, no humor in it. "Just his plans," he'd answered, his face cautious and closed. "Pretty sure that was worse."

The face he wears now is terrifying.

"Nobody's going down," he says. It's an order, bars or no bars. "We scout our site, we come back home. Nobody's going down." His face breaks into an uneasy smile. "Hey, have a little faith."

Burke snorts. "Pretty much what the prayers are for."

"In that case," Sully says, "I pray to God we don't die today."

Rita blows out a breath, kicking into double-time. "A-fucking-men."

 

There's a strange sort of irony in a dropship — four separate fireteams hung from a hardpoint like bombs, like human ordnance, and given the power to launch themselves. If she hadn't hated it before, this would be the ride that did it.

The hit comes on their starboard side, enough to take out an engine and jam the bomb bay doors. They get clipped topside and careen into a flat spin, skipping through their own wake until it feels like they'll shake apart. Someone is shouting over the comm, a "brace, brace, brace" so manic she can make out its echo in the crackle of more than one headset.

Rita tucks as tight as the rig will allow, and there's time for one big breath before they slap the ground and the entire fucking ship tears in two.

She's moving before the wreck can settle, fingers finding the switch that will let her untether. The tail is gone, three teams of men with it — what's left of the ship is belching black smoke, swallowing the dead where they dangle. Her skeleton crew. Just two of them left, masked helmets making them blessedly faceless.

Outside, what should have been a stealth invasion is instead a bonafide bloodbath. A sandy stretch of bodies and flames and… the blur of a man barreling towards her.

They punch through the fuselage and land in a pile, and the one-two impact of him hitting her and her hitting the ground steals her breath for seconds she doesn't have.

"I'm sorry," he seems to be saying, "I'm trying to save you."

The hell he is.

"We're getting slaughtered," he shouts, shaking her in sheer desperation. "You need to get us off this beach."

She's contemplating whether to shove him to the side or shoot him in the face when he moves, right arm rifle firing blindly through the hole in the hull while the left launches off a grenade.

"We have to go, this dropship is about to explode."

He turns precisely, steps carefully.

"We have to go now."

Beyond the roar of battle, she can almost hear him counting.

"Wait," he says, throwing out an arm. He tracks a Mimic down the wing, shooting all the while. When it lands, the grenade is already waiting.

Well.

Shit.

 

what happened to you happened to me.

 

She's been here a full five minutes, crouched in the dirt above Fort Driant, when the first helmet breaches the horizon.

Hendricks comes to a halt a few feet away, bending in two and breathing a bit heavily, and waves a hand in her direction.

"How in the hell do you do that?"

She glances down at her position — ten stone of metal balanced on the balls of her feet — and decides they don't have time for another round of things that work better without a penis. "Happy accident," she says instead. "Good of you to drop by."

"My better plans fell through." He straightens, looking east toward the river. Over his shoulder, she can just make out the rest of their team, snaking through the dry moat together. "What've we got?"

"No good." She stands as well, shoving at the helmet she hates. "Half the batteries are below grade, both the casements are shot, and we'd have one hell of a blind spot to the north."

He turns west, squinting into the sun. "Could work. We'd have the high ground. Between the trench and flanking fire into the valley —"

"If they come in through the Moselle," she says, and shakes her head. "They come in through Metz, we're screwed. And that's if we can get defenses in at all, with the causeway nearly gone. You barely made it up here as it is."

He seems skeptical, not to mention mildly insulted, but her instincts outweigh his ego. It's why she's sent to scout ahead, why he trusts her to analyze and advise. Why, within this world of warring men, her opinion matters at all.

"This whole complex is a ruin. Even at its best, it was meant to withstand a topside attack with manmade weapons. A Mimic's just gonna tunnel under those trenches and take what's left of this place to pieces." She looks pointedly to a tangle of rusted barbed wire and the silhouette of a crumbing cupola. To the edge of the dry moat, where Timmons struggles to scale the side while carrying the tanksuit's extra weight.

"You know I'm right."

"You usually are," he mutters. "Don't get smug on me now." His faceplate flashes as the HUD pulls up a map of the fort. "Fuck. Think the others are the same?"

There are several scout teams scattered across Northern France — Reims, Epernay, Verdun — and they're all likely looking at a similar state of shit.

"I think the others are just as old," she says. In the distance, Timmons has finally managed to find a foothold and haul himself up. "Who thought this was a good idea?"

There's a scream, abrupt and aborted, and Timmons is gone again. Rita almost laughs. Almost.

Then his body goes flying, bounces from a steel battlement to a nest of barbed wire, and the laugh dies in her throat as all hell breaks loose.

Hendricks is already in motion and shouting out orders, and she skids down the embankment on his heels, echoing his blanket of cover fire and watching their team scatter. Through the tinny speaker of her headset she can hear Burke frantically radio back to base, following protocol, as if calling for backup can help anything at all.

Mimics spill from the soil one after another, multiplying every time she blinks, until the green valley holds a gaping black hole.

Sully goes down next, snagged by a tentacle and torn in two, rifle firing all the while.

They're all picked off — one at a time, or all at once, it's one big blur of blood and bodies — until it's just her and Hendricks left. They can't make it back across.

Her jacket is screaming for ammo, and she reloads as quickly as possible, slamming in the new cartridge just in time to take out a Mimic that's almost on top of her. She turns to Hendricks, shoving her helmet off in the process.

"We've got to get out of here!"

He nods, still shooting… and takes a tentacle through the chest. She gets a running start, skids to a stop on her knees, and reaches him just as the coughing starts, speckling his face with blowback.

Another Mimic emerges from the earth — bigger, blue, seemingly surveying the carnage — and Hendricks clutches at her elbow.

"You have to kill it. The blood…"

He breaks off, wheezing and weak, but his hand on her arm is like a vice.

"Kill it, Rita. And find me when you wake up."

 

There are worse things than being summoned to Whitehall, but nothing comes to mind at the moment. She hates setting foot here; hates the fawning, hates the fakery, hates the eyes that follow her everywhere.

More than anything, she hates being trapped in a room with a man she can't stand while he dictates when and where she could die, as if he's doing her favor.

Bingham always addresses her with his lip slightly curled, like he can't quite stomach the sight. Perhaps it's the uniform she refuses to wear, with its skirt and its heels, its sheer impracticality — she dresses for this as she does for everything else. In cotton and Kevlar, ready for battle.

"You'll touch down in Caen behind the first wave," he says, "landing last to boost troop morale."

And his approval rating right along with it. She tilts her head and crosses her legs, pushing as far as she dares.

"What," she says, "no camera crew?"

It lands just this side of jest, enough to go unchecked. She's had quite a bit of practice by now.

"Media objectives for this mission have changed." Something ticks in the set of his jaw. Christ, he's actually serious. "You'll be filmed via aerial drone."

There's a hot rush of bile at the back of her throat, and it's the final straw in this heap of insanity — she hasn't thrown up in years. She swallows once, again for good measure. "With all due respect, sir… Considering the likely number of casualties, are you certain that's the best idea?"

"Casualties are to be expected, but movement on the coast has been minimal." He folds his hands on the and leans forward a little, and Rita tenses despite herself. "We've thrown every resource we have at Operation Downfall. The world should share in its success."

She suspects the world would be satisfied just to be rid of the Mimics, without watching a massacre in high definition to prove it. But they’ll never hail him a hero otherwise. The man who saved the world from the safety of his desk, on this D-Day of his own making.

It's all moot, at any rate. Playing at politics isn't what they pay her for, and his tone brooks no further argument.

"Once we've secured a foothold, you'll rendezvous with French troops in Rouen. Report at oh-six-hundred.” He goes back to the documents on his desk. “That will be all, sergeant."

From the front steps of the MoD she can see the Alanbrooke memorial, and just behind it, the looming black mass of the Monument to the Women of World War II. Its initial unveiling is a hazy childhood memory, but the sight of it still has the same effect. She walks around its four sides now, and it’s as unsettling as it ever was, a perfect picture of erasure — the caps and coats hung on their own, the hats and helmets and masks. Uniforms of war, of bravery and necessity and sacrifice, taking shape around nothing at all.

One day, when this is all over, Bingham will have his own memorial, cast in his likeness and bearing his name. Her suit will be shipped off to a museum and put on display, a specimen of the soldier.

And she will go the way of these women — a fighter, then a figurehead, then faceless and forgotten.

 

this is the only rule.

 

There’s no immediate explanation for why she wakes on the floor, with a foot on her arse, in a very familiar puddle of bile — or for the big blue Mimic she'd blown to hell with half a strip of grenades that had bled battery acid all over her — but she’s fairly sure there's a fix for that.

She showers and sneaks away and finally finds him in the gallery, taking potshots at tin cans with his handgun. "Accuracy's a lost art," he'd told her once. "Don't let that jacket make you lazy." She's been paranoid ever since. They're part of the pilot group, after all, each their own demographic — he the old school soldier, she the only woman — and will either set the curve or fuck it completely.

He polishes off the clip and glances over with a grin, but it fades the longer they stand in silence.

"What," he says, "is it not fancy meeting me here?"

It's become a habit, their call and response, something comforting and familiar amidst the chaos. She asks a variation of the same question, he gives a variation of the same answer, and for a moment, all is right with the world.

At this particular moment, though, something is very, very wrong.

She shrugs, instead. "I suppose it is," she says, "considering I died yesterday."

His expression is shocked, then shuttered, then utterly blank, and that's somehow the scariest part.

"We were ambushed in Metz. The whole team went down. But there was one Mimic, different from the rest… You told me to kill it, you did. And to find you when I woke up." She spreads her hands. "Here I am, here you are. What the hell is going on?"

He holsters his weapon and grabs up his pack, then drags her into the empty gun cage.

"Rule number one," he says seriously, "you don't talk about this with anyone else. It's just you and me on this one."

The story he tells would be unbelievable, if she weren't already living it. The Mimic he'd encountered in Orléans, taken down with a tank-mounted rail gun and armor-piercing rounds at too close a range to escape the blood spatter. The package he'd been charged with evacuating — a mechanical engineer and his newest invention, a combat-ready exoskeleton with full armament capabilities. And the revelation he'd made after repeating the same day for weeks on end — that the engineer had experienced a loop of his own, studying the same dead Mimic specimen for years' worth of days, finding weak points, fine-tuning the design in his head.

He spreads a stack of sketches across the worktop in front of her, detailed drawings done by his hand, labeled and captioned by someone else entirely. By the end of his explanation — dime-a-dozen drones and exceedingly rare alphas and one, all-powerful omega — her head is reeling.

"That's how you fucked his plans," she says. "Bingham wanted one of his golden boys in that jacket. But Oliphant wanted you."

His silence is answer enough.

She paces in the tiny space, because she can't do anything else. "The real question is, how long has this war actually been going on?"

"There's no telling," he says. "I think they knew what Oli was working on, they were there for him. But these are just the loops we've lived. Who knows how many others there've been."

An alarm sounds through the complex, which comes as no real surprise — their sortie was scheduled to set out an hour ago. They'll both be AWOL by now.

"So I just… live until we take out the omega," she says wearily, and watches him shake his head.

"No, Rita," he says, drawing his gun, "you die."

 

All she'd wanted before the clusterfuck to come was a bit of peace and quiet. Instead, there's a private on her gauntlet floor, shouting her name like a madman.

Cage is handsome, in a smarmy sort of way, but for a moment, nothing in the world has ever looked better.

Then he opens his mouth, and that all goes to hell.

Since Verdun, she's brought her share of things to the table. Built the gauntlet, commissioned the special forces suits, added an ally with a mind for Mimic physiology. A contingency plan, just in case.

William Cage is the contingency made flesh, one private with all the power in the world, and it's clear he wants nothing more than to be rid of it.

She's tempted to tell him the truth — that she is not the first, and he probably won't be the last. That this is a non-refundable, non-transferable, nonstop ticket to hell. That she would kill to do it over again, do it right this time, finish it once and for all.

If they have any hope at all, the two of them, with him at the helm, she'll have to give the truth a wide berth.

And if William Cage is the kill in question, well, sacrifices must be made.

 

i've tried everything, it doesn't work.

 

On the twenty-seventh last day of her life, Rita makes a proposition.

"It won't work."

"We should try, at least."

"Fine," he says, "but it won't work."

They sit on the cross line, facing each other, knees forming a diamond on the floor. She's plucks the dagger from her boot, pulls the edge across the flat of her palm, and he shakes his head at the sight.

"I used to do this back home. As a kid." His voice has changed, the warm Midwest in it gone even warmer. "It was a dumb idea then, too, but at least I had an excuse."

"Funny guy," she mutters, and slices his skin as well.

She moves to clasp their hands, but he folds their fingers together, presses until their wrists run red.

"Happy now?"

She rolls her eyes. "Well I won't know until you shoot me, will I?"

On the sixty-second, she sets her sights a bit higher.

"It won't work."

"Just… humor me, please."

"Fine," he says, "but it won't work."

She draws a vial full of her own blood, slips the needle into his vein.

"There are after school specials about this, you know."

She pauses, brows drawn down. "For cautionary reasons or instructional?"

On the hundred-and-nineteenth, she goes for broke.

"No."

"What, this is one you tried with Oli as well?"

"Rita," he says, "no."

"So you're saying that you will not have sex with me to win this war." She crosses her arms and props her hip on the workbench. "That's really what you're telling me right now."

"Not… Yes. No. Just… Jesus, not like this."

She stops fuming long enough to look at him, really look — at his clenched jaw, his tight shoulders. His eyes, fixed firmly on the floor.

"Hendricks."

"It's fine," he says, falsely bright. "Forget it."

On the hundred-and-twentieth, she kisses him.

She forgets for a while, with a hand on one hip and another tangled in her hair. His mouth smears across her throat while he moves hot and slick inside her. And when she shakes apart, biting hard at her lip, the whiteout behind her eyes almost makes her believe that she'll wake up to yesterday.

Instead, what she sees is Verdun.

 

"It didn't work."

She blinks. "What didn't?"

He starts ticking things off on his fingers."I got you clear of the ship, I went back to J-Squad, I even ditched my helmet on the way."

"I don't know why you still bother with the helmet. It adds four pounds, it fucks with your peripheral, and it makes you look like a knob, besides."

"You were the only thing I changed," Cage says, almost to himself. "I saved you, I got you there, but I did everything else exactly the same. I even… I let them die. Why didn't it work?"

She sighs. "Cage, we don't have time for this."

"No, this shouldn't have been me." He backs away, hands in the air. His smile borders on manic. "I mean, come on. You're a soldier, you're a hero. I'm a talking head. This never should've been me."

It suddenly clicks, and Rita groans.

"You can't recreate it." She's caught him off guard, and he halts his retreat. "Killing the alpha. What'd you do, try to set it up so I'm the one who kills it instead of you?" He blinks, blankly, and she shakes her head. "Time doesn't work that way, Cage. The alpha had to die in order to pass the power on to you. The day keeps rolling back, yes, so the alpha still exists. But it has no power left to give. It has to be you."

He honestly looks as if he might cry.

"Buck up," she says, and gets the gauntlet going again. "That last pass looked pretty good, I may not even have to shoot you today."

 

it's just war.

 

The first time they try, there's no change at all. With Hendricks gone and no alpha to kill, she lets the last of the drones take her.

"Back up the embankment before the barbed wire," she tells him later. "Twenty-two paces, then left."

The fourteenth time around, she helps him haul Timmons out of the hole. The last thing she remembers is Burke's voice on the comm— yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil — beneath the sounds of Sully's screams.

"Maybe if we work backwards…"

For all their careful planning and timing to a tee, they cannot make it out of Metz.

It turns into a game of chess played with human pieces — choosing which to move, and which to lose. If they let Crawford go and save Sully, if Murph is lost but Burke survives. None of it gets them through.

"It's still a war, Rita," Hendricks says one day. "The only one who has to make it out is you."

She takes a breath, clenches her fist. "Run the forty paces, duck, and fade left. Okay?"

On the hundred and eighty-seventh attempt they watch the whole team fall, one by one, and focus their fire closest to the causeway. The stream of drones slows to a trickle, until it's just about picking off the stragglers, and she can hear Hendricks roaring over the gunfire.

Then, with her last target down and a graze to one leg, she turns to find him gone.

With the flex of a finger and the pull of a trigger, she sets up the pieces again.

 

Rita pauses with her thumb on the button. "What?"

His face has frozen and his eyes are locked; it's as if he's just seen a ghost.

"Nothing," he says.

She knows that look. All too well. It's started, then — he's trying, he's fighting, even winning a few, with little victories along the way. But she's dying, day after day, and he's gone and started to care.

She'd made that mistake once, worn that same look. It's different from the other side, with nothing but a few hard-won hours behind them and a mission bigger than them both.

If she pushes him a little harder that day, it's because he can't afford to be distracted. If she's a little too quick on the trigger, it's in the hope that he'll get over it.

And if she feels anything at all in the process, she won't remember it, anyway.

 

how many times have we been here?

 

Making it through Metz means losing everyone but each other, and even then she can't get him out in one piece.

Today there's a gaping hole in his abdomen, still sizzling from the shot and slowly seeping black blood. They’ve got eighty kilometers to cover between here and Verdun, and he's never going to make it on foot.

They'd tried the moped once, when his left leg had been broken, and made it as far as Batilly. If she can push him a little further, they might be able to find a car.

"You know," he says, once they're mobile, "I've never really been a road trip person."

He dies on the E50 somewhere outside Valleroy, in a dark blue hatchback missing the driver side door.

She drives until it runs out of petrol, just to mark the spot. They'll try it all again tomorrow.

 

The visions are a trap. Of course they are.

Cage is explaining it all to Carter, who seems to be in denial, but it's so clear to her now. They're a cry in the dark, Mimic Marco Polo, designed to lure the looper where they want them and bleed them bloody dry.

She blinks dazedly at the halo of blue light — Carter's left the ITD running, and the omega opens and closes rhythmically over a zoomed section of France. From here she can see the southern dot of Orléans, where Hendricks had started his loop, and looks northwest, to Metz, where her own had begun.

Something pings in her chest, and she moves to the table to take a better look.

Moving east, she can just see Lille, where Peter Oliphant had encountered his alpha. Due south of Lille lies Cage's stretch of Caen beach.

Four alphas.

Their theory has always been that the hive mind of the Mimics is dependent on radio-like technology, with alphas acting as antennae and the omega a central receiver.

Four different alphas, four points on a map. All forming a near-perfect square.

If you ran a line from Lille south to Orleans, another from Normandy north to Metz, the two would meet in the middle directly over —

There's the sudden screech of metal on metal. Someone's trying to break down the door.

She whips to Cage, eyes wide. "What did you change?"

"Nothing," he says, and the door screeches again. "Much, I, I mean I came to get you at the barracks instead of the yard —"

"And I missed my meeting with the General." Only to be abducted outside her bunk by an AWOL deserter and locked in a room with a psych patient.

They're through now, clearing a path and starting down the stairs.

Paris.

His hand is already on his gun, well on its way to his head.

"Wait," she cries. "Wait, Cage —"

 

i'm a soldier.

 

On a last day with a number she can't be sure of, she breaks the number one rule.

After she showers and slips out of base camp she ends up at Whitehall, where she waits outside Bingham's office and tries not to shake. After she's paid her penance in the queue and spelled her surname twice for his secretary, she sits across from his desk and tells her story. And after he's let her tell it, listening patiently, he presses a button beneath his desk, summons the MPs, and calmly has her taken into custody.

She tells the story again, to the MoD solicitor. And when he's not looking, she steals the paperclip from her file and slits her wrists in her cell overnight.

She tries going to the press. They sit her in a conference room until well past midday, and the men they finally send take her right back to base, where Bingham has her sectioned.

"I've made you the female face of this technology," he says on the second day, sitting across from her in full dress. "I can't afford any loose ends."

When Hendricks is finally cleared to see her, after a week of doctors and electrodes and an empty white box, he slides his hand into hers, with sad eyes, and leaves two pills behind.

"It's just you and me," he says.

This time, she believes him.

 

The sound of the shot bounces off the walls, and its echo is a beautiful thing.

Cage pivots, hands spread, brows high, and Rita rolls her eyes. "The man had me dissected on more than one occasion. He's lucky it was just a headshot."

For a second, just one split second, there's a look.

"It was the first time, right?" she says, and watches him scoff feigned stupidity. "Where else have I shot him, Cage?" She thinks of the panic button below the desktop. "Was it the hand? It was the hand, wasn't it?"

He reaches out and takes the gun, and she makes a last-ditch effort.

"Well at least tell me how many times!"

 

thank you for getting me this far.

 

They're within the city limits — again — they've made it through the attack — again — but they're out of battery power — again. She can hear the sounds of the ongoing battle in the distance, nearly in hand on the human side, but there may still be Mimics between them and the omega, burrowed somewhere beneath the citadel. A ground approach is just not an option.

There's an abandoned Black Hawk in La Roche Square with enough fuel to cover the distance. Hendricks has crashed it on takeoff too many times to count. After the twentieth time or so, he instinctively stops asking whether or not they've found it before.

Today there's a gouge above his temple that's bleeding into one eye, but they're otherwise unharmed. They approach the square, sweeping for Mimics, and he climbs into the cockpit, starts the engine as always. The skids lift from the ground, level, relatively smooth.

He blows out a breath. "If at first you don't succeed…"

She smirks. "Die and die again?"

By the time the tattered flags come into view, she's almost started to hope.

The Mimic leaps from the surrounding trees, tearing the prop clean off — they careen in a corkscrew toward the ground, him trying to gain some semblance of control, her shooting a hole through the roof. And at the last possible second, Hendricks turns from the stick and shoves her out the cargo side door.

She's still not gonna make it.

The entrance is a thousand feet away, her side is split wide open, and her right leg seems to be shattered.

She has to crawl through the wreckage to get to him, where the engine is throwing sparks and the fuel lines are leaking. And when she finds him, twisted and broken, and slides her hand into his over the ghost scars on their palms, the bastard has the nerve to smile.

"Hey," he says, on his last breath, "fancy meeting you here."

 

In hindsight, this may have been a bad idea.

She's quick, and she's quiet, but even that won't last for long. She can hear the alpha coming, hunting, itching to tear her to pieces.

There's a scrape of metal in the distance, too soft to be anything but Cage and far too loud for what they're trying to accomplish.

He's right. They've been through worse. She's lived entire lifetimes in a day, who knows how many in Cage's. And with the glow of the omega so close, there's the tiniest chance they might actually be the ones who bring this all to an end.

For now, though, she'll simply have to be a bigger distraction.

She kicks at a hubcap, sends it skittering across the concrete, and the wrath of the alpha bears down.

Well, she thinks, taking a deep breath, somebody's gotta keep you out of trouble.

 

do i have something on my face?

 

The recovery is a slow one, but it's a different world now — a victory finally on the books, her name heading up the charge. Bingham never needs it spelled, now. They offer her the world — a flat in central London, a car she'll never drive, a rank she hasn’t really earned — but all she wants is one thing.

She has the prop sharpened and shined, a JH engraved on the base of the blade and the whole thing custom-fitted to her grip. "It's John," he'd laughed once. "This close to being named after a rock god, and I get the guy who founded the Discovery Channel."

Before she picks it up properly for the first time — perfectly balanced, impeccably weighted — she slides her hand along the edge, tracing a phantom line, and draws beads of blood through the skin of her palm.

Then she wraps her hand along the hilt, holds as tight as she can, and lets herself cry.

 

The war is over, the Mimics are dead, and there's an officer on her fight deck.

She asks what he wants, and he laughs like a moron.

"Do I know you, Major?"

"Absolutely," he says, still smiling, "and not at all."

She gets it, then.

They sit on the floor, bots eerily silent around them, and he tells her the story of his day.

"So how much did I fuck with you?"

His expression is a complicated one, which she figures is fitting. "We had our moments," he says, "but I think I got to know you pretty well."

She hums. "Somehow I doubt that. But it's nice that you think you did."

"Your name is Rita Rose Vrataski. Your parents moved you to London from Warsaw when you were four — you understand enough Polish, but aren't fluent. You have a brother, younger, but always wanted a sister. You take three sugars in your coffee, served with a soldier named Hendricks who was very important to you, and switched your sword hand to your right, even though you're a lefty."

Her blood runs colder with every word, and she'd be tempted to hurt him if he hadn't sounded so matter-of-fact.

"Impressive." She tilts her head and eyes him carefully. "So. You're the man who saved the world."

"No." He shakes his head, but his smile returns. "I saved you. You did the rest."

After a moment, she smiles back. Even laughs a little. It probably isn't true in the least, but she'd have said the same of Hendricks, once upon a time.

"Don't be so modest, Major," she says, "I'm sure you helped. I do have one question, though — where the hell did Rose come from?"