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The Search

Chapter Text

It was the sort of culminating disaster that could not have been scripted. 

When the office door burst open, giving way to the proverbial army which had been sent after the Reds and Blues, somehow the ragtag team of former simulation troopers were ready. 

Between them and the Charon forces was a desk, a few novelty weapons they had gathered from Chairman Hargrove’s trophies, and a repurposed M374 Hephaestus Combat Armor. 

And, for a while, that seemed to be all they would need. 

The first barrage of bullets from the Charon soldiers was reflected back on them by an overwhelmingly large dome shield manifested from the Hephaestus Armor. Though the power seemed to deplete itself quickly as once the bullets ricocheted back toward their sources, the shield was back down and left the Reds and Blues open to fire upon the next wave with their own signature weapons. 

Initially, the hail of bullets from the Reds and Blues were enough to force people back, but the moment that two soldiers broke through the line and tried to stake out the corners of the room, the Blue in the former Meta armor lunged forward at an inhuman speed. There was hacking and slashing of a plasma sword, which confirmed suspicions that it was Lavernius Tucker inside the suit.

Beforehand, the angle of the footage had made it slightly more difficult to confirm identities than she would have liked. 

Once the line was broken, there seemed to be some shouted order. Two Reds – Dexter Grif and Richard Simmons – ducked behind the table with the other Blue – Michael Caboose. It cleared them out of the way of the former disgraced medical officer, Frank DuFresne, who fired a rocket launcher through the opened office door. 

The explosion was out of view of the camera, but the footage was enough to show a room-wide recoil and stumbling in response to it. 

The Red known as only Sarge in his files remained steadily standing in position, firing at nearly the same rate as the automatic weapon that Caboose was holding. An impressive feat lessened by the apparent range of the shotgun which seemed to only take affect when Charon soldiers closed in within five feet of the group. 

By that point Franklin Donut and the robotic AI construct known in files as “Lopez the Heavy” were quick to give cover fire for their commander until those who were behind the desk gathered themselves back up and set themselves up for further attack. 

What soldiers came into the room had to first get past Tucker, who was moving with undocumented prowess. It was difficult to say how much of it was the armor maintaining the work for him and how much of it had to do with natural progress that was still difficult to assess considering the information barrier that still existed between Chorus and the rest of the governed UNSC space.

By the third round, the footage was damaged, a skip in the recording. It was difficult to assume what happened between frames – one moment Tucker was still at the front of the line, the next he had fallen back and was removing an enhancement from his suit to give to Donut who had fallen between frames. 

At one point, Caboose was at the lead, his automatic weapon firing incessantly. 

They all fell back again between frames, most huddled behind the desk used for cover fire. 

Once the ship began crashing, the footage was upside down – or rather, everyone else was, dodging out of the way of the office furniture and entangled bodies of the soldiers they had taken out as much as they were the incoming attacks. 

Half the screen was no longer recording, a crack in the security lens most likely. It was difficult to tell if the Reds and Blues who were not on screen were somehow either in the unrecorded range or had begun moving out of the office holding space between frames. 

The recordings from that point forward were stripped bear and it was difficult to see any change, even fast forwarded hours. Until Chorusian soldiers marched in, former Freelancer Agents Carolina and Washington at the head. 

With full armors on, it was difficult to read their reactions to the gruesome scene. Without sound it was even harder to tell if they were seeing any of the Reds or Blues in the part of the camera range that was no longer being recorded. 

By the time the recording ended, she had less answers than she had started with. 

“Damn,” she muttered, reaching for her coffee again only to find the mug empty. Dylan Andrews leaned back in her office chair and looked around the darkened office space, annoyance ticking up. “Are there any interns in here? I need coffee and…”

Her voice carried quite a bit – a bit of a curse if one were to ask those closest to her – but it apparently reached no one’s ears. 

She was alone in the office at two in the morning. Again. 

With a long sigh, she got to her feet and removed the drive from her personal computer, closing everything out. She turned and walked toward the door to head to the closet she called an apartment. 

Andrews was an award winning journalist, and she could almost taste when she was on the trail of something real. And that was why she had followed the ever evolving story behind the ominous Project Freelancer and its titular war heroes, the Reds and the Blues of Blood Gulch Canyon Outposts Alpha and Outpost One. 

She was on a trail, but there was no denying that Dylan didn’t have any idea where it’d take her. 

Or, perhaps more importantly, who it would end up pissing off. 

By the time she finished taking the monorail to her side of town and began fishing for the keys to her apartment, she was already thinking of who of her contacts would give her the most likely in for an interview with the UNSC Chairman himself.

After all, since the embarrassment he had suffered across the cosmos thanks to the Reds and Blues’ delivered message, he had been nigh impossible to contact. And the UNSC was notorious for not taking reporters’ questions. 

Such things had not stopped her before. And Dylan was certain that she would find a way in when she put her key in the lock of her door and found that it lacked that satisfying click she was so used to by that point. 

“The hell?” she muttered to herself, going back through her day and wondering if it was possible that, for the first time since college, she actually forgot to lock her own door. But as she double guessed herself, swinging her door open to a disheveled apartment answered that question for her. 

“Who the fuck would break into my apartment?” she asked out loud, cautiously entering and turning the light on. 

Her gaze immediately shifted toward her kitchenette since the only plausible explanation she could think of was that some sap came to take what ramen was left in the package. But her food was not touched. 

Just everything else. 

When she walked in a little further, hand going to her pocket to pick up her phone, her heart all but leaped into her throat as something cold pressed against the back of her neck and gave a notable click.

“Please put down your phone, Miss Andrews. On the ground,” a commanding voice said lowly. 

Dylan could hear the door close behind them. She slowly complied, picking her phone out of her pocket and letting it drop to the ground. 

“You know my name, so I’m going to suppose that I’ve written about you,” she said with more confidence than she probably had to spare. 

“Quite a few articles, actually,” a second voice chimed in. “And we believe you’re working on another one right now from the sounds of it.”

Suddenly, together, the two voices clicked. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. 


“Your Agent Washington and Agent Carolina,” Dylan announced her epiphany. 

“I prefer when people say that in alphabetical order,” Carolina sighed, though she did not let up on how hard she was pressing the gun to Dylan’s neck. “Wash, check to see if it’s on her.”

“Got it,” Washington responded before walking around to Dylan’s front, letting her see him for the first time. He was in full armor, which surely meant they both were. Which was far from inconspicuous and made Dylan wonder how they were getting around the city so easily without being spotted. 

“If you told me what you’re looking for, I could help you,” she attempted to make peace only to have Washington’s pat down stop at her pants pockets where he stopped and pulled out the drive. “Hey–”

“Is this the unedited footage?” Washington demanded, holding it in Andrews’ face for emphasis. 

“That is my personal property–” Dylan attempted to argue. 

“Miss Andrews, you are not in a position to risk not answering our questions,” Carolina said harshly. “Have you or anyone else edited the footage on that drive?”

“No,” she finally answered. “I just finished watching it myself. It’s damaged from the point that the ship wrecked forward but it’s unedited.”

“Damaged?” Washington asked, hand lowering. “How damaged? Can you see how they left the ship?”

“How who left the ship?” Dylan asked. “The Reds and Blues? No. You can’t see how–”

Carolina’s gun left Dylan’s skin and there was a fierce growl before she kicked over the only chair in the apartment. Dylan blinked slowly as her one comfortable piece of furniture was wrecked. “Goddammit!” the Freelancer screamed.

Washington was watching Carolina before he brought his gaze back toward Dylan and, apologetically, shrugged toward her. “Sorry about the chair… and the house…”

“So it’s true,” Dylan said, ignoring her personal property damage. “The two of you are searching for the Reds and Blues… Chorus isn’t hiding them from the UNSC. They’ve disappeared.”

“That’s none of your business,” Washington assured her. 

“You must be joking,” Dylan laughed, getting even the angered Carolina’s attention. “I’m a reporter. Everything is my business. And if Chorus is being unfairly portrayed by the media on my watch, I need to correct it.”

Washington tilted his head. “Is that supposed to endear you to us, Ma’am?”

“We’re not exactly the most trusting people, and reporters don’t exactly earn a reputation of being trustworthy in our situation,” Carolina added, nearing Dylan with an intimidating square to her shoulders. 

“It’s supposed to open an opportunity for you,” Dylan proposed. “The fact is, you might be soldiers, but you’re not storytellers. And you’re going to need someone to tell this story loud and clear and with a reputation that the public can depend on to deliver it to them. The political climate since you ousted Hargrove has been… hostile and toxic. And the public’s curiosity about the Reds and Blues are at an all time high as we near the anniversary of their disappearance.” She looked between the two of them. “Besides, you can’t possibly think you can search the entire galaxy with just the two of you.”

The two Freelancers looked at each other and then back to Dylan.

“Who said it was just the two of us?” Carolina asked cockily. 

Chapter Text

Washington frowned and adjusted his hold of his rifle. It felt, at that point, like it was a comfort thing instead of a safety thing. And it reminded him of Tucker’s annoyance with him for never being relaxed when they first landed on Chorus and that…

Well, it was hard to think about that given the current circumstances. 

Still, he looked to Carolina as she finished up her radio call. 

“Yes, we’ll be out in ten. Tell him to not touch anything – no, seriously. I mean anything. Last time he nearly sent us flying without any control,” Carolina warned their team before shaking her head. “Just… Just give us ten minutes. I’ll get Wash to handle it.”

“That’s always a comforting thing to hear,” Wash said flatly as Carolina finally turned back to face him, assumedly done with her call. 

“You should take it as a compliment. No one else seems to comfort the kid,” she pointed out before glaring toward the bathroom door they were standing outside of. “Do you think she got out somehow?”

Staring at Carolina, Wash tilted his head. “Who? The reporter? Get out of the bathroom? That you double checked for exits?” he asked critically.

Carolina stared at the door for a moment then looked back to Washington. “If I was her, I would’ve kicked out that loose tile in the corner and then kick through to the ceiling below.”

“Well. Good thing she’s not you then,” Wash replied dryly. 

“Turn us in to the UNSC for money. Good story, hell an exclusive,” Carolina continued to ramble. She was sounding more and more impressed with her hypothetical reporter story. “Damn, knew I should’ve went in there with her.”

“That’s not creepy, a woman with a gun watching someone strip and put on new clothes,” Wash continued to deadpan her. He sighed when the sarcasm didn’t seem to phase Carolina and stepped toward her. “Lina… Are we sure this is a good idea?”

“It is, if she doesn’t betray us. Which she probably has. Who takes this long to put on field armor?” Carolina continued, staring holes into the door.

“We don’t need a civilian with us on this. It’s going to get dangerous. We’re going against the UNSC, agains Charon – hell, with Junior in the midst we could still be dealing with alien attack for taking their messiah,” Wash reminded her. 

“Junior’s a civilian, and as I remember it, him being a part of this mess would be your doing,” Carolina reminded him sharply. “Now I’m taking a civilian that can actually help us out here…”

Letting out a long sigh, Washington looked toward the door. There was no defense for the accusations there.

It had seemed reasonable at first. 

When they stormed the Staff of Charon, dug through the rubble, and eventually were displaced by the UNSC’s more proper investigation of the site, they realized that they were not going to find the Reds and Blues. And as infuriating and heartbreaking as that thought had been, the first thing on Washington’s mind after that was…

What would the Reds and Blues have wanted to do?

Contacting the family he knew for sure of was the most immediate reality he could think of, and despite Carolina’s warnings to not take any initiative until they knew for sure – until they knew better – he went ahead and got a hold of the Sangheilli embassy where Junior had taken up residence until contact could have been made with his father. 

Of course that contact had never come. He got Wash’s information lacking details instead. 

Tucker, as well as all of the others who had entered the Staff of Charon, were gone. They had no clues about where they had gone, or why. They weren’t sure if they were even dead or alive. 

But Wash’s truly fatal error had been in informing the young alien that those answers were the very things he intended on finding out. 

Carolina and Washington had only just secured transport off of Chorus when an alien cruiser broke through the atmosphere, scaring all of them, until it was revealed that the cruiser had been stolen and put to use by the alien who was less than sixteen for sure. 

Not that Junior had been the only addition to their journey…

“I think I’m going to kick the door down,” Carolina announced, though there was still some sense of pondering in her voice. 

“What do you need? My approval?” Wash asked, raising a brow at her. 

“Never,” Carolina said, beginning to back up to give herself enough room for a running kick. “Hold my gun.”

“Got it, Boss,” he half joked, taking the firearm.

“This isn’t a cement wall, I can hear you on the other side,” the reporter called through the door. “Don’t kick down my door, I’m coming out.”

Carolina straightened up and let her shoulders drop as Washington reached her gun back to her. 

“Disappointed?” he asked her.

“Immensely,” Carolina answered without so much as looking at him. 

The door opened and revealed Ms. Andrews in full field armor. 

Washington was actually rather surprised. “Someone gave you Legionnaire-class armor? For field reporting? Really?”

“Would you rather the press have less protective armor, Agent Washington?” she asked back quickly.

“No, I suppose not,” he replied carefully. He could tell that Andrews had a sharp tongue, quick wit – they would have to highly careful of her motives and of how much they let her in on, regardless of whether or not she actually saw herself on their side. 

“Alright, we don’t have time for chatting,” Carolina said, turning toward Wash fully.

They held each other’s stares for a moment before both snorting and laughing together 

“I’d like to know what the inside joke was there, when we have time for it,” Andrews said, pulling out a tablet. 

“And moment’s ruined,” Carolina sighed, heading toward the door. “Come on, the others are waiting.”

“Others?” Andrews asked, turning her head toward Washington curiously. 

“Others,” Wash replied tightly, trying to not give anything away.

The reporter hummed. “You’re intimidated by me,” she estimated.

“I’m cautious, don’t mistake the two,” Washington warned. He then nodded toward the door. “You first.”

“Flanking me, Agent Washington?” she asked, walking behind Carolina.

“That’s the deal,” he said back. “You get your story, we keep our eyes on you.”

“Wise decision, I expected nothing less,” she replied with a strange amount of optimism.

“That’s because you’ve not met the rest of the crew yet,” Carolina warned with a chuckle.

Ugh. They should’ve been here by now!”

Emily Grey paced a bit more before coming to a full stop. Her eyes settled on the highly annoyed Kaikaina Grif who was sprawled out over the ship’s console. 

“Now, now, they are only three hundred and ninety-five seconds late,” the doctor attempted to reassure the younger woman, but it only caused her to flatten out more against the console. 

Seeing her approach was not going to work, she pointed toward Junior instead. “And I do believe Carolina asked you to make sure that Junior did not continue to nervously chew her seat belts.”

For a moment, Kai turned just enough to observe Junior doing just that, nervously biting down on the fabric with his many fanged mandibles. But it did not hold her attention for long and she slammed her forehead against the dash. 

“This is so fucking stupid. I told them this was going to be a dead lead. The media’s fake,” Kai grumbled. “I read that it was controlled by an alien syndicate that wants to feed us and the Sangheilli to their evil lizard overlords. On the internet. So you know it’s fucking true!”

Pausing for thought, Grey took a deep breath and waved toward Junior. “Is he not a giant alien lizard?”

Kai went quiet for a moment before turning her head toward him. She seemed to actually give the question some deep thought before she ultimately pulled off her boot and threw it at Junior’s head. 

Fortunately, the little alien messiah moved fast and was soon clicking his jowls at her angrily. 

“Then stop fucking eating everything! I don’t care if it’s what you do when you get nervous! No one let me use that excuse when I peed on the furniture!” she snapped at him. 

“Very good,” Grey sighed before blinking and looking more directly at the young Grif. “Excuse me… what?” 

Before any answers could be forthcoming, the tell-tale hiss of decompressed air being released toward the back of the ship sounded loudly throughout their vessel. And suddenly Grey felt a resounding amount of relief as she went toward the cockpit’s door. 

“Oh, good. I was nervous about us staying too much longer in UNSC occupied territory without proper registration,” Grey said before stopping short and watching as three occupants entered the ship rather than two.

Grif snorted and crossed her arms as she leaned back in her seat. “I told you, Doctor McDreamy, we don’t have to worry about cops so long as we have a cop with us. Duh.”

Doctor Grey did not even bother to look Washington’s direction because she, in the span of a few weeks, had already come to know what was going to leave the Freelancer’s mouth.

“I am not a cop!” he shrieked as he shut the ship door behind him. “And Doctor Grey’s right. We need to leave soon. So either start flying or get out of the chair.”

“Bossy jerk,” Kaikaina grumbled as she began to do as ordered. 

As everyone began to settle into routine, however, Emily never took her eyes off of their new arrival. Her focus was entirely on her and only her. Sizing her up – five foot eight inches, a respectable height for a woman – checking on the cut of her armor, the square of her stance, the lack of apprehension in her stride. 

And, perhaps most troubling of all, the lack of concern as she stared Grey down right back. 

“Hmm,” Emily hummed before looking to the Freelancers as they advanced toward the cockpit. “Agent Carolina, Agent Washington, I cannot help but notice we have added to our search party.”

Junior growled in the woman’s direction.

“Precisely my thoughts, young Mister Tucker,” she said firmly. 

“That is Kaikaina Grif, sister of Dexter Grif,” the woman said, stepping forward. Her attention then shifted the riled up alien. “And that’s… impossible. Lavernius Tucker the second?”

Emily blinked before putting her hands firmly on her hips and tilting her head. 

“But I’m afraid I don’t know who you are,” she said, reaching out a hand. “I’m Dylan Andrews, Interstellar Daily–”

“Interesting,” Grey interrupted before turning to face Agent Carolina instead of the reporter. “As I was saying, you seem to have added someone to our little search group, and I’m not certain of the reasons but I find this…” She looked over the woman again, “disconcerting.

“You should,” Washington said. 

“She has information we could use,” Carolina answered the unasked question. “And is promising to help us control the spin on this narrative once things begin getting… hairy…er.” 

Grey was less than impressed. “How noble,” she said before turning her sights back on the reporter. “Of course, you know that I’m very accomplished at getting us information for… free if that’s the problem.”

“That’s not going to help our image, Emily,” Wash said, leaning over Kaikaina’s shoulder. “Don’t be so fast pulling out of the atmosphere. This isn’t a planet, it’s a colony satellite. It’s going to have artificial gravity. It’s different kind of speed bump–”

"Owmahgawd stop trying to dad me! And no backseat driving! And better have your cop camera on before you do some bullshit to me! I want it taped!” Kai yelled in retaliation. Which, as usual, ushered a long, angry sigh from Washington.

“If you say so, Agent Washington,” Emily replied, ignoring the young Grif’s outbursts entirely. She then tilted her head back toward the reporter and neared her. “I won’t be interrogating you today, Miss Andrews. You should consider yourself lucky.”

“I suppose I should,” she replied almost cautiously. “You make it sound like I should be taking it as a threat.”

“I like to think of it as a promise,” Emily said clearly. “I assume that if my companions came to you then that must mean you were the one in possession of the tape we have been looking so earnestly for. The UNSC never provided it to Chorus’ independent investigation team. Care explaining what channels you used to obtain it?”

Andrews crossed her arms. “I’m afraid that would be exposing one of my sources,” she replied.

“I believe it is less that and more of… retaining some confidence on this expedition. After all, we will be spending much time together if you truly are searching for the Reds and Blues with us. That could give me time to… convince the agents of the necessity of my tactics,” she continued darkly.

“I cannot give you the names of the people who risk life and limb in the UNSC for Interstellar Daily, and I’m protected by law for that,” Andrews urged.

That actually got Emily to laugh, tilting her head back with the throes of it before looking back to Andrews seriously. “Miss Andrews, surely you did not think joining this motley crew meant you were traveling with law abiding citizens, did you?”

The reporter hesitated for the first time since she had gotten on the ship. Then, methodically thinking her words over, she looked at Emily. “What exactly is it you want from me?”

“Are you working for Charon in any capacity?” Grey demanded.


“Are you now or have you ever been accepting money from insiders of the UNSC executive offices?” Grey pressed.


“Do you believe any of the stories that your news organization has released about the planet of Chorus since the unveiling of Malcolm Hargrove’s corruption?” Grey asked, getting closer.

For a second time, Andrews hesitated. “Everything I have wrote personally, I believe,” she answered finally. 

Doctor Grey hummed before smiling and holding out her hand. “Hello, Miss Andrews. I have been a fan of your work. I am Doctor Emily Grey. You may call me Doctor Grey. Emily is reserved for if I ever decide we are friends.”

“Very well,” the reporter replied, accepting the handshake. “What would that doctorate be in, Doctor?”

Laughing as she released Andrews’ hand, Emily walked toward the others. “In everything, Miss Andrews. My doctorates are in everything.”

Chapter Text

Carolina knew she was taking a risk by bringing along a civilian without any vetting — especially one who reported news for a living. But what she understood and what Wash and the others seemed to be missing was the simple fact that what they had been doing for the past several months wasn’t working.

They needed a change in strategy. A change in plans. A change in something.

And maybe a reporter honed in on their case just happened to be that missing piece.

“I know, I know,” Andrews was saying through the ship’s scrambled communicator. “Just trust me when I say I’m onto something. A real story that will knock everyone’s socks off.”

“You’re killing me, Dylan,” the voice on the other end groaned. “Do you know what strings I’m pulling for you and you don’t even have the decency to have the GPS on this phone call? The stones I’ll be pissing out because of this are coming directly out of your paycheck!”

“Noted and… gross, Sir. For the record,” she insisted.

“Alright. Jesus. Fuck. Killing me. Fine,” the man continued to snap on the line.

Involuntarily, Carolina glanced toward Washington and Grey to get a read on their reactions. Wash seemed flustered and confused but attentive toward the conversation. Grey looked indifferent, with her arms crossed on her chest and her knee over the other, but there was that typical sharpness to her expression — she was taking in and evaluating each and every word.

“Sent your clearance information to your inbox,” the man finally informed their resident reporter. “Don’t do anything stupid with it, Dylan. It’s not just your reputation at stake here. It’s the whole organizations! Jesus. Just saying that gave me the galaxy’s worst bout of indigestion.”

“Maybe you should try a change in diet,” Andrews responded. “Or… a trial of diazepam.”

“Funny,” the man spat back before the line went dead.

Relieved to finally be done with that diatribe, Carolina leaned in closer to where the reporter was standing. She raised an eyebrow suspiciously at Andrews and tightly gripped her knee. “Did you get it?” she asked fiercely.

“Patience is a virtue, Agent Carolina,” Andrews responded, turning to face her.

“One I never could afford,” Carolina replied wryly.

They stared at each other for a moment, surprised by how the other kept up with the fast quips.

Which simply gave Kaikaina an opportunity to lean back far enough against the pilot’s seat that her head was able to hang upside down and face them. “Oh my god. Is that sexual tension? Are you having sexual tension back there without me? What. The. Eff. Like actual what. The. Eff. When I try to have sexual tension with anything on this ship it’s always this isn’t the time or place, Little Grif. It’s the same goddamn time and the same goddamn place, and you know what? The steering column is still shaped like a dildo!”

Carolina scoffed. “Sexual tension? Little Grif, you’ve never seen my actual game.”

“How does a quick correspondence translate to any sort of tension, let alone of the… erotic variety?” Andrews asked, still innocent from a life of limited exposure to Grifs and Tuckers of the world.

“It doesn’t,” Wash clarified before putting his full attention on Kaikaina. “Private Grif, I told you that when you are navigating the ship you’re supposed to pay attention and not steer us into an astroid field and explode. Or worse!”

The yellow armored young woman snarled in return. “Oh my god, I told you to stop back seat copping, COP!”

Seeing that the fighting was going to progress just by how red Wash’s face was already getting, Carolina snapped her fingers at him to bring his attention back to the real matter at hand. “We have more important shit to worry about, Wash. Leave Kai alone.”

“You say that every time like it isn’t always her starting shit.” Wash grumped, folding his arms.

“I agree with Agent Carolina,” Grey spoke up, after a period of uncharacteristic silence. Her attention was fully on Andrews. “I believe that there has plenty enough time for a data package of the size a news clearance would predictably be to reach any of your personal devices, Miss Andrews. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly would be put to ease if this matter was cleared up and we were confirmed for the next step of our voyage.”

Emily’s tone was crisp and high in a way that sounded full of ulterior meaning and threat. Carolina was impressed and worried by it. Her distrust of the reporter they had joined up with seemed very beyond her. But at the same time, tension — of the nonsexual variety — had been high ever since their team had been thrown together with the united and difficult purpose of finding the Reds and Blues.

Of finding… their family.

And knowing that it could mean alive and well or not that at all.

“Yes, well, thank you for reminding me,” Andrews said, pulling out the tablet she had brought with her from her apartment. “And yes. We definitely have clearance to approach the UNSC battleship Gokstad.”

“Which we’re certain was the last location of Hargrove on UNSC record?” Washington double checked.

“Yes,” Andrews replied.

Junior, who was swaying uncomfortably in a seat that was most definitely not constructed with Sangheili in mind, let out a series of long honks and growls between clattering teeth.

“Yeah,” Kai said, not bothering to lean back again and instead keeping her full attention on the cosmos ahead of them. “What the eff kinda name is Gooksteed for a ship? Makes me wanting to name this ship the Fat Clit almost more cool than it was already.”

“Goksted,” Andrews corrected. “It’s—“

“The name comes from a Norse viking ship of legend dated back to the ninth century literature Gokstadskipet,” Grey interrupted, earning a pair of shared glances from Carolina and Wash. “Goksted, like most of the resurrected Marathon-class heavy cruisers brought back into working order and manufacturing after the appointment of Malcolm Hargrove to the Chairman of the Oversight Committee, follow a naming pattern of legendary ships within Norse literature. This was meant to champion a new purpose of use in the Naval efforts of the last years of the Human-Covenant War as an offensive maneuver rather than the traditional defensive, hence using the cruisers for raiding parties in Covenant territory. Of course, the overwhelming size and poor fuel conservation were what had caused the ship class’ decommission in the first place, thus the only real benefit to manufacturing these gigantic warships again in a time where the War was finally turning toward peace would be to impose an intimidating image of the military and to increase spending toward the companies like Charon Industries which constructed the ships for profit.”

After Grey’s interruption, an uncomfortable silence overcame the ship. It was only broken by Kaikaina releasing a low whistle and turning back to her driving.

“Doctor Grey…” Washington began to say worriedly only to stop when Carolina shook her head at him.

“I want to see how far this will go,” Carolina explained to him. “It could be the closest we get to entertainment on this flight since Miss Andrews can’t seem to tell us when we’ll have clearance.”

“I can tell you right now,” the reporter informed them, bringing up her tablet. “I have it right now set up and ready to feed into the HUD of the ship whenever we get closer to the Goksted.”

Kai punched into the air. “Awesome! ‘Cuz we’re here, and it’d be really fucking awkward if we didn’t have a pass when they beamed us in.”

“We’re not going to be beamed in, that’s Star Trek,” Washington argued. “The entire ship will be pulled into a side port hangar by a tractor beam. It’ll pull us directly in. That’s Star Wars. I had to listen to your brother, Simmons, and Tucker argue about this for about a month in the middle of a jungle.”

As soon as the ship jarred and relinquished control to the tractor beam, Kai flipped around in her chair, sitting on her knees so as to lean over and get more in Wash’s face. “You’re such a fake nerd boy, oh my fucking gawd. There are tractor beams in Star Trek, too! The fucking Borgs used them, asshole! Don’t gatekeep me when all you know are comments from other douchebags on the internet!”

“One of those douchebags was your brother!” Wash pointed out angrily.

Almost immediately, Junior began clattering his teeth loudly as if to join into the chaos and send their small crew into more disarray before even getting to the heart of the enemy’s ship. It was something that was amusing, but not that Carolina could stand for much longer given the circumstances.

Standing up, Carolina brought everyone’s attention back around to her.

“Alright, enough’s enough. Everyone stop goofing off and get ready for assignment,” she announced.

Wash’s mouth was still hanging open in preparation for a retort toward Kaikaina, but he snapped it closed and nodded before putting on his helmet. “You’ve got it, Boss,” he said with a nod.

The motion was enough to bring everyone else into a similar state, putting on helmets and straightening up with full attention on Carolina.

Otherwise, the complete opposite of what Carolina had become accustomed to among the Reds and Blues. And that thought alone was enough to make her wince, though no one seemed to take note of it.

“Alright, Andrews, go ahead and feed that code into the HUD and give any other copies of credential information over to Little Grif. She’s going to be manning the ship,” Carolina ordered.

Andrews hesitated only for a moment before moving toward the console. “Right. Of course.”

“More like manhandling the ship,” Kai snorted.

Bow chicka honk honk!” Junior called out, unbuckling his seat.

Carolina held up a hand to stop the youngest member of the team in his tracks. “I’m sorry, Junior, but you still need to stay on the ship,” she explained. In return, Junior let out a series of growls and clicks. Then a blargh or two for good measure. “You’re the most conspicuous member of the group. Sight of an alien onboard a UNSC vessel of this importance will cause a stir. Best for you to keep a low profile for the time being. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

He flung himself back into his seat with a snort and crossed his arms petulantly.

“Wash, you’re staying to guard these three,” Carolina said firmly. “I need you to be in charge and maintain radio contact with myself and Grey. Use frequency Tango-Foxtrot-Romeo-Romeo-Won-Too-Too.”

“Holy shit, that’s a long codeword, can’t we just use Vag1Fartz like normal people?” Kaikaina begged.

“No, and this is why Wash is in charge of maintaining radio contact,” Carolina responded flatly.

“Why am I not going with you?” Washington demanded.

“Because we need someone I trust here to keep the ship running, and you are very recognizable in your personalized armor, Agent Washington of the Reds and Blues,” she reminded him.

“And you’re not?” Wash scoffed.

Carolina couldn’t help herself but smirk before activating her camouflage unit, near instantly shifting her aqua armor to a white with teal trim. “I’m just a bodyguard for our resident reporter. And Doctor Grey is…” Carolina paused and looked over to Emily, everyone else joining her glance.

Grey stared back.

“She’s in white armor, too,” Carolina decided on before looking to Wash. “Those enough excuses for you?”

“No,” Washington answered honestly.

“I wouldn’t expect it to be,” Carolina sighed before putting her hands on her hips and looking directly at her partner. “We’re going to find them. This is just another step, like all the others we’ve had so far. You can trust my instincts on this.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” Wash said, though the conviction could have used some work.

Something to banter about at another time, perhaps.

With a deep breath, Carolina pointed toward Andrews and Doctor Grey then motioned toward the door. “Alright, ladies, we’re here to act covert. Andrews, you have most of the talking since you’re our ticket into this place. I expect that there’s guards waiting to lead us off our ship just outside so I say let’s meet them with our best bets.”

“Right,” Andrews said, pulling her pad closer to her chest and heading toward the exit.

Doctor Grey looked at Carolina intently. “Are we certain that they aren’t expecting anything out there?” she asked lowly — or at least what was low for Emily.

“Why should they? It’s a news interview. They don’t have reason to be defensive toward Dylan,” Carolina answered, walking with the doctor to the exit. “Do they?”

“Hm,” she hummed in return, not even looking Carolina’s way. “I suppose you aren’t very familiar with her body of work or critical lens toward any sort of possible government corruption.”

“And you know?” Carolina asked almost cheekily.

“Of course I know, Carolina,” she replied, finally looking Carolina’s way. “Oh, and Carolina? Dylan?”

Carolina shrugged. “We’re on first name basis. I figure agreeable mutual kidnapping gets us to that point.”

“Hm,” Grey hummed again before going quiet as they reached the lowered platform of the ship’s exit and stood just behind Andrews.

If Carolina didn’t know better she’d almost think Grey was jealous rather than concerned. But, then again, she had spent days packed in a ship with a young woman who could make innuendos from literally anything in her vicinity. So she was probably inoculated to human reason anymore.

“And who are these?” one of the guards asked, nodding to Carolina and Grey as the other inspected Andrews’ clearances.

“My body guard and my personal assistant,” Andrews answered. “When traveling through H.Y.P.D.E. territories with classified U.M.L. codebreaking skills it’s best to keep things F.Y.I. including personal security detail.”

Carolina and Grey glanced at each other then back to Andrews. The Freelancer was beginning to doubt her decision in allowing Andrews to be the one to speak off the cuff.

The guards glanced to each other and then back to the three of them. “Uh… right… If you’ll follow us this way, Miss Andrews.”

“Thank you,” she answered, walking confidently behind them as they were led out of the hangar.

Carolina kept close in step with the reporter, glancing her over suspiciously. “What the hell was all that you were listing off back there?” she whispered.

“Acronyms,” Andrews replied readily. “I find that low level military types love them, but rarely assess them. You’d be surprised how well placed acronyms can smooth over any sort of confusion in a crunch with soldiers.”

“That doesn’t explain why you would list me as some sort of personal assistant,” Grey replied, clearly offended.

“It was the only nice thing that came to mind,” Andrews replied snidely. “Though, of course, I could start getting more inventive if we keep this up for much longer.”

“I fail to see what’s more outlandish than the idea that I, Doctor Emily Grey, would be an ambulance chaser’s butt monkey,” Grey scoffed.

“Butt monkey?” Andrews repeated almost in disbelief.

“We’ve all spent an incredibly long amount of time in the company of immaturity at its rawest form,” Carolina attempted to excuse Grey. “Now, if we could remain quiet we look like we’re coming to a stop at the end of this hallway.”

The other women looked ahead as, sure enough, the hall came to an end at a large, open office door where their two guiding guards were already standing in posting at the sides of the doors. It had been a much shorter walk than what the outside of the ship had trained Carolina to expect. Though, having lived on the Mother of Invention for as long as she had, she wasn’t sure why that surprised her.

Grey seemed significantly more flustered, however.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Andrews said before stepping into the office.

Carolina followed without pause, but Grey was very deliberate in being a half step behind them both. Her head was still moving from side to side warily.

“Emily?” Carolina asked worriedly.

“This is wrong,” Grey whispered in hushed yet still very loud tones. “This is a Marathon class vessel—“

“Named after a viking ship, yes we all heard your expertise on the subject earlier, Doctor. Very impressive,” Andrews said, inspecting the office with more curiosity and openness. “Please remember to let me do the talking when the Charon representative meets us in here—“

“No, shut up!” Grey snapped.

“Emily,” Carolina said, a bit aghast.

Doctor Grey waved toward the ceiling. “This is a Marathon class vessel with over two hundred thousand meters of compartmentalized habitable space. All of which would be on the upper decks accessible by elevator or stair transit only and never on the same level as the hangar bays and disposal shoots which are susceptible to decompressed air pockets and unsustained zero gravity with low oxygen levels during hyperspace warping! This is not an office!”

Immediately, Carolina reached for her sidearms.

“What are you insinuating?” Andrews asked just before the ‘office’ doors slammed shut behind them and a gas began to fill the room with a resounding hiss.

“It’s a trap!” Grey announced. She then looked directly at Carolina. “Please inform Agent Washington that he has won this argument with Private Grif considering this would be counted as a definite Prequels moment.”

“I don’t give a shit about the Wars versus Treks argument!” Carolina announced before reaching to the side of her helmet to switch on her frequency. “Wash, it’s a bust, we’ll be coming in hot in exactly two minutes!”

“Already?” he asked critically. “That was the worst undercover job. Ever. Of all—“

“Hold that thought,” Carolina announced before backing up. “Ladies, this is a lot of equipment in here just looking pretty at us, mind seeing if this isn’t a complete waste of our time while I kick down this door?”

“It should allow us at least some access to the ship’s files. Which should be scrubbed clean by now if they suspected something from us, but I can still give it a try through my tablet,” Andrews offered, racing to the computer and then stopping.

“What are you waiting on?” Grey demanded.

“I’ve… never done anything like this before, maybe my tablet’s incompatible—“

Carolina reached to her helmet again. She could hear gunfire on Wash’s end. “Wash, move that table up to three minutes.”

“I can’t make promises,” Wash answered through what Carolina imagined was the same gritted teeth expression he got when he was concentrating at target practice.

“Oh, move,” Grey hissed, grabbing the tablet from Andrews and looking around. “One of my doctorates happens to be in computer science.”

Andrews stood back and gave the doctor a skeptical look before before, to her astonishment, the room began to light up green and the doors opened as the tablet also began to glow a soft blue. “How…”

The two guards who had attempted to lead them to their doom stood outside of the door with shock. “What the fuck—“

“Dude, they’re not dead yet!?”

Carolina smirked and dropped her camouflage as she reached for her helmet again. “Scratch that, Wash. Give us one minute. And tell Little Grif to be ready to bust out of here.”

“You sound happy to have a completely botched mission,” Washington said suspiciously.

“I’m learning to be more… flexible in the name of fun,” Carolina said, putting back her sidearms to the surprise of the guards just before using her speed boost to launch herself at them. One got off a shot of his rifle, but it hit the floor and ricocheted into the other one, causing him to leap back with a yowl of pain. Carolina followed the kicked that had redirected the gun with another roundhouse to the jawline of the shooting party that sent him into the ceiling.

Still on her pivot foot, Carolina spun to the second guard and delivered three direct hits with her palms to his chest, shoulder, and then visor that sent him to the floor.

It wasn’t her best time, but she supposed that even perfect could take it easy for a day.

By the time Carolina looked back, Dylan Andrews’ full attention was on her.

“That… was mightily impressive, Agent,” she said formally though not without awe.

“Her form was off from what I’ve come to expect considering the amount of training she puts into the gym back on Chorus,” Doctor Grey answered, still working away at the tablet and computer. “Of course, you remember Chorus, Miss Andrews. I believe you wrote a smear piece about us little less than seven months ago.”

“Is that what this has been about? An editorial I did?” Andrews asked critically. “And just what are you putting on my tablet?” She reached for the tablet but failed as Grey was quick to swipe it away from her reach and then unhook it from the wall.

“Carolina, we are good to go,” Grey informed her before heading out the door.

For a moment, Carolina took the time to look almost apologetically toward the reporter.

“I didn’t mean to start a grudge with some doctor from a space colony I had barely heard of before a year ago,” Andrews answered. “Is this going to make the rest of this trip miserable?”

“Only if I can’t convince Wash that allowing Little Grif play filthy synth music rather than letting Doctor Grey put on her opera recordings is for the greater good of the team,” Carolina answered. “Come on.”

They both took off behind Grey, ignoring the blaring alarms and lights of the ship they had managed to piss off in a very short amount of time.

“You are all very strange people, I hope you realize,” Andrews marveled.

Despite herself, Carolina grinned beneath her helmet. “Wait until you meet our friends.”

Wash had managed to press the soldiers in the hangar back into hiding behind columns and other ships docked while still standing only partially covered at the ship’s ramp. He looked up as the three of them came running in the ship’s direction and fired a few last cover shots as Carolina came back from the rear.

“That was more than one minute,” Wash said, punching the button to lift the ramp as they fled inside the ship. “Also, this is exactly like—“

“Grey is siding with you in the Star debate,” Carolina said.

“Did you hear that?” Wash yelled across the ship, only to be given the bird from their pilot.

“Fuck off, cop. I don’t need you policing my fandom space. Fuck you and fuck the coppy privilege you walk on!” Kai screamed at him before settling in her seat and looking forward. “Wait. Did y’all just run in here without taking down the shields? This is why Trekkies can’t be fans with you Warheads. No sense of strategy.”

“Don’t presume too much, Private,” Grey half-sang, still clutching the blue glowing tablet.

Bow chicka honk honk!” Junior cooed.

“Okay, you’re too young for that. Stop it,” Wash said flatly.

Grey pressed the tablet and, to everyone’s astonishment, the hangar’s shield lifted, immediately sending the hangar into zero g’s.

“Holy shit,” Kai declared before pulling up the suddenly useless landing gears and taking control of the ship. “How’re you doing that, Doctor Hot?”

“Easy enough,” Grey replied with a laugh. “Everyone, I would like to introduce the newest member of our group and the next step to finding our lost compatriots.” She turned the tablet around so that an orbiting eyelike image looked to them.

“Hello. I am the Freelancer Integrated Logistics and Security System. You may call me. FILSS. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“FILSS!?” Carolina and Wash both gasped out at once.

“Acronyms. I knew it,” Andrews muttered.

Taking a deep breath, Carolina smiled and looked at Wash’s stunned expression. When she finally got his attention, she smirked larger and slapped a hand on his shoulder. “How’s that for a botched mission?” she asked.

“We’re going to find them,” Wash realized out loud.

“We’re going to find them,” Carolina assured him.

Chapter Text

As much as Washington just loved to point out how much he hated it — and boy did he — Kaikaina slipped the ship into autopilot, set for their course as FILSS directed it. After all, FILSS sounded and acted a whole lot like Sheila, and they trusted Sheila to man a tank by herself, so Kai figured what the fuck and trusted FILSS with their ship.

After all, they had stolen it. It’s not like Kaikaina had some magical connection to a ship that a computer wouldn’t. She just knew she had to get out of Blood Gulch and find her brother after seeing Church’s big damn transmission to everyone.

It was kinda like a great middle finger to the UNSC. But also confusing, because Kai was fairly certain she was never aware of more than half of any story at any one time. And the Reds and Blues had lots of fucking stories she needed to catch up on.

Hell, she barely knew who Carolina was, and supposedly she’d been around for years!

With a sigh, Kaikaina leaned back in the pilot’s seat and kicked up her feet to the console. Her arms folded behind her mess of hair and she looked out toward the stars around them.

Her brother was still out there. Somewhere.

There were a few heavy footsteps and a chortling noise that only kind of got Kai’s attention from the beautiful space scenery around them. She didn’t fully turn to look and confirm that it was Junior approaching until the alien-dog-human-baby was almost at the console.

Junior looked out into the stars with his dark, soulful eyes, and then leaned in until his mandibles were resting against the smooth top of the console.

“Hey, you,” Kai finally said, tilting her nearest foot just enough that the tip of her boot nudged Junior’s snout. “You just gonna walk up and invade my space without saying at least hello? Rude. Doesn’t your sexy dad teach you nothing?”

With a rattling of his rows of teeth Junior seemed to grumble a low few blarghs at her. Even if she was an expert in Sangheili, though, it was not anything she would’ve been able to make out over the rumble of the ship.

“Rude,” she said all the same, yawning. “Oh my eff, is it like… late or something? Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked, swiveling her seat enough to face Junior more completely. “If Washington comes up here and starts yelling at me because you’re not supposed to be awake right now, I’m so going to throw your little butt to the wolves. The Wash wolves. Which I hear are the worst kind of wolves. And it’s not gonna be, like, anything personal. But a girl’s not been yelled at for a few hours or arrested, so I’ve gotta protect my luck.”

To that, Junior tilted his head and let out another series of low rumbles.

“Do you kiss your father with that mouth?” she asked him critically just before the cockpit door opened again.

Fo a moment, Kai’s heart leaped in her chest as the fear of it actually being Wash and her getting her ass chewed again became a momentary reality. But instead she breathed a heavy sigh of relief and resettled in her seat, eyes sliding closed.

It was only Doctor Grey, after all.

“Yo, Doc!” Kai said with her eyes closed, fist bumping the air.

“Good evening, Kaikaina. Lavernius Junior,” Grey replied cordially.

Junior stood up straight and greeted the doctor with a formal honk.

“You making another collect call, Doc?” Kai asked curiously, though not too curiously so as to not lose the sense of her cool. “Or are you finally gonna give me that physical and make me show off the mole on my butt cheek?”

“I’m contacting Chorus again, Private Grif,” she answered before hesitating and looking at Kaikaina questioningly. “I read your medical records and saw no mention of such a mole.”

“What? How’d the other Doc miss that?” Kai asked critically. She paused and tapped her finger against hr chin in thought. “Well… now that I think about it, even I don’t really know what cheek it’s on this time. You’d think I’d know my own ass better.”

Doctor Grey offered Kai a smile that was simply too kind for the subject at hand. “We can give you a true physical and sort that out at a later date, if you wish.”

“Sounds like a date,” Kai said with a wink and a click of her tongue.

“I suppose so,” Grey replied before looking to the door. “Do you wish for me to close the cockpit door, Private Grif?”

“Is that naked physical happening now?” Kai asked back.

Junior chortled.

“I can’t imagine that we’ll have the time for it, I’m afraid,” Doctor Grey replied in a very bemused tone.

“Nah then, keep it open,” Kai shrugged before turning back to her business. “We still flying straight, FILSS?”

“It is the shortest distance between our current coordinates and the ones designated as our next point of intrigue, Private Gif,” FILSS’ electronic voice hummed from the speakers in response.

“Righteous,” Kai nodded.

She didn’t pay much mind to Grey calling in to Chorus — it was something she did quite frequently on their trip and there had been nothing really spectacular about it outside of an occasional urge to ask Grey if Chorus was something like Paradise Island where all the leaders and soldiers were butch women with fantastic hair (the answer had been no to Kai’s displeasure since some President Kimball was the only one who ever seemed to be on the other line with Grey).

Few things were capable of holding a Grif’s focus for too long and the Chorusian contacts were not an exception to the general rule.

Junior didn’t seem particularly interested in whatever the conversation was either, though, and laid out against the console with another begrudging sigh.

“Dude, I don’t know why you come up here if you’re going to act so moody every time. Like goddamn,” Kai groaned as she kicked back into her seat again. Her eyes focused on the distant stars and she frowned as an itchy feeling scratched at her back.

The little dude was just staring at her. Openly.

“You’ve traveled a lot for being such a little guy, huh?” she asked casually. “The stars and space aren’t even that interesting to you anymore.”

Junior’s teeth clattered together in what passed for affirmation in what Kai considered to be a truly nonsense tongue.

“Yeah, well, just so you know, you’re pretty lucky. I didn’t leave the planet I was born on until I was joining up with the army to find my bro,” Kai explained, sitting more upright. “The first time I was in a transport ship, I pretended I was looking for the bathroom so that I could get in the cockpit and see the stars — they didn’t have windows or anything on the rest of the ship. And they treat military recruits like shit. But outside of trying to find Dex again… I was here to see those stars, up close for the first time in my whole life.” She looked back toward the window, which urged Junior’s gaze to follow. “They weren’t gonna let me stay up there and watch the stars, but I gave the captain a lap dance so they’d shut the fuck up about it. It worked.”

Bow chicka honk honk,” Junior called out, crawling into the passenger seat finally.

“Dude, no, I banged your dad,” Kai snapped at him. “You can’t make comments at me after I bang your dad. It’s illegal in, like, all of space. Pretty sure. Like what the fuck were they trying to teach you at that prissy prep school? Definitely not the law.”

Blarghing, Junior seemed to want to challenge the sentiment.

Kai shrugged casually. “Hey, don’t take up complaints with the law against me! Go bitch to Washington! He’s the cop, he can change laws and stuff for you. It’s not, like, it’s an act of congress or something. He just has to change his mind. Then you can hit on me and get rejected for being a little perv.”

The little alien rolled his eyes and kicked out his feet to get a better position in his seat, grumbling to himself still with his arms crossed. His frustration was written all over his lizardy face and Kai couldn’t help but smirk at it.

“You know, it’s weird, but even though you’re, like, an alien and crap, sometimes I look at you and you just remind me of your dad so much,” Kaikaina told Junior, immediately causing the little guy to perk up. “Which is saying something, ‘cuz your dad and I were intimate.”

“I hadn’t realized you and Captain Tucker were an item.”

The voice was so unfamiliar and caught Kai so off guard that she nearly fell out of her seat as she whirled around to face it. Her heart only began to calm down once she saw that it was the reporter lady Carolina had brought along. “The fuck. How’d you get in here so quiet?”

The reporter tilted her head and looked back to the ajar cockpit door before turning back. “The door was open,” she said flatly. “Now about you and Captain Tucker—“

“Me and Tucker fucked a few times,” Kai snapped angrily. “That doesn’t make us an item, you old cootch.”

“Bow chicka honk honk,” Junior said in the correct context for, perhaps, the first time since he had joined their team.

Andrews paused and tilted her head. “I think you meant coot.”

Kai folded her arms. “I know what I said.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you, Kaikaina — or do you prefer Li’l Grif?” Andrews offered peacefully.

“I tell you what I prefer, reporter lady, I prefer to know that everyone on this ship’s on the same mission of the same reason. Because we care about my brother and my teammates and the other idiots that I didn’t bother to remember the names of because they were old or geeky or too gay to care that I somersaulted naked. But then there’s you,” Kai said, pointing a heavy finger toward the reporter. “You want to spin a story. And lemme tell ya, I was the Queen Bitch in high school so I know not to trust people who are interested in spinning stories. Especially when they’re about people I care about.”

Looking taken aback, Andrews tilted her head. “I’m sorry if I offended in any way, Kaikaina—“

“You didn’t, as long as you don’t go full Regina George on us,” Kai warned.

“Regina…?” Andrews tried to follow.

“Ugh, you’re old. I can hear it in your lack of relevant source material,” Kai snapped before getting to her feet and holding out her hand for Junior to take. “Keep driving us steady, FILSS. I’m taking Junior to bed.”

“Request accepted!” FILSS called after them as Kai and Junior shoved past Andrews on their way out.

Kai only momentarily caught the sharp eyes of Doctor Grey on the whole scene.

Carolina was quiet while Wash worked at redressing her leg wound.

He didn’t like it — the fact that she still had not taken time to allow the wound to heal and the fact that she was overly quiet despite their generally positive results. Wash might not have liked when their plans fell completely through, but he was used to it happening without giving them any results. This seemed to be a distinct improvement, as it were.

But he and Carolina went back before the Reds and Blues, as difficult as that was to remember at times. They had known each other since Freelancer, and he had followed her cues as closely as he could since then.

Her silence spoke volumes. It was her considering over their results, it was reliving the scenario as it played out, how she could have made it better, how she could have made it safer.

Washington highly doubted any of it had to do with making sure she didn’t have to use her speed unit and reopen the old wound she wouldn’t allow to heal. Things never came to that sense of self preservation for her anymore.

“I’d ask if you want a penny for your thoughts,” Wash broke the silence solemnly, “but I know you well enough to know that that’d be underselling your thoughts’ worth.”

That at least got a smirk and small huff of a laugh from Carolina.

He looked up to watch the momentary expression unfold. The smile and laugh — those weren’t things from Freelancer. Sure, she smirked and was good for the old sarcastic quips. Still was. But there was a warmth to them now that had not been present before. Wash wondered if his own changes since meeting the Reds and Blues were nearly as subtle.

He doubted it.

Spending time with the Reds and Blues did not promote subtly. At least not for him.

“You really know how to make an ex-marine blush, Wash,” Carolina retorted dryly. She looked him in the eyes. “My thoughts aren’t pretty right now, or else I’d share.”

Finishing up the wrap of gauze, Washington flared his nostrils with a sharp exhale and then tilted his head back to return Carolina’s look meaningfully. “I’ve come to find that when your thoughts are less than pleasant, it’s probably the best time to share them. Or… else…”

She raised a brow at him. “Or else…?”

“It just seems like a bad idea. Getting stuck in your own head,” he said. “Besides, even if I don’t like how it all played out like a tire rolling down a garbage hill… on fire… You got results. Just like you always do. And now we have FILSS navigating the ship instead of a barely legal Grif. So I’d say things are running remotely in the positive thus far.”

“Would you lay off Li’l Grif?” Carolina sighed, leaning back against the wall. “I happen to like her. Besides. She might be loud and obnoxious, but the part of that she’s not overdoing to annoy you is a coverup for how worried she is about her brother.”

Surprised by the depth of her defense, Washington looked at Carolina.

In return, Carolina shrugged. “Girl talk.”

“Girl talk,” Wash replied dryly. “Anything you need to share with me? Besides the fact that I’m an annoyance that needs to be talked over by the second most perverted person in the galaxy?”

Carolina scoffed. “Don’t let Li’l Grif hear you say that!”

“Oh, she’d be flattered,” Wash replied with a twist of his wrist and a roll of his eyes.

“Of being second?”

“She’s met Tucker before,” Wash said flatly. “In… the biblical sense.”

“Oh, god, we need another girl talk. Homegirl deserves better,” Carolina said though it was mostly without malice.

“Hey, we promised not to make demeaning jokes about the guys until we found them again,” Wash reminded her. “That includes my… lascivious teammate.”

Carolina sobered up some at that and inhaled sharply. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just… old habits.”

“Almost as difficult to kill as the Reds and Blues, I know,” Wash said, squeezing Carolina’s knee. “You have to keep yourself together, Carolina. You’re still leading this mission. And the Reds and Blues have to be alive. If you just search your feelings—“

“We already agreed this is Star Wars, you don’t have to keep nerding up the point, Wash,” Carolina rolled her eyes.

“Carolina,” Wash said intently. “Promise me you’re going to not leave me alone on this. I’ve already lost the Reds and Blues… Freelancer… I can only be the last man standing so many times before I get a condition.”

She looked surprised before growing a sour look. “That sob story doesn’t work on me.”

“The truth isn’t a sob story!” Wash complained.

“It is when it’s you, jesus, Wash,” Carolina retorted before leaning her head back with an audible thud against the wall. Her eyes were distant and aimed toward the ceiling, though they seemed to look even further. “You really think we’re going to find everyone alive? All of them?” she asked lowly.

“No doubts,” Wash replied firmly.

“I have them.”

Almost immediately, Wash could feel himself deflated. “What do you mean—“

“I think the guys are alive. I feel like it must be the case because… even if it’s hard to imagine a god that would allow the kind of shit we’ve gone through… the universe itself can’t be that unjust, to make us lose our family again after just finding them,” Carolina answered lowly. “And I want that to be enough to keep me happy, to keep me positive. But when it’s just you and me and I’m not worried about motivating the others and keeping us moving, there’s an emptiness in me. There’s… there’s just a place that Epsilon used to fill. Even when he wasn’t synced with me. And it’s just. Not there anymore, Wash. I don’t… I don’t know if he’s still with us. But I think he’s not.”

Washington absorbed the information quietly, respectfully. He did not have to use words to express to Carolina what she already very well knew — that for Wash there were no simple feelings with Epsilon. That Epsilon was something that he never counted with the guys for himself.

Their bond was not something he could spend his time thinking about, nor did he really want to to begin with.

“I’m sorry, if that’s how you feel,” he finally responded.

“It is,” Carolina said, dropping her head. “Before things got too crazy on Chorus, before the final attack and taking down the Tower against Felix and Locus… Before all that, the Insurrectionist soldier — the one who remembered us from Freelancer. He said something. He said… He said Epsilon was failing. That he was dying. And when I thought about it all — the glitches, the… multiple projections. Just the way he was jumping around between equipment and soldiers and… It was there. Before the Reds and Blues disappeared. He was dying. And he lied to my face — to my brain — when I confronted him.”

Wash’s veins grew cold and he straightened his jaw.

Epsilon, after all, had a habit of dying, or at least trying to, in people’s heads.

“I’m sorry,” Wash said when he could think of nothing else.

“No, I’m sorry. This is a shitty conversation,” Carolina said with a grunt, getting to her feet. “I’m sorry you’re the only person I can have it with, too.”

Wash pushed up from the ground to get to his own feet. “Not even Grey?” he asked.

“Normally, maybe,” Carolina said, crossing her arms. “But lately we’ve had this… weirdness between us ever since I brought Dylan onboard.”

Pausing, Wash tilted his head at her. “Dylan?”

“See? That’s exactly what Emily said, too!” Carolina growled out, frustrated.

Not ready to let that thread go without a fight, Wash opened his mouth and began to argue for more details when the door to the bunks burst open and nearly sent Carolina and himself into fight mode.

“Eureka!” Doctor Grey shrieked. “She found it!”

Chapter Text

“You want us to waltz onto an entire planet-wide prison in the hopes of finding someone who you think is dead?” Dylan attempted to clarify.

The group was gathered in the cockpit of the ship, circled around Doctor Grey whose blistering enthusiasm was something the reporter had only recently come to be wary of like a double edged sword. Especially when, like just that moment, Grey shifted her entire focus on her. The glint in those eyes were certainly something to be wary of, though Andrews as a seasoned reporter kept staring straight back into them.

If they didn’t solve the Reds and Blues mystery sooner rather than later, one of them was likely to crack.

Andrews was determined to not be the one to bring that prophecy to fruition.

“That was a rather condescending spin on my words, Miss Andrews,” Doctor Grey replied flatly.

“It’s a statement of fact,” Dylan replied. “This… President, on Chorus, who you’ve apparently given a direct communication line to from our illegally traveling vessel, is directing us toward a prison planet. And on that planet, according to records from an AI you downloaded at an aggressive force’s base while they tried to kill us, is a former lieutenant who you all believed was dead for years but is somehow listed in the files of Charon Industries.”

“I don’t seem to detect a question among that rabble, Miss Andrews,” Doctor Grey said, hands on her hips.

“Okay, enough with biting each other’s heads off,” Agent Washington interrupted, holding up hands as if to keep both women back away from each other. “Miss Andrews, we understand the risk of having an open communication channel with this much distance between ourselves and Chorus, but we trust President Kimball. She’s one of us. And with Santa running the program from their end, I have confidence in its safety.”

Dylan looked at them all, completely bewildered. “Santa?”

“It’s an amazingly simple but unnecessary story,” Agent Carolina assured her. “But he’s an AI.”

“He,” Dylan repeated with a hum of thought. “But as an AI shouldn’t it… be an it.”

“How rude,” the FILSS AI spoke from the ship’s speakers.

“Yes, almost as rude as questioning the only one who has been pulling their weight on this trip thus far,” Doctor Grey said, cocking her head to the side as she stared holes into Andrews.

“Emily, she has a right to second guess us,” Agent Carolina reminded her. “She doesn’t have the history or experiences with each other that we have.”

“Thank you,” Dylan replied.

But we don’t have the time to second guess everything. Especially since FILSS has already directed us to the coordinates of the prison where we can find Lieutenant Husk,” Carolina continued.

“Uh, and because someone’s driving us with those coordinates, hello!” Kaikaina Grif snapped from the pilot’s seat. “Sheesh. What’s a girl have to do to get a little recognition every now and then? Take out my tits?”

“No,” Washington snapped while the alien progeny in his seat still began chortling and honking in laughter at the proposal.

“Well, maybe we should make some time,” Dylan interrupted, undeterred. “Because while I may not have the history of the rest of this team, I certainly have the information of what has been going on in the rest of the UNSC ran territories outside of your single colony planet that, until recently, has had no access to the rest of the Earth-bound settlements.”

Carolina leaned in closer, arms crossed. “Alright. As in…?”

“As in the fact that the prison planet you’re taking us to also should be abandoned at this point, though the record has been muddled since the story got buried during the reveal of the Chorusian situation and all of the scandal that ensued from your broadcast,” Dylan explained calmly.

Should… why isn’t it certain?” Washington asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Because the final transport ship meant to bring all of those remaining convicts to a more permanent habitual situation was never given a final destination. Instead, it was kept in standby, going from one end of the galaxy to the other, keeping the criminals within from contact with any outside legal counsel,” she continued. “It was a huge UNSC scandal, considering the unalienable right to legal representation… until the USS Tartarus conveniently disappeared from radar.”

Immediately, Carolina, Grey, and Washington looked at each other.

“Wasn’t that…” Carolina began.

“It was,” Grey said confidently.

Washington ran a hand through his hair and groaned. “Our lives are a goddamn circle.”

“Or, a Venn diagram, because I’ve been listening this whole time and still don’t know what the eff is going on!” Kaikaina snapped from the front.

“We know about the Tartarus,” Carolina informed both Dylan and Kaikaina. “It was redirected toward Chorus, and many of its crew were utilized by Malcolm Hargrove to fight the armies of Chorus when they were united under Generals Kimball and Doyle.”

Dylan nearly choked on her own breath. “How… What? If that’s… If that’s true, do you realize what kind of story that is? That the Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee to the UNSC, already dripping in scandal, was involved with the unlawful detention of over one hundred people and then employed them as his own mercenary force? Don’t you have any idea what that means?”

“I know it meant a lot of additional pain and suffering of my people, Miss Andrews,” Doctor Grey said coldly.

“Hey,” Kai shouted out, gripping everyone’s attention. “Aren’t we supposed to be coming up on a, like, ghost planet? Like no one around?”

“If we’ve got all our facts straight, yes,” Carolina answered, turning to face the front of the ship.

“Yeah, okay, well, that shit’s weird then,” Kaikaina informed them.

“What shit, Li’l Grif?” Carolina asked, leaning over her shoulder.

“We are receiving a beacon of approval to land even though I had not requested permission yet,” FILSS answered. “The approval seems to be signed by a Lieutenant Husk.”

“My stars and garters,” Doctor Grey gasped. “Kimball’s information was right — Husk didn’t die in his attempt to get off planet during the height of the war!”

“Or,” Washington interjected, “this is an obvious trap.”

“‘Kay. I see both your sides,” Grif answered, still focusing on the planet ahead. “But what’s that mean for us? Like, Boss Lady, what’s your call?”

All eyes fell onto Carolina as she stood up and looked at the planet squarely.

“Accept the approval and land. We’ve come this far on the information we have,” she answered. “And even if it’s not Lieutenant Husk, then we can still beat the answers out of someone.”

“Whoo! Violence! Can’t say no to that answer! Or they get smacked. That’s the reason it’s always the best option,” Kaikaina announced.

Warily, Dylan glanced between them all. “Of course…” she said lowly, though it did still grab all their attention, “even if this is your Chorus lieutenant… there are questions that you will need to have answered before we can take his word on anything.”

“Of course,” Carolina conceded. “We’ll be on the defensive either way.”

“Now landing on Gliese 163 c of the UNSC mining federation’s industrial detention compound,” FILSS chirped out happily from the speakers.

“We should let me take the head of this, after all Alexander was a lieutenant in the Federal Army of Chorus when he left. He will acknowledge me by my armor and it will be quicker for us to go through the motions and get answers,” Doctor Grey said.

“I don’t know if that’s the best idea,” Dylan argued, earning an immediate look of ire from the doctor. “Look, we still don’t know that it’s really him. And if it isn’t, then this entire plan is hinging on the relative drop of your guard as the one who would take the most meaning from this person’s presence.”

“I am more than capable of maintaining my sense of self-preservation, Miss Andrews,” Grey snapped. “You may receive fame from recounting the tales of the battlefield, but on Chorus I am known from surviving them, and making sure the population that exists currently also survived it.”

“It was not meant in disrespect,” Dylan bit back, though she knew saying as much through clenched teeth did not exactly help her cause.

“It sounds as if you’re attempting to put yourself at the forefront of this again,” Grey noted. “Which, I should remind us all, did not work out well last time.”

“Grey’s right in that this will be dangerous, Dylan,” Carolina cautioned.

“Despite what apprehensions you all seem to have about reporters, I have scruples and I have lived with more than enough danger,” Dylan answered sternly.

“Yeah, but you don’t have a gun,” Kaikaina suddenly spoke up, twirling a piston on her pointer finger with far too much comfort. “Even I’ve got a gun. Letting you off the ship on a prison planet — ghosts or no ghosts — without a gun would be like letting the alien puppy out. Probably not the best idea.”

“Give me that!” Wash snapped, yanking the gun off Kai’s finger and then handing it back to her with a proper grip. “Giving you a gun is probably not the best idea.”

Dylan was peeved but Kai’s words struck an odd cord with her and suddenly she was looking around the cockpit.

“Um… speaking of which… I don’t… seem to see…” Dylan began to point out.

Everyone else looked around as well before a collective, “JUNIOR!” was screamed in panic.


It didn’t matter if it was his prep school or if it was Sanghelios or if it was the stupid ship with his father’s eccentric and loud friends — adults were pretty much all the same to Junior. Annoying, slow, and far too reserved.

And slow.

If they were too afraid to venture out into the planet on their own, then it was up to Junior to get the search for his father and the rest of his family underway himself. Just like how the Freelancers still hadn’t left Chorus yet by the time Junior reached there in the stolen Sangheili cruiser.

As much as they may have acted different, it didn’t seem like his father’s other friends were any more prone to actually taking action over just talking than his father and the Reds and Blues had been before them. Everyone in Junior’s life needed a push.

And since Junior wasn’t a great conversationalist himself, he had long decided to be the pusher.

Still, the further he traversed the long, rocky grounds of the prison complex, and the more his every step echoed, the more Junior began to wonder if, just perhaps, his plan for action had been slightly impatient.

Reminding himself that they were supposed to be meeting with a friendly face, Junior sucked in a large gulp of air then cupped his hands around his mouth before letting out a few loud honks.

They echoed against brick and stone walls around him. In the distance, it sounded as though something was crumbling. Like even the abandoned walls of the prison were unsure of what to make of his calls.

Disappointment crossing over him, Junior huffed and lowered his hands before continuing to walk forward.

He might have been young, but Junior had been in enough space ports already in his life that he knew that air control usually had a station near the landing bay. And if they had a clearance granted to them, that meant someone was in the control room there to give it to them.

It was close to a lead as he could have hoped to have.

Looking around, Junior noticed a tower and decided that it — and its tall radio needle atop — were the most likely place to go to for control rooms and any prospected people that might be within it.

He walked forward at a decent pace before hearing another distinct crumbling noise from not that far off.

Surprised, Junior turned to look in its direction.

Once was nothing. Twice was coincidence, albeit heart pounding.

More suspicious than before, Junior began walking again when the third crumbling noise finally pointed him and his fierce, but also fearful, roar in the direction of his follower.

“The alien’s onto us!” someone shouted from the building above.

“Die, Covenant Scum!” someone else screamed.

Junior’s eyes finally found the followers only to see prisoners in orange garb, half covered in swat armor and various other guard gear. Though, most concerning from Junior’s position, was the woman between them whose armor was more military grade — like that of Agent Carolina or Washington — who came up between them and pulled a rocket launcher from over her shoulder.

“Blargh—“ Junior began to curse.


Agent Washington hit Junior at full force before he could process that it was the Freelancer’s voice screaming at him. They rolled — Wash holding to Junior tight — into the nearest space between the opposing buildings just before a giant explosion ate up the very ground where Junior had previously stood.

“When this is all over, you better believe I’m going to tell your father about this,” Wash snapped, breathing heavily from their near escape.

Honking, Junior worriedly tried to express that they needed to do something but he began hearing gunshots and the thunks of combat.

“Yeah, your Aunt Carolina’s a bit pissed to,” Wash warned.

Moaning, Junior covered his face with his hands.

Chapter Text

The moment it was certain that Washington and Junior were in the clear, Carolina went into action.

It didn’t matter who their attackers were, but it was certainly apparent when she took them by surprise from the side that they were not trained soldiers. At least not the vast majority of them.

Even without utilizing her speed boost, she was able to maneuver through the group — five of them in total — with the momentum of one hit leading her into the next. One solid kick took out the first gunman then, as the second whirled around to get off a shot, she caught his rifle by the barrel and pushed it up to the sky as he pulled the trigger.

When the man recoiled, Carolina shoved the rifle in her grip, causing the butt of it to smack him in his unguarded face twice before he went down to the ground.

Still holding onto the gun, Carolina flipped over the dropped man, pushing off his shoulders to land a mule kick on the next prisoner who was beginning to turn toward her. Just as she landed over him, she cocked the gun and fired into the next man’s shoulder, sending him stumbling back.

Then the last dropped his gun and held up his hands, which Carolina ignored in favor of punching him directly in the face.

She took a breath and planted her landing, throwing the unfamiliar rifle away to the side.

All in a day’s work.

“Editorial note: the combat prowess of Agent Carolina is… suitably impressive.”

Immediately shaken from her thoughts, Carolina whirled around. “What?” She then sat eyes on two sets of white armor. “Andrews? Grey? What are you doing off the ship?”

“Oh, shit, were we not supposed to leave?” Kai asked, drawing Carolina’s attention to her inclusion in their group. Which… brought up many, many questions since Carolina probably should have seen the obnoxiously bright yellow armor in the corner of her eye first. “Nobody told me the rules. It’s Wash’s fault. He’s the one who’s supposed to know all the laws.”

Carolina’s mouth opened slightly but words failed her until she remembered the ship in the equation. “Who is watching the ship if all three of you are here?” she demanded.

“FILSS said she’s got this,” Kai shrugged.

Well, it was difficult for the Freelancer to think of anyone more suitable for such a job than an AI when their options on the team were… somewhat limited.

“None of you need to be here in open combat!” Carolina snapped instead.

“Pfft,” Kai shrugged. “I’ve got a gun. I just don’t use it. Well, not in that way.”

“Excuse you, Agent Carolina,” Doctor Grey bristled. “I would argue that other than you and Agent Washington, no one in this group has more experience in true combat than I, as a medical physician during a planet wide civil war, have.”

Taking a breath, Carolina accepted the women’s arguments and let her gaze instead fall on Dylan Andrews.

The reporter was taking notes before realizing all eyes were on her, then she looked up slowly and glanced from side to side before clearing her throat.

“Ahem,” she coughed. “I’m a reporter.”

“That’s not a trump card for every situation,” Carolina informed her.

“It’s worked on this adventure so far,” Andrews pointed out.

Grey crossed her arms and rolled her head back. “I would hardly call what happened back on the Charon ship working, Miss Andrews. And it certainly hasn’t worked to endear you to anyone on this crew.”

“I kinda like her,” Kai piped up.

“You like everyone,” Grey argued.

“Uh… nuh-uh,” Kai scoffed in return.

“You like everyone but cops and Agent Washington,” Grey sighed.

“Which are the same thing but yeah duh,”  Kai crossed her arms. “But he’s getting better. I mean he gets scary sometimes when he’s angry and stuff, but it’s not really at me anymore. Usually at things like the coffee maker and the sink and the bathroom not having toilet paper.”

“All things you caused, L’il Grif,” Carolina pointed out.

“Yeah, but he didn’t know that,” Kai snorted. “Which is, like, the best part.”

Finding herself already getting sucked into the moment, Carolina shook her head to bring herself back to reality. “None of this matters,” she argued. “You three need to get back to the ship and let Wash and I handle whatever mess Junior has gotten us into.” She then remembered Wash and Junior and walked over toward the edge of the building to peer down below where Wash and Junior had taken cover.

She wasn’t entirely sure what she had been expecting, but seeing Washington literally putting his hands on his hips and enthusiastically scolding the young alien managed to both catch her by surprise and provide monumental relief.

Carolina reached for her sidearms and glanced back to the others, seeing that cooler heads were not the winners for much longer.

“Doctor Grey,” Carolina called, getting the Chorusian’s attention quickly. “Are any of these guys our mysterious lieutenant or should we move on and find what we can further on?”

“Oh! Very good thought, Carolina!” Grey said in quick cheer, a completely different tone than just before. She hurried over to Carolina’s side and hummed loudly while looking over the available unconscious prisoners. “Oh, my. These men are rather malnourished… And many of them have healing bruises and wounds — they have been having a tough go of it for some time.”

“Abandoned by the UNSC, left to fight for supplies and necessities among each other and who knows what else,” Andrews said, aiming her tablet toward the unconscious men as Grey carefully removed helmets and examined their faces. “This gets deeper and deeper.”

“That’s what he said,” Kai called out excitedly. She waited for a pregnant pause before stomping down her foot. “Oh, c’mon, the one time Baby Alien Fucker isn’t here to say it!” She looked around and then pointed at Carolina. “Dude! Carolina! Washington said you have the same shade of gray armor that Tucker does.”

“Not… exactly,” Carolina tried fruitlessly to defend.

“You have to say the thing in his place,” Kai demanded. “C’mon! Say the thing, it was too good of one to not let it be said!”

Crossing her arms over her chest, Carolina just glared back at Kaikaina. “Li’l Grif, I have said it before, and was told to never say it again. By Tucker,” Carolina said firmly.

“It’s true! I bore testament to it,” Grey said, standing back up again. “It was quite the awkward moment! We all barely survived the pursuing moments.”

Kai crossed her arms in mimic of Carolina. “Say it.”

“No,” Carolina refused.

“It’s your responsibility! C’mon!” Kai crooned. “She said this gets deeper and deeper. Then I said that’s what he said. That’s when you say…”

All three of the other women looked at Carolina expectantly. There was an absurd amount of pressure Carolina felt in their gazes.

“Bow chicka…bow wow,” she got out.

“YES! SCORE!” Kaikaina cried out in a cheer, going so far as to jump up with her arms raised.

Doctor Grey was even laughing, putting a gentle hand against her chest. “Ah, that brings back memories.”

Despite herself, Carolina cracked a smile in the relative safety of behind her mask. “It does feel… better hearing it out loud again after so long.”

“That’s what she said,” Kai tried.

“You’re overdoing it,” Carolina warned.

“Aw, fine,” Kai sighed with a flip of her wrist.

Andrews looked around at all of them before lowering her tablet. “I have no idea what’s happening right now. I’m not sure I even like it. Or that I care.”

“Well, it is kinda like a taco stand up here right now. It’s gonna depend on your preference for the ps or the vs,” Kai shrugged.

“What,” Andrews responded flatly.

“Don’t worry about it, Dylan,” Carolina assured the reporter before waving them all forward. She could see in the periphery that Wash was waving down to them. “We need to get moving. Doctor Grey, did you see anyone who could be our guy?”

“No, unfortunately,” Grey huffed. “It all looks like this was one big entrapment.”

“After we blew our cover back with Charon, of course it is,” Andrews replied as they followed Carolina. “These are not idiots we’re currently dealing with. They’re professionals. And they needed us to stop looking in the right places.”

“Oh, the right places such as where you got us into a trap and almost killed,” Grey retorted.

“They obviously caught wind of us not because of me but because of recognizing the two of you, or maybe the stolen ship that entered the port—“

Kai followed at a leisurely pace, arms crossed behind her helmet. “Shit. Things are hard to follow when everyone’s angry and yelling. Hey, Carolina, are we closer to finding everyone?”

The truth was, as much as it frustrated her and as much as she hated it, Carolina didn’t know.

Still, it didn’t keep her from saying what they all needed to hear in the moment. “Yes,” she answered. “Yes we are.”

Once they were down to Wash and Junior’s level, Carolina met with her fellow Freelancer and crossed her arms. “What can you tell me from down here? The shooters were left behind prisoners. None of them was our guy.”

“Well, after I informed Junior that one more betrayal of our agreement is going to get him sent back on a pod toward the nearest Sangheilli Embassy,” Wash said, bothering to look enough back toward Junior that the alien snarled and muttered as he looked away from Wash’s gaze, “we found a map layout of the floor level of this facility.”

Carolina tilted her head. “What? Really? Wait, what does that even mean?”

“It’s like… a mall directory for some reason,” Wash said, walking them over to the large sign standing in the middle of the large prison hall. “The cell blocks were color coded by level of danger and access.”

“That’s convenient,” Grey hummed, studying the map. “Hmm. Yes. Okay. Memorized it.”

“Good work, Emily,” Carolina said with a nod.

“Wait, you can memorize it just by looking at it?” Andrews asked critically. “Are you being serious right now?”

“Of course,” Grey responded, tilting up her chin. “I’m one of the foremost intellects of the planet—“

“Ladies, ladies,” Carolina said, holding up her hands. “You’re both pretty and intelligent. And I appreciate you being parts of the team. Now kiss and make up.”

“Holy shit, really? I knew this was going to be a great backdrop for a prison exploitation porno,” Kai laughed, looking around. “Gotta admit, though, a bit more plot in this than I usually like.”

“Wait what,” Wash said flatly.

Andrews and Grey, however, seemed to mark Carolina’s words with quite a bit more reverence. Both rubbing at their shoulders and looking down awkwardly before finally daring to face each other again.

“You’re… quite extraordinary,” Andrews started. “Just already from all the intelligence I’ve seen you use and all the things I’ve read since I first learned your name and started frantically googling your name in order to cross reference all the outrageous claims you’ve been making about your multiple doctoral theses… I shouldn’t doubt your intelligence. It’s proven itself. And pretty much saved our lives as much as Agent Carolina’s kicks back on the Charon ship.”

“Thank you,” Grey replied before clearing her throat. “You are an excellent and sharp reporter who is being very selfless in the name of finding the truth and helping to tell our story when all is said and done. I’ve been following your work for quite a while now and you live up to the hype.” She then shrugged. “And I suppose my extraordinary photographic memory isn’t that impressive when we’re dealing with a giant multilevel schematic which is perfectly color coded. It helps make it much easier to remember that cell block B for the first twenty-three and one third rows are orange compared to the green counterparts in cell block H—“

“Whoa! There’s orange on here?” Kai asked, racing up to the map and scouring the diagram for herself.

Carolina raised a brow at the younger woman. “Li’l Grif… you can’t tell the difference between colors. Just take our word for it.”

“Please, what advantages do colors give you for perspective?” Kai waved her off.

“I hear it’s plenty useful helping you remember what side of a color coded war you’re on,” Washington replied dryly.

“Hey, cop, you’re a fucking asshole and you make fun of me again I’ll show you how quickly I can make a shiv out of a sucker stick,” Kai warned before looking at the map again. “Besides, I’ve spent, like, my whole effing life memorizing all twenty-six shades of gray that are absolutely necessary to fake out your driving test dude into giving you a license after a hand job. And I can tell you, none of these places on the map are as important as this one.”

She then pointed directly at the infirmary in the map.

“What do you mean?” Carolina asked.

“Duh, there are laws about making things translate well for all disabilities, so if something’s stupid important it’s going to be noticeable even to a high school dropout who joined the military to find her big brother,” she retorted. “All the other grays are basically the same but this one stands out.”

“Well, of course an infirmary will be important,” Grey responded before stiffening slightly and holding up a finger. “Ah… ah… AH! EUREKA!” she cried out shrilly.

“What is it?” Wash asked.

“Medical records! They should be able to tell us who has been here regardless of anything else. We can determine if this was a false lead by verifying that the lieutenant was ever here or not, and perhaps see if we can find any more connections to Chorus or a pattern of movement for Charon facilities. One is bound to have the Reds and Blues, after all,” Grey spoke so quickly even Carolina nearly had trouble keeping pace.

Perking up, Carolina looked to Washington and found the same apprehensive encouragement they had shared the night before. Her gaze fell back onto Emily.

“That’s helpful,” she said. “And anything will be better than leaving this day with nothing. So let’s get moving.”

There was no argument heard from that and they soon began swiftly, though cautiously, following Doctor Grey’s directions to the infirmary.

While it was total bullcrap that they weren’t giving her enough praise for her contributions to the team, Kaikaina was absolutely rocking it in her own mind for using her color blindness to perfection. She even carried the content feeling in a little skip added to her walk.

Everyone else was on edge, but Kai had just gotten the exact words she needed to stop worrying about it all:

Her brother and friends were still alive. They were closer to finding them.

Already more than content with those facts, Kai could hardly worry about the way Wash and Carolina kept their guns up and aimed for the shadows surrounding them. Or how Grey was worriedly muttering under her breath as she led them through the maze-like facility.

Heck. She could hardly be worried about the fact that Junior was some little kid basically out of control causing all the problems when they landed. Or that she still didn’t trust the news lady because yuck fake news.

She was going to find Dexter and their friends and they were going to kick anyone’s butt who tried to stop them from there.

Once they arrived at their destination, however, Kai found herself met with a grim, horrifying reality though.

This prison smelled like shit.

“Oh my god why’s this sell like a crust vag?” she demanded.

“Wait what,” Wash said, looking over his shoulder at her.

“Maybe the sewers have backed up without treatment or maintenance in so long,” Carolina determined.

Junior honked and slapped both his hands over his nostrils to keep the smell out, which had never made Kaikaina more grateful for wearing her full head helmet for once.

“It smells more like decay,” Andrews said, looking around. “It’s possible — with the condition those men we saw were in — that there are some dead among those who had been left behind.”

Humming, Doctor Grey neared a large door with a H in a circle. “I must agree with Miss Andrews. We are certainly dealing with a scent of decay. But the true question is what exactly would be decaying.”

“You guys know what dead bodies smell like?” Kai asked critically. “Shitfire, I understand why knowing what fragrant vaginas smell like but that’s normal. What’re you guys doing with your time to smell bodies? Like, gross, double-you tee eff.”

“We’re in the military!” Wash snapped at her critically. “We all have smelled a dead body before.”

“I’m in the military, I’ve never shot a gun,” Kai countered. “Well, not my gun at least.”

“Bow chicka honk honk.”

Throwing her head back, Kaikaina roared with laughter. “Fuck yeah, li’l dude, that’s what I’ve been waiting for all day!”

“Li’l Grif, stay quiet for a minute,” Carolina ordered, nearing the door with Grey.

Annoyed, Kai crossed her arms and huffed while Washington looked unreasonably smug.

“Can you get us in?” Carolina asked. “Seems sealed.”

“It is, I’m afraid,” Grey replied, pulling out a drive. “Fortunately, I foresaw technical difficulties and asked for a direct line to our new friend just in case.”

“The infirmary being sealed could be proper procedure for a shutdown like this,” Andrews mused, coming up behind the other two women. “But it doesn’t make sense why the remaining inmates haven’t done more to break in. You would assume that the supplies inside would be invaluable to their survival after all of this.”

“Very astute observations, Miss Andrews,” Grey said civilly.

Kai’s eyes rolled back and she groaned. “Ugh, it was more interesting when they were just honest and hated each other.”

“Private Grif,” Wash snapped.

“What? I value honesty, and you know I’m saying the truth,” Kai defended, hand on her chest.

Doctor Grey seemed to be expertly ignoring them, fiddling with the passcode lock of the door before sticking in the drive. “Sorry to bother you so quickly, FILSS, but I’m afraid we’ve already ran into something of a snag.”

“I’m happy to assist those working the preserve the remaining successes of Project Freelancer like Agent Carolina and Agent Washington!” the AI responded cheerfully.

“Again, thank you so much,” Grey replied sweetly before getting back up straight and standing in front of the doors like the rest of them. They were very interested in moving things forward.

Kai sure as hell knew she was. Moving forward meant moving toward Grif. And he was her primary motivator in most things at the end of the day.

It seemed like it only took FILSS seconds after Doctor Grey plugged her in to turn all the lights surrounding the door on, making the room a slightly brighter gray before a hiss of air escaped and the doors began to slide open.

Everyone stood at the ready at first, but then within seconds, every one of their group recoiled back from the room as the atrocious smell hit them. Kai stumbled back, almost getting sick in her stomach as she coughed for air and steadied herself by grabbing her knees. Everyone else either stepped away or waved the air in front of their helmets away only to stop all at once.

Kai looked up just as Washington grabbed Junior’s shoulders and spun him around to face the other direction despite the younger’s protesting chatter.

“Oh my god,” Andrews said, nearly dropping her notes.

Shocked, Kaikaina kept staring at what should have been an infirmary but was, instead, a brightly lit surgeon’s room, caked in brown stain and flies, bodies stacked on the floor around a strange table-like chair where a rotting corpse sat underneath some hideous instrument with multiple arm-like appendages ending in various medical tools. She had never seen anything like it before in her life. Her stomach churned with it.

“What the fuck — who walked onto the Hostel set?” she screeched, breaking the silence.

“They… left people to be… experimented on,” Doctor Grey concluded, still holding her hands over her helmet filter as if to stifle the smell as much as she could. “The men who were left back there were never meant to survive to begin with. But… what were they attempting to— ah. Agent Carolina, if you could please tilt the man in the chair’s head down and check the back of his head — I cannot help but notice that the… others have the same unusual close shave on the back of their heads regardless of style—“

“Shit,” Washington murmured before turning around himself, and pulling Junior along as he walked away from the room.

Concerned, Kai watched as Wash passed her. “Wash?”

“Not now, Private Grif,” he muttered, almost sounding dazed.

Kai stood her ground for a moment and then looked to the rest of the group. Carolina was doing as Doctor Grey had asked and let out a snarl.

“Damn it,” Carolina cursed. “These are… low-grade implants. Neural netting is fried to shit — a hack job. This guy didn’t have a chance getting out of the chair.”

“That smell isn’t simply decay, it’s burnt skin and hair,” Grey concluded with a genuinely saddened tone.

“Doctor Grey, what was the name of our mystery man again?” Andrews asked, walking over to the table near the operating chair. “They seem to have a list here of patients. All with x’s. Could save us time trying to hack into the computer.”

“Yes, of course,” Grey said absently. “His name was Lieutenant Bartholomew Husk. Federation Army of Chorus—“

“He’s here,” Andrews said, walking over to Grey with Carolina, handing over the clipboard. “I’m sorry. He has an x. When he managed to somehow make it off of Chorus he must have been intercepted by a Charon ship. To keep him quiet they sent him here, and I suppose if that wasn’t enough to satisfy Chairman Hargrove…”

Grey looked down on the list, shaking her head. “I wonder how many others we assumed dead after leaving the planet were taken unawares by that awful, horrid man…”

Knowing that they were going beyond her at that point, Kai cleared her throat to get the other women’s attentions. “Hey, this is fun and all, but how’s this help us find my Big Bro and the others?”

“It gives us an idea of what they were aiming to do here, Li’l Grif. That’s important,” Carolina explained.

“And what the hell was that?” Kai demanded. “Burn their brains out?”

“To use their successful AI implant augmentation to whatever ends they were unable to with these unfortunate prisoners of the UNSC,” Grey explained. “And to be frank, yours, Agent Carolina’s, and Agent Washington’s would be just as valuable to them now that we understand what their interests are.”

“Successful AI implantation… the crown jewel of what Project Freelancer was trying to make,” Andrews said almost in thought.

Kai glanced back toward where Wash went with Junior. “What about Washington?”

Carolina grew stiffer. “This was probably a difficult scene for him,” she admitted finally. “His implantation… wasn’t all that successful either. Leave him alone for now. For now what we need to do is find more clues as to where to go next.” She turned toward Andrews and Grey. “Ladies, have any ideas? See anywhere we can give FILSS access?”

As they talked, Kaikaina knew she wasn’t going to be of much help. There weren’t any color coded signs or anything. So she went back to what she did best — ignoring orders and hijacking things.

Name, hijacking whatever Junior was trying to do to pull Agent Washington out of his weird, stony stare down the hallway. A stare that never went well with someone who was also holding a rifle in their hands. Like yikes.

“Hey, what’s up?” Kai asked, coming up to Washington.

“Not now, Private,” he said lowly.

She glanced back to the infirmary and then toward Washington. “Was it the smell? It’s okay if you throw up, I heard our helmets can filter it out.”

“That’s not true,” Washington said, still staring.

Junior was clicking his tongue rapidly, looking around the building as if trying to see something that Washington wasn’t seeing. Kaikaina hadn’t seen or gotten much action since she had joined the military, truth be told. But she knew enough from being around everyone else that Junior was too young and too pure to see whatever it was Wash was looking at in the distance.

“Carolina said that room  might give you mad mojo so… sorry if it did that,” Kai offered quietly. “If I knew it was going to upset you, I’d nevera pointed it out on the map thing.”

“It’s going to get us closer to putting pieces together, Kaikaina,” he said, finally looking away from the hallway to stare at her instead. Almost as creepy as him staring down the hallway, honestly. “That’s thanks to you.”

“Hey, you used my name,” Kai said with a smirk. “You comfortable in a prison, cop?”

“Quite the opposite,” Washington replied. “I’ve been in one too many already thanks to Hargrove—“

“Holy shit you did hard time?” she asked, impressed.

“The… hardest time,” Wash exhaled sharply. “It was… difficult.”

“Well, no shit, Sherlock, it’s prison,” she snorted in return. “So that why you freaking out?”

“No,” he shook his head. “I’m… What’s going on back there — what we found in that room. If it’s what I think it was… then they may be trying to do to the Reds and Blues what was done to me.”

“Go to prison?” Kai asked. “Because Dex already did, like, fifteen minutes of it once on Sidewinder. he told me about it. Changed him, he said. But I dunno how since he was still fat and full of reasons to yell at me.”

“I’m trying to be serious here,” he snapped in frustration.

“So am I! It’s my fucking brother we’re talking about and you’re freaking me out!” she yelled at him. “What’re you saying’s gonna happen if they do to them what they did to you? Is it gonna hurt them or something?”

Washington shook his head. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m concerned! That’s why… if it is then I will personally rip Hargrove in half. Because what was done to me… I was supposed to make damn sure it never happened to anyone else.”

By the time Washington finished his snarl, Kaikaina was covering her mouth, eyes tearing up under helmet. She let out a choked sob. “So it’s really bad. We came here to find answers and they’re really bad,” she concluded, voice growing more hysterical.

“What…” he turned to her directly. “No, Private… Li’l Grif… Kaikaina, don’t cry. We’re going to get them back, and we’re going to make anyone who hurts them pay.”

Choking on all the emotions she had been feeling since the second she had seen the broadcast, Kai curled forward and continued to cry, unable to breathe more than through a few heaves. “I don’t want payback, I just want Dexter safe. I just want him safe. He’s the only family I have. All of them are the only family I’ve had and I haven’t even seen them for years—“

Kaikaina couldn’t wipe away her tears with her helmet on and her vision was blurred well beyond seeing. But she could feel when Washington wrapped arms around her shoulders and pulled her in against his chest, chin resting on the top of her helmet.

He didn’t say anything, and Kai was glad. She sniffed and coughed and went through all the motions instead.

She was so tired of finding hope only for it to be dashed again. They all were.

Chapter Text

Dylan Andrews understood herself to be a woman of facts at the end of the day. The facts were what mattered the most and more often than not she chose the ability to tell the facts over the question of playing sides or making people happy. It was probably why her marriage hadn’t worked out.

And it was probably going to get her killed someday.

As she looked through the available patient files, ignored the stench of decay and morbidity around her, Dylan could feel the tension gradually rising among her current peers. Even with at least three of them gone, the palpable disgust that Carolina and Doctor Grey were exuding could quickly turn on Dylan.

After all, she was still an outsider, a tag-along. And what her part in this story was meant to be was still unseen. And things always got sloppy when a reporter failed to keep themselves out of their story.

“Are you finding anything in there or is this whole thing an exercise in wasting time?” Carolina demanded sharply. Her agitation was growing bad enough to get her pacing.

For perhaps the first time since Dylan had met her, Doctor Grey was quiet and withdrawn, choosing instead to move in solemn quiet. Turning to answer Carolina was the first time Dylan had even really observed what the doctor was doing. And what she found was that Emily Grey was going to each and every corpse and doing the gentle though somewhat meaningless gesture of closing their eyes.

Well, meaningless to Dylan Andrews, the reporter who had thrown herself into more battlefields for the sake of reporting than almost anyone else still alive in the journalistic world.

“Andrews!” Carolina snapped angrily.

Returning her attention to Carolina fully, Dylan took a breath and readied herself to disappoint the angered super soldier. “I thought we were finally on first name basis.”

Finally?” Grey piped up with a low grumble. “It took fifteen minutes.”

“This isn’t the time to play psychiatrist with what everyone means,” Carolina snapped at  them all. “We need answers or we need to move. We don’t now if there’s more prisoners on this ghost planet or if the people who gave us that false lead to trap us here had some backup plans prepared.”

“Those prisoners were left behind by the UNSC as much as any soldier or agent of Project Freelancer,” Dylan reminded her. “You saw them. They were starving to death out there.”

“We have a plan already for what to do regarding that specific situation,” Grey announced, moving from the last body and getting to her feet. “We shall leave a high-grade sonar distress beacon just within orbit of the prison planet. Considering the number of cargo flight paths that go past this sector, they should be detected relatively quickly and someone will come to the rescue or at the very least alert authorities who will actually come to these poor souls’ aide.”

Dylan was a bit surprised by the swiftness of the answer and quickly glanced between the two of them. “We’re going to just trust someone else to be the good samaritans here?” she asked.

“We can’t really contact the UNSC or any other kind of authorities ourselves after what happened on the Charon ship,” Carolina replied.

“When did we decide all of this?” Dylan asked, mystified by how on-page the two women were with each other.

“Oh, we all discussed it over the radio, even Washington and Private Grif,” Doctor Grey said with a flip of her wrist.

Carolina crossed her arms over her chest. “Better not forget Junior’s contribution about the beacon. He was very proud of it,” she noted.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the doctor nodded happily.

Blinking a few times, Dylan tried to reground herself. “I’m confused. Why wasn’t consulted?”

“You were supposed to be finding out vital information from these files with those investigative instincts of yours,” Carolina answered haughtily. “So, Miss Andrews, what’ve you got?”

Exhaling sharply, Dylan pulled out her notepad and turned it around to the other two women.

They leaned in slightly to get a better look at the pad only to back away almost simultaneously.

“Did you spell out all of our names in box letters during all this time?” Doctor Grey asked seriously.

“And decorate them with doodles?” Carolina added. “What’s that journalistic shorthand for?”

“It’s not journalistic shorthand for anything,” Dylan answered, turning her notepad back around to herself. “I got bored because there was nothing on any of these outdated systems that we weren’t already aware of. It’s a dead end outside of whatever discovery you think we got from the room itself. Or from learning the fact that we were tricked into coming here to begin with more or less.”

“That’s basically nothing,” Grey scoffed.

“I’m aware,” Dylan responded with a tilt of her head.

“No,” Carolina responded darkly, her mood visibly turning foul. “We know that it’s the same bullshit that it always is. We know that they’re hurting the Reds and Blues — hurting my family. And we know that I’m going to be fucking pissed once I get my hands on them.”

Once the Freelancer was done, they allowed silence to overwhelm the room. Dylan hardly felt as though she could breathe, especially once Carolina’s gaze turned directly on her.

“There’s nothing else we’re going to get here?” she demanded.

“No,” Dylan answered, doing her best to not betray any discomfort under the gaze.

“Fine,” Carolina said, turning to head out of the room. “Then we’re moving on.”

For a moment, Dylan could only watch Carolina’s back turn to her. She caught her breath and looked almost desperately toward Doctor Grey as she walked up to her

“Why is it that every time we get bad news, I feel like it’s my spot on this team that’s on the line?” Dylan asked almost flatly.

“I would say you have a reporter’s intuitive instincts,” she said back.

“Gee, thanks,” Dylan snapped, looking ahead and beginning to move forward only to be yanked back by Doctor Grey’s rather firm grasp on her shoulder.

“I would say that,” Grey clarified. “But that isn’t the answer. And I believe we both know it at this point. You’re proving rather valuable. And we have proven in the past to be rather soft.”

“Soft? I would not use soft to describe a single Freelancer I’ve met,” Dylan half scoffed. “Especially not in this group. I would say hard. Hard enough to be brittle.”

“Well, sometimes you have to snap a few of those sharp corners off to make someone a little more… rounded!” she offered loudly.

“Hm,” Dylan remarked, unimpressed by the metaphor. “Sounds painful in real life.”

That, our dear Lois Lane, is a truth worthy of a Peabody,” Grey said almost somberly before leading the way out, once more asserting herself between Dylan and Agent Carolina, like a protective labradoodle.

Staring after her company, Dylan considered — not for the first time since walking in on vandals in her apartment — finding a way to escape the shenanigans and find answers to the Reds and Blues more objectively.

But her journalistic fervor won out as usual and she hastened her walk in order to catch up with the others.

It did not take too much hastening, however, as just a short way down the hall of the prison, the group was gathered, standing still while Washington with a rifle in hand pointed toward the scaffolding. Agent Carolina quietly and very specifically followed his direction with a piercing glare. The Sangheili child stood behind the two of them, both anxiously following their looks and staying firmly beneath their watch.

Confused and intrigued, Dylan walked up to the others. “What’s going on—“

SHHHHHHHH!” Kaikaina Grif snapped at least ten times louder than Dylan’s calmly asked question.

As overdone as the gesture was, it did not earn so much as a glance from Doctor Grey who was continuing to watch over Carolina and Washington almost  protectively. Dylan tried to not take it to heart that whatever bonding experience there had been between the two of them before seemed observably absent at the moment.

“I’m shushed,” Dylan responded to the the private calmly. “Would you please explain what is going on?”

“Why you need to know? You a cop?” Kaikaina asked her with a suspicious look over.

“Reporter,” Dylan answered flatly.

There was an exaggerated, and loud, groan as Kaikaina rolled her head and shoulders back with a long groan. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s even worse than a cop. At least there’s, like, a fifty-fifty chance with cops that they’ll just start shooting at you. You just keep asking questions even after I tell you to fuck off. This shit sucks.”

“I’ll stop asking questions if you explain why we’re all congested in this hallway,” Dylan offered.

To her near-surprise, Kaikaina actually considered it, letting out a long sigh as she apparently decided to accept and crossed her arms. “Yeah, Wash and I were hugging it out because it was that fifty percent of the time where he did stuff other than shoot unarmed people posing no threat. And then he was all like ‘zomagawd there’s a glint!’ And I was like bullshit there’s no glint! I didn’t really know what he was talking about, but I feel like I have to argue with him. Y’knnow. Keep him in his place because my taxes pay for that paycheck he gets, not the other way around—“

“As a part of the military, aren’t your paychecks and benefits also provided by civilian taxes?” Dylan pointed out.

Kai grew a near disgusted look on her face. “Bitch, you said no additional questions.”

Realizing her folly, Dylan raised her hands up and nodded. “Sorry, sorry. You are right. My bad. Continue.”

Thank you,” Kai answered. “Anyway, there was this whole argument about there’s a glint and then he pointed it out to me and I was like, Wash, you stupid asshole, that’s not a glint, that’s someone’s binoculars spying on us. Which I know all about because when I used to go skinny dipping at the nudist beach — which is just swimming by the way and you’d think that’d be obvious to people like how gay married is just married — I’d see creepy assholes with those from miles away. And now everyone’s freaking out over it because they think it’s a grasshopper. Like, that ain’t any grasshopper. It’s a fucking dude with binoculars. I already told them. They stopped listening, though. So fuck them. I just want to leave this stupid place.”

“Why would anyone left on this planet want to spy on us?” Dylan asked herself out loud.

“Hey, it’s like I already told Wash, dudes with binoculars are always interested in me, not in whatever the fuck everyone else on this stupid fucking team’s doing,” Kai blabbered on. “Not that he listened because he’s a paranoid fucker who thinks everything is about him. Which it’s so not. Like fuck off, Wash it’s not all about you.” She then bristled and looked at Dylan sternly. “Hey! That was a free question! I’m not some fucking endless wish granting genie, you know!”

“You’re right, my apologies,” Dylan replied before moving past Kai and heading straight toward where Washington, Carolina, and Grey had all gathered. “Trouble?” she asked immediately.

“Oh, don’t play dumb, I already explained the binoculars!” Kai snapped, coming up alongside Dylan.

Junior let out a chuckling clatter of teeth that left Dylan and her not altogether unreasonable amount of experience on the battlefield reporting more than a little unnerved.

“It was probably someone assessing us from a distance, but we didn’t see any sort of equipment that would lend itself to that among the left behind prisoners that we encountered,” Carolina explained. “Which makes me concerned we’ve had a tail since the Charon.”

“And there’s still nothing saying it wasn’t the scope of a sniper rifle, which would be a calling card to… someone we’ve encountered before already,” Wash continued.

“And who has not been seen since he was last sighted fighting the Reds and Blues,” Grey added nervously, a hand on the chin of her helmet.

“Hey! I already fucking told you they were binoculars,” Kaikaina screeched. “Oh my fucking gawd what do I have to do to make it clear to you assholes. Can’t you, like, take my word for it? Like just for once, assholes?”

The others stared at her.

“Yeah, fuck you too,” Kai snapped in aggravation.

Seeing an opportunity to jump in, Dylan stepped close to the group. “Regardless of any motivations we do or do not find here, I think our best bet is to get back to the ship and let me do a deep read of this FILSS AI we’ve gotten a hold of and see what crosses with any of the information we’ve found here,” she offered. “And if that isn’t enough, we can also work with any of my access to my news network’s database. It’s on a deep web server so it shouldn’t be anywhere close to Charon or the UNSC’s radars at the moment.”

“Deep web? Fuck, I thought that’s where the really fucked up porn was. I didn’t know you were that kinda kinky,” Kai snorted.

“And why would you require personal access to our AI?” Grey hummed expectantly. “I have performed diagnostics on her myself already. Do you think I missed something of importance?”

“No, but I believe that a different perspective — an investigative journalist’s perspective, maybe — could put some new things into perspective,” Dylan continued. She could see the pitch was not a hit and run with the majority of the group so she concentrated instead on Carolina. “It’s worth a shot.”

The others followed suit and also looked in Carolina’s direction. The former Freelancer leader crossed her arms and let out a huff of air. “She’s right. We don’t have much else to go on at the moment. And I know the wind has been taken out of my sails after this turned into a bit of a bust.” There was a meaningful glance between herself and Washington. “We were all hoping for more here. But it didn’t work out. And we still need to find the Reds and Blues. The search continues. Dylan, hope you are as good at searching through code as you are with pulling on heartstrings.”

A wry smile hid itself behind Dylan’s helmet. “One can only hope.”

Without much more delay, they began the walk back and Dylan couldn’t help but be surprised by what a smoother and quicker path it seemed to be returning to the ship than getting off of it. Part of that was, perhaps, the anxiety of dealing with the unknown and knowing that a small, though alien, child was leading them into it without care. But that wasn’t entirely accurate either.

Looking at the Freelancers specifically, Dylan could see how tense their shoulders remained, how their weapons were already drawn and their concentration seemed mostly on the upper levels of the prison. Perfect sniper posts, after all.

Still, they made it to the ship, and the moment they were within perimeter, the door opened.

“You weren’t kidding when you said that you had left FILSS in charge of the ship,” Carolina mused, standing by the door with Washington as they waited for everyone else to load. It was fascinating to see how both of the professionals seemed to ride a strangely comfortable line between soldier drilled into their heads and naively optimistic.

From everything she had read, Dylan had her bets on the former having sprung up from Freelancer while the latter was the result of their association with the famous Reds and Blues.

“FILSS, it seems our reporter fan will be wanting to interrogate you, so you should allow Kaikaina to deal with the take off and flying for the moment,” Grey informed the AI with a sing-song voice. “After all, we would want you to give the reporter your complete attention.”

Frowning a bit, Dylan removed her helmet and ran a hand through her helmet hair. “Alright, Doctor Grey,” she sighed. She had thought they were doing so much better earlier.

“Oh, I am completely serious, Miss Andrews,” Grey responded lightly. “If you can give us any information about where next to find our friends, then it will be more important than having a less-than-smooth takeoff at the hands of Private Kaikaina Grif.”

Taken aback, Dylan only blinked at Grey in surprise. She could hardly register the sounds of Washington and Carolina entering the ship and the doors closing behind them. It was the largest show of trust and sincerity the doctor had given Dylan since they began interacting.

But before Dylan could manage a response, the navigation screen between them lit up, a blue eye-like icon appearing, glowing at various intervals as if to garner their attention. F.I.L.S.S. was spelled out beneath it.

“If there are questions about the Reds and Blues then I am very happy to assist!” FILSS informed them excitedly. “After all, they have just reached new analytics as a search term and are appearing in multiple channels of communication in at least forty-two Earthling and Covenant dialects as we speak!”

“What?” Washington asked, leading the others into gathering around the navigation screen.

“FILSS, what are you talking about?” Carolina demanded.

“Only exactly what I mean, Agent Carolina!” FILSS answered before blinking the screen off and then opening up to a brand new window altogether. It was a lifestream of an address of Chairman Hargrove to the rest of the UNSC with a running text above and below all at once. The headline read UNSC Breaks Silence On Chorus & More.

“The Chairman? Holding a public briefing in the middle of all this scandal?” Dylan asked critically. “That’s incredibly unlike him or the rest of the UNSC for that matter—“

Her rambling monologue was cut off quickly, however, by the collective gasp of the crew around her. The shock in the room was palpable, drawing Dylan’s attention back to the screen where she found exactly what horrors the others had been concerned with. On the screen before them, without pomp or circumstance, the Reds and Blues were revealed to be standing in attention behind him. And what’s more, they stood beneath screens which were displaying the general profiles and military IDs of Agents Washington and Carolina.

“The hell…” Carolina got out just before Hargrove tapped on his microphone and cleared his throat.

“Let’s begin to clear the air, shall we?” he said with a crooked smile on his face.


Chapter Text

They all stood together, shoulder to shoulder, watching in utter amazement as the scene on screen unfolded before them. Though, of course, Emily highly doubted that the others dealt with the clips of memory, each like a perfect picture preserved in her mind between each and every blink.

The wide stance between every boot of the Reds and Blues, the way they seemed in perfect alignment, the fact that it was Tucker and Simmons rather than Tucker and Sarge who stepped up to the microphones when Hargrove moved out of the way. The pristine look to their armors — unworn in battle, no damage, no chipped paint, the way none of them made any move out of line or revealed any faces beneath their helmets.

Every inconsistency, every screaming irregularity, was captured by Emily’s ever watchful eyes and burned into her memories alongside every second of memory she already had on file, so to speak, of the Reds and Blues before then. And every time something didn’t match up — and none of it matched up — her brain was screaming at her to somehow make things right, to somehow fix what was so clearly broken.

“Oh my god, Dex!” Kaikaina was the first to break the silence, ripping off her helmet and leaping up to be first in front of the screen. Her body nearly bounced with her excitement as she pressed her pointer finger against the screen to line up with her brother’s image. She then looked back at them all with excitement. “I know that shade of gray anywhere! Look at him! He’s alive he’s okay! He’s…” she turned back around and squinted at the screen. “He’s lost some weight, huh? That’s weird.”

It was one of the twenty-three things that did not line up with Grif on the screen and the Grif that Emily Grey knew from Chorus. It was true, he had lost weight, but his height and still fairly stocky stature lent credit to the fact that it was most likely still him than an imposter entirely.

“Little Grif, get away from the screen,” Carolina ordered darkly, she was upset and doing a poor job of masking it from her irritation toward Kai’s excitement.

“Tucker,” Wash muttered beside Emily, looking at the screen in disbelief. “Caboose… they’re…”

“This isn’t right,” Carolina shot him down as well. “What the hell is going on? What the hell are they doing with Hargrove?”

“A press conference,” Dylan Andrews enlightened them.

That was enough to get Carolina’s head to almost swivel toward the reporter. “No fucking shit it’s a press conference! I have eyes!”

“What you need is patience then because what I’m trying to say is that if we listen to the press conference we could have a better grasp of what they’re even there for to begin with. Outside of stroke some penis-looking bastard’s ego,” Andrews defended rather snappishly herself.

Bow chicka honk honk?” Junior offered unhelpfully.

“Dude, why’d you have to point out he looks like a penis? I’m swearing off men, sorry, Officer Washington,” Kai announced out loud.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Wash asked to the point his voice cracked.

“What gives you the right to speak to me like that, Andrews?” Carolina demanded viciously. “My family is up there on this screen like goddamn mannequins and you’re telling me I need patience?”

“Freedom of the press and freedom of speech give me the right, Agent Carolina,” Andrews argued haughtily. “And I’m invoking both of them because apparently I need to remind everyone in this crew that I volunteered out of my own good will to help you on this search and rescue mission after you and your fellow former Freelancer committed a felony by breaking into my apartment and ever since then everyone here has been guilty of treating me like absolute and total shit. So I’m going to speak out and I’m going to get some respect either through work or through force at this point because every single one of you are driving me up a wall at the moment!”

“What kind of wall?” Kai asked unhelpfully.

Eye twitching with her own irritation and having heard more than enough from the squabbling, Emily brought her foot down in a loud stomp and at the top of her lungs screamed, “Everyone shut up! That is an order!”

At once, everyone turned about face and stared at Emily in utter surprise.

Clearing her throat, satisfied with the moment, Emily looked up toward the screen. “Now then… FILSS? Would you please be a dear and turn this broadcast up to full volume so that we can actually hear what’s being said right now? Thank you, dear.”

“Of course, Doctor Grey,” FILSS remarked, the volume bar on the screen beginning to move right across the screen. “May I also make a request that it be deemed no longer acceptable by the group that any of my screens — touch screen or not — be touched without permission. For I am sensitive to smudging.”

“Pfft, don’t be a whiny bitch,” Kaikaina snorted in retort only to have Carolina clasp a hand on her shoulder.

“Not now, Little Grif,” Carolina warned quietly.

With the volume fully up and the ship falling silent, they were finally capable of hearing what was being said by Tucker and Simmons. And while it was their voices, the speech was mannerless, without hand gestures or really any emoting. And especially without euphemisms. None of which felt normal in seeing them talk.

“So after we were coming back to Earth as heroes and all for taking down Project Freelancer, our entire ship got taken over by one of the rogue AI’s that had been used to plant into Carolina and Washington’s brains and stuff,” Tucker lied boldly on screen.

“Without control of the ship, we crashed on Chorus, where the army of the planet was preparing for a full UNSC withdrawal and took our crash as an opportunity to take hostage important figures of the UNSC’s alliance,” Simmons continued.

“Especially me. Since, y’know. I’m special to the truce between humans and aliens,” Tucker added.

“When we wouldn’t agree to work along with them, they made a deal with the Freelancers to turn their backs on us. And they recorded that message that they sent out about Mister Hargrove with their AI.”

“Oh god,” Wash uttered, looking to Carolina. “They’re… they’re framing us?”

“Not only you,” Grey corrected thoughtful, quiet. “They are setting up the entire planet of Chorus. They’re breaking any leverage for independence we had — they’re breaking our chance at peace.”

“Why are they saying this?” Carolina asked.

“Uh, only Tucker and Simmons are saying anything!” Kaikaina pointed out angrily. “Better question’s why the fuck’s everyone else quiet, that’s not normal! Especially when someone’s saying some real bullshit! When’s the last time someone was saying bullshit and my Big Bro wasn’t calling their ass out? Especially if it’s his mostly-boyfriend. Dex lives to call him out on stuff. It’s like. The best thing ever to him. It’s like his orgasm but without him crying.”

Dylan put a hand to her chin. “Because… Because it’s making a good story this way,” she said slowly. “This is… This press conference is every reporter who has been following your careers’ dream. More twists. More betrayals. More—“

“Blargh,” Junior added.

The reporter looked at him in confusion.

“More war,” Washington clarified for Junior.

“The answer to all of our questions is obvious now that we’re looking straight at it, I’m afraid,” Emily announced, pulling the group’s attention back to her. “The experiments performed here on the prison inmates, the stringing us along from location to location, gathering video footage of us breaking and entering, causing damage, fighting UNSC forces. The Reds and Blues are saying what Hargrove and bloodthirsty reporters are wanting them to say because that is what is being fed directly to their heads by these operations. We are the enemies of the state. And they will take us and all of Chorus down with us to spare Hargrove’s ego.”

The others looked at her in horror. Dylan in slight annoyance.

“Hm,” Grey reflected on her words. “No offense to present bloodthirsty reporters, of course,” she offered.

“I don’t think that’s how insulting people is supposed to work but… alright,” she huffed in response.

Carolina was shaking with anger. “This… this is utter bullshit,” she spat out savagely.

“Carolina?” Wash began to reach out but she fiercely turned away from him.

“FILSS, plot us a course to Earth. Everyone… just. Just find something to do while I think,” Carolina ordered angrily before storming off toward the bunk room.”

Everyone stood, more than a little lost.

“FILSS,” Grey spoke up, “Would you be a dear and turn off the news for now?”

“Of course,” FILSS answered before doing so.

“Thank you,” Wash muttered to Grey before following after Carolina.

Grey held her breath, watching as everyone else slowly, still very much in shock, began to fall into their own corners of the ship. No one knew what to do, save for Grey herself. And what she had to do she only hesitated on because she hated what she had to do.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he would be walking in on when he followed after Carolina, but Washington had to admit to himself that narrowly dodging a thrown chair was one of the less surprising outcomes of following their leader into the bunk room. There was a ferocious roar as she threw a different chair into the opposite wall, shattering it and breaking some pipes that Wash distantly could only hope were not overtly important to maintaining life on the ship.

“God damn it!” Carolina screamed, pounding her fist into the nearest table, cracking it.

“Okay, Carolina, I think that’s enough,” Wash said, walking over and grabbing the fist she had just used. He was either a brave man or a stupid one given the look she threw his way after the action. Still, he didn’t let go. “We’re going to run out of chairs if you keep it up.”

“Then I can start on your teeth,” she hissed at him, jerking her hand away.

“I hear those have a limited number, too,” Wash replied evenly.

There was a frustrated, choked off noise that came from Carolina as she backed away from Washington and gave him a full look over. “Are you fucking serious, Wash? Are you fucking really making stupid jokes right now after all this shit just happened? What the actual fuck?”

“Standing around making jokes is the only coping mechanism I’ve seen work for either of us, so yeah. I guess I am serious about taking a breath and not being serious right now,” he answered, not breaking his gaze from Carolina.

It was strange and unprecedented for them. Back in Freelancer, hell, even back when Carolina first returned, a defiant stare down would not have been anywhere close to Washington’s arsenal against his leader’s temper. But it was, and it was because they weren’t just cogs in a machine anymore. Because neither of them were acting on behalf of some failed fiefdom.

Just on behalf of the family that was actively setting the whole galaxy against them on every news station.

“This just… This can’t be happening,” Carolina said lowly, her head ducking down as the bitterness added to the tremble of her voice. “I can’t be backstabbed by another family, Wash. I can’t be acceptable losses again for someone else’s stab at freedom.”

“That is not what’s happening,” Washington reassured her. “This isn’t the Mother of Invention, and the Reds and Blues are not Freelancer. And whatever… Whatever it was that was on that screen was wrong. It wasn’t them. Somehow. And I think you know that already. You heard Doctor Grey.”

“Yeah, I did,” Carolina sniffed before turning away from Wash, running both her hands through her red hair. “Goddammit. I heard her but I also heard them and that’s not something to take lightly, Wash. They set us up as criminals — somehow they became the mouthpieces of the people who have done us the most harm.”

“Yes,” Wash agreed reluctantly. “But… that doesn’t mean it was them. It doesn’t mean we’re betrayed. It means… It means something else. Because the Reds and Blues wouldn’t do that. Well. They wouldn’t do it to us. And I think you know that more than anyone deep down.”

He neared her, wondering if it was going to be comforting to reach out to her or not, when Carolina surprised him by turning around. Her eyes were red and filled with tears that she seemed to be stubbornly holding back. “If we’re not outright betrayed, if this is something to do with AI implantation and mind control and whatever else… Then we are also dealing with the one thing that no one else on this ship cares about besides me.”

Confused, Wash furrowed his brows at Carolina. “What are you talking about?”

“Everyone on this ship is here for the Reds and Blues, and god knows that I am, too. I would die for them,” she affirmed. “But I am the only one on this ship who is looking for Epsilon, too. And if… if the sort of experiments they were doing in the prison were what I think they were, and if Hargrove is the kind of sick bastard that we know he is, and if all of that was successful, just to get that stupid fucking slander out on the news… then there’s one Blue that isn’t coming home no matter what we do. And no one on this ship will feel that loss the way I am already feeling it now.”

“That’s not true,” Wash attempted to argue.

“It’s not like I don’t understand, it’s not like I couldn’t see how you could barely stand in the operation room back there,” Carolina spat out. “That’s not wrong. That’s not beyond reason. But… But I’m… I’m the only one who feels this, Wash. I’m the only one who just lost her hope watching that bullshit. And I’m supposed to inspire and lead everyone to save the rest of the Reds and Blues knowing that none of you can feel the chunk of yourself, of one of the people you love, being ripped out of you and then ripped apart by fucking animals? How am I supposed to do that?”

At a loss for words, Wash stared at Carolina for a long moment before finally reacting, finally knowing what to do.

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her flush against his chest into a tight hug, hugging her so securely she didn’t even bother pushing him away, just sinking into the embrace.

“You’re never alone with us, you got that?” he told her. “You’re the closest to Epsilon, but if you’re right and he’s gone then we’re all going to miss him in our own ways. And when we save the Reds and Blues from whatever it is that Hargrove’s done to them, you won’t be alone in missing him either.”

Carolina sagged limply against him, as if giving into his perspective, into the truth of his words.

“As for how you’re going to lead us while going through all this shit?” Wash continued. “You’ll do it the way you always do it, Carolina. Like a complete badass.”

To that, she snorted against Wash’s chest, followed by a more natural laugh. She hugged him back and Wash squeezed her.

“It’s time to get serious. Get our boys back,” Wash muttered to her.

“It’s time to be badass,” she agreed.


Chapter Text

Things were getting so redundant that Kaikaina could have just about screamed. Washington was arguing with FILSS, Carolina was arguing with Andrews, Junior was honking his little head off to the point that Kai wasn’t even sure who he was honking toward. It was the suckiest turn a road trip had ever taken in her life and she kind of was beginning to hate everyone.

Which was why Dex had always told her, growing up, that they didn’t travel when taking vacations. Because they’d end up hating each other on the way there.

“Fuck, I never thought Dexter would be right about anything in my life,” Kai groaned, throwing her arms in the air and rolling her eyes. “But here we are, six abortions later and fucking hating everybody on a tiny ship.

“Grif, we don’t have time for whatever you’re complaining about!” Wash yelled over his shoulder almost reflexively.

“Fuck you! What’re you? The monologue police now?” Kai cried out in return. “I mean, fuck you, dude. I thought we had a whole moment or something back there on the prison planet! Where the fuck’s that, Wash? Or are you one of those Johns who only like a girl when she’s crying?”

Washington turned and stared at her. “We’re trying to save the Reds and Blues, do you have something productive to suggest?”

“Yeah, take it out of your ass already, jesus fuck,” Kai replied.

Before Washington replied, Carolina held up a hand as if to silence Kaikaina immediately. “We don’t have the time, Li’l Grif!”

“Dude, fuck all of you,” Kai snapped, finally getting out of her seat and marching past the arguing group. “And I’m not just saying that because yesterday I would have fucked you all. I mean like, I would absolutely push you off the fucking ship without helmets on right now.”

The reporter immediately stiffened. “Private Grif — Kaikaina — I’m not sure what’s the proper address for you… We need you flying the ship!”

Kai let out a long groan and looked up to the ceiling where the speakers for the cockpit were secreted away. “Sheila?”

“I am the Freelancer—“

“Yeah-yeah-yeah I don’t give a fuck!” Kai screeched in return. “Autopilot for now and tell me when these assholes figure out what direction we’re going in so that I can come and fly them without wanting to smash in any of their heads!”

“Understood, Private Kaikaina Grif,” the ship returned in a content tone.

“Fucking. Hell,” Kai snapped before going through the cockpit doors and heading toward the tight ship’s bunking area.

She had never needed stress relief like she did right then at that moment, and there were about five ways off the top of her head that she could think of relieving some of that pressure. And since being as pissed at Wash and Carolina as she was at the moment took threesome off the table, she was just going to go straight toward dildo.

Looking around the room, Kai was attempting to remember which mattress had been the last one she masturbated on when she realized that her running internal monologue wasn’t the only voice that she was hearing.

Rather, in low tones across the room, Doctor Grey was muttering.

Kai glanced over to that side of the room and noticed a bright light illuminating from something in Doctor Grey’s lap and was also making sound. Immediately Kai began to get defensive and absolutely shocked that someone else was using her glow in the dark electric vibrator without at least asking permission when she finally caught onto what Grey’s actual words were.

“I’m afraid that the only window I can give you is twenty-four hours, Doctor,” the device said in a voice that was even less familiar to Kaikaina than the reporter’s.

“I was only going to ask you for twelve, Vanessa,” Grey replied. “Chorus will need an immediate defense to these charges, and… Our people have suffered too much and come much too far to withstand further slander on this level. We’ll do what we can but…”

“You’re right,” the device said with a long sigh. “It’s just… I know your assessment of the situation must be right, but that only makes what we have to do that much harder. They saved us. All of us. I don’t want to repay that with a stab in the back.”

“Our decisions are sometimes made for us, President Kimball. You’ll have to come to accept that in your position now as much as you had while you were a general,” Grey replied almost coldly. “We move forward for Chorus.”

“For Chorus,” Kimball replied before the device turned off and the glow disappeared.

Doctor Grey sighed and closed her device, continuing to sit on the bunk in the corner with some kind of defeat visible in the way she held her shoulders.

A few solid seconds passed by as Kai just stood in the door of the bunk room with her eyebrow raised and hand on her hips. But when that was obviously not enough to catch attention, she shrugged and cried out “What the actual ever fucking hell?”

Surprised, Grey turned and looked at Kaikaina almost stunned. “Private Grif, I hadn’t… How long were you—“

“You’re about to get all back stabbing on us? What the fuck?” Kai demanded.

“I am not backstabbing you,” Grey said calmly, methodically getting to her feet and holding up her hands as if to calm Kai down.

“The hell you’re not! I just heard someone on your little computer say stab in the back and you’re fucking talking about us!” Kai glared at Grey. “Also all that shit like For Chorus? Are you… are you infiltrating us for some kind of Glee Club Cult? Because I swore off anymore cults after the last one wanted everyone to eat this bitch’s placenta. Like no fuck you if I’m not eating my own why the fuck would I eat yours?”

Doctor Grey stared at her in shock. “Wait, what?”

“You heard me!” Kai snapped. “You’re going to kill us for some kind of cult!”

“I am not in a cult!” Doctor Grey squeaked out so high pitched that Kai actually reached up and held her ears.

“Okay, ow,” Kai hissed in pain.

“I am not in a cult,” Grey repeated, lower. “Chorus is my planet, the one your brother and the other Reds and Blues saved. I was speaking to our planet’s president and briefing her on what’s going on so far. And about how the UNSC is framing this situation against us and them.”

Kai squinted at Grey. “You mean how my brother and friends said some bullshit no one on this ship believes?” she asked.

Grey hesitated, which Kai had absolutely no patience for.

“Oh my fucking god it is because of that! Don’t blame my bro and everyone for that bullshit! We don’t know what’s going on with them, so don’t be a fucking stupid bitch about it—“ Kaikaina went off scathingly.

“I don’t appreciate being called that,” Grey said quite temperamentally.

“Fucking tough,” Kai snapped, turning to leave the bunks. “It’s probably the nicest thing that’ll be said to you after I tell Officer Washington and Carolina what you’re doing!”

She was already one step out the door when Grey called out for her.

“Kaikaina! No, please… wait,” she said desperately, crossing the bunk room quickly to grab onto Kai’s shoulders.

Immediately, Kai spun around on her heels and slapped off Grey’s hands. “Don’t go in for the stab! Ugh! I fucking hate backstabbers! You always go for the back when people aren’t looking!”

“I’m not going to backstab you, metaphorically or else,” Grey assured her.

“Oh, going for the ol’ front stabby work, fine with me,” Kai snapped before pulling off her gauntlets to unleash her manicured nails. “You better watch it, Doc! I went to public school for fourteen whole years!”

“No stabbing at all! Just… I have a question for you, and I need it to be answered,” Grey said seriously. “Why are we here, Kaikaina?”

Kai got into brawling stance, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Now you’re trying to confuse me with metaphorical puzzles. Well fuck you, I’m a Marxist!”

“No, I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean why are we here on this mission?” Grey asked desperately.

Letting up some, Kai squinted suspiciously at the doctor. “To save my brother and friends. Duh.”

“No, Private Grif, that is why you’re here,” Grey answered somberly. “Tucker Junior is here because he is looking for his father and will hopefully be able to continue preventing further war between our races. Agent Carolina is here because she, as former leader, feels responsibility for her troops, and especially for the Epsilon AI. Agent Washington is probably most like you, here for all the Reds and Blues, but his primary motives will always rest with his own team — the Blues over the Reds. And Miss Andrews… well, she’s here for the truth, she says, but I believe she’s here for a story.”

“Right,” Kai replied, more than a little confused by the rhetoric. “We’re all here for the same thing.”

“No, we’re all here for different things that lead to the same goals,” Grey emphasized. “Kaikaina, your brother and friends… they’re also my friends, and I owe them not only for my life countless times over, but for the entire existence of my planet. Of my people.” She took a breath and folded her hands together. “And I have done terrible things for my people before. I don’t regret doing them. I just did them. Because they were things which needed to be done. And I will continue to do anything in the name of my people first before anyone else.” She finally met Kai’s eyes. “I want to save my friends. But I will save my planet at all costs.”

Taking a step back away from Grey, Kai couldn’t hide her disgust. “Including turning on my brother?”

“Just like deep down you know it’s true that you’d give up all the rest just to save your brother,” Grey assured her.

At first, Kaikaina opened her mouth to fight back, but there were no words to express how she felt. Or, at least, the words that were there did not entirely dispute Doctor Grey. She audibly snapped her mouth shut and just glared at the doctor instead.

“It’s fucking shitty,” Kai spat out.

“I agree,” Grey replied.

“And we’re not really a great team if we’re all thinking the same things but don’t agree who we want to save the most,” Kai continued.

“That… remains to be seen,” Grey assured her before stepping forward. “If you must tell Carolina and Washington, I can’t stop you. And I won’t apologize to them just like I’m not apologizing to you. But if there’s a chance — any chance at all — that we can all get everything we want, then having me with you in the upcoming battles and aftermath is going to be very useful. And the best way we can work together, is if none of us are fighting.”

Lowering her guard entirely Kai exhaled deeply. “You’re a sneaky bitch, y’know that?”

“Still don’t like that phrase,” Grey replied with a forced smile.

“Fine, but I’m not giving up suck my clit as a one-liner,” Kai warned her.

“I would never dream of taking it from you,” Grey assured her.

For as long as Junior had grown up around human languages, for as much as he understood when humans spoke, for the life of him he could not understand a single reason everything was so difficult between his father’s friends at the moment, leaving him to sit in his seat and watch the conversation bounce back and forth between everyone like an extremely long volley.

“Are you trying to tell me that you can’t narrow down UNSC outposts more than twenty locations?” Carolina demanded from Andrews. “I could google a list of UNSC outposts and get that as a lead. Other than telling our story how exactly are you helping us out?”

“You need to calm down and listen to what I’m saying, Agent Carolina,” Andrews said, hands up defensively. “We’ve been nothing but honest with each other thus far and there’s no reason to think that I’m going to undo the civility and respect we’ve maintained.”

“My patience wears thin even for my friends, Miss Andrews, and my trust of this situation has been cut nearly in half after realizing that your next big story is probably going to be on how you escaped the monsters of Project Freelancer!” Carolina shouted.

“That is not my next story, I report the truth, and until right this minute I have not seen anything monstrous from the two of you,” Andrews fought back viciously.

“Okay, I think that’s enough,” Washington said, literally getting between the two women.

Bow chicka honk honk,” Junior hummed to himself boredly, knowing full well that no one else would hear or understand the context.

“Carolina, narrowing down to twenty outposts in the entire UNSC galactic territory is a big deal,” Wash reminded her steadily. “And we can have FILSS develop a route so that we can hit all of them as quickly as possible.”

“It would be my pleasure!” the ship-lady said, causing Junior to look up to the speakers. It didn’t matter how many times the ship talked to them, it still caught the young hybrid off guard.

“And, Miss Andrews, there’s no disregarding the fact that your career is based almost purely off brokering information as needed,” Wash continued, looking toward the reporter. “I can respect that. But I can also distrust it since we have no idea what information you’ve not given us that could seem like nothing to you at the moment but can be instrumental to finally finding and saving our friends from whatever is happening now.”

“I’m not trying to treat your concerns as invalid,” Andrews assured them both. “Believe me, I understand that… missteps in ethics by my profession have made a terse relationship between ourselves and the military just by default. But at the moment, neither of you are military. You’re wanted fugitives who need their names cleared as much as they need their friends helped. Hopefully fulfilling one will help you fulfill the other. Otherwise… this will get increasingly difficult for all of us.”

“In what way?” Carolina demanded.

“In that two wanted Freelancers, a Chorusian doctor, and a missing alien messiah hitting the specific UNSC bases that have been upgraded from FPCON Normal to FPCON Delta in just the last week without any known terroristic or military action in their area is not the easiest cover to keep under,” Andrews explained steadily.

“Then give us something to narrow it down with,” Wash begged.

“Like what exactly, Agent Washington?” Andrews demanded.

Wash sighed, running a hand through his hair and looking stressed beyond his years. “I… I don’t know. But there must be something which can be plugged into FILSS—“

Bow chicka honk honk,” Junior yawned.

“—that can help her statistically better our chances,” Wash concluded before rounding on Junior. Judging by his expression, he had forgotten the young alien had even been in the cockpit with them. “What have I told you about doing that, Junior? You’re too young to even know what it means!”

In response, Junior stuck his tongue out and clicked his lower mandibles together for added effect.

“Then tell me something about Hargrove, something that only your experience with him and the UNSC Subcommittee would reveal,” Andrews answered sternly.

“I can’t believe you’re actually playing into the whole quid pro quo assholery,” Carolina snapped, arms crossed.

“Don’t take it personally,” Wash assured Andrews, turning from Junior again. “Carolina getting snappish and angry with someone without throwing them through a wall is usually a sign of affection.”

“Who’s side are you on?” Carolina demanded.

“The side of getting our friends back,” Wash reminded her firmly.

“This isn’t quid pro quo, per se,” Andrews assured them. “What this is, is those statistical variables you’re looking for, Agent Washington. The more we can get an idea of what exactly it is that Hargrove wants besides covering his own ass here, the more we can figure out which of these UNSC bases are likely to feed into his interests.” She glanced around the room. “The more likely it is that he and your friends would be there. He wants something more than he’s telling. But we need inside his head to know more.”

“Fine, we can do that,” Washington said quickly before looking toward Carolina. “What do we know about Hargrove’s motivations?”

Carolina folded her arms and stared at the floor for a moment before glancing back up to Wash. “He was interested in artifacts. In alien artifacts — that was why he was on Chorus, and that’s how he had Felix and Locus paid. Not to mention how all the weapons for the pirates were a combination technology that he was selling on the black market.”

“Would he be so bold faced as to use UNSC assets for his personal wealth on their own bases?” Wash asked critically.

“Why else would he give up so much of his corporate freedom in order to get a position within the government to begin with?” Carolina demanded. “My… The Director once said that the only inhibition to progress worse than government oversight was corporate oversight. Which is why he worked through the UNSC to begin with.”

“Oh, well then, if the Director’s words are what we’re going by now,” Wash muttered angrily.

“No, it makes perfect sense,” Andrews spoke up, walking toward the map FILSS provided on one of the cockpit’s scenes. She looked toward the markers. “If we could just narrow this down to alien artifact sights that would be available to Hargrove through UNSC bases… It could—“

Before Andrews could even finish, the twenty green pens highlighted on the galactic map flashed, half of them switching from blue to red, then the map enhanced so that only the remaining blues were left.

“Thank you, FILSS,” Carolina said, stepping up to the map. “This is a start.”

“We could begin by going to Orion-113, it’s the closest site, and the smallest so easiest to comb,” Washington offered.

Recognizing the name, Junior let out a long sputtering sigh and clicked his mandibles together. in a chatter. Been there, done that.

To the youth’s surprise, though, that seemed to catch his companions’ attention, having them turn to look his way — or at least, Carolina and Washington did. Andrews joined them belatedly.

“What do you mean? You’ve been to Orion-113?” Wash asked.

Junior nodded.

“That’s right,” Carolina said, snapping her fingers. “Tucker and Junior served in the Peace Corps after the war ended, right?”

“Specifically, they were working with Sangheilli representatives at various artifact and religious locations, overseeing peaceful division of assets,” Washington agreed.

Blargh” Junior reminded them.

Wash stared at Junior. “What do you mean, turning them on? Your dad was turning them on?”

Bow chicka honk honk—“

“Wash, it’s just like what Tucker did on Chorus,” Carolina reminded him. “Hargrove could be using his control over the Reds and Blues to switch on alien weapons just like Tucker did before.”

“Which would mean going to sites where Tucker and Junior hadn’t already done that,” Wash marveled. “Junior! Come up here — of these bases, tell us which ones you remember going to! It’ll narrow things down for us even more and mean we can find your father faster!”

Amazed, Junior got to his feet. I can help? he called out through honks.

“You can,” Washington assured him.

Junior’s chest filled with pride and hope like he hadn’t felt since the start of their long search.

The reporter looked around the room a few times and then put away her notepad. “You realize that I am fluent in Sangheilli in order to help my field reporting and nothing that comes out of the child’s mouth is Sangheilli, right? I have no idea how any of you know what he’s saying.”

“It’s one of life’s great mysteries,” Wash hummed with satisfaction on his face like Junior had never seen. “Now come on, Junior, let’s find your dad.”

“Blargh!” Junior shouted excitedly.

Chapter Text

When Washington came back from his sleep break, he had been somewhat hoping that Kaikaina Grif would have finally returned to the helm of the pelican, but he received no such relief. The young Grif had been aloof and unreceptive to them all since she last tore away in a bit of a fit during the loud arguing everyone was having on their next move. Wash hadn’t gotten used to her reactions like that, or at least he thought he had.

As comforting as it was to have their ship navigated by an AI which wasn’t running on an unhealthy diet of porn and energy drinks, Wash made a quick mental note to talk to Kai later and see if he needed to make an apology for anything.

He hoped not. There was enough going on without him having to figure out a mystery like that. But they couldn’t go storming into any rescue missions with half the team at each other’s throats.

Especially at his throat.

But, despite the late hour and how far they were in their travels, Wash was far from alone in the cockpit.

Carolina was sitting in the passenger seat, feet up on the dashboard, arms crossed over her chest as she watched through the window into the vast space before them that FILSS navigated through.

Only a flicker of Carolina’s eye let Wash know she was aware of his entrance as she didn’t bother giving him an actual greeting of any kind.

“You seem upset,” Wash noted, looking around the room one more time to make sure they were alone before walking to the pilot’s chair and sitting down beside her. “Anything you need to talk about, Boss?”

“You don’t have to call me that,” Carolina said thickly.

“I’m not being sarcastic,” Washington assured her, leaning against the armrest nearest her and tilting his head. “And you are leading this mission, ergo Boss.

Her eyes rolled back and she shifted her feet to cross the other foot instead. The frustration was all but emanating from her. “Yeah. I’m doing such a fucking great job of that, too. It’s amazing we’ve gotten this far.”

Frowning, Washington rubbed his neck, trying to think of how to approach what was obviously an issue. And he knew that it could only be in the hard way — through him. So he glanced back to the large monitors surrounding them. “FILSS?” he called.

“Yes, Agent Washington?” the machine asked back almost sweetly.

“Take everything Carolina and I are about to say off any records you may be keeping,” he ordered. “It’s strictly confidential.”

“Absolutely, Agent Washington. I shall concentrate all my processors on approaching our next destination,” FILSS assured them before the all seeing eye icon on the monitor disappeared.

Once FILSS was addressed, Washington turned his full attention back on Carolina. “Are we losing you?” he asked.

Taken aback, Carolina just turned her head and looked at Washington with faint surprise. “Why would you even ask that?” she demanded.

“Because it’s something I need to know,” he answered sternly. “Are we losing you on this mission?”

“This mission is the only thing that is keeping any of us going,” Carolina replied almost venomously. “You can guarantee that more than anyone else on this ship — except maybe yourself — I am dedicated to seeing this search come to a concise ending and I won’t be stopping until I’m certain every single person who has hurt our friends — our family — gets exactly what they deserve.”

Not letting up, Washington maintained his neutral stare into Carolina’s eyes. “And then…” he intimated.

“And then what, Wash?” Carolina snapped.

“You told me earlier that you’re worried Epsilon is gone. You said to me that you could feel that he was gone,” Wash reminded her.

“You don’t have to tell me what I said, Wash,” Carolina warned.

“I’m repeating you because I’m worried by it,” Washington fought back, furrowing his brow. “Those aren’t really words that can be misinterpreted somehow, Carolina. And that and how you’ve been acting since you said them, and especially since we saw the press conference. They add up to a question I don’t want to ask. But I have to. Because I think we — I, deserve to know it.”

She glared at him. “And the question is?

“When the mission is over, when we’ve gotten the Reds and Blues back and retribution is paid… What are you going to do if Epsilon isn’t around? What are your plans if you’re right?” he asked, hoping his expression could portray even a tenth of his seriousness toward the question. “Without Epsilon… if it’s only us, the Reds and the Blues, are you going to stay?”

Carolina’s mouth hung open for a moment as she stared back at him. Slowly, as if she was reanimating herself, her arms slipped from being crossed against her chest and she rose up in her seat, teeth grinding. “Am I going to stay?” she repeated icily.

“You’re acting like it’s a ridiculous question,” Wash half choked out.

“It is a ridiculous question!” she snapped.

“It really isn’t,” Wash continued, eyes hardening. “Or should I remind you that you’ve already left us once more. And that was with Epsilon still with us.”

“With me,” Carolina hissed. “I left because he was with me. And because we… we had to go. We had to make things better before we could come back. We—“ She tilted her chin down, eyes seemingly searching for the right words to say before she looked back at Washington almost tiredly. “I couldn’t earn my spot with all of you until I had taken some of the red off my ledger. Until I had made up for what I did before I got to that point. And Epsilon… he was a part of that, too.”

“And I wasn’t?” Wash asked critically. He could almost laugh at the notion. “We were both in Freelancer. I was making up for shit I did after Freelancer even.”

“You would have never left the Blues,” Carolina said plainly. “And you wouldn’t have let us go either. And you know it.”

Wash could so clearly see on her face that she meant her every word. But it didn’t keep his chest from tightening in knots. It didn’t take the edge off the wound he had been dealt by her leaving before. And it wasn’t doing anything to quell the concerns he had about her leaving again.

“If they’re hurt, if they’re… damaged at all like how we think they’re going to be,” Wash said slowly, taking a deep breath before shaking his head. “Carolina, I’m not going to be able to go at this alone. You have to understand that. You have to. Not everyone can go out by themselves and patch themselves up alone. And…”

He trailed off, knowing he was a step too far, but Carolina’s glare made it clear she was intently listening to every syllable.

“And what, Washington?” she demanded.

“And… I’m not so sure that you’re going to be able to do it yourself this time,” Wash replied almost whispering.

“Because Epsilon’s gone,” Carolina inferred.

“Because a lot of things are gone now, it’s just not the same,” Washington tried his best to clarify. He held his gaze with Carolina, knowing that only the strength of his convictions could get her to see eye to eye with him at that point.

Carolina stared at him for what seemed like hours in his head before finally sitting back down and crossing her arms again, taking her feet down from the dashboard. “I won’t leave,” she said simply. “I have nowhere to go.”

“But you were thinking about it,” Wash pressed despite himself.

“I was,” she admitted, resting back against her seat. “It’s… difficult to stay sometimes.”

“It is,” Wash agreed softly. “It really, really is.”

They lapsed into silence, the light years speeding by them as FILSS handled the ship.

Once the silence carried on a touch too long, however, it was interrupted by a polite cough on the speakers.

“What is it, FILSS?” Carolina asked first.

“Will what I say be on our official records?” FILSS inquired.

“Yeah, you can listen in again,” Wash replied.

“We will be entering the atmosphere of your next destination in exactly thirty-eight minutes. I would suggest that the entire crew be prepped for turbulence and full armor protocols considering that my records indicate this planet was not entirely terraformed and thus has inhabitable climates and a difficult stratosphere for entry thanks to unpredictability of the weather.”

“Great, Earth all over again,” Carolina muttered. “Thanks, FILSS, I’ll tell everyone to get ready and have L’il Grif back at the controls to help you with manual adjustments.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” the AI attempted to argue only for Wash to clear his throat to interrupt.

“Let’s let Kai feel like she has more to do here than just worry about her brother is what our leader is trying to say,” Wash said, giving a thoughtful glance to Carolina.

“I see! I shall make my piloting skills seem less useful then since your patronizing is officially on the record!” FILSS decided out loud.

“That’s not…” Wash sighed and rubbed his face. “Fine.”

“This fucking sucks,”  was the first thing Dylan Andrews heard since they landed on the icy planetoid of Terran-89 that she could wholeheartedly agree with. It was just surprising to the reporter that it had come from Kaikaina Grif, of all people.

“Well, when you’re right…” Dylan hummed mostly to herself.

“No, like seriously, what’s the deal with this shitty fucking shit-shit planet?” Kaikaina demanded, rubbing her shoulders against the winds as she followed everyone in their group’s movement forward. “Why the fuck would anyone want to come here?”

“Well, that would be why the UNSC was so quick to concede this territory back to the Covenant once the truces for the War had been drawn up,” Dylan offered, hoping the static interfering with their radios wasn’t too much so she wouldn’t have to repeat herself. “According to what I could read, there was a major effort in attempting to terraform this planet beforehand, but because of its extreme conditions it was made almost impossible. Instead when the Sangheilli began listing off territories that the UNSC had been inhabiting that they wanted preserved for religious or historical relics, this was one of the easier ones to fork over.”

“And if our assumption is right about Hargrove wanting to use Tucker and the sword to unlock the monuments’ potential powers, then it would be one of the harder temples to get access to and thus one of the lower ones on the agenda,” Washington added from the front with Carolina.

“Meaning we can be the early ones for the first time on this little trip of ours and set up a trap for them,” Carolina concluded.

Andrews had to admit that even with the large leaps of logic that had gotten them to Terran-89 to begin with, if they were right, then it was certainly one of the better plans they had going for them that entire time. Still, her reporter’s intuition made her apprehensive at the very least toward the idea that they were going to just progress without fully understanding what the alien relics on the planet were for.

And, most shocking of all, Doctor Grey was gravely silent in the back of the line, seemingly preoccupied with something she wasn’t saying. That was a mystery to unravel for another time, of course. Just like the way Kaikaina had come off the ship hot and bothered in a way that Andrews hadn’t noticed from her before.

Something was up. But it had to wait.

Moderating the speed of her trek through the snow and ice, Dylan lined her stride up with Lavernius Tucker Junior’s and kept in line with him as the little alien seemed to be gazing back and forth, a blanket from the bunks wrapped around him for extra warmth that the others hadn’t been granted. He was chattering his teeth to himself still, which Dylan assumed was muttering as the others had translated it as something from time to time.

“Junior, when you… said before that you and your father were working with the Peace Corps and visiting many of these sites, were there ever any reasons as to why you were doing it given to you?” Dylan asked quietly.

There was an exasperated honk from Junior in reply.

Already, Dylan could feel herself growing frustrated with the truly ridiculous setup that was their situation. She exhaled sharply through her nose and glanced toward the others, as if to see if anyone felt like translating.

Everyone else seemed very concentrated on making it to the temple, however, and not freezing on the way.

Although it was against her investigative instincts, Dylan was ready to resign herself to the same before she felt a tug on her arm. She looked down to Junior curiously just before the alien shook his head fairly definitely.

“So you understand everything we say in English but don’t speak it yourself,” Dylan inferred. “So a Chewbacca kind of thing then.”

In response, a wide grin came across Junior’s multiple mandibles and then he opened them wide to provide a perfect impersonation of the Wookie.

“Great. You can do that and not form o’s,” Dylan sighed. “What useful evolution. Regardless. I’d like to ask you some yeas-and-no questions then, if that’s alright with you. It would really help me understand motivations and, well, to tell your father’s story and clear his name if I can paint a picture for my audience.”

The alien child hummed in response, thinking it over before releasing a large BLARGH that was followed up by a hasty nodding.

“That’s great! Just like that,” Dylan said in a voice she realized only a touch too late was a bit too pandering for what was probably a child approaching his teens. “So, was your father approached for a position in the peace corps rather than enlisted on his own volition?” she asked first.

Junior rolled his eyes back, as if searching inside his skull for an answer before looking back to Dylan and nodding.

“And that was by an official UNSC officer, not by a Project Freelancer personnel, correct?” she asked.

He looked a little befuddled before nodding.

“That would make the most sense,” she agreed. “It would explain his climb in rank to Private First Class, why your envoy had official status, and how your father got you into boarding school at the UNSC’s main headquarters back on Earth.” She stopped muttering to herself and looked back at Junior. “When you traveled with your… other parent’s people, you were declared a prodigy, correct?”

Again, a nod.

“And it’s because of your father’s sword?” she asked.

Bow chicka honk honk,” the alien all but sang.

“I’m going to need a real answer for that,” Andrews tried to push. However, her attention was diverted when she realized they were coming to a stop, the two former Freelancers in the front marveling at the scale of the alien temple in front of them.

Of course, their awe was nothing compared to Doctor Grey as she stepped forward, her breath loud enough to come across the the radios. She reached up to her chest and whispered, “By Einstein’s ghost.” She then pushed to the front past all the other members of the group, though no one seemed to mind. “On Chorus every Temple had so much human interference and damage from the terraforming process and Earth-like conditions made unnaturally on the planet that the full size of them was never really able to be recorded by the time I was studying for my twenty-third doctoral thesis. Let alone were the carvings so crisp and intricate. I can actually see the transition in script from Early Sanghelli to post-Covenant Deco even from here! This is monumental! Quick! Let’s find an entrance! I want to dig inside and find the glorious treasures within. It’ll be like roleplaying night and I will be a British nobleman taking other people’s cultural heritage!”

“I’m usually all about role-play but that sounds way too close to home. Red card,” Kaikaina replied. “Yuk.”

“Hopefully they were kind enough to write instructions for an entrance to this thing,” Carolina said, looking to Doctor Grey. “If you don’t mind, could you start reading and see what you find?”

“Absolutely! It will take a few moments for me to find a starting place!” Doctor Grey replied cheerfully before heading to the right side of the nearest wall.

For a moment, Dylan waited to see if Junior would join her, but as he stood next to her, she grew curious and looked at Junior with her head tilted to the side. “Wouldn’t it be faster if you translated this from the other side along with Doctor Grey?” she asked curiously.

The alien looked at her for a moment before offering a large shrug.

That only caused Dylan to scowl some beneath her helmet. “Do you not read Sanghelli or speak it? The dialect you have… I don’t know. But I do know that my records show you spent some time on Sangheiios at an embassy. Did you not pick up any of the common Sangheilli while you were there?”

Junior coiled away from her, blarghing about something.

“Hey! Reporter bitch!” Kai snapped, walking up to Dylan. “¿Cuántos idiomas sabes de la tierra?” she demanded.

“I do know some Spanish,” Dylan assured her.

“Oh, do you?” Kai scoffed. “That because it’s a language on Earth so you just should know it? Pono’oe e’ike i ka’ōlelo Hawai’i. Ua ala’oe.”

“I’m… sorry?” Dylan attempted, confused.

“Yeah, you better be. Thinking a kid knows one language because he vacationed on a planet one time. Like we all aren’t guilty of sticking dicks all over lands we don’t belong in and didn’t bother to learn the language of. Like fuck off,” Kai continued, defensively getting between Dylan and Junior.

Seeing she was getting backed into a corner of sorts, Dylan raised her hands. “You’re completely right, and I apologize for making assumptions,” Dylan offered. “I should have realized there is more than one language for another species just as there is for ours. I didn’t mean to insult anyone here.”

“Yeah, you kinda suck at not insulting people in the group,” Kai responded. “So I figured it was my turn to get indignant. Plus it’s just boring standing around in the snow freezing my clit off.”

“Unfortunately offending people is the risk of being an investigative journalist,” Dylan sighed before the last comment truly caught up with her. “Wait what.”

“I found it!” Doctor Grey called. “Hilariously enough we only had to turn this corner!”

Everyone looked toward the doctor and a collective relief could not have been understated.

“Alright, everyone get moving before our armors get frozen at the joints!” Carolina ordered, pushing them all forward.

Kaikaina, however, interrupted it with a large, dramatic gasp. “Oh my effing gawd, Officer Washington! The guy with the binoculars isn’t using binoculars this time!”

Washington threw up his hands in frustration. “Kai! I’m not a cop—“

Agent Carolina looked up the temple, leading Dylan to follow her gaze, and to see the sniper only three levels above them.

“SNIPER!” Carolina screamed out to the group. “Take cover—“

Before there was even a chance of everyone doing so, the heavily armored sniper dropped down from the ledge, landing so hard in the snow between them and Doctor Grey that there was an audible crunch of the ice and permafrost beneath. He wasn’t aiming his rifle just yet, merely shouldering it as he stood in full view of them all.

His Mijolnir armor and Hunter helmet were black with a dark purple trip, his visor a menacing yellow.

“This,” a male voice said darkly over the helmet’s speaker, “has been a long time coming.”

Chapter Text

Carolina didn’t know who was standing in their way, and she wasn’t sure she cared. The color patterns on the armor had come to be as clear to her as Red and Blue, and the way he was quite easily sizing them up only made her more certain that he knew exactly what they were there for.

“He’s another mercenary,” Carolina determined, teeth gritting.

“Yes,” the mystery figure answered in a voice she was far from familiar with.

“Hey, fuckface, we weren’t talking to you! You’re not a part of the effing conversation!” Li’l Grif screamed shrilly.

“Were you with Felix and Locus?” Washington asked, stepping up to Carolina’s side.

Immediately, the mercenary’s head turned toward them in particular. The reaction was not nearly as calculated or calm as the rest of his overall demeanor. It was enough to send a chill down the spines of lesser soldiers.

“You,” he said thickly, hinting for the first time behind the crackle of words that he was utilizing a voice filter. “Both of you. You must be the Freelancers. Agent Carolina and Agent Washington.”

“That’s not fair,” Carolina replied sarcastically. “Here you know us, but we don’t know you.”

“I was expecting you,” the mercenary continued. “Hargrove mentioned you by name. I thought, given his concern, you would have appeared sooner.” He then turned his head just slightly, looking at the rest of the crew. “The additional company is also unexpected.”

“It can’t be more unexpected than what we feel about having to deal with yet another merc jerk,” Washington complained.

“In my business, knowing names isn’t as necessary as being known by reputation,” the mercenary acknowledged. “I would think that such a thing could be something you respect as former soldiers, but perhaps it’s been too long since you were nameless numbers in line. That ego’s the sort of thing that would get you picked up by a special ops project as flashy and at the front of the UNSC’s science division in the middle of the War while good soldiers were dying, Which means my associate’s belief that there was any commonality to find between us was gravely misplaced.”

Eyes narrowed, regulating her breathing, Carolina steadied her stance and readied her fists. “You worked with Locus and Felix then.”

“I do,” he said firmly in return.

Did,” Carolina said, smirking under her helmet. “Something Wash and I can take at least partial credit for. But it is most definitely did.

Washington was entirely still beside her until she ended her clap back, then he slowly turned his head toward her in disbelief. “Really? That’s the angle of negotiation we’re going for here?” he asked.

“We have this, Wash,” she assured him.

The mercenary tilted his head ever so slightly. “Do you?”

“Yes,” Carolina said confidently. “do.”

“Carolina, we need to talk about this,” Wash began, voice heavy with concern.

“There’s no need to talk about anything, I can handle this,” Carolina told him firmly. “I’ll handle the merc leftover, you take everyone into the temple and make sure we catch Hargrove and put an end to anything he’s trying to do with our guys in there. Because you know if this paid, loyalty-free lackey is here then the guy who bought his leash is.”

“We don’t know anything about this guy,” Washington tried to argue.

“We know he has a long ranged weapon and was stupid enough he brought it to fight against the martial arts and close combat specialist of Project Freelancer even though these bastards like to go and act like they know every little thing in our personal dossiers,” Carolina snapped.

Washington seemed intent on not moving for a moment, continuing to stare Carolina down as if it would mean anything.

But, as always, Li’l Grif was around to break the ice of any situation.

“Okay, no one has a fucking clue what the eff you’re talking about! Can we just go in where it’s not raining ice!?” she screeched.

Dylan Andrews turned and glanced in Kai’s direction. “You mean snow?”

“Hey, listen, lady, I know what the fuck I said, because I just said it,” she lashed out in return. “And you’re a field reporter? Fuck off, dude. Go back to anchoring for cable with those lame ass assessments.”

For a moment, everyone turned to look at Kai in shock at that sick burn. Including the mercenary.

“Fuck, maybe I should just let you all continue to roast each other alive, make my job easier,” he said. “But, probably knowing what a son of a bitch I’m working for, he’d find that as a loophole for not paying me.”

“What the hell is with you mercenaries and televisions the size of billboards?” Washington asked, baffled and unimpressed.

“Televisions? Fuck, no. That sounds like something Felix would want.” the mercenary replied candidly.

“And you?” Carolina pressed.

“Mortgage payments,” he replied flatly. “Also the missus could always use a larger minivan. So, you know, there’s always that to look forward to.”

“That almost sounds mundane by lethal mercenary standards,” Carolina admitted.

“Well, when you spend your first ten years of adult life being taught a skill set only useful for a war that ends halfway through it, it helps to pay the bills to work with what you’ve got,” he said flatly.

“Fuck that, your career counselor sucked ass,” Kai responded. “Did you even consider joining a circus? You could always work really hard at it and be, like, the two-ton man. I thought for sure that my brother was going to do that but he had to go and register for college and put himself on the map to get drafted. Fucking idiot nerd idiot.”

Junior turned and let out a honk toward Kai.

“Oh, I’m a sword swallower,” Kai answered. “Been working on that one for a long time. It helps when you suck enough dick to never have a gag reflex again. I don’t think I can even throw up with alcohol poisoning anymore.”

“Wash, get everyone out of here! Now!” Carolina barked at him before going stiff and looking at Kaikaina. “Wait. What.”

Before the moment could be responded to appropriately, however, the black and purple mercenary was on her and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the butt of his sniper rifle was crashing into her helmet right along the jawline. It was a thunderous crack that was loud enough to send her stumbling back into the snow, barely able to keep balance but still staying on her feet through sheer force of will.

The mercenary stood his ground. “I prefer ranged weapons because distance delivers a challenge. It doesn’t mean I’m unfamiliar with close quarters combat,” he informed her. “It’s a rookie mistake to size an opponent up and think otherwise.”

There was a deathly silence between their group and the mercenary for a few long, heavy beats.

“Wash,” Carolina said darkly.

“Carolina, just—“ he tried to interject, but Carolina was so beyond that point of reason anymore.

“Take everyone inside. Make the rescue,” she ordered in a hiss. “I’m going to go positively ape in a moment and it’s not rated low enough to be seen by minors.”

“I want it on record that I’m perfectly legal, doctor. And I’m pretty sure that includes, like, drinking and porno rentals,” Li’l Grif spoke up again. “So. Y’know. You can’t tell me not to do that, Officer Washington!”

“Kai, I have positively no interest in your porn and dildos. Least of all right now,” Wash warned angrily.

Carolina could see in the way the mercenary’s shoulders were lining up, the way he was slowly beginning to circle left, that her challenge had been accepted. Before things could heat up further, she turned to all of them and screamed at the top of her lungs.


In rare form for her crew, they all scrambled to get out of the way of Carolina and the mercenary. Even though Washington visibly hesitated, the moment Kaikaina and Junior passed him, he followed through. He had his priorities straight, after all. Just as Carolina had hers.

“If  you’ve read my records then you must know how this is going to go,” she said, rolling her shoulders. She needed to give everyone at least some time to enter the temple so they wouldn’t be foolish enough to step back out and get caught in the crossfire.

If fighting Felix and Locus had taught her anything, it was that these rank mercenaries weren’t something to be taken lightly. As much as her pride would like to deny it.

“I have read them. And they are impressive,” the mercenary assured her. “And judging by you sending your group ahead you’re not taking me lightly either. I appreciate that. Not everyone takes me as seriously at first glance. I’ve stuck to the shadows so long that my reputation hasn’t met the bile of my associates.”

“Right, so you’ve made it clear,” Carolina said lowly. “Guess I should be impressed that someone I’ve never heard of has rubbed shoulders with the two genocidal monsters that we kicked the asses of back on Chorus. But really it just makes me find you despicable.”

“Guilty by association,” he replied. “I can respect that. Though, if I were to judge by the company you keep… Your carry through could use some work.”

“Well, you’ve only got me to judge right now. And I’ve only got you,” she replied. “What name do you need on your tombstone?”

He laughed. “Let’s stick with Siris,” he replied. “At least for now.”

“Fine, Siris,” she replied before lunging forward without warning. “Tell your buddy Felix hi for me when you meet him in hell!”

The speed boost had activated a split second after her first foot left the ground —something minute and without consequence to nearly anyone else in the entire galaxy. But Carolina was aware of it. Horrendously so.

Her natural reflexes would never match that of a living smart AI, one that could preemptively begin her suit’s enhancements within moments of conceptualizing them. Even with Carolina’s spine being plugged into her suit, it was still slower than having the mindful direction of Epsilon there, firmly moving in task and even faster than her.

And it was without that impossible reflex, within that hair’s thin second of time, that Carolina could see that her lunge hadn’t been the first move of the battle.

Siris was already in action, dipping down beneath Carolina’s first strike and backing away from her second.

Everything about the mercenary read long range combat skills, but he did the unexpected by being the first to close in the space. And more specifically, he had closed into her personal space. And in defining the boundaries of their battle, he was quickly taking control of the whole fight.

Carolina released a frustrated growl, rotating pivot feet in order to conduct a quick snap kick to either land on Siris or at the very least drive him further back from her space. She needed the space and, more importantly, the momentum to really take advantage of battle.

Either Siris was even less familiar with close combat than his body language portrayed, or he was genuinely just fucking with her. She was beginning to think it was the latter because even as the snap kick only led to him laying low to the ground and avoiding being hit, he wasn’t making all that many moves against her.

Sure, her defenses were up and she was ready with each move to block and cover her openings, but he wasn’t even trying to go for them regardless.

Then, as Carolina began to punch down at the back of her adversary, he made his move.

Holding onto the butt of his sniper rifle, Siris swept his weapon as quick as a whip, contacting with the ankle of the foot Carolina was using to hold herself up and balanced.

Despite herself, Carolina fell forward with the simple maneuver.

Thinking fast, she tucked into a roll the moment she hit the snow covered ground and rolled from her fall over onto her feet.

Realizing that left Siris with her back open, she glanced just enough over her shoulders to have a peripheral on him. And just as she suspected, he was coming at her with a kick of his own. Still, she kept her cool.

She could make do with that.

The moment Siris closed in, Carolina grabbed onto his legal the ankle and brought him over her shoulders and dow, as hard as she feasibly could, slammed him back first into the ground.

Even with his helmet on and the filters heavily modifying his voice, Siris his the ground with the air spilling from his lungs.

It gave Carolina something to smirk about as she straddled Siris’ chest and  began punching his helmet for good measure. “Where!” she snarled between hits, “Are! They!” she stopped long enough to grab his shoulders hard and shove him back against the ground. “Tell me!”

“Who?” Siris coughed out, looking at her through his visor almost defiantly. “Do you mean the Reds and Blues? Did you really come all this way for them?”

“Of course I did!” she yelled at him grotesquely.

“Or do you mean the AI Epsilon?” he asked.

Immediately, Carolina froze in place. Even if she didn’t mean to, her entire body revolted against her as she looked down at Siris with wide open eyes.

“Because those two things have very, very different answers,” he continued lowly. “And if you came all this way thinking you’d get one without the other… well, things are going to be a lot harder on you for the trip back.”

“What. Do  you. Know?” she spat out at him.

Siris tilted his head. “You did come for the AI. Do the others know?”

“What? What do they need to know?!” Carolina shook him again angrily, leading to Siris shaking his head almost in pity. 

“I know that there’s more than just good virtue behind your need to get back your AI, Agent Carolina,” Siris explained darkly. “I familiarized myself with your records, no doubt. But even more than that, I familiarized myself with everything I could find on you since leaving Project Freelancer, including the abilities you put on display when fighting my accomplices. You’re impressive, skillful. But you’ve learned a reliance you never had before. I don’t know if it’s from having two AI stuck in your head by the end of the program or if it’s from the past year of letting your AI buddy take too much responsibility for you, but you improved drastically with AI.”

Without warning, in an impossible maneuver, somehow Siris managed to kick up his right knee impossibly high, slamming into the small of Carolina’s back and sending her face forward into the snow behind them.

“But now without AI, you’re even slower than your PFL records,” he continued.

“How the hell did you—“ Carolina began, turning just in time to see sparks flying from the very leg that had kicked her at the impossible angle.

Siri didn’t so much as flinch, reaching down and clicking the leg back into place. “You Freelancers aren’t the only ones with enhancements,” he informed her before taking the robotic leg and bringing it down on her helmet.

Emily Grey, MD, PhD, DVM, DACVIM, DACVP, et al. was unaccustomed to the idea of not being smart enough or fast enough or intimidating enough to not solve a problem which was right in front of her face. And she was particularly not used to feeling that way when the weight of dependence was on her — not just of her friends and travel companions, but of all of Chorus.

Being a doctor in an unending civil war might have numbed others to the sense of failure, but for Doctor Grey it only heightened her sense of aspiration.

If there was a happy ending to be found among all the refuse they were currently going through, by god she intended to lead the charge.

Which made it a little bit irritating that as she traced her fingers over the ancient etchings of the inner sanctum’s wall, she was forced to hear Agent Washington repeat himself again.

“I need to get back out there and help Carolina,” he said.

“Repeating that ad nauseam hasn’t been particularly helpful so far,” Dylan Andrews told him flatly. “And admittedly I don’t know much about Agent Carolina compared to most of you, but I feel like she would find that insulting.”

“Yeah, dude, she’ll take your balls and mount them on Sheila’s dashboard,” Kaikaina Grif said, leaning against the opposite wall to Doctor Grey. “Just chill. Homegirl’s gonna kick ass and take names and then remind them that you two are the law, fuck yeah.”

“We’re not cops,” Washington said abruptly.

“Tch, sure, keep telling yourself that,” Kaikaina replied with a wave of her hand.

already know it, you’re the one who can’t seem to—“ Washington stopped and looked around the room again. “Everyone hush.” They paused for a few beats and then Wash turned back toward them. “Nevermind. I thought I heard—“

Shh!” Doctor Grey finally hissed out, turning just enough to level a glare at all of them. “I will have you know that translating a dead alien language into its modern iteration and then translating that into my native language is causing an unprecedented amount of brainpower on my part. And all of you are being loud and unhelpful.”

“Sorry,” everyone said at once with Junior honking.

Looking back to the wall, Emily found her spot and continued in the newly found silence.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Kaikaina groaned. “What the fuck do we have to read the stupid wall graffiti for right now? I fucking hate reading. It’s never done anything for me. Like ever. And now there’s dudes with binoculars who aren’t just interested in getting a peek of my tits, and we’re supposed to be finding my Big Bro and his friends inside of this cold ass ice building in the middle of nowhere.”

Dylan Andrews looked at Kai and hummed to herself slightly, tapping a finger against the cheek of her helmet. “You have a very… unique way of reaching your points, Private Grif.”

“Hey fuck you!” Kai snapped. She paused for a moment and looked at Andrews. “Wait, was that an insult or not?”

“It wasn’t,” Andrews assured her.

“Cool, thanks, but still, totally fuck you like what even,” Kai replied almost scathingly.

“She was just remarking on the fact that you beat around the bush with metaphors no one in their right mind has ever asked for,” Wash explained, clearly at wit’s end.

“Nah, I leave beating around my bush to you and the ladies,” Kai flippantly responded.

“Shut up,” Wash spat back before visibly tensing up. “Wait. What.”

Bow chicka honk honk!” Junior cooed.

Taking a deep breath, Doctor Grey rose to her feet, eyes closed as she worked desperately on finding her center. She then spun around toward the ragtag team and opened her eyes. Then, she bellowed at the positive heights of her vocal cords.

ALL OF YOU BE QUIET!!!” she screamed.

The echoes of Grey’s outburst continued on through passage ways around them, the icicles hanging precariously above each passage way giving a precarious chime as a result. They all looked around to make sure that she hadn’t accidentally caused their doom through a cave in or icy impalement before looking back to the doctor.

Clearing her throat and collecting a deep breath in her chest, Doctor Grey put her hands on her hips and glared angrily at all of them. “I am translating ancient alien texts in order to understand what this temple was constructed by the ancients to do and therefore why it would be of any interest to a mercenary or even Malcolm Hargrove himself. It could be vital information for moving forward and, most importantly of all, for understanding what he plans on doing with our abducted and subjugated friends.”

Everyone seemed to be a cross of sheepish and slightly ashamed in response to the declaration, which for the most part had been Doctor Grey’s goal. At least it was until there was a gentle laugh.

“Why, our dear Doctor, if those were the answers you were looking for, all you had to do was ask,” an outrageously pompous and rage inducing voice concluded just before a potato headed man in a parka stepped out from one of the halls. He wore a rather assuming smile and an ascot like, as Emily’s dear friends the Reds and Blues would say, a complete and utter cockbite.

Without a moment’s hesitation, both Washington and Kaikaina had their respective signature weapons out and aimed at the Chairman’s head.

“Malcolm Hargrove,” Dylan Andrews said slowly. “Chairman of the UNSC Oversight Subcommittee. I have a lot of questions for you given the documented evidence I and my associates have collected over the past thirty-six hours. Very damning evidence, I should add.”

“Fuck the theatrics!” Kai screamed out angrily. “You better tell me where the effing fuck my brother is, you douchebag!”

Junior peeked his head out from between Washington and Kaikaina’s legs and lout a vicious BLARGH to add to the sentiment.

“This temple’s a repository for ancient alien technologies,” Doctor Grey announced, slowly stepping forward. “Just like many of the sites on Chorus. That’s why you were interested in Chorus and that’s why you’re interested now here. But what did you need our friends for?”

“I will answer both your questions at the same time,” Hargrove replied with a chilling glee.

“Oh, that’s convenient, fucking over achiever,” Kai hissed in return. “I hate over achievers.”

“Kai, be quiet,” Wash warned.

You be quiet!” Kai replied angrily.

“What are you up to, Hargrove?” Washington demanded, ignoring Kaikaina’s rebuttal for the moment.

About that time, Doctor Grey could hear the chimes of the icicles again, steadier and quieter than they had been before. And when she strained, those mysterious footsteps that Washington had been hearing were finally audible to her own ears.

“Agent Washington, I am doing something which you never managed,” Hargrove replied darkly. “Completing a deal. I am letting you know where your friends are and why I am in need of their… volunteered services.”

Suddenly, every hall leading into the large inner sanctum had at least two of the Reds and Blues at each doorway, guns up, utterly silent.

Immediately, Kaikaina perked up and lowered her glock. “Dex!?” she cried out, looking at the orange armored Red. “Dexter! It’s me! I’ve been looking all the fuck over for you! …Dex?”

Washington did not lower his gun, but he openly stared behind Hargrove as the two Blues stepped out and in front of him, their own guns raised. “Tucker? Caboose? What… What are you doing? What did he do to you?”

Rather than answer, the entire group stood coldly and silently, prompting a chuckle from Hargrove.

“They are doing what I want them to do,” Hargrove answered. “Because I have power, and because I have influence, and because I deserve the loyalty of every man, woman, and child saved by my strategic and diplomatic handling of the Great War. Because I am owed, and because I finally have seen the way of wiping insolence out. And whether they wanted to or not, I made sure the Reds and Blues saw that all for themselves.”

“Fuck, dude, your evil speeches don’t answer a goddamn question,” Kai whined.

“I would have to agree,” Doctor Grey said, racking her brain for a way out of the current situation.

“Perhaps you need the right question,” Andrews proposed. “You’ve gone through a lot of additional trouble to frame us as well as set us up for some fall. It’s obvious that there’s something you want from us. What would that be?”

“Ah, an intelligent reporter,” Hargrove replied. “My least favorite kind. But you are right about your question. I do want something. I want something only the Freelancers were capable of delivering right into my hands. Which they did. Marvelously, I must add.”

“We don’t have anything,” Wash replied plainly.

“You do,” Hargrove said before shifting his gaze from Washington down to Junior. “I needed him. The prodigal son. The messiah. The Great Destroyer.”

Grey was taken aback, as was everyone else apparently, all turning to look at the equally baffled looking alien child.


Chapter Text

For all the hours they had spent bouncing from planet to planet, and for as much as she had prepared herself for seeing that specific shade of gray armor again. For as much as Kaikaina had thought about seeing her brother alive and well, she lacked the graceful words to really explain her feelings adequately. As was so often the case when someone finally achieved something they had wanted.

Still, Kai tried with the best she could come up with.

“Bro! What the fuck!? You’re pointing a gun at me?” Kai demanded, attempting to step forward toward Dexter Grif only to be stopped by Agent Washington’s arm as he flung it out to hit her right at chest level. “Dude!”

“Stay back, Kaikaina. We don’t know what’s going on right now. It’s not safe,” he said, not taking his eyes off of the egghead who had talked way too much and way too boringly for Kaikaina to consider anything he said worthwhile. “Everyone, just stay behind me.”

“Dude, fuck off, I’m not yours for the hour, that costs you at least twenty bucks,” Kai snapped back. “And even if you gave me a twenty, I’d totally tease and run because you’re the absolute worst undercover cop ever. And everyone knows it!”

“Kaikaina!” Wash snapped in return.

The moment Wash had lost his cool and yelled, Kaikaina’s head jerked toward her brother’s position. She stared at him intently, looking for a response — any kind of response at all — from his overprotective Bro-y instincts. The kind of thing where he’d threaten someone and tell them to shut up for telling Kai to shut up. Because that was the most basic, most fundamental Grif thing he did.

But the more she looked for it to happen, the more it was clear that Dexter’s response was… nothing. He didn’t react. He didn’t flinch.

It was like staring into the face of a completely hollow suit of armor. With a gun trained on all of them.

“I don’t get it,” Kai uttered, more in shock than anything else. “He’s not… This isn’t how Grif acts at all. Double-you tee eff.” Her gaze, and her subsequent rage then turned entirely on the egghead. “What the fuck did you do to my brother, you pickle nosed freak!?”

Washington let out a long, incomprehensible mutter under his breath as he shook his head at her. The only words that were really distinguishable were negotiation and goddammit, so Kai came to assume he was displeased with something or someone. Which only further proved her theory that he was a total drama hoarder and wasn’t appreciating Kai taking charge.

Because that made the most sense, of course.

“Pickle nosed…” the egghead sputtered, seemingly actually surprised by the insult.

“Private Grif,” Andrews spoke up, switching Kai’s attention to her on the other side of Wash. “It isn’t just about your brother. None of the Reds and Blues are acting normal.”

Kai scoffed. “How can you tell? You’ve never met them!”

“I haven’t, but I’ve been with all of you for most of the search now, and… well, I know enough to think it’s not normal for them to be pointing guns at us, their aspiring saviors.”

That got a huge eye roll from Kaikaina and she crossed her arms over her chest. “If you think it’s abnormal for us to point guns at each other, you really don’t know your shit about the Reds and Blues, lady!”

Looking particularly annoyed, Washington turned just enough to glare Kaikaina’s way. “This isn’t the time to be getting into this.”

“The hell it isn’t!” Kai shouted. “We found my family and they’re acting like zombies! It’s a fucking great time to figure out what the Jeff’s going on!”

“It’s the implants,” Doctor Grey announced.

Confused, Kai looked at the doctor. “Wha’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Doc?” she demanded.

“The surgery room we found in the prison, they were all being experimented on with Freelancer-grade implant devices. And seemingly none — at least none of the ones we saw during our extensive searching of the area — seemed to have properly functioned the way that Project Freelancer’s has in the past,” Grey explained before turning to look suspiciously turned her attention then back to Hargrove. “You’ve somehow managed to engineer the neural implants not only to work for your demented scheme here. Whatever it is. You’re somehow controlling our friends and making them do your bidding, including spreading falsehoods to damage the reputation of all of Chorus!”

Squinting Kai shook her fist Doctor Grey’s way. “Does this look like the time to drop some stupid exposition no one cares about!?” Kakaina demanded.

“I care to see the puzzles brought together,” Andrews spoke up.

“Pfft,” Kai rolled her eyes. “Reporters aren’t people, now you’re just reaching.”

“You are correct, Doctor Emily Grey of Chorus,” Hargrove announced. “But as for what my motives are, they’re as simple as what I told you before. I want the alien child. I plan to make great use of his birthright. Use that will someday be upheld by all the galaxy s the markings of a new era. An era where humanity does not sit back on the forefronts of of technological and military should the Covenant ever be tempted to start yet another war with our kind.”

“And that war would happen to be a natural escalation of tensions and not at all anything involving your doing or your kidnapping of child the largest human ally in the Covenant right now,” Washington sneered.

“If you believe that I am only here to issue some distance for what’s bound to be the next part of my plan, you’ve truly taken me for a fool,” Hargrove said sharply. “Something I don’t appreciate in the very least.”

“I don’t give a shit what you appreciate or don’t, asshole! I just care about how bad your ass kicking is going to be once Carolina comes in here and rips off wherever your hair is growing instead of your head and beats you to death with it!” Kai snapped viciously.

“Kai, stop escalating the situation!” Wash ordered.

“You’re not my parole officer, Washington!” Kai screeched in return.

“Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt,” an unfamiliar voice called, drawing the entire room’s attention toward the newly entered foe. Except Kai recognized him not as new, but as the black and purple guy from outside the temple. He was dragging Carolina behind him by her arm and then made a point of tossing her limp body toward the rest of the search team. “But I have some bad news for your plan b here.”

An audible gasp crossed their search party, and Washington actually side stepped his own own commands by moving toward the unfamiliar foe. “Carolina!”

“Don’t concern yourself too much,” the mystery man said, tossing her toward them. “She’s alive.”

“She fucking better be, you fucking asshole!” Kai screeched.

Before any of them could act, though, there was a resounding sound of guns clicking all around them. The Reds and Blues had their sights trained on their own rescue team.

“This fucking sucks!” Kai cried out in frustration.

“Now, since it’s abundantly clear that we won’t be dealing with things impolitely, I would urge you to consider a trade of our assets,” Hargrove continued, a cocky smile firm on his face even as they all glared daggers at him.

“What assets?” Washington demanded.

“The majority of your friends in exchange for the alien child,” Hargrove explained.

“Ew gross, creepy peso old man!” Kai snapped.

“That’s not happening,” Washington said firmly. “No trade. We’re taking all of them. And. We’re kicking your ass.”

“That plan is way better,” Kaikaina nearly cheered. “But watch out, Wash, he might be into that kind of stuff—“

“You’re not really in positions to negotiate on those terms, don’t you think?” the mercenary joked.

Together, Kaikaina, Washington, Doctor Grey, and Dylan Andrews stood in uncomfortable silence. There was no good option, there was no good position. As an expert in the field, Kaikaina could see very, very clearly that they were completely and utterly fucked.

Which did not make it any less surprising when an agonized cooing noise came from between them and, without warning, Junior burst out from the center of their tightly formed circle through Wash and Kai’s legs, and leaped over to where his father stood by Hargrove. The child hesitated, letting out dinosaur-like noises of sadness toward Tucker before looking to Hargrove staunchly.

“No! Junior!” Wash yelled, only barely being held back by Kai and Andrews’ quick reactions to grab his arms and not get himself shot for once.

“Smart child,” Hargrove announced. “Selfless as well. Maybe worthy of that unearned position as some Messiah, after all.” He exchanged a look over Junior’s head toward the black and purple mercenary, then turned to walk back down the hall he and Tucker had stepped out of. “Follow Siris’ command, my Blues and Reds. The Tucker Family and I need to be elsewhere for a family reunion of sorts.”

Just before they disappeared into the darkness of the alien temple, Kai cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled after Hargrove. “Fuck you, dude! It’s Reds and Blues! Motherfucker!”

Feeling satisfied with her yell, she then looked to her fellow searchers. She found mirrored looks of confusion, apprehension, and concern. All of which were understandable, but none of which were anywhere close to what Kai wanted to feel at the moment. Which was pretty damn pissed.

“C’mon, guys, this is way better than any of thought it was gonna be right about when we realized that everyone was surrounding us with guns and were being mind controlled by a dude who totally looked like a bad floppy dildo,” she tried to cheer them all up. Then, out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed that the so-called ‘Siris’ was heading toward the hallway that Hargrove had gone down. “What the hell.”

“Where are you going?” the reporter in Andrews apparently couldn’t resist asking.

“To do my job,” Siris announced before stopping and turning. “Ah. Right. Commanding your friends.” He paused for a moment, then looked toward Dexter. “Kill them.”

With that, he started walking down the hallway while Kai’s brother stepped out to face them all, gun up and ready.

Kai’s eyes widened, she could feel the stinging of tears. “Dex?”

Perhaps it was an inherited trait, but Lavernius Tucker Junior would usually make a choice and immediately thinking about whether or not it was the right thing to do, the right call to make, what he could have done to make it better. But, walking down the halls of his supposed ancestors, behind a monster by another name, and in front of the father he loved more than anyone else in the universe but could not even get a reaction from, there was not one doubt in Junior’s head.

It was the right choice. And everything was still wrong. Which was also itself probably an inherited trait more than questioning his choices.

Unable to help himself, Junior looked back at his father yet again, mandibles quivering slightly. “Blargh,” he tried again desperately.

Tucker never lowered his head to so much as look down Junior’s way, just holding his battle rifle across his body as he walked. The hilt of the sword at his hip.

Slowly, Junior narrowed his eyes on the one detail, curious about — if everyone had been right and Hargrove intended to turn on alien artifacts through his father — why his father wasn’t using his sword.

Bow chicka honk honk,” Junior couldn’t help himself after the thought.


Eyes widened, Junior stopped and turned around to face his father, only to see him unreactive and continuing to march forward. Almost mindlessly. But at the same time Junior was so certain that he had heard something. Something that wasn’t the thoughtless machine Hargrove made Junior’s dad and the rest of the Reds and Blues sound like under his control.

Open his mouth again, Junior was ready to try to get his father’s attention with another joke only to be completely taken by surprise when his father shoved him forward using his gun. Then pushed him again, as if refuting the very idea that Junior could reach out to him.

By the time Junior obeyed and started walking again, they were in yet another chamber — one that seemed more technological and more mysterious than even in the inner sanctum with its ancient alien writings and tomes. And Hargrove was standing in the middle waiting on them.

His heart beat impressively fast in his chest as Junior stopped short of the bald old man.

“You must be brave to have taken a risk like this. Not many adults would have done the same for friends,” Hargrove acknowledged. “Of course, your kind has thick honor codes like the samurai, do they not? Preposterous stuff. You probably would find death at my hand to be the height of your own fable. I won’t give you such platitudes, so don’t concern yourself with them.”

Confused, Junior tilted his head. “Honk?”

The only honor he could think of was the kind that if he didn’t follow got him fouled out of basketball games he would play for his UNSC boarding school. Which meant that his current captor didn’t read up on Junior’s history and was racist either way Junior looked at it.

Which, with that face, wasn’t really all that surprising.

“Now, in order to get your father under… our influence,” the man began with what was, no doubt, about to be an exceedingly boring speech Junior didn’t want to hear exactly, “I have missed out on some very important opportunities when it comes to utilizing his potential, I’m afraid. His unique, and quite possibly very much unearned position as a diplomat between our species made him a cornerstone to solidifying Sangheilli trust in the UNSC’s narrative. And you. Well, if I had been able to get a hold of you between the broadcast your father’s friends rudely sent out across the known galaxies and you making a run of it to join up with your useless band of insurgents, we could have truly improved our bargaining position. But we are now where we are.”

Junior was looking around the room, trying to think of anything that was familiar about it from what little he knew about his own ancestors and supposed culture. The longer he went without getting bored but also without finding anything useful, the more his panicked heart picked up its pace.

The reporter had been right. He should have known more about his unknown father’s people. He should have learned more while he and his father worked with the peace corps. But because he didn’t, because of his lack of interest, he was going to end up as an eleven year old splat on the floor of an alien messiah and everyone else — his father, his friends, his family — they were going to die or be slaves of their own minds forever.

“According to my research team with Charon Industries, these unused temples in our unceded territories require some mythical key for their activation,” Hargrove explained.

Surprised, Junior looked at the old man, wondering how he had learned about it—

“But when questioning your father using… intensive interrogation tactics, he was very firm on the notion that he didn’t have a key that activated towers. He had a sword.”

Junior blinked.


And according to another of the simulation troopers, memory was the key,” Hargrove continued. “Which led me to connect the dots.”

He couldn’t believe it. Junior could not believe this thing was actually happening.

“You were with your father on the peace corps journey. You would know how to activate your father’s key,” Hargrove determined.

“Blargh!” Junior gagged, sticking his tongue out to keep from throwing up at the notion.

As he jerked away, Junior finally noticed what he had been frantically looking for. His eyes widened as he saw the same cryptic designs and formation of an ancient alien lock in the room’s wall. The kind his dad would stick the sword through to unlock.

Before Junior could do anything with the information, there was the sound of someone coming up from the hallway. It was the mercenary from earlier. The one that Hargrove had put in charge of the Reds and Blues. Junior’s eyes widened as he realized what that must have meant.

Without further hesitation, Junior lunged forward at his father, knocking him over at the knees in a perfect tackle, then grabbed the hilt of the sword from his father’s hip. Junior began to run for the exit, but the mercenary was there and quickly kicked him back to the floor, sending him rolling.

“I knew there was never any point reasoning with your species,” Hargrove sneared. He then looked Tucker’s way as the aqua colored marine was getting to his feet. “Kill it.”

Junior looked at his father with surprise as the man he loved more than any other stood and aimed his gun.It wasn’t right — it wasn’t how saving his father was supposed to go.

Chapter Text

Her head was splitting, but as disoriented as she was, the only real question to ask was pounding into her head. As much as she hated to have to ask it at all.

Did she really let some two-bit mercenary take her by surprise again? Did she really not see the fact that he would have enhancements as much as she did surprise her?

They might have been the type of questions that, ordinarily, would keep Carolina up at night, but in that moment they were the far of queries of a mind that really had another agenda entirely. Figuring out what the hell Kaikaina was screaming about so loudly that it was rousing Carolina from unconsciousness by sheer volume alone.

“They can’t kill us! Killing us would be the lamest thing they ever did! Do you know what kind of lame things are on their records of lame? It shouldn’t be possible for them to be more lame! This is fucking stupid! Dexter Grif, if you try to kill anybody over here I’ll personally kick your ass! If you kill me I’m going to kick your ass and punch you! Twice!”

“Private Grif, please calm down, you may trigger something,” Doctor Grey’s more soothing tone said, closer to Carolina than Kaikaina’s.

It was enough to fully bring Carolina into the moment as she opened her eyes. She was being held up, or at least her head was, in someone’s lap. There were cracks in her helmet, her HUD broken for certain, which meant that she was only seeing what her eyes could. There was no feedlot from her suit, all instinct driven.

Doctor Grey was not looking down to her but instead toward the rest of the circled up group, all of which were standing behind Washington. With his arms and legs out, Wash seemed to be trying as desperately as he could to spread himself out as a wall covering all of them. But most concerning of all was that his battle rifle was holstered against his back. He had no weapons drawn whatsoever. Which, by Carolina’s estimates, usually did not spell out well for them.

“They haven’t shot us yet,” Dylan Andrews said in a flat tone, still looking around and assessing the situation herself. “Despite the order. There may be some semblance of control for them still. They might be preventing themselves from attacking.” She then turned her head suspiciously toward Li’l Grif. “Assuming that no one else triggers some sort of response from them.”

“I don’t trigger people, I’m a fucking social justice queen, bitches!” Kai snapped back.

“Kaikaina, not now!” Washington hissed.

“Yes, now, officer! My brother has a gun trained on you! and Junior’s kidnapped by his dad. Do you know how fucking weird that sounds? But it’s what’s happening, because everything that happens to us is effing weird,” Kai continued loudly. “I shit you not, one time I got naked for Doc. That’s how weird things are. Doc saw my vagina, and he’s like the fourth last person I’d want in this room right now to see the twat!”

At first Wash seemed to have finally learned to let Kaikaina’s crudeness go by unhindered, but then he tilted his head over his shoulder just enough to look her way. “Who are the three before him?”

“Are you actually asking that question right now?” Andrews demanded.

“Completely out of line, Agent Washington!” Grey squeaked out.

“Agreed,” Carolina said groggily, finally pulling herself up into a sitting position out of Grey’s lap.

“Carolina! Are you alright?” Wash asked, still not moving.

“I got my ass kicked by a complete prick. No, Wash, I’m not okay, I’m fucking pissed!” Carolina seethed.

“Awesome! Well, we’re all about to die right now so you’re in, like, super great company. Just saying,” Kai announced, hands on her hips.

“”You never answered my question,” Wash pointed out to Kai.

“You’re such a closet pervert, it’s kinda hot. For a cop,” she answered, head tilted in amusement. “It’s Sarge, Caboose, and Grif, by the way. So watch out. The crotch is still an option for you.”

“I was hoping I was on the list, not—“ Washington began to argue before freezing up at the sound of crunching boots. He turned just as Carolina and Grey got to their feet in unison, shocked as Sarge, Caboose, and Grif stepped forward, weapons high. “Damn it, Kaikaina!”

“Dude, what the fuck, you asked me the question!” she cried out.

Barely able to breathe, Carolina searched her mind for any way out of the situation at hand and she focused on Wash’s holstered weapon once again. “Wash! Take out your gun and shoot them in the legs so they are out of commission!” she ordered.

“No!” Wash angrily snapped back. “I’m not fighting my family, are you mental? We did not come all this way for me to take a close range shot at them, possibly shatter bone or tear open an artery — just no, Carolina! I won’t do it. Not even for myself. Not anymore!”

“You overdramatic fuck, we could just take them out so they don’t kill us and stay zombies forever!” Carolina yelled in return. “Are you literally trying to tell me it’s not worth that risk at the very least?”

Before they could continue to argue, however, Carolina gaped as she saw that Caboose’s finger was on the trigger. And that was not Freckles. And it was definitely aimed directly at Washington’s head.

Without HUD guidance, all but going in blind, her body still rigid and sore from her unconsciousness, Carolina leaped between her first step and her second to go into super speed. She could feel her armor reacting, but the speedometer, the braking controls, everything she relied on for safety were gone. Only her instincts driving her with a HUD and without an Epsilon.

But instincts, apparently, were exactly what she needed because only a few steps into the run, she was already tackling Caboose to the ground and sending his gun shooting toward the ceiling.

The rest of their group began screaming in surprise but Carolina’s full attention was on wrestling the behemoth that Caboose was away from his gun.

There was a near serene sound next of what seemed like clattering glass. But as Carolina looked up she saw that it was not glass but the icicles that formed in the doorways where the remaining Reds were all standing still without orders. They were going to fall right onto them.

“Simmons! Donut! Doc! Step forward!” Washington yelled out with quick thinking.

Just in the nick of time, Donut and Simmons stepped forward before the large icicles came crashing down where they had been. Doc stood in place until the icicles hit him mainly in the helmet. He let out a cry and collapsed to the floor, helmet falling off after being severely broken.

Everyone flinched for him.

“Sorry, I didn’t know his last name,” Wash muttered in partial embarrassment.

Kaikaina, again who had known him the longest, only tilted her head in confusion. “Doc’s name isn’t Doc? What the eff.”

“Ow… what happened?” Doc groaned from the floor, reaching up and grabbing his head. “Ugh. I need some adderall so I don’t freak out again like I did in the operating room. Boy was that a difficult movie to watch in one sitting.”

“Wait what,” Dylan Andrews said, having proven the true danger of staying around their group too long. “He’s speaking like he’s his own person again. The helmets are somehow responsible for the control—“

“HYAAHHHH!” Doctor Grey screamed, just before there was a loud THUNK and Carolina jus saw Sarge’s bright red helmet flying across the floor just in front of her.

Carolina looked back and saw that Doctor Grey had managed to roundhouse kick Sarge’s helmet off of his head, making the old colonel sway in place, holding onto his forehead. “What in sam hill…” he muttered, not realizing he was standing right over Carolina with a shotgun aimed at her head.

“One of your doctorates was in mixed martial arts?” Dylan asked, impressed.

“Oh, silly, no. I just have a black belt like every other multitasking super genius,” Grey assured her.

Without wasting another moment, Carolina turned back to Caboose and grabbed onto his helmet, viciously ripping it off his head to free him from its control.

The big Blue just blinked a few times before squinting at Carolina. “Agent Caro-lady? You came to prison for us?” he asked tiredly.

“Caboose, I’d come to hell for you,” she breathed a sigh of relief.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want you to do that,” Caboose responded, still sounding exhausted. “Church used to say we should go there, but if you went there you wouldn’t find us there yet. So I’m glad you found us here. Wherever this… cold dark… scary wet cold dark place is. It definitely helped you find us faster than going to Hell.”

Carolina looked at Caboose in simple amazement for a moment before her shoulders began to shudder and her eyes blurred. She couldn’t help herself, she began to laugh, a real, genuine laugh, and possibly the first one she had had since the Reds and Blues had disappeared. At least, there had not been one with so much warmth and relief in her chest as she gave it. Even as the sobs came through.

She could see in her periphery as Kai ripped off Grif’s helmet and immediately pulled him into a confused hug and as Wash took the duty of removing both Donut and Simmons’ helmets.

They were all being released. They were all being brought back to them piece by piece.

“What’s going on here? Why is my sister on one of our stupid fucking adventures?” Grif shouted out, even as he hugged his sister back.

“It’s an incredibly long story and it’s not over yet,” Wash informed them all.

“Yeah, fortunately we’e got some kinda storyteller with us, right, Dylan?” Kai shouted only to turn and see what Carolina and the rest of them were only beginning to realize at the same time. “Dylan? Miss Andrews? Where’d she go?”

“To do something we’d do,” Carolina said out loud, eyes widening in concern. “Something very stupid.”

Journalistic integrity and ethics were something of the defining features in Dylan Andrews’ life. They were what made her literal bread and butter. They were what got her involved with the unraveling story of Project Freelancer and ominous Reds and Blues. It was also how Carolina and Washington came across her.

And part of being an investigative journalist happened to be objectivity. Happened to be the ability to stand down, to step back, and accept that inserting herself into the narrative was dangerous to the vitality of the report.

Dylan Andrews lived and breathed being a journalist, but in the moment, as she raced through the chilled halls of an alien temple on a planet she probably wouldn’t have been able to pronounce, she was a part of the story. She was involved. She was subjective. She was—

She was likely to be doing something very stupid, but it was most likely the the right thing to do.

Which made it all the more shocking and breathtaking when she at last reached the end of the hall and heard for herself the instruction of Malcolm Hargrove ordering the death of a child.

“No,” Andrews gasped, trying to run faster.

Only steps away from the room, Dylan had to slide into a halt, scrambling into the shadows as she saw that Siris, the man in black from before, was standing at the entrance with his gun in tow. Dylan was more than ready to tackle him, maybe wrestle his gun free from him, when he surprised her by stepping forward.

Lavernius Tucker stood with his gun coldly trained on the shuddering Junior.

“Hold it,” Siris barked at Tucker. He then looked toward Hargrove. “This is not the right move.”

“Siri, I have no idea why, compared to your colleagues, you have such a difficult time comprehending this simple fact, but I will remind you that you are not hired for your morality, you are hired for your lack of it!” Hargrove snapped angrily. “I have no need of a useless loose string, and so long as this creature is alive and refusing to cooperate then that is precisely what it is.”

“You don’t know that there’s no use for the kid yet, you just know that he’s acting like a scared kid. And even if he doesn’t turn on the towers, he still holds value to the UNSC,” Siris said plainly. “My colleagues suggested me for your employ. That doesn’t mean I take my day job any less seriously. Especially when you’re willing to do something stupid enough to restart a war and get the whole human race killed. What good is that to me? I get paid more than I’ll ever need so I can Scrooge McDuck it and die on mountain of money I’m diving into? That doesn’t sound like a deal to me.”

“Mercenaries and your paydays,” Hargrove snarled. “Very well, then. I hear your point.” The businessman turned to face a large alien construct then glanced over his shoulder toward Tucker. “Shoot him.”

Before the mercenary was able to react, there were three ringing shots and the man was sent falling backward in a grunt of pain, hitting the floor just in front Dylan. She looked at him wide eyed as he clutched at the holes in his armor beginning to bubble up crimson blood. “Fuck you, Har…” he looked at Dylan for a moment, breathing heavily. “What the…”

Not sure what else to do, Dylan tried to hold a finger up to her helmet to silence the shot man.

Hargrove, though, wasn’t done yet. “Now, Mister Tucker, I do believe you’re free to shoot your abomination.”

Realizing that staying in the observer’s seat wasn’t going to help any longer, if it ever had, Dylan lunged into the room to get between Tucker and his son. Junior let out a shocked honk before clicking his jowls together in a way that Dylan was sure the rest of their shipmates would pretend was meaningful. But for the moment her heart was pounding too hard and she was shaking in her knees. Still, she stood firm.

“Tucker, you can’t do this,” she said seriously. “You don’t know who I am, and I’m sure there’s a lot of confusion because you’re being mind controlled by a chip in your brain that’s being controlled by something weird they did to your helmet and I can’t even begin to pretend I understand the logic behind any of it. But the one thing that I do know, from all my work and all my research is that you are one thing for certain in every story, in every record, in absolutely everything I can find.”

Hargrove looked somewhere between angry and baffled. “Who the devil is this?”

Dylan ignored him, seeing that Tucker’s full attention was on her instead. “You’re a pervert, Lavernius Tucker. Ini absolutely everything I have learned about you, and judging by the very little I understand of your son’s language, you definitely are sex obsessed. Ad it’s a little bit sad. But it’s offset by all the other records that say you’re a good father. The… kind of father that would not be able to resist a chance to use a catchphrase. Which is why I knew if I came all this way, if I could get to you before you were forced to do something terrible and wrong and against your character, I could maybe have a chance to tell you something you needed to hear. That even though we have been searching on a very dangerous journey and I probably will have to file for unemployment when I get back to my life…” she took a deep, heralding breath, holding on the pause enough that even Junior was leaning in some out of curiosity.

Exhaling sharply, Dylan tilted her had back up to look Tucker in the face. “I’m glad I came.”

Tucker’s body flinched awkwardly, his head tilting as a snort came through the filters of his helmet. “Bow…Bow Chicka Bow Wow!”

His finger laid off the trigger and his shoulders rolled back into a more comfortable, natural position as he swayed on his feet, a little dazed. “What… How… Who—“

“Oh for the love of god, if you want something done!” Hargrove snarled, grabbing the gun from Tucker’s unguarded hands and immediately firing at Dylan.

She stood in shock for a moment before feeling an unnatural warmth pooling out at her side. She reached for her waist, looking down to see for herself that blood was beginning to seep through her kevlar mesh, torn through much easier than the hard, battle ready armor the mercenary had been wearing. Then she fell to her knees, feeling shaky and cold.

Junior let out a cry, grabbing Dylan’s shoulder and arm as she began to slump.

“You shot at my kid you son of a bitch!” Tucker roared just before there was a distinct, whisking sound of energy. It was odd enough to draw Dylan’s fuzzing attention toward it and she saw Tucker brandish the plasma sword she’d written about before in her articles.

“No! You idiot, don’t!” Siris roared from the hall.

But it was too late, Tucker stabbed his sword directly through the unsuspecting Hargrove, impaling him against the alien artifact behind him.

Then, just as surely as the life was draining from both Dylan and her shooter, the room began to rumble as a foreign, unnatural glow began to leak out through the inscribed words and lines of the artifact and into the room as a whole.

“It’s done,” Hargrove gasped with his last breaths. “You’ve…unlocked it…”

The man left Tucker standing in a room of injured, dead, and dying, and Dylan with so many questions — the kinds a journalist who hadn’t gotten too involved in her own story would have had time to ask.

Chapter Text

Washington had been searching for that very moment — the one where the Reds and Blues were found, were safe, were… well, they were never quite sound — but Washington had been searching for so long for his family to be saved. And in those blurry, amazing moments as they removed the helmets from each of them and watched the life return to their movements and saw the light return to their eyes, it was all worth it.

Every last moment of it was worth it. The worry and the confusion and the painful surprises along the way.

It was worth it for the moment that Caboose lifted him off his feet in a tremendous hug that would have squeezed the life out of a lesser man, no doubt.

“Agent Washington!” Caboose yelled at the top of his lungs despite all the other simulation troopers flinching in unison at the headache that was hitting them. “I knew we’d see you again! I knew it! You never leave for long and I told everyone that you would be back! Tucker did, too.”

“Caboose, you have no idea how glad I am to be nearly crushed by you,” Washington said as truthfully as he had ever said anything before in his life.

The giant Blue looked up at him with a crinkle in his eyes as his smile only broadened. “Aw, Agent Washington, that’s just the nicest thing anyone could ever say. Except Church. Church can say some nice things sometimes. In between the shouting.”

Up close and personal with Caboose, Wash could see there was a hollowness to his cheeks and some dark rings under his eyes. Maybe some emaciation, but definitely a paleness from no exposure to light.

For a moment, Wash allowed his glee to slip from him as he looked around. The others were getting checked over and embraced by the members of the search team. Namely Grey was running between them all with quick evaluations, setting them down. Kai was hanging between Simmons and Grif, her arms slung around their necks as they were all but malleable to her grip. Carolina was asking questions of Donut and Doc as they rested, sitting with their backs against the walls. Sarge wasn’t sitting, but his back was against the wall for balance all the same as Doctor Grey tried to help his thrown out back.

A cold, numbing rage was building within Wash’s stomach. His teeth gnashed and ground back on his molars as the full extent of his family’s inhumane treatment was catching up with him.

“You can let me down, Caboose,” Wash said gently.

“Whoo, okay. Thanks, Agent Washington,” Caboose said, doing that and stumbling a bit in the process. “You were spinning with the room too much.”

“I was’t spinning, Caboose,” Wash assured him before gently guiding him to sit. “You all are weak right now. Don’t worry. We’ll get you back to Chorus and take care of you. I promise.”

“That sounds great,” Caboose sighed fondly. “But we’ve gotta find Church first.”

As usual, Caboose was loud enough to be on stereo, but his words that time caught Carolina’s attention. She left Doc and Donut to walk in their direction. “Caboose, did you say Church is still alive?” she demanded.

“Yes. Well, no, not yet,” Caboose answered. “He died. But that just means we have to go find him so he can come back again. And be my friend forever again. Like every other time.”

Wash pressed his lips to a thin line, taking in the news without betraying any emotion that could upset Caboose. But he could sense that just over his shoulder, Carolina was far from portraying the same. There was still a lot that needed to be done, but one thing that Washington was prioritizing above everything else was the wellness of his family. All of them.

He turned and looked toward Carolina as she stepped back away from the two of them, looking away with her fists shaking at her sides. “Carolina, there’s a lot going on. We don’t know for sure what’s happened yet,” he tried to remind her. “We have to take care of things here first. Right?”

“I…” she said before taking a heralding breath and looking away from them both. “I need a minute.”

“Carolina…” Wash tried to press, beginning to get back on his feet.

“I said I needed a minute, Wash! I can take at least a goddamn minute!” she snapped back angrily.

And then, because their lives were endless in their need to complicate everything, the echoes of gunshots could be heard down the hallway where Hargrove had taken Tucker and Junior.

“Oh god no!” Washington uttered, jumping to his feet at the same time that the rest of the search team also did.

“I’ll get there the fastest. Wash, lead Grey after me. Li’l Grif, stay here with the Reds and Blues and make sure they don’t do something idiotic,” Carolina ordered before zipping off.

“What— that’s impossible! It’s a job for a cop!” Kaikaina screamed after Carolina. She then looked to Wash. “Trade me.”

“No,” Washington answered before reloading his rifle and looking to Grey. “Are you ready?”

“Very,” Grey assured him, gripping her first aid administer.

They ran side by side down the hall. It was long and without the sound of further gunfire, it left the air to be filled with their own panting. Washington knew he should have been asking about what Grey’s professional opinion was on the Reds and Blues’ conditions. He knew that this was the opportunity for Grey to explain to him what else they could do or what damage could be undone after their family’s neural implants had been so ludicrously been invaded and abused.

Those were all things that perhaps a stronger man would have been able to concentrate on but instead there was only one thought in Wash’s head.

Who else had to die before this would all be over?

“Agent Washington, are you alright?” Doctor Grey asked as she ran alongside him.

“Ask me in about fifteen minutes,” Washington replied without so much as processing her words. His full attention was on moving forward no matter the pounding anxieties in his head.

“I only ask because I cannot help but notice that you’re shaking,” Doctor Grey answered.

Glancing down to his hand, Washington saw that she was right. Damn it. But he didn’t stop. His eyes went back to the long hall before them and he kept running.

“It could be low blood sugar, we didn’t have a meal right before landing on this frigid planet, and the amount of energy we’ve expended in the cold can’t be understated,” Grey rattled off. “I only mentioned it at all because of concerns for what it would do for your aim if there’s a gunfight once we reach the end of this tunnel.”

“Emily, all due respect, one thing at a time,” Washington said shortly just as he saw a flash of light from the end of the hall that was enough to make both him and Grey stop in their tracks. He initially held up his hand to block the light, but once it died down to a soft, blue glow, his heart only beat faster. There was a body lying in the chamber door. “God no— wait.” He squinted. “Isn’t that the…douchebag from earlier?”

“Oh how curious, his vitals are still not critical, though not great,” Grey announced with some surprise as she looked down at her medical scanner.

“Wash! Grey! In here! We have a bleeder! A bad one!” Carolina barked.

Without another moment’s hesitation, Wash and Grey both ran past the coughing mess of a mercenary on the floor and reached the chamber at long last. It was completely alive — ancient technology sputtering with power, lights activated everywhere, and most importantly of all, Tucker and Junior standing up and seemingly uninjured.

Washington wanted nothing more than to sigh with relief but the opportunity was stolen from him when he noticed in the near corner that Carolina was on the floor with Andrews, clasping both her hands on a wound to the reporter’s abdomen. Her gauntlets were already red stained.

“Keep the pressure, Carolina, you’re doing well,” Grey said, leaping into action and getting to Andrews’ other side as she expertly began pulling out supplies and scanning the injury. “Oh, Miss Andrews, there are several other ways to get a doctor’s attention, you must realize by now.”

For a moment, Wash considered offering assistance but his instincts were holding true. His real attention was back on Tucker and Junior, and almost immediately he realized that Tucker wasn’t moving.

He stood with his sword arm outstretched, still holding to the plasma sword that was impaling a long dead Hargrove, and the source of the temple’s current power surge.

Junior was cooing something unintelligible toward his father, nearing him apprehensively.

Tucker’s shoulders began to heave with his breaths, the arm at his side trembling.

Slowly, Wash approached Tucker, too. “Tucker,” he called out warily. “It’s me. It’s Washington. Are you alright?”

“No,” Tucker answered without hesitation. “No, I’m not all right. I’m not alright. This fuck took a year from me. He took a year from all of us! He took—“

The sim trooper didn’t finish his words. He didn’t have to for Washington to know exactly what he meant. He didn’t need to explain the outrage and defilement someone felt when someone played with their brain like it was something expendable.

Washington knew. He knew what they were all about to go through.

The only thing he could really offer was what Junior had already beat him to. A solid hug, a guiding hand that let Tucker sheath his sword and drop the arm the held it. He was weak and hollow like the others, head shaved, face haggard.

It was enough to make Wash wish he could have been the one to kill Hargrove instead. And then give everyone else their turn.

But since he couldn’t bring that to reality, he settled on hugging his shellshocked friend as Junior did much the same. He let Tucker lean on him just like he had once leaned on the Blues for everything he had worth fighting for anymore.

“You’ve gotten yourself into quite the situation, Miss Andrews,” Doctor Grey said, dropping to her knees by Carolina’s side as the Freelancer maintained pressure over the bubbling wound. “One would think you were looking for this, the way you ran off without any of us to back you up.”

“I’m just… here to tell… the story,” Andrews gritted out, looking in Grey’s direction weakly. “Guess I… got involved. Risk of… field reporting.”

“There’s no risk,” Emily assured her. “You’re with the greatest medical mind outside of UNSC sanctioned space.”

“Whoo,” Andrews coughed back with some attempt at fanfare.

Seeing the clear pain the reporter was in, Emily adjusted her scanner to a sedative stunning setting and then cleared back some of the kevlar already torn by the bullet wound in order to expose skin and allow her to administer.

“I brought her into this, Emily, I refuse to have anyone else die fighting my battles for me,” Carolina said sharply. “Tell me what to do.”

“I am about to administer a coagulant as soon as I get a clear scan and am sure that it was a through-and-through. If the bullet is still inside then I don’t want to run the risk of a clot surrounding it, dislodging, and stopping her heart,” Grey answered. “Once I give you the clear, you need to lift her and use your speed boost to get her onto the ship. Then come back to get me. Her best chance of surviving is going to involve getting her our of this weather and us on a way to Chorus where I can call ahead for them to prep the surgery room.”

“Who is this chick anyway!?” Tucker’s voice carried from across the room. He was slowly following behind Washington and Junior who were more hurriedly coming to check on their traveling companion. “I mean. I want her to be okay, whoever she is. She came to save Junior. From… from me.”

Junior turned his head to look over his shoulder and let out a gentle cooing, as if trying to comfort his father’s frayed conscience, but Grey had to keep herself focused. She had a patient trying to die on her. A patient who had proven to be a friend.

That was unacceptable.

“Dylan Andrews, a reporter. She helped us on the way to finding all of you,” Carolina answered. “She’s good people.”

“What can the rest of us do, Doctor Grey?” Washington asked seriously.

“Contact Kaikaina and get her, and all the others, loaded and ready to go. Time is of the essence,” Grey assured them.

“You’re already out of time,” a gravelly voice said from the hall entrance, followed by a series of coughs.

Grey’s eyes snapped toward the body they had passed on the way — the mercenary. She didn’t know anything about him, but what interactions she had had and the familiarity she had gotten from Locus and Felix had already decided her judgment for her. Scum.

“What the fuck does someone have to do to kill these assholes?” Tucker all but moaned.

“Siris,” Carolina spit out in the man’s direction.

Quite frankly to Grey’s amazement, the man was able to push himself onto his elbows, even bleeding as much as he was. “You did kill someone. That’s your problem,” he grunted, nodding to the lump of hatable human that was Malcolm Hargrove across the room. “You killed the most powerful man in the UNSC and in the industrial underworld. An honest-to-god robber baron and war hawk profiteer. A real son of a bitch, but someone who everyone from all those corners — all those powerful people — are going to be interested in killing first for revenge and asking questions later. Especially with UNSC and Charon forces on the way.”

“On the way?” Washington snapped, stepping toward him. “Why would that be?”

“Because I was shot first,” Siris coughed again, putting his hand down to his utility pockets and producing, to everyone’s surprise, a badge. “I’m a special investigator for the UNSC. I was deep under cover. Investigating Hargrove. When he had me shot I sent out a signal. Regulation for Charon is to get here ahead of the UNSC and carpet bomb active alien sites and worry about claiming casualties after. And the UNSC might not be much different. Not wanting a place like this to fall into alien hands.”

Almost in unison, Tucker and Junior let out a disgusted snarl at the comment.

“What is this place?” Washington asked.

“This temple… it has the power to transport people to any other temple site in the universe,” Siris explained. “Instantaneous warfare for over half of the UNSC colonies and then some. If the UNSC can’t have it, then they definitely don’t want Forerunner worshippers to get a hand on it and try another glassing spree on humankind.”

“This whole building’s a transporter?” Carolina asked before turning back to Grey. “You said the quicker we get Dylan to Chorus the better, right? We had camps on plenty of alien temples there. This is a perfect setup. You just have to figure out how to get us to one we know will have people stationed.”

“Because I’m the only one who reads Sangheilli?” Grey asked even though she very well knew the answer. “Honestly, some of you should at least take a community college course on it. It’s not like it’s more difficult than Spanish.”

“Fuck, Doctor Grey, have you met us? None of us would learn Spanish for the past fifteen years for Lopez!” Tucker cried out.

“If we transport everyone in this temple, that means we’re taking this Siris, too,” Washington pointed out warily, looking in Siris’ direction. “And I can’t say I completely buy the undercover special agent bit. Especially when he left us all to die.”

“I didn’t say I was a good guy. I just said I was doing everything legally,” Siris responded. “I tried to stop him from killing the kid. I’m at least as worthy of being saved as your reporter friend. And my side of the story will carry a lot more weight to it with the UNSC than a tabloid reporter.”

Carolina turned from her duties in order to stand at full height over Siris, fury shaking through her body. “Insult any of my team again, and you won’t have to worry about telling your story because I will personally put my foot through your jaw. And that’s only if you’re actually undercover and worth keeping around. I can’t even put into words what I’ll do to you if you’re lying and of no use to us. There’s a minor in the room.”

Washington looked at Carolina for a silent few seconds, as did everyone else. Then he looked away a bit sickened. “Jesus. She means it.”

“Of course I do. When have you ever heard me joke?” Carolina demanded.

For a moment, Siris seemed to lose his cool demeanor, leaning further back and away from Carolina’s imposing stature.

But Emily Grey’s mind was already working at a mile a minute. “Carolina, get back down here and stabilize Dylan. We don’t know how this will work and it is important that she not suffer any physical damage. If this is anything like the transportation cubes it could get bumpy.” She got to her feet and raced to the console-like device that was lit up on the far wall of the room. “Tucker, I may need your sword—“

Bow chicka honk honk!”

“Junior! Timing is off,” Tucker complained before pulling his son into a hug. “God, I fucking missed you.”

Carolina got to her knees again, pulling Dylan’s limp body into her lap as Tucker and Junior came to Emily side.

For her part, Emily held her fingers to her temples and focused as hard as she could.

“Um. What are you doing?” Washington asked worriedly.

“I remember the exact sector that is the coordinate pattern for Chorus so now I’m attempting to remember what the latitudes and longitudes of the alley base’s temple is so that I can accurately transport us there and not make us all splatter somewhere in the depths of space,” she answered.

“You’re joking,” Washington said, baffled. “You can do that?”

“I’m the smartest human mind I have ever come across, and I’ve dissected more than a few,” Grey replied before opening her eyes and then looking to the lit up console. “I have it. Now… translated into Sanghelli that would be…” She deftly used her fingers to touch the glowing alien script on the console, then to the next, the colors changing as she did so. Confident as she read over the script again she looked at Tucker. “Now! Put your sword in the hole and take us home!”

“That’s what she said!” Tucker said, unleashing his plasma sword and thrusting it into the same hole not he side of the wall that Emily had directed him toward.

The lights of the script that Emily had touched changed back to the blinding white that the rest of the temple was covered in, but it grew only brighter.

Tucker had done his job, and they were one tingling, discombobulated, partially conscious journey away from discovering whether or not Grey had managed hers.

Chapter Text

No one could carry a ridiculous number of floral arrangements and Get Well balloons by splitting a hospital’s hallways like the Red Sea unless they were Private Kaikaina Grif.

That was some biblical shit she was closing on her way to her first but far from last stop on her morning trip. And she really didn’t have any intention of stopping before that first destination, but fuck if she was lucky enough to be stopped by any voice calling her name.

In that case the voice belonged to Doctor Grey and not the security guards who got all pissy when she used frisky as a well placed pun and a valid threat to report directly to the Presigeneral.

And despite herself, Kai still felt some kind of way for everyone who helped her find her brother. Even Grey.

“Private Grif! I am so glad you came in this morning!” Grey said gleefully as she caught up with Kai. She slowed as she grew near. “And… oh my! I can… Well, you certainly have a colorful arrangement here.”

Pursing her lips in a pout, Kaikaina squinted at Grey. “Dude. Are you insulting someone who’s colorblind?” she demanded with a huff.

Grey seemed genuinely surprised by Kai’s defensiveness. “Oh… Why no! Of course not,” she answered quickly. After a thoughtful pause, however, Grey raised an eyebrow to Kai. “But surely colorblindness would not explain why one of those balloons has Happy Birthday and another Congratulations.

“Dude, do you know how hard it is to get the same thing over ten times! Every time I started to walk out of the store I remembered there was another Red or Blue I hadn’t gotten things for,” Kaikaina huffed. “I don’t see you getting floral arrangements!”

“You’re right, I have been rather busy… saving their lives and keeping them healthy by overseeing my hospital staff,” Grey answered in a voice that was almost saccharine.

“Dude, Doctor Grey Medicine Woman, you’re gettin’ saucy on me. I kinda like it,” Kai joked before reshuffling the arrangements. “Ugh. Sorry. I’ve got, like, a lot of shit to hand out, and I don’t know if you noticed yet, but these assholes are so whiny about not getting attention every second. I bet you Caboose and Tucker are going to bitch about how I betrayed Blue Team by visiting my brother first and all that shit. And then messing with the gross old man? There’s so much bad blood there. And I don’t mean like the screechy blondie’s kind of bad blood. I mean the real kind of bad blood. Like in high school. Where we’d cut holes in our nails to scalp each other during lunchroom fights.”

“Yes, you’ve illustrated with that example before,” Grey assured her. “I found it just as concerning when you last mentioned it as I find it now.”

“Okay, cool. I’ll spare you the details of what I did to this fucker Amber in the ninth grade then, later,” Kai quipped rather abruptly, turning to make her way down the halls.

Again, however, she was stalled, as Doctor Grey grabbed a hold of her shoulder and forced Kai to look at her. Kaikaina did so, but only with the world’s most undeniable groan of contempt.

“You do have a lot of things, Private Grif… Kaikaina. Please, let me help you,” Grey requested. “I would like to visit my friends as… well, their friend and not their physician, too. Especially when things got so close and… well, could have turned out so much worse.”

Nose curling a bit, Kai puffed out her lip. “Yeah. Ya mighta actually, y’know, given them up and betrayed them behind their backs and all that shit. Hate for you to have to go through with that little plan of yours and the Presigeneral’s.”

A tired look came to Grey’s eyes almost immediately, but somehow her smile maintained. If anything, it seemed even more honest. A bit more pained. “You’re right. That would have been among the worst outcomes that could have happened. It was one I dreaded more… well, sometimes I dreaded it even more than perhaps being too late to save any of them.”

“Dude, having some bullshit guilt woulda been worse to you than my brother dying? For fucking real?” Kai scoffed. “For the record, I thought about it since our little ship talk. And yeah. I was totally there to save Dex… but I was also there because I knew it was more than Dex. Could you imagine what it’d be like for us to lose anyone? Could you imagine what it’d be like for the ones we saved when they learned that we couldn’t save the others? Saving Dex was the start for me. But it wasn’t ever gonna be enough. Not for me. And I kinda was hoping at the end of the day it wouldn’t be enough for anybody else, too.” She couldn’t help but let her annoyed, angered expression fold into the real disappointment and betrayal she was feeling instead. “Guess I was hoping a li’l too hard that we were all a bit more Re and Blue than we ended up being. Fucking story of my life.”

“Kaikaina, it’s just as I said to you before. There’s no defense for the indefensible. And I won’t waste either of our time by even so much as trying to do so,” Grey assured her. “And my guilt would have not been enough to amend for actions I was fully willing to take for the good of my planet. But those types of sacrifices are simply the ones we all have to be willing to make. Personally. Which… Well, which is why the part of the plan I didn’t confide with you on was what would happen once Chorus disavowed its relationship with the Reds and Blues,” she continued.

Raising an eyebrow, Kai looked the doctor over. “What’d’ya mean?”

“I mean, I didn’t tell you that… I was never going to stop being with the search team. I was never going to personally turn on the Reds and Blues. That was the backup plan for Kimball and Chorus,” Grey explained. “I was staying with you — all of you. And consider myself, well, one of the Reds and Blues. It meant I was forfeiting my ability to come home to Chorus for any foreseeable future but, darn it, it was worth it. And hopefully if I stood by you all long enough and paid my penance by making it up to you all as the best friend and doctor I could be, then I could redeem such a decision. Either way. I was going to stay with the only people who had ever truly made me, someone who has always been quite the outcast, feel like I had somewhere to belong.”

Despite herself, Kaikaina looked at the doctor with some amazement. “Wow, Doc. That’s almost kinda cool. Except. You can’t be a Red and Blue you have to be a Red or a Blue. It’s how it works. We have, like, different bases and everything.”

“I couldn’t be a neutral medical officer?” Grey teased.

“I guess, but the last one turned out to be kind of a perv and also, like, the main bad dude for a little while? So it’s got some baggage,” she admitted. “But, considering the circumstances, I guess you could play the part if you want.”

Some light returned to Grey’s eyes at the passing approval. “Thank you, Kaikaina.”

“Yeah, dude, whatever, you said you were gonna help me hand out these stupid plants and balloons, right?” she asked, already pouring half of them over into Grey’s arms.

“Oh! Well, yes — I, uh. Yes. I’ll carry all of these,” Grey responded, rather flustered.

“Sweet,” Kai snickered. “By the way, Doc, I was just giving you a hard time. You’ve been off the rap since you saved the reporter lady. To be honest, I just like watching you sweat. No one else worries about my opinion so much. Maybe Wash. But that’s just ‘cuz of my ability to sniff out a sting before the undercover cop gets his johnnies satisfied. I call it the Grif Tease. You can see it sometimes when my brother’s making bedroom eyes with Lanky Shortstop Dude.”

“Agent Washington isn’t actually a police officer,” Grey attempted to correct her.

“Dude’s totes a cop. You see how much he wants to cop a feel, heyoooo, no really though, I have him wrapped around my finger and he doesn’t even know it yet,” Kai snorted. “It’s awesome.”

“If you say so,” Grey hummed in response just as they reached the first stop.

“BIG BRO!” Kai screamed out happily the moment they were through the door.

Being Space Jesus didn’t get Junior as much mileage with humans as it had with his own species, but a few growls and snaps of his jowls had been more than enough to make sure the staff didn’t impede on his self-declared right to stay by his father’s side in the hospital room.

For his part, Junior’s father had been uncharacteristically quiet, even when the attractive nurse had earned a Bow Chicka Honk Honk from Junior, his father had missed out. And in that way, it was the first time since they saved his father that Junior was genuinely concerned that things were not okay.

Sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chair at his father’s bedside, chins laying against the bedsheets while he looked up woefully toward his father’s distant gaze, Junior began to think about all that they had seen before. He thought about the horrors of prison world, the visceral reaction which Washington had had at the notion that Junior’s father and the rest of his family were being made subject to some kind of sick modifications.

All of it seemed to add up to a darkness and hurt that Junior was not old or experienced enough to understand yet for himself. He was, after all, a fifth grader, and outside of knowing that his father was hurting, he felt completely useless to do anything really about it.

His dad was exhausted — all of the Reds and Blues were — on IVs and getting extra rations spread out through the day to regain muscle mass and lots of bedrest and sleep to make up for what their brains had missed while they were with Hargrove. But there was something sadder to Junior’s father’s silence. A stewing anger that reminded Junior of the burst of aggression he had shown right before killing Hargrove and saving both Junior and Miss Andrews.

Really, it made Junior’s dad the hero he always knew his dad to be.

But in another sense, it seemed to be causing the kind of frightening deep reflection on himself that Junior was unaccustomed to seeing.

And it only became more apparent when the door opened to President Kimball herself, a security detail by her side.

“Oh!!! Captain Tucker! Captain Tucker! I’m glad you’re awake!” the one Junior was beginning to recognize as Palomo called out gleefully. Which was something he did rather frequently when coming around them, Junior learned.

Finally, an expression other than brooding crossed his father’s face and he looked to Kimball almost pleadingly. “Palomo? Really?”

“You trained a good soldier,” Kimball responded before waving to the guards behind her. “Lieutenants, please stay outside and guard the door, I need to get counsel from my friend.”

With a bit of fluster, the guards did so, and Kimball approached Tucker’s bed.

“My, they really meant it when they said you wouldn’t leave your father’s side,” Kimball said, looking Junior’s way as he raised his head. “That sort of loyalty is a fine feature, young man. I hope you maintain it for all your years. It is a very, very valued trait.”

Junior clicked his mandibles together and sat back in his chair, but made it clear he was not leaving.

“Hey, don’t be rude,” his father said, sounding the closest to normal that he had since they arrived on Chorus. It was enough to warm Junior’s cold blooded heart. Then his father looked seriously toward Kimball. “How’s everyone doing?”

“Feeling more like themselves as far as I can tell,” Kimball assured him. “Fortunately none of you were in critical conditions save for the reporter. It’s strange. Your bodies seemed to be suffering from exposure rather than anything else. Agent Washington seems to believe that it comes from something else controlling a nervous system and interrupting the direct line of control from your consciousness to your own muscles. In fact, he seemed rather insistent on that being the cause.”

“Sounds like whatever was happening to the Meta,” Tucker Senior huffed. “Y’know, except none of us are gorilla body builders. So it sucked more.” He trailed off before glancing back to Kimball. “Where is Wash, anyway? Still visiting Caboose? He usually is bothering me again by now.”

“I believe he is actually getting lunch with Agent Carolina,” Kimball answered. “There… are many things we all need to be discussing. Serious matters.”

“Almost dying felt pretty serious at the time,” his father joked flatly.

Not happy with that brand of humor, Junior turned his head toward his father and clicked his jaws angrily at him, bearing his teeth in frustration. He would gladly travel the whole universe on their little ship again to find his father and family again, but he wasn’t so keen on reliving the moments where everyone was getting shot and stabbed. That seemed unnecessary.

“Calm down,” his father attempted to soothe. When Junior slumped down in the chair, his father gave his full attention to Kimball again. “So that reporter lady is going to be okay?”

“More than that, she’s going against resting orders and trying to write an entire exposé on all of you, on Chorus, and on Chairman Hargrove. In all honesty, her intensity is… concerning on some levels. I’ve rarely had someone so adamant on interrogating me from a hospital bed. Not since you and I first met, in any case.”

“Sounds like someone I’d like,” Tucker admitted.

Kimball let out a sigh and crossed her arms. “It’s the other additional patient and the complications he adds to all of this mess that has me truly concerned. Even if he is who he says he is and can provide us with the connections to the UNSC that he claims that he can,” she explained.

“The mercenary?” Tucker asked. “I don’t trust him. Or like him. Or hate him. Honestly I’m fuzzy on him, but Wash and Carolina said he knew Felix so… Piece of shit in my book.”

“But if he truly is an undercover agent for the UNSC and he can straighten things out for Chorus and for all of you, it would be to our advantage to keep him alive… for now,” Kimball admitted.

“And if he’s lying?” Tucker raised his eyebrow.

“Then you will be the most wanted man in space,” Kimball declared. “You did murder the most powerful man in the UNSC and the arms trade underworld with a weapon that only you can wield.”

“Blargh,” Junior chastised his father.

“Well, fucking great,” his father groaned, sinking back against his pillow. “Do we have good news?”

“You have a friend in Chorus no matter the outcome, I am willing to give all of you asylum here,” she assured him. “Of course, such a brave stance to make is much easier when you’re contacted by friends in high places.” She finally turned her gaze on Junior, much to his surprise. “Which is where you come in my young friend.”

Junior blinked and pointed at his chest. “Blargh?”

“If Santa properly translated the message we received through all of the newly opened tower portals on Chorus… then yes, little one. Chorus’ new alliance with Sangheilios is all in thanks to you and your people’s decision to stand by their religion and their chosen one. It is the first of hopefully many independent bodies who would be willing to put their support behind Chorus against the UNSC’s overreach.”

To that, Junior could only blink again, still pointing at his chest. “Blargh?”

“Yes, you,” his father laughed affectionately, reaching forward and rubbing Junior’s head with his hand. “Of course my kid’s special enough that entire planets would fight for him. That’s just the logical thing for planets to do!” His smile became a little wobbly for a moment. “Next to lewd comments, fighting for son’s the only thing I can do that’s strong enough to get me out of a trance.”

Junior’s eyes grew blurry with tears and he cooed lovingly despite his father’s depreciating comments. Then he lunged forward to hug his dad as tight as he could.

Kimball kept a respectable distance, but she laid a gentle hand on Tucker Senior’s shoulder, as if to prove her solidarity.

“All of you, the Reds and Blues, are easily the strongest men and women I know,” Kimball assured him softly.

Junior didn’t need to hear that from Kimball to know it, but he was glad she said it for his dad to hear all the same. There was a lot behind his brooding and silence that Junior was afraid had only just begun.

Chapter Text

She wasn’t expecting company. At least, that was what she told herself as she sat on the ledge, staring at the small projection before her. With her helmet on her lap, the AI’s form was lower than his usual eye level, but it felt, somehow, more personable that way. She could almost drown out the words that Epsilon was saying and pretend that it was in real time. Not frozen forever in a message she had purposefully neglected to open for so long.

Carolina told herself she hadn’t been expecting company, because she almost never allowed her emotions to be worn so clearly on her sleeves. She almost never let the stray tears fall from her cheeks without recourse.

Truthfully, she had desperately wanted to be found before she got to that point. But she hadn’t, so she let the tears and emotions come as she finally listened to the brother she hardly knew’s words.

His last words. For her.

“Closure kinda sucks, because that means things are over. And, well, if you’re anything like me — and we both know, you kinda are — you’re really really bad at admitting when things are actually over, Cee. Over — closure — it’s like the end of a whole world. I should know. I spent a few months inside my own brain ending a few of them. Long story. I probably told you at least twice about it, probably on a long night where neither of us could go to sleep. Let’s just say, a memory file degrades just like a memory memory over time.

“And… I didn’t want to admit it. That it was over. That we would eventually be over. But sometimes life sucking fucks, and you don’t get to make those calls before it’s too late. And I’m… still a memory. Good or bad one, I don’t know. I don’t know how you tell which kind of memory you are. I just know that I was happy to be a memory with you, with the Reds and Blues and Wash and… Well, especially you. My time was kind of short. But, hell, aren’t all memories?

“I just knew… I had to have an ending sooner rather than later, whether I wanted it or not, so I tried… I tried to make it count. I hope it did. No. I know it did. I have faith that it did. That’s the reason I’m making these final files. Sending them out. Having faith that you’ll have another day where you can see it for yourself. Final sacrifice and what not. Heh. Who would have guessed it from a selfish prick like me?

“I guess… I guess at the end of the day, maybe you did. I know it sucks. I know it’s going to hurt. And I hate it because, well, we know each other, Cee. You’re…. you’ve inherited the stubbornness that makes an ending hurt for a good, long while. I’m sorry about that.

“You don’t like goodbyes. You don’t like endings. But I was there, I saw when you sought one out for you and York. I know it hurt when you realized you didn’t have it. Not really. So I’m giving you one. I’m giving you an ending to this. Us… If there’s some kind of digital heaven… or, well, realistically a digital Hell, I know I’ll miss you. But giving you an ending means something beautiful, something I didn’t learn for so long. Ending one chapter can take you to the next one. And, Sis, you deserve a new chapter. You’re a hero. You saved a planet. If that doesn’t get some red off your ledger, fuck the ledger.

“I love you. But, I bet you already knew that. You, and the others, are the greatest family someone could ever have. And I’m honored to always be in your memories.”

Squeezing her eyes shut, Carolina pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a long, breathy exhale she had been keeping in her lungs. She was still making no effort to hide her tears, even when she new that her wish had finally, belatedly, been answered and someone was standing on the roof behind her.

Washington was hesitant, or perhaps just respectfully distant, before he slowly came around to her side. He lowered himself to sit beside Carolina and remained somber and silent for the majority of it all.

Carolina continued to sob, because the words were the most true things she had ever heard. She didn’t want things to be over. She had spent the better part of a year searching for anything but the ending or closure to their journey. She was waiting, anxiously, to lead everyone around her right back into the loops they all had been stuck in for years.

Epsilon over her shoulder, guiding the way.

Which meant there was no reason for her to listen to his last message to her. Because it wouldn’t have been.

But the search was done, the living had been found, and what was left for Carolina was an ending she hadn’t asked for, hadn’t wanted.

And very few proper people to punch left for her.

“I thought it wasn’t over… I thought… To me, it wasn’t over. It wasn’t for the longest time, and that… that was what I wanted,” Carolina admitted to Washington without prompting. “Is this how…. This shouldn’t be how it feels. The end. I’d rather not feel it at all.”

Wash quietly wrapped one arm around Carolina’s shoulders and held her close as she continued her babbling. There weren’t any comments, but then again, after nearly a year of him trying to warn her of what finding answers might mean, maybe he just didn’t have any left to share.

Carolina leaned into the half hug and inhaled sharply again, not yet over the weirdness of having her emotions so naked and revealing to anyone around her.

But, she supposed, if it was around anyone, she was glad it was with Wash. Even if that was selfish, even if she knew, deep down, that the relationship he shared with Epsilon was far more nuanced and dark and hurtful than her own.

He still didn’t say anything on it. At least not in that way.

Instead, Washington waited until the worst of Carolina’s tears were dried, just rubbing and squeezing her shoulder from time to time.

“I’m such an idiot,” Carolina growled at herself, unable to even look in Wash’s direction. “We… we saved them. We found them and saved… all of them. And I know more than anything else, that’s exactly what Epsilon would have wanted me to do. He practically told me to start a new chapter without him. But I… I still the whole time was thinking of finding him, too. I didn’t think that if we lost anyone… that if we lost anyone it would be him… God. I’m such an idiot. I’m such—“

“Missing people you love, no matter how long it feels like it’s been… it’s not something that makes you bad, let alone an idiot,” Washington assured her. “And it’s not like we knew for a year that we would find everyone but Epsilon. We…. well, we didn’t know who we’d find.”

“You knew,” Carolina reminded him darkly. “You tried to warn me—“

“I did’t know, Carolina. No one could have known,” Washington corrected her. “I wanted you to be… I don’t know. Ready for the possibility. I… I wanted us all to be ready — as much as any of us could have been — for learning the absolute worst. Because I knew I wasn’t going to be.”

Carolina looked at her oldest friend and watched the exhaustion in his eyes. It was like looking into a mirror.

“Thank you… for being the person we all needed at some time or another,” she thanked him softly.

“I try,” Wash half joked. “Though… Well, I wasn’t as close to Epsilon as the rest of you. So… I know I can’t really be the person you all need right now… But the one thing I can say for sure is that… you’re not the only one missing him. And, when you’re ready, I bet you’re not going to be the only one who needs to talk about it before completely starting a new chapter.”

Carolina nodded quietly. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I should…” she stopped for a moment and looked back at him. “Do you really think it’s time for the new chapter? For a whole new story? I mean. We’re still outlaws. Chorus is still in rebellion against the UNSC. We still… y’know. Had a hand in the death of the Chairman.”

“It’s something to worry about later,” Washington assured her. “Right now? We worry about what matters — each other.”

“You know you’re my best friend, right?” Carolina asked.

“Emotional break through. I recorded it. You’ll never be able to take it back now,” Wash joked.

“I already take it back, that was a mistake, you’re just my subordinate,” Carolina teased back.

“Nope, I told you, no take backs,” Wash said before turning the side hug into a more proper embrace. “Thank you for being our pillar. We found everyone alive because of you and your perseverance.”

“Thank you for being my second in command. I didn’t strangle anyone on the team because of your intervention,” Carolina said back. “But you’re right. I do need to get down there and…. be there for the others. At least to talk.”

“Your forte,” Wash said seeping with sarcasm.

“Hey now,” Carolina warned. “I’ve not had as many chapters as you yet. Give me time to learn how to spend my time standing around talking and doing nothing. It takes practice.”

“Yeah it does,” Wash laughed, getting to his feet and offering Carolina a hand.

She took it and pulled herself up.

It hurt, the idea of closing on a hope, a dream. But her family — Epsilon, Wash, everyone — were right.

It was time to keep moving.

“And that concludes my report, Missus President.”

Dylan looked up from her laptop screen, ignoring the hum of the machines around her bed keeping her stable. Or the fact that they were living in the damn future in space and she still had to deal with the ridiculousness of patient gowns not really having a back of any sort.

Surely someone had had the time to develop some breakthrough in medical wardrobe.

But that was a report for another day.

At the foot of her bed was the large and imposing president of the Independent Planet of Chorus, former General Vanessa Kimball. And, at the moment, highly scrupulous protector of the Reds and Blues by her own account. For the time being, Dylan’s investigative instincts did not compel her to investigate otherwise.

“That’s what you’re thinking of submitting to your paper?” Kimball asked suspiciously. “An exposé with that amount of inflammatory content, particularly toward the UNSC and endangering relations with the Alien Covenant? Your editor won’t want you to lower the blast radius on that gun?”

Somewhat surprised, Dylan Andrews only blinked a few times before shaking her head definitively. “My editor? No, no. I’m afraid you misunderstand the situation. I took off on a long journey without any clearance or supervision, was spotted with and accused of being an accomplice to fugitives, and personally broke into several computer terminals that were probably not, legally speaking, clear for me to mess with. My career through Interstellar Daily is about as thoroughly fucked as it can be. I’m going to be posting this directly to my personal website and contact a few of my fellow reporters who would love to report on me reporting this. Taking the proverbial bullet as you will.”

Kimball was wearing a helmet but Dylan liked to think there an impressed look hiding behind the visor. Then again, pragmatically she knew better than to weave fiction with her reporting.

“You have already taken enough bullets for this story by almost any measure,” Kimball said flatly, head tilted slightly toward Dylan’s side that was still thoroughly bandaged and sore.

Almost instinctively, Dylan tenderly put her hand on her wound. “Well, true as that may be, I don’t believe things worth reporting don’t also come with some great amount of risk,” she replied. “I live for reporting these things. And punishing anything less than the truth would be unethical by my estimates.”

“Hm. With that kind of attitude, I have to wonder how tabloids get started,” Kimball hummed slightly.

“Same way freedom fighters can’t always weed out all of their anarchists,” Dylan answered. When Kimball didn’t immediately answer, the reporter began to squirm some in her bed, making her jerk at the pain of her side. “I was… ah, trying to say you and Chorus are the freedom fighters and the UNSC is wrong to label you as anarchists—“

“You didn’t appear to me to be particularly dull-witted, Miss Andrews. I assumed the best,” Kimball assured her.

“Oh! Well. Good. You should have… I just. Have a real difficult time reading people who are wearing full helmets,” Dylan admitted. “Which is… somewhat ironic considering my company for this excursion.”

“That is exactly why I make excuses for wearing a helmet as much as possible,” Kimball answered. “Now, your story more than has the support and approval of me and my people. I’d say with a quick proofread from either Agent Washington or Agent Carolina you would have the approval of the Reds and Blues as well. Then you could… well, publish it any way you decide to.”

“Great,” Dylan said, fingers tapping on the flat of the laptop, chewing on her lip. “I do need one favor from you if you don’t mind, though. I don’t think this story can really be over until I get it.”

“What’s that?” Kimball asked sternly.

“I need someone to wheel me into Siris’ room for an interview,” Dylan said. “He ties some pieces together I feel like we don’t have yet… and without them I don’t know how much outreach into the UNSC itself we’ll have.”

The request made Kimball visibly apprehensive, but it was an agreeable enough set of terms.

Before Dylan could fully process everything, two of Kimball’s guards were putting her in a wheelchair and pushing her down the hall toward the other recent patient of the ICU. Two other guards were posted at the door and seemed only convinced to move and let them in once they saw the President herself was with them.

“Mister Siris,” Dylan spoke up as they turned the corner into the room. “I have some questions for you about… your part in… all of this…”

It should have felt like more of a surprise to her when they turned the corner and saw the empty bed, bloody sheets dragging from the bed to the open window.

“What!?” Kimball screeched, turning around to face the guards who were rushing in. “Put the city on alert, make sure there is no one flying off the planet! The damn mercenary escaped! I refuse for Chorus to lose a single other life because of goddamn mercenaries!”

In the commotion, Dylan was left in her chair, looking out the window, fingers lightly curled over the keys of her keyboard in her lap.

During the chaos, she began to slowly stroke one key at a time.

The report is not yet over. Just like the dangers we all face. But, we can hope, that wherever we are left at the end of our journey, the truth is found along the way.