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This is What Family Means

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The black and orange car hurtled down the street, whipping around the obstacles littering the battered concrete. A horn blared from behind as the driver following close behind tried and failed to pass, swerving to narrowly avoid an upturned dumpster.

Tapping the brakes, the lead car rounded a sharp corner, fish tailing slightly at the high speed maneuver. As the orange accented vehicle straightened out and tore down the street, more cars appeared, taking on the same corner.

The second place car, painted with a dizzying swirling pattern in yellow and blue, drifted effortlessly around the corner, the rear end swerving out under perfect control to aim the heavily modified vehicle down the street.

Several long moments after the yellow car shot after the first, a third appeared, braking harder and slowing as it took on the dramatic 120 degree turn. Brown and gold, the car was quick to pick up speed once more.

The fourth and final car, white with long aquamarine stripes, cut its speed nearly in half, the driver far less confident than any of the others.

The race continued through the abandoned streets of the small coastal town, the lead cars, orange and yellow, constantly vying for first place while aquamarine struggled to catch up and save face.

As they approached the final bridge and the finish line just after, orange and yellow were nose and nose. First orange would surge ahead, then yellow, back and forth they went, side by side as they ripped down the final stretch.

Shooting over the bridge, both cars caught some air as they rounded the tall hump. Revving the engine, yellow flew forward, sparks flying as it slammed back onto the road, edging out orange as it finally cleared the spray painted finish line with barely two seconds to spare.

The air exploded with the sound of squealing tires and the smell of burning rubber as the cars swung around, slowing to a stop as they spun across the open plaza past the finish line, finally coming to a halt with facing towards the bridge.

Just as the brown and gold car exploded over the bridge and finish line, the door on the yellow car slammed open.

“Bitch, that’s what you get!” Kaikaina crowed. She clambered up the side of her car until she was draped over the roof, smirking and gloating as she stared down at her brother as he stepped out of his own car.

“Go suck a dick,” Grif hollered in reply.

He almost sounded angry but he was grinning, blood still pumping from the race. More feisty than upset, Kai decided. She was glad to see him happy. It was a welcome change from the depression and anguish that had taken over his life after the Reds and Blues had left.

Bitters pulled his car up beside Grif, the maneuver less clean and confident. But that wasn’t too surprising. He hadn’t grown up boosting and racing cars the way the Grif siblings had. As he climbed out of his car, Palomo finally appeared, shooting across the finish line in his white and aquamarine machine.

“Sad, that’s just sad,” Bitters commented as he strolled around his vehicle.

“We’ll work on it,” Grif replied dryly. Shaking his head, he leaned against the side of his car and watched as Palomo pulled around to join them. “What matters is that it looked cool. Matthews,” he yelled, leaning back to look through the blown out window of the building next to them, “tell me it looked cool!”

The youngest of the Chorus natives, Matthews grinned at him through the open window, flashing him a thumbs up. He was sitting behind a bank of monitors, each showing the feed from the different cameras lining the race route and attached to their vehicles.

“It looked awesome!” Matthews shouted back. “I just saved everything. It’ll be easy to put together a promo video from all that!”

“Aw, hell yeah, another crowning event for Griffin Events.” Kai hoisted herself onto the top of her car and threw her hands in the air. “Bitches and bastards, I am pleased to announce the first ever Port Mont Circuit is fucking green-lit!”

“Yay.” Jensen came trotting out of the impromptu command center, waddling slightly in her pregnancy-altered gait. “Please tell me you didn’t destroy your transmission with that jump,” she begged, shoving back the glasses sliding down her nose. “I literally just had my guys fix that this morning.”

“Gotta be flashy if we’re going to make a kick-ass ad,” Kai countered. She slid down the far side of her car and gave the young woman a grin. “I’ve got regulars who attend all my other events that we can count on but we need to attract a blow-out crowd if we’re gonna make this an annual thing. What’s a few transmissions compared to that?”

Grif came up beside her, amusement on his face as he half-listened to Bitters tear into Palomo for his poor showing. Draping an arm around Kai, he gave Jensen a casual shrug. “I’d listen to her, she’s the media mastermind.”

“Damn right, I am,” Kai agreed. Wrapping her arm around him, she grinned up at her brother. “Not a bad way to spend retirement, am I right?”

Grif took a deep breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly through his nose, then nodded slowly. “Yeah, not too bad,” he agreed, squeezing her shoulder tight.

Squeezing him back, Kai pressed on with a smile. “Let’s go mock Palomo while Matthews tears down the tech so we can go home.”

Home for the Grif siblings was an old warehouse in the sparsely populated coastal town of Port Mont on Chorus. With the planet still finalizing its independence from the UNSC, few people had come to resettle a city whose pre-war economy primarily relied on tourism. The Port lay far enough from Armonia and the other surviving big cities that little traffic flowed in and out but it wasn’t so far out that supplies had trouble reaching them.

For Dexter and Kaikaina Grif, it was exactly what they needed as they started to rebuild their lives. The nearby ocean felt like home and the waves were decent enough they could expect to go surfing on a fairly regular schedule. The slow pace of the town, moreover, was giving both of them a much needed break from everything that had unfolded over the last year.

Everything had started coming unraveled for Grif the day the Reds and Blues charged out of the base on yet another mission to save Church. And in that moment, seeing the same bitter cycle starting to repeat itself, something inside him broke. He’d been teetering on the edge of… something… for a while but the reporter and the message she delivered to them from Kimball was the final straw.

And then she’d berated him in the cave when he stepped away to think. How dare she talk to him like she knew him? All she knew were words in a bunch of fucking logs. She hadn’t lived his life. She hadn’t survived all the shit he had. She hadn’t spent half her life chasing after one bullshit mission after another, always risking death and dismemberment for someone else’s problems. For someone who didn’t give a rats ass about him. While hanging around a bunch of assholes who either tried to kill him, sneered and insulted him with every breath, or…

Or didn’t want anything to do with him. Not really.

At first, the silence after everyone had left had been a welcome relief. None of the others had seemed to understand that vacation meant relaxing and not doing anything. But as the days stretched on, seemingly endless and unchanging, the weight of his loneliness and the silence that surrounded him began to sink in, slowly suffocating him with the dull monotony.

Without the constant bickering and half-assed plans being executed all around him, Grif found himself with no distraction with his own thoughts or memories. It wasn’t long before he couldn’t sleep through the night, left tossing and turning in bed or waking up screaming as the nightmares returned in full force. By the end of the week, what was left of Grif’s sleep cycle had completely inverted itself, leaving him nervously prowling the base at night, too wary of the predators that lurked in the dark to risk stepping outside, and collapsing in exhaustion once the sun had come up.

On some level, Grif had thought they would return. Or at least send him a message. Surely Donut would want to gush about something they’d seen or Simmons’s never ending need to nag would have him calling to try and order him around.

But there was nothing.

He’d quit.

Apparently, they’d decided he wasn’t even worth a single fucking message letting him know they were still alive.

Staring at the burned out husks of the bases Kimball had built them, the crashed jeeps from Sarge’s fight with gravity, the empty bottles of Donut’s tanning oil, and all the debris of their not-vacation, Grif felt something inside him die. He’d been cast aside like all the rest of the trash.

He couldn’t even leave. They’d taken both ships.

Somehow, he found the energy to write and send a short message, hoping against hope that it would be picked up.

And then he waited, kicking around Caboose’s coloring supplies and Carolina’s workout equipment. The instruments from Tucker’s dream of starting a band were smashed in an explosion of fury late one night as the dinosaurs snarled and screamed outside.

He was so fucking tired of waiting.

When the ship finally slammed into the ground outside, it was the middle of the day and Grif was having a nightmare. The crash and ground tremor that followed integrated perfectly into his dream, unfolding in his sleeping mind as the arrival of a hellish alien tank grinding relentlessly forward to crush him and the other beleaguered survivors of the ongoing assault. The colony had fallen and the relentless wave of attackers were just mopping up the remnants, chittering and laughing as they carried out their slaughter.

Kaikaina was smarter than she let on, though, smarter than anyone ever realized. Which is how she knew to poke him with a broom instead of trying to shake him awake directly.

The sudden assault sent his heart racing. He screamed, the sound equal parts terror and defiance, and lashed out. His hand found the wooden pole, seized it, unknowingly ripping the straw end right out of his sister’s hands. The broom snapped like a twig as he lurched upright.

His mind flickered awake but everything seemed muddled and confused. Grif stared around him and suddenly he was seeing double -- both the familiar dull walls of the moon base and the war-torn, blood and gore encrusted streets of a long dead colony. Then the yellow of his sister’s armor registered and the world clicked fully into focus.

Kai had her helmet off. He could see her face. She’s alive, he’d known, had prayed--

Lopez was a fucking liar, that-- that-- douchbag asswipe. Evil, hateful prick.

Kai didn’t ask questions or make demands. There were no insults and sneered words when he burst into tears. Armor sucked to cry against but she didn’t hesitate to hold him tight as he sobbed and he can’t bring himself to let go. Instead of all the hateful things he’s gotten used to hearing, Kai hummed and whispered soft words of comfort and love, all things he used to say to her as they huddled together in their small makeshift shelter on the streets of Honolulu or waited out an angry tirade as one of their foster parents berated one of the other kids in the home.

By the time his tears dried up, Kai had managed to peel off her gauntlets and every bit of armor above the waist, giving him something much softer to cling to. When he was finally ready to stop clutching her, when the tremors started to slow and he felt exhausted and emotionally broken, Kai didn’t leave and instead stayed close, holding his hand.

“Want to talk about it?” Her voice was soft and gentle. When he shook his head, she simply accepted it.

“So the UNSC is run by a bunch of assholes,” she declared with a pout. With her free hand, she started undoing the lower half of her armor, talking the entire time. “I had all this shit figured out. Music festival and eco-con for the hippies, film festival for the pretentious douchwads, comic and gaming cons for the geeks and nerds. Fuck, I was in the middle of planning this awesome indie desert art fest thing when the UNSC swoops in and decides I can’t do this shit anymore! I had a fucking empire going, let me tell you. But nooo, suddenly they’re all up in my biz about using military bases and resources. And like, fuck them, they weren’t using them!”

“You were doing all that?” Grif asked in a faint voice. The wall of text that is his sister in full rant mode is comfortingly familiar but the contents are… dramatically different from everything he was used to hearing from her.

“Hells yeah, I was.” Lips pursed, Kai bent over and pulled a datapad out of her armor, flipping it on and pulling up a set of images. Leaning against her shoulder, Grif took in images of raves and parties, then booths and smiling people wearing wristbands and themed shirts, all against the familiar backdrop of Blood Gulch.

“I knocked out the dick who came and started ordering me around, had enough time to get all the merch and records out but bleh.” She stuck her tongue out and dropped the pad so she could make a rude gesture. “I had to put all my employees on hold and send them home. I mean, fuck, I got payroll to meet! Cons to put on! I’m on a fucking schedule! Fucking UNSC. Think they know everything. Taking my venues.” The last sentences were spoken in a lower tone, her voice filled with frustration.

Grif let his head rest against Kai’s for a moment and his eyes wandered over his cluttered bedroom. Finally, he spoke up: “I know a place that's out of the UNSC’s reach. Or, at least, it’s trying to be.”

Pressing closer, Kai let her head rest against his neck, her crown tucked perfectly under his jaw. “Oh yeah? Think they could use some kickass tourist events?”

“Yeah, definitely.” Grif let out a shaky laugh and let go of her hand so he could wrap an arm around her waist. “I’ve got an in with the boss, too. I can put in a good word for you. I’ve got plenty of time on my hands now that I’m retired.”

Returning his embrace, Kai didn’t pursue the obvious opening to ask about the other Reds and Blues, to find out why she’d found him all alone and abandoned, surrounded by the remnants of the others’ lives. Grif was still shaking and there was a tremor in his voice. He looked broken and exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes and no spark at all to him. He wasn’t ready to talk about it, not yet. She’d told the reporter woman he was a big softie inside and it looked like that sensitivity had been thoroughly trashed and abused.

“Will the boss mind if I bring in about a few dozen employees? They’re all a bunch of unmarried kids, so they’re kind of wild.”

Grif laughed and the sound and heaving shoulders went on longer than it normally would have but he also didn’t usually have such a note of hysteria in his voice. “She won’t mind a bit. And trust me, it sounds like your employees will fit right in.”

“Awesome.” Kai gave him a squeeze. “My big bro, always to the rescue.”

He stilled for a moment then turned to wrap both arms around her, holding her tight. “For you, always,” he swore, voice suddenly thick and fierce.

The next day, a few minor repairs had been finished on the ship and Grif moved his few meager belongings on board. The trip from the moon down to the surface of Chorus was swift, even if it did require some fast talking to get around the UNSC ships. But it wasn’t long before Grif was leading her in to talk with the President of Chorus herself.  

Like everyone else she’d seen so far in the capital city, President Vanessa Kimball was wearing a full set of armor, although her helmet sat on her desk. Happily, this meant Kai had an excellent view of her face when they entered the office. She wasn’t the best at reading facial expression but even she could recognize the surprise and genuine happiness Kimball wore as she greeted them, stepping out from behind her desk to shake Grif’s hand, then hers.

“Grif, it’s good to see you,” Kimball said in a warm voice. Instead of moving back behind her desk, she waved them over to a seating area tucked in front of a large painting. “There was a reporter here a while back looking for you and the others. Did she find you?”

Grif inhaled sharply at the mention of the reporter as they settled down. “Doyle? Yeah, she found us. Shared that little message from you. The others went running after it like a pack of loyal dogs.”

“You didn’t?” Kimball’s voice was soft and controlled.

“No. I--” Grif stopped, staring up at the painting, taking in the depiction of a man in white armor with orange accents wearing a small smile on his exposed face. “I couldn’t. I just… Everyone got all gung-ho to go on another rescue mission and I was just-- done.”

Kimball nodded in sympathy. “You know, my army’s shrunk to half it’s size since you’ve been here. There’s a lot of people out there who were glad to be able to stop fighting.”

“Yeah, that’s… I know how they feel. Anyways,” Grif pushed on, shaking his head slightly to help jostle his thoughts in a new direction, “I’ll try to keep this quick. I know you’ve probably got a ton of President things to do-”

“Grif, for you? I have time,” Kimball interrupted. Wry amusement filled her voice. “It’s nice to have time to just chat with a friend.”

A real, genuine (if small) smile appeared on Grif’s face and Kai mentally upped her rating of Kimball. Sure, she was literally the Authority, the Man, on this planet but-- this was the first time Grif had smiled since Kai had found him the day before. And probably for a long time before that. Kimball was listening him, seemed to actually care about him. The list of people who cared about her brother as much as she did was small. And had recently shrunk. But perhaps she could add another name to it.

“Well, like I said when we arrived, this is my sister, Kaikaina.” Grif gestured to his sister with a thumb and she waved. “She’s spent the last several years building up a convention empire and the UNSC just took away all her venues. I was wondering if she could start up again here? Got any need for some big tourist type events?” he asked with a hint of sly humor. 

“Do I?” Turning to Kai, Kimball propped her elbows on her knees and rested her head on her hands. “What kind of events do you run?”

“Eh, I’ve done all the big types,” Kai replied with her usual confidence. She was fucking proud of what she’d created. “Music and film festivals, events for nerds and geeks, even got hippies to give me money. The smaller events have been pulling in about 15K attendees and upwards 40K for the big ones.” Then she let out huff of frustration. “I had a new one in the works, a cool-ass desert arts fest at an ancient alien temple but nooo, the UNSC had to come stomping in with their bitch-fest.”

 “Yeah, Kimball, got any ancient alien temples she could use?” Grif’s voice was dry and Kai immediately recognized an inside joke. She wanted in.

“Oh, only a few lying around here or there.” Tilting her head, Kimball thought for a moment. “You know, I don’t think we’ve actually counted. Santa?”

A flash of red light appeared, quickly forming into a familiar looking alien. “There are currently thirteen active temples,” rumbled a deep voice in response.

“Santa?” Kai repeated, staring. “I knew that shit with the elves was a lie,” she whispered after a moment. “This is the best. Day. Ever.”

There was a long moment of startled silence. “You are too precious for words,” Kimball finally said in an adoring voice. “You can have whatever you want. Both of you,” she added, glancing at Grif.

“Huh? Oh, right! Awesome.” Pulling up her mental list of people she trusted with her brother, Kai added Kimball’s name below her own. Then, rubbing her hands together, she pulled out her datapad and called up her list of employees and held it out to Kimball. “Does that include bringing my people on-site? There’s a lot of ‘em.”

“I can throw in some extra tax waivers if they agree to become Chorus citizens,” Kimball replied as she accepted the datapad, nodding approvingly at the simple list of names, titles, and ages. “We’re repopulating after over a decade of civil war.”

“Bitchin’.” Kai aimed a soft punch at her brother’s arm. “Best. Bro. Ever.”

In the long discussion that followed, Kimball and Kaikaina settled on a series of abandoned warehouses in a nearby coastal village to set up shop and start rebuilding her events. It had everything they needed: lots of room, a scenic view, all the kinds of structures and attractions tourists liked, and more. All it needed was people to fix and run everything. The rundown look, Kai also pointed out, would also be a major turn-on for the more artsy-types that attended some of her smaller events, giving her a solid place to get started.

Grif, meanwhile, sat and listened in fascination and pride as his sister went toe-to-toe with the toughest woman on Chorus, arguing confidently at every point of dispute. She also didn’t cut him out of the conversation, turning to him at numerous points for his opinion on locations, schedules, and for his insight into the people of Chorus. And somehow, over the course of the discussion, the awful tension that had been coiled in his stomach and the dull feeling that had spread through his entire body seemed to lessen.

After two hours had passed, Kimball’s secretary poked his head in, regretfully informing them that her next appointment would arrive soon. With a soft sigh, they stood and Kimball stepped forward to give them both a warm embrace (or as warm as it could be through military grade power armor). “I’ll get Holloway to draw up all the contracts and get the ball rolling for you,” she said as she reluctantly released them. “In the meantime, you’re both staying with me. This job came with a gigantic mansion and I feel like I’m just rattling around most of the time. You can go out and hit the town or just stay in, whatever you like. And I won’t hear any arguments,” she warned them, then smiled. “I’ll also see who I can find to help you out as you get settled in to Port Mont. Call it a hunch, but I think I know a few people who’ll be more than happy to lend a hand.”

The former New Republic lieutenants (and a pair of younger soldiers named Matthews and Linzi), Kai discovered, were overjoyed to work with Grif again. She assumed Kimball had given them a talking to because they rarely mentioned the Reds and Blues by name. It was impossible to escape hearing about them -- they were local heroes, after all -- but she could see Grif bracing himself for a barrage of questions when they first arrived and he didn’t really start to settle down until they’d been in Port Mont for almost a full week.

Grif threw himself into getting the warehouse they’d picked as the most livable fit for habitation, the members of his former Gold Team trotting loyally along behind him. At first, Kai worried that Bitters snark and pessimism would make things worse for her brother but if anything, Grif seemed to be strengthened by it. By contrast, Matthews followed him around with worshipful eyes, just happy to be close even as he stumbled and tripped, made clumsy by a sudden growth spurt. Grif treated him like a puppy, alternatively praising him and scolding him. The third and final member of the team, a petite woman named Linzi, didn’t always accompany them on their trips to the store or to find furnishings; the nerve damaged she’d received during the final days of the civil war meant she would never have full compatibility with her prosthetic legs, but her loyalty to Grif was absolute and he in turn treated her like a second sister.

The other lieutenants, all a bit more removed from the siblings, focused on preparing housing for all Kaikaina’s employees. They would be starting out in military style housing in the warehouse they’d selected as the main office but Smith assured her that the paperwork was underway to let them have their pick from any of the abandoned homes in the area. 

And so they worked. The employees arrived, the paperwork got messed up, straightened out, and then misfiled. Grif slowly transformed the living area of their warehouse into a home while Kai settled into her new office next door and started the frantic work of setting up a small arts festival to promote her new venue to her loyal fans.

The lieutenants found homes nearby. Smith appeared one day with four younger siblings and a grandmother in tow while Jensen and Palomo, embarrassed by the attention but deeply in love, claimed the house next door. Gold Team, however, remained in the two spare bedrooms at the warehouse, preferring to be on hand to help as needed. They also lacked the relatives and desire to create their own space the others had. And as they all settled into the new arrangement, they all pretended they didn’t hear Grif screaming in his sleep night after night, letting Kai wake him up from whatever nightmare had gripped him.

Matthews was the one who finally intervened, unable to sit by while his former Captain came apart before his eyes. With Bitters and Linzi at his side, they met with him privately, bound together by a truly unique bond. Grif had focused on one thing above all others when they’d been assigned to him: teaching them how to survive when everyone and everything was trying to kill them. And that singular focus, more than anything else, had earned their loyalty.

Kai didn’t know what exactly they said to him. She just knew and was relieved at the results: a doctor. Antidepressants. A sleep aid. A process group so Grif didn’t feel so cut off and alone in his suffering anymore.

The names of each member of Gold Team were added to the mental list. And when their military contracts finished, she offered them employee contracts for Griffin Events. They were family. And family looked out for itself.

In her mind, Kai spent weeks staring at the names of the Reds and Blues. She’d heard the full story now about how her brother had quit and been abandoned, cast aside once he wasn’t useful anymore. She remember how they’d been in Blood Gulch, knew all about Valhalla and the Freelancers.

She compared those memories to the new ones they were building: Gold Team laughing and yelling at each other, Bitters and Grif embroiled in a ridiculous fight over nonsense. Walking up to the side-by-side warehouses where they lived and worked and discovering Palomo had gotten the art team to help him paint the fantastical Griffin Events logo on the buildings. Kimball making a surprise visit on the eve of the first festival and staying up far too late as she and Grif talked, drifting from the challenges of being the leader of an independent world to the set of military jeeps he’d started converting into street racing cars.

Holding the two sets of memories side by side, Kai stared hard at the differences. And then crossed out the title of the list of Reds and Blues in her mind and renamed it Never Again.

The art festival was a hit, despite the myriad problems and general chaos. But Kai knew her business and the attendees who’d taken the challenge of this new event on a world so recently torn apart by war met each problem head on, facing them as obstacles to be overcome. In the end, they made more money than they’d spent and everyone went home happy.

Following the event, Smith cemented his place as Kai’s personal assistant, Palomo realized he had a knack for merchandising, and Matthews settled happily in with Technology, his growth spurt finally tapering off. By contrast, Bitters ended up in Security and wasn’t thrilled with it but by now, they all assumed that was because he was pining after Matthews while he waited for him to get just a little older before he approached him. Grif teased him mercilessly over his romantic moping but there was no real heat or bite to his words. If anything, he approved of the underlying desire to make sure Matthews was mature enough to decide for himself what he wanted when the time came.

Jensen and Linzi hovered adjacent to Griffin Events but never got around to fully committing. Instead, Jensen found herself drawn into Grif’s street racing project and thrived on the challenge of converting the military vehicles to a much flashier use. Linzi, one of nature’s natural scavengers, proved to be an invaluable asset in tracking down parts and pinning down suppliers for some of the more unusual items they needed.

And it was probably for the better that they weren’t working directly for Kai, as Palomo would have been completely useless if Jensen had been around all the time. Barely a month after the arts festival, the couple admitted that they’d succumbed to the reproductive fever sweeping the planet and everyone happily attended the shotgun wedding down at city hall then danced the night away with couple’s amused relatives and friends at the reception that followed.

Kai herself wasn’t immune to the romance in the air. A bi-phase came and stuck around and Matthews got to move into his own bedroom at the warehouse when Linzi moved in with Kai.

Grif was delighted.

Bitters couldn’t decide if he was upset not to be sharing a room with Matthews anymore or relieved to have some privacy.

Smith, meanwhile, just looked on in somewhat mystified amusement, the romance-driven drama resting just outside his realm of comprehension.

It hadn’t been even half a year since they’d moved to Chorus but Grif was already in dramatically better shape than he’d been in a long time. He slept through the night more often than not, his old hobbies held new interest for him, and there was an energy to him that had been missing for years. 

It probably also helped that they didn’t have to wear armor all the time. No, it was cargo shorts and t-shirts or Hawaiian shirts all the time now. They kept up with their armor and did some drills every weekend but-- it was a choice now. Not a requirement.

“So, I have this idea,” Grif said to her one day, slouching against the door frame to her office. He had his hands tucked into the pockets of his shorts and his green and yellow shirt made him a fun splash of color next to the propped open door.

Kai cocked a brow and waved him towards one of the chairs facing her desk. “Oh yeah? Lemme hear it,” she replied with a grin.

Nudging the door shut behind him, Grif sat and slowly outlined his idea for a car event, something gearheads across the galaxy could get excited to attend. “I mean, half the city is empty,” he explained. “Me and Bitters have driven a good chunk of it in the modded cars. There’s shit in the roads and most of the buildings are completely blown out but it’s drivable. Hell, it’s fun. You remember all the street racing back home, right? Late at night after the tourists rolled into bed?”

“It was the most awesome around Christmas,” Kai recalled, a dreamy look crossed her face. “Everyone would wire the roof of their cars with Christmas lights and decorate the shit out of everything. The races were so cool, all those extra lights. Just-- splashes of light and energy where it was usually dark.”

Nodding in agreement, Grif dug a paper city map out of his pocket and grabbed one of her pens. “If we can block off this section here,” he traced one of the boxes drawn on the map, “that gives us a really decent range of racing options. Drag races here, drifting here, and a giant obstacle course everywhere else. There’s a bunch of routes we could pick. Wouldn’t be hard to wire for cameras, too, so we can keep viewers out and let the drivers go really crazy.”

Kai stared hard at the map, following along as he pointed to the different areas. “We’d have to find room for all the teams to store their cars and equipment. Plus have places to do repairs, change tires, get air and gas.”

“This whole stretch here,” Grif interrupted, pointing to another area on the far side of his selected race courses. “Blown out fish processing factory. It’s big and rated for heavy machinery.”

Steepling her fingers, Kai stared at the map. Finally, “This could be super awesome,” she whispered. “I bet we could get sponsors to help with the renovations. No one else is doing anything like this, not on this scale.” Eyes going wide, she let out an excited squeal. “Let me get Legal to take a look at this. If they can give me a tentative clear, I’ll talk to the mayor. If he’s in, we call Kimball. The rigs people would bring in would require some new security screening measures.”

“You-- you really think this could work?” Grif stared back at her looking both surprised and hopeful.

“Fuck yeah, I do!”

Grif let his stare linger for a few more moments, then he smirked. “I did also have an idea how we could start the ad campaign,” he teased. “But we’d need some really kick ass drivers. Bitters isn’t bad and Palomo… Palomo tries. He really wants to be involved in his wife’s work. But we’d need one more…”

“Fuck yes, I’m in. Whatever it is.” Quickly folding up the map, Kai thrust is at Grif. “Take this down to Legal, go over this with them. I’ll call ahead so they know you’re coming. We’re going to make this a thing.”

Legal approved the plan. The Mayor got on board once Kai started talking about the money they could wrangle out of sponsors to put towards rebuilding the town. And Kimball demanded the best seat in the house for the finished product.

It took an entire month to clean up enough of the newly designated Port Mont Circuit to have a challenging course, one full of twists and turns and just enough debris to add an extra challenge. Jensen and Linzi went crazy with their mechanic teams overhauling the street racers they’d been building, adding a flash of custom paint to seal the deal.

The event itself was at least a year away. They were just starting to talk to off-world sponsors about it and there was a lot of infrastructure that needed work to pull it off. But as soon as they could, they put their cars on the road and started to race, putting their machines to the test as they experimented with different routes.

Once the course was nailed down, Matthews led a team to set up cameras and they filmed several different runs to get the best footage for Advertising to build the ad campaign. Word of mouth started to spread across Chorus as well and other gearheads started to pop their head in, interesting in getting involved with the event or just testing out the Port Mont Circuit. Excitement began to build and as Kai’s team started rolling out their other events, they began to tease the new attraction to the attendees.

Naturally, this was when the Reds and Blues showed up.

They’re on one ship instead of two, worn out, shell shocked, and clutching tight to each other. They’re all alive, all in one piece physically but this latest adventure had taken a significant toll. Most notably, though, is that no version of Church is with them.

Chorus is the only place they can think of as home, the only refuge they have left. And Kimball greets them warmly, offering them safety and comfort. The planet owes them a debt that can never be repaid. She does, however, encourage them to consider retirement. To put aside their armor and stop dwelling on the past.

As the Reds and Blues pass through Dr. Grey’s hands, being examined for lingering injuries, Kimball called Grif at his new office as the head of Griffin Sports.

“I don’t care what you tell them,” Grif said in exasperation. “We’re not hiding and they’d hear about us anyways. So you can tell them we’re here or not, it really doesn’t bother me one way or another.”

On the screen, Kimball sighed and gave him a Look. It carried shades of I remember the state you were in when you got here and I just really need a definitive answer not this runaround bullshit. Grif’s learned to read many of Kimball’s Looks over the past few months and if he looks closely, he thinks he just might be able to also see shades of I’m worried about you and them.

“Alright, fine, give them our home address,” he finally told her. “I don’t give a fuck if they come visit or not. Me and them? We’re done. Parted ways. But-- I guess they may want to check in on the lieutenants.” He paused for a moment, tilting his head as a speculative look crossed his face. “Could be entertaining to see Simmons' reaction to Jensen’s baby bump. Fifty bucks says he faints.”

A smile quirked Kimball’s lips. “Stuttered incoherence and he briefly forgets how reproduction works,” she countered.

“Done. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“You better.” With one final Look (I know where you live and Don’t forget I’m the motherfucking President you can’t hide from me), Kimball hung up.

It took almost a full week for any of them to show up, starting with the Blues. Caboose bounded into the main lobby around lunch time one day, excited to come find Smith and tell him all about their most recent adventure. Wash and Tucker follow at a slower pace and the dark circles under Wash’s eyes have made a dramatic comeback.

Kai can’t actually spare her PA for too long but she does wave them all into the canteen where lunch has been catered in. Caboose’s retelling of the adventure, the ups and downs and horrors and dramatic rescues, has Smith and Palomo gasping and cheering at all the right moments.

Wash and Tucker are visibly uncomfortable in the busy canteen and can’t bring themselves to shift away from the wall they’ve put their backs to. In between bites of barbecue, though, Wash found his ears tuning in to the chatter around them. As Caboose pauses mid-sentence to shovel more brisket into his mouth, Wash leaned forward.

“Smith, what’s everyone talking about? I keep hearing people mention surfing and cars and movie theaters.”

“Oh! Well, Griffin Events has quickly become the premier event coordinator on Chorus. Ms. Grif moved her company here following a venue dispute with the UNSC, in part because of Mr. Grif’s ties to our world but also because of the very generous tax benefits available to any company that chooses to relocate.” Smith is visibly bursting with pride as he recounts the history of the Griffin Events.

Beside him, Palomo nods, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Yeah, it was all really cool getting set up here. President Kimball asked me and the other lieutenants to come give Grif and Kai a hand when they arrived on planet. We got the warehouses set up, Smith rocked all the paperwork, and we all were basically indispensable once the shuttles starting arriving with all the Griffin employees that had agreed to move here.”

“We actually lived with Ms. and Mr. Grif for the first few months,” Smith added. “When our military contracts were coming due, Ms. Grif offered to hire on anyone who wanted to stay with the company and, well, here we all are. 

“Smith showed up a week later with his whole family in tow.”

“And Palomo and Jensen are starting their own family.”

“The Golds have stuck around,” Palomo noted, leaning back thoughtfully. “But that’s not super surprising. Linz hooked up with the Boss Lady a few months back and they seem really happy. And Matthews may technically have become a legal adult but he still needs a lot of looking after.”

“And wherever Matthews is, you’ll find Bitters.”

Palomo nodded in agreement with Smith’s statement. “Yup. And since Grif is still babying Matthews, they’re probably going to be crashing next door for the foreseeable future.”

Tucker poked at the green beans on his plate for a few moments, expression inscrutable. “How is Grif?” he finally asked. He didn’t know what he thought of the other man anymore. He’d been so angry when Grif had walked away from the mission. But then again, look how that had turned out.

“Um, he’s-- better?” The confidence Palomo had displayed suddenly vanished, leaving a pile of uncertainty in its wake. “That’s… that’s more a Gold Team question. Um. He was in pretty rough shape when he and Kai showed up. But he’s good. Now.”

“He’s actually out at the moment,” Smith hurried to add. “He’s been helping develop a new sports-focused division of the company. We have a few events we’re hoping to premier next year. You know, auto racing, e-sports, that’s sort of thing. There’s definitely at untapped market for premier sports competitions in this sector. Anyways, the mayor called a few weeks ago and asked if we could help restart the old surfing competitions. With the first event next week, Mr. Grif’s at the venue right now, actually, going over everything with some of our vendors.”

“I wouldn’t have pegged Grif as a sports guy,” Wash replied, blinking rapidly at the startling information.

“Oh, yes. He’s been especially excited about the surfing competitions. Apparently he and Ms. Grif used to compete in some of the events back on Earth while they were in school.”

“Well, it sucks that we missed him.” Chewing on his lower lip, Tucker gave Smith and Palomo thoughtful looks. It’s strange seeing them out of armor and in civilian clothes (especially in the relaxed dress code of this peaceful seaside town) but it’s also really, really good. They’re both more relaxed, happier, and full of hope. It’s a dramatic contrast to how they were when the Reds and Blues had left on vacation.

“I’d be happy to pass on a message, sirs,” Smith says helpfully.

“Er, just-- tell him we’ll try to catch him next time we’re in town.” That’s the best Tucker can manage for now.

“And tell him that Simmons really, really, really, really missed him,” Caboose added, suddenly jumping back into the conversation. “He talked about him a lot while we were on our adventure.”

They exchange contact information and the Blues depart, climbing back into the simple car that had brought them to Port Mont, and pull away from the dramatically painted warehouses. They reach the edge of Armonia a few hours later. Their house (painted blue, of course) sits on several acres of land right next to the Reds; after everything they’ve been through, it helps to have neighbors who won’t call the police when they hear screaming and shouting or the sound of gunfire.

It’s hard not to look at the canyon dynamic they keep recreating, though, and compare it to the vibrant, busy life the Grif siblings have forged for themselves on the coast.

They share the details of their visit with Donut the next day and pass along the contact information Smith had given them. The cheerful former soldier promptly packed his sunscreen and a bathing suit and disappeared for an entire week, returning tanned and full of stories about the surfing competition and getting to help out behind the scenes.

Sarge grumbles but lingers in the room as Donut chats excitedly at Simmons, pretending to fix first the toaster, then the coffee pot, and then the stove. He’s gone for a full day later that week, having mumbled vaguely about going to look at a used tractor but they all notice the sand in the floorboards of his jeep once he gets back.

Even Carolina manages a trip to the beach as she tags along with Kimball one day when the President goes down for a ribbon cutting ceremony at the opening of a new factory in the area. The listless air that’s surrounded her since their mission went horribly wrong starts to ease off and she soon finds a job as a trainer at a gym in the town closest to their rural house.

All eyes fall on Simmons soon after. He’s the only one left who hasn’t gone to Port Mont.

But they also can’t help but notice that no one from Port Mont ever calls them. 

The decision to drive to the coast is spur of the moment. Simmons had memorized the route to the beach weeks ago and as he sat at a red light, fingers drumming on the steering wheel of his small car, he realized: I could just keep driving. Go straight instead of turning right to start down the gravel roads that lead home. He had a full tank of gas and surely there were stores in Port Mont? Since he didn’t have any clothes or toiletries or… anything. Plus, tomorrow wasn’t a workday so he wouldn’t be interrupting or distracting anyone from… stuff.

Several hours later, Tucker calls right around his third freak-out moment, demanding to know where he was and why he was missing movie night.

“Oh, uh, I’m. Driving. Just-- thought I’d get away for a day or two.” His nervous laugh follows, echoing into the voice system in his car.

“Dude, you’re going Port, aren’t you? Damn. About time. This moping bullshit needs to end.” Tucker actually sounds… impressed? With him? “Alright, good luck, man. Let us know when you get in.”

“I will,” Simmons promised, staring grimly down the road. After they hang up, silence fills the car.

He doesn’t know what’s going to happen when he arrives. Everytime he thinks about Grif, everything just gets so twisted up inside him. He’s angry and hurt and annoyed and sad and… happy. All at the same time. Grif has been the other, cooler half of his brain for years and even months and months of his absence hasn’t stopped him from turning to ask him a question or wait for him to jump on the opportunity to make a joke.

It’s well past midnight by the time he reaches Port Mont. He stops at the first hotel he sees once he crosses the city line, shooting off a message to Tucker as he checks in, and passes out within moments of collapsing on top of the bed. The next morning, he grabbed an apple from the breakfast buffet and climbed back in the car, eyes already scanning the horizon for the nearest store.

By the time he has a change of clothes, clean underwear, and some basic toiletries, he’s managed to waste several hours, putting off the inevitable confrontation just a little longer.

You’re being ridiculous, he told himself finally and resolutely set course for the warehouse district.

When he rolled up to the fancifully painted buildings, the large doors of one are wide open, revealing a busy automotive shop. Pulling into one of the parking spots out front, he slowly climbed out of the car and started his approach.

Some of the tension leaves him when he spots Jensen standing on the far side of a car, a clipboard in one hand as she gestured towards the vehicle with the other, her arm moving as she indicated different things. Turning, her eyes went wide behind her glasses as she spotted him approaching.

“Ca-- Simmons!”

His former lieutenant shoved her clipboard into the chest of the grease-smeared worker she’s been speaking with and hurried around the flashy yellow car.

As her rounded belly came into view, Simmons felt his brain stutter to a halt like the needle being ripped off a spinning record. His hand lifted into the air, finger pointing at her. “You-- you’re-- when--”

“About five months ago.” With a bright laugh, Jensen rested her hand on her baby bump. “Charles and I got married after we found out. Pretty common thing these days,” she added. Then, cocking her head and adjusting her glasses, she gestured towards a staircase at the back of the workshop. “I’m guessing you're here to see Grif. He’s upstairs. You can go on up. Take the door at the end of the walkway.”

“Oh, uh, thanks.” He started to walk past her, then paused, a small blush spreading across his face. “And congratulations,” he added shyly, reaching out to brush her arm with his fingertips. Jensen-- no, Katie, gave him a warm smile and briefly rested her hand on his before turning back to the mechanic.

Taking a deep breath, Simmons moved on towards the back of the workshop, winding his way around another car, sets of rolling tool cases, and ducking under wires and tubes and chains hanging from the ceiling. The metal staircase rattles underfoot as he climbs up and once he reached the top, he took a moment to look around, noting the doors to offices lining the walkway before spotting a solid, windowless door at the far end.

Katie had told him to go on up but turning the simple handle is easily one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

The first thing he sees when he opens the door is… a wall. And another door on his immediate right. Taking a few tentative steps inside, he peers around cautiously and discovers that the space opens completely up on his left. An overstuffed couch and a few chairs are clustered around a television that dominates the far end of the room. As he moves towards the seating area, he also discovers a large dining table and the kitchen.

As he turns, taking in the pictures on the wall and knick knacks scattered on shelves, the soft sound of some random pop music coming over the radio, he ends up staring into the kitchen… and directly at Grif.

At a glance, he can’t tell if he’s making a late breakfast, an early lunch, or something else entirely, but he’s cooking something on the stove. Even from the side, Simmons can see how he’s changed since they’d all parted ways. His dark hair has grown out even more and dangles behind his head in a simple ponytail. Grif also looks like he’s actually lost some weight and even his posture is different; he’s standing tall with his shoulders back and there’s none of the wary tension or defensiveness that Simmons remembered from before.

Before he can decide whether to say something or clear his throat or… do anything, really, Grif turns and spots him, immediately letting out a loud yelp as he leapt backwards in surprise, a hand flying to the counter to help keep his balance. “Jesus fucking Christ, Simmons, what the hell? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

The exasperation in Grif’s face is familiar, as is the immediate irritation and snark. Suddenly back on more familiar footing, some of the worry in Simmons’ chest eased off.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “Katie said to come on up. Um, I wasn’t trying to startle you.”

“Well, you succeeded. Congratulations,” Grif replied. There’s still irritation in his voice but the accompanying acidic bite he’s come to expect is absent.

Grif stands still for a moment, studying him with a thoughtful expression. There are a number of changes to his appearance from their last adventure. His prosthetic arm has been completely replaced with a newer, sleeker model -- a necessity after he’d lost the old one during the climactic battle a few months earlier. His hair’s grown out into an unruly mess he can’t bring himself to get trimmed; it’d always been Grif’s job to manage the dark red curls once they winding around his ears and brushing the back of his neck. Most dramatically of all, he’s lost an alarming amount of weight that he’s still struggling to replace.

Whatever it is Grif sees, he doesn’t like it. “Alright, sit down,” Grif ordered with a frown. “What, you forget how to eat? Did Donut convince Sarge to switch you over to some eco energy source or something?”

“We-- ran into trouble.” After a moment’s hesitation, Simmons dropped into one of the chairs at the table, twisting in the seat so he could watch as Grif starting moving around the kitchen once more. “Fish isn’t exactly filling and after… we’ve all been avoiding it since then.”

“Bad fish fry or something?”

“... or something.”

For the next ten minutes or so, only the sound of bacon frying on the stove fills the air. As the grease bubbles and sizzles, releasing a mouthwatering scent that fills the room, Simmons struggles to find something, anything, to say. He wants to yell at Grif for walking away from them, for not being there when all the shit had gone down. But he also wants to wrap his arms around him and cry, to tell him how glad he is that Grif was safe far away from them when all hell had broken loose.

He can’t figure out what words to say, so he just ends up sitting quietly at the table, watching and smelling the late breakfast Grif was cooking.

It’s also strange that Grif doesn’t seem to feel the need to fill the air with mindless chatter. There are no digs at his appearance or prickly personal habits, no zingers about any of the others, or the random speculation that his … friend (?) (former lover?) (acquaintance?) was so skilled at. Instead, Grif hums along absently to the radio as he adds more eggs to one of the pans on the stove, digging random things out of the fridge and pantry as he cooks.

In short order, Grif is placing a plate of food and a mug of coffee in front of him. A three-pronged fork rests on the plate in between cheesy scrambled eggs, several pieces of bacon, and two slices of toast. A bottle of hot sauce and a fruit jam he can’t immediately identify are also set down on the table next to the small salt and pepper shakers. Finally, Grif sits down with his own plate of food and coffee and digs in.

Simmons’ appetite has been missing ever since … that … but the first bite of the eggs is like tasting the food of the gods and he’s suddenly very aware that all he’s eaten so far today is half an apple. The cheese mixed in with the eggs add a little extra sweetness and the taste of cheddar mixes perfectly with the mild flavor of the eggs. Everything Grif cooked is amazing and suddenly, he can’t focus on anything but eating as much as he can, as fast as he can.

When he’s scraping the last bits of crumbs off his plate, Simmons looked up and discovered Grif is still only halfway through his own meal and watching him with an odd expression as he cradles his cup of coffee in his large hands.

After looking down at Simmons’ plate (as though making sure he’s eaten everything), Grif takes a sip from his mug then sets it down. “Why are you here, Simmons?” His voice is soft, curious, and wary.

“The Blues came to see you. Then Donut. And Carolina. Even Sarge, although he won’t admit it.” Simmons stares down at his fork, fidgeting with the reflections in the shiny metal.

“So it was your turn?”

“Yes. No. I don’t--” His shoulders round, drawing closer to his chest as he slouches. “You left!” The words explode out, loud and angry and hurt. “You left and we needed you and you-- you weren’t there!”

There’s a moment of silence and Simmons forces himself to look up. Grif has picked his coffee back up, his expression unreadable.

“From what Donut told me, there wasn’t anything I could have done that would have changed what happened.” Grif took a long sip, his eyes never leaving Simmons’. “Not a lot of use in a soldier who can’t shoot anyone.”

“You’re not a bad shot-”

“That’s not what I meant.”

It takes a moment to process Grif’s gentle yet pointed correction, to understand what he meant. When the meaning sinks in, a rush of guilt floods through him. Grif had said he was done. Simmons hadn’t thought he meant…

Finally, he found new words. “I needed you.”

“No, you didn’t. You made it, didn’t you?”

“I did need you! You don’t get to tell me how I feel!” Why wouldn’t Grif get angry? Why wouldn’t he stop using that same level voice? Then the words come rushing out that he’s been sitting on for so long. “I love you, Grif! We went through hell and you weren’t there to help me! All I wanted the entire time was just to have you back!”

Grif’s lips tightened for a moment. “So when you got back to Chorus and heard where I was, you immediately rushed to come find me. Oh, wait, you didn’t.” As Simmons sputtered in indignant rage, Grif shook his head. “You don’t love me, Simmons. You love the idea of being in love with me.”

“That-- that’s not true.” A deep flush spread across the organic parts of his face and new pain gripped at his heart.

“All these years, Simmons, you’ve always been the one to leave, running over to join the Blues the minute you decided you were fed up with everything. With me.” Grif looks at him over the top of his coffee cup and his dark eyes are filled with sadness. “You don’t know me, Simmons, not really. You never asked about my life before Blood Gulch or about my family or hobbies or anything like that. I was just the guy you stood around and bitched with.”

“I did too ask,” Simmons countered angrily. “You’re the one who never wanted to talk about anything like that.”

“You may have asked once. But then you gave up and moved on. That’s the thing, Simmons, you never just give up on the things you really care about. You’re tenacious, meticulous, driven. It may have driven me crazy sometimes but I’ve always respected that about you. But.

“Your ideal version of me isn’t me, Simmons. It’s a version of me you’ve ‘fixed’ that’s neat and tidy like you, as nerdy and smart as you. You can rattle off a list of all my faults at the drop of a hat but you can’t do the same for things you like about me. And anytime we talked about the future, about what we’d do after the war?” Grif shrugged. “You always talked about going back to college, getting a job somewhere, and finding a girl to settle down with. I wasn’t in that future, not even as a friend.

“I was someone convenient for you to focus on while we were fighting for our lives, someone to pass the time with and get locked in a closet with. But we’ve never been a thing, Simmons. And you need to admit that.”

Half-formed denials swirled in Simmons’ head as Grif spoke, mercilessly driving forward and crushing his heart beneath him. No. No, no, no, Grif was wrong, he did love him, he hadn’t come to see him before now because… because… he’d been hurting and confused and scared… because Grif was his courage, he wasn’t brave on his own--

Grif suddenly set down his mug and stood up, reaching across the table to pick up his empty plate and cup. He carried them into the kitchen, setting them down in the sink, then returned and lay a hand on his shoulder.

“Go home, Simmons,” Grif ordered. His voice was still soft but firm, his eyes sad but gaze steady. “Go back to the others. Let Donut feed you and Sarge order you to bed. You’re not in nearly as good of shape as you think you are.”

Shaking his head, Simmons forced back his confusion and surged to his feet, shaking off Grif’s hand. “I’m not going anywhere,” he retorted. “You’re wrong. About everyth-”

“What’s going on?” a new voice interrupted.

Turning, Simmons was surprised to see Bitters and Matthews standing in the open doorway of a hallway. The former officers were dressed in soft shirts and shorts, feet bare, and hair matted from sleep. Matthews is behind the older man but towering over him, thin and reedy and looking sleepy and confused.

“Simmons stopped by for breakfast,” Grif said simply. “But he has to go.”

“What? No, I told you, I’m not going anywhere,” Simmons shot back. He wasn’t leaving, not when Grif was wrong about everything.

“What do you think is going to happen?” There was a hint of exasperation in Grif’s voice. “I’m not going to stand around and argue with you. I have shit to do today. So, yes, you’re leaving. I don’t have time to sit around and play host.” He made a sharp gesture towards the door. “You know where the exit is. See yourself out, I need to get ready.” Then, shaking his head, Grif walked away, heading for Chorusians.

Bitters and Matthews moved to the side to let him pass and exchange a long look. Bitters tilted his head slightly, the orange dyed tips of hair floating over his undercut bouncing lightly in the air and then Matthews nodded, turning and hurrying after Grif.

Once the two men were out of sight, Bitters crossed his arms and leaned against the door, watching Simmons with narrowed eyes. Finally, he spoke: “I’m not going to claim to know what’s going on between you two but Grif told you to leave. So you need to leave.”

“I just-- I need to talk to him again,” Simmons responded, a note of pleading in his voice. “He said I-- he’s wrong, I can explain everything--”

“No, you don’t get to explain. You don’t get to stay. Not when he’s told you to go.” Dropping his arms, Bitters pushed away from the wall, stalking forward. “When Grif showed back up with his sister, he was a wreck. Worse than when you and the others came to the New Republic base. He was exhausted, jumpy at any mention of the Reds and Blues, couldn’t sleep through the night without having nightmares that made. Him. Scream. Night after fucking night.”

Coming to a halt in front of him, Bitters leaned forward, aggressively invading his personal space. “He was in awful pain. I think he may even have been suicidal and holding on because he wanted to be sure his sister was going to be okay. The worst part? None of this was new. This was clearly something that had been building for a long time. You and the Reds and Blues have been with him for years and you never did a damned thing to help him.

“You’re going to leave. Because he told you to. Because you and the others hurt him and almost drove him to eat a bullet,” Bitters growled, inches away from Simmons face. He could feel the heat of his breath, smell the foul scent of morning breath. “If he decides you can came back, he’ll tell you. Until then, get. The fuck. Out. Or I’ll throw you out myself.”

“He-- I never meant--” Simmons whimpered, then stopped, biting his lip. Bitters had been there when he hadn’t. If he said Grif had been…

He really didn’t have a right to be here anymore, did he?

“I’m sorry,” he finally whispered.

“Good for you. Now fuck off.”

Feeling utterly wretched, Simmons forced himself to walk away. Through the door, across the walkway, down the stairs. He skirted the cars and equipment in the garage and avoided Katie’s eyes. Climbed into his car and backed it out of his parking space, then put it in gear, heading back to the hotel.  

Once he arrived, he parked and collapsed over the steering wheel. The quiet, obsessively logical part of his brain hummed, noting that he still had time to checkout without being charged for another day but he needed to decide soon. Driving times and routes filled the back of his mind, one heading back towards Armonia, the other tracing the streets of Port Mont and noting the different attractions, restaurants, and stores.

Big, fat, hot tears began to leak from his organic eye and he pressed his face into the crook of his arm, shoulders heaving. He didn’t know what to do.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Khloe Goodnight’s new biography on Captain Dexter Grif, “The Griffin: Herald of Courage and Bravery”.

The United World of Chorus is a pretty popular beat for reporters these days. Five years removed from the end of its bitter civil war and the capture of the Staff of Charon , it’s worked hard to rebuild. For a journalist, it has a heady mix of local color, excellent food, and the kind of stories of terror, heroism, and self-sacrifice that break hearts and win awards.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also the backdrop for profiles of some of the most notorious individuals to emerge from the Great War -- the soldiers of Project Freelancer. Erick Rottenburg and Dylan Andrews’s three book Freelancers series is unquestionably the definitive work on the ill-fated Project and its agents. Get Your Hard On by Eduardo Falencki is an entertaining and saucy look at the life of Captain Franklin Delano Donut, and who can forget Elena Wood’s masterful Red vs. Blue: The Soldiers Behind the Simulation?

And yet, despite countless news interviews, Special Reports, and a few movie adaptations (of varying degrees of accuracy), there isn’t a historian or reporter alive who wasn’t painfully aware of the hole in the different tellings of Project Freelancer and the end of the Chorus Civil War: the story of Captain Dexter Grif.

The photo that accompanied the incomparable Dylan Andrews’s original story that brought the Reds and Blues to the attention of the galaxy, Colorful Space Marines Stop Corruption (Interstellar Daily), perfectly summarizes Captain Grif’s attitude towards the press. By which I mean, he’s clearly wholly unimpressed and uninterested in every bit of the attention being paid to him and the other soldiers, simulation and otherwise. You can’t look at that picture and not think that he would have stepped out of the frame if he thought he could get away with it.

As a result, when my agent called and asked if I would be interesting in taking a swing at writing a biography of this notoriously private and tetchy individual, I have to admit, I had my apprehensions. It’s also a sign of how desperate the publisher was to finally get Captain Grif’s story that they made a point to not tell me how many other journalists had tried to interview him and failed until after I’d signed the contract.

But signed I had, so with my book advance in hand, I packed my bags and booked the next flight to Chorus.

In the end, I spent two years on that planet. Two years ricocheting from city to city like a ping pong ball as I followed the threads of different stories; two years of writing and rewriting and rewriting again the same stories because there was always just one more layer to it; and two years slowly growing closer to Captain Grif and his family.

I am incredibly humbled that Captain Grif eventually opened up to me as much as he did. The story of his life, contained in this volume, is without question a story of a man who has spent most of his life surviving incredible hardship without ever losing his fundamental desire to protect the people he cares about.

Any part of his life, from his childhood in Honolulu, surviving the fall of the colony world Aurelia, his time as a soldier in Project Freelancer, to fighting in the war on Chorus, has enough in it for half a dozen documentaries. When you put them all together, you find yourself looking at one of those rare people in any generation who plant their feet and refuse to be moved when an entire galaxy takes a swing at them.

In medieval times, the griffin was used in heraldry to represent courage and bravery. A mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle, the king of the beasts and birds respectively, I can think of no better symbol for Captain Dexter Grif.

Thank you, everyone, who helped me learn about and tell this story. The contributions of the Reds and Blues, the former agents of Project Freelancers, and the many citizens of Chorus whose lives intersected with Captain Grif’s made it possible to find those hidden layers and moments where one man stared hard into the face of danger and refused to flinch.

Khloe Goodnight