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The Beginning is the End is the Middle

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        Texas wipes her glove across the front of her visor, brushing off the soot that coats it. The sounds of power armor clanking on the sidewalk are foreign in the bustling concrete jungle. Wyoming and his partner are just out of reach, and for as much as she hates it, she needs some help. While all Tex was looking for was an infiltration specialist, she stops dead in her tracks in front of the three men before her. It should be nowhere near this easy to find some fugitives, and a construction site definitely wasn’t high on her list of places to check. But honestly, what else could she expect from them? “You know, I would have thought you all could find better work, considering your skill sets.” The three armor-clad men before me turn, freezing as they realize who spoke to them.

        “Well, if it isn’t number one herself,” comments a man in mustard armor, a grin creeping into his voice.

        “I didn’t think we would be seeing you again,” adds another worker in deep purple with lime accents. “What brings you out here?”

        “Ah, well, you know. Figured I’d do some sight-seeing in this polluted construction site.”

        A third man in gunmetal gray streaked with yellow chuckles. “I hear they’re quite beautiful in the summer.”

        She returns the laugh, the corners of her mouth twitching upward. “Seems you haven’t changed, rookie.” Wash lets out an indignant sound, which is met by snickers from North and York. “In all seriousness, though, I need some help.” Wash’s body language shifts enough to convey a silent but obvious question: From us? York, however, continues without missing a beat.

        “I knew you’d recognize our skill one day,” he preens. She crosses her arms in an expectant but patient gesture, and he sighs. “But in all seriousness, how do we know we can trust you?” The men turn towards her expectantly, their work seemingly long forgotten. She lets out a short sigh, which quickly turns into a sharp inhale when a small, jade hologram flickers to life beside York. 

        “That depends on whether Omega is still present,” interjects Delta.

        “Wait, you still have yours?!” She shoots a few quick glances between York and the hologram as she takes a step back, her whole body tensing. She knows how fond the Director is of his “little toys”. How could an AI have slipped out of Freelancer’s hands?

        “Yeah,” interpolates North. “Theta’s around here too, but he doesn’t seem to trust you just yet.”

        She nods, taking full note of how still Wash has suddenly gone. She was there when “it” happened, so she doesn’t need him to explain his silence. It doesn’t matter anyway. Omega is the only fragment she cares about. “Anyway, to answer your question: no, Omega is gone.” The men grow slightly less stiff, but their posture indicates they’re still wary. 

        “It is unlikely we could defeat Tex in a combat situation, but possible,” comments Delta, oblivious to the atmosphere. After their history in the implosion, she would hope they would have more faith in her, but it has been several years. Either way, she takes it in stride.

        “See? Not a threat. Look, are you going to hear me out or not?” The three men share an apprehensive glance before North turns to meet the gaze of her visor.

        “Our shift ends in twenty minutes. We’ll meet you in that coffee shop over there as soon as we’re done.” She gives a quick nod of acknowledgement and crosses the street, giving little thought to the sounds of the former Freelancers resuming their work behind her. While she wasn’t expecting all three men to still be together, it definitely couldn’t hurt to have backup on this mission. Omega and the men working for him pack a punch; she’s going to need all the help she can get.

        Thankfully, the three former Freelancers hold true to their promise and arrive when she’s about halfway through her black coffee. Wash and York take a seat across from her as North goes to place their order. She presses the releases on her helmet and tucks it under her chair as a show of good faith. Apprehensively, North and Wash follow suit. Both blonde heads are speckled with gray, and wrinkles outline their eyes. Tex doubts she hid the surprise on her face very well, but she supposes she doesn’t look much better. The years haven’t been kind to any of them.

        York sets a coffee down in front of himself and Wash, respectively, while North is handed a coffee cake. He sets his helmet under his chair as well, and she’s met with the same signs of age on his face. “How do you even manage to stomach that?” he inquires, eyeing the darkness of her coffee.

        “The color matches my armor. You are what they eat, as they say,” she quips, and, fortunately, they seem to relax a little.

        “So, what does the incomparable Tex herself need us for?” he continues.

        “Straight to the point, eh?” she asks, ignoring the ungodly amount of sugar Wash is dumping in his cup. “I’m trying to take down Omega, and I have a lead on him, but I need an infiltration specialist.” York cocks an eyebrow, but remains silent.

        “Okay,” Wash says slowly from behind his coffee mug. “But then what do you need North and me for?”

        “Backup. My leads might not be the most cooperative people.”

        “And who are these leads, exactly?” inserts North between bites. She lets out a long exhale. Here comes the tricky part.

        “Wyoming and Maine.” Their eyes grow wide. North’s fork falls to the table with a clink.

        “Wait, they made it out of there?” exclaims Wash, tangible shock seeping into his voice. Some kind of tension could be seen melting out of his eyes as they meet hers; it’s a feeling she’s all too familiar with: guilt. 

        “Yeah, and now they work for Omega.” They fall quiet, the only noise being the sounds of light conversation and silverware clattering from the other tables. “Omega put a bounty on my friend’s head, and they were more than happy to oblige.” The silence persists for a few more moments before Wash lets out a quiet curse, folding his hands on the table.

        “Alright, why should we help you?” he inquires.

        “I figured York would want payback, after the incident in training,” she says, punctuating the sentence with brief tap to the skin under her left eye. “And you guys? I saw the shape you were in after the implosion. I figured the same need for revenge applies.” Wash raises an absent-minded hand to his abdomen, his fingers splaying across the chink in his armor, before nodding.

        “Fine,” he resolves. “I’ll help.” He quickly downs the last of his coffee before turning to face his friends. “Are you guys in?”

        “Is it the smartest move? No. But honestly, how could I refuse?” grins York. North sighs.

        “I guess I have no choice now, do I?” When his question is met by a few head shakes, he takes the last bite of coffee cake and pushes out his chair, rising to his feet. “Alright, then. Let’s get going.” Tex can’t hide her smile as she hoists her helmet back onto her head. 


 

York is awesome.

        At least, that’s what he keeps drilling in their heads as he works at picking the holographic lock. She focuses on loading her gun as the boys make light conversation. They had been watching the base for a few days with no signs of inhabitants. As expected, it doesn’t take long for him to crack it. She turns toward the others, their armor bathing in emerald light. “Alright, men. We could be walking into a trap. If not, we’re just checking out the base. York, you’re with me. North and Wash, you follow through in fifteen seconds. Sync?”

        “Sync,” they respond in unison. York and Texas barrel through the portal, and the second they hit the ground, all hell breaks loose. Five guards unleash round upon round of bullets as they roll behind the nearest cover. Wyoming and Maine are beyond the middle barricade, aiming with fearful accuracy that would annihilate anyone with less training than York and Tex. They continue communicating and manage to take out two soldiers. After fifteen seconds, they move aside in time for North and Wash to roll onto the scene. It takes only a moment to give them the sitrep before they decide to rush toward the enemy. Tex lands a bullet in one soldier’s visor just in time to turn around and find the other two soldiers on the ground.

        She’s staring down the barrel of Maine’s gun as her own ceases firing. “Dammit, jammed! Cover, cover, cover!” She screams, ducking down. North rolls to her side, takes a knee, and slams one glove to the ground. His shield flies up just in time for a bullet aimed at her face to ricochet onto the concrete. As she focuses on clearing the jam, she catches a flicker of ruby and cobalt light in her peripheral vision.

        Wyoming falls to the ground, his hand flying to his leg in a futile effort to stop the crimson streaming from his calf. North’s shield lifts just long enough for him to hurl a grenade at the bounty hunters. The two soldiers in white duck, giving North and Tex a chance to run to Wash and York’s side. York is pressing the healing unit into Wash’s armor. The man in grey is sitting slightly curled in upon himself as blood streams from where his hand is pressed against his lower abdomen. The unit locks in place with a click, and a wave of light radiates from its slot, signifying that it's functioning. As soon as they regroup, York, North, and Tex run around the edge of the base. Maine seems relatively unphased by the blast, and Wyoming is groaning on the ground as he attempts to stumble to his feet. Neither can do much as guns are leveled at their heads.

        “Well, hello again, boys. It is good to see you all again,” sighs Wyoming, the sarcasm in his voice thick as he finally hoists himself to his feet.

        “Can it. Tell me where Omega is, and don’t play dumb with me,” Tex snarls, the grip on her gun tightening. York and North have both of their guns trained on Maine, but it’s clear they are listening nonetheless.

        After some exasperating back and forth, she manages to get enough information. Omega is looking for Tex in Blood Gulch, but before she can figure out who he’s in, Maine and Wyoming are teleported away. “Dammit!” she snarls, kicking the ground. The rage in her mind flares as her vision turns a vibrant red. Every single time she comes close to accomplishing something, it’s snatched from her reach. Every single time. Failure: what a trait to have. She takes a deep breath before following North and York, who are already rushing to Wash’s side. They all take a knee beside him. “How’s the wound?” she inquires.

        He replies with a humorless chuckle before suddenly ceasing, the sound replaced by a sharp inhale of breath caused by the movement. “Stings like a bitch, but I’ve had worse,” he strains through shaky breaths. “It’s not fatal. I should be fine.”

        She gives a quick nod. “Thanks for your help, guys. Even if we didn’t get them.”

        “Hey, we got close, right?” York grins. “Maybe one of these days.”

        Tex chuckles. “I promise we’ll get ‘em next time.” It’s silent for a few moments before she stands. “I have to get going to Blood Gulch. You guys coming?”

        The men exchange a look before North shakes his head. “Sorry, Tex, but we still have work. Plus, we should get Wash checked out.” She nods. Tex almost mentions Doc, but he’s probably not the person you want handling serious injuries. Actually, scratch that; he’s definitely not the person you want handling serious injuries. She sticks her gun in her holster, placing the now free hand on her hip.

        “I'll see you guys around, then.”

        “I’m sure we’ll meet again soon,” North acknowledges. She gives a curt wave before hopping back through the teleporter. She hops on a Mongoose, revs the engine, and speeds off toward the middle of nowhere. It’s a long ride to Blood Gulch, but she’d rather be damned than let anything happen to those cockbites. She'll be the one who makes sure nothing happens to them, no matter what.