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It Could Be Worse

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There’s something different about Connecticut, Texas thinks, something that sets her apart from the rest of the squad even if it’s not something she can put her finger on just yet. Connecticut holds herself differently, speaks differently, and acts nothing like Tex has already come to expect from this team of freelancers. Tex has been a part of the project for mere days and she already has them all mapped out. They’re all a blend of private, competitive, and sharp, and if not that, then it’s still the direction they’re heading in, but Connecticut doesn’t seem to quite fit that pattern. Tex still isn’t sure about Connecticut.

She holds up better in a fight alone and with two knives than York, Wyoming, and Maine did with several guns and a grenade. Connecticut has masterful control over her armour enhancements and is just as quick to move as Tex is. They trade blows evenly and Tex is enjoying the fight, not because Connecticut deserves to be knocked on her ass like the others, but because she deserves something constructive. Connecticut spars like a teammate instead of an opponent, not getting angry and violent but not treading lightly either.

They go five rounds and Tex wins the first four. In the last round, Connecticut is in front of her until she isn’t and before Tex has the time to readjust to her new position, her arm is being twisted behind her back, keeping her facing the wrong direction. Her shoulder grinds under the pressure, not necessarily painful, but uncomfortable. It’s dislocated, and yet she finds it easier to focus on the tight grip Connecticut has around her wrist.

Connecticut shoves her forward and she stumbles, arm limp by her side, barely managing to keep herself upright with her balance so off-kilter. Tex could still fight with only one hand but for once, she decides not to.

“Round over, point to Connecticut,” FILSS says, ending the match in Tex’s favour, but not in the total knockout the match with York, Wyoming, and Maine had been.

“Nice move,” Tex offers. She can’t recall anyone ever getting the jump on her before. “You got me good.”

“Could be worse, medical can pop it back into place no problem,” Connecticut says lightly. “Congratulations on the match. We should do it again sometime, off the record.”

Tex likes that she isn’t apologetic. She also likes the thought of sparring again sometime, without the audience or the official structure. “Sure, tomorrow evening unless a mission comes up.”

“See you then,” Connecticut promises.

 

Combat situations, even just sparring, have always been about objectives to Tex, about winning without error. Sparring with Connecticut doesn’t feel like that, though, it becomes less about the end result and more about enjoying the process. They fight like a conversation, back and forth, following each other’s movements. Sometimes Connecticut goes all out, keeping Tex on her toes and never letting up until she’s exhausted, sometimes she dances around, quicker than anyone save Carolina, and makes Tex work just to land one hit. Tex finds herself really enjoying herself, especially when they spar out of armour and she can see Connecticut’s facial expression flit between steadfast concentration and playful smirks.

After a session, while they’re putting their armour away in the locker room, Connecticut hands her something. “Here, think you dropped your dogtags.”

Tex knows exactly where her dogtags are, but something in the offhand, casual tone in Connecticut’s voice makes her reach out and take the offered chain. Things between them are easy, more natural than Tex feels with anyone else, but she wouldn’t call it casual. “Thanks,” she says.

“I’m heading back to my room. Don’t have anything else scheduled until tomorrow.”

“Sure,” Tex replies. When Connecticut leaves the room, she looks down at the dogtags that aren’t her own, thumb sliding over the flat surface until a USB port pops out of the bottom.

Whatever it is, Tex is sure she shouldn’t have it. Freelancers shouldn’t be passing around data like contraband, there should be no secrets within the team, or from the Director and the Counsellor. But Connecticut trusted her with it and it must be important, so she closes her fist around it again, and goes to find a console to plug into.

It turns out that there are no secrets being kept from the Director, it’s the Director keeping secrets from everyone else. Tex feels sick while she reads document after document, and then sicker when it occurs to her that feeling sick can’t possibly be a biological response. It’s in her programming. Everything about her is programming.

Anger is certainly in her programming. It spreads through her like a virus and she has to stop herself from putting a fist through the screen in front of her, right through the file titled ‘Initial Fragmentation: Beta’.

Then she remembers Connecticut telling her she would be available for the rest of the night and where she would be and it’s easier than anything else just to turn down the hallway to the barracks and knock on Connecticut’s door.

Connecticut opens it in a heartbeat, gesturing Tex inside quickly.

Tex doesn’t know what to say, or what even to think, so she latches onto something else. “You took one hell of a risk, Connecticut.”

“Did I?” Connecticut throws back. She’s the tiniest of the freelancers but she has a large presence, making Tex feel like she’s backed into a corner. “You’re here, nowhere else.”

“I shouldn’t be,” Tex says. “If anyone else had given me this…” She likes to think she wouldn’t have gone right to the Director, but Tex isn’t about to fool herself.

“You needed to know. You deserved to,” Connecticut insists. “And I was running out of time.”

“Why? What are you planning?”

So Connecticut tells her, about the team of Insurrectionists and their plans to get the information to the right people so Project Freelancer is shut down and brought to justice. It sounds way too optimistic to Tex, like there are far too many ways for it to all fall apart, but Connecticut believes this is the only thing she can do whether it works out or not, because it’s simply the right thing.

Tex has never been concerned about the right thing, but she’s also not sure if she’s ever had the chance to. She’s done what she’s had to, what she’s been told to do.

Connecticut isn’t telling her what to do, just giving her the opportunity to make a choice for herself.

“This isn’t going to work,” she says.

“It might.”

“How do you figure?”

“It could be worse,” Connecticut says.

Tex doesn’t see how, but she can try to take Connecticut’s word for it. All the anger from before is gone, but there’s nothing to replace it. She feels empty, either by design or by will, it hardly matters which.

Connecticut takes her hand, snapping her out of her reverie. Tex can feel the calloused parts of her palm and fingers from wielding knives. Her own skin doesn’t have the same mismatched quality to it, and somehow she never wondered why.

“If you want to stay here for a while, you can. For as long as you like,” Connecticut tells her quietly.

Tex nods and squeezes her hand around Connecticut’s. She lets herself be pulled closer, allows Connecticut to slip her free arm around her back, tells herself that the way it makes her feel proves that she’s more than just code inside a human-shaped frame.

 

Project Freelancer catches up to them like Tex knew it would. She knew the moment she stepped away at Connecticut’s side that the Director would stop at nothing to bring her back in and that most of the squad wouldn’t have a problem with their orders. Tex hasn’t been well liked since that first match, and even less after the sarcophagus mission. She knows a lot of them still care about Connecticut, but Tex doesn’t want to put her faith in any of them. If they want Connecticut’s data, her armour, or her life, they’ll have to contend with Tex first and that’s not a fight any of them will win.

The Insurrectionist leader is hurriedly sending the others into position, hoping to stop the freelancers before they even get into the compound. It won’t work; the Director will have sent in everyone for such an imperative mission.

Tex pulls Connecticut aside and speaks to her quietly to avoid being noticed or overheard.

She’s never been one to run from a fight, but this isn’t about her. “Let’s just go. There’s a ship ready, we can be gone in minutes.”

“They won’t agree to running, not after Terrence…”

“They can do whatever they want,” Tex says, shrugging. “I’m talking about you and me. How long will the freelancers bother to stick around once they realize their objective is already off-planet?”

Connecticut is quiet, helmet facing away from Tex as she considers. “They’re my friends, I can’t leave them. I was able to convince you to come with me, maybe this doesn’t have to end in blood.”

Tex hasn’t been in the fold long enough to gain an attachment to any of them, and she hadn’t been looking to make friends anyway, but she knows the Insurrectionists are just as important to Connecticut as the freelancers still are. Connecticut has made her decision, and Tex will respect it.

Carolina, York, Wyoming, and Florida make up the party that gets all the way through the Insurrectionists, Carolina out front and the others backing her up.

“Agent Texas, we’re here to escort you back to the Mother of Invention,” she tells them, lowering her guns. York follows suit, but Wyoming and Florida don’t.

“Don’t bother with the niceties, Carolina, we’re not going anywhere,” Tex says. Now that she knows what she is, who she was, just being near Carolina puts her on edge.

“No, just you. Once CT hands over the power armour she’s free to go.”

Connecticut shakes her head. “Tex and I are staying together.”

After a moment of tense silence, Carolina faces Tex again. “Finally learned how to be a team player, huh, Texas?”

Tex knows she deserves that, deserves every bit of vitriol Carolina aims at her, but the urge to cut the conversation short and get on with the fighting is hard to tamp down. Connecticut is trying to ease matters while Tex fumes beside her, hardly listening. Tex knows how this is going to end, because she and Carolina are similar in all the worst ways. Carolina will need much more than what Connecticut can offer her right now to put the Director’s orders on hold. Maybe if they’d had more time… Tex can only hope that when things play out however they play out, she’ll get a second chance with Carolina.

The Insurrectionist leader is the one to jump into action first, and then everything devolves into flurry of punches and gunshots. Tex takes on both Wyoming as Florida as Connecticut squares off with Carolina, and the Insurrectionist leader with York.

Even outnumbered, Tex thinks their odds are good. Carolina is the only one Tex considers a threat and all they need is the opportunity to get to the ship.

Florida is distracting; Tex hasn’t had the chance to familiarize herself with the way he fights and commit his style to memory. He draws her attention away, barely, but it’s enough for Wyoming to turn away from them and fire his sniper rifle at Connecticut instead.

It should be impossible. Connecticut is putting everything she’s got into the fight, using her armour enhancement constantly instead of preserving power like she would in any other situation, but the bullet still somehow lands. Her holograms flicker out of existence as if they’ve been shot as well, as if Wyoming has fired three shots in the time it takes to fire only one and Tex never accounted for Gamma-

She and Carolina call out at the same time.

“Connie!” Tex exclaims in concern, in fear, as Carolina rounds on Wyoming with fury evident in both her voice and her stance.

Tex forgets Florida, the Insurrectionist Leader, and Carolina. Leaves them to the fallout, even though that wasn’t what Connie wanted. She heaves Connie up into her arms and flees while everyone is distracted.

“Tex,” Connie mutters weakly as Tex slams the door controls behind them.

“We’re getting out of here,” Tex tells her. “I’m sorry, CT, your friends were already done for by the time they caught up to us. We have to go.”

When Connie doesn’t reply, Tex tells herself it’s because she’s saving her strength instead of clocking out. Tex gets them onto the ship, ignoring the way Connie feels more and more like dead weight against her.

She lays Connie down in the back of the pelican and grabs for the on board medical supplies. Connie’s eyes are closed, but they’re clenched tight in pain, not lax with unconsciousness, and she helps Tex pry off pieces of her chest plate to reveal the entry wound where Wyoming’s bullet slipped through.

Tex has never had medical training. It never even occurred to her that it might be something she would need to know someday, for someone else if not herself. But then again, she’s never trained in anything. She just knows.

Everyone knows biofoam can be a lifesaver whether they’re a certified medic or not, so she starts there. Connie relaxes as the foam closes up the wound, and stops the bleeding, for now. She opens her eyes, and Tex immediately looks away from the wound to catch her gaze.

“It’s okay,” Connie says. “It could be worse.”

“Like hell,” Tex replies.

Connie grins up at her, eyes warm despite all the pain she must be in. “You got out. Could be worse,” she insists.

“So did you. We’re just not in the clear yet. Stay awake while I set a course, okay? We can’t stick around any longer.”

She stands up before Connie can respond. When she guns the pelican’s engine, her hands leave blood smears on the dials and switches but she hardly notices as she gets them into the air. Tex doesn’t remember ever piloting a pelican before, but vehicles have always come easily to her. She knows how to point them in the right direction. A pelican won’t get them far but it doesn’t have to.

She tears out half the dashboard, anything that isn’t part of the flying and navigation. The GPS, the tracking devices, the communication relays. The bits of metal and coloured wires make much more sense to her than most of the tools in the medical kit. This is what she knows. How to repair a damaged android but not an injured human.

When she returns to Connie’s side, she brings the pieces with her, dumping them in among bandages and antiseptic.

Connie looks far too pale, too far gone to last until they make it somewhere civilised with some kind of medical centre. Tex glances at the vehicle equipment again, wondering what all she could manage with it.

It could be worse. She could have nothing. She’ll patch Connie up the only way she knows how, even if she has to open up her own chest for spare parts to do it.

 

Civilian life is slow and quiet. Tex doesn’t sleep as much as Connie does, doesn’t have to eat even though she can, doesn’t have to do anything but exist anymore. Home is a rural town on a small colony planet where the UNSC has no presence and no one worries about the Insurrection anymore, nor the Covenant, who surely have no interest in such a tiny, inconsequential planet such as this.

There’s a ranch a mile down the road that Tex helps out on when she’s not in the shop working on the few vehicles the residents in the town own between them. It’s good to keep active, to use her hands in ways that build instead of break down. The couple across the street, two men barely older than Tex and Connie, invite them over for dinner and beer on a near weekly basis. They’re part of a community here, where no one knows about their military past or what Tex actually is. Tex had thought she’d be restless within days, but more than anything, she’s happy to be free and with Connie.

Tex thinks she’s fine, until the seasons shift without much warning. Summer turns to winter and it snows even though the sun had beat down so hot just the day before. Tex stands on the porch of their bungalow in just cargo pants and a tank top stained with motor oil and watches it accumulate on the brown grass.

She must stand there for over an hour, because the next thing she knows, Connie is stepping into her line of sight, hood of her sweater pulled up to shield her from the snowflakes. Her cheeks are red from the chill.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” Tex answers.

“Do you want to go inside?”

Tex glances beyond her at the snow again, at the sheet of white covering the lawn. Footsteps show where Connie walked up the road and towards their home. The snow isn’t spotted with blood and there’s no cliff edge.

“Yeah,” Tex says.

They move inside and Connie pushes her towards the ratty couch in their small, sparse living room. Tex moves into the corner she usually sits in and Connie sits beside her, laying her legs across Tex’s thighs.

“How was work?” Tex asks.

Connie gives her a knowing look, but answers. “Mrs. Mitford gave me all the newest gossip. At this point she’s paying me more to listen to her talk than help her with her work out routine.”

“Have Aila and Nicole hooked up yet?”

“Still no. Mrs. Mitford was willing to bet me they’d figure themselves out by our session next week, though.”

Tex leans forward until she can rest her forehead on Connie’s shoulder. Connie wraps her arms around her. They sit together in the quiet for a while, Connie starting to warm up and Tex slowly working through the thought processes that want to run over and over in her mind like code rewriting itself in an infinite loop. Connie’s fingers trail along her back and then sift through her hair and it’s something different, something better, to focus on.

Eventually, Tex raises her head but doesn’t move back so far as to dislodge Connie’s arms.

“Hey again,” Connie says with a small smile. “Doing better?”

“Yeah. I’ll get over it.”

“There’s no rush.”

Tex sighs. “But I want to, even if it’s selfish.”

“It’s not selfish to want to move on. It’s healthy. But there’s nothing wrong with letting yourself take your time to grieve, either.”

“Sure, Doctor Connecticut.”

Connie chuckles and cups Tex’s cheek with one palm. Her hands are still a little cold but Tex likes the way they feel on her own always warm skin. “We’re okay,” Connie says.

“It could be worse, right?” Tex responds with a hint of a smile.

“That’s right,” Connie says and then closes the distance between them, kissing Tex soft and languid. Tex loves the way Connie kisses her, like each kiss is meaningful and says just as much as words could. She makes Tex feel real, solid, and like things didn’t go nearly as bad as they could have. Like maybe everything happened exactly as it should have.